Francis Spufford: The Benign Dictator

“Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased.” That is Tabitha Lovell’s opinion of novels; unhappily for her, she is a character in one, Francis Spufford’s new book, Golden Hill. Fortunately, however, Golden Hill is a delight: largely set in 1746 Manhattan, it tells the story of Mr. Smith, a young Englishman who shows up with a note saying he is owed a thousand pounds, and finds himself an object of suspicion for most members of the still-rather-small colonial city, including the sharp-tongued but flirtatious Tabitha; her father, who may have to pay the bill; the governor’s secretary, Septimus Oakeshott; and Septimus’s secret lover, Achilles, the governor’s slave. The tale of the mysterious Mr. Smith, published last year in the United Kingdom, was named the best novel of 2016 by the British Sunday Times.

It also won the Costa Book Award for best first novel, despite arguably being Spufford’s second novel, after the hard-to-classify Red Plenty, his engrossing, ambitious retelling of the early years of the Soviet Union. (“It’s like a rigid tree of historical explanation with nice, juicy fictional fruit growing on it,” Spufford suggested of that book.) Before that hybrid work, Spufford spent a couple of decades writing nonfiction on a dizzying array of subjects, including British inventors (Backroom Boys), polar exploration (I May Be Some Time), a defense of Christianity (Unapologetic), and a personal history (The Child That Books Built).

I spoke with Spufford on a Skype connection to his home in Ely, an English town just north of Cambridge. (He sent a friendly email in advance of the conversation, warning, “I’m an Englishman who struggles with wearing a tie, and other really basic types of form and ceremony.”) Spufford slouched in his chair as words came tumbling effortlessly out of him. “I’m the king of my books, I’ll have you know,” he said with amiable hauteur. He laughed, and reconsidered — toning down his bravado, but only slightly. “The benign dictator for life, anyway.” The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. — Gavin Edwards

The Barnes & Noble Review: Do you have an ideal reader?

Francis Spufford: No. I’m writing the books I want to exist because I’d like to read them, so maybe there’s a mirror image of me on the other side of the table. But whoever it is, ideally, they should be a glutton for irony. They should like story for the sake of story — and long, intricately braided and knotted sequences of events. They should be curious. They should like weird facts for their own sake, and they should also like the taste of language in the mouth. They should be the kind of person who opens a dictionary and goes, Ooh, it’s a picnic.

BNR: Your books’ subjects have ranged from polar exploration to the economic history of the USSR — how did you end up with such a broad remit?

FS: The things I’m interested in writing about are very often things that don’t fall within my tastes and my temperament. I like reaching out over the edges of myself because that’s more interesting.

BNR: So how did you end up writing about Manhattan in the 1740s?

FS: A random effect of visiting New York: suddenly realizing that once you got down below the grid, the southern tip was strangely like the city of London, down to the same street names. And like the city of London now, also burned down by great fires. So you’ve got a pre-modern net of lanes with enormous glass temples of international finance growing out of them. And I thought, heavens, this is still haunted by the city that was.

I got a photocopy of an eighteenth-century street map and tried to walk lower Manhattan to see if it was still there. And it kind of is, apart from the fact that the shoreline has gone outwards about a block all the way round. There’s nothing above ground level so far as I could see, apart from the tombs in Trinity Church and Bowling Green — which has the same railing around it, although the crowns were snipped off the top with the Revolution.

BNR: Oh, Bowling Green must have literally been a bowling green.

FS: It was, for the colonists to enjoy on Saturday afternoon. Imagine men in wigs and ladies in full skirts playing skittles there. And I thought, there is a buried sisterhood between this city and London. Wouldn’t it be interesting to think about the moment before one shared Anglo-American identity split into two different things? But I also had a story I wanted to tell, and I realized the setting and the story would fit very nicely together.

BNR: The story had been bubbling in a separate pot?

FS: The pot that it eventually went into seems so inevitable now that it’s slightly difficult to remember. But I did have bubbling away in my mind a storyteller’s question: What would happen if a con artist fell in love with a compulsive liar? Those are not accurate descriptions, as it turns out, of either Mr. Smith or of Tabitha. But that was my starting point: two people who are unable to tell the truth to each other but who are doing the dance of mutual attraction. What would happen there?

Then I thought, this needs to happen in a very small setting, the classic village of fiction where everybody knows everybody’s business. There should be a stranger coming to town, and the stranger should be from a city. The stranger should be convinced that he’s a sophisticate among the rubes, but actually he’s somebody who has no idea how to cope in an environment where everybody knows everybody’s business.

BNR: There’s a line in the musical Hamilton that New York City is “the greatest city in the world.” While that’s flattering to Broadway audiences, I don’t think most people in the eighteenth century thought of New York as the greatest city in the world.

FS: They didn’t. The strange thing is that it was urban in feeling, even though there was hardly any of it. But Philadelphia was the financial center; New York was this slightly provincial place that exported flour to slave plantations down in Barbados and Jamaica. And in return, turned sugar into rum. Not cosmopolitan. On the contrary, rather suspicious and narrow, Anglo and Dutch and African and very suspicious of the outside world, particularly if it spoke French.

In some ways, satisfyingly the opposite of everything you associate with New York City now. Very small rather than huge, ethnically exclusive rather than a vast melting pot. Very pious rather than being possibly one of the secular places on earth. Very closed and paranoid about the outside world rather than open and curious. And yet, to my fascination, I could still see a recognizable New York−ness in the New York of the 1740s. Even when you can walk end to end in ten minutes, even when everybody in it thinks they’re British or Dutch, there is still something about it as a deal-making city living on its wits, already sure that it’s the center of something, even if they don’t know what yet.

BNR: And it was littered with coffeehouses.

FS: Only two! There were two rival coffeehouses, which is why Mr. Smith is confused, given that London has got hundreds of the things. That’s all you needed to cover the population. There was one slightly more glamorous and high-end coffeehouse, which is the one Mr. Smith does his coffee drinking in. And one slightly down-market rival, and the rest were basically cellars where you could drink gin.

BNR: There are some interesting moments when your narrator is trying to catch up with the action of a card game or swordplay. I don’t want to give the identity of the narrator away . . .

FS: That particular secret I’m going to try and keep back even though, you know, it takes one second on the Internet to find this stuff out. I’m going to behave as if there’s still a point in putting in spoilers. But what I wanted to happen was for the reader to work out gradually that there’s actually a game going on inside the game. What you think is a classic omniscient eighteenth-century narrator, like Henry Fielding in Tom Jones — he knows everything about everything and can launch into a charming, rambling disposition about it at any moment — rather than being that, you would gradually realize that the voice of the novel was literally a voice and that somebody was speaking to you. And of course, to make it satisfying, that has got to be somebody you know from within the cast. And the clues are supposed to build up gently, like the first flakes of snow falling to the ground. It’s a very wintry novel.

BNR: What unites your diverse catalog of books?

FS: Not a lot. I’m a really slow writer. The un-mysterious truth is that by the time I’ve finished laboring my way to the end of a book, I’m ready for a change of subject. Possibly something has appeared in the corner of my eye, an illicit indulgence I shouldn’t be thinking about because I should be finishing this thing. But there’s usually some kind of thread. My next novel is about London, because London has been in my head because of thinking about Mr. Smith being a Londoner

Before that, there is, strangely enough, a connection between Golden Hill and my previous book, Red Plenty: they’re both novels about economics. They’re novels in which the way people deal with money is kind of a big part of the human story, only I’ve gone from twentieth-century Russia and long-lost utopian fantasies about what Communists could do with computers, back two centuries to the even-longer-lost world of how people transmitted money round the globe in the centuries before the Internet, before Western Union, before instantaneous communications. How on earth, short of physically moving a large steamer chest full of gold coins, do you move a large sum of money across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century?

They had answers to this question. But they depended fascinatingly on relationships of trust and on paper trails and on what economists would call symmetrical information, where each party in the transaction knows about as much as the other. If one of those things goes wrong, if somebody is keeping secrets or there’s a reason not to be trusting, then you’ve got a story.

BNR: Does writing induce the same fugue state for you that reading does?

FS: When writing’s going well, it doesn’t seem to have any discernible sensation at all. You’re aware of the work rather than being aware of yourself — until hours have gone past and you need the bathroom or you’ve suddenly discovered you’re hungry. And in some ways, that is very like my childhood experience of being lost in somebody else’s book.

Weirdly, I don’t read like that very much as an adult now. I’m much more easily distractable — thank you, smartphones, thank you, parenthood. Also I think I’m not sure I’m as good as I was a child at just being handed a world like that. I think I’m talking back to what I read more these days. I haven’t actually ever made that connection but on good days there is a connection between the way I used to read and the way I write.

On bad days, writing is an endless, chafing misery of self-criticism and frustration: I could never do this, it was an illusion for the last twenty years of being some kind of bizarre fever dream, and actually I am incapable of this. I am a laughable pretender, and it gets even worse when you go into a bookshop because it’s full of highly competent writing by other people.

BNR: Is this the room where you write?

FS: Not that often. I’m addicted to writing in cafes, because my coffee intake rivals Mr. Smith’s, and I like the gentle noise of a cafe around me. I find it easier to concentrate and tune in to the soundtrack of whatever it is I’m writing if there’s something human going on around. Whereas this room is very quiet and very beautiful and there’s an enormous cathedral outside the window, can you see that?

BNR: I can!

FS: My wife’s an Episcopalian priest, and she works just over there. But it’s almost intimidatingly lovely around here, so I seek out coffee and normality.

BNR: There was a line in your introduction to the anthology The Ends of the Earth: “Being in Antarctica is also a constant reminder of language’s secondary status, of description’s belated appearance on any scene.” I was wondering if the inadequacy of language for describing what is actually around us was part of the impulse that led you towards fiction.

FS: Yes. I am somebody who habitually lives both quite a lot in my head and quite a lot in words. And every now and again you get an important collision with everything which isn’t you and isn’t made of words. One of the reasons I was interested in ice and snow and wilderness, why I started my writing career, is that that was an environment that people could mythologize to their heart’s content, but it was also an environment that put up total silent resistance to the things people say about it. If you’ve ever been to the Arctic or the Antarctic, the idea that some polar explorer on some tiny ship could be in a position to say what all of that means is just ridiculous.

So I am both a language person through and through and somebody very much aware that words have limits. It seems to me that fiction, if you’re lucky, lets you do a kind of tricky judo on what’s not sayable, and you can throw the arms of words around lumps of what words actually can’t do.

BNR: What have you been reading and enjoying lately?

FS: I’ve got Lincoln in the Bardo in the stack beside my bed. I teach writing, so I’ve got a lot of student work underneath Lincoln in the Bardo, but they’re just going to have to wait until I get to the end. A lot of books about London, one way and another. I still haven’t read Donna Tartt’s third one; there’s a copy of The Goldfinch waiting for me to have time to do it properly. There is a steady flow of science fiction. Robert Jackson BennettCity of Stairs, City of Blades, City of Miracles — he’s very good indeed. I rate a New Zealander called Elizabeth Knox, who writes both YA fiction and adult literary fiction. I read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao [by Junot Díaz] about ten years after everybody else did and I thought that was great. N. K. Jemisin, I’m reading the fantasy trilogy [the Broken Earth series] with seismology as its secret source. They’re marvelous. A British expat writer in New York called Felix Gilman, who wrote a completely wonderful book called The Half-Made World. I could keep going.

BNR: What has been the most surprising thing about the reception of Golden Hill?

FS: Well, my bar for success was set low, because I was genuinely apprehensive about letting go of the handrail of nonfiction and not having any verifiable real-world story to tell anymore. So my first ambition for the book was that it would not cause people to laugh and point in the street. I achieved that, I’m proud to say. But I was not expecting it to take off in the U.K. as much as it has. It has sold a large multiple of the amount any of my previous books has sold. It’s winning prizes. Total strangers are reading it and writing me letters about it in a way that suggests that they’re invested in the reality of the characters. They want to know what really happened at the end.

BNR: Do you have an answer to that question?

FS: Ummmm . . . maybe. The truth is I have a half-definite idea. I opened a whole can of futures at the end. I know that some of them didn’t happen. I would have preferences. Who am I to say, really?

BNR: Just wait a few years. Someone will offer a large check for a sequel, and you’ll find you have very definite preferences.

FS: Actually, I tried my best to eliminate the possibility of a sequel, with a combination of being destructively definite about some things and categorically vague about other things. I can actually see the possibility of a prequel in which Septimus and Achilles do espionage among the Iroquois.

BNR: See, you’re clever enough that you’re already finding ways to wriggle out your own straitjacket.

FS: This is the trouble with the straitjackets you manufacture yourself. You know where all the straps and buttons are.


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