Let Them Break Through: Keith Ridgway Interviewed by Tobias Carroll

A London novel that raises questions about politics, desire, and a changing nation.

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Trying to describe Keith Ridgway’s work isn’t remotely easy. I could talk about the way he’s able to evoke communities through his fiction, or the dreamlike logic that suffuses some of his work—particularly his 2012 novel Hawthorn & Child and his debut novella Horses. Ridgway expertly chronicles intimate bonds and intimate losses among his characters and embodies the stories in intricate structures. Read, for instance, the dance between “I,” “We,” and “You” in his short story “The First Five Pages” and you’ll experience a concentrated dose of Ridgway’s skill as a writer.

His latest novel, A Shock (New Direction), is his first book after almost a decade. In a recent interview, he told Publishers Weekly that he had “kind of retired.” This new novel is set among a group of friends and neighbors in London—some intimately connected, some strangers to one another. Over the course of the novel, Ridgway raises questions about politics, desire, and a changing nation. We spoke via Zoom to discuss Ridgway’s new novel and his fictional preoccupations. 

—Tobias Carroll

Tobias Carroll A Shock has a very interesting structure, and several of your other books have taken similar risks. When you’re writing a book that has a non-linear structure, do you know from the outset that you’re doing something that’s a little unconventional, or does that come into your process later on?

Keith Ridgway I don’t really know in advance, at all, what I’m doing. Things tend to come into being in the writing of them. When I’m thinking about writing, I rarely find myself thinking explicitly or directly about structure. It seems to be something that asserts itself while I’m not really paying attention. In this book, which has a vaguely circular structure, I didn’t know that was happening until I was halfway through it. What I thought was the end of the book, at some point, became very obviously the center of the book.

TC Some of your earlier books were set in Ireland. This book is set in London, as was Hawthorn & Child. Do you find writing about London to be its own distinct thing? Or do you get different things out of particular locations when you’re writing about them?

KR I’ve always written about where I find myself, where I happen to be. I’ve spent most of the last twenty years now in London. Actually, there’s a bit of an overlap where I wrote a book set in Dublin while in London, but it was a terrible book. So maybe there’s something to be learned from that.

I tend to write about what’s surrounding me. And sometimes that’s frustrating. I’ve been trying to write a book about Dublin for a long time now, and I just can’t quite do it because I’m not there. I suspect if I was living in Cardiff or Edinburgh or Paris or New York or whatever, I’d be writing those cities in one way or another. It’s not that London draws me to write about it. It’s just that London is where I am so what else am I going to write about, really?

The last three books as well have followed a trajectory. They’ve all been London books, but they’ve gone from the very vague and general down to the quite specific. Animals was a book I wrote which is definitely set in London, but London is never named. And then after that came Hawthorn & Child, which is set in versions of north London, some recognizable, but only if you know them. Whereas this book is very specific to particular neighborhoods in Camberwell and south London, where I now live. So, it’s almost like I’ve been zooming in for the last three books. And this one now is very much about these streets and where I am.

TC A Shock has a number of discussions about politics, and an allusion to the perception of antisemitism in the Labor Party. Did you feel like A Shock is a more overtly political book than what you’ve written in the past? Given the current political climate, did you consciously feel the need to write a more overtly political book?

KR When I said before that it’s geographically specific, it also has a specific political context. And you’re absolutely right that it is about these peculiar last few years that we’ve had in the UK. A few years ago, there was a hint—just a really vague hint—that there might be something only slightly better available. The second largest party in the country elected a new leadership, which was just a very modest social democratic program, and it seemed to get a lot of support and a lot of enthusiasm. And so, there was a moment, and this is the time period covered in the book.

It was a moment in which people were hopeful, but at the same time as being hopeful, there was a realization that it was never going to help them. There were too many powerful interests set against it, and there were also terrible mistakes made by the Labor Party themselves. But for a brief moment, particularly in 2017 when it was a very close general election, people thought well, maybe we could live in a different kind of society. I was crushed, utterly crushed, between 2017 and 2019, in ways that I think the people amongst whom I move, like the people who were in this book, have yet to really get their heads around or address. Many ways of dealing with it and reckoning with it have been delayed or diverted by the pandemic.

It’s a terrible feeling that we’re now facing a United Kingdom governed by an increasingly authoritarian right-wing party, the libertarian stuff has been ditched a little bit. They’re increasingly importing the culture war nonsense from your country and dressing it up in the Union Jack, and it’s pretty grim. It feels really grim now. A Shock is set in that period when there was a glimmer of hope. But along with the hope, there was this knowledge that it was hopeless.

Keith Ridgway 2 C New Directions

TC One of the things I found really striking about this new book is you have a character who is a fabulist, who makes up these very compelling stories that draw in at least one other character. Is it a particular challenge to come up with a fictional character whose own fictions are compelling within this fictional universe?

KR Anna Grant is this character, she’s a teacher. And she just seems so incredibly bored with everything that she just makes stuff up. It struck me that it was an interesting way of drawing attention to the way in which we as people connect with each other, which tends to be through this kind of talking. I wondered to what extent it matters what you’re talking about.

It’s something that I’m often tempted to do. I never quite do it, but when I meet people for the first time and they ask me about myself — I think a lot of people are tempted to do the same thing — I’m often tempted to make stuff up and to tell them things that are just not true.

For many years I was certainly embarrassed by telling people I’m a writer because the questions that followed tend to be impertinent and embarrassing and so forth. I would often muddy the waters on that. I’ve often wondered if that means that the connection is somehow less because it’s based on a little bit of fantasy. I think people have to work at this a bit, but my suspicion is that it doesn’t devalue the connection, that actually you can build connections with people based on made up stuff. At least that’s what I wanted to have a look at with her as a character.

She is, I think, probably my favorite character in the book. She’s immensely generous and open. Ultimately, she’s very honest because she owns up to it immediately whenever she’s caught, but there’s a sense at which she’s genuinely trying to make those moments that she spends with people enjoyable and interesting, but she’s using fiction to do it. I just love that idea. I mean, you’re reading a book of fiction, so I’m hoping that a reader of a fiction book is going to be open to that idea that you can get something valuable out of something that’s made up.

TC There’s one section in A Shock where you’re juxtaposing a sex scene in an apartment with descriptions of the insects in the same physical space. It made this space feel very alive in a way that I wasn’t expecting.

KR We live in these weird spaces, I think. That chapter about the guy who’s moved into a new apartment and seems, somehow, to get lost in it. Particularly in a city like London, the spaces that we live in, when you consider them from different angles, they’re just so strange. These little boxes that we live in and the ways in which they’re pushed up against other boxes and all this stuff that we refuse to acknowledge that it’s there. The stuff in the walls, the mice and the rats and the insects and all of that, it’s just weird and I think it’s a bit of that is breaking through into my writing. It strikes me as strange sometimes, the way in which we don’t acknowledge those weird things. So, to let them break through a little bit is always interesting to me.

TC Going back as far as Horses, I feel like you do a great job of creating a sense of an implicit community within your fiction without making it overly expositional. Do you find community dynamics particularly interesting, or does that arrive more organically as you’re writing about specific characters?

KR If you had asked me straight out, what is my interest in community, I’m not sure that I would have talked about my writing in those sorts of terms. But you’re right. A Shock is about a kind of community, a fractured and kind of messy community but a community, nevertheless. I think it grows simply by accumulation, from my interest in connections between individuals. And as soon as you start connecting those individuals to other individuals, then you’ve got community in one way or another.

I don’t think I set out to write particularly about this community, but it ended up that that was what I got, because I was interested in these individual people and they’re all connected and they’re all in each other’s lives to some extent, some more than others. And they all rely on each other in weird ways. There are those kinds of entanglements that are there and I think they just emerged over the course of the writing.

A lot of the characters in A Shock would have come to me on their own, as it were, and then I realized that they belonged in the lives of these other characters, or that they have connections here. I think it just grows with the writing. I think that can be, pretty much, my answer to everything. I write and things just assert themselves in the writing. I go with it.

TC You talked before about A Shock going through 2019. Has there been anything else that prompted any kind of literary response from you since then?

KR Are you asking me if I’ve written a pandemic novel?

TC Not necessarily a pandemic novel. Though I feel like every writer has a very different answer as to how the pandemic affected their work and productivity and everything else.

KR I mean, it’s been a crazy year, right? For everyone. And for me, no less crazy. But through various upheavals caused by the pandemic, I haven’t done nearly enough work or nearly the amount of work that I was hoping to have done. I finished this book, basically, a little over a year ago. I handed it over and was more or less done with it. And at that point I was full of enthusiasm for new projects, and various things just happened. I lost a lot of my work last year; money became an issue. And then I had to find a new place to live. All of that just crowded in and bullied the writing instincts out of me.

It’s only been in the last couple of months that that’s begun to come back. I work really slowly anyway. I’m one of those people who I’m constantly telling myself, it’s time to write a quick one. And it just never really happens, but I do have loads of things I want to be working on. Yeah. So, there are things bubbling under, and so forth. There’s a novel that I want to be working on at the moment, but it’s been slightly derailed for me. I’m a bit annoyed about that. And I’m hoping now that all this nonsense with the publication of this is out of the way that I’ll be able to put my head down and get back to it properly.

Tobias Carroll is the author of the novel Reel and the story collection Transitory. His next book, Political Sign, will be released in September as part of the Object Lessons series.

Keith Ridgway’s A Shock is available for purchase here.

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