The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Matthew Tree

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Matthew Tree

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Summary: Sue thought that Snug was a deceptively simple novel with unsuspected layrs. It left her thinking about our colonial history and when Matthew Tree popped ino Bookbag Towers she had quite a few questions for the author.
Date: 14 October 2014
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Sue thought that Snug was a deceptively simple novel with unsuspected layrs. It left her thinking about our colonial history and when Matthew Tree popped ino Bookbag Towers she had quite a few questions for the author.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

Matthew Tree: Everybody who is over fourteen years old.

  • BB: What was the inspiration behind Snug?

MT: For years I worked on drafts of various different novels, all of which had a siege theme in common. (I've always liked siege stories). But I could never work out who exactly the besiegers were, and who the besieged. I wrote version after version: a besieged campus, a besieged city... I never got it right. Then, when I went to the Isle of Wight for a holiday, eveything clicked: the besieged had to be white people in a tiny village, and the besiegers, Africans. That way, my siege story would be on a human scale, and at the same time I could work racism, colonialism, and (autobiographical) teenage love seamlessly (I hope) into the story.

  • BB: What made you choose the Isle of Wight as the setting for the novel?

MT: Well, the Isle of Wight - or some of its towns, at least - has a sort of old-fashioned innocence about it, like you imagine certain English villages being like back in the 1950s: lots of traditional holiday things to do, tea shops, the seaside... Its population - including the visitors - is also remarkably white, at least compared to, say, London. A bit too white, if you get my meaning. It seemed logical that the Africans would want to lay siege to a place like this.

  • BB: As I read Snug the horror of what we had done in our colonial days hit me like an electric shock. Will we ever be able to put that right?

MT: I read lots of African fiction and African history while working on the book, and the impression I got is that everything the Europeans did in Africa was so completely arbitrary, so improvised, so slapdash, that they managed to turn a large, and potentially thriving continent into a vast botch job. They drew borders across the centre of lakes (Tanzania), they rigged elections (Nigeria), and so on and so forth; and, above all, they refused to see Africans as equals, and kept them deliberately uneducated. To try and see things from an African perspective, I went to Tanzania (my first and only time in Africa) and spent time only with black Africans. It seemed to me that it was a country chock full of potential, just waiting for a break. I suspect much of Africa is like that.

The best thing that could be done for Africa in general - in my opinion, for what that's worth - is to resolve the territorial situation, and not put spanners in the works when Africans try to reorganise their continent along more coherent lines. Biafra, to take an old example, should not have been stamped upon the second it dared to appear on the map.

  • BB: I sense that you feel strongly about racism. Do you think we will ever reach a point where people accept that it's not skin colour, religion, sex - or even sexuality - which determines what a person is?

MT: As I was working on SNUG, in Barcelona I published a non-fiction book on racism (written in Catalan). At the heart of racism is a state of mind called pseudospecieism, which simply means that, given enough hateful prodding, the human brain is capable of mistaking other human groups (Jews, blacks, Arabs...) as separate, dangerous species which need to be punished or expelled or worse. The only other animals that make this frightening mental mistake are chimpanzees.

  • BB: Where and how do you write - and how long did it take you to write Snug?

MT: I write at home, here in Barcelona, on a computer. SNUG took six years.

  • BB: You taught yourself Catalan and then wrote exclusively in that language for many years. What prompted you to do this?

MT: I was having trouble finding my written voice in British English, which I perceived as being hampered by class markers: with English writers - or most of them - you can tell from the vocabulary, the syntax, and certain turns of phrase, if the narrator or the author is working-class, middle-class etc. And I wanted an English like the Americans have, in which a school drop out like Bukowski and a Harvard graduate like Burroughs are working in the same free, flexible, malleable idiom. British English felt like a straitjacket, but when I started writing in Catalan, the straitjacket fell away at once. And so I discovered my written voice first in Catalan, which I taught myself when I was 19. After about a decade of writing in this language, I gave English another try and found that the obstacles I had perceived earlier, had evaporated (I suppose due to the discipline of working in a second language for so long). I now feel as free in English as I did and do in Catalan.

  • BB: What are you reading at the moment and what's your best-ever book?

MT: At the moment I'm reading a book about the participation (or not) of women in the Holocaust. It's called 'Hitler's Furies' and is by the historian Wendy Lower. My best ever book? There's more than one! Henry Miller's 'Sexus'. Burroughs's 'Exterminator!', Hrabal's 'I Served the King of England'. And anything by the Catalan language author Quim Monzó (for example, his 'A Thousand Morons', which has just come out in English).

  • BB: You've got one wish. What's it to be?

MT: To get a bona fide publisher in the UK and the States, who'll take (really) good care of my books.

  • BB: What's next for Matthew Tree?

MT: I've just completed a short novel called 'Backflash', which is now waiting for the next rewrite. The story: England has turned into a sect, and a young man is trying to get the hell out.

That's it for now!

  • BB: There's plenty for us to look forward to there, Matthew and thank you for chatting to us.

You can read more about Matthew Tree here.

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