Salley Vickers’s first novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel, the story of a reserved, elderly woman who travels to Venice after the death of her companion, was a best seller in 2000. Since then, Vickers – a Jungian psychotherapist and past lecturer in English literature at Oxford University – has published five other novels, including Where Three Roads Meet, a re-imagination of the Oedipus myth and Dancing Backwards, in 2009.
Last year, Aphrodite’s Hat, Vickers’s long-awaited collection of short stories, was published. Evidencing Vickers’s uncanny ability to explore and depict psychological machinations, each story considers the pervasive inf luence of love in the lives of memorable characters: a lovesick ghost haunting a Roman hotel; a middle-aged man considering the betrayal of his wife; a small child seeking nurture in the home of a neighbour. Aphrodite’s Hat continues Vickers’ characteristic erudite representation of foreign locales, capturing their atmosphere and tenor in subtle yet impressive prose.
Salley recently spoke with Kill Your Darlings about her move to the short form, and how her training in psychotherapy has affected her writing.
– Hannah Kent
KYD: Congratulations on your collection of short stories, Aphrodite’s Hat, Salley. It’s wonderful. I was very surprised when I received the manuscript, actually; I thought it would be a novel, and it wasn’t until I read your foreword that I realised my mistake. What made you decide to write a collection of short stories? Was it something that you’d planned to do?
SV: Well, with short stories – it’s probably the same here as in England – you tend to get commissions for them from newspapers and other publications, and I found I’d got a collection. Anyway, when I put them together, there were some I wasn’t that happy with, so I weeded five or six out. When I read through the ones I had left, I saw that they were all about different aspects of love. And I particularly wanted to use Aphrodite’s Hat [from Cupid Complaining to Venus, by Lucas Cranach the Elder] because it’s such a beautiful picture, and I thought there was something about Aphrodite’s Hat that suggested what the stories were like. So I wrote the remaining stories to fit the collection. It was partly happenstance. It’s also quite nice, if you’ve been working in a full-length novel form, to write short stories. It’s like writing a sonnet after writing an epic. And I really like short stories.
KYD: Reading or writing them?
SV: I love reading them. I love Katherine Mansfield, who I think is the past mistress of short stories.
KYD: And perhaps still is.
SV: I think she’s probably my favourite still. But there are some very, very great short story writers I like a lot. So, it was fun.
KYD: Had you been writing your short stories while you were writing your novels?
SV: Oh yes, always, all the time. I’ve only been writing novels for ten years. So along the way, as I’ve been writing the novels, I’ve been having people say: would you like to write a short story? And also, it’s a quite … What’s it like? It’s kind of like having a love affair when you’re married [laughs].
KYD: That’s a wonderful analogy.
SV: A bit of a fling, you know.
KYD: Did you find yourself approaching the form differently from how you would a novel?
SV: Well, no. I think my short stories arrive in the same kind of way – which is to say, nothing arrives planned, they just kind of arrive. But a short story … I think there are things you don’t have to answer in a short story.
KYD: One thing that struck me about this collection of stories was not necessarily their lack of resolution, but their greater ambiguity. In your novels you generally have, not neat endings, but conclusive ones. After reading these stories I was left with a melancholic feeling–
SV: –They are more melancholy.
KYD: Certainly in subject matter.
SV: And I think that’s interesting. It may well be that short stories allow a kind of melancholy.
KYD: Perhaps part of that comes from the brief nature of the short story. They are generally more nuanced than novels; more questions are asked than answered. In this collection you do explore aspects of love, but it’s often unfulfilled or unrequited love. In fact, one of the themes I felt ran through all these stories was that of abandonment. And also, faithlessness. Would you agree with this?
SV: Abandonment, yes. Faithlessness, no. I mean, ‘Mrs Radinsky’ [about an elderly woman whose neighbours suspect of prostitution] isn’t about faithlessness. They are not all like that. There are some of them quite upbeat.
KYD: ‘The Deal’ [in which a child contrives to get a pet cat without her parents’ permission] is very funny.
SV: Did you like that one? Oh good. ‘The Deal’ was written for my granddaughter. I mean, ‘The Deal’ and ‘Mrs Radinsky’, and ‘The Hawthorn Madonna’ – they’re not about faithlessness. Actually, they’re about faith winning through.
KYD: Most of the stories in this collection are concerned with human connection, and also human disconnection. I was interested in the theme of alienation which runs through a lot of your work. For instance, in ‘Epiphany’ you have a father and son who are reunited, but–
SV: –Well, they’re reunited only to be disunited, really. Actually, the reunion is the prelude to the final disunion, rather than that the union has been maintained in the absence of the father.
KYD: Exactly. Then you have ‘Join Me For Christmas’, where, of course, Emily, the protagonist, is psychologically estranged from her family and husband. And ‘The Buried Life’, which is one of my favourite stories in this collection.
SV: Yes, most people like that one.
KYD: In ‘The Buried Life’, the protagonist Laura is moved by the Matthew Arnold poem of the same name. She’s attached to it because ‘it defined something she recognised yet had not experienced: the moment that can f lash between human beings, making a homecoming of their apartness. In general, Laura knew, life was not like that and so far certainly had not been so for her. Mostly one struggled to make oneself understood.’
What is it that so palpably interests you in the metaphysical isolation of ourselves from others?
SV: That’s a very good question! ‘The Buried Life’ happens to be one of my favourite poems. And I think I like it because it exactly identifies that – the metaphysical isolation. I think most people are quite lonely and look for affinity with others, which is difficult to find. So, I think it’s not that people are by nature alienated, but that the things which enable us to find fulfillment through another person are inevitably scarce and random.
I mean, Laura does actually find it. There is something there that she’s found and we don’t know what it is. And that, of course, is the short story writer’s trick: you can abandon your characters. You can abandon them to their fate. You don’t have to tie it up or untie it, as you do when you’re a novelist.
But I did work for many years as a psychotherapist, and I worked a great deal with people’s fear of intimacy, difficulty with intimacy, and longing for intimacy. I think that’s one of the most poignant things about the human condition. I also think that it’s one of the penalties and benefits of so-called civilisation. Because in more straitened circumstances, in times of human history when the business of staying alive – which is still true in large parts of the globe – took up most human endeavour, there wasn’t much left over for this (you might call ‘luxury’ of) looking for human affinity, consolation, whatever. As we become more so-called civilised, and our immediate requirements are more easily catered for, that need for affinity and intimacy grows. I think it’s also what produces art. Art is the ability to put that kind of endeavour towards affinity into a metaphysical realm. So yes, it interests me very much.
KYD: I find this exploration of affinity and isolation fascinating in your work. It’s what interests me most about it, in fact: the way in which your characters search for intimacy and attempt to know other people, but also the way in which they struggle to know themselves. In your novel Dancing Backwards, the protagonist Violet says: ‘How could you ever know what it was to be another person? We are all such solipsists, trapped in the mesh of our own desires.’
SV: Yes, I’d forgotten that [laughs].
KYD: It encapsulates this theme wonderfully.
SV: I’d completely forgotten about that. Do you mind writing that down for me?
KYD: [Laughs] Sure. Do you agree with this remark? Do you, too, wonder how can we ever know what it is to be another person, because we are all such solipsists?
SV: I think it’s very hard to know what it is to be another person. I’m very interested in ‘otherness’. I think that everything I write, everything I’ve done – because I started as a teacher of English literature and then I became a psychotherapist – is all about otherness; I’m fascinated by the otherness of other people and how hard it is to know them.
People quite often ask about the so-called ‘religious’ dimension in my work, and although I’m quite careful to say that I’m not specifically religious in one way or another, I tell them that it’s because religion at its best (and of course it can be very badly abused) is about the otherness of other people. Religion is about the acceptance of the otherness of other people. I mean, this is not to say that this is what religious people necessarily do, but it’s what I want to do as a novelist; I want to embody the otherness of other people. It’s part of my interest in other people. And when I’m writing, I’m finding this otherness within myself that gets projected in the characters.
KYD: Do you find that your past as a psychotherapist has informed your characterisation, specifically?
SV: Unquestionably. But not as some people think: because I pick off stories from my patients. It’s because we were taught, or I was taught, to find within myself the language of the person I was with. It was fantastic training in finding different parts of oneself. I mean, as I quite often say, in one of my novels, the novel I’m fondest of, The Other Side of You, I write as a man. Finding the male part of myself was very interesting. So, I suppose I’ve got quite adept at that. When I was a psychotherapist, if I was talking to a man, I would not be talking to the man as a woman; I’d be finding the male within myself to communicate with him. And similarly, if you’re talking to somebody who’s a would-be child molester, or, say, a nymphomaniac. I mean, you don’t have to be a nymphomaniac, as I say to writers, in order to write about nymphomania. In the same way, you don’t have to be a paedophile. But there’s this limited view of authors as having necessarily been through all the experiences they write about.
KYD: ‘Write from what you know.’
SV: Yes. I would always say that that’s like saying Shakespeare was a murderer because he wrote Macbeth. What’s interesting is finding the murderer in yourself, or finding the paedophile in yourself, or finding the religious maniac in yourself. The degree to which you can do that will affect how great a writer you become. Of course, it takes a bit more than just that. But this is how my training and my long years of work as a psychotherapist have really paid off for me.
KYD: Do you think this is an ability to identify, or do you think it’s more an exercise in empathy?
SV: Empathy. I think identification is … It is very like being a therapist. You can’t utterly identify, or you will become dissolved with the person that you are helping. So it’s undoubtedly empathy. But there has to be a degree of distance as well, because you always have to give – like with your client – your character the freedom to move around without you dogging them. They have to be able to do unexpected or surprising things. You can’t do that with identification.
KYD: Because, you, as an author, need to be able to be surprised as well?
SV: You have to be surprised, and you have to let your characters be free.
KYD: How do you do that? How do you balance identification and empathy, while giving your characters enough room to surprise you?
SV: Well, I don’t think I have a problem with letting characters be free. I mean, one never knows oneself, but I think I’m not a controlling person, so I think I don’t have a problem with that. That’s a rash thing to say, but I think I am quite good at letting my characters go free [laughs].
KYD: You mentioned just now that one can never know oneself: we’ve spoken brief ly about the difficulties in knowing others, but the problem of knowing yourself is also explored in your writing.
SV: Yes. Well, particularly in Dancing Backwards.
KYD: One intriguing aspect of your novels, and also in the stories of Aphrodite’s Hat, is your ability to convey the disharmony between our inner lives and thoughts, with our projected self, our social self.
SV: Oh yes, I’m very, very interested in that. Yes.
KYD: Is there something you hope for the reader to learn through exploring this disparateness within the individual?
SV: Well, I would be careful about saying I was there to make anyone learn anything. But I think it’s always satisfying if I read an author who in some way conveys that disjunction that we’re so familiar with in our lives. As Matthew Arnold says, we find it very hard to speak what we feel. As Edgar says at the end of King Lear, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. The fact that this disjunction is recognised by another consciousness is in itself very reassuring. But often I think the description of something that is familiar to us by another human soul is in itself a consolation. I don’t know that one learns anything from it, other than that one is not alone in the difficulty of being trapped in a necessary social persona. I mean, we can’t go round saying, ‘I hate this china, I hate this place’. I don’t, you know, but…
KYD: Have you heard from readers who have found your books consoling in this way?
SV: Oh, I hear a lot from readers. Yes, I have a lot of correspondence, and I hear that people do find my books consoling. I must be careful because it might appear that I write books to console, and that would be an odd thing to do. But a lot of people write to me and say that they have read my books in difficult circumstances, and that something draws them to the books. I get a lot of letters from people saying they read my books more than once. Yes, I think that people recognise themselves and they like to be recognised.
KYD: Do you find that that’s why people are impelled to read? To recognise themselves?
SV: I think there are many reasons why people read.
KYD: What are your reasons?
SV: I read … to learn. To be taken away from myself. To be taken to myself. To understand. To commune with another live sensibility. I think you live vicariously; you know what it’s like to murder, or not to murder, if you read Dostoevsky, or Shakespeare. I think that’s one of the great functions of literature. It allows people to be things they can never be in their lived life. We can only live one life. So it allows for a fuller range of experience, which is exciting. And surprising. And also nourishing.
KYD: We mentioned empathy earlier on, in terms of what it takes to write a book. Do you think that this empathy is transferred in the reading process? Does reading provide people with lessons in empathy?
SV: Well, it can do. It depends on the reader, and there are many different kinds of readers. I often have the experience of people reading something and missing a lot of what is there, or reading something in which isn’t there. At the end of Miss Garnet’s Angel, my first novel, there is an ambiguous ending, and I had a lot of correspondence from people who had decided what had happened at the end, which was actually not what I thought was happening. In the end I decided that their endings were their endings; they could read it as they wished. I’ve learnt there are many different ways of reading a book.
KYD: Miss Garnet’s Angel was an enormous success. Are you concerned that, because you are so well known, people will read your new writing, like this collection of stories, as a ‘Salley Vickers’ work? Do you think there are particular qualities that people now look for in your books, which affect the way they read them?
SV: I do, actually, and I think that can be limiting. There are certain things that certain readers want from me, and that works for and against me – there is a kind of person who reads my books for consolation. They look for a level of understanding or of psychological complexity, human failure and human foible. But there are people who have a theory on what I write about – generally people who have not read the books – who decide that I am a cosy writer.
KYD: Do you struggle with being labelled a cosy writer?
SV: I don’t like it. And I don’t think they’re right. I think people who actually read my books would agree that I’m not cosy. As a couple of people have said, I’m quite forensic. But because my first novel was about an angel, there was this theory: ‘Oh, she writes about stuff about angels, and the supernatural and that sort of thing.’ So you get dismissed, and others get a false impression. So yes, I do struggle with being called cosy, and I hope these stories will do something to puncture that image. They’re not cosy.
KYD: You mentioned the angel in Miss Garnet’s Angel as contributing to this idea of yourself being a–
SV: –Only by those who haven’t read it.
KYD: Of course. But what else about your novels do you think projects this notion of being a ‘cosy’ writer?
SV: I think I’m what is called an easy read. I have quite a light touch, and I think that can be misinterpreted as lightness.
KYD: Rather than finesse?
SV: Yes. And my style is quite plain. It’s not complex, and deliberately so; I like rather lucid prose. But because it’s easy to read, people will quite often miss the implied depths and ironies. I mean, many don’t, so I’m not complaining. But I think a facile read can miss a lot.
KYD: Kill Your Darlings interviewed Sarah Waters in our inaugural issue, and she spoke of how she finds herself consciously trying not to write the ‘Sarah Waters’ novel she’s known for. She spoke of her awareness of her own style and reputation. With the stories in Aphrodite’s Hat, are you consciously trying to subvert this notion of you being a ‘cosy’ writer?
SV: I think that would be dangerous. And I don’t think that’s what Sarah needs to do, as I think she writes quite differently in each of her books. And I’m sympathetic to her feeling, but I think it would be dangerous to write for a purpose. I think once you do that you’re probably on a highway to nowhere. I think it’s best to stick with what you want to write and hope that people will come along with you. Anyway, I’m very satisfied with the body of readers I have, it’s not that I necessarily want them to change. But I think it’s just a human tendency to form prejudice. I mean, I’m sure that I have prejudices about writers that I should revise.
KYD: Any that you’re willing to name?
SV: No [laughs]!
KYD: That’s probably very wise of you.
SV: Well, let me just say that there’s a kind of ‘laddish’ fiction that gets a lot of publicity…
KYD: Say no more, say no more. Returning back to your books, particularly Where Three Roads Meet, one of my favourites–
SV: –Oh, I’m glad you liked that.
KYD: Very much. I’ve been reading with interest the Canongate myth series. I mentioned our previous interviewee Sarah Waters; we also interviewed Phillip Pullman in Issue Two about his retelling of a story which has informed so much of our Western thinking, his The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ.
SV: I reviewed that, actually.
KYD: What did you think?
SV: Well, I liked it, and I said that I thought Jesus would have been proud of it. I’m sure they asked me to review it because I’m known as someone who thinks highly of Jesus, not necessarily of Christianity, but of Jesus. I think I was asked to review it perhaps in the hope that I would say something quite damning. But I didn’t. I said I thought it was entirely in the spirit of Jesus’ own teaching. And I’m a great admirer of Phillip Pullman.
KYD: The reason why I bring him up is because your book, Where Three Roads Meet, also deals with a story which has shaped, in considerable ways, Western modes of thinking. Why do you think we need to retell these stories that have so permeated our Western society?
SV: Well, I don’t think we do.
KYD: Not at all?
SV: No, I think they happen anyway. I’m very interested in the way certain stories … I mean, let’s call them myths. I think the Christian story is a myth, unquestionably, and by that I mean nothing disrespectful, as I think a myth is something which gives us facts about human nature. I think these myths are evolutionary because they survive. And the fact that certain stories like Oedipus, the Christian story, the story of Tobias and the Angel, or The Road to Emmaus … Painters will pick them up, operas get written about them, and people write them into their stories. Phillip Pullman, who is violently atheist, nevertheless wants to write a story about Jesus. It’s interesting. Freud, who I think completely misread the myth, nevertheless made the story of Oedipus the absolute foundation of his whole system of psychoanalysis. Extraordinary, really. So, I don’t think they need retelling, I think they’ll always be retold because they are quintessential data of human experience. And they are invariant to time or place or fact. And I’m very, very interested in them.
I’m glad you liked that book. Actually, that particular one was edited by Michael Heyward who runs Text [Publishing], who’s a great editor. So it’s a particularly Melbourne book. It wasn’t edited in England, it was edited right here.
KYD: How did that happen?
SV: I wanted him to edit it. He’s a very, very good editor and we get on very well. You know, one of the reasons I agreed to do it was because I knew Michael would edit it. I really loved doing that book. Partly because I had always been itching to tell Freud what he had missed [laughs]. I don’t agree with him. But it was so interesting writing Where Three Roads Meet because I got so fond of the character Freud, even though I was telling him all the time he was wrong.
KYD: I found him surprisingly affable.
SV: He became more affable.
KYD: And quite a sympathetic character, as well.
SV: Yes. I mean, you can’t help but admire him. He was indomitable. And that wonderful story which I tell in the foreword, about the Nazis demanding he sign a form of his support, and him writing ‘I can recommend the Gestapo heartily to anyone …’ It’s so brilliant.
KYD: You say that myths are taken up by artists, writers, musicians, and that they don’t require retelling because they’ll always be there–
SV: –Well, no, it’s not that they don’t require retelling, it’s that they get retold. That they will be retold, anyway.
KYD: Why do you think that is?
SV: I think that Freud was right about the Oedipus myth in that it is about something which is perennially crucial to human nature. But I think the thing he particularly picked out – the desire to kill the father and sleep with the mother – is a minor element in that myth. I think there are many other more interesting elements. But I think, like fairy stories, myths pick up these fundamental, archetypal experiences that don’t change no matter how sophisticated our society. We go on needing to be reminded of who we are; that we can kill and murder and expose our children on mountainsides.
I think they remind us of how thin civilisation really is. Read the news every day. There’s nothing we can do about it. We go on doing terrible things to each other.
KYD: I was at the Wheeler Centre last night where you spoke about myths in the Matter of Life and Death series. You said that in their retelling they act to keep something vital inside us, which might otherwise die. Now, you’ve just said that they remind us of how thin civilisation is, but – and correct me if I’m wrong – I don’t think that is what you meant by that ‘something vital’. Do you feel myths are retold because of a further reason?
SV: Yes, I think they keep alive. I think it’s quite easy to become distracted in life, to lead the superficial life and not the buried life. It is as though they keep us in touch with the buried life, the wellspring of our being, which can be good or bad. Or neither good nor bad. It’s a sort of energy, I think. I think they are the purveyors or conveyors of some kind of vital energy which is deeply important to the human consciousness which you don’t get from reality TV.
KYD: You get it from art and storytelling.
SV: You hope you get it from art.
KYD: In Where Three Roads Meet, Tiresias remarks to Freud that stories are all we humans have to make us immortal. What do you attempt to achieve from your own stories – is it immortality?
SV: I think that’s an interesting question. I am particularly struck by Keats’s death and his feeling that all those extraordinary poems he’d written meant nothing, when in fact they meant everything – something I explore in ‘The Last Sparrow’ in Aphrodite’s Hat. It’s very unlikely Keats’s name is ever going to die while people still read poetry, and even when they don’t.
I think actually everything is story. Not just fiction, or novels; I mean, a scientist leaves a story, Newton left a story, Einstein left a story. Even individuals who have never written anything leave a story; it’s what is left behind: the story that their children or their relatives or their friends tell of them. The whole of what we know about the human consciousness and race is story; is one tangled mesh of stories.
KYD: Thank you so much for speaking with us, Salley. It’s been a pleasure.
SV: Thank you. It was really nice to talk to you.