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Debut Author Channeled Her 'Darker Bits' Into A Man Booker Shortlist Novel

Author Fiona Mozley poses with her book <em>Elmet</em>.
Kirsty Wigglesworth
Author Fiona Mozley poses with her book Elmet.

Fiona Mozley is one of the literary sensations of 2017. The part-time clerk at the Little Apple Bookshop in York, England was named a finalist for this year's Man Booker Prize with her first novel Elmet.

It's a story about Cathy and Daniel, a daughter and a son, and their love for their father who also loves them tenderly but plies a violent trade. And it's named for a hamlet in Yorkshire that was once an old kingdom — a place where, as Mozley writes, "The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and back into our lives."

"It's where I grew up, and I was living away in London at the time but it was constantly in my thoughts," Mozley says. "It's a part of the world that is shrouded in history, that's informed by its history — in the landscape, in the very soil of the place."

Interview Highlights

On how she created the characters

I wanted to explore a masculine archetype and that's what Daddy is. He is — he's larger than life. He's almost too big to exist; he's straight out of mythology. He's very strong and reassuring, and he sticks by his children, et cetera. But he's also, you know, he's got this troubled streak, this sort of — there's violence in him. He's entirely defined by his body, his physicality, his strength. And Cathy arrived saying actually what happens when these ideals [are] instilled in someone who doesn't inhabit the right physicality? Or she's somebody who has a very similar temperament to her father, but she doesn't have his strength and she's a girl and how does she stitch together those dual identities?

On recent sexual harassment scandals in the news, and if it makes a particular scene in which a woman kills a man more telling

I don't know about that. I mean, of course this was all written long before that. But I think I did want to explore this question of, you know, the owning of the human body. If there is somebody whose body is being used or threatened in a way which they don't like, do they have the right to do whatever they can to stop that? She knew that because she was physically weaker than her assailant, there could be no half measures. She couldn't just pin him to the ground and run away because she wouldn't escape. She couldn't just, you know, incapacitate him in some way. It had to be — she had to go the whole hog.

A lot of people have been struck by that passage. ... A lot of people said it's unrealistic, which I don't really mind because it's not supposed to be a realistic book. It's, you know, it's a work of fantasy in many respects. But I do think it's interesting that we can accept that male characters can perform these acts of extraordinary physical prowess all the time. You know, people like Clint Eastwood can be punched in the face a hundred times and still get up for more. But when we sort of see a woman possessing unexpected or fantastical physical strength it's questioned more.

On the line from Elmet, 'We all grow into our coffins.'

That's said by the daughter Cathy, who I mentioned has this very troubled relationship with her own physicality. She sees herself growing into the body of a woman, and all the women that she's known in her life have disappeared, or washed up kind-of-injured or, you know, as a society, again, we have this fixation with the murdered female body. It's from Ophelia to, well, going even further back than that actually. You can find it in Greek tragedy, this image of the very beautiful young woman who's found dead.

It's a sort of strange fixation, and it comes to haunt her. She's terrified when she sees herself growing into a female body that that's going to happen to her. ... Her real tragedy is that she can't see a way out of that, and she can't see a way of existing outside of that particular framework. It's quite, I don't know, I mean it's quite bleak I suppose. I'm not sure. I don't know; I'm quite a jolly person really, so I guess I channeled all of my darker bits into this book.

This story was edited for radio by Ian Stewart and Barrie Hardymon, and adapted for the Web by Sydnee Monday.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.