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[Interviews] James Meek: «You read wide and deep, then almost try to forget it».

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Post time: 10-9-2019 11:25:39 Posted From Mobile Phone
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The author on creating a believable medieval world for his new novel and how he always returns to Tolstoy.
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‘Brexit is a continuing ache’: James Meek by Regent’s Canal, London. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer
▼ To Calais, in Ordinary Timeis James Meek’s sixth novel. Set in 1348, it’s the story of three young people from very different backgrounds – an aristocrat, a farmer turned mercenary, and a proctor – making their way across England to British-held Calais against the backdrop of the hundred years war and the fast-approaching Black Death. Meek was previously theGuardian’s Moscow bureau chief. His third novel, The People’s Act  of Love, won the Ondaatje prize and was longlisted for the Booker. He lives in London with his wife and son.
The book is full of illuminating details about the past. How did you choose what to include and what to leave out?
You have this problem of a very alien place and the huge weight of research. The more research you do, the more of a problem it becomes. You want to try to avoid a situation where the information that you’ve learned is just regurgitated on the page. The ideal is that you read wide and deep but then almost try to forget it. So you get to the point where you’re not entirely sure if the world that you’ve got inside your head is something you’ve made up or something that you remember. I had to believe it myself first, and in the end I did. I believed I was there in a strange kind of way.
It’s a novel that doesn’t attempt to mirrormedieval English, but rather to summon its linguistic atmosphere. How did youachieve that?
If you were trying to reproduce something like Middle English in modern English then you’d have “thee” and “thou”, the original second person, which, after all, disappeared from English usage not that long ago. But I felt I couldn’t do that because there’s a whole range of words and constructions that were so overused in the 19th century during the medieval craze that swept art and letters then, that to put them in would just sound like pastiche and would be fatal.I wanted to portray the clergy not just as prophets of doom, but as thinkers and as practical people
The Black Death wasindifferent to rank or sex and your novel has heroes and heroines from all classes. Indeed, the strongest figures are women. Was this intentional? Did you worry it might feel anachronistic given the lack ofagency most women endured at the time?
There are more strong female characters in medieval literature than you might think. ClearlyThe Canterbury TalesandThe Decameronare full of women characters, both narrators and figures in the stories.The Romance of the Rose, which is such an important element of the book, has all sorts of depictions of women, not only in terms of character and behaviour and outlook, but also personifications of moods and sentiments. So maybe I was changing the emphasis, but I, as the writer, just as you, the reader, am coming and looking at these characters with the eyes of the 21st century, but it’s not like they weren’t there to be looked at at the time.
From Defoe to Camus, we’ve been taught to read plagues as metaphors...
I was quite consciously trying to make a comparison between the priesthood warning of the dangers of the plague and present-day scientists warning about climate change. But I wanted to portray the clergy not just as prophets of doom, but as thinkers and as practical people, who felt at this time that it was imperative that nobody died unconfessed. They felt they were acting to mitigate the consequences of the plague. In that mood of a mixture of sober awareness of the reality of climate change, which is denied or ignored by so many people, and the need for us all to do what we can to mitigate it, I think there is a parallel.
You recently published a collection of essays about Brexit, Dreams of Leaving and  Remaining. It’s hard to read a novel about three Brits travelling to Calais without thinking about our relationship with Europe – was this a conscious decision?
Brexit is a continuing ache. I didn’t set out to write a book about Britain’s relationship with Europe. However, having said that, it is set during the hundred years war, and it is both testimony to the history of hostility between this island and the continent, and to the history of equally close links between us. So in this ragtag group of people heading from the Cotswolds to France, you have some people who consider the French barely human but somebody else who sees the same country as the absolute pinnacle of culture, sophistication and excitement. And you have a Scotsman who’s living there, in Avignon. As I was writing it, the character of Thomas, the priest, became something like a representation of the European.
What books areat your bedside?
Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, which I’m halfway through. Reservoir 13by Jon McGregor is next in line. Then a book in Russian by Pavel Sanaev calledBury Me Behind the Skirting Board.
What was the last great book you read?
It was The Conquest of Mexicoby Hugh Thomas, an absolutely extraordinary book about an absolutely extraordinary series of events. It left me looking at the world in an entirely different way.
How do you organise your books?
By category, then alphabetically by author.
What classic novel did you recently read for the first time?
I’ve just started readingMrs Dalloway. Are you going to slam the phone down on me?
What sort of reader were you as a child?
I was the kind of person who would rather read than go out and play. I don’t think my parents were too bothered about that.
What book would you give to a 10-year-old?
The Midnight Folkby John Masefield.
Which author do you always come back to?
I was looking at my books the other day and thinking how many I’d like to read again. But Tolstoy. It has to be Tolstoy.

This interview was originally published here: Source
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