Q&A with Carmen Marcus

How Saints Die by Carmen MarcusWe spoke to Carmen Marcus about her debut novel, How Saints Die, and what it’s like to be longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize.

Ellie Fleck has a question for everything – but there is one she cannot ask. Where have they taken her mother? Ten years old and irrepressibly curious, Ellie lives with her fisherman father on the wild North Yorkshire coast. It’s the 1980s and her mother’s breakdown is discussed only in whispers, with the promise ‘better by Christmas’ and no further explanation. Steering by the light of her dad’s sea-myths, her mum’s memories of home across the water, and a fierce spirit all her own, Ellie begins to learn – in these sudden, strange circumstances – who she is and what she can become. By the time the first snowdrops show, her innocence has been shed, but at great cost.

Praise from the Desmond Elliott Prize: “‘There was once a Fleck. There was once a mother. There was once a wolf.’ These are ten-year-old Ellie’s key points in the story she plans to write. Ear-catching, enticing as an opening stanza it is equally a refrain, for the power of the spoken word is a major motif in How Saints Die. A novel told by a curious, dreaming girl, of life with a devoted father, Peter, bereft of her mentally ill mother, Kate. Tales of sea monsters, martyred saints and demonic wolves fill up her waking thoughts, slip into the spaces where unanswered questions lie. Ellie’s thoughts, buffeting between fantasy and reality, form a disorderly queue in the mind but go direct to the heart in fabulously vivid, free-verse accompaniment to her days.”

Where did the idea for your debut novel come from?
My story began in 1984 when Lady Di married Gogo, my Barbie and my toy gorilla respectively. That day Barbie lost her head and my mother put her hands through the glass door and was taken away. It was at this moment when I lost my innocence. There is a point in childhood, that doesn’t belong to innocence or knowing, in the same way that a beach doesn’t belong to land or sea. At this point all things real and imagined are possible. This threshold place is where my story came from.

How does it feel to be longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize?
There are days when the writing is tough. When there are bills to pay; people who need me; when the demon voices say ‘just get a proper job.’ Now on those days I’ll put on my red shiny party hat from my Desmond Elliott Prize box and keep writing. That’s what being longlisted means, it means I’m good enough to keep going.

What was the most challenging thing about your journey to becoming a published author?
It’s the questions people ask me about writing that floor me. The punch in the gut question is ‘what if it doesn’t pay off?’ I um and blurp and sometimes hunch into a pained shrug. The time stolen from sleep, family and friends just to nurture an idea – is it worth it? All of that work that earns ‘nothing’ – is it worth it? I torture myself with that question. Then I think of the writers who wrote poetry during the most severe winter of the Nazi Siege of Leningrad. Writing isn’t for those privileged with safety, peace and comfort. It’s an act of survival.

What one piece of advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?
Writing an 80,000 word novel is impossible as long as you focus on the hugeness of the task. Writing 500 words a day is possible. Work out the small steps you need to take to tell your story and celebrate every single small step taken. Even if that celebration is just a cuppa and a biscuit.

What is your favourite debut novel of all time?
I had to think long and hard about this mean question but it’s Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. It begins with such an unlikely hero and it begins with an ending that’s a beginning. The characters are funny and flawed but most of all so real. The themes are big but told through the everyday messiness and beauty of small lives. Above all it is a story committed to the pursuit of freedom and I love it.