The Act Of Ruminating: An Interview With Sophie Mackintosh

Following 2018’s Booker longlisted *The Water Cure* and 2020’s *Blue Ticket*, Sophie Mackintosh’s latest book marks the author’s first foray into historical fiction. In an interview with Miles Ellingham she talks interiors, wash houses and the fickleness of memory

Credit: Sophie Davidson

When the great, Greek tragedian, Sophocles, died, he begrudgingly gave his name to a little bakery in Camberwell. Since then, Sophocles Bakery has continued to produce its cinder-block loaves, continued to serve that same pair of Greek geriatrics, doomed to sit for eternity at that same table. Visitors to Sophocles come and go, and today, wedged behind the cake display, the author, Sophie Mackintosh is gazing into the black, reflecting surface of her americano. I offer to buy her something to eat. She declines; Sophie’s been thinking about bread a little too much lately.

Mackintosh is the author of three novels. Her debut, The Water Cure, a dystopian fairy-tale set on a remote island, was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker prize. Blue Ticket, followed two years later with critics citing a similar ‘ethereal’ nature and overarching feminist themes. On the table between us is a tattered, uncorrected proof of her third novel, Cursed Bread.

Cursed Bread tells the story of Elodie, a baker’s wife, living in the sleepy, picturesque town of Pont-Saint-Esprit in southern France. One day, a strange couple arrives in the town. Slowly, everything changes and a deep, pervading obsession begins to eat Elodie.

A cursory google search of Saint-Esprit will reveal the terrible tragedy which befell it’s population in 1951, the cause of which is still unknown to this day. Mackintosh is arched over my dictaphone, hoping her voice will cut through the surrounding chatter.

Would you start by telling me how this book came into being?

I was reading about Pont-Saint Esprit and something really struck me: the mass hysteria, the mass hallucination, the outlandish theories. Some people say it was the flour. Some say it was the CIA doing mind control experiments with LSD. I kept going back to it thinking, ‘someone should write a novel about this’, then I got to the point where I thought, ‘I should write a novel about this’.

The fulcrum of your book is this seismic event where people go mad, people jump out of high windows. But the novel focuses on something very private and intimate. Why?

I didn’t want to do retellings. There’s a thing with historical fiction where it feels a bit intrusive. I’m not from the town and that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I like to focus on interiors. The Water Cure focused on interiors – my second book as well. So to me this idea of focusing in and thinking about how three people’s relationships could be altered. It’s the poisoning of desire versus the poisoning of a larger community.

You spoke about this being close to historical fiction. Did you find anything interesting about the Saint-Esprit inhabitants which you used in the book?

Most interesting for me was the tradition of the lavoir, the wash house. That was something that continued in small French communities until the 60s and 70s. In the cities it would’ve been more industrialised, but in rural places it’s very outdoors. There’s something about it that’s so pastoral. A female-only space: this witchy, gossipy thing where the women can talk about their husbands and be free in a way that they couldn’t be in their daily roles. There’s a structure, a ceremony. It’s a site of the domestic, erotic, tactile. It’s a place where things are literally washed away.

I kept reading your book thinking, this is such a quaint, bucolic environment that – almost in a Lynchian sort of way – I was reminded of the immense portent that comes with that feeling, as its double.

Definitely. I wanted it to be a hyper-real, pastoral idealised version of a French village. I wanted that idea of saturation, this beauty, but one that could turn at any point. It’s sepia-tinted but there’s something off-kilter underneath. It’s also set in 1951 so they would’ve just had the second world war and I wanted to get across this idea of the everyday being so remarkable, that everything feels beautiful because it had recently been destroyed.

Lying, fantasy, hallucination are recurrent themes in your book. You have an incredibly unreliable narrator, in a sense. It gets across this idea that reality is pliable and can be manipulated.

Yes, I really thought about that. Memory, too. Memory connects the fantasy and we can remember things wrong. Elodie’s ideas about reality, about the couple, are largely based on what she’s been told and what she imagines. It doesn’t take much for things to be warped or changed. Especially with desire and love and relationships; you never actually know what the other person is thinking. Elodie trusts her imagination for her own pleasure, but also for her own pain.

Elodie is strange. She does that thing that children do. Where you want something so much that you end up re-inventing yourself over and over. There’s that bit at the end of the book where she says to herself, ‘I always thought I had a cat’.

It’s common to misremember things. Our memories seem so real but actually they’re not always that reliable. Her’s seem particularly unreliable I suppose. There’s a book that I love called A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. It’s about a love affair in late 60s France. And it’s narrated by someone who’s not involved in the affair at all, they’re just an observer. And they’re almost making it up… these beautiful romantic adventures.

Yes, I started to really distrust Elodie. Not in any sense that she’s immoral or that I dislike her. But there are these sections which are clearly fantasy. And then, when it shifts to more plain recollection, you find yourself going, wait – is this just total bullshit?

During the pandemic there was so much time to ruminate. And I tried to get the structure to reflect the act of ruminating itself. I was stuck in a room, trying to write, but also recalling so many things: past relationships and how in relationships you almost invent things because you don’t know what the other person is thinking. That was interesting with Elodie. Her not knowing. She wants to know everything, she’s obsessed with knowing everything, but she can’t and that’s infuriating for her.

There’s a voyeurism to the book as well. It reminded me of Rear Window. Elodie quickly becomes obsessed with Violet, the beautiful, decadent newcomer. There’s also a sexual engagement with a photographer about midway through in which the camera itself becomes the focal point of the intimacy. Why do characters like Elodie enjoy voyeurism so much?

That’s an interesting question. She’s not participating. Even when she’s deep in this obsession, there’s something that’s stopping her. That sense of always being outside of everything. But she does get pleasure from it. Maybe for her, if she had fulfilled her urges it wouldn’t be what she wanted anyway. It’s almost a defensive thing.

Because having it might ruin it.

Exactly. Having it might ruin it. She has these things that she looks after and polishes. And to actually participate in the moment – well, then it’s over, it’s done. And if it’s not what she wanted or expected she has to deal with the disappointment of that. This way it’s perfect forever.

Can you tell me a bit about other novels which might have influenced this book?

Probably A Sport and a Pastime was the biggest influence. I just love it so much. I actually re-wrote Cursed Bread three times trying to find the right voice for it. First it was from Violet’s point of view. Then I wrote a really unhinged draft from the point of view of a ghost. Then I found the baker’s wife. I was reading a lot of Marguerite Duras and Jean Rhys. It was lockdown though, so I was reading a lot but my brain wasn’t fully working. I seem to remember sitting in the garden on a camping chair, reading about France in that weird heatwave, wanting to be elsewhere really badly.

There’s a real musicality to your writing. On a technical level, who’s influenced the way that you write?

Some non-fiction writers like Maggie Nelson have really made an impression. Bluets really stuck with me. I’m really influenced by short story writers, which is strange because I don’t write short stories. Anything that feels like an image. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is one of those fragmented, lyrical books I find interesting but I’m also wary of relying on that too much. I just read a book called Drifts by Kate Zambreno and now I want to go and read everything she’s ever written.

Is there a bit of you in Elodie? Are you sad to leave her?

I keep writing these characters who really want something and are a bit repressed. I don’t think I am like that. Not that I don’t want things.

Well, what do you want people to take away from this book?

I want them to feel completely immersed and feel like they’ve had a sensory experience. To come away and think about narrative, about memory. To think about what we tell ourselves about love and about those people that we do love. I like the idea of the book that is kind of an experience, even if you’re not sure what just happened, you’ve felt it viscerally.

Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh is published by Hamish Hamilton. Miles Ellingham is a journalist for the Financial Times

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