An Interview with Elanor Dymott
You were born in Zambia and have lived all over the world, including West Africa, Singapore, Indonesia, and the United States. Have these experiences influenced your writing?
These experiences have left their mark in various ways. I grew up understanding that I was neither here nor there, that I didn’t belong anywhere. Living in different countries and attending a string of schools meant that I was always on the outside of situations. My father was a mining engineer, which meant my family relocated frequently and sometimes suddenly, so I grew up with a sense that things might change at any moment. In an unpredictable childhood, books were a constant, and I got used to the idea that the rhythm of a story would give me certainty. As soon as I learned to read, I became a bookworm, and now I put that obsessive impulse down to the fact that fiction gave me stability.
Living in the U.S. as a child involved a particular kind of displacement which I think probably had a big impact on my writing. I was aware that although the language being spoken by my teachers and classmates was so similar to my own, there were nuances of meaning and emphasis which made the scope for misunderstanding enormous. I guess I responded to these things by becoming intrigued by words and their meanings. And that’s maybe why I like to write about how difficult it is for people to properly understand or know one another, and how our attempts to do so will always, on some level, fall short.
Every Contact Leaves a Trace, which is your first novel, takes inspiration from your Oxford years. Have you considered writing a novel that takes place in some of the exotic locales where you spent your childhood?
The first piece of short fiction I published (in 2006) was a story called “Proof,” set in West Africa. I have two filing cabinets in my study, one labeled “Short Fiction” and the other “Long Fiction / TV / Plays / Radio Plays / Movies.” Inside are files holding embryonic works. When an idea reaches a certain, germinative point, I file it for a while before taking it out and finishing it. Every Contact Leaves A Trace was in the “Long Fiction” cabinet for a time, in a file called “The Oxford Novel.” In the same cabinet is another file called “The Africa Novel,” one called “The Singapore Novel,” and another called “The Iraq Novel.” I am partway through writing “The Greece Novel” for Jonathan Cape in the UK and W. W. Norton in the U.S. Once that is done and with my editors, I hope to work my way through the rest of the files and fill up some new ones.
When Alex Petersen, the protagonist of Every Contact Leaves A Trace, takes a plane for New York at the end of the novel, it’s a signal of my hopes for those other books. I suppose it was important to me for my first work of long fiction to be a particularly English novel, so that I could ground myself here before traveling elsewhere.
You also mention a conversation overheard on Italy’s Piazza di San Lorenzo as inspiration for the plot. Do you often get ideas from people-watching?
For years I kept a notebook and wrote ideas down, but now I am kind of used to the sense that the good ones will stick, and I make only the tiniest of notes. There are not so many that jump out, and usually they really do jump out and are so extraordinary that they have to go in a story. Three of them in the past year have involved bicycles, which is an odd coincidence. One involved a child losing control of his bicycle and riding straight into me on a crowded pavement. The child is now in my new novel, though the bicycle has been replaced by a jellyfish, and Islington by the Mediterranean.
Your novel has been praised for its tightly woven suspense. What was your approach to the pacing? How carefully was each clue planted?
In essence, Every Contact Leaves A Trace plotted and paced itself. My challenge was to try to keep up as it emerged on the screen in front of me. It was difficult to type quickly enough, or to get to sleep at night, since I was trying to solve a mystery from a series of clues that were planting themselves as I wrote.
When I started, I knew that Rachel and Alex had studied together and had been separated for a long time. I knew that something bad had happened during their undergraduate years and that it would have ramifications which would result, years later, in her murder. Because I had lived at Worcester College, Oxford, I knew the grounds and had an idea that significant events would occur in the college’s secret garden and behind the pavilion. But I knew these things only in a vague sort of a way, and I wanted it to stay like that until the whole story had crystallised itself on the page. It was stressful sometimes, not knowing at the beginning of a chapter what would happen by the end. But it was also very exciting to read the story as it happened right in front of my eyes.
Having identified a tendency in my writing towards planning rather than doing, I imposed a ban on plans from the outset, resolving to write only the novel and to make no preparatory notes. I also work as a jazz musician and am interested in the way writing overlaps with improvisation in jazz. I’ve written elsewhere that I tried to write this novel as though I was improvising over a chord sequence laid down by a chain of writers over the last six hundred years.
When I began to work on the book with my editors, I lifted my embargo on notes. I mapped the whole novel out, scene by scene, so that I could see spaces into which I could insert new material and so that the effects of moving things around, or removing them altogether, would be clear. And that was when some more work on the plotting took place, with the roles of certain characters being amplified, or explained more clearly, and some plot difficulties being addressed, so that we filled some of the plot-craters together and fished for red herrings until our nets were full and we felt it was ready to go.
Your novel wrestles with the psychology of loss. Was it draining to tap into such an emotional subject?
Writing this novel was for the most part the opposite of “draining.” Rather, it was a way of shaping something that seemed incomprehensible to me and, in part, gave me the opportunity to create something out of a nothingness.
In 2008, in my mid-thirties, I suffered the first of a series of losses which changed the way I saw the world. At that point, I had written only the Prologue. I had thought of it as a book I would come back to one day for fun, as a straightforward murder mystery in the cast of TV crime dramas I’d been hooked on since my childhood. Instead, when I began to write the novel proper in 2009, I was beginning to learn about the reality of loss. I wanted to invent a story that would look, on the outside, like a murder mystery, but which would be something quite different on the inside: a meditation or an explication on what it is actually like to lose the person you love most in the world and what it is like to lose them suddenly, violently, and shockingly. A two-hour TV murder mystery is a good thing, and can be fun, but I had discovered that loss doesn’t come with neatly packaged answers and that the loose ends of grief are not tied up. I understand more fully and more clearly now that in real life there is no portly Belgian man with a waxed moustache sitting you down in a library and telling you the answers. There is no “victory” in loss, which is why there is none in my novel. In grief, there is only a nothing where once there was a something, and coming to understand that can be a kind of a solace in itself.
How has your job as a lawyer and legal reporter influenced your writing?
It seems there’s little difference between being a lawyer and a writer. The two are inextricably linked: I’ve lived my whole life through books, but it was my ten-year brush with the law that gave me a voice as a novelist and taught me how to tell a tale.
I studied literature at university and then I converted my degree into law by going to law school for two years. After that I did what is called a “training contract.” On day one, my supervisor told me to start the case we were tackling by drawing up a “Dramatis Personae” and a chronology of events. She told me that being a lawyer was about being able to “see the wood from the trees,” about finding a story among a mess of facts.
Having practiced as a lawyer for a while, I went on to become a law reporter. My new job was to listen to stories in court all day, then write them up as briefly and plainly as possible. When a case comes to court, two sides tell a story and the best storyteller wins. A typical day was like reading two novels back to back. Each had the same basic plot, although they were by different authors and took different routes to reach the ending. My editors showed me daily how I could have done it better, amazing me every time by the way they made something that was very difficult seem very easy. At first I was troubled by how to summarise particularly complex cases, until a fellow reporter told me that what we were writing was nothing more than “tomorrow’s chip paper.” I learned something then about the ephemerality of the written word and setting aside the fears that can accumulate around the idea of putting pen to paper.
After I became a lawyer, I carried on reading just as much as I had always done, but because of the hours I was working it had to be done on trains or planes, or on the way home on the bus. All that time I wanted to write a novel but wasn’t sure how to begin. I could produce contracts, compose short and unambiguous sentences, and marshal facts in order to construct a case, but it wasn’t until I started to work as a law reporter that I tried fiction.
Was it difficult writing from the perspective of a man, your protagonist, Alex?
Not at all. I thought of Alex as a person, always, rather than as a man, and by the time I started to write this novel properly I felt I knew him, inside and out. I wrote the Prologue one day in 2007 and put the book away to gestate for a couple of years. I didn’t go back to it until I heard his voice in my head, knew exactly what he looked like, and felt what it would be like to hold his hand in mine.
During the two-year hiatus between hearing the Prologue and the beginning of Chapter 1, I reread, obsessively, some of my favorite male-first-person-narrator novels, including The Good Soldier, The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. When the first draft was ready, I asked four men (a literature academic, a filmmaker, a jazz trumpeter, and a barrister-turned-editor) to make brutally candid suggestions. The murder-squad-detective-turned-criminal barrister who helped me with police procedure happened also to be male, as were my former English teachers and university tutors who helped me with the book. What all of those people did for me in honing Alex Petersen was amazing. I was able to alter his actions, to recast his dreams, and to fine-tune his perspective. Finally, I felt ready to let him go into the world and speak for himself.
- Near the end of the novel Alex says “every piece of knowledge in the whole of the history of time had been acquired by way of a coincidence, to some extent.” Does the novel bear out this assertion?
- How does Alex’s statement that “I can only stand and wait” (page 392) relate to John Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness,” the last line of which reads “They also serve who only stand and waite.” In what ways might Alex be seen as a blind man? What does it mean that on the night of the murder Alex’s glasses fall from his face?
- How does nature play a role in the story? For example, what do birds represent in the book? Discuss the possible meanings of the heron on Alex’s balcony, or the woodpigeon on page 155, or the hooting owl at the end of chapter nine.
- In what ways are facts manipulated by the characters in order to control the actions of others? Consider what Harry tells Alex in chapter fifteen: “You must decide whether to conceal our story, or to disclose it, and in so doing, you must be our judge.” How does revealing or concealing facts relate to being a judge?
- At one point Harry says, “Don’t think I didn’t see, for every step, the other I might have taken instead.” To what extent are these characters in control of their lives? Which characters have the most control, and which the least?
- Consider the “engagement game” suggested by Lucinda in light of the later “games” played by Anthony, Cissy, and Rachel. What role do games play in the lives of these people, and in Rachel’s eventual murder?
- The roles of parent and child come up throughout the novel. In what ways do Harry and Evie play mother and father? What does Harry mean when he says, “Childhood is another country, Alex, and we are none of us as clear in our memories as we like to think”?
- On page thirteen, Adrian says of the waitress, “Makes them feel valued that does, learning their names. Doesn’t it princess?” Discuss how the names of people and things affect the characters in the novel.
- In chapter ten Rachel and Alex leave a play early. Alex says later that, “the stage and the seating and the lighting towers had been taken away and not a trace of them remained: it was as though it had never happened.” In what ways is the action in the novel like a play? How do the detectives reenacting the murder play into this theme?
- The novel’s title is based on the founding principle of forensic science: that every a criminal leaves some kind of evidence behind, no matter how much care is taken to the contrary. How does this principle relate to the emotional relationships in the novel?
- Alex comes to learn Rachel’s smiles intimately, but he never knows many intimate details of her life until after she is gone. How much must we know about one another in order to love one another? Is Alex’s love any less valid for his lack of awareness?
- Alex remembers an article he had read about an experiment in which a hypnotized man walked through a room full of chairs, oblivious to the chairs’ existence. How does this experiment relate to Harry’s experience in the novel? To Alex’s?