A Superior Spectre by Angela Meyer is one of the six books shortlisted for this year’s Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. Readings recently chatted to Angela about ghosts, female desire and blurring the lines of fiction.
Tell us a little bit about your book?
A Superior Spectre is about a man who abuses an experimental technology that allows him to enter the mind of a woman in the past. It’s also about Leonora, a young woman in 19th-century Scotland, who begins to become aware of a strange presence invading her mind…
You’ve said in the past that you wrote parts of this novel while living in George Orwell’s run-down house in Scotland – a place he lived while essentially dying with tuberculosis. What was it like writing a gothic ghost story in such an evocative setting? Did ghosts feature in your writing process? Was your writing informed by your surroundings?
I did stay in the beautiful old house on the isle of Jura where Orwell lived while completing 1984. I was redrafting the novel at this point, and had spent a lot of time in Scotland while writing it, too. That’s such an interesting question about ghosts. The novel gives a kind of scientific explanation for a ‘haunting’, but I am very interested in the idea of ghosts, or the resonance of the past in a place or person. I wonder about the capacity of the mind to perceive, process, or create various phenomena. It’s an open question for me. There are many grey areas in the novel, and this is one of them. Did I meet Orwell on the isle of Jura? I felt a strong (and benevolent) presence, certainly, but I also had a lot of time in my own head…
Your novel explores, with grace, the complicated themes of bodily autonomy and consent. What kind of dynamic were you hoping to explore with the challenging relationship between the two main characters, and can you speak a little bit more about that relationship?
It might sound strange now that at first I didn’t realise I was writing about that. I thought it was mainly about empathy (the reader is challenged to empathise with Jeff, and he is challenged to empathise with Leonora). And then I realised that it was about a man invading a woman’s body and mind, having an effect on her, while she is also being pushed in directions she does not wish to be pushed in by the patriarchal forces of her own time and was whole, and happy, before this chain of events. But I wanted it to remain complex. Jeff, her invader, is a selfish man, but he is a product of his environment. He is dismissive of women in many ways, he struggles to truly understand them, while he obsesses, self-flagellates, over pain he may have caused to others (not women). All the men in the novel struggle to see women as whole people, only as how they relate to various archetypal roles, and this is because, past and present (and near future), they are socialised to see women this way. Jeff is a sort of pathetic character because he is given a chance to empathise, and he fails.
But I do want to also say that while I am invoking a binary, here, it is in part to playfully also question it; to open up spaces in between (just as I have with mind/body, future/past, spirit/tech!).
Your novel expertly blurs what should be clearly distinct lines of difference, and employs several narrative and stylistic devices to emphasise this as the novel progresses. Was your use of these narrative devices inspired by or informed by other authors’ work? Are there writers who inspired A Superior Spectre?
Thank you! Yes, I love unreliable narrators, absurd humour, and metafiction, and I’m so glad people have felt stimulated by the shifts the book takes. There are so many books in the background of Spectre but some I’ll note, in regards to these elements, are Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (superb unreliable narrator), Janet Frame’s work (how she blurs planes of ‘reality’ and fiction), The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles (metafiction), The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark (unreliable narrator), Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (different POVs and types of narration as the story unfolds) and then there’s the original high concept show with a little surprise or twist in each episode (and often characters who don’t know if they are seeing through their own eyes!), The Twilight Zone. There are more but that will do for now…
Female desire is a hot topic in fiction and non-fiction at the moment. What are the benefits of exploring the nuances of female desire in fiction? Did you feel any internal conflict by the way Jeff inserts himself and subsequently influences Leonora’s acts and feelings of desire?
I love writing desire in general. A character’s desires and fears are often secret and so that’s where some of the tension can come from. Exploring a woman’s desires can be powerful, I think, because the dominant narratives still favour women as the supporter, the receiver of desire, passive, caring but otherwise out of the way. A woman desiring is beautiful. A woman acting on her desires is daring. Yes, it was hard to write about Jeff’s influence, because it confused Leonora. At the same time it was satisfying to write, because I can relate to it. When I was coming of age, there were influences on my desire that confused me for many years. It took me a long time to find out what was mine, and what was the influence of culture as to what I should like, what I should desire.
And finally, what books have you loved lately? And what is in your to-be-read pile?
I’ve been at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and also Authors at the Fringe and I bought a ridiculous amount of books. I loved A Glass Eye by Miren Agur Meabe, translated from the Basque by Amaia Gabantxo. It’s about a woman processing the loss of a relationship, the loss of her eye, and all of her losses, really. It’s a self-aware piece of writing. I’m looking forward to Crudo by Olivia Laing and also Out of the Woods, by Luke Turner, which is a memoir about bisexual identity set among the trees of Epping Forest (I may not be summing it up well but I saw Luke speak and was very intrigued, I think we need more narratives of bisexuality). I’ve also started Carrie Tiffany’s Exploded View, and the opening is exquisite. And I love, love the stories in Josephine Rowe’s Here Until August, out in September. I’m saving the last one for when I get home. I also have Alice Bishop’s A Constant Hum lined up as the next short story collection. On audiobook I am enjoying Kathy Reichs’ third Temperance Brennan novel. Crime works quite well for me in audio.
This interview was originally published on Readings.
For more info on A Superior Spectre, head here.