Debut Author Channeled Her 'Darker Bits' Into A Man Booker Shortlist Novel Fiona Mozley's book Elmet explores masculinity in both male and female characters. "When we sort of see a woman possessing unexpected or fantastical physical strength it's questioned more," she says.
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Debut Author Channeled Her 'Darker Bits' Into A Man Booker Shortlist Novel

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Debut Author Channeled Her 'Darker Bits' Into A Man Booker Shortlist Novel

Debut Author Channeled Her 'Darker Bits' Into A Man Booker Shortlist Novel

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Fiona Mozley has already been one of the literary sensations of 2017. The part-time clerk at the Little Apple Bookshop in York was a finalist for this year's Man Booker Prize, with her first novel, "Elmet," named for a hamlet in Yorkshire that was once an old kingdom. Her book has now been published to praise in the United States. Fiona Mozley joins us from the BBC in London. Thanks so much for being with us.

FIONA MOZLEY: Oh, thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: This is a story about Cathy and Daniel, a daughter and a son - their tender love for their father, who loves them tenderly. But he plies a violent trade. And the phrase you have about their surroundings in Yorkshire - (reading) the soil was ruptured with stories that cascaded and rotten, then found form once more. Boy, how did the story find form with you?

MOZLEY: Yes. Well, I knew that I wanted to write a story set in this part of the world. It's where I grew up. And I was a living away in London at the time, but it was constantly in my thoughts. It's a part of the world that is shrouded in history, that's informed by its history in the landscape, in the very soil of the place. And there were certain issues I wanted to explore, and then these characters arrived almost fully formed - Daddy, who's, as you say, the father of the family and a bare-knuckle boxer, and his daughter Cathy. And then, slowly, Daniel, the narrator of the piece - he arrived, as well, as the story began to take form.

SIMON: Tell us what that's like. They arrived. I mean, as you're well aware, forgive me, some people say that, and they get put into institutions.

MOZLEY: Yes. (Laughter). I suppose you're right. I mean, that may follow. But I...

SIMON: (Laughter).

MOZLEY: ...Wanted to explore a masculine archetype. And that's what Daddy is. He is larger than life. He's almost too big to exist. He's straight out of mythology. He's very strong and reassuring, and he sticks by his children, et cetera. But he's also - you know, he's got this troubled streak. This sort of - this violence in him. He's entirely defined by his body, his physicality, his strength. And Cathy arrived, saying, actually, what happens when these ideals are instilled in someone who doesn't inhabit the right physicality? Or she's somebody who has a very similar temperament to her father, but she doesn't have his strength. And she's a girl. And how does she stitch together those dual identities?

SIMON: Yeah. There is - not to give too much away, but there's an act of violence in the book in which a woman takes a man's life. She sees it as her only way to survive. And I have to ask if recent events and recent debates and soul searching we've had in both our countries makes the scene even more telling.

MOZLEY: That's a tough question. I don't know about that. I mean, of course, it was all written long before that. But I think I did want to explore this question of, you know, the owning of the human body. You know, if there is somebody whose body is being used or threatened in a way which they don't like, do they have the right to do whatever they can to stop that?

She knew that because she was physically weaker than her assailants, there could be no half measures, she couldn't just pin him to the ground and run away because she wouldn't escape. She couldn't just, you know, incapacitate him in some way. It had to be - she had to go the whole hog. A lot of people have been struck by that passage, I think. They - a lot of people said it's unrealistic, which I don't really mind because it's not supposed to be a realistic book. You know, it's a work of fantasy in many respects.

But I do think it's interesting that we can accept that male characters can perform these acts of extraordinary physical prowess all the time. You know, people like Clint Eastwood can be punched in the face a hundred times and still get up for more. But when we sort of see a woman possessing unexpected or fantastical physical strength, it's questioned more.

SIMON: Among the many lines that I wrote down, character says at one point, (reading) we all grow into our coffins. And I was going to ask you what that means. But as I ran it through my mind, I think everyone kind of knows what that means.

MOZLEY: Yeah. I mean, that's said by the daughter Cathy, who I mentioned has this...

SIMON: Yeah.

MOZLEY: ...Very troubled relationship with her own physicality. She sees herself growing into the body of a woman. And all the women that she has known in her life have disappeared or washed up kind of injured or - you know, as a society, again, we have this fixation with the murdered female body. You know, it's from Ophelia to - well, going even further back than that, actually. You know, you can find it in Greek tragedy. This image of the very beautiful young woman who is found dead. It's a sort of strange fixation.

And it comes to haunt her. She's terrified when she sees herself growing into a female body that that's going to happen to her. And that's her real tragedy - is that she can't see a way out of that, and she can't see a way of existing outside of that particular framework. It's quite - I don't know. I mean, it's quite bleak, I suppose. I'm not sure (laughter). I don't know. I'm quite a jolly person, really. So I guess I channeled all of my (laughter) darker bits into this book.

SIMON: Fiona Mozley - her novel "Elmet." Thanks so much for being with us.

MOZLEY: Thank you for inviting me.

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