The Well is apocalyptic, dealing with elemental changes in both nature and humanity. It brings to mind The Hunger Games, but also the works of Doris Lessing. Who or what inspired you?
Creativity often springs from disparate things coming together. Initially, I was preparing to write a series of poems and studying different portrayals of The Annunciation by artists as diverse as Fra Angelico, Rossetti and Henry Tanner, and the first question came to me: what would it be like to be a chosen woman in contemporary England? That same summer, I was spending time in an isolated cottage which had no mains water. It was a very dry few months and each time water was pumped up from the well, I wondered, what would it be like here if it stopped raining? Those two questions joined force and became The Well.
Directly or indirectly I have drawn inspiration from so many writers it is difficult to name only a few. Penelope Lively and John Banville have both written amazing novels with the same narrative structure as The Well, so I studied them closely. T.S. Eliot, Housman and Hopkins are all poets I return to again and again – and whose work I think floats to the surface throughout the novel.
It’s an intense novel about fertility and femininity. Why did you want to write about that?
It’s a fascinating question and one I am going to answer honestly! It is really only in re-reading The Well that I am coming to understand some of the things I was grappling with when I wrote it. Fertility and femininity, both as separate and linked concerns, are woven deeply into the fabric of the story, on all sorts of levels, and the more I return to the book the more aware of this I become. Mother earth, the particular mysticism of feminine religious experience, the juxtaposed barrenness and richness of one woman’s love for another woman, these themes reach back into our history and are of great contemporary relevance. An exploration of fertility and femininity also led me inevitably to reflect on what it means to be a mother. The Well is also a book about what happens when we don’t have something – in this case water – and about what happens when we have it all. So I wanted the novel to feel fertile, full to bursting at times, just as The Well produces more fruit in its orchard than Ruth and Mark can use, because for many of us living in the West now, our cup really does run over and it seems we do not quite know how to deal with that wealth of resources.
What is so precious about our green and fertile country? Are we in danger of losing it?
Much of my childhood was spent in the West Country, and wherever I have lived in the world – and I have travelled widely – I still think there is nothing that compares for beauty with the rain driving over the moors at dusk late on a February afternoon. So it is precious to me personally. But it needs to be precious to all of us: we are guardians of the air, soil, water and all living things which nourish our bodies and our souls, and we will pay a heavy price if we fail to discharge our responsibilities seriously. This does not mean that I think of the countryside as some sort of theme park; in fact I think the cliché is true – use it or lose it, don’t just stand around looking at it as if it is hung on a wall in a museum. It is encouraging to see so many authors and poets now turning their attention to our landscape and rural environment, reminding us of how intrinsically linked our language and lives are with this ‘green and pleasant land’.
What does your book say about women? Sister Amelia is charismatic but sinister. Is extreme feminism ultimately misguided?
Just as I would hope that no one would think The Well was anti-religion because it portrayed a destructive cult, so I would hope that readers wouldn’t feel that this was in any way an anti-feminist book. I back away from the idea that the novel might have something to say about women in general, although I hope it does encourage readers to think about these particular women and perhaps ask questions about the roles they are given, the choices they make, the relationships which matter to them – as women. As far as the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho are concerned, I do believe that whether social, religious or political, a solution which is based on the exclusion and subjugation of any group of people is no solution at all. Like Sister Amelia herself, extreme answers can be seductive and glamorous, but in my experience positive things often happen in the world through the thoughtful, quiet perseverance of good people – men and women – fighting for sustainable change, with and for each other; the revolutionary power of choosing the middle way. Maybe this is one of the things Ruth is beginning to understand at the end of the novel: ‘I am not sure where I am going to live, but I have learned something about how I am going to live.’