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Interview: Tobias Hill, Author of The Hidden

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I have heard editors say that the stories they publish are the ones that they revisit over and over in their minds after reading – the stories that the brain refuses to put down. If this compulsive lure is indeed the hallmark of great writing, then Tobias Hill’s The Hidden is at the head of its class. The novel is compelling, tantalizing, and occasionally frustrating in its complexity. Patterns, layers and parallels tease at the mind, eluding verbalization. At first, an interview with Hill seemed the perfect opportunity to unravel some of the ideas that had half-formed during my book review of The Hidden. However, the patterns still danced just out of reach of the mind refusing to solidify into concrete questions.

Poet and novelist Tobias Hill has won the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award for his short story collection Skin (1997) and has twice been short-listed for the Mail on Sundays/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. In addition to The Hidden , his novels include: The Love of Stones, Underground, and The Cryptographer. His collections of poetry include Year of the Dog, Midnight in the City of Clocks, Zoo, and Nocturne in Chrome and Sunset Yellow. Hill is the Royal Society of Literature Fellow at Sussex University.

Q: In the Q&A sheet that was attached to the press release for The Hidden, you state that in the research phase, you often "find new discoveries taking the narrative in unexpected directions." Were there any specific such discoveries and deviations from the plan in the writing of The Hidden?

A: Yes and no. There were large deviations, but the new paths I ended up following didn't open up through research. The main change came about because the politics of our times changed, and the meaning of Sparta changed along with them. Ten years ago I meant to write a book about Sparta and secrets…but I'm a slow writer. The world overtook me. The novel I ended up writing still deals in secrets, as planned, but it's also about the nature of fear, the uses of fear, and the beliefs (or lack thereof) of those who use fear as a tool. I didn't intend to write a book about contemporary terror, I intended to write one about excavation, concealment and classical Sparta – but after 9/11, terror and Sparta became inseparable in my mind.

For quite a while, after 9/11, I was sure I'd never publish anything much about the attack or the wars and fears (financial and otherwise) that have followed it. Through 2001 and 2002 there was some pretty leonine claiming of the attack by prominent writers (almost without exception male novelists), which I found unpleasant, and I honestly didn't know what I thought myself about the attack or the wars that followed, not for years. It was all too close: I couldn’t see it clearly.

So much for authorial intention: my two novels since 2001 have been about (amongst other things) global financial collapse (The Cryptographer), and terror (The Hidden). I don't mean to write about it all, but I do. The ripples spread so widely now that they're hard to avoid. I don't suppose I'm the only writer who has experienced this: when writers have something on their minds, they will try and put it into words eventually, and the ripples are on many minds. This can be a problem for some artists born since the world wars, I think, because many of us aren’t used to having to contemplate such a massive shift, and in this case the shift seemed to begin so abruptly (or it did for me). So, anyway, I finally began writing The Hidden four years after 9/11, and found that my subject had changed. Classical Sparta wasn't the same place it had been before 9/11.

Footnote: I was in Edinburgh for the books festival this year, and heard Alistair MacCleod (wonderful writer) talking about character; how an event, affecting someone early in life or late in life, is not the same event for that person, and the person is not the same in consequence. For example, the death of a parent in childhood, or the same death when the child is grown and a friend to the mother or father (or estranged from them, for that matter). Anyway, I find that novels are a bit like that too – certainly, for me, The Hidden is.

Q: In the same paper, you are quoted as saying that the impetus for The Hidden arose from your memories of studying ancient history at a girls’ school, and of "fear." You comment that "it was all one experience … [your] awe of the girls, and the awfulness of the ancient world." Did these memories impact Ben's relationships with women in The Hidden — the forced conception of his child, the unnerving dreams of his ex-wife and child, his tenderness for and ultimate threat from Natsuko?

A: Of the four leading protagonists I've created for my novels, Ben is the least like me (Anna in The Cryptographer is probably the closest). But if I was ever like him, I suppose it would have been at that kind of age – late school age, 18 or so. Without a doubt I was more capable of violence at 18, shyer and more fearful, and I remember how unnerving my dreams often were, then (I used to have terrible nightmares, and would sleepwalk; both petered out in my late 20s). And Ben is younger than I am, so it may be that I was putting something of my younger self into him…but not much. Ben was a conscious attempt to get away from the self-centered protagonists of the first three novels.

Q: Along the same lines, the conception of Nessie seems in some ways to parallel the Spartan practice of exposure of defective infants by the fathers. In both cases, the choice of the mother was to some extent eliminated from the equation. Was that a deliberate parallel?

A: The violence was a conscious link, the passivity of the mother not. That doesn't mean you're wrong, though. I try not to analyse everything I write, and I do believe the book ends with the reader. Looking back at the passages, I think you may be right.

Q: Ben is a difficult protagonist to like; however, in this, he is very human, and he does become more sympathetic as the story progresses, particularly in comparison to some of the other characters. Was he a difficult character to write?

A: He was hard. I wanted to create someone quite unlike myself, for a change, and – also – Ben needed to be an innocent, and unheroic, and needy, and lonesome (what people over here unkindly call a 'Johnny-No-Mates'). And he has committed a violent crime, one for which he has never been punished under the law, though he punishes himself. A protagonist like that is always going to lose some readers early on, but I hope those who stick with Ben feel rewarded. He does change (he doesn't believe people change, but he changes all the same). By the end he is a kind of hero… well, he seems so to me. He acquires the strength of character to do something. I found myself liking him more and more as I wrote him, and I tried several times to find him a way out of his situation.

Q: I find it interesting that Ben (a character created by a poet) claims to dislike poetry, and yet his "Notes Toward a Thesis" quote the Greek poets extensively. This would seem to illustrate a lack of self-awareness or something he wishes to conceal, but assumption is foolish. So, I have to ask – what is behind the proclaimed dislike of poetry?

A: I've seen a comment, floating around somewhere, that the dislike was a crude attempt to distinguish Ben from myself. That could be true. I hope not, because it wouldn't be necessary. I thought of the dislike of poetry as a reflection of Ben's loathing of Foyt; Foyt and poetry are linked dislikes for him.

Q: Your descriptions of the setting [in The Hidden] are vivid and precise. Have you spent considerable time in Greece? Did you visit archaeological sites in your research?

A: Greece, yes; archaeological sites, no. Greece was the first foreign country I really remember visiting. Stepping off the plane into a kind of oven-heat, and the alien sound of cicadas, and the smell of dust and eucalyptus… it almost felt like walking out onto another planet. I've always wanted to capture that.

Q: Given your use of language in the novel, it would appear that the transition between the poem and the novel was a natural one for you. Have you always written both fiction and poetry, or did you shift from one to the other in the course of your writing?

A: I've always written both, although I began to publish the poems first. I do shift, now. I don't generally write both at the same time; the poetry tends to cannibalize the prose if I do.

Short stories and poetry feel akin, to me. Novels are different kinds of beasties.

Q: With the prevalence of narrative poems and lyrical essays in modern writing, and the current awareness of and appreciation for the uses of rhythm and language in fiction, the lines between poetry and prose seem to be increasingly blurred. When you write, do you sit down with the intent of creating a specific type of piece (ie. poem, short story, novel) or do you find that the idea presents itself as suited to a particular form during the writing?

A: Almost always with either poetry or prose in mind. In my early twenties I tried to write long, narrative poems… I still have a couple of them, and they're almost unreadable. I said in a recent interview that I don't adjust my writing in the novels, but now I think about it that's wrong. I don't tone down my writing (because I don't heighten my poetry), but the rhythms and patterns are different. The big rhythm in the novel is that of the story. There's an Ursula le Guin essay that compares that rhythm to the skyline of a mountain range, and that's right, I think: it's a big, slow, background kind of rhythm, compared to those in poetry. In a novel the writing itself has to be less complex, less dominating; it has to leave space for a clear view of the horizon.

Q: The Hidden is so intricately layered and ripe with symbolism and foreshadowing, that it would seem to have been very meticulously laid out. What is your writing style? Do you work from an outline? Do you work chronologically, or work on scenes as they fit?

A: I take notes, then take notes of my notes, then write a possible structure, then start to write. The computer comes in quite late. Once on the computer, I comb through passages. It takes a long time — too long, in some senses —but it gets me what I want.

Q: The applications of terror depicted in Spartan society highlight the modern use of terror that is central to the plot. Both societies make use of alienated, idealistic youth to accomplish their horrors. In ancient Sparta, they appeared to use the Crypteia, the Hidden, to maintain order among the working population, the prisoners of war. This seemed to be a means of holding ground by a failing culture. Today those who employ terror in its physical form still tend to be the young, idealistic, and disaffected. However, the use of fear permeates politics and media. Given that you have brought ancient and modern terror together in parallel story lines, do you view modern Western society as a failing culture?

A: I see it as being in crisis. I don't see it as about to fail in the sense that Sparta failed. Sparta was inflexible and brittle: when it failed, it shattered. Western capitalist democracy is more flexible, and more resilient. Any movement away from a general sense of laissez-faire weakens that resiliency, but it would take more than a Bush or two to bring about a Spartan-style collapse in modern Western societies.

I think fear has been used increasingly as a social and political tool in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the West, and it's a dangerous tool. It gets out of hand; it spreads and contaminates. It affects the markets — which float on nothing but trust and confidence — and the markets feed back their fear into society. It's cheap and effective, and once you let it out of its box, it's difficult to control. And I suppose I resent its use immensely, as many people do.

Q: Is there anything else that you would like readers to take away from your work?

A: I'd like to offer half an apology to those who hope for a thriller. Only half, because I never intend the novels as thrillers, and really it should be clear that they're not about thrills and spills… but I do use rapid pacing, sometimes, and publishers are fond of sticking all kinds of labels on books if they think it'll help them sell. Those labels aren't mine, though, and I try to scotch them at every turn, I really do. In the US, Harper have been very kind in listening to me, and I don't think the book looks like a thriller, myself… but I do hear of people buying it as one, and being disappointed, and I'm sorry for that. It's not my intention. I like to read novels that do more than thrill, and those are the novels I try to write.

With The Hidden Hill has indeed written a novel that does more than thrill. Even with answers straight from the author, it feels still as though The Hidden conceals secrets that elude my grasp, making me want to dig further.

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About Christy Corp-Minamiji

  • Thanks, Caroline. I wish I could take credit for the quality of the interview, but really, Tobias gave brilliant responses to my not-so-coherent questions.

  • Great interview. And this is so true “I have heard editors say that the stories they publish are the ones that they revisit over and over in their minds after reading – the stories that the brain refuses to put down.”