Q&A|Adam Foulds

There’s something about virtuoso novelist, poet and now short-story writer Adam Foulds that won’t give way, whether it is to media frenzy or the public’s desire to get a hold over him. In between readings at a writing showcase at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, this March, while being assaulted steadily by students, writers and readers, he is quietly, resolutely elsewhere—yet vitally present. His unflinching yet tender eye does not miss a detail.

Foulds, who once studied creative writing at the same university, is one of England’s most unusual and promising young writers. The 38-year-old’s award-winning first novel, The Truth About These Strange Times (2007), is about the relationship between Howard, a Scottish loner, and 10-year-old math prodigy Saul. This was followed by the long narrative poem The Broken Word (2008), about Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising, as seen through the eyes of an English schoolboy. It won the Somerset Maugham Award in 2009.

Epping Forest, England, is the backdrop to Foulds’ Booker prize-shortlisted novel. Photo: Getty images

You’ve written about imaginary worlds in more ways than one. How did you handle Africa, the setting for ‘The Broken Word’?

There is a minimal way of writing that makes the reader co-create the imaginary; imagine the landscape for themself. I haven’t been to Africa. But people who grew up in Africa said that this book was one of the most vivid things they’d read. They look at the description of landscape first.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a novel whose subject matter is close to The Broken Word. War and violence, conflict, complicity. I’ve also been writing a bunch of short stories, one of which has emerged in Granta this month, another in the New Statesman. The novel I’m writing is quite research-intensive, but the stories are not, it’s quite nice.

The lay of the land: Writer Adam Foulds

Research provokes your imagination in a particular way. It feeds your imagination and allows your mind to do something in the background while you work. It can feel like it’s pulling you away from the writing of the book though.

Who are you reading while you write? Do you find there is value in spending time with one writer at a time?

I read Yeats, Wordsworth, Browning, Larkin, Eliot, loads of poets from that time. The Australian contemporary poet Les Murray, I like him a lot. You read stuff because you discover who you want to read.

I’ve found that with poets who I’m familiar with, I like buying the individual volumes. There’s a publishing house that has reproduced volumes of the late Yeats as they were published originally: The Winding Stair, The Tower. All those wonderful books in The London Library. I have liked D.H. Lawrence’s writing and I have been giving my attention to, one to one (smiles at the question).

In ‘The Quickening Maze’, there’s a beautiful sense of nature-poet John Clare’s relationship with a woman, as well as that of his relationship with the land, both sensuous ones. How do you handle these two equations?

They are not that far apart in Clare’s experience. Nature is part of what Mary (the woman) represents: health and wholeness and the sense of longing for what he’s lost. Woman and landscape have always come together in the male imagination; the female body, the experience of mother. For Clare, in a more subtle way, his experience of the natural world is connected to that of the women in his life.

And your own relationship with the natural world now?

The Quickening Maze

Is there a more urban experience you’ll be writing about, now that you live in London?

I have something in mind at the moment that has to do with the particularity of the suburban world I grew up in, the kinds of houses and experience available there. A lot of my short stories happen in that natural environment for imagination.

I’ve been trying to confirm from different sources if you did, in fact, work as a forklift operator. Can you tell us more about this?

Yes, I have, among other things. I didn’t want anything that would take up too much mental space. By default I went for jobs that had little kinds of responsibility. I’d come from working in the shops and moved out to working in the warehouses. It all connected up and it wasn’t massively hard work. I rather liked working in the warehouse, and sort of missed it when I was published and didn’t need to work there any more. It was quiet and there were few of us. I managed not to go back; the other blokes there might have wondered why I was back there, though, of course, they always knew I was different.