…in which I answer some questions about the subject and form of Mischief Acts.
Mischief Acts follows Herne the Hunter. Who is Herne, and why did you choose him as the hero of your book?
He’s as much an anti-hero as a hero, I think. Herne the Hunter is one of those characters in British folklore who has no clear origin story, and he has been many things to many people. The accepted stories around him that you can easily find on the internet now, presented as traditional lore, actually derive from other fiction: Shakespeare, for example, or a version of the creation of Herne invented by a 19th century novelist.
Essentially Herne is a sort of ‘horned god’ archetype, with connections to figures like Cernunnos, the Celtic horned god of the forest, and Odin, as a leader of the wild hunt – galloping through stormy skies and collecting the souls of the dead. He has antlers, he belongs in the forest, he loves to hunt, he is scary and powerful. But he is also connected through lore to tricksters and entertainers like Puck, Robin Goodfellow, Pan, and Harlequin. This huge web of connection coalesced in my version of Herne, who fancies himself as a subversive mischief-maker, but is also dangerous when threatened. Because of his attachment to the wood – he is a kind of genius loci of the forest, and cannot exist without it – when the wood comes under threat, Herne does too.
So, in Mischief Acts, Herne represents the defence of a wild place, but he also represents our own inner wildness and need for mischief. He’s the transgressive force in all of us that can get out of control when the pressure is on.
Mischief Acts is a novel of many voices and styles. Why?
While the book is set in one place, it skips through time to look at life in the Great North Wood/South London at different moments. When I lived next to Sydenham and Dulwich Woods, which is a remnant of the Great North Wood, and got to know its history, I was struck by the sheer variety of life in and around the wood. So when I came to write, I wanted to reflect some of that range: all those different ways of seeing, clashing desires, attitudes of people, but also the particular eras they lived in. I must also confess to being a huge fan of writing that ventriloquises or pastiches particular voices and styles, and I get a lot of pleasure from playing with language, seeing what it can conjure all on its own. I wanted to challenge myself to write in ways I hadn’t before, to see what I could get away with. Whether or not I’ve pulled it off will be up to readers!
Mischief Acts moves through the past, the present and into the future. How did you decide what the future would hold in the world of the book?
The book is structured around our relationship, as humans, with enchantment. The idea has been around for a while that we are now living in a ‘disenchanted world’ – one dominated by spectacle created by technology and industry, rather than deep meaning and connection – and the notion of re-enchantment has now entered the discourse. It’s an exciting idea, that we might reenchant ourselves, but what does that mean? It happens to have come along at the same time as projects to rewild: a buzzword in discussions around how to protect the environment (and so, ultimately, ourselves). I am not an optimist at the best of times, and I have sincere doubts about our ability to make the right decisions about balancing the natural world and our need for comfort and convenience in the future. The question hangs over the final chapters of the book: can we be reenchanted, and how will we know if we’ve got that, and rewilding, right?
Heading off beyond the 2020s also allowed me to play with a question that fascinates me: what is the folklore of the future? Does that ancestral lore-line that I can see trailing backwards from Herne the Hunter also trail forwards? Myth and folklore often feel like a function of zeitgeists to me: we rediscover, or even invent, the myths we need, meaning some of them must fade away or morph beyond recognition. Futuristic writing usually intimidates me somewhat, but I wanted to step out of my comfort zone. Following a folkloric character into the future and tinkering with him was my way in.
Would you say that Mischief Acts has a political, or environmental, message?
Yes, if you go looking for it, though I consciously steered clear of polemic. Herne is ambivalent, and in many ways, the book is too. While it invites the reader to really look at the natural world, and hopefully see how intertwined we are with it, the book also gives voice to people and forces who do not think that way, but aren’t rendered awful or immoral as a result.
There is also much moral ambiguity around the idea of mischief that I pursue through the book. I really do believe that we need room for wildness in our lives: we cannot be perfectly in control all the time. Letting off steam is a good metaphor: otherwise the pressure can boil us alive. But with making mischief comes the risk of causing harm. We won’t all agree how much of that kind of risk is acceptable, or whether we should ever accept one person, or group of people, being a casualty of another’s transgressive behaviour. I want the reader to bump up against this question, but I can’t answer it myself.
We need goodness and compassion, but we need irreverence and naughtiness too. It’s in our natures. Obviously, rules and rule-breaking have been riding high in the public conversation over the course of the pandemic, and it’s become abundantly clear that we won’t all agree. Perhaps I could get behind one unambiguous message in Mischief Acts, which is that demonising what offends us is usually unhelpful.
What were your main influences, literary or otherwise, when you were writing Mischief Acts?
I’m a huge admirer of wide-ranging, polyphonic novels, such as Ulverton by Adam Thorpe. I was completely floored by that book the first time I read it, and will remain in awe of it all my life, without a doubt. Structurally, that was definitely an influence, and it emboldened me to play with voices and styles too. I drew deliberately on the styles of some other authors I love, including Thomas Hardy, and I read a lot of poetry during the writing process, by Alice Oswald, Jacob Polley, Dylan Thomas, Lorca and many others. Poetry helps push me to think carefully and in new ways about the shape of my prose. It also emboldened me to write some material in a pseudo-poetic style – terrifying!
I found myself influenced too by the historical sources I used when researching the book – whether 20th century newspaper articles or Tudor accounts of Christmas riots.
I worked so hard on creating a certain vocabulary and range in my first book, Folk, and this had the unfortunate – though not surprising – effect of then limiting the way in which I wrote. I wanted to fight my way out of that by trying on as many styles and voices as I could, letting influences fly in from all over the place. It has been a joyous and enriching process, and quite an exhausting one, but I can’t see myself stopping the experimentation. Continuously learning is one of the consistent pleasures of writing.