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Interview with Francis Spufford: Writer who builds high with ideas

24 November 2023

Francis Spufford tells Sarah Meyrick about his latest novel

© antonio olmos

THE year is 1922, and the Jazz Age is in full swing. In an American city that never existed, two detectives find a body on the roof of a skyscraper. According to the Guardian’s reviewer: “Francis Spufford’s fabulous third novel is a piece of pulp fiction disguised as speculative history, or possibly vice versa.” How does the author respond?

He professes himself delighted. “In fact, that slightly understates it; it had more than two intentions attached to it. As well as being pulp fiction and speculative history, it’s also intended to be doing something theological. And it’s a kind of sort of science-fiction novel as well, and it’s a homage to Ursula Le Guin. I was greedy when it came to my ambitions for it.”

Cahokia Jazz follows his 2015 debut, Golden Hill, which won the Costa First Novel Award, the RSL Ondaatje Prize, and the Desmond Elliott Prize; and Light Perpetual, which won the 2022 Encore Award and was longlisted for the Booker Prize.

To say that the new book is bubbling over with ideas is an understatement. Where is his starting point for a novel? “Usually, there are multiple things presenting themselves on the horizon of my imagination which converge inwards and turn out to be to be one project,” he says. Cahokia Jazz was a lockdown novel. “I wrote it while unable to go anywhere during the pandemic: I was mentally travelling instead.”

The key conceit is that First Nations people have survived the arrival of the European conquistadors. Cahokia is inhabited by takouma (native to the continent), taklousa (of African ancestry), and takata (people of European heritage).

Spufford was intrigued by the strange absence of indigenous people from most American history. “They turn up briefly — when they’re defeated — and then it’s ‘the history of the state of wherever’, and they hardly feature at all. And I thought how odd this is, and how accidentally dependent it is on a particular history of the diseases which wiped out so many people in North America.”

He is also “besotted” with cities. “I wanted to do something about the early-20th-century American city, which strikes me is a wondrous place — technological but still enchanted in some ways, not least because the architecture hasn’t gone blandly concrete-box modernist yet, but is all covered in statuary and friezes and mosaics and all the things I love in Art Nouveau and Art Deco.”

The chapters of the novel — each covering a day — are interleaved with highly evocative contemporary black-and-white photographs, a suggestion that Spufford is delighted the publishers embraced.

THE crime novel offered an ideal way of exploring an imagined society because of the licence that a detective has to ask questions, he says. He was also interested in creating a leading character who didn’t have the “convenient psychology” of a hero. “I thought it would be interesting to write a book in which the protagonist is much more suited by character and by emotional history to be to be a follower and what it would be like to have one of those [characters] obliged to take the lead.”

Golden Hill was set in colonial New York in 1746; Light Perpetual examines the transformation of London during the second half of the 20th century; and now, Cahokia Jazz takes the reader back a century. What is the appeal of historical fiction? Family influence, he says — he is the son of two academics, the historians Margaret Spufford and Peter Spufford — but it is also the way his imagination works. “I’m not sure I’m very good at the contemporary look. The backward look that makes the past feel like now — that I can do, and that I’m drawn towards,” he says.

“Being a reader of science fiction and being a reader of historical fiction often seem to me to be mirror images of the same thing, with the same kind of possible fascination: seeing how things work and how the parts of another time fit together.”

One reviewer wrote of Golden Hill that it’s not a book you read so much as tumble into. Cahokia Jazz displays the same sort of exuberance, as much in the high-wire juggling of ideas as in the hectic narrative that propels the hero through the mean streets of the city. Is this a conscious aim?

“I do like that kind of richness when reading, and I am greedy for it,” he says. “I admire writing which manages to produce multiple pleasures at the same time while still remaining integrated. Maybe, too, there’s something biographical, in that I started daring to write fiction late, and I’m now in a hurry to utter the stuff that I have in me to offer.”

Confining the story to a single week also meant that “a ridiculous amount was going to happen” in a short time, he continues. “People have commented that it’s rather long, and it is, but it’s only just long enough to contain all the things which I felt had to be in it.”

Writing a crime novel entailed a series of technical challenges. He ended up with “a million file cards” spread out all over the floor, “like some vast game of patience”.

Spufford once suggested that his 2012 book, Unapologetic, was his last word on theology. Yet his novels are full of faith. “Whether I set out to, consciously or not, I seem to be endlessly tracing over the invisible shape of the gospel underneath the paper I’m writing on, telling sin-and-redemption stories, because that’s just the shape I perceive reality to be.”

It is, none the less, a matter of “artistic integrity and professional pride” that his books still work for readers who either don’t notice or profoundly disagree with the premise of faith.

“This time, the state the imaginary city is set in is devoted to a weird Roman Catholicism, which is slightly more syncretistic than real-world Catholicism, but, nevertheless, still clearly, I hope, a version of the real thing.”

Central to the story is an exploration of the meaning of sacrifice. “The book begins with an apparent human sacrifice . . . and ends with something more genuine and voluntary, which is, nevertheless, in line with a fundamental Christian sense of how the world’s good is served by renunciation.” It is no accident that the final, dramatic scene takes place against the background of a Latin mass.

There always seems to be a church service in his novels. “I started doing it by accident, but I think, from now on, I will do it deliberately,” he says. “There was an old-fashioned 1662 BCP matins in Golden Hill, and a full-on Pentecostal service in Light Perpetual, and a pre-Vatican II Latin mass in this one; so I shall now have to move systematically on through to Nine Lessons and Carols . . . or, if I move late enough into the 20th century, I could do some kind of folk mass with interpretive dance. The world is my oyster.”

ANOTHER apparent constant thread in his writing is music. But he insists that it is words, and not music, that feed him. “I am the only non-musical member of a musical extended family. I am legendary in my family for failing to notice music in the background, with everyone else either being enthused by or annoyed by it. I can just tune it out. . . But I seem to have written a succession of books in which music is essential to the way the book works.”

Spufford admits to loving 1920s jazz, “in an extremely approximate outsiderish way”, and there is a Spotify playlist to accompany the book. His hero moonlights as a jazz musician. “He had to be a pianist, and he had to be someone with a thwarted calling, something which flowed and was the opposite of frustration: something expressive.

“Also, jazz is one of the bright, almost utopian, things in American history. It’s somewhere where the cruel weight of African-American history gets converted into a music of joy, which is then offered as a completely gratuitous and undeserved gift to the rest of American culture, and becomes one of the joyful musics of city life.

So, it’s partly Cahokia Jazz because I’m jazzing up my history, and it’s partly Cahokia Jazz because this is supposed to be an optimistic history. Although it’s a noir novel with copious bloodshed and regular fight scenes, it’s also supposed to be a hopeful vision of the weight of history being slightly alleviated and . . . as if some clarinet or cornet is lifting up a pure note out of the gutter of confused human experience.”

Spufford’s novels follow five highly praised works of non-fiction, frequently described by reviewers as either bizarre or brilliant — or quite often both. Why the move into fiction?

“I was always quite a novelistic non-fiction writer, smuggling in fictional techniques where I could, and I’ve always been a reader of fiction,” he says. “It’s partly just a question of daring: of having finally got to the point where I dared the particular kind of self-exposure that comes with writing dialogue and inventing imaginary people.

“There are places to hide in non-fiction, whereas fiction makes nakedly clear your fundamental take on the world to other people, and I was timid and cowardly, and it took me until I was 50 or so to dare to do that.”

But life can be bleak. There are obvious parallels between the experiences of indigenous peoples in America and the current conflict in Gaza. How far does fiction offer hope?

“In some ways, it is the flimsiest kind of solace, because it’s fictional. Fiction has no literal power to push back against events,” he says.

“On the other hand, imagination has its own kind of sovereignty. You can’t appeal to imagination to prevent history, but neither can history cancel out imagination or prevent the freedom that lets every human being take a half-step away or sideways in the privacy of their own mind. Imagination insists that we aren’t just creatures of the awful moment: we are whole histories.”

Sometimes imagination deepens the sense of tragedy, he reflects. “It shows you the weight of what’s at stake, but it also points to what can’t be extinguished. You can extinguish someone’s imagination very easily by dropping a bomb on them. But, for everyone whom the bombs miss, but who live with the consequences of the bombs, then imagination provides a richness that can’t be defeated by a world of rubble.”

Sarah Meyrick is a novelist. Her latest novel is 
Joy and Felicity (Sacristy Press, 2021).

Cahokia Jazz by Francis Spufford is published by Faber & Faber at £20 (Church Times Bookshop £18); 978-0-571-33687-6. Read a review here.

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