I met Liz Jensen 18 years ago at a party in London. We were both in the early stages of writing a novel and we started getting together about once a month to exchange our latest chapters and talk about our work. When we both became pregnant there seemed to be a double synchronicity and certainly a double gestation. After that, however, we took different paths. Liz went on to publish novels regularly over the years, and although I never stopped working on my own writing when I could, domestic life and other freelance writing work took over.
This year, my book The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice is being published by Robert Hale on March 29. So finally our paths are reconverging and it feels appropriate that I should be writing about Liz as her eighth book is published and I am embarking with my first.
It is almost impossible to categorize Liz Jensen’s fiction; her novels border on several genres without entirely inhabiting any one of them. The Venn diagram I might come up with in an attempt to explain her work would include gothic fantasy, science fiction and major contemporary issues. Her novels are laced through with black comedy and are earthily direct, even when she is taking us into the most bizarre parallel realities. As with all good fiction, whatever the setting, we know where we are.
Jensen was born in 1959 in Oxfordshire, England. She grew up in a household with a rich cultural mix; her Anglo-Moroccan mother was a librarian and her Danish father a violin maker. She studied English at Oxford and worked first as a journalist in Hong Kong and Taiwan, then in the U.K. as a TV and radio producer for the BBC.
When her first husband was offered a job in France she seized the opportunity to quit the BBC, switch countries and begin work on her first novel, Egg Dancing. During her four years living near Lyon she also worked as sculptor, translator and freelance journalist and had her first child. Egg Dancing was completed after the family’s return to London in 1995. After their second son was born she went on to write seven more novels. She also got divorced and remarried along the way. She is now married to the Danish essayist, travel writer and novelist Carsten Jensen, and divides her time between London and Copenhagen. Her latest book, The Uninvited, was published in the United States on January 8.
The Jensen paradox
Liz Jensen’s work—which has been short-listed for the Guardian Fiction award, nominated three times for the Orange Prize and translated into more than 20 languages—presents us with a unique paradox: on the one hand, she has an unerring eye for the zeitgeist. Her novels always tackle one or more pressing issues of the day, from genetic engineering to rampant consumerism to climate change. In The Uninvited she takes on nothing less than the total breakdown of society and the natural order, in the form of the mass murder of adults by their children and grandchildren. On the other hand, she is a consummate creator of entire parallel fictional universes that can reach gothic extremes whilst remaining disturbingly recognizable.
The Jensen paradox lies precisely here: in her crossing and recrossing of the line between current reality and a world all of her own making in which the banal frequently inflates into the bizarre. I’ve always relished this rich and surprising mix in her novels, but it was not until I was putting together the questions for this interview that I remembered something she told me many years ago: when Liz, the middle child of three siblings, was in her late teens, her mother began showing signs of the psychotic illness that was to dominate the next two decades of the family’s life. It struck me that this fact is key to the fantastical and unorthodox quality of her fiction.
Jensen herself comes over as a good-humored and robust person, perhaps, one might speculate, a successful survivor, but her books are consistently about the marginalized, the uncategorizable and, often as not, the dangerously uncontrollable elements of humanity. She has a fondness for giving herself more than one impossible conundrum or contradiction to untangle in her principal characters: Louis Drax (The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, 2004) is not only a problem child but is also a narrator in a coma; Gabrielle Fox (The Rapture, 2009) is a grief-stricken paraplegic and a psychologist; Hesketh Lock, (The Uninvited) is an anthropologist with Asperger’s syndrome.
And what makes Liz’s books so interesting is that she not only has a taste for the challengingly perverse but also has firsthand experience of it, through her mother’s mental illness. In Egg Dancing, the heroine’s mother, Moira Sugden, is schizophrenic and has been committed to the Dickensian “Manxheath Institute of Challenged Stability.” More recently, in The Rapture, its matricidal heroine, Bethany Krall, is an inmate of “Oxsmith Adolescent Secure Psychiatric Hospital.” Here Jensen seems to have come a sort of institutional full circle and it was this thought that prompted my first question.
PC How do you think the experience of growing up with a mother whose sense of the real was, shall we say, off center, has been instrumental in making you the writer you are?
LJ My mother’s illness gave me a crash course in how to survive in the face of something scary and vital that came very close to crushing me. She was a powerful character, and at its most florid, her psychosis was the most tyrannical thing I’d ever encountered. Her fantasies were so real to her, and could sound so convincing, that they often sucked other people in too. I’m not talking about the occasion when she mislaid a photo of her long-dead uncle and the KGB was behind it. Or when the cat came through the cat flap with a banana price sticker attached to its tail, which was a clear message from Mossad. I mean the more nuanced occasions when she could tap into other people’s fringe paranoia. She could read all sorts of things into an unsolved local burglary, for example, or wax eloquent about how satellites were tracking everyone’s every move, day and night.
I also saw how her illness brought out the dormant fiction-writer in her. Her imagination at those times was bigger than mine will ever be. If she’d used all that tremendous mental energy to write novels instead of imagining persecutors who sent death threats via pieces of litter that flew into the garden, she might have produced some very agile spy thrillers.
I used to hate it that my mother was mentally ill. It was destructive and exhausting, particularly in the early years when she refused all medical intervention and went “commando.” But now I think my fiction would have been very different if I hadn’t had the experience of witnessing madness close up. I’d still have written, but I suspect my novels might have been blander. Or safer. Although I won’t go as far as to say I’m grateful for my mother’s illness, it certainly informed my novelistic imagination and provided me with my most recurrent theme, the frontier between what is real and what is imagined. So thanks for that, Mum. Tip for all aspiring writers: have a parent who’s nuts!
It was no fun for my dad. He was the one who had to live with it full-time after we kids left home. Her illness put a huge strain on their marriage, which was already rocky. And he had three heart attacks. But things did get better. In fact the only reason I feel free to talk about my mother like this is that the story of her illness has a happy ending. In the final 15 years of her life my mother was put on the right medications, applied in the right doses, and abracadabra, she went back to being the intelligent, reasonable, generous woman she really was. Her mind was freed from a terrible hijacking. That was quite a gift to all of us, but especially to her.
PC One of your favourite tools is comedy; you have a bleak, zany, satirical wit. Yet your novels deal with events and situations that are at best deeply sad, at worst tragic. You constantly return to the study of dysfunctionality in families; it is both a horrific and richly comic vein to mine and you don’t hold back on either score! I imagine that the household you grew up in must have been more than usually volatile, with three adolescents (whose sense of the world is, to say the least, variable) and a mother who was herself inhabiting unusual realities. Do you think this may have some bearing on your relationship to comedy and tragedy?
LJ It absolutely does. Some of the best jokes are cracked at funerals, and there’s a good reason for that. Comedy and tragedy have a vital connection to one another. If you can see the comedy in a tragedy and the tragedy in a comedy, you’re in a healthy place, I suspect. The one is the gauge of the other. I grew up with a comedy father and a tragedy mother, and I’m the product of that combination. At one point my mother wanted my father to join her in a suicide pact.
When he told me this, he didn’t recount the story as a tragic tale. On the contrary, it was a hilarious joke. We laughed our heads off. Some things are so awful, that’s all you can do.
PC Interestingly, you not only tackle the highly unusual in human behavior, you also place it center stage. Why is that?
LJ Do I? Maybe it’s not just because I find it fascinating, but because I don’t really know how normal people think. The hardest first-person character I ever wrote, the neurologist Pascal Dannachet in The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, was probably the most conventional. I sweated blood over him. Gabrielle, in The Rapture, is also fairly normal; she’s traumatized, but in what I hope is a realistic and understandable way. But yes, fictionally, I admit I’m drawn towards extremes. Not just in terms of character, but in terms of collective behavior. Look at what “ordinary” Germans found themselves doing in World War II.
What I want to do most as a fiction writer is explore the many ways in which societies emerge, evolve and operate, and how people navigate within those systems—or live outside them. That’s why I gravitate towards reading and writing dystopic fiction. Dystopias are the perfect arena in which to confront those big “what if” questions. Auden said, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” I’m with him all the way. Writing is always a journey into the unknown. If you’re lucky, you’ll reach the end of each novel with new discoveries, new, albeit vicarious, experiences, and new hypotheses. And you’ll have undergone some form of catharsis into the bargain. Books are fitness programmes for the soul.
PC Your novels are about the intimate problems of human psychology, but also about large and urgent global issues; as in Egg Dancing, where you built a plot around genetic engineering and televangelism, and The Rapture, in which climate change is the backdrop to a tightly plotted thriller. Would you describe yourself as politically engaged? And do you believe that fiction has any potential to change our minds or the status quo?
LJ I’m not a natural joiner. I don’t like meetings, I’m uncomfortable in crowds and I’m a control freak. I’d describe myself as a sociable loner. In recent years I have become much more political in my outlook, as anyone must if they care about the world our children are going to inherit. I’m an environmentalist but I’m also pragmatic, and I’m very aware that we’re engaged in a race against time. That is why I’ve started supporting things I once opposed, such as nuclear energy and GM agriculture. If humankind is to escape the worst, I’ve come to the conclusion we need those things.
I began by feeling quite skeptical about what fiction can do in the face of this. Why write about imaginary people in imaginary situations, when reality is banging on the door? I think the answer is that “what if” scenarios are actually a very neat way of confronting reality, but from a fresh perspective. Writers are blue-sky thinkers, conjurors of alternative worlds inspired by our own. Fiction plays a crucial role when it comes to imaginative leaps. There’s little that scientists have come up with that science-fiction writers didn’t imagine first. I feel privileged to be part of the writing community. I think challenging times require radical narratives.
PC You now live in Copenhagen with your second husband, the writer Carsten Jensen. This has also been a sort of rounding of a circle, has it not, since your father, Niels, was Danish? It strikes me that it’s typical of you to have a place touching on, but not
LJ I grew up surrounded by Danishness without even realizing it. We never went to Denmark as a family. My father rarely spoke about his native country, and when he did it was with contempt, which much later in life was transmuted into unexpected nostalgia. We rarely heard Danish spoken. It was only when I was in my 40s, when I came to know Carsten (and many other Danes), that I realized that what I’d taken for my father’s eccentricity wasn’t eccentricity at all; it was classic Danishness. He was as Danish as it gets—and I’d never known.
I think it’s probably no coincidence that I’ve gravitated to the place my father thought he’d escaped from, because Denmark is as much a state of mind as it is a nation. That’s also why it’s such a rich breeding ground for noir. My father used to say, “You can spit in one hand and hope in the other. Then take a look and see what you have most of.” There’s something dark and earthy about the cultural climate of Denmark—a dour, pickled-herring mood, laced with flashes of some of the dirtiest, bitterest, most mordant humor you’ll ever encounter. They also have no word for “please.” I quite like that.—POLLY COLES