“There have been so many amazing moments since finding out I’d won, but the best was meeting with Susan Armstrong at Conville & Walsh and being offered representation. I’ve been dreaming of that moment for most of my life.”
Kim Sherwood (pictured with Susan Armstrong)
Congratulations on winning 2016’s Bath Novel Award. Has it sunk in yet?
Thank you! I don’t think it has sunk in yet. There have been so many amazing moments since the announcement popped up on Twitter. I was by myself and my phone immediately started ringing. Celebrating with my sister, Rosie, over the phone, and with my partner, Nick, that evening, was really special. Getting the train to London with you [Caroline Ambrose, Bath Novel Award Founder] and Dionne [McCulloch of Cornerstones Literary Consultancy] was so much fun, and seeing the texts you’d sent each other while reading Testament knocked the breath out of me in the best way possible. It’s also the first time I’ve ever taken a shoe selfie.
Receiving the award all wrapped in blue and the cheque written in blue ink because of my protagonist’s selective vision was amazing too. My mum, Ellie, took me out for a celebratory dinner the next day at a local restaurant in Devon and the lovely owner told everyone there was an award-winning writer in the house, which was fantastic and hilarious. But the best moment was meeting with Susan Armstrong at Conville & Walsh and being offered representation. I’ve been dreaming of that moment for most of my life.
You left it until almost midnight and even then, very nearly didn’t enter…
Nick had been urging me to enter since the competition opened and I had been refusing because I didn’t think my novel would get anywhere. On the night of the deadline I was working until about 11pm and was exhausted. Nick said we should send it off and I said there was no point. He said if that was my only reason not to enter, then we had to. He walked me very gently to my computer, got the website up, got the file, I wrote the fastest cover letter in the history of cover letters, and we pressed send at midnight.
What was the hardest stage of waiting to hear how Testament was progressing?
Probably waiting to hear whether Testament had made it from the longlist to the shortlist. I was overjoyed to find I had reached the longlist, but having my hopes raised also made it scarier.
Testament made us all weep. Did you cry while writing it?
I cried while researching it, especially when reading witness testimonies given just after liberation from the camps. At one point, when I was reading about the attempts of parents in Budapest to get their children into protected houses run by the Red Cross, I got a call from Amnesty International. The man on the phone was so surprised by the speed at which I offered to donate he asked if I had a personal connection to their work. He then had to endure me explaining my research while recovering from tears for a good ten minutes.
Which novels have made you cry?
I cry very rarely at novels or films. I think only two books have made me cry. The first is Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, which has affected me more than perhaps any other book. The second is far less historically significant. I’m a huge fan of the Modesty Blaise crime series, begun by Peter O’Donnell in the 1960’s. I won’t spoil the final short story, but something calamitous happens to Modesty and her partner in crime Willie Garvin. I was about sixteen when I read it and I remember closing my heart like a steel trap against sudden tears. It’s the only Modesty story I’ve read just once.
Susan posted this tweet about reading your manuscript. Did you zoom in and realise she was talking about your book?
— Agent Armstrong (@susanW1F) June 3, 2016
I did, which was very unfair of me. I’d been working a lot of hours and hadn’t been able to write for a long time. I like to write every day if I can, and not having the time had left me feeling very dispirited. That day, I was sitting at my desk trying to get back into my writing but finding it difficult. I looked up at the sky and said, come on universe, just give me some kind of sign. Then I thought, I’ll just go on Twitter, and there was Susan’s tweet. I zoomed in and then leapt out of my chair. I was alone in the flat and called my sister up so over-excited she couldn’t understand me at first.
Congratulations also on becoming agented…
Thank you very much. I’m absolutely over the moon to be represented by Sue [Armstrong], who has such an amazing list of authors, and to be part of Conville & Walsh.
Tell us about meeting Sue, what you asked and how you knew she was the right agent for Testament / you…
Sue was incredibly nice and welcoming. To be honest I didn’t have to ask much, because she had everything prepared. We talked about what she enjoyed in Testament, where we could work editorially, submitting to publishers, Conville & Walsh in general, and my ideas for the future. I knew she was the right agent for me because I felt very comfortable with her, and liked her ideas, many of which hadn’t occurred to me. And we both loved the Famous Five as kids. That’s always important.
What’s the reaction been like from friends, family, colleagues?
My friends and family have been so supportive of Testament, and were thrilled at the news. I spent so long on the phone to different people my battery died. Twitter exploded. I’ve never had so many notifications.
Tell us about Testament.
Testament is a novel about intergenerational trauma and identity. Eva’s grandfather Joseph Silk is one of Britain’s foremost artists. Silk insists he was born aged eighteen, in England: it was 1945 and he had just arrived from Hungary. When Silk dies, the Jewish Museum in Berlin shows Eva Silk’s witness testimony, given after liberation from Gunskirchen Lager. Eva must decide whether to let Felix, the curator, showcase the testament, or to respect Silk’s silence about his past. The museum’s architectural Voids open the narrative to the past, allowing past and present-day timelines to interact. We follow Silk’s Hungarian forced labour company in a death march from Serbia to Austria, and find out why Silk can only see the colour blue. As Eva and Felix carry out research in today’s increasingly authoritarian Hungary, we meet László, Silk’s brother, and Zuzka, a Czech inmate of Theresienstadt, as they are liberated and airlifted to the Lake District. The timelines come together as Eva untangles the lies set in motion in 1945 that control her life today.
You’ve said Testament is a very personal book, inspired in part by your grandmother…
It was inspired by both my grandparents in different ways. I was very close with my grandfather on my mother’s side, the actor George Baker. I found his death very difficult. At the same time, my grandmother on my father’s side began to tell me about her experiences as a child in fascist Hungary. My grandmother is a Holocaust Survivor. I began to research the things she was telling me in order to try and understand them better. I had recently visited Berlin and gone to the Jewish Museum. There, I wondered if it might be possible to use the architectural voids of the Museum to structure a novel. That idea gave me a way to write about my grief for my grandfather and my need to try and fathom what had happened to my grandmother and our family. That said, I also made sure the novel took a different direction from my grandmother’s history, because it’s not my place to write her story.
Has your grandmother read the book?
She read it in early draft form, and we’ve talked about it a lot.
You travelled to Hungary for research. What kind of reception did your enquiries get from locals?
I went to Hungary for a month to use the archives and to make sure I got the sections set there as right as possible. I received a mixed reception. Some people were incredibly supportive – I met with political philosophers, translators, archivists, activists. They all answered my questions with a great deal of patience, generosity and openness. I wrote a lot in the hostel, and the staff thought I was writing for Lonely Planet because I always had the guide book clutched under my arm. On the final day I told them about my novel, and they said I should go back when it’s published and sign my name on the wall. I’m actually going back there in August and they remembered me over email, which is very nice. Other reactions were less positive. The government in Hungary at the moment is extremely right-wing, and there is an institutional effort to erase Hungary’s part in the death of over half a million of its citizens. There is also propaganda against today’s Roma citizens, and immigrants and refugees. For some people, talking about the war is also very difficult on a personal level. When Hungary was occupied by the Soviet Union, there was a state policy of silence on the Holocaust. There hasn’t been an opportunity for dialogue. For some people that history is hard to acknowledge. At first I was very open with people, and would tell them my family used to live in Hungary. People would ask when they left, and I would say 1945. That ended all conversation. So I learnt to be careful about whom I spoke to. It was the first time in my life I’ve felt that I had to hide my identity – which I realise is very fortunate: many people live with that every day.
It’s a deeply topical, deeply European book. What do you think Eva and Joseph would make of Brexit?
Thank you. I very much wanted it to be a European book. I was born in London. My family comes from England, Ireland, travelling communities, Hungary, Bulgaria, Transylvania, Spain, Australia. To me, being British is to be European. I am the child of an immigrant, and the child of someone born in an English village so old it’s in the Domesday book. That shared heritage is important to me, and I wanted to put it in the novel. I think Eva and Joseph would be heartbroken by Brexit and the divisions it has illuminated, deeply disturbed by the racist attacks since, and enraged by the deliberate and inflammatory lies and reckless selfishness that led us to this point. They would hope that this moment of extremism can be met by unity, honesty, accountability, and dialogue.
Testament has twin narratives. Did you write these separately, then weave them together or did you go back and forth as per the finished book?
A bit of both. At first I tried to write it as it would appear, but eventually that led to too many confusions, so I pulled the narratives apart, wrote them separately, and then used up dozens of notebooks working out how to reassamble them.
How did you plot?
I sketched out a lot of different plots because I’d often abandon them and follow what the characters seemed to want to do. Early on, I found out about a relief organisation called the Hungarian Committee for Attending Deportees (DEGOB in Hungarian). DEGOB asked Survivors returning from the camps a set of three hundred questions, resulting in one of the largest collections of witness testimonies. I wanted to find the actual questions, and after a lot of hunting discovered two researchers, one in Hungary and one in Israel, were piecing them together for the first time, uniting fragments and scraps from different archives and safes across Europe. I got in touch with them and explained what I was doing. They were very generous and sent me the questions, which they hadn’t yet published, and gave me permission to use them in my novel. The poet George Szirtes then kindly translated them into English for me. I used the questions as the spine of the novel, and in an indirect way that helped me structure the plot, because I had a way in my mind to bind the timelines together.
This is your first finished book, but you also have an abandoned unfinished manuscript. What did it teach you about writing this book?
My poor aborted first novel. I do hope to return to it. I had to stop writing it because it had become waterlogged under the weight of too many opinions. I was on the creative writing MA at UEA at the time, and after fifteen workshops or so and five different tutors, I could no longer discern whose advice and opinion to follow. I kept going backwards and re-drafting. It taught me to keep my writing to myself when I need to, to have confidence in my own view, and to resist editing until a first draft is done, even when you know there are flaws.
You’ve studied Creative Writing to Phd level at UEA. What are the best things you learned?
I had a tutor who used to repeat all the time: ‘POV is key, guys, POV is key.’ We used to laugh and try to beat him to the sentence in class, but he was absolutely right, for me at least. Getting the voice and POV right unlocked a lot of Testament. The thing I enjoyed most about the Ph.D was our ‘critical and creative seminars’, where we’d swap ideas and thoughts. I learnt a lot there, but particularly the value of the wandering conversation. The most productive thing about studying at UEA was the community it provided. I learn a lot from my friends’ writing.
How long did it take you to write?
The first idea came in 2011, and I began writing in 2012. I finished it in 2015.
What kind of reactions had you had from agents prior to winning the award?
I’d had some very positive feedback and useful ideas, and I was still waiting to hear back from a few agents who have since got in touch. I sent the novel out about eight months ago, but of course agents are so busy you have to wait a while. Since I won the award, everything has felt like it’s been on fast forward.
Tell us about you…
I was born in Camden, in London. I’m twenty-six. I have always wanted to be a writer. Most children probably write stories and make books, I just never stopped. My family has always been incredibly encouraging. My mum told us when we were kids that you can achieve anything if you set your mind to it and are prepared to hear the word ‘no’. I try and remember that. I am interested in fiction that engages with big ideas, with history, with different genres, that tells great stories with characters and relationships you never forget. I love language. I collect dictionaries. And first edition Georgette Heyers. They’ve gone up in price since Stephen Fry said he collects them too. I have always been very proudly both a comic book geek and a nerd who does her homework. I was raised in a single-parent household, and am also very proudly a Feminist, for that reason and many others.
You’re currently living in Bath. How long have you been here and which part is home?
I moved to Bath with Nick in September 2015. Nick is studying on the creative writing MA at Bath Spa University. We live between Walcot Street and the Royal Circus, so we have the best of both.
Any favourite writing haunts?
We’re spoilt for good writing spots in Bath. I love writing in Society Cafe, Sam’s Kitchen, and Colonna & Hunter. We’re also spoilt for brilliant independent bookshops. I like browsing Mr B’s and Toppings for inspiration.
Tell us about your teaching work….
I taught literature and creative writing at UEA at undergraduate level for two years, as well as being a dissertation supervisor. This Spring I taught on the Critical and Creative Writing MA at the University of Sussex. For that class, we spent time at The Keep, the archive at Sussex. We took inspiration from the Mass Observation diaries, Virginia Woolf’s letters. I love teaching. I always leave a classroom happier than I was when I went in.
What will you spend your prize money on?
I am going to take two months off to write.
What are you writing now / next?
I am hoping to return to the novel that was so cruelly abandoned, in a slightly different shape. I’ll receive more detailed notes on Testament from Sue soon, and work on them over the next month. I am also researching my next project.
Do you have a critique group?
Nothing formal. I swap work with friends I studied with, and with my partner. It’s mostly by email, because we’re all scattered about.
Who are you favourite writers?
I always struggle with that question. For me it’s like being asked for a favourite family member. So here is an incomplete and overly long list, in no particular order – Hilary Mantel, Michael Chabon, Kazuo Ishiguro, Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie, Elmore Leonard, Ian Fleming, Raymond Chandler, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Imre Kertész, David Albahari, P.G. Wodehouse, Anne Michaels, Jane Austen, Daniel Defoe… I could happily keep going, but I’ll stop myself there.
Lastly, any advice for anyone thinking of entering their novel for a future award?
Choose a person in your life you trust absolutely, ask them to walk you to your computer, and press send.
Interview by Caroline Ambrose, July 2016