Craft & Culture Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in profile: an interview with Sophie Mackintosh

Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for her debut novel, 'The Water Cure', Sophie Mackintosh is the name to drop in literary circles. We caught up with her to discuss fiction, feminism, writing and pizza.
Sophie Mackintosh (Photo credit for this, and featured image above, belongs to Sophie Davidson).

From a small town in Pembrokeshire, Wales, Sophie Mackintosh truly set alight the literary scene with her blisteringly good debut novel, The Water Cure, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize (not long after being subject to a frenzied bidding war between competing book publishers).

Yet despite it being her fiction debut, Mackintosh had been showing oodles of potential for many moons before The Water Cure really caught the attention of critics and publishers. A graduate of the renown Warwick University creative writing programme, Mackintosh’s brand of beautifully written, yet often disquieting, prose and poetry had often drawn the attention and praise of readers – and she has had pieces published in Granta, The Stinging Fly, Stylist and The White Review.

With her next book, Blue Ticket, scheduled for release in 2020 and already hotly anticipated by everyone involved with the literary scene, Mackintosh is, then, perhaps one of the most important writers to watch over the coming months and years – and she is widely regarded as “the name to drop” in literary circles.

So, it was an extraordinary pleasure to be able to catch up with her as part of our ‘Creatives in Profile’ interview series. Do read on as we discuss everything from writing habits, feminism, dystopian fiction and (of course) the need to eat more pizza…

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

MACKINTOSH

I was born in South Wales and grew up in Pembrokeshire, which is on the Welsh coast. Now I live in Walthamstow in London and am pretty boring really. I’m writing full-time at the moment so there is a lot of pyjama-wearing and toast-eating going on, though I also like to travel and am fortunate enough to do a few fun events in London and elsewhere.

INTERVIEWER

Has writing always been your first love, or do you have another passion?

MACKINTOSH

I’ve always loved writing, but I was a super arty goth teenager – I wanted to be a fashion designer or photographer, but in the end found writing a more useful medium for expressing myself. I like that I’m not restrained by materials, and that you can really do anything in a book (and do it anywhere).

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

MACKINTOSH

I’ve always loved Angela Carter and her dedication to the uncanny and colourful. I also love the paintings and stories of Leonara Carrington. I’m always drawn to writers and artists who are unapologetically weird and uncompromising in their vision.

INTERVIEWER

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, your book, The Water Cure, has drawn praise from critics across the globe from The Guardian to The New York Times. What’s this experience been like?

MACKINTOSH

Very surreal! When you publish a novel, especially a debut, you really just hope that anyone buys it at all. So to have been lucky enough to get such a reception was beyond my hopes really, and I’m very grateful that critics have been positive about it across the board.

INTERVIEWER

You create a world in The Water Cure in which contact with men can be literally toxic and deadly to women. How do you think writing can help us deal with the continuing issues around toxic masculinity, sexism, the patriarchy, and deeply engrained misogyny within society? Is it the writer’s duty to shine a light on these things through allegory and analogy?

MACKINTOSH

I think rather than it being a duty, it’s hard not to engage with these kind of topics when you’re writing in a world where it’s such an engrained part of the social fabric. I was mainly playing with ideas and reflecting / amplifying elements I saw around me all the time. I think fiction has enormous capacity to help change the way we see things by instilling greater empathy in us and opening us up to different voices.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a genuine sense of terror felt by the female characters in your book of any possible interaction with men. How important was it, for you, that readers were able to genuinely feel your character’s fears as their own? And how did you look to convey the sense of fear many women feel every single day, as a result of the potential actions of men they may or may not actually know?

MACKINTOSH

It was important for me – I wanted us to be there with them on the island. In real life there are situations that can feel relatively innocuous, such as going for a walk alone in an isolated place, and there is fear there as well. I think if you have known violence against you, or the potential for it, then it doesn’t really leave you, there are so many things that can trigger it.

INTERVIEWER

As Trump and Republican politicians strip away the rights of women in the US, and the Anti-Feminist movement continues to grow in the UK, do you think the rise in popularity of dystopian feminist literature is a natural part of the reaction to these wider political events?

MACKINTOSH

I think so – you have to ask, are they even dystopian any more, when so many draw on things that are increasingly plausible? If you’re writing  as a reaction to the world and the experiences of others within it, you can’t help but be informed by these things.

INTERVIEWER

What role do publishers have to play in spreading the messages contained in books like The Water Cure to wider audiences? Is it cynical to suggest that they should have been investing in these types of books sooner – before the recent popularity of books like The Power and people’s rediscovery of The Handmaiden’s Tale made them realise it would also be a shrewd financial move?

MACKINTOSH

I know that some people see the feminist dystopian trend as a bandwagon that people are jumping on, publishers and writers alike, but I think this is quite a cynical view and disregards the range and work that goes into these novels. I started writing The Water Cure in 2016-ish, when I didn’t know feminist dystopia would have the moment that it has. Publishing is a business, first and foremost – and so anything that gets a wider range of books published is good by me.

INTERVIEWER

Why are we still having conversations about these issues in 2019, when people have been trying to draw attention to the inequalities in our society for decades – if not centuries? What has to happen in order for genuine change to occur?

MACKINTOSH

I think because we still live in a patriarchal society, and the more power that we gain the more that those who don’t want the status quo to change will push back – you can see it too in terms of Brexit, the rise of the far-right etc. I think we just have to keep trying and pushing.

INTERVIEWER

As a writer, do you embrace the ‘feminist’ label?

MACKINTOSH

I don’t necessarily embrace it but I don’t mind it at all, I’ve never had a problem with calling myself a feminist because it’s what I am. But I don’t necessarily feel like I write books with a  specific message or lesson in mind, and I resent the idea that female writers in particular have some responsibility to find a solution, rather than just telling the story they want to tell. At the end of the day I’m not writing a sermon or a polemic or instruction manual, I’m writing a narrative, and from a place of my own experience.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see your book as part of a wider movement of political action? And if there is a call to action for readers in your book, what would you say it is? What do you want us to do the moment we turn the last page of The Water Cure?

MACKINTOSH

Not really to be honest, or at least I didn’t write it with that intention – I was writing from an angry place though and I think that was reflected in it. I do hope it makes people feel seen, or makes them think differently about the violence and harm we can enact on each other.

INTERVIEWER

How important is the idea of family to you and your work?

MACKINTOSH

I do seem to return again and again to families, and to sisters! There is something about the idea of the primality of those relationships, the way that you’re supposed to care for each other unconditionally, it’s very intense.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us about the process you went through in crafting The Water Cure? How did you move from initial inspiration, through composition, editing and redrafting, and finally getting an agent and getting published? What were the main challenges you faced?

MACKINTOSH

I actually got my agent with a previous book, which wasn’t picked up by a publisher. I was writing a more straightforward science fiction novel about a disaster that had flooded the earth, but realised during the writing of it that I was more interested in exploring the dynamics of the sisters. Gradually the threat of the outside world and the concept evolved until it became The Water Cure (over many, many drafts).

My main challenge is that I am a messy writer – I need to draft and redraft. Often my first drafts are completely different from the final book. I also found it exhausting as I was working full-time while writing the book – by the time it had sold I had been waking at 5 every day for months to get in some writing time before heading to a full day at an office.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

MACKINTOSH

Yes to a degree, I feel like words are important and can do important things and I’m conscious of the responsibility of putting a book into the world. I want my work to be a force for good in its own way but it’s not the primary responsibility – like above, I’m writing stories, not polemics. I don’t kid myself that my weird little books are going to enact huge change the way that more important, ground-breaking stories do, but then does every book really need to? As long as it can do its own small good, that’s enough for me.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

MACKINTOSH

I wish I could say something intelligent here but I honestly have no idea!

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

MACKINTOSH

Someone who writes things, whatever they may be.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

MACKINTOSH

I’m working on a historical novel, which is quite a change for me! But I’m excited to try something new.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

MACKINTOSH

I can’t climb out of here.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

MACKINTOSH

  • Be kind to yourself
  • Find time wherever you can
  • Don’t be scared of a messy first draft – words are better than a blank page, you can do something with them later
  • Try out new things as much as you can, whether that’s genre, a different perspective, or a story you’ve been putting off writing
  • Don’t expect to be perfect – self-editing is such a huge part of the process

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite author?

MACKINTOSH

Joy Williams

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

MACKINTOSH

Cult classic

INTERVIEWER

One book everyone should read?

MACKINTOSH

Audre Lorde – Your Silence Will Not Protect You

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

MACKINTOSH

Maggie Nelson

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

MACKINTOSH

Don’t know!

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

MACKINTOSH

Joy Williams! Yes, giving her as the answer to two questions because she deserves it!

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

MACKINTOSH

I can poach an egg really well without trying.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

MACKINTOSH

I’ve blanked them all out.

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

MACKINTOSH

Writing a book!

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

MACKINTOSH

Eat more pizza.

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