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First Fruits
Penelope Evans
Soho Press
253 pp.

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Penelope Evans
Soho Press
287 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
Penelope Evans

Novelist Penelope Evans discusses the merits of unreliable narrators and muses over why she writes so often about dysfunctional families.

The subtle, almost fugue-like complexities in
First Fruits wouldn't seem to allow for a lot of improvisation during the writing process. In its final form, at least, it suggests that you knew what you wanted to do with it from the beginning. Is that in fact the case or did you have to rework the original manuscript heavily?

Evans: I have never known what is going to happen before I write. I start with a number of characters without knowing the parts they are going to play or even who is going to tell the story. The first draft rarely looks anything like the final result. The three or four versions that come after are a process of getting to know the people, with me half-watching and half-collaborating with what they are doing. So far as Kate in First Fruits was concerned, I knew that she wasn't wicked in the sense in which she was initially going to appear. I also knew that I wanted the reader to understand her, and for things ultimately to come right for her, but I can honestly say that she had to make those things happen for herself.

WAG: Families and the unthinkable ways in which they can fail are central to your fiction. What draws you to the subject?

Evans: I love this question because I've wondered so much about it myself. It's true that I write about families, and I tend to think that it boils down to the fact that I am at home, simply writing about what I know. The nuts and bolts of families are familiar to me. I grew up in one and have a family of my own. Growing up is when the very best or the very worst things happen. People will never have such power over you again. The consequences of getting it wrong as a parent or child or sibling are dreadful, whilst the rewards for getting it right are sublime. Lots of potential for stories of love and power there.

WAG: Was it hard for you as a parent to write about an abused child's constant sense of vulnerability in First Fruits? I would think it would make the fictional child's suffering particularly difficult to live with.

Evans: It's not so hard to write about vulnerability. I'm probably giving away the plot of every book I'll ever write, but the fact is, if there's a child involved, the child is going to turn out alright. It doesn't mean that I know from the beginning how it's going to happen or why. But I repeat: no matter what happens to everyone else, the child, the one in danger, is always going to be fine. I know my books have an irredeemable reputation for being dark, but there's a lot of wishful thinking going on with them, translated into the writing.

WAG: Both First Fruits and Freezing (your second novel) have narrators who seem only marginally reliable at times: repeatedly throughout both books, we ask ourselves, should we trust them completely when they make a statement or should we wait and see if they offer another version of the truth? Self-deception as a survival tactic is central, particularly to First Fruits. Indeed, it's hard to imagine how First Fruits would work without Kate's narration since it functions as a primary plot device. What attracts you to unreliable narrators? And are they harder to work with, since the effects are driven by shifts in narrative tone as much as they are by events?

Evans: It seems entirely natural to me that if one writes in the first person, everything is going to be unreliable. We all see and describe the world to ourselves in ways we can't control. Kate's way of looking at the world has been shaped by her father, so it's going to be more unreliable than most. It's exactly that jaundiced, poisoned vision she's trying to escape. To tell the truth, I would quite like to get away from writing in the first person, because it is definitely harder, burdening both me and the reader with a single voice that might not even be a very attractive one. The trouble is, I've always thought the all-seeing third person is a bit of a seductive cheat, because that's not how we see life.

WAG: On a more general level, what attracts you to psychological thrillers? Would you be just as happy, for instance, writing literary novels or biographies?

Evans: I don't know that I am attracted to psychological thrillers—too scary. So far as I am concerned I am just writing books. If I set out with the intention to scare or thrill, then it would be different. (In fact, I might just give it go, and write something really, really frightening, just to see if I can...) The point is, the book market is genre-driven, so if being labeled a thriller writer gets me read, that's fine by me—up to the point that it doesn't drive away readers who avoid genre fiction out of principle.

WAG: There is currently a bumper crop of American lawyers turned novelists (John Grisham and David Baldacci come most readily to mind), and you are also a barrister. Is there some connection between practicing law and writing fiction?

Evans: I'm sure there is a connection between lawyers and fiction. Lawyers are hidebound by the truth—very restrictive. Fiction is a license to lie, so that's great. But really, I don't put myself in the category of lawyer / writer. I was a terrible lawyer, completely incapacitated by this sense of being accountable to my clients. I worked very hard and never slept, which would have been fine if I had turned out splendid as a result. But I wasn't. I was awful. When I gave up law, I felt I was doing a public service.

WAG: Which writers do you prefer to read, when you're reading simply for entertainment? And do you favor a particular genre?

Evans: Favorite writers? Can anyone answer that? At the moment I'm obsessed with Haruki Murakami. I mentioned him at a crime writers conference once and the panel hissed, 'He's mainstream.' Now I would say he was the quintessential thriller writer, but obviously people don't agree. Other writers? Carl Hiassen, Patricia Highsmith, Tom Savage.

WAG: What is your next project?

Evans: Next project is another unreliable narrator, I'm afraid. The most unreliable so far. It'll be interesting to see if anyone wants to read it, given that nobody dies a horrible death or disappears. That said, there's a person looking for clues to himself, an entire cast of English people trying to act as if they are normal, a benign kidnapping, TV cooks, a magic mobile home...I could go on, but I'll leave it at that.

—Interview conducted by Daphne Frostchild

Posted October 1, 2000


Penelope Evans attended the University of St. Andrews, then became a London barrister. She now lives in Surrey with her husband and two daughters. Her three novels are The Last Girl, Freezing and First Fruits.



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