The Paris Review

The Art of Fiction No. 246

RACHEL CUSK

Rachel Cusk was born in Canada in 1967 to British parents, who moved the family to Los Angeles, then to England, where Cusk lives to this day. She began publishing in her midtwenties—clever and assured novels featuring men and women attempting, with little success, to manage their anchorless lives in a bewildering, loveless world. Then, after having two daughters in quick succession, she began writing essayistically about her life. Her memoir A Life’s Work (2001) dealt directly with the existential, social, and intellectual struggles of early motherhood. The book received praise for its honesty and intelligence, and also assault for its perceived solipsism and negativity.

A Life’s Work seemed to announce a new beginning for Cusk as an artist, yet it would be almost a decade before she returned to the memoir form; instead, four more novels followed. After these came The Last Supper (2009), documenting a family’s travels in Italy, and a book about her divorce, Aftermath (2012), but she was beginning to see memoir’s limitations, especially for the woman writer. Another form was needed. Starting in 2014, a trilogy of inventive novels—Outline, Transit (2016), and Kudos (2018)—appeared. In them Cusk created a prose that feels contemporary, swift, and “clean”; characters narrate moments from their lives rather than live them in an unfolding present. The books are both of and post psychoanalysis; the characters are shaped by a culture that has trained us to see ourselves as actors in meaningful stories. The trilogy has been universally praised for doing something thrillingly new with the novel form—a wonderful outcome, but also perhaps indicative of what Cusk suspected: that people would prefer an absent narrator to a specific, female one.

This interview was conducted on four separate occasions over a year and a half. The first conversation took place onstage at the Banff Centre, in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The second was at the Random House flat in London. The third time was over the phone; she spoke from her home on the Norfolk coast, which she shares with her husband, the painter Siemon Scamell-Katz. Our final conversation was over iced tea on a hot summer afternoon in Denver, Colorado, where she was teaching for a week. There she sat with perfect posture, a leg tucked under her. Cusk’s intelligence is bright, witty, and declarative. She is quick to flashes of criticism and self-doubt, but mostly speaks with great emphasis and authority, and appears to have already thought to the end of any question that might be posed to her.

During those eighteen months, she was first on the cusp of—and then well past—publishing Kudos, and was traveling the world to promote it. Over the course of our conversations, she spoke more and more despairingly about what happens to language as a writer ages, and about finding herself increasingly lost in her craft. Now that her daughters, Albertine and Jessye, have left home, she feels a strange freedom, but is also more bewildered than ever about what it means to live as a woman, and to give your entire life and self to people who then leave. This unease was seeping into her thoughts about creation: she was unsure whether she was approaching a period of “late work” or a period that was post-work altogether. But the energy and intensity she brought to these speculations made me feel certain that she was not “post” anything, and that another exciting, innovative formal turn would soon take place.

INTERVIEWER

I like the line in Saving Agnes (1993) in which the protagonist finds an old book and discovers something she wrote when she was six years old—“It’s good to quietly hide.”

RACHEL CUSK

[Laughs] Advice I have not taken in my life … No, it would have been good. I can’t even remember Saving Agnes. I haven’t read it in years and years. I don’t think I could read it. It’s a strange thing about having been publishing for so long. As with any memory of yourself at twenty-five, it feels like your cellular being has completely changed. It’s not just photographs of me with a weird hairstyle at twenty-five—a novel is such an intricate document.

INTERVIEWER

Do you remember writing that book?

CUSK

Yes.

INTERVIEWER

What was it like? How did it start?

CUSK

Oh, it was a burning experience of molding myself. It was a totally thorough induction into a discipline. And I did something perhaps odd for a person of the age I was then, which was twenty-two or twenty-three. I effectively turned away from everybody in my world and from the things everybody else was doing. I walked away into isolation. I didn’t know quite why I wanted to do that, but it was what I felt compelled to do.

INTERVIEWER

What was the world you were in?

CUSK

Well, so I was in London. Left university, gone like everybody else to London. We were all in London. I was working in the job I and I’d been writing a novel in the evenings, and I finished that, so that was my starter. And then I really, properly conceived of a novel and left the world that describes and went and stayed in my parents’ house in provincial England. I didn’t get on very well with my parents, so it wasn’t a comfortable place for me to be, but it was the only place available, and they said that for a period of time I could stay there, as long as it was all over and I’d given up the idea of being a writer by some particular date. And I went there and I was totally alone in this huge house—they didn’t really live there, they were sort of elsewhere—and many of my memories of writing that book are of being physically frightened, being alone in the middle of nowhere and feeling quite physically frightened but just having to get on with it. So I stayed there for about nine months, and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Never or hardly ever saw anybody. My parents came on weekends. I had no money. I wrote all day and I wrote all evening and I rewrote everything again, and it was all typewriters and Tipp-Ex. So yes, that was a burning experience.

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