Anneliese Mackintosh’s debut novel, So Happy It Hurts, is set to enhance her reputation as one of the UK’s most original, daring and powerful writers. Joe Melia meets the newly-Bristol-based author.
Were you taken by surprise with the success of your first book, Any Other Mouth?
Definitely! The book was a strange beast – a memoir/short story/novel hybrid – and I felt very lucky that so many readers connected with my own, very personal narrative, told in such an unusual way. And I was thrilled to win the Green Carnation Prize!
How did its success affect your writing?
Reviews of Any Other Mouth were extremely polarised – it was described by someone as a ‘Marmite book’ – but the good and bad things people said about it didn’t affect my writing too much. I think it was actually my sense of self that I had to renegotiate. To try to remember that the book is not me; I am not the book. Praise and criticism of it are not the same as praise and criticism of me.
The profile that the book’s success gave me as a writer helped me on practical levels: I found an agent and I got an Arts Council grant to write So Happy It Hurts.
The main influence Any Other Mouth has had on my writing is that I’ve started to write much happier stuff since its publication! Any Other Mouth was traumatic, difficult, and extremely, perhaps excessively, intimate. So Happy It Hurts looks at how to move on from past trauma, and not become caught up in the drama of everyday life. This is something I’ve had to learn myself in recent years.
The main character in So Happy It Hurts, Ottila, says: “my goal: simpering, gurning, throbbing, exquisite happiness”. Do you think that it’s possible to find complete happiness, and did writing the book change your mind about that?
When I was at my lowest, in the years leading up to and following my dad’s death, I was desperate to be happy. So much so, that I tried to push my sadness deep inside myself. I felt ashamed of it, like being sad was self-indulgent, something to feel guilty about. Other people were going through far tougher things than I was.
It wasn’t until I learnt the art of how to be sad that I began to find happiness. And now I see happiness for what it is: a fluid, messy, ever-changing state of being. There is no such thing as pure, unadulterated happiness. It’s always tinged with something else, and that’s part of what makes it so beautiful. To be healthy, empathetic, humans, questioning ourselves and our place in the universe, we need all the emotions, and should celebrate them all. Writing Ottila’s story in So Happy It Hurts helped me to come to that conclusion.
The layout of So Happy It Hurts is very original with text messages, Snapchat posts, tattoos, emails, receipts etc. Was the idea for this scrapbook style there before you started the book or did it develop as you wrote?
The original idea for the novel was actually quite different. I wanted to write the whole thing in the future tense. It was going to be a series of Ottila’s wishes and dreams, changing over the course of a year. Turns out it’s very difficult to pull off the future tense over a sustained period! The scrapbook style of So Happy It Hurts was the result of a lot of failed experiments. It started to happen by accident, and then it became essential and addictive.
The style also reflects how we live. How well do you think fiction reflects modern life?
Both poorly and perfectly! Fiction is a clipped, polished, idealised, exaggerated and corroded version of real life. But something about that fabricated version often feels more real than life itself, like there’s alchemy that happens within good writing that imbues it with a deeper truth than we could ever communicate outside of a book’s pages.
As for how well fiction reflects modern life, it depends on the book. Some books are so full of references to cutting-edge technology that they go out-of-date before they are even published. Other poems, novels, stories and plays that have been around for ages still feel relevant today. That’s part of the reason that great writers like Proust and Flaubert and Woolf and Austen (and countless others) still feel so fresh, like they have important lessons to teach us about ourselves, even now.
You’ve lived in various places and recently moved to Bristol. How does moving and settling in to a new community affect your work?
Before Bristol, I lived in Cornwall, which has become the setting for my new novel-in-progress, Venus on Mars. Before that, I was in Manchester, where So Happy It Hurts is set. Bristol will no doubt be the setting for my next novel, then I’ll have to move again. (Not really! I love it here and want to stay.)
The people I meet and things I see have a huge influence on my writing. I’m a magpie, stealing roughly 70% of everything that glitters around me. The writing communities in various places have a big impact too. In Manchester, I performed my work at local reading nights; Bad Language was a favourite. I’ve been seeking out the many, varied literary nights here in Bristol, and hope to perform at some of them regularly, for the support networks and inspiration they provide. That’s one of the downsides to frequent house moves. Those networks are much harder to stay a part of, and a sense of loneliness and isolation has begun feeding into my work lately. Hopefully after a few more months in Bristol that’ll all change!
Anneliese’s debut novel, So Happy It Hurts (Jonathan Cape £14.99) is published on July 27.