London-based author Elanor Dymott discusses her debut novel Every Contact Leaves a Trace, about a grieving husband who uncovers the shocking and salacious circumstances of his wife’s murder.
Zola: While Rachel plays a large part in the novel, the two central characters are male. Did you find it difficult writing from a male perspective?
Elanor Dymott: No, I didn’t. Once I had their voices in my head and felt I really knew them, I didn’t think twice about it. I was writing Alex, and writing Harry, rather than”writing from a male perspective.”
Most of my colleagues in my more-than-decade in the legal world were men. So were the judges whose judgments I was reporting every day. And my college tutors who helped me with the novel. I play jazz flute, and it’s a rare thing to share a stage with a woman. I grew up in a family of men, and with a very few significant exceptions, the people I’ve been closest to in my life are all men.
In terms of Alex as a first-person narrator, I’d gathered a collection of my favourite male-first-person-narrator novels (among them were The Good Soldier, The Great Gatsby, The Remains of the Day, Gilead, The Catcher in the Rye) and re-read them a few times before starting properly on Every Contact Leaves A Trace. Once I’d written it, some male friends and colleagues were very generous in helping me to fine-tune Alex’s responses, dreams, characters, actions, feelings.
Zola: The book focuses strongly on the impact we have on the lives of others—of which we are often unaware. Who is someone who may be surprised by the strength of their impact on you?
ED: In the last six or seven years I’ve made an effort to contact people who once connected something for me, did something which unlocked something, or inspired or saved me. I can map a course backwards and see those points where someone came along who changed the direction of my life, dramatically and just in the nick of time. I’ve been lucky in that way. There’s a phrase in Swedish for it, ‘Tur i oturen” or “Luck in bad luck.”
It’s often the case that the person has no idea of the scale of their impact. When I thank them, they say they were just doing their thing, being who they were, or are. Not going out of their way to be especially kind, though in some cases what they did for me was kindness in a form I’d never known. There are people I haven’t found yet or who I haven’t found a way to tell, so I’m still working through the list.
It happened recently with a trumpet player (also an academic), who I last saw nearly 20 years ago. In common with lots of people, my experience of university was difficult for complicated and painful reasons. This trumpet player was an English Literature postgrad (specializing in the Modernists) at the time I was studying. The jazz band I played in would sometimes book him to make us sound better than we were, if the gig was a smart one and we could afford him. He was enigmatic, arriving at rehearsals with a vintage trumpet and line in innuendo that was new to me. Like a character from The Great Gatsby, he’d appear and disappear, having played some blistering jazz and made some gnomic comments about T. S. Eliot.
Partway through my degree I’d reached the end of my resources, psychological and otherwise, and was ready to quit the university. During a conversation about a rehearsal I told this guy my decision. He said, “Right, we need to talk.” After half an hour he’d convinced me to stay, to finish my degree whatever it took. I’d been about to make, he said, a decision I’d regret for the rest of my life.
The last two decades I’ve wondered about him, what he was doing, where he was. And then one night a month ago I walked into a bar in London and heard a sound I recognized. Nobody else plays trumpet like this guy did, not today anyway. I looked over to the bandstand and saw him standing there, eyes down, focused on his solo. He was amazed by what I told him that night, about how he’d changed my life by giving me advice in a form I could take, and about the impression he’d made on me 20 years ago.
Zola: You’ve said that you read all the time and Rachel, as a student of literature, read often. What’s a book you read recently that you believe she may have enjoyed?
ED: After Rachel’s death, Alex finds some Keats and some Shelley on the shelves in their apartment, and takes down one of her books and reads half-quotes from Ondaatje. I guess that gives us a sense of the kinds of things she likes to read. At the end of the novel he remembers her on their honeymoon, in the Piazza di San Lorenzo. They’re sitting reading outside a café and she throws down a novel in despair at its ending, saying that a tale whose resolution rests only on coincidence is hardly worth the telling, which gives us an idea of the kind of book she doesn’t like.
I’m just about to finish reading the Loeb edition of The Metamorphoses, by Apuleius, and I reckon that’s a book she’d have liked a lot. It starts with the word, “But,” dropping the reader in half-way through an anecdote, and carries on like that, its narrator telling story after story of himself, or other people, getting into scrapes and sometimes getting out of them (so far) and occasionally turning into another species. It’s visceral, unpredictable, messy, luscious, vivid, rambling, beautiful, with spontaneous and uninhibited sex involving women who are very comfortable with their sexuality, and plenty of tales of dysfunctional families and magic spells and people flying around on clouds.
Zola: Robert Browning appears multiple times throughout the novel and some of his poetry is vital to the plot. Are you a Browning fan yourself or was that more of a choice based on the characters?
ED: I’m an avid reader of Robert Browning, and really enjoyed Iain Finlayson’s biography, Browning. Using Browning’s poetry was an early choice for the book I was going to write. I knew my story would center on some poetry, and it had to be his. What he did for breaking apart the idea that there could be one objective truth or viewpoint was exactly what I wanted to tap into, alongside his predilection for deviant minds and obsessional characters. He was a genre-buster and a game-changer, and he wasn’t afraid to play outside the rules. His male first-person narrator short dramatic monologues with men talking about murdering women they’ve loved, or having them put to death, were just what I needed.
I tried to write a story that picked out a line between Browning and Ford Madox Ford. There’s a lovely verbal link between My Last Duchess and the opening to Ford’s The Good Soldier, which kind of drove my narrative. And I love it that The Good Soldier’s Florence and John first meet at “a Browning tea, or something of the sort” in New York’s 14th Street; if I’d any doubt over choosing Browning, that detail sealed the deal.
He’s also a king of the slow-reveal murder-mystery, and The Ring and the Book gave me lots of ideas for story-trails to be laid, or voices to be echoed—in the links between, for example, the Rachel who was emerging and Browning’s Pompilia. When it comes to first person narrators, Browning’s poetry gives you things straight: a voice, from the off, no messing. As with Ford’s John Dowell, it might be a voice which frustrates the hell out of you, but it’s his creation and he’s sticking with it and there’s an artistic credibility and validity in that: a boldness, an eye on the long game.
Browning the man provided plenty to fire the book’s synapses. This is a guy who used to stuff wayside flowers in his mouth by the fistful and eat them, trying to get closer to life; who left school early because they could teach him nothing he didn’t already know; who in his boyhood could usually be found with a toad in his pocket or an owl on his shoulder; and who eloped to Italy having rescued from her tyrannical father the near-invalid woman he’d fallen in love with and courted by correspondence. If I remember rightly, he also grew up sleeping in a bedroom interconnecting with his mother’s and was still kissing her goodnight every night at an age you could be surprised by. That kind of thing helped me a lot with Alex’s relationship with his mother, especially the poem, “Garden Fancies.”
Zola: Just about every character in the novel is experiencing some type of grief—whether it’s over a life they wish they were leading or missed opportunities or the death of a loved one. Was it draining as a writer to constantly be writing about characters who were experiencing such emotional turmoil?
ED: It was draining and energizing in equal measure. Loss is something we experience from the minute we are born, every one of us, in varying circumstances and to differing degrees. For a five-year-old child to lose their favourite teddy bear can be as cataclysmic for them as it is for a mother to lose her child. I’ve had my fair share of it, especially in the last few years, and I think some of the real difficulties in life come when we fail to engage with that as a part of ourselves; if we fail to see it for what it is, to accept it and mark it and express it in whatever way. Loss is messy, but loss unacknowledged is a corrosive thing, and seeking solace in neat and tidy versions of events is not my thing. I’m writing another very sad book right now, my second novel—it’s engrossing and exciting, and at the same time I’m looking forward to my third, which has a comic thread involving a small dog and a High Court judge who loses his trousers.
Zola: Some characters in the book are far better at hiding their secrets than others. Are you a good secret keeper?
ED: Depends who’s asking me to keep it, and why.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.