We’ve all lost things: keys, a favorite book, a person we love. But Janina Matthewson’s debut novel Of Things Gone Astray takes everyday loss to a place of magical realism. A loss of privacy comes in the form of a missing wall in a home, a loss of love turns a girl into an immovable tree. Intertwined narratives come together in real yet fantastic ways to show how deeply normal loss can affect us. Here, Matthewson talks about the purpose of the tree girl, her favorite chocolate cake, and her dream-world feminist magazine.
Bookish: There’s a quote in the book that I loved. It read: “You are the reason I’m glad there are words.” Who is the author that makes you glad there are words?
Janina Matthewson: Well, all of them. But to be honest, the writer who really takes my breath away with how he uses language is Stephen Sondheim. I saw Follies in New York a few years ago and that’s what blew me away. In a full scale Broadway musical, with Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell being all sensational, what really had me gasping was the lyrics.
Bookish: While fantastical elements exist in the novel, the power of the stories truly comes from the fact that the situations are so relatable. Delia loses her literal sense of direction, but that’s after a slow process of losing her direction in life. A series of small and easy choices leads her (and most of the other characters) to a point where they no longer recognize themselves. What made you want to focus on these changes that occur slow and silently over time?
JM: I think that’s how we view our lives, really. Something happens and in that moment it feels like it came out of nowhere, but later on it’s somehow as if it was always there. In retrospect things become ageless, I think, and when we remember life before them, we still see it through that lens. I mean, I’m doing it right now—I never really considered this question, I was more concerned with how people respond to what happens, but now that I think about it, that’s my interpretation.
Bookish: Robert tells his daughter Bonny that they can have snacks after they research. Marcel Proust has espresso, Daniel Handler has carrots, and Mary Roach has beef pho. Is there any snack you like having on hand when you’re writing or researching?
JM: I drink a lot of tea. A lot of peppermint tea. And super dark chocolate, like 85% chocolate.
Bookish: Cassie waits at the arrivals gate of Heathrow Airport and begins turning into a tree. Of all of the strange and unconventional places for a tree to grow, why did you choose the airport?
JM: Cassie was one of the first characters I created for this and, if I remember correctly (which to be fair, I may not), I was actually waiting for a friend at Heathrow. I guess travel always feels to me like life suspended—which is also an aspect of having your heart broken. You feel like you just have to wait for everything to start again and you forget that it’s still all going on around you.
Bookish: Cassie’s story reads as a metaphor for all of the others. These emotions we feel (sadness, anxiety, loneliness) take root in us and grow and grow. Did you ever think of her turning into something else or having something else happen to her, or was she always going to be a tree?
JM: She was always a tree, and it always started at the feet. You know that thing when you feel a little unsteady and you kind of clench your toes? Somehow in my mind clenching your toes into the floor became putting forward roots.
Bookish: You tweeted about a “low-level ambition to start a boobie magazine” featuring female authors being witty and clever while they talked about sex, bodies, and life. What females authors, in theory, would you want to write for it?
JM: I did! That came out of The Sun, which is an awful tabloid newspaper in the UK famous for having half-naked women on page three every day. There’s been a campaign to get them to stop, and for a couple of days it looked like they had, but it was all lies. I just think there should be more celebration of bodies than objectification. And there are so many fantastic women who are open and passionate and positive and funny. In a dream world, it’d have Hadley Freeman, Caitlin Moran, Bim Adewunmi, Roxane Gay. In the dream world within the dream world, it’d have Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling. And then there are the awesome up and coming badass ladies, who would say yes now, and who I’d still have even when Tina Fey was in, like Caroline O’Donoghue, Daisy Buchanan, Hayley Campbell, Nell Frizzell.
Bookish: What’s the secret to making the best chocolate cake in the world? And are you like your character Mrs. Featherby (with a cake always on hand) or do you only make it on special occasions?
JM: I am not like Mrs. Featherby—I love baking, but I never do it without a reason. I’m too used to having no money, and the thought of food going to waste is painful. I’m also a really haphazard baker. My favorite cake to make is chocolate zucchini, which is really flavorful without being too rich, but I tend to throw things in just because they’re around. So the spices are always different, sometimes it has walnuts. It’s not how you’re supposed to bake, things can go horribly wrong if you’re not precise, but this cake and I just have an affinity, and it always seems to work.
Bookish: You’ve said that you often read up to five books at a time. What are you reading right now?
JM: I have different books for different slots of my life. So at the moment I have The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton on my bedside table—that’s taking me a while because I only read a couple of chapters each night. On my Kindle, for traveling, I just started The Illusion of Separateness—Simon Van Booy gave me such a lovely quote and I felt awful about not having read anything of his yet, and it’s just such a beautiful book. I finally got round to starting Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series a few months ago, and I’m in the middle of the fourth one of those. Then I also have Let’s Talk About Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris and Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace on the go and have for ages. I like having essay books to dip in and out of.
Janina Matthewson is a London based writer from New Zealand. She is ill equipped to deal with domestic concerns and almost always kills her plants. Of Things Gone Astray is her first novel. Her first novella, The Understanding of Women, was released world wide as an ebook in October 2012 and her play, Human and If, had it’s first public reading in July 2012. She will never get used to Christmas being cold.