I’m very pleased to have novelist, memoir writer and musician Alba Arikha answering questions on the blog today, ahead of her appearance at Jewish Book Week in March.
What was the inspiration for your latest novel, Where to Find Me?
An image came to me, of two women – one young, one old – neighbours in 1980s Notting Hill. They meet one winter afternoon, never to do so again. It became the core of the book: brief encounters, and their long lasting consequences. This one straddles occupied Paris, British Mandate Palestine, and an unexpected ending in contemporary London.
I’m interested in the collision between past and present and how it plays out in time, especially around the theme of displacement. Both these women have suffered a trauma that will have a profound impact on their lives, and both strive to overcome it in very different ways.
You’ve written both fiction and memoir, what are the different challenges and the similarities?
The memoir usually focuses on a series of events that need exploration. It is a personal voyage, one which, although its narrative style and meanderings (not all memoirs are chronological) can resemble fiction, is different in the sense that you’re recording specific parts of your life and how they fit into a larger whole.
Having said that, both memoirs and novels straddle a fine line between truth and fabrication – we know memory is not always reliable.
Not all of it is easy recording: some passages of my memoir, Major/Minor, were difficult to write, because I found myself reliving a particular time in my life which I had never put into words before, As I wrote, various emotions – anger, specifically – rose to the surface. Novels, because they are based on one’s imagination, allow for much more narrative freedom. The joy of fiction is that one can control one’s characters, and steer them in whatever direction one chooses to, which cannot be said of a memoir.
Sometimes, characters take the steering wheel, which is what happened to me in Where to Find Me. I ended up in a place I hadn’t expected to visit.
In essence, all literature is about establishing connections. In a memoir, the writer becomes the character of his or her own story. In a novel, the writer stands both inside and outside the story – creator, actor and voyeur. I think it is the genre I like best. I’m not sure I have it in me to write another memoir – besides I’ve said all I need to.
You’re a musician as well as an author. How does music influence your writing?
Last summer, my husband (composer Tom Smail) and I collaborated on an opera together, based on my memoir. It was performed at RADA, and hearing the words sung on stage was a very interesting experience, almost as if it was another work – which of course it wasn’t. It was just that the music had altered my perspective of the words.
The initial throb of inspiration, as Nabokov calls it, is very similar on the page to what it is on a piano. Or perhaps improvisation is another possible metaphor for writing. It just happens, and isn’t premeditated. Words can sing, they have their own rhythm, flow, tempo, harmonies – and both music and words unfold in time.
What do you enjoy reading? Tell us about –
- A book that has stayed with you
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. I found them very inspiring and couldn’t get the characters out of my head. There is a certain hunger to the way Ferrante writes, which I find deeply compelling. And she describes female friendship beautifully.
- A recent book you enjoyed
The Wisdom of Bones by Kitty Aldridge (Corsair, May 2019). A brilliant intertwining of two stories, a showman and a French dwarf, set in 1870s London and 1750s Versailles. This novel is unlike anything I’ve read in a long time: highly ambitious, with an utterly original voice – I loved it.
- A book you can’t wait to read
I’ve been meaning to read I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith for years. I think it’s time.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a new novel about an artist.
Alba Arikha was brought up in Paris and is an author and singer/songwriter. She has published five books. Her new novel, Where to Find Me (Alma Books) came out in September 2018. She has written the libretto for two operas, most recently Blue Electric, an adaptation of her memoir, Major/Minor, in collaboration with her husband, composer Tom Smail. It was premiered in August 2018. She has performed her songs in London and Paris and recorded two CDs. She is now working on a new novel, and an album of songs, Et tout ça (And all that).
Alba will be discussing Jewish identity and experience in Voices on the Page with poet Yvonne Green on 10 March at Jewish Book Week.