I met Angela Carter in the spring of 1987 when I was a student and she a tutor on the MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. My work had over the course of the previous winter gone from bad to worse. I was 24, I had no idea how to live in the world, let alone write about it; and the self who was supposed to produce some kind of narrative by the end of the year seemed increasingly fugitive and fragmented. The whole business of being Irish in England seemed to me old-fashioned and, in tiny ways, ghastly. People thought I was amusing, in an Irish sort of way: and I suppose I was. My work was not going well. I did not know why. It was not that I was distressed – I had often written when in distress. In fact a little breaking open, a little falling apart, a tincture of four in the morning, used to work quite well for me. Emotion was not the problem, it was the fact that I could not make the shift from emotion to story, or not on the required scale. I don’t know if stories do come from feeling – perhaps it just feels that way – but the inability to write is certainly an emotional state. This shift from feeling to fiction is the reason I still need, rather than just want, to write. And the more you need something, as I discovered in that room in East Anglia, the harder it is to get. I worked all the time, but inspiration did not strike. There was no shaft of light. If the words came from anywhere, it was from a point over my left shoulder, like a taunt. I was 24. I do not think that I was entirely well.
Into this mess Angela was due to descend; wings fluttering, silver hair floating and little shoes – perhaps they would be red – clitter clattering on the floor.
The blocked writer is a child alone – this is what I seem to be saying: that the infant who cannot invent, who cannot make things up, is, in the absence of the mother, bereft. But inspiration is a very religious idea too, and I don’t think Carter would approve. This is a Christian or perhaps Neoplatonic view of what a story is and does, and it encourages all sorts of lies about essence and transcendence. Carter was a socialist and a materialist; she was also profoundly suspicious of all this mothering malarkey, so you will appreciate that even as I claim her as an influence, I have not been influenced enough.
When I was 13, I won a book token in a schools radio quiz, and was allowed into town, alone, in order to spend it. I had never bought a book before. I went into Books Upstairs in the George’s St Arcade in Dublin and I looked – very carefully – at every volume on the shelves. I ended up with three paperbacks: the Greek Myths by Robert Graves, Volumes I and II, and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. This is a commonplace book written by a woman at the tenth-century court of the Heian dynasty in Japan. I thought it was wonderful. I read it countless times. I was entranced by the beauty and formality of her life; the kimonos made of seven layers of silk; the pathos and compulsion in her relationship with the aesthetic; the plum blossoms, the snow, the leaf drifting on water. I was also hypnotised by the elegance of her sex life. Men appeared from behind a screen, left before dawn and sent a poem in the morning: ‘My sleeves are wet with tears.’ There were no children, or the children disappeared, and the fates of other women, and of men too, were mysterious, and inevitable, and always sad.
After this, a lot of the fiction I read was translated from the Japanese: Mishima, Endo, Tanizaki, though I missed Ōe for some reason, and Murakami did not come along until I was grown up. If you ask what an Irish schoolgirl was doing reading Japanese literature in the 1970s then you cannot know what Ireland was like in the late 1970s. It was perhaps, as Shelley wrote and I transcribed on the green vinyl cover of my school folder (just above some Led Zeppelin lyrics), ‘the devotion to something afar, from the sphere of our sorrow’. I knew that I wanted something foreign when I bought those books, or something that would tell me how to be foreign, which is to say how to be lonely in a more interesting way.
Angela Carter spent more than two years living in Japan. She wanted to experience a culture that owed nothing to the Judeo-Christian tradition, she wanted to become strange. Because the language was opaque to her, she ‘started trying to understand things by simply looking at them very, very carefully, in an involuntary apprenticeship in the language of signs’.
‘I can date to that time,’ she wrote, ‘my own questioning of the nature of my reality as a woman. How that social fiction of my “femininity” was created.’