'My earlier novels didn't work. I wasn't addressing what I needed to – my family'
At the centre of Gerard Woodward's latest poetry collection, The Seacunny, is one of those once-in-a-blue-moon poems that changes the way you view a slice of the world forever. Entitled "Several Uses for a Trampoline", it was the first one Woodward wrote after moving to Frome with his family, having taken up a creative writing lectureship at the nearby Bath Spa University (nearly a decade on he's still there, these days operating under the Borgesian title of Professor of Fiction). "Our house was opposite a big, open stretch of orchards," says Woodward. "Our children got to be friends with next door's kids, and they told them about this trampoline in there that anyone in the district could use."
The poem takes the trampoline and riffs on it: pulling back to consider its history; zooming in on a particular memory of it, scattered with apples and children; setting the transcendence of the trampolinist ("no visible means / Of support, casually triumphant over death") against the paradox of his motion ("he falls like a diver into a pool, / To have his fall broken by his own self // Rising to meet him"). And at the last moment Woodward ties the threads together, in one final, clutching uprush. "This," he says,
is the use of trampolines
I will remember, the broken sunlight
Coming through the trees in a strange
Land, and lighting up my rising
And falling children, and their friends,
And the apples falling,
The new trees rising.
It's a perfect example of the spirit that powers Woodward's work: lyric, elegiac, familial, suburban – recognisably from the same pen that created the astonishing novels of the Jones family, for which he's best known. But while the poem seems at first glance to have been drawn straightforwardly from life, for Woodward, poetry and the personal have never quite come close enough. "It's a difficult link for me to make," he says. "I've always wanted to be able to write about my experience more directly in poetry. Larkin does it brilliantly – his "Show Saturday" feels like reportage. But when I try, something goes wrong with the voice. I have to start fictionalising."
Where other authors shy away from the link between writing and autobiography as from something vaguely unsavoury, Woodward is refreshingly keen to own the connection between his life and the words he puts on the page. In fact, he says, it was the realisation that poetry couldn't offer him the means to write cleanly and clearly about his past that pushed him into prose, and the trilogy of novels about a lightly fictionalised version of his own family that made his name.
"I'd tried novels before," he says now, "but those earlier attempts didn't work, I think because I wasn't addressing what I needed to, which was my family. I was resistant to it at first; I looked with scorn on writers who wrote about their lives in their first novel. I was comfortable trying it in poetry; in fact I had a big box of stuff – documents, letters, wage slips, receipts from the off licence – left behind by my brother, Francis, who died in 1981, and I'd spent a year or two trying to make a book-length poem out of them. But I couldn't get anywhere. Again, it was the problem of voice. I got stuck."
The breakthrough was triggered by a change of environment, both external and internal. Woodward won a Somerset Maugham award for his first full-length collection of poems, Householder, in 1991; the terms stipulate that the prize money be spent on foreign travel, so he set off for a solo trip around Vietnam. "I had," he says, "a lot of time to think. In hotel rooms with nothing to do or on trains with no one to talk to, I'd mull over this autobiographical narrative that was pressing in on me. I was writing it in my head."
At the same time, he was encountering the two authors whose work would mold the tone and temper of his own. "I was reading Updike and Nabokov for the first time. Updike showed me it was possible to write in a realist way, with a poetic approach. I'd never come across his blend of poetic sensibility and prosaic imagination in realist fiction before. Nabokov blew me away for the same reasons; not quite as down to earth, but he has the same qualities of poetry and playfulness. I found reading them both incredibly liberating, and permission-giving for what I wanted to do. They were the presiding spirits when I was writing August [the first novel in the trilogy]. Everything fell into place, after years of struggling both with novels and autobiography in poetry. I thought, at last I've found a way of writing about autobiographical material that works for me."
Woodward was born in Enfield, London's northernmost borough, in 1961, the youngest of four siblings. He sets out the curious, chaotic details of their upbringing – art, music and politics across the dinner table, cut with cross-generational alcoholism, middle-class poverty, and alarming flashes of violence – across three luminous novels: 2001's August, (shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel award), I'll Go to Bed at Noon, (shortlisted, to Woodward's astonishment, for the 2004 Man Booker prize) and the concluding volume, 2007's A Curious Earth.
Generally speaking, the hallmark of successful fiction is the author's ability to persuade readers of the reality of the people in it. In Woodward's case, the opposite is true: his characters are so much larger than life, so richly operatic, that it's hard to accept he didn't invent them wholesale for the purposes of a good narrative. Front and centre are Colette (romantic, erratic, glue-sniffing and Gold Label-swigging), her artist-turned-teacher husband Aldous, whose philosophical dedication to his day job shores the family against ruin; and their eldest son Janus, precocious infant turned musical prodigy turned – over the books' course – into an alarmingly unstable adult, who directs his alcohol-fuelled fury with a world that has failed to deliver on the family that first assured him he was special.
Watching from the sidelines is Woodward's alter-ego, Julian, who deals with his family's chaos by keeping his head firmly buried in books. "I can remember," he says, "being terribly embarrassed about my mother's behaviour. And being scared a lot by Francis (Janus)." No wonder: the outbursts that punctuate the books – skirmishes, smashed glass, a dressing table thrown from the first floor into the garden – are shocking. "I was never physically hurt, or even threatened, but as a young child you worry a lot when there's violence happening, when you can hear windows breaking downstairs. I still get horrible feelings when I hear unexpected loud noises. It stays with you."
But these aren't purely cathartic novels; there's love running through them too. Woodward's vibrant portrait of Colette in particular is palpably affectionate. "When I think of my mother now," Woodward says, "I wonder whether it's Colette or her I'm thinking of. What I really wanted to do with the novels was to paint a picture of her: a middle-class, piano-playing drug addict; literary, but debauched and out of control. It's hard to convince people that anyone could be like that; at the point when she goes shoplifting, someone said to me, oh, that's a bit much. But she did it: she was a serial shoplifter, and proud; she'd come home saying, "Look how much I've got!" and tot it up to see what she'd saved."
Unsurprisingly, the tumult of his formative years left Woodward ill-fitted for early adulthood. He left school at 16 "because I thought there was going to be a nuclear war and didn't want to waste what few precious years the world had left doing A-levels"; took "various humdrum jobs" in a bid to save enough to cycle around the world; ditched that plan when he found a girlfriend; hitched around Europe; and ended up enrolling to study painting at Falmouth School of Art. The climax of his abortive artistic career was the construction of a "giant rubbish tip with a sausage roll on the top, and the names of tutors on various bits of litter: my clumsy way of saying the college was crap and the canteen was the only good thing about it. Shortly after I was advised to take a year off, and I didn't go back. Basically I was at art school at a terrible time for me; Francis and my mother had both just died."
He did, however, meet his wife, Suzanne, there. For the next few years, the couple shuttled restlessly back and forth across England: returning to London to look after Woodward's father, back to Falmouth for Suzanne to finish her degree, up to Manchester where she trained to be a teacher, back to London so Woodward could use up his grant entitlement doing an anthropology degree at the LSE, back to Manchester, this time for eight years, where Woodward started and didn't finish an anthropology MA, and got a job maintaining the university's vending machines. "I enjoyed it," he says now. "You drive around in a van full of chocolate and crisps, and everyone's happy to see you. I'd sometimes have my son in the van with me. It's also the sort of job where you can think a lot, and I was writing August at the time."
By the time the novel came out, Woodward's father, too, had died; his surviving siblings "were positive about it. My sister Celia, in particular, was delighted that the story had been preserved, the record kept. Now her children have grown up and are reading it. It's very hard to explain what the family was like back then. So I just refer people to this." Although he'd tried initially to write a memoir, he abandoned the attempt when he discovered that his autobiographical voice was "awful: judgmental and pompous". He was also conscious that he "wasn't getting any of the atmosphere, the feeling of the time, across"; the novels, on the other hand, like his standalone book, Nourishment, set during and after the second world war, are redolent with the scent and savour of the mid-20th century. "At a certain age," Woodward explains of his fixation with the period, "you realise that time, that era, has gone. So when I was mulling over my life story I was thinking a lot about the time it happened in. Nabokov says memory is an aesthetic experience like looking at a wonderful painting; you can sit in a chair and have a memory, just enjoy it. That's what it's like for me."
Nourishment, his first post-Jones novel, was sparked by "this story my mother used to tell me, about a friend who got a letter from her husband in a PoW camp, demanding a sexual letter in return", but the novel he's working on now, also set during the war years, has no link to his family. Having exorcised them in fiction, he's finally free to strike out on his own; but like the memory of his children on the trampoline, they'll always be there in the background, rising and falling.