The poet and novelist on his latest book, a war story set in Africa and Sicily, and how poetry increasingly informs his prose
About a third of the way into Adam Foulds's latest novel – In the Wolf's Mouth, a second world war story set in north Africa and Sicily – one of his protagonists, a young American soldier, finds himself having to run through a battlefield to escape German fire. As he begins to negotiate the mayhem, so the words on the page start to float apart. "Running, burn of ankle twist over // Like people, shaped like people? // over rocks. Behind rocks, a piece of sky". In effect, Foulds's prose breaks down and dissolves into poetry.
"I like it when the lines behave just as they want in terms of crossing the page or not," explains Foulds. "What is most important is getting as close as I can to the reality I'm trying to describe." As both a prize-winning poet and novelist, it is little surprise that Foulds should adopt such techniques. But he is also aware that when a reviewer describes a book as a "poet's novel", it is not usually meant as a compliment, and is a description that often comes with a hint of oversensitivity and overwriting. "I do know what they mean," Foulds says. "But I also think that to use 'poetic' as a criticism in that sense displays a not very accurate understanding of what good poetry is. Great poetry such as William Wordsworth's The Prelude is not 'poetic' in that sense, in that it is full of the brilliant accuracies of description you find in good prose. Really good poetry is about intensity, and a freshness of language and seeing. And that is also true of DH Lawrence or Virginia Woolf or lots of other writers' prose. So for me it is more about wanting language and perception to be alive and sensually immersive, none of which is what I think people mean when they say 'poetic'."
It is an approach that has proved remarkably successful for Foulds so far. His debut novel, The Truth About These Strange Times, won the Betty Trask and Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year awards. His book-length epic poem about an English schoolboy's experience of the violence of the Mau Mau rebellion in 1950s colonial Kenya, The Broken Word, won several major awards including the 2008 Costa poetry prize. His 2009 novel, The Quickening Maze, about the literary historical oddity that linked the poets John Clare and Alfred Tennyson with an Essex mental hospital in the 1830s, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. Last year Foulds was named on the Granta list of the 20 best British novelists under 40, and now comes In the Wolf's Mouth, in which he pits the invading allied forces against not only their Axis enemies, but also the entrenched social structures of the local populations, including the mafia.
Foulds has a certain amount of fun writing against the genre expectations of gangster fiction, but he also works through some of the more serious themes that underpinned The Broken Word in terms of violence and trauma, "and the chaotic weather systems of great events that sweep people up, and how you then put the world back together, or at least start to, after those experiences". There are also many contemporary resonances in a story that is in part about the attempted reconstruction of a country after conflict, "that was well intentioned and partly successful, but was also unpredictable and undertaken with a very partial understanding of the local people. It's a state of affairs that obviously speaks to the present moment."
Foulds concedes there is some political impulse behind his work. "Certainly in The Broken Word I wanted to contribute to breaking a silence about those events in Kenya. But when writing an artistic work, its immediacies, prerogatives and irresponsible vitality always take precedence. Of course there are bits of my psyche and my sense of society in there, but it is not campaigning. It is about a terrible complexity, not something that resolves itself into a political programme."
Although Foulds suspects that with this new book he has "now done with violence and trauma for a while", he admits that the roots of his interest in the subject run deep. "I grew up in a Jewish family. I was educated about the Holocaust, and the camps were always a place in my imagination and the ultimate moral arena where you would be driven to think about how you would behave. Nathan Englander described it so well in a wonderful short story when he asked who would hide him today? That's what you think about as a nine-year-old in north-east London. Who of my friends would hide me if it came to it? As a kid my nightmares weren't about generic monsters, they were about real violence and hatred. That compelled me then and does still."
Foulds was born in 1974 and brought up on the border of London and Essex. He says his family was not particularly observant when he was growing up, although after he had left home his father trained as a rabbi once he had retired as an accountant. Foulds says one of the great discoveries of his reading life came at university when he was exposed to the "great American Jewish novelists such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and finding in them my own world, or the world of my parents or grandparents. It is true of all minority cultures that having your own experience reflected back at you is quite a giddying experience at first. It kind of ratifies your experience as being valuable as, well, material."
As a child Foulds's first loves were bird watching and natural history, and for a time he assumed he would become a zoologist. "Looking very carefully at the natural world was important to me. And I realise now that there is something about the things I like about writing – a kind of intense and illuminated accuracy – that are the same as seeing the world through the lenses of binoculars."
He attended an independent day school where Hari Kunzru was the star English pupil a few years above him. There Foulds began to write poetry, and one teacher was so impressed that he advised him to keep hold of his drafts as one day scholars might be interested in them. Then came Oxford, where he describes himself as a "very judgmental and cultish reader. I started with John Keats, then came WB Yeats and over time I would very begrudgingly add people to my personal canon. Les Murray was one who got in, and when he came to Oxford to read I went to see him afterwards and gave him some of my poems." Murray later published a few in a literary magazine. Another important figure for Foulds at Oxford was his tutor Craig Raine, who suggested that he apply for the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia – "He essentially said if I could get funding for a year's writing I should take it" – and first published The Broken Word in his literary magazine Areté.
After UEA Foulds, who had by now switched to prose, worked on The Truth About These Strange Times, a story featuring the world memory championships and an odd relationship between a lonely man and a 10-year-old maths prodigy. To support himself he took on many jobs, including working in a warehouse and data entry in "essentially Ricky Gervais's Office. Things were periodically shaky, but ultimately it helped me, as not resorting to my plan B of becoming an academic helped me, in that I was out in the world and not mingling my creative life with my working life. I'm now aware that for people who want to write but are working in, say, publishing there is the risk of a certain self-consciousness kicking in. In my case, no one knew what I was up to and that was quite a powerful position to be in, and one I was quite sorry to lose when I became a published writer and had to own up to it."
Despite its prizewinning success, he concedes that his debut novel now "sits slightly at a distance from the latter books", and it certainly gave little clue as to his next project. "As soon as I came across the story of the Mau Mau uprising I immediately wanted to write about it. And as I worked on it I found I needed to use the resources of poetry, in breaking the lines and so on, so as to create some kind of control of the reader's experience." He says the closest example of the approach he came across was Christopher Logue's translations of Homer, "which I love. But I didn't go into it thinking of The Broken Word as a poem, it was just finding the best way to write this text."
When The Broken Word won the Costa prize for poetry in 2008, it "only partly" prepared him for being shortlisted for the Booker in 2009 for The Quickening Maze, where he became "one of the first to go under the golden steamroller of Hilary Mantel", whose Wolf Hall won that year. "But I was in good company on the shortlist. JM Coetzee, AS Byatt and Sarah Waters. We all went under together."
He says The Quickening Maze had been bubbling away in his mind ever since discovering that Clare and Tennyson, who may or may not have actually met, were certainly in Epping Forest at the same time. "So it was wonderful to have these compelling presences materialise in my back garden. And while there is obviously an enormous audacity in taking on two people who, at their best, are both writers of genius, there are thousands of pages attesting to their consciousness in the form of their poetry, which gives you a kind of access that you don't get with other people. My poetry is miles off theirs, but I do know what the physical sensation of writing poetry is like from the inside so I could also write that experience."
Having published his first three books in rapid succession, Foulds says he needed to "repair a little, to have a rest and to adjust to the way that life now was. I also needed to be back in the world and to see things. My writing, in the density of its imagery, is quite expensive in terms of experience, there is a lot of noticing that goes into it and so I had to go back to do that for a while."
In the time since The Quickening Maze Foulds has married the Canadian photographer Charla Jones; they live in south London. He has taken up opportunities to travel and teaches creative writing part-time. While writing In the Wolf's Mouth he has also assembled "half a book" of new material in the form of short stories that might yet become novellas.
He says "apart from a few things for myself" he hasn't recently written any short-form poetry, but nevertheless feels his new work is increasingly drawing on his interest in verse. "I like those things when the genres converge, such as Michael Ondaatje's early books Coming Through Slaughter or The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Books written in service of the subject matter and that use any formal device they like to most fully realise it. Where the line should stop is determined by what is being said, such as the episode of extreme violence in In the Wolf's Mouth when the prose breaks up. I think there will be more of that in the future."