Joanna Kavenna: How the author turned from unpublishable failure to prizewinning writer

Joanna Kavenna's debut novel, 'Inglorious', is a mordantly witty tale of a modern woman's descent into the abyss.

'... "Dear Viracocha, Buddha, Osiris, Isis, Zeus, Allah, Jehovah, Shiva, Humbaba, Zabalon and the rest, What is it that you want me to do? Just what is it? Yours expectantly, Rosa."

She tore that out. "Impractical," she said aloud ... She took the paper and circled jobs. "Can you focus on the detail while keeping sight of the big picture?" No, thought Rosa. No, she wasn't sure she could'

A novel can often make the reader feel curious about the author, but every so often mere curiosity deepens into concern. There came a point, judging the Orange Broadband Award for New Writers, when we – Shami Chakrabarti, Clare Allan and I – started to worry about Joanna Kavenna. Her novel Inglorious was so raw, so intense in its portrait of the psychic disintegration of the protagonist, Rosa Lane, that we wondered to what extent Rosa's meltdown reflected the author's own state of mind.

Quite a relief, then, at the award ceremony, to see the eventual winner of the prize beaming and radiant, jiggling the handle of the buggy where her three-week-old daughter lay sleeping, oblivious to the raucous, champagne-fuelled partying all around her.

A week later I go to Oxford to meet Kavenna. With a little boy of 20 months and this new arrival, she can't stray too far from home at present. As it is, she fields a call from her partner, the thriller writer Tom Martin. ("He always tries to paint these Dickensian orphanage scenes, and I go back and it's totally tranquil.") We have lunch on a sheltered terrace overlooking the river, watching the antics of students in punts and hearing the shrieks and thwacks of pupils from the nearby Dragon school playing cricket.

"It's so wonderful to receive a prize that celebrates women's writing," she says warmly, "because I remember as a teenager reading all these canonical books by Lawrence and Camus on what was always billed as 'the human condition'. It's only much later that you start to think, 'where are all the women?'. The Plague is a wonderful book, but all the women are offstage! There's that point when you think, what happens if women write books that are solely about women trying to struggle with life – do they get accepted as representations of the human condition, or is it just the female condition?"

Obviously, as judges we hoped that Kavenna's wonderful novel would thereby be brought to a much wider audience, but there is another, more practical side to winning the award.

"You get £10,000, it's amazing! I spent the whole evening saying to people, I've got a cheque for £10,000 in my pocket. Advances are so small, that's more than you get for a complete book. It will support my writing for a long time," she says gratefully.

Kavenna has certainly paid her dues. "By the age of 27, 28, I'd written about seven unpublishable novels and had managed to bother an agent about three of them. There were a lot of rejections – you work really intensely on something for a year or two, thinking someone surely will want to publish it. But you also feel it should take a long time to learn how to write, it should be hard."

Instead, Kavenna found herself writing an idiosyncratic travel book about the quest for Ultima Thule. "I realised I had to get money to travel so I went to an agent with this idea and suddenly I had the commission. It was very odd and prompted a complete writer's block for about a year."

Her trip took her to the Baltic states and Iceland, to Norway for a year, and Germany for six months, where she investigated the weird Thule society. The result was the highly acclaimed The Ice Museum. But getting a novel published felt "like starting all over again. Though lots of the writers I admire – Dickens and Mark Twain – have moved from non-fiction to fiction."

Rosa Lane has a good job on a newspaper, a decent flat in London and a satisfying, if somewhat inert relationship with her boyfriend, Liam. A few months before the book opens she has lost her beloved mother, and despite her friends' constant exhortions to snap out of it, Rosa cannot shake her depression, or the conviction that life is meaningless. The job goes, Rosa is dispossessed of flat and boyfriend, and the book charts her slow, dreamlike drift to rock bottom and (perhaps) up again.

Well, doesn't that sound cheery? Fortunately, the anguish is relieved by crisp, pitch-perfect prose and a hilarious dry wit, brought out particularly when Rosa writes a series of eccentric jobseeking letters.

"Dear Mr Pennington ... I know we didn't get on so well, but I'm never my best under pressure. And you were a funny old man, not my type of person at all," runs one. And then there are her lists. In a vain attempt to galvanise herself, she writes constant notes which juxtapose the practical – "Get a job. Wash your clothes. Clean the toilet" – with the hopelessly ambitious: "Read Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Bacon, Locke, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietszche and the rest. Distinguish the various philosophies of the way."

Asked about the notes, she confesses: "That is something I do... obsessive, awful lists which are literally as silly as, do the hoovering and read the complete works of Kierkegaard! I just thought, I can imagine if you were in a real state, you would make these lists madder and madder and madder. The weight of Western philosophy and thought and learning – how helpful is it to a woman like Rosa? She's dealing with a very male tradition of learning, and all the writers she's thinking about reading are men, and she's trying to find her way through this grand, self-confident intellectual tradition that has for so many years excluded women."

Apart from the notes, Kavenna is keen to stress that Rosa's experiences are not hers; that she made her as different as possible. For a start, Kavenna's own peripatetic life, working at odd jobs in London and New York and travelling, meant she never had any of Rosa's trappings and chattels.

"I didn't want it to be a tale of my own inner crisis; that isn't what I wanted to write. So my mother's alive, for example. I'm not in Rosa Lane's situation at all. It was both the opposite of what I'd done, and also something I'd seen happen around me. I was observing it from the outside. But I definitely understand her point of view."

It's significant, she notes, that Rosa is 35, at an age when a lot of people look around for answers to fundamental questions. Kavenna also points to a literary forebear in Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. "She wanders around London, thinking all the time. But she's always got her alibi. She's buying flowers, she's planning a party." In contrast, Rosa is aimless. Her father has a new love interest and her friends, smug marrieds and self-righteous singletons, have given her up as a dead loss. She has nothing better to do than to wander London, looking for secret messages in graffiti or flyposters.

Kavenna got her title from Thomas Gray's line about "mute inglorious Miltons", about the ignored, ordinary people all around us who nevertheless are capable of great flights of imagination and feeling. "As it was all about finding the epic in the ordinary, I thought it would be good to send her off on this sort of unheroic quest. The ordinary trials of her life are as epic to her as slaying the Minotaur or getting the golden fleece. Nobody's begging her for her definitive version of reality, nobody's eagerly awaiting her conclusions, but she still reserves her right to seek them. I thought, who are these people who are permitted to have these grand reckonings with reality? Predominantly, they are not Rosa Lane. Even if you are not one of the elect you still have these questions coursing through your brain, and she decides you have the right to answer them."

Her mobile rings. It's definitely time to relieve her partner and get back to the babies.

"The second child has just become one of these children that screams the whole time," she explains. "She's really lovely, but she is extremely angry at being brought into existence, and is sounding her protest."

She sounds like a little Rosa Lane, I observe.

"I'm hoping she's getting it out of her system," Kavenna says serenely. "These furies can't sustain themselves." That could be Rosa's epitaph, too.

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