Rachel Seiffert: ‘I have to find a story for my characters’

Rachel Seiffert’s new novel is about people seeking where they belong

Around the time when Rachel Seiffert’s first novel, The Dark Room (2001), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I met one of her former school friends at a party. He recalled Seiffert berating a Tory minister on a visit to their sixth-form. “Oh my God,” she says, sounding both thrilled and embarrassed, when I mention this over coffee at a south London cafe. “It was 1988. I was shouting at Douglas Hurd about Section 28.” I’m pleased the story is true because Seiffert’s willingness to ambush Hurd about a homophobic law, which was abolished in 2003, feels consistent with her career as a politically engaged novelist.

In interviews I’ve read, however, she comes across as guarded. “Interviews are very artificial situations,” she says, so I ask what she’s knitting with the needles and wool that were on the table when I arrived: “A sock.” Is her similarly clipped prose style the reason for the long gap between her new novel, The Walk Home, and her previous one, Afterwards (2007)? “I had to find the story for my characters to inhabit. Without a story characters are inert.” 

In The Walk Home, 17-year-old Stevie returns from London to Glasgow, three years after running away. Instead of contacting his family, he squats in a building that he’s renovating with a crew of Polish labourers. The narrative loops back through his parents’ marriage, from the moment Graham meets Lindsey while drumming in his Orange Order band on a trip to Tyrone. They make their home on Glasgow’s Drumchapel estate, among Graham’s extended family. Lindsey befriends Uncle Eric, who years ago caused upheaval by marrying a Catholic and now, after her death, lives alone, drawing stark, prophetic pictures. Will Stevie go home? Can Eric make peace with his family? These questions drive the story.

Born in 1971, Seiffert grew up in Oxford and, after graduating from Bristol University, lived in Glasgow for eight years. She worked as a film editor before writing stories, three of which were about the Second World War and became the novellas which comprise The Dark Room, while others appeared in her collection Field Study (2004). Her new novel makes judicious use of Glaswegian dialect: “It’s a witty, inventive city,” she says. “I redrafted until I got a feeling for the characters’ rhythms.” She wanted to provide a fair portrayal of the Orangemen Stevie encounters through his father. “I had to learn a lot of history. It took me a long time to understand the Orangemen’s motivation. My way of communicating that was to make my characters sympathetic.”

Her Scottish husband is a “lapsed Catholic”. He stopped her naming their son “Patrick” because he feared its religious associations would provoke discrimination. Seiffert says sectarianism isn’t part of middle-class Glaswegian life but, asked why her new novel, like Afterwards, is set among a distinctly working-class milieu, she bristles: “My characters aren’t all proles.”   

While living in Glasgow’s east end, Seiffert heard bands rehearsing at the old Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland. “I became curious,” she says, “about these people my husband’s family were against.” As research, she attended band practices: “I liked some Orangemen very much but they were the cuddly kind, not the head cases we read about in the press.”

She has yet to hear what the drummers make of her novel but, having previously written about German experiences of war, and veterans of British campaigns in Kenya and Ireland, does she relish subjects who don’t automatically elicit sympathy? “Yes, there’s nothing to be curious about if a nuanced picture already exists.”

Her characters consistently investigate family histories – Lindsey, in the new novel, is curious about Eric’s past – so, as the daughter of a German mother, whose relatives fought for the Third Reich, did Seiffert pry in to her own background? “No, my family were very honest. A prying protagonist is a useful hook to tell a story but how far do we have the right to know about each other? The assumption is that if somebody’s silent they’ve never thought about their past or they’re in denial. That’s not necessarily true. There’s a righteousness associated with prying but how does it feel to be intruded upon?”

The book is dedicated to Seiffert’s family (“I’m glad to have them”) and she says: “My characters are asking: ‘Where do I belong’. The lodge offers Graham a pre-existing place but Lindsey is driven to make the place where she will belong.” Lindsey’s exposure to violent sectarianism in Ireland contrasts with the Scottish Orangemen’s tendency to romanticise the Troubles. “The Catholic and Protestant divide is romanticised and that’s dangerous,” Seiffert says. “I wanted Lindsey to express this counterweight horror: ‘Oh my God. Where is this leading?’”

When I suggest that Seiffert’s characters would reject Scottish independence, she names one who might vote “Yes” in September’s referendum. I point out that he dies and she laughs: “They probably would vote ‘No’ but they’d consider the economic arguments. In cultural terms, Scotland is independent. It doesn’t need to be separate economically. If we’re all in the European Union, how does independence impact the nation’s cultural life?” Pro-independence writers, such as Alasdair Gray and  A L Kennedy, argue that full self-governance generates cultural confidence. “But Scotland is already vibrant and distinct. Reducing independence to questions of identity and culture is dangerous. I have an allergy to nationalism for obvious family reasons. If I lived in Scotland I’d be undecided.”

Twice during our conversation, Seiffert mentions social justice. “It feels really important, helping children to articulate themselves on paper,” she says of her work as writer in residence at a London primary school. In The Walk Home, Stevie wonders: “Why the bloody hell does it have to be like this?” The question epitomises the novel, and resonates beyond its ambiguous ending, but is Seiffert’s prose occasionally too spare? After a pause: “Not in this novel. My agent told me not to expect readers to imagine so much. I fear talking down to people when I spell things out.” Perhaps she’s wary of sounding obvious or hectoring because she got her shouting out of the way at sixth-form. I blame Douglas Hurd and on that we might agree.

Extract: The walk home by Rachel Seiffert (Virago, £14.99)

‘He’d been up since dawn, drumming and drinking all morning. It was his first time away from home, his first Orange Walk outside of Glasgow, but nothing like the other Walks he’d been on. Same skirling flutes, dark suits, bright sashes, and crown and Bible banners, but no tarmac and traffic, no high flats and crowds of torn-faced shoppers.’

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