Gwendoline Riley was finishing her first novel at the age that most of us were sleeping in, bunking off, or congregating around a pint at the student union bar. Turning her university dissertation into her debut, Cold Water (2002) she signed a two-book deal at the age of 22. Since then, she has accumulated a hipster-ish following and several literary awards (Somerset Maugham Award, the Betty Trask Award, a John Llewellyn-Rhys Memorial prize shortlisted nomination).
"So at 33, with her fourth novel, Opposed Positions (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) freshly under her belt, you'd imagine Riley would be living the garlanded life that a critically-acclaimed young novelist ought to be. Or at the very least, she should be settled into a comfortable existence, with heating and hot water and the odd shopping splurge.
Not so. Riley's lifestyle seems starkly at odds with her dust-jacket achievements. Over the five years it has taken to write Opposed Positions, Riley says she has had severe problems rubbing two pennies together. There have been unnerving moments of penury, wondering where the next subsistence cheque will be coming from. The cheques eventually came in the shape of tax credits, or literary grants, or summer school work, but it was far from the charmed life we imagine for our up-and-coming literary stars.
"Full-time writing's not pleasant. [While writing Opposed Positions] I was incredibly poor, living in a tiny room in Manchester. I got some work at Keele University's summer school for a bit of cash. I largely lived on tax credits, and I got some grants, but it was frightening."
Times have changes, she says, from a decade ago when she dropped out of her creative writing course at Manchester Metropolitan university after getting her book deal, and spending the next few years flitting between the claustrophobia of her Manchester hometown and the freedom of San Francisco, Indianapolis, New York, writing in motels and rented apartments for three months at a time.
"At the time my first book came out, everything was different – publishers don't give you advances anymore. Before, I'd go to America as soon as I got my advance. I'd be on the next plane, but those days are gone. I've had to finish the last two books before I got any cash."
Riley's prose is admired for it pared-down stylishness and for her protagonists – always introspective, writerly women – who have an existential, brooding, drifter's sensibility, rather like Holden Caulfield, were he to be reborn as a 20-something, female Mancunian tearaway.
In person, Riley is a picture of retro-cool in an oversized Edith Sitwell print T-shirt, her hair is an impeccable chignon, with a life that has a passing resemblance to her characters. This novel, like her others, is as much about the pain, isolation and occasional exhilaration of writing as it is about love, relationships and the ache of human existence.
Her main character, Aislinn Kelly, a restless 30-year-old writer trying to come to terms with the emotional legacy of her abusive upbringing, lives for, and loathes, her writing life. She sees herself as uselessly weaving words – "righteous arias, month after month... such rich concoctions, really."
Riley has the same love-hate relationship to fiction. It is her burden and her vocation. "Writers are self-loathing – it's a weird kind of pact you have with yourself – that anything you do is loathsome and execrable but at the same time, it's what I have been put here to do. If I go a few days without writing and reading, everything else is so unutterably depressing. For myself, and most of my characters, that is the way of being in the world. It's their way to exist, to keep upright."
Looking back, she realises she was always trying to be a writer "since I was very, very small" – around seven or eight when she started banging out stories on her grandmother's typewriter. "She got me into the old boarding school stories and I used to write my own versions. That's when I first started to write, on this silly typewriter in the backroom."
Her first novel was rattled out in the night-time, after returning from evening shifts as a waitress. Each book after that has become more of a trial, but with its own strangled satisfaction.
"There's very rarely pleasure in writing. I'm not strolling around the room feeling potent. I find it laborious. The first one was easy-peasy. I used to get in from working at a bar at two o'clock in the morning and write, and then sleep all day. There wasn't the tiniest scintilla of angst.
"The second one was harder, the third was agony, and this one was agony squared. It took five years. If I pare it down, it was a sentence a day.
"I always start off quite cheerful but there's an awful shudder half way through. Each book seems to be more anguish than the last one, which is not a good trend, but part of me relishes that as well... You have got to make it commensurate – each one should be harder to write to make it worthy of you... It's got to get more difficult each time."
In Opposed Positions, Riley tackles domestic abuse within a family and how this sends ripples into the futures of the women who grow up, or out of it as well as the man who inflicts it on them.
The main misogynistic male character – a domineering father – kept biting at the edges of her previous novels alongside downtrodden mothers and wives, until finally she decided to write a novel all about them. "[The misogynist] is a character who kept appearing in my books and I wouldn't tackle him. A friend pointed out that I murdered the father in every book I wrote. As a grown-up writer, I still had to get the parents out of the way to get to other things, so I thought, 'That's ridiculous, don't murder him in the first chapter'."
Despite the bleak themes, the anchoring force of good friendships, and the prospect of a big, incendiary love, always looms large in Riley's world, even if it ends in stuttering disappointment or stasis. There is a wonderful summary of Riley's concept of love in her 2007 novel, Joshua Spassky, about a woman, Natalie, who travels to North Carolina to spend time with her on-off boyfriend. Natalie's friend says: "I don't think love is a matter of logistics, Natalie.... It's right there... All the time, like a – saucer.'"
It's a deeply romantic concept, isn't it, to regard love as a part of the object world, as enduring as a piece of china, so why is it that so few women in her books end up with this solid-as-rock kind of love? "Yes," says Riley. "Love is a saucer, but it wouldn't be interesting if it was as simple as that... It's a weird mystery, love, and Aislinn is making an endeavour for something real, wondering 'was there anything there, or was it only projection?"
Riley's own parents split up when she was two, after which she lived with her grandparents in the Wirral (along with her mother and brother) just as Aislinn does in Opposed Positions. Riley is no longer in contact with her family, though she wouldn't call it "estrangement" and she appears to be at peace with the detachment. She was living in Manchester until two years ago, and at the beginning of this year, she moved to Shepherds Bush in West London. Getting away from Manchester seems like a significant move, both in her life and in her fiction. The city is there – a brooding, grey, alcohol-soaked territory – in nearly every book. Many of her characters are fleeing from it but are drawn back in spite of themselves, and it appears to have taken Riley some time to depart for good too.
Her early trips to America seem to have been trial runs for departure. "I wanted to escape, get out of Manchester but I didn't make steps to really get out because I always had to come back. It was just a dramatic gesture rather than anything real."
Despite the fact that the north-west haunts her fiction, she does not think of it as her inner landscape. Quoting Aislinn, she says: "'Manchester inspires failures of the imagination.' I will not be going back."
So how does London compare to Manchester and Glasgow (where she lived for a year before moving south)?
"I haven't really been out of the flat," she says nonchalantly. In fact, Riley is happily self-contained on her own. "I'm very fond of my own company. Anything else makes me think there's a wasp in the room. I never feel a lack of people around."
And yet, when it comes to her work, she feel as if she is chiselling sentences and sending them out into the void, with such little contact between herself and her readers over the past decade.
"I've had two fan letters," Riley laughs. "One was a woman who sent me a nice letter after one book and said she too had written a book about vaginismus!"
The other was from a man who, when she rang him to thank him for his letter, didn't remember who she was. "I had given up writing and hated myself at the time and so I phoned to thank him for the letter, and tell him I was ready to kill myself. He said 'Gwendoline?' ."
But then again, she admits that she feels uncomfortable receiving praise, dismissing it instantly. And she is impervious to success, refusing to believe in it. There's no sense of success at the end of a book, she says, no blow out or splurge. "What, with my fiver?" she quips, and then: "There's a moment when I think I've got something but [by then] it's already receding. It's sad."
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