Gwendoline Riley’s novels honour the small things. Cold Water (2002) and its successor Sick Notes (2004) tell the stories of
Riley’s characters read Russian writers, and she quotes Dostoevsky in the preliminary pages of Sick Notes; an American accent lingers in both books. But has Riley been at all influenced by English writers? "I don’t know what they’re going on about," she says. "I like Alan Warner, though, and I just read a book of short stories by Ewan Morrison that I enjoyed, but then he’s Scottish, too, and the stories were set in America."
As is Riley’s new book, Joshua Spassky. But is this a conscious effort to get away from writing about
Emotion and surroundings are intertwined for Riley’s characters. Their habitat is observed with the same keen eye for detail that examines them, and a hundred tiny moments expand to fill the pages of each novel with a tribute to the everyday, to the way we live out our lives. The thoughtful prose produces a kind of poetic realism. Riley’s anti-heroines are flawed or stagnating, but they are always sympathetically described and touchingly human; a combination of banter and self-reproach softens their hard edges. Hers is a rare brand of existentialism that makes room for both humour and warmth.
Riley’s youth and style have often been drawn into journalistic comment on her work. When asked about her reaction to this sort of attention, her response is mixed. She thinks that the idea of herself as a ‘hip lit’ icon is ridiculous: "[Hip lit] was coined by that one article [in The Times Online], it hasn’t been splashed across Time Magazine, and clearly it doesn’t exist." But: "’Camus in hotpants’ [3am Magazine] is a genius bit of description, I’m hardly going to be a churl about that." And perhaps it would be churlish to take offence at any comparison to Camus, hot-panted or not.
Several times during the
Riley is serious about books and about becoming a more proficient writer. She reads widely: "I just read Everyman, Philip Roth, and I enjoyed it so much. Roth is definitely right on the edge of writing a Karamazov. I’m thinking about death more and more and Everyman confirmed what I’ve been thinking. One of my favourite books of all time is My Life as a
When asked about her development as an author (her first novel was published when she was just twenty-two), Riley says, "I don’t think many people are good writers at age seventeen, are they? Unless they’re Rimbaud or Mary Shelley. I kept working on it. I wanted everything I wrote to be as good and to have as much integrity as The Great Gatsby or The Brothers Karamazov, but that couldn’t be in my mind as I wrote, clearly. So I was just developing my brain’s calibration, and following my instincts, and soon I knew I was good enough to begin, but that was only the beginning. I have to keep thinking all the time, and addressing certain questions, and investigating certain situations; I have to keep my mind in shape and be open to the world."
Gwendoline Riley’s books are published by Jonathan Cape and Vintage