Martin Pevsner recently published his first novel, Divinity Road. Our reviewer praised him as “a writer to put on your watch list if this multi-dimensional tour de force is anything to go by”. koshkha was curious to learn more about stories and thoughts behind the book.
Martin lives and works in Oxford but has spent time in Cameroon, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
CBF: I chose the book because I recognised the reference to the road where part of the story is set. I’d guess that’s not why you chose it though. What was the thinking behind the name?
Martin Pevsner: I had a different name for the novel originally – Companions of the Garden – a reference to the Qur’an. An agent told me people browsing in a bookshop would presume it was a gardening book. She suggested I think of a new title. Three of the four characters live in Divinity Road. As I wrote the book, I was thinking about faith and organised religions and what motivates us. We follow all four characters on their individual journeys. Putting the three elements together, I came up with the title almost immediately. I think the agent was absolutely right – it’s a much better title!
CBF: Was it a conscious decision to set the book in areas of Oxford that have nothing to do with the normal Morse and mortarboards image of the city?
Martin Pevsner: Not at all – it was entirely natural. I live in East Oxford, I work in a further education college in Blackbird Leys. I just wrote about what I know.
CBF: The four stories run in parallel but not in sync. Did you write them side by side or one at a time?
Martin Pevsner: One at a time. At an early stage in the planning, I wanted to be innovative, create a different kind of novel, one that readers could read to some degree in the order they wanted. I envisaged some loose-leaf system whereby readers could choose the order in which they read the characters’ journeys – every reader would have a different reading experience! Once I started writing it, I soon realised I needed to manipulate the order in order to maintain narrative flow and create maximum impact and suspense, so I ditched my idea.
I wrote Greg’s chapters first, then Aman’s, then Semira’s. For Nuala’s story, I worked backwards starting from the ‘twist’ at the end. I completed her story in two chapters deliberately, so that ‘Nuala 1′ would be something from outside the story itself – an episode in her past that led to her committing herself to her relationship with Greg. It was another (failed!) attempt at being experimental. No one that read it liked it, so I ditched it and spread her story into three chapters. For this I got some help from a freelance editor, Nicky Marcus. She helped me extend the study of Nuala’s grief and, among other things, introduced me to Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, a really insightful and powerful book.
CBF: Is there a reason why you didn’t name the African country where the plane crashed or is it just a reflection that the horrible events could really have happened in many different African countries?
Martin Pevsner: I wanted the book to be as non-specific as possible – I tried to avoid specific references to dates too.
CBF: It must have been tempting to give readers a rather more conventional “happy ending”. Were you tempted and if so why did you choose not to?
Martin Pevsner: I had the ending in my head from the word go – there was never any chance of it being any different. An agent who showed some initial interest said I’d need to change it, the story was already ‘heavy’ enough and didn’t need that extra ‘twist’. I was willing to compromise on a lot of things (often for good reason – the title, for instance) – but I could never have considered changing the ending.
CBF: Did you base the radicalisation of Aman on real events?
Martin Pevsner: No, not really. My work brings me into contact with asylum seekers and refugees, and I have observed how, for some of them, their vulnerability and trauma can lead to extreme alienation which, itself, can be a step towards mental ill-health. I also did a lot of internet research, reading testimonies and witness accounts of life as a detainee, as well as stuff on terrorist trials in UK. Some of my colleagues have taught in detention centres, some students I’ve worked with have been detained themselves – all these things came together in my attempt to show Aman’s downward spiral.
CBF: Your African sections almost sizzle on the page. How long did you spend working in Africa and what were the main influences of your experience that came through in the book?
Martin Pevsner: I spent a year in Cameroon, three years in Zimbabwe, a little more than that in Namibia, and travelled quite widely around the south, central and northern regions of Africa. I worked as a volunteer for Voluntary Services Overseas in Zimbabwe. I spent the time in two small rural schools. We had no electricity or running water. Apart from domestic chores, teaching and drinking beer in the local shop, I did a lot of walking, climbing kopjes and visiting neighbouring townships. I suppose it brought me closer to nature which probably helped in the physical descriptions in the book. My only direct experience of conflict in Africa was in Cameroon in 1984 – there was a failed coup while I was there, and for a few days I was caught up in fighting in the capital – I don’t think that fed much into the book – I actually fictionalised that experience in a short story. Greg’s story is really just fantasy.
CBF: Which of the four characters did you most relate to and why?
Martin Pevsner: The first seeds of the book came about because I began to have a repeated image in my head every night as I fell asleep about waking up in a remote area of Africa after an aircrash. I was asking myself how I’d got there, what I’d do, what could happen etc. In that sense I suppose I projected myself into Greg. I suppose I’m also projected in some part into Aman’s character, in that I’m sure I too would be mentally weak under the onslaught of all that he goes through – I put myself in his place and could easily imagine my slide into depression and mental ill-health. Of course I drew on my experiences of ESOL teaching in creating Nuala, though there’s a lot of my wife in her personality. Semira is a fictionalised version of a number of ex-students of mine, most notably a friend who is living in UK as a single mum with four children and has been through a lot of the problems that Semira faces – dodgy landlords etc.
CBF: Reading Semira’s story made me even more angry than normal about the attitude some people have towards asylum seekers. What lessons would you like readers to take from her story?
Martin Pevsner: I suppose I’d like readers to recognise how difficult the lives of asylum seekers can be, how vulnerable they can be. But also how determined and resolute and courageous. As an aside, I’d like to add that support services such as ESOL classes are crucial in helping them integrate into UK society. For Semira, her hope lies in education so that she can become financially independent to look after her family. The government’s planned cuts to funding of classes for refugees will have a hugely detrimental effect on their chances of bettering themselves and making themselves useful, productive members of society. Even someone who is largely unsympathetic towards asylum seekers and refugees can see that there’s an economic reason for providing support: that denying them educational opportunities is counter-productive – it simply forces them to remain unemployable and so costs the government more in benefits.
CBF: I said in my review that the two wives were so well described that I could hardly believe the book was written by a man. Are you offended or reassured by that comment?
Martin Pevsner: I’m flattered.
CBF: Do you have another book in the pipeline and would you like to tell us anything about it?
Martin Pevsner: I have three other novels and a collection of short stories that I am looking to get published (any publishers out there? :-)). I’m currently working on my fifth novel which is set on the M1 and in Tennessee.
Thanks to Martin Pevsner and koshkha for making this interview for Curious Book Fans.
Divinity Road has been published by Signal Books, Oct 2010.
You can read the full review of Divinity Road here…
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