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HOLLY PESTER

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Holly Pester is a writer, poet and scholar who currently lives in Essex. She is the author of works including her recent novel The Lodgers (Granta, 2024), Comic Timing (Granta, 2021), Go to reception and ask for Sara in red felt tip (Book Works, 2015), and the LP of recorded works Common Rest (Prototype, 2016). In 2019 she wrote the radio work “Poems for Idle Workers” based on Virgil’s Eclogues, for BBC Radio 4. Across a variety of media, her writing performs a sustained engagement with dreams, the relief of comedy, the spaces for creativity around restraint, imagination as a resource and practice, gender as a set of experiences in time, the pressures of economy within such experiences, and the language we make from them. To mark the publication of The Lodgers she spoke with Ed Luker about her experience of composing in a new form, writing in the time of prose and the influences and ideas built into living in someone else’s space.

Interview by Ed LukerPortrait by Eleanor Vonne Brown

ED LUKER How do you feel now that The Lodgers is out in the world? What’s the journey been like from the project’s inception to now? 

HOLLY PESTER If you’re a first-time novelist, the publisher likes to release your book into the world at a certain time of year, which might be up to eighteen months after finishing. That gives you a strange emotional relationship to the work. You end up feeling as if you’ve done something very naughty, but nobody knows yet, as if you had broken a mirror or farted in a room people were about to enter. The novel itself was written quickly, but with a certain energy, in a coherent moment of time and, importantly, in a voice I found to be my own. Now the work’s coming out it feels distant because it disappeared for me and then suddenly returned months and months later. I had to go back into it, which was healthy, I think. I might try and do that on purpose for another project: bury it, then dig it up years later. It feels good. Everyone’s about to see the naughty thing that I’ve done. 

EL The novel is partly about shared housing and the instability of housing conditions. One of the things that was interesting to me was also how much it explored the strange nooks and crannies of crap England. Tell us a little about that.

HP The novel is about a woman in her early to mid-30s lodging with a single mum in a suburban 1970s semi-detached house in a small town. But the novel itself is narrated by the previous lodger, who has also lived out this experience that the current lodger is going through. This narrator is subletting in another small suburban town while spying on her mother. I wanted to think about family and the relationship that these two lodgers have in these family homes. I’ve lodged with single mum landladies, and it’s been a trope in literature since Charles Dickens. In Britain, it’s a way for single mums to pay their rent or mortgages. My mum did the same when I was growing up – she rented homes she couldn’t quite afford and let rooms out to lodgers. I wanted to think about that weird adjacency that the lodger has to the heart of a family, close to it but not really in it. Adjacency is very much a key aspect of this novel.

EL As a writer who has worked across poetry and performance, what did you learn in the process of working with prose?

HP It’s really hard. You’ll notice that it’s not a “proper” novel – it doesn’t have chapters, and it’s episodic, which makes it hard to develop and enrich a plot. That’s partly to explore the subjectivity that’s produced in that kind of housing precarity, where development may be withheld from the character’s sense of self anyway. But my writing practice also behaves like that because I’m a poet writing a novel. There’s a brilliant quote by Sylvia Plath where she says that novels, compared to poetry, are “all morals and money.” That’s so perfect. It centres the questions of novels when you’re writing: how do people relate to each other? What is the economic and political relationship between these people existing in this space? Iris Murdoch said that the novel is a house that you let characters rattle around in. How do you compare these people? What does he earn? Where does he live and what’s his day going to look like? Those were the kinds of questions that I found myself preoccupied by during the writing process.

EL Did you enjoy writing it?

HP I think I’m a writer because I’m bad with words. I’m terrible at Scrabble. I’m awful at writing birthday cards, or wedding poems. I’m the last person you should ask to do those things. But lodging is an extremely novelistic situation, so that helped. It lends itself naturally to that essential status of the observer: hearing through walls, being a part of other people’s bedtimes, abiding by the bathroom rota. The strange marks of other people that determine your time, even when you don’t see or hear them.

EL How was it constructing these fictive distances and thinking through them?

HP I wanted to bring out the complacency and lack of curiosity that the two lodgers have about the people around them. Their lives are fine actually – they’re totally fine. They have moved around loads and that’s produced this slightly callous, deadpan selfishness, while they’re next to single mums desperately working to ward off housing crisis. I wanted to bring out their detachment from the situation. I wanted to alert myself to the potential sympathies that one could miss if you were living too much in your own head. 

EL I felt that the voice in the novel had a similarity to Ali Smith’s earlier work and Elif Batuman’s two novels, where the comedy of tone becomes a way of managing the gap between being a person to whom things happen and having feelings in the world.

HP I really love that deadpan tone. It says, you are still a character; your life has this sort of anecdotal currency that is naturally comedic; your agency is a sort of arbitrary point around which plots cohere, where your experience is that of doors slamming around you, being adjacent to other people’s experiences. In this novel there’s a child as well, and she became an important locus of comedy for me due to the farcical nature of the situation. She understands the house in such a pure way: who’s going to feed me? Who’s going to play with me? Who’s going to give me attention? I really enjoyed getting to that level of experience through the child’s perspective, away from all the adult needs of money and rent.

EL One of the first things that I ever saw of yours was a video of performance of a sound poem, “Moffa”, online. It must have been 10 or 12 years ago. I was interested in the reappearance of this figure in The Lodgers – was it planned, or did she just walk in?

HP I was not expecting her at all. She just came back. I used to work with the artist Emma Bennett, my best friend, and we made these improv sound pieces together: “Moffa” was a kind of distortion of an argument with a mother figure. It came out of a horrible article that Glenda Jackson’s son wrote about how embarrassed he was to grow up with the MP as his mother, right after she’d done that amazing speech in parliament after Thatcher died. I was very influenced at that time by people like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I loved the sketches that were quite violent and nasty. Peter Cook was always trying to make Dudley Moore laugh. Emma and I worked like that too, winding each other up. We’d decide: “Okay, we’re just going to shout at each other as if we’re each other’s mothers.” That went way past gentle teasing sometimes. 

EL How did her reappearance come about, exactly?

HP As the other characters became more defined, I wanted a kind of mother character to be a ghostly presence for the narrator. It happened that the narrator was back in her hometown obsessively spying on her own mother who wasn’t even there. I had some sort of verbal block. I couldn’t call her mother. That’s how “Moffa” came back. Elena Ferrante deals with mothers well: your mother’s body veering into view and haunting you, and having relationships with other mother-kinds when you are a young woman – you’re fated towards her physically in various ways. I quite like bringing in something from my last practice as well, whether that’s from performances, poetry, or across play and radio work. There’s a verbal iconography that exists in practice and it’s useful to dredge all that back up to find new ways into things.

EL Much of your work explores the history of song, lullabies, murmurs and cries, thinking about and through a polyphony of voice. Did you find any other kind of relations between these past interests in this new work?

HP I’ve always ultimately been interested in the radiophonic as a kind of chattery form that you can achieve in writing, as a sort of open, raw bandwidth of voices that you make happen. I want anything that I write to have that kind of openness – one that feels untuned, like a radio. That’s an extremely modernist kind of understanding of literature. I was looking at the work of Hilda Hilst, an absolutely brilliant Brazilian poet and novelist who was influenced by Beckett and Joyce. In her work there’s a lot of proliferating, where a sentence accumulates and dances across the page. I am as interested in that as I am in that blunt, deadpan tone. 

EL There’s a kind of sing-song character to interiority in British comedy, like in early Peep Show, that I see in this novel, too. We’re getting the interior shot of someone bumbling along. You said something earlier about writing as “the psychic and spiritual distortions of tone and ideas.” That reminds me of the humour of Bob Mortimer, inventing different names for a cat.

HP I love comedy. It’s part of my foundational taste in art in a way that people love architecture and dance. I’m seriously informed by the history of the form, going back to earlier periods of performance and the influence of vaudeville theatres and dancehalls, which is the place for comedy as the art of the attempt to live a normal life. What the tradition explores is how your efforts to do a normal task, something like painting a picture, meet the obstacles and the impositions of the world such that the performer becomes a distortion of many subjects. What comes out is some sort of weird human residue. I’m as influenced by early Bob Mortimer and Vic Reeves as much as by any poet or novelist.

EL What are you working on now? 

HP I’ve slowly been writing these very short prose-poem things, café poems. They’re not about cafés, but the café is the form from which I’m describing dream-like yet also realist vignettes. I’ve been thinking of cafés as a third space. They’re not work, they’re not home. They should have this kind of utopian ideal within them but they’re quite banal. It’s a form for thinking through and rehearsing the types of voice that I’m interested in. There’s personal iconography that keeps coming up, like motherhood and accessibility, and the relationships between motherhood and work.

EL Finally, snog, marry, bin: landlords, estate agents, politicians.

HP Okay, marry the landlord, because you can really ruin someone’s life that way, with a sinister kind of slow murder. Snog the estate agent. I can imagine them having a very interesting smell, like the plastic in new refrigerators, and being good at snogging. Bin politicians? As long as for most of them it’s a true bin: an inferno. ◉