From The Literary Hub:
“I feel like, at some level, we are all outsiders,” Nicola Barker says of the vast array of oddballs and originals who populate her bafflingly innovative thirteen novels. “Society is fluid. But you need to stand outside of a situation, a dilemma, an experience, to truly understand it. That’s what my characters often do. They are inquisitive. They can’t be satisfied by the time or circumstances they are living in.”
It is January in this deadly winter of COVID-19, and we are exchanging emails across the Atlantic—me in Richmond, Virginia, and my literary hero in the town of Faversham, formerly the home of the explosives industry in the UK. Both of us are home-bound, like most everyone else, trying to feel like writers even if we’re spending a lot of our time staring at walls. When I asked her what she’s been up to recently—during Britain’s Tier 5 lockdown—she says she’s done little but “walking and thinking,” though she spends a good deal of time talking by phone to family scattered across the globe.
Our correspondence has been a small miracle for me, as my discovery of Barker’s work a decade ago completely changed the way I write and think about writing. Often, after sending an email, I’ll spend a tortured day thinking of what I could have said that will finally prove that I am a fool (why did I insist on making that corny Bowie joke?), but I find again and again that she responds with effusive grace and a rich supply of advice on writing and life.
Hailed as an “unclassifiable genius” by the Guardian, Barker is a well-known literary figure in Britain. But if she is familiar at all to readers in America, it is often for her 2007 novel Darkmans, a wild and paranoiac book that is both about history and very much about twenty-first century life—and a strong candidate for the eight hundred funniest pages in literature. I ran into the book back in the last recession, during a phase in my life when I was hopping from job to job, rudderless, trying to hold on to some idea that I could be a writer. It challenged everything I’d learned thus far about fiction and pointed me in a new direction, one centered on character and voice and trust in one’s aesthetic obsessions and particularities, on the inner play of consciousness, on the lightning-quick moves of our real lived experience.
. . . .
Maybe I needed a change. Maybe I needed to spend a couple of years trying to write like someone else—someone who takes risks without a net—in order to discover an authentic voice of my own. Darkmans made the short list for the Booker Prize, and she made the long list for the Booker for two other novels, Clear and The Yips. One could call Barker an avant-garde writer, but she looks at her style as something more like play: “I need to feel free. I won’t be constrained. Especially not by the expectations of others or even my own expectations. I am guided by a sense of mischief. I don’t ever sit down to write and think: I’ll use this tone, this accent, this layout…”
Link to the rest at The Literary Hub