Rebecca Hunt is one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, never mind interviewed. Her incredibly poised debut novel Mr Chartwell was published when she was 31 (she’s now 34), and sold in ten countries. Also longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, she could frankly be excused for taking herself very seriously indeed. But any notions about her being an intimidating Bright Young Thing are instantly dispelled. When she passes me a packet of biscuits, she says “They’re quite textural, get ready!” (Unfortunately for mildly dog-phobic me, her pug Nancy is also quite friendly. When I go to the toilet, Nancy follows me. Later, I joke about not knowing the etiquette of peeing in front of a dog and Hunt says, laughing “What if I’d made it a condition of the interview that she stay in the room with you?!”)
There are reminders of the books she has written in her kitchen: a bust of Winston Churchill, the subject of Mr Chartwell, on the windowsill; a picture of a walrus, which could have popped up in Everland, stuck to the fridge. When I ask about the genesis of Everland she tells me, “I wanted to write about Antarctica, I did loads of research and then the idea I had changed quite a lot, actually. You think, I’ve got to put some people in Antarctica, and obviously there are only so many people there: it’s not like there are loads of dog walkers and nurses, it’s basically scientists and Ben Fogle maybe? But it’s pretty much scientists and explorers from the past.”
She went on a residency to the Arctic Circle as part of her research. “It was a ship and there were 18 of us on the residency and then the crew as well. It was like a social experiment, it was really, really good. Obviously the Arctic is totally the furthest place on earth that you can get away from Antarctica because it’s the North as opposed to the South Pole so it’s quite an epic fail in terms of getting closer to Antarctica but it’s a similar vibe. It’s not like I went to Trinidad!
“Everything was very beautiful in the way that you kind of imagine calendar photos are, so stunningly picturesque. You’re looking at it and trying to get yourself engaged with it because it’s so hard to get to grips with. There were these huge glaciers crumbling into the sea and you’re sort of thinking ‘Remember this’ but it’s really hard to get in the moment. I think I do have this slightly detached thing. I imagine if I was at Niagara Falls, I’d be thinking ‘Here I am at Niagara Falls!’ You know, trying to be in the moment a little bit rather than assessing it and its oddness or its unlikeliness, as opposed to just getting on with it and enjoying it. It was so beautiful we saw walruses constantly and little artic foxes and polar bears.”
Did she ever feel in danger? “Yes, a bit. There were hundreds and hundreds of little graves on one island, the graves of seal hunters who’d come from the northernmost city on earth – and you can really tell! That city, it’s not Leeds… it’s not New York! It’s like a mining town and that’s really obvious, it’s quite nuts, everyone there is a little bit nuts. But anyway, we went to this Norwegian grave place, all these hundreds of tiny little crosses on the mountainside, which is really amazing to look at because it’s blinding white and then there’s these hundreds of tiny black crosses. But one of our guides came back and she said there were fresh polar bear prints on the beach. They could tell they were fresh because if you can see the claws of the paw in the footprint then that’s fresh. She said we had better go… they can run really, really fast!”
In Mr Chartwell Churchill’s depression is manifested as an actual black dog that comes to visit him. Hunt says, “Churchill famously called his depression the black dog. I don’t know why I was thinking about him but he just cropped up… I just had this idea that I would turn the black dog phrase into a black dog reality! You can’t consider all angles. I remember coming back and saying to my boyfriend, ‘I’m going to write a book and I think both of us thought yeah right is this like when you decided to take up jogging?! But then I actually did it. You assume you probably can’t but you can learn.
“I’d left art school but then you don’t obviously say ‘Now I’m an artist.’ You say, ‘Now I’m off to Office Angels!’ I was in this job I hated and I thought I’m going to do something creative, something constructive for me, so I signed up for this writing course in a college somewhere. I learnt one thing. The man said, ‘Listen to this, can you hear the difference between a bonfire emitting smoke and a bonfire knitting smoke?’ That’s what I basically walked away with.
“If you read a lot of books, you’ve got an idea of how a book looks and so you can keep learning from there. I wouldn’t say I know totally, I think it’s always quite hard. I think you know more than you did with each book but you still don’t know it all. Mr Chartwell was hard in its own way because it’s about depression and that’s a subject you need to be careful with – and I was writing about one of the most famous British people who ever lived so I needed to be respectful and considered. I wanted to be accurate, I didn’t want to make anything up about him. Even though he’s a fictional Churchill and I’ve put those words in his mouth, I wanted to get them as close to what he might have said as possible, everything else around him is 100% true to life so that his rooms are the same, he drinks the same drink, he smokes the same cigar, all his ornaments are real, he wears the right clothes, he wears Churchill’s actual clothes and those kind of things. He lives in the same house. As much as I could, I tried to make his real life unchanged, it’s only his words that are different.”
If you’ve got an objective then you can achieve and that makes you feel good about yourself… in crises often it’s a snapshot of what people are like. Everyone has a survival instinct.”
We talk about depression and she says, “I think work helps. If you’ve got a purpose, it gives you an objective, but if you don’t and you’re sort of then left to turn in circles a bit, that’s hard. I mean boredom is a completely different thing but it’s exhausting and if you’ve got an objective then you can achieve and that makes you feel good about yourself.” I mention that in Everland, characters thrust into crises often seem most themselves. “Yeah, I think in crises often it’s a snapshot of what people are like. Everyone has a survival instinct.”
I mention Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, his account of the year he spent as a prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Hunt says “There’s a really interesting bit in that, it’s fascinating, he writes about it in such a measured way which is incredible because you think he’d be furious or too heartbroken to ever make sense of it. He’s so restrained and at no point do you feel he’s becoming more tortured with fury, he’s almost distanced. He writes about how awful it is and the pain they’re in and the absolute cruelty but he never writes about it from a position of raging or railing or wailing. He just remembers it, writes it, and that’s his way of dealing with it to give you the chance to understand it from a very scientific, analytical point of view, which actually has far more impact that if he was wringing with rage and fury and resentment.”
It occurs to me that although Hunt is a gleeful woman she is most impassioned when talking about quite dark subjects: depression, the Holocaust. As I’m thinking about this she says, “If he’d never got over it then you’d never be able to see what happened because you’d be blinded by his rage. But the fact that he writes about what they did to him whilst he was there, day to day, makes it far more resonant. We know about the trains going to Auschwitz and we know about the ovens but we need to know about what happens in between and he writes about that, he just describes life and it’s beyond comprehension. You can barely imagine that anyone can possibly survive but he lays out the different kinds of people who go in there and it does seem like certain people are far more likely to survive than others. And he says you can spot the ones that won’t survive – they’re gone in months, in weeks. Because you never get enough food you have to be absolutely on your feet, ready… You can’t feel sorry for yourself, just eat what they give you and do the work they want you to do because you’ll be dead within weeks, and some people really get that and react to that.”
Before I go, I ask if she would like to go on another residency “Yes, I’d really love to go to the Amazon next.” Really? “Yes, would you not? Where would you go on a residency? Paris?” I nod and we both cackle before she puts the kettle on again.
Rebecca Hunt graduated from Central Saint Martins with a first-class honours degree in fine art. She lives and works in London. Everland is published in hardback by Fig Tree and in eBook by Penguin. Read more.
Alex Peake-Tomkinson is a contributing editor at Bookanista and writes book reviews and features for the Mail on Sunday, the TLS and the Daily Telegraph.