Author portrait © Rupert Smith

One comes away from meeting and talking with Laura Beatty with a combined sense of awe and the closest human affinity and immediacy. She possesses a formidable mind, a very composed and elegiac conversational style that one may only call a delicately poetic oral prose. The beginning of a thought or a sentence soon acquires a life of its own, an indomitable will that is almost untameable. Questions and answers flow in waves, divagations, divergences and convergences. She is engrossingly eccentric and concentric, all at once, in keeping with her deepest credo: the fusion and fluidity of elements, of existence and of consciousness, of margins and centres. The Friends’ Room at the Royal Academy proved a unique meeting point, bringing together the greatest forces of her work: words and images, past and present, materiality and abstraction. In almost everything she says there seems to be an echo of the words of Gabriel Marcel: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” She is irresistibly drawn in her writing and in her life towards what she calls “the mystery of the world”.

One comes to writing from many different, often contradictory paths. What did you study and what did you want to be, if not a writer?

Beatty read English at Oxford, with Ancient Greek as an option. Oxford was a dreamy place for her, a world where one could lose oneself creatively and make unexpected discoveries. Yet what she has always wanted to be is a dancer, and the word comes out of her mouth with startling conviction and intensity. Her ideal dance company is Pina Bausch’s iconic Tanztheater Wuppertal and the Greek dancer Dimitris Papaioannou. For Beatty, dance is a vivid language, untranslatable and perfect. “It is a mortal, limited, finite thing that can attain absolutes in a way that language cannot.” Words have “a long seductive authority”, she insists, which is both engrossing and problematic. She thinks a lot in visual terms, yet nothing can match dance – in particular, it seems, dance as embodied by Papaioannou, whose work she finds “astonishingly beautiful, aesthetically Greek, and yet beyond both beauty and Greekness.”

You can’t get to knowledge through one mind alone. You need many minds. [Sadly], we don’t have many minds in contemporary writing.”

What made you want to tell stories, to think (as you have said) through writing and stories?

The first thing Beatty talks about is what she calls the Frankenstein Project, which she understands in terms of J.M. Coetzee’s own process of writing which interlaces fact with fiction, which fuses and exposes the duality between mind and body, reason and the soul. Mary Costello and Marilynne Robinson have taught her that a writer is “a secretary to the world, listening for false notes.” Listening to the many sounds and noises and transcribing both singularity and multivalence is what makes writing vital for her. “You can’t get to knowledge through one mind alone. You need many minds. [Sadly], we don’t have many minds in contemporary writing.”

She was born to a very bookish family and has been writing stories ever since she can remember. Imagining and storytelling is a way (perhaps the only way, for Beatty) of existing in the world. Books have been her enduring love, providing a filter for looking at the world, a prism for ordering experience. Her younger sister is the poet Alice Oswald – whose work she admires deeply, and with whom she seems to have an extraordinary contrapuntal dialogue of style and sensibility.

History often becomes a story in your writing. How are histories and stories linked and why? Can one exist without the other?

Beatty loved history as a child. An Illustrated History of England was her Jamesian carpet full of figures. The spell seemed to be broken when she realised that the author’s History was essentially his own, a history of men and what men had done. History was taken away from her when the story was replaced by facts. When she wrote Anne Boleyn: The Wife Who Lost Her Head, which was conceived initially as a story for her children, she realised that stories are a very particular form of truth – they are important in the creation of myths, the almost sublime kind of narrative only a few are capable of – and that the only way to a definitive history is the inclusion of versions, facets, secondary narratives and tales.

History, memory, being in time and in place, I and Thou, what are the connections, and, in the context of Lost Property, why do they matter (if they do)?

Beatty insists that she cannot say she understands. She sees through shafts of light what she thinks is there, flashes of insight and wonder. Memory and history converge and are deflected in such momentous, momentary encounters. In Lost Property what she calls the “closed self” begins the journey by arguing, because divided. It goes through a process of opening, of attaining intimacy, a relationship with the other. The layer of individuality is incredibly thin, a permeable membrane that allows (when we allow it) for fusion and transfusion. It is through the human encounter (past or present, real or fictional) that we can belong to a larger humanity. Beatty likes the myth world where there are no absolutes, where we can be unbounded as in the beginning of time. She sees writing as a vital act of connecting, communing and communicating, as a passage from singleness into humankind.

The author’s freedom is to be unconstrained by fear. That is true, boundless freedom, to risk your life in writing.”

What one might call the wonder of otherness and the closeness of one’s own identity…?

“Yes, absolutely,” Beatty says, “that’s just it.” Also, the sense of genius in transforming the old. Writing for her is a bequest from one generation to another, and in this way there is no constraining sense of ownership, she insists – or of boundaries.

Your writing is writing with a purpose, or so it seems. Why do you write? Why do we write, in a more general sense?

Writing is trying to break out of isolation, insularity, exclusion and solipsism. Beatty wants to believe in the possibility and reality of communication. The single perspective, she says, is essentially a form of madness. Writing “is moral, almost too moral”, and she is by her own admission a particularly demanding reader and writer. Yet “even the mediocre adds to the stock of what we’ve got,” according to a friend, “as long as you are doing it for real.” Writing, she emphasises, is “sacred, one of the only religious acts we have.”

What is, in your view, good writing? Can it be taught or is it a very personal process of experience and analysis, of developing an individual sensibility?

For Beatty, “the only quality is that it should have that ring of reality. That it should embrace the risk of throwing yourself off the precipice” in the act of writing – of baring the self for the other to see and engage with. She is currently a Royal Literary Fellow at the University of West England, and her dream is to teach not simply creative writing but creative thinking. She would do this through books but also by way of more abstract things. Another dream is to write a piece that would also be a dance, a pas de deux with God. There would be a human thread of narrative with bits of movement, that the mind could attach itself to and travel. The narrative voice would be male, the dancer female, and God would shift between the male voice and the female dance notation. The fascination of such a project would be the particular nature of dance notation, both concrete and recorded through writing, yet at the same time indecipherably personal, illegible by anyone other than the author. And God? “God is the hunger that is beyond the humanly possible.” Therefore, the answer again seems to be that writing is highly personal, while being at the same time a communal project and a transcendental relationship, in a thrilling fusion of the palpably real and the mystical.

What are an author’s freedoms and responsibilities? Or is it all poetic licence?

Beatty demands that the words ‘poetic licence’ be erased. Permanently. Instantly. There is no such thing, there cannot be any such element in writing. The author’s responsibility is to the reader. Beatty does not believe that her expression, her style, is the most interesting thing –and this is an extraordinary statement for someone whose diction and discourse possess incredible balance and beauty, an almost otherworldly power and striking veracity. She seeks, she insists, “a joint point of view that the reader has already seen but not expressed either in mental pictures or with words.” Once again, writing is an event and an encounter, a meeting and agreement of converging gazes. Freedom, too, is crucial. “The author’s freedom is to be unconstrained by fear. That is true, boundless freedom, to risk your life in writing.”

Why Dante?

“No one else has understood better the heaven and hell of individuality. There is no better guide for the progress from closeness to openness.” The Commedia is essentially “a meditation on whether we are naturally destructive as a species.” Her Dante is a parallel Italian and English text, for the sound and essence of the words, the physical reality of the poetry, and the translation of the late Allen Mandelbaum.

What authors (or other people) have been your spiritual and intellectual companions, your Virgils and Beatrices?

Beatty is an eclectically voracious reader, and one suspects that her ‘desert island’ suitcase of books would be a particularly colossal and heavy one. Breathlessly, she lists Chekhov, his plays and especially his short stories. Maupassant, because Chekhov was the small dog to his apparently infinitely larger one, according to a story. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, because she admires his flights of the imagination and “his high-handed approach to boring the reader.” Ismail Kadare, especially Broken April and The Siege. Ben Marcus, Marilynne Robinson, Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the impossibly beautiful Arthur Golding translation, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin translated by Nabokov, Maeterlinck (as she says this, his words “When we lose one we love, our bitterest tears are called forth by the memory of hours when we loved not enough” uncannily spring to mind), Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, sometimes Karl Ove Knausgård, for all (or because of) his unbearable gaze, the Hungarian László Krasznahorkai, especially Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance. Missing from her list is the Oresteia, a central part of her consciousness: it is “too fearless in the face of horror. Too dangerous” to be a guide, although it is always a permanence and presence.

A concept that marked me in Lost Property is what you call “spiritual genocide”. Can you please elaborate?

For Beatty, our education system is a systematic act of destruction. The “spiritual genocide” she refers to is destroying children, their imagination, their sense of autonomy, and their instinct and skill for understanding. And yet it is the young who need to have a voice and a sense of who they want to be – what kind of world they want us to bequeath to them.

Is meaning necessary, and why? This seems to be one of the questions that the carpione in Lost Property struggles with as it dies.

“It is to me. I recognise that it isn’t for some, yet I cannot stop looking for it.”

Is writing an internalisation of experience or an externalisation of an instinct to relate (in both senses of the word)?

For Beatty, it is very much the latter, although one cannot do the one without the other. “Relating our life and experiences so that others can appropriate, relate, share the burden” is the task and purpose of writing. The act of relating – of telling stories and forging human connections – “is an outward movement, moving away from internalisation. We write to change society, to open people’s eyes.”

Writing is an unreachable, wonderful landscape, a terrible swinging around between hope and despair. One of the real difficulties is that we must make choices that are impossible, because they impinge on the happiness of so many others.”

How do you write?

“With a pen! By patchwork, in my head, as I am walking, listening to the rhythm. This I then transfer in longhand onto paper, followed by a longer, reworked computerised version. I like to write in my head, listening to the sound of the sentences. In writing I am aiming for weight – and weight needs light.” Inevitably, this raises the question of images, of paintings. She instantly responds with Tintoretto, the painters of the Sienese and Florentine Trecento and Quattrocento. “They are so explorative, narrative, extraordinary”, she is in thrall to the stillness and tension of the frescoes and the panels. From there a leap to Anselm Kiefer, Rothko, Samuel Palmer (“a mystic”), Rubens’ landscapes, Calder’s mobiles, Matisse.

As Beatty says, in parting, writing is “an unreachable, wonderful landscape, a terrible swinging around between hope and despair. One of the real difficulties of crises [personal, historical, social, existential] is that we must make choices that are impossible, because they impinge on the happiness of so many others.” And yet one must also make the choice of oneself. Somehow, ineffably, this impossible balancing act is achieved through the gesture and movement of writing – and for Beatty that is the sacredness and mystery of stories. Laura Beatty has an exceptional voice, and her own stories are like secret gardens: wild and untamed, yet revealing a sense of underlying order that is almost cosmic in its scheme and proportions, resplendent in its awesome mysteriousness, suffused with burgeoning humanity. Interestingly, both her mother and her sister are gardeners. She converses in the same way that she feels that people, the world and its elements ought to be converging, and it was a wondrous and rare pleasure and experience to share her time and to listen to her thoughts about writing and so much else.

Lost Property by Laura Beatty is out now from Atlantic Books.
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Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.

Read Mika’s review of Lost Property