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In Conversation with Michèle Roberts

Michèle Roberts is the author of 15 critically acclaimed and prize-winning novels, including Daughters of the House, which won the WHSmith Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

As Sandstone's Managing Director, Bob Davidson, is a great admirer of Roberts's writing, we invited him to interview her on the inspiration for Cut Out, cultural identity, fitting in (or not), and hope.

I very much enjoyed the mix of fictional and real characters. Thinking of Denis in the present and Clemence in both past and present, I wonder if they were based on real people you know?

Denis is a completely invented character. I just tried to imagine him and tried to imagine how he would feel, think and react in certain testing situations. I discovered him as I went along. I made him a librarian by profession; that is a profession I trained for as a young woman, thinking it would become my day job while I started writing, but I didn’t stick at it for long, as I was always reading the books rather than doing the admin. Clemence is similarly a completely invented character, but she is inspired by the young women who worked as Matisse’s assistants on the cut-outs when he was old and confined to a wheelchair or a bed. I saw the film clip at the Tate Modern show of the cut-outs, showing the two young women at work, and was inspired to write a novel about their fictional equivalents.

The theme of being cut out in some way, of society, from their family, country, of love relationships and reforming in new patterns I think is profound. Of course it recurs throughout the book. Did the idea come to you while thinking about ‘a book featuring Matisse’ or from your observations of life?

The idea of people being cut out, from life or from happiness, came from my love of wordplay and wondering how the word used for Matisse’s works, cut-out, could begin to accrue other meanings in the course of a novel. I wanted the word to have multiple levels of meanings that the reader might enjoy discovering.

As a young woman, I felt cut out (cut off perhaps) from familial approval, because I became a feminist and a socialist and had an unconventional sex life, and then when I became a writer, or, rather, struggled to become one, I felt cut out again from my family as they worried about my not being able to earn a living and also disliked the subjects of my novels and could not be supportive. These experiences led me to empathise with other people I read about or met who were going through their own experiences of feeling cut out.

Denis struck me as a most sympathetic character by the end of the book. Not to know your father’s identity and to be rejected by your birth mother would leave anyone in a limbo of identity. Does he have anything to hold onto that will tell him what he is? Or who? In the end does it matter when we are all individuals?

Denis seems to me a character who has learned to rely on the love and support of his friends, and that gives him strength. He is gay, and has not had an easy time of it, as when he was a young man there was terrific anti-gay prejudice to be faced, but he has got through by finding his own community of people.

I wonder if you have any direct experience of the refugee camps near Calais?

I have had no personal experience of the camps at Calais but thought about them a great deal, especially as I travelled frequently to and from Paris by Eurostar and knew that other people were facing great distress and hardship in their attempts to travel to Britain. I did contribute to fund-raising for the people in the camps.

As ever, the sensuousness of your prose is truly striking. You must have thought about this over they years. Whare does it come from; is there a French cultural influence?

My prose is sensuous because I want to convey people’s sensual experience of the world. In my Catholic childhood, sensuality was feared and despised by the priests, and bodies were seen as the site of sin. So I want to reclaim the beauty and holiness and sexiness and joy and terrors and delights of our physical being. I want to reunite body and soul. Sorry if that sounds very pompous!

Your ending surprised me in a very positive way. The world is in a terrible condition just now. Do you have hope for humanity? Is this ending a sort of answer for us?

I think that first of all we react to world news and national news with deep emotion, perhaps anger or sorrow, and from that we make connections to other people, and we re-establish our political will that change for the better must happen. So yes I am an optimist, tho a cautious one.

Michèle Roberts

Michèle Roberts

Robert Davidson

Robert Davidson