Some Revelation and a Renewed Sense of Vagueness: Katharine Kilalea on Writing OK, Mr Field

Katharine Kilalea, OK, Mr Field

Katharine Kilalea, OK, Mr Field.
Faber & Faber. £12.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

Katharine Kilalea has a background as a poet, with a collection published by Carcanet and nominations for several awards. OK, Mr. Field is her first novel, an eccentric exploration of the aesthetics of classical music, architecture, landscape appreciation, and the human body, set in Kilalea’s home country of South Africa. In reviewing the novel for Splice, Anna MacDonald calls it an “intriguing début”, “an expansive, multi-sensory narrative which at once makes manifest the human condition and upsets that condition to vertiginous effect”.

Ahead of the publication of OK, Mr Field tomorrow, Katharine Kilalea generously corresponded with Splice via email to discuss the writing of the novel and her transition from poetry to prose.

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It’s striking that OK, Mr Field opens with an epigraph from Peter Sloterdijk. He’s not usually a writer whose words are taken up to set the tone for a novel. Is his work a particular interest of yours? How does his thought speak to the concerns of your narrative?

I discovered Peter Sloterdijk through Farshid Moussavi, the architect. I worked for her for many years. His book Bubbles (2011) seems to me to be a book about love, only what he describes as love exists all over the place, in the sort of romance between a boy and a soap bubble, for instance, or a foetus and a placenta. Sloterdijk’s recategorisation of what is or isn’t a legitimate love object echoed my own disquiet about dividing loving feelings into categories. Is romantic love that different from, say, friendship, or love for an animal, or a book? What, then, of sexuality? (I’m not the first woman, I’m sure, to be unnerved by how similar the early days of motherhood are to the first flush of young love…) Sloterdijk’s thinking helped me to understand Mr Field. His love objects are unusual, yes, but at least he cares about something! And isn’t it a triumph just to love anything at all?

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There’s a gentleness to the narrative drama of OK, Mr Field, despite the darkness at its heart. Your protagonist is a man whose wife inexplicably disappears, though he doesn’t seem particularly troubled by her absence, and then he begins to stalk another woman and/or hallucinate her presence in his life, though he doesn’t pose a serious risk to her and he’s not really at risk himself…

In other words, you’ve written a novel that has all the basic ingredients for tension, suspense, mystery — a plot to be complicated and resolved — but the tone, and the things you focus on from scene to scene, don’t work to generate those sensations. Why take this route with your first novel? How did you settle on this idiosyncratic form?

What intrigued me was not what happened between Mr Field and Hannah Kallenbach so much as the intensity of his affection for her. Sometimes when I wondered about his feelings for her, I thought of K in The Castle. Why does K persist in his fruitless pursuit of the Castle? Why doesn’t he just give up on the whole business of wanting to be a land surveyor and go home? What makes someone (or something) so wonderful that they’re worth pursuing endlessly?

The problem with writing about a persistent feeling, like obsession, is that it seems structurally at odds with the form of a novel. A novel is built on the idea of progress — that one thing leads to another towards some kind of end or conclusion — whereas an infatuation is about someone stuck in a rut, doing or thinking or feeling the same thing over and over again. So the issue here was to find a way of writing a plot in which nothing really happened. Or rather, in which the same thing kept happening. And, when you think about it, why not? There’s an implied criticism in the idea that something is getting repetitive, as if progression, rather than repetition, were the correct order of things. But of course, if something gives me pleasure, I might say I want to do it all over again.

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As the plot unfolds — at its leisure — OK, Mr Field takes an interest in a number of topics, principally music and architecture. This gives the novel a continuity with your sequence of poems, House for the Study of Water, parts of which have appeared here and there in recent years. In what ways does the novel represent an extension of the creative energies that have gone into your poetry? How painless or challenging was it for you to navigate the transition from poetry into a long work of prose?

Goodness, you found the House for the Study of Water poems! I never really understood why I was writing those poems. They were about a man living on his own in a glass house in the Alps. I kept wondering, what on earth does he have to do with me? But there was a moodiness about his situation which I liked. And perhaps the idea of living in a glass house mirrored something of my own feelings, as a writer, of over-exposure.

The shift from poetry to prose was a great relief. Poetry has, especially recently, been a kind of anti-thinking for me, and when you don’t know what you’re doing, there can be a sense, afterwards, of, what have I done? A novel (especially this one, which involved a lot of research) felt safer because the writing is mediated by a layer of ideas — of plotting, I suppose — which made me feel more in control. And, on a day to day basis, I felt more industrious writing a novel because, quite simply, I was producing more words.

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More broadly, important sections of OK, Mr Field read like rapturous exercises in ekphrastic literature. There are long passages that describe, in painstaking detail, not only the artistry of music and architecture, but also the beauty of a painting and the mysteries of the seascape. It’s exceptionally difficult to breathe life into other forms of art using the non-visual, non-auditory resources of literature. Did you have any models for this? How did your experience of writing these passages differ from, say, writing the dialogue between husband and wife or the interactions between man and dog?

I spent a lot of time with Hans Castorp and the gramophone, and Swann’s ‘little phrase’, and also Peter Sloterdijk’s account of how sound feels inside the womb. I was surprised, re-reading these passages about music, to discover how little there is about actual music (or sound) in them. The more I read them, the more I realised that passages about music were mostly passages about ideas. Which was an interesting discovery, and also a useful one, because although I wanted very much to write a novel, there wasn’t a story I particularly wanted to tell.

What I wanted to know was how close can a person get to somebody else?, or something like that. I’d assumed that by writing about it, I’d get some kind of answer to my question. As if by subjecting it to a narrative arc — complication, resolution, denouement — I’d get to the bottom of it. But I didn’t. I’d finish each chapter with a sense of achievement, having had some revelation, only to find, by the start of the next, a renewed sense of vagueness. It did feel to me that every subject I wrote about ended up being a different way of getting a grip on the same thing.

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At the same time, there’s a lot of crass bodily humour in the book, sequences in which serious moments are followed by, say, a glimpse of a bum, anthropomorphised nipples, a dog that nuzzles the protagonist’s crotch and provokes an erection. Why was it important to you to include this sort of humour alongside the other elements of the novel?

Those sections were funny?

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Well, they’re certainly absurd, or surreal, in the way they clash with the earnestness of Mr Field and his dilemmas!

Lastly, whereabouts do you see this novel on the international literary landscape? You’re a South African writer, and the novel is set in South Africa, but in what sense would you say that OK, Mr Field belongs (or doesn’t belong) alongside other works of South African literature?

I don’t think of myself as a South African writer, and am pretty sure that South Africa wouldn’t think of this as a South African book. Bizarrely, I seem to wish I were a European writer! Perhaps that’s a postcolonial curse. I was so drawn to the world of The Magic Mountain that I even started off setting OK, Mr Field in the Alps though I’d never been there!

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Katharine Kilalea grew up in South Africa and moved to the UK to study for an M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her debut poetry collection, One Eye’d Leigh (2009), was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award and longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize for writers under 30. She worked for many years in an architecture practice and is completing a PhD at the University of Sheffield on the experience of space in poetry. She lives in London.