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Joanna Kavenna
What gave you the idea for COME TO THE EDGE?
I was living in the Duddon Valley, where the novel is set. I was renting a small, crumbling cottage, struggling each month to pay the minimal rent. It is such a beautiful, wild valley - storms rattling the windows in the night, the river flooding and receding again, a constant sense of anarchic natural energy, the fells changing so vividly with the seasons - gaudy, verdant green by summer; purple, silver, red, by winter, like a dream.

Every day I’d walk around the village and I’d pass one cottage after another and gradually I began to notice that most of the cottages - especially the biggest, the most sumptuous - were second homes and stood empty all the time. No one ever came to stay in them. The locals meanwhile were crushed into the smaller, less scenic cottages, the modern blocks, the former alms houses. Jobs were scarce and lots of people were forced out to the industrial towns along the coast. The school had closed, the post office was about to shut down. The village was being squatted on and crushed by some massive international property market and unbridled free market escalation, and no one, beyond the village, seemed to care.

I got the idea for Cassandra White very suddenly - pretty much I woke up one day and she was there. I saw her initially as a spirit of nature, crazy bold forceful angry nature - as if the valley was rebelling against those who had defamed it, that sort of thing. But then she turned into a few other things else as well…
Intriguingly, you dedicate the book to ‘the real Cassandra White’. Would you tell us a bit about her?
The real Cassandra White has threatened to mount a campaign of dire vengeance if I breathe a word about her, or him…
Kate Kellaway in her review called it a mini state-of-the-nation snapshot. Is that what you intended for this novel?
I guess I felt the massive inequality that now exists between rich and poor in Britain is evidently unfair and completely atrocious for those who end up on the wrong side of this divide. I was in the Duddon Valley feeling pretty fed up with it myself, and living in a community in which people in yet more dire circumstances than I were understandably yet more hacked off than I was. So I didn’t set out to write a state of the nation portrait but I wrote from my own sincere experience and a sense of real anger and loss at what I saw around me. And that was even before the banking crisis, and so things really just got worse thereafter. Now we are being governed by a diabolical consortium of rich stiffs who seem not to care about anything except power…It’s so absurd that you can only write satire about it, really.
It’s a brilliantly dark comedy and I can think of few satirical novels that manage to be as funny. Did you have any books in mind as a model for it?
Thank you! Influences - always, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Knut Hamsun, Saul Bellow, Virginia Woolf, Robert Bolano, Enrique Vila-Matas, Margaret Atwood, Dino Buzzati and Iain Sinclair, to name a few. Specific books - I had a vague plan at the beginning to gently pervert the apostolic genre - ie the ‘my friend the fabulous freak’ narrative, where a grand yet doomed romantic hero is memorialised by their less charismatic friend - ie, Brideshead Revisited, On the Road, Withnail and I, Fight Club etcetc. I didn’t want to get constricted by devout reference, but I began with the genre as one of various points of inspiration and abrasion.
Do you see yourself as more of a Cassandra or the narrator, or neither?
I think we all have a Cassandra within us - someone who just wants to rebel utterly against the bedlam of mindless control freakery and bureaucratic edicts that surround us, and against other people’s bizarrely confident maxims for living, grand theories of everything, etc. And I think we all have a narrator within us too - someone who doesn’t quite act on their own momentum, who has the potential to be inspired/driven/overwhelmed by a charismatic other person. (Depending on how you read it.) So I am neither of them, but I sympathise with both of them.
I’ve read that you wrote seven novels before getting your first, INGLORIOUS, published. How did you keep going in the face of all those rejections?
That 7-novels-rejected thing was a misquote - I told a kindly hack that by the age of 24 I’d written 7 ‘unpublishable’ novels and he assumed I meant they had been rejected by real, actual publishers. But only one of them ever went to a publisher - the rest I decided were ‘unpublishable’ without showing them to anyone else.

However I don’t remotely think being published automatically means your work is good and being unpublished automatically means your work is bad. The ironic beauty of novel-writing is that practically every writer you ever admired was either self-published or had a horrible time getting their work published, from Jane Austen to William Blake to Walt Whitman to D. H. Lawrence to James Joyce to Virginia Woolf to Ernest Hemingway to Aidan Dun and so on. So, for me rejection is irrelevant in terms of your work but tragically relevant in terms of your overdraft…
Are you working on anything now, and if so, can you tell us a bit about it?
I am writing what I hope will be a dark comedy with the working title ‘Disintegration’ - but we’ll see if the title merely proves prophetic…
Who would you invite to your fantasy book group?
Very hard to decide. Perhaps some superseded deities ie Anu, Enlil, Osiris, Iusaaset, Mithra, Hera, Zeus, Brigid the triple goddess etc…etc… Because perhaps they don’t get invited out much these days…
Joanna Kavenna

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