My name is Jordan. This is the first thing I saw…
This is the story of Jordan, an orphan found floating on the River Thames, and his keeper, The Dog Woman, a huge and monstrous creature with a powerful right hook and a wide vocabulary. She is perhaps the only woman in English fiction confident enough to use filth as a fashion accessory.
I set this in the seventeenth century, around the beheading of Charles the First, because I had more to do exploring the past as energetic space. I wanted to build another word-dependent world, not restricted either by realism or contemporaneity. The past is strange. We have never been there and we can never go there. I have never recognised the past as a document, rather I understand it as a kind of lumber room, full of trunks of old clothes and odd mementoes. There are as many narratives as there are guesses.
Sexing the Cherry was a narrative I could construct around a loosely known set of facts.
The central relationship is between Jordan and the Dog Woman. It is a savage love, an unorthodox love, it is family life carried to the grotesque, but it is not a parody or a negative. The boisterous surrealism of their bond is in the writing itself. By writing the familiar into the strange, by wording the unlovely into words-as-jewels, what is outcast can be brought home. I have also thought of myself as an outcast, but I have made myself a territory by writing it. Sexing the Cherry is a cross-time novel in the same way that The Passion is cross-gender. The narrative moves through time, but also operates outside it. At the centre of the book are the stories of the Twelve Dancing Princess, each only a page long, written as a kind of fugue. The stories aren’t just parachuted in there, they are integral to the whole, in just the same way that the Percival stories are integral to Oranges. That is, they tell us something we need to know to interpret the book.
Why did you set this one in the seventeenth century?
I liked the stink of the river and I was thinking about pineapples a lot. The first pineapple was brought to England by John Tradescant in the reign of Charles the First.
Why is this the last book you have set in the past?
I had done what I set out to do and what interested me. The Passion anticipated a long run of literary and not so literary fiction set in the past. By 1989, when STC was published, I really felt that it would be impossible to use that device effectively in the deluge of the stuff that was to follow. My hunch was correct. Just as importantly, I didn’t want to be labelled. I suppose I explained this to myself just recently when I wrote the opening sentence of my latest book. ‘To avoid discovery I stay on the run. To discover things for myself, I stay on the run.’
Do you think of The Passion and Sexing the Cherry as Magic Realism?
No. Anyway, like I said, I hate labels. The stories I like, whether it’s Ariosto, or Rabelais, or Shakespeare, or Cevantes, or Sterne, or Calvino, have always had a large dollop of the unlikely and the miraculous. Before I knew about books, I knew all the Bible and all the fairy stories. To me, a world without miracles is not the real world. So the old chestnut, write about what you know, has a special twist for me.
Even the most solid of things, and the most real, the best-loved and the well-known, are only hand-shadows on the wall. Empty space and points of light.