Rebecca Rouillard interrogates Birkbeck lecturer Benjamin Wood about his sinister debut novel The Bellwether Revivals, which was published by Simon and Schuster in February this year.
Bright, bookish Oscar Lowe has escaped the urban estate where he was raised and made a new life for himself amid the colleges and spires of Cambridge. He has grown to love the quiet routine of his life as a care assistant at a local nursing home, where he has forged a close friendship with the home's most ill-tempered resident, Dr. Paulsen. But when he meets and falls in love with Iris Bellwether, a beautiful and enigmatic medical student at King's College, Oscar is drawn into her world of scholarship and privilege, and soon becomes embroiled in the strange machinations of her brilliant but troubled brother, Eden, who believes he can adapt the theories of a forgotten Baroque composer to heal people with music. Eden's self-belief knows no bounds, and as he draws his sister and closed circle of friends into a series of disturbing experiments to prove himself right, Oscar realises the extent of the danger facing them all...
You’ve said it took three years to write The Bellwether Revivals. How long has the publication process taken?
Well, the first draft was completed in 2009; it was accepted for publication in the autumn of 2010, and released in February 2012. It’s been a fairly long road to the bookshelves, but an enjoyable one.
Have you got a particular writing routine? Do you write for a set amount of time or number of words in a day?
I try not to put too much pressure on myself, but I function better when I set myself a regular framework. The aim is to be at the computer by 10:30am at the latest, because I’m most productive before noon. Usually, I work until 4:30 with a break for lunch. If it’s an exceptionally good day, I can work through until 6:30 or so without stopping to eat or drink. If it’s a very bad day, I can manage a single sentence by 3:00pm, then spend the rest of the evening angry at my failure. Once the story has found the proper momentum, I try to write 1000 words a day, but if I achieve 500 I am satisfied.
The Bellwether Revivals originally had another title; was it changed at the advice of your agent or the publisher or was it just part of your editing process?
Over the course of writing the novel, it had about ten different titles, all of which are too dreadful to reveal here. The original title, however, was The Bellwether Revivals, and I reverted back to it when the book was nearing completion. It was never changed on the advice of anyone but myself—so let that be a lesson to anyone wishing to ask my advice.
What was your starting point for this novel?
I wanted to create a character who claimed to be able to manipulate the properties of music for restorative effects—that was always my intention. The earlier conceptions of the character (who would soon become Eden Bellwether) was a kind of modern-day Woody Guthrie, playing old folk songs on a tenor guitar in people’s living rooms.
Classical music and musical theory and philosophy are central to the themes and plot of this book. What is your musical background?
My relationship with music has always been more visceral than intellectual. I was drawn to teaching myself to play an instrument as a teenager, not because I wanted to comprehend the mechanics of music, but because I saw it as emotional release. As a young singer-songwriter, I got close to record deal a couple of times, but things didn’t quite work out, and it dawned on me that the biggest reason I wrote songs was to use language, to tell stories—I’ve concentrated mostly on writing fiction ever since. I’ve always been intrigued by the impact a piece of music can have on our state of being—how a simple melody can comfort and relieve us, elevate our spirits—and that’s what I came to The Bellwether Revivals wanting to investigate.
Are you writing or recording any music at the moment?
I’m always recording demos of songs at home. If I’m ever stumped by a story I’m working on, I’ll leave it aside for a while and write a song instead—it’s a different kind of creative release.
Was there a lot of research involved in getting the technical musical details right? Were you familiar with Johann Mattheson’s writing and music before you started or did you find him in the process?
I approached my research for The Bellwether Revivals with the intention of finding out if the emotional power of music could be explained in definite terms. During this process, while reading about music aesthetics, I kept encountering the name Johann Mattheson and his theoretical work, Der Vollkomenne Capellmeister. So I learned as much as I could about him and his writings from that point. I can’t read musical notation, and I’m certainly no authority on classical music, but my aim was to evoke the sensation of music in the novel, rather than describing it through cold, mechanistic terms, which I often find distancing in other novels featuring music.
Many well-respected novelists have written about music—I think of Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music—have you got a favourite piece of literary ‘music writing’?
I connect most with writing that captures the visual quality of music—that sounds like an oxymoron, but I don’t believe it is. Music has a unique quality to capture and contain memories. As Iris Bellwether says in the book, we often look at the speakers when music is playing on the stereo, as if we expect to see the notes pouring out. One of my favourite pieces of writing about music is a poem called ‘Fear of Dying to the Wrong Song’ by the Canadian poet, Amanda Lamarche, who, as luck would have it, happens to be a friend of mine from my time in Vancouver. The poem, from her collection The Clicheist (Nightwood Editions) moves me every time I read it, in much the same way as a sad piece of music.
Cambridge is very thoroughly and atmospherically described; have you spent a lot of time in Cambridge?
I’m really glad you think so—thank you. I lived in Cambridge for the duration of the writing process, but, like Oscar, I was not a student at the university. Oscar’s viewpoint as a non-student in the city partly reflects my own.
You spent some time in a nursing home while you were growing up—can we infer, as your fictional ‘Cedarbrook’ seems quite idyllic, that this was a positive experience? (Particularly in comparison to the ‘Winterbourne View’ case that was in the news last year.) What was it like?
I have nothing but fond memories of growing up in a nursing home—it gave me an extended family. There's a line in the novel about the residents of Cedarbrook being "a cast of relatives Oscar was grateful to have adopted", and that sums up my own feelings about the home my parents owned in Lancashire. My happy memories of the place, of the sights and sounds of growing up around so many elderly people, was something I called on in The Bellwether Revivals to give insight into Oscar's personality and his nature, as well as to provide a tone of compassion in the novel that contrasts with Eden's self-serving plans. I wanted Cedarbrook to reflect the positive, caring environment that I remember growing up in—because many such places exist and struggle to make ends meet—rather than the bleak picture of neglect and misery that is often portrayed in the media.
The disturbing reference to the ‘bodies’ in the prelude is an immediate hook. It is an achievement to write a literary novel that is also a ‘page-turner’; was that your intention?
Yes, it was always my aim for the novel to have a sense of intrigue from the outset, to make readers aware that they would be entering into a story which builds towards a tragedy—that way, I hoped I could make them wonder ‘Who?’ and ‘Why?’ as the chapters unfold.
Did you have a very clear plot outline upfront?
I thought carefully about the dramatic arc of the story, and always knew the climactic events I was steering the characters towards. But the precise dimensions of the plot, scene by scene, were not measured out in advance. Otherwise, I felt the behaviour of the characters would be too rigid.
Eden is a complicated and enigmatic character; did you have a very clear picture of him in your mind at the beginning or did he develop and reveal himself as you wrote?
As soon as I conceived of Eden as an Organ Scholar at King’s College (rather than the modern-era Woody Guthrie character I was exploring in early versions of the story), his personality, modes of speech and behaviour came quite instinctively. The more scenes I wrote which included him, the more he began to express himself and reveal his intentions.
The book is filled with contrasts and polarity—middle class vs. working class, age vs. youth—but the most weighted contrast seems to be scientific scepticism vs. spiritual hope. Oscar is obviously on the side of scepticism and the ending points clearly in one direction, but as an author did you want to leave a question open as to the potential power and influence of music?
I wanted the readers to decide for themselves, rather than provide any solid conclusions—the story isn’t meant to be didactic; as you say, the clash between faith and doubt is what the book hinges on, and it’s up to the readers to determine their own position at the end.
Obvious comparisons have been drawn between The Bellwether Revivals and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but are there any authors that you feel have been particularly influential to your writing?
There are many British writers whose work I revere—Graham Greene, John Fowles, VS Pritchett, Iris Murdoch amongst them—but I’ve always been drawn most to American fiction (don’t ask me why: it’s a thesis in itself). The authors whose prose style and storytelling I know has influenced my approach to writing include Truman Capote, Shirley Jackson, Tobias Wolff, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Patricia Highsmith, Ayn Rand, Carson McCullers, and Cormac McCarthy.
The Bellwether Revivals was published in February—you’ve had some good reviews so far, have you had a good response from readers? And how have you coped with the Independent’s comments about your soulful eyes and long eyelashes?
On the whole, I’ve had a great response from readers, in the UK and abroad. Living in the age of social media, it’s quite easy to gauge a cross-section of the public’s feelings. The fact that 31,000 people on Goodreads.com believe that The Great Gatsby is only worthy of a one-star rating is absolute proof of the old cliché: You can’t please everybody. The Independent review you mention was one of the quirkiest I’ve had—I’d never had anyone discuss my eyelashes before, let alone in the national press; but, amid all that, the critic gave a very thoughtful assessment of the novel, so I was really pleased with the coverage.
I can imagine that your students would be your harshest critics—have you had any feedback from them?
I’ve been on research leave since the book came out, so I’m yet to hear the verdict of most of my students. Some had read it prior to the reading event at Birkbeck in March, which was very kind of them, and a few former students have also sent me nice messages saying they enjoyed it. I suppose, having given sermons on the function of POV and characterisation in my time as creative writing teacher, I have to be ready to face the criticism—if the criticism is correct, it’s proof that my students are well-taught, so I come out of it looking pretty good either way…
You’ve signed for two more books with Simon and Schuster - can you tell us anything about your next book?
I am always secretive about things I’m working on—I won’t even write a greetings card if somebody’s in the same room. This is mostly because I’m a paranoid control freak, but the official line is that I need to give characters the privacy to define themselves before I advertise their names and particulars. I can say that the next book will cover very different territory to The Bellwether Revivals, though—it won’t be set anywhere near a university campus, that is for certain. At the moment, it’s in the awkward infant stages, and I won’t let it take off its armbands just yet.
Benjamin Wood will be reading from 'The Bellwether Revivals' during Birkbeck Arts Week, at Hubbub - Monday 14th of May at the King's Cross Social Club.