his month brings the release of Lara Pawson’s new memoir, This Is the Place to Be, published by CB editions. Written in a fragmentary form, the book deals with Pawson’s experiences as a witness of war in Angola and Ivory Coast. The writer Joanna Walsh praises it for the way it ‘unpicks the spirals of memory, politics, violence, to trace the boundaries and crossing points of gender and race identity.’ I caught up with Pawson to ask her about This Is the Place to Be, and to find out more about her motivations and influences.
You have been a journalist for many years. What motivates you to write?
I’m not even sure I’m a journalist any more. I do write for magazines and newspapers – usually essays, reviews or comment pieces – but in my mind, real journalism is about reporting and investigating. Until ten years or so ago, I was inspired by the desire to try and persuade people to care about events and people around the world. But I became very disillusioned by the workings of news reporting, and highly suspicious of conventional notions of truth and fact. Steadily, my motivation to write began to change. Today, although I’m much more confident in myself, I am much less certain of why I write and often uncertain of what I am writing until it’s finished. The difference is that I accept that uncertainty. I indulge it. Doubt is neither comfortable nor comforting, but it is a good creative intellectual and emotional space. Perhaps digging into doubt is my real motivation.
How did you come to write your memoir, This Is the Place to Be?
Initially, it wasn’t a book or a memoir at all. It was a sound installation, a looping monologue of around 22,000 words called Non Correspondence. Tim Etchells – the director of Forced Entertainment, also an artist and writer – invited me to contribute to ‘After A War‘, which was a programme of performances held at Battersea Arts Centre as part of the London International Festival of Theatre 2014. At the very beginning of that year, Tim put me in touch with a theatre director in Manchester called Richard Gregory, who sent me a series of prompts. They included an extract from Édouard Levé‘s Autoportrait, a video based on George Perec‘s Je Me Souviens, Joe Brainard‘s memoir I remember, and Ron Silliman‘s long and ongoing poem, The Alphabet. I read and watched all of these and I started writing.
It was not until this year, 2016, that Non Correspondence grew to over 35,000 words and became a book. That happened through a series of coincidences and conversations with performers, friends and my partner, Julian Richards, all of whom encouraged me to try to publish the work as a book. So I sent it to my agent, David Godwin. He liked it. He called it “a real writer’s piece”. Another series of chance encounters and conversations led to my meeting Charles Boyle, the man who is CB editions. He encouraged me to write more and to rename it. He also described it as a memoir. And this is how This Is the Place to Be was born.
Could you tell me a little bit about the fragmentary form the book takes?
In my head, I was aware that this was a project about war – as is clear from the title of the Battersea Arts Centre programme ‘After A War‘ – and so, of course, I was thinking about the wars I’ve witnessed and experienced in Angola and Ivory Coast. But because of the way my mind works, and because of the prompts I’d been sent, I found myself writing a series of spontaneous associations. Something would come to me, in response to the prompts, and I would simply write that down. So it became something much bigger, spilling over into many other moments in my life too. I like this because I’ve always felt very strongly that there is an ordinariness to conflict, that the everyday persists even in that environment. Similarly, peace is fraught with tension and with degrees of violence. I suppose I’m interested in the overlap between war and peace.
“I’ve always felt very strongly that there is an ordinariness to conflict, that the everyday persists even in that environment. Similarly, peace is fraught with tension and with degrees of violence. I suppose I’m interested in the overlap between war and peace.”
The fragmentary form is also a result of a certain discipline that I imposed on the process, refusing to allow myself to go back and edit the work until much, much later. In fact, as a performance – one which was read by Cathy Naden, who is also part of Forced Entertainment – it was hardly edited it at all. I simply wrote from one memory to the next, allowing these spontaneous associations to rule the writing. When it became a book, and grew, I began to read through the text from the start, and each time another thought came into my head, I would squeeze it in. Again, I didn’t allow myself to edit or go back: I had to keep going all the way to the end, until it was finished. I think this is why it’s quite a sharp, fragmented piece of writing: it was written relatively quickly (I’m usually unbelievably slow) and impulsively.
Are there any writers that have been inspirational touchstones for your work?
Absolutely. Loads! This Is the Place to Be was partly inspired by the prompt texts – so Levé, Perec, Brainard and Silliman. I was encouraged by other bits and pieces by writers including Kathy Acker, Jean Améry, Sven Lindqvist, Mina Loy, Claudia Rankine and Derek Walcott. But, to be honest, knowing that I was working with Tim Etchells really freed me up. I kept thinking about the truly brilliant Forced Entertainment shows I’ve seen and the huge pleasure they have given me, and the days of reflection afterwards. I think this helped to unlock me, especially in my quest to completely free myself from the formulaic constraints that get so rooted inside the heads of journalists. What’s interesting, though, is that since completing the book and, more recently, starting to receive feedback on it, people have told me about writers and books This Is the Place to Be has reminded them of. So I’ve only just begun to read Marguerite Duras for the first time in my life – and I’m absolutely loving her work.
What’s next for you? Is it true that you are working on a novel?
It is true, yes. It is still in a very fluid stage. It feels unstable, risky, quite terrifying at times. But my confidence in that process – the process of not knowing where I am going – has grown. So I am sticking with it, certain that I will arrive somewhere eventually.
This Is the Place to Be is published by CB Editions.
About the Author
Lara Pawson was born in London. Her 2014 work In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre was praised by writers and critics including Claire Armitstead, Teju Cole, and Paul Theroux. It was also longlisted for the The Orwell Book Prize 2015. For more, visit her website.