Charlotte Penny speaks to the author of The Scrapbook
I’ve just finished reading The Scrapbook, and I loved the story of the three women and their fractured relationships. It’s set on an island, Spur, which feels at once a very real place and yet almost mystical. Is Spur a real island?
I was born on the Channel Island of Jersey and it’s the home of generations of my family on my mother’s side. For me, Spur is a fictionalised version of Jersey. It’s not geographically accurate; though I spent hours looking at maps of the island and reading through the many books on its folklore and social history my family have collected over the years, I deliberately avoided naming specific parishes or streets, and I took liberties with the landscape. But it’s the Jersey of my memories and of my imagination: the house where Ivy lives, for example, is a version of my uncle’s home, and the headland where Fern sits and watches the ferries coming in and out of the port is a viewing point where I’ve stood time and again when I’ve returned to visit.
A lot of people have asked me why I didn’t set the novel on Jersey in a fully realised way. But if you presume to be writing about a concrete place, you must get your facts right. It needs to be authentic. I would have felt impelled to ensure its geographical accuracy. I would have had to name streets, and address the issues around its closer proximity (and close relationship) to France. I would have had to commit to the ‘mainland’ they refer to being either France or Britain, and use authentically Channel Island surnames and forenames. It would not have been the same novel. Locating The Scrapbook on an island which is a fictionalised version of Jersey allowed me, as the author, to see it. All I had to do was close my eyes and summon memory. And once I had the landscape I was able to move my characters around within the boundaries of that landscape with much more authority.
Locating The Scrapbook on an island added to the novel’s atmosphere of intensity and confinement, particularly for the character of Iris. Was this deliberate?
An island, be it real or fictional, is an ideal setting for a novel that focuses on a claustrophobic, obsessive love affair that exists largely inside someone’s head. For Iris, the island is a perfect backdrop to her sequestered and insular life. She can barely be persuaded to leave her home and so it suits her perfectly to have the physical boundaries of sea and cliff to frame her world. She is actively passive in her determination to prize her memories of her lost lover above any possibility of his flesh and blood return to her, and the island setting allows her to cut herself off from the wider world in a very real way. For Fern, the island is a physical representation of her mother and her mother’s self-imposed limitations when it comes to existing. She yearns to leave the island, not knowing that Iris had yearned for the same thing decades earlier, before the advent of Lawrence and before her love for him imprisoned her. She, Fern, leaves and returns, and leaves again. Each time she believes it will be the last time; that she will never come back to Spur. And yet every time she returns.
For Ivy, Spur is a metaphor for all she has lost in the way of home and family. It is the island of her marriage and her child’s future, but it is not the island of her past and her heritage. She chose exile and Edgar, her husband, over a life of familial love, and she reveals in her letters how she stands on Spur’s coastline and gazes at her island, Sorel, and yearns for it as romantically, as wistfully, as Iris yearns for the absent Lawrence. For her it is almost a living thing, a lost lover, forever missed. Her exile is self-imposed and she could return at any time, but, like Iris, she chooses absence and loss over the chance of a changed and disappointing reality.
The landscape of The Scrapbook is one haunted by magic, memories and loss. Are these things particular preoccupations of yours, as a writer?
As a writer I’ve always been fascinated by a character’s internal landscape, how they react to unusual situations, and I love fiction that thins the barriers between humans and the world they inhabit. In The Scrapbook I wanted to explore the unreliability of memory and tell a story that explores those liminal spaces we occupy when we set ourselves apart from mainstream society. All three of the women are deliberate outsiders, unconventional in the ways they live and love. Iris keeps a scrapbook of written memories of the lover who disappeared years earlier, prizing her relationship with his absence over the more immediate, and it could be argued more important, relationships with her mother and her daughter. Fern, Iris’ daughter, is the novel’s narrator, and an unreliable one. She keeps secrets throughout the book, even from herself, and rewrites her own history time and again as she embarks on the quest to find her father. Ivy, the grandmother, is a witch. Her character is inspired by my maternal great-grandmother, who was reputed to be a practising witch on Jersey. I only have vague memories of her as she died when I was very young but I remember how potent her presence in a room could be, how nervous she made the adults around her, and how special she made me feel when she singled me out for attention.
Finally, the structure of The Scrapbook is very interesting. It’s almost got a ‘scrapbook’ feel about it, with the different modes of narration. Was that difficult to produce?
When writing the novel I knew that I wanted to have Fern as the principle narrator, and the main thrust of the story told through her voice, but I also knew that I wanted both Iris and Ivy to contribute to the narrative in their own words. So infused between the chapters and Fern’s first person voice there are letters, pages from Iris’ memory scrapbook, and even Ivy’s spells. These different forms of narration interlock to tell the story of the absent Lawrence, the search for him, and ultimately reveal his fate. Structurally, the writing of The Scrapbook was a challenge, but I knew that a straightforward, linear, omniscient narration wouldn’t do it justice.
Charlotte Penny is a mother, a prolific reader, and she also writes poetry when she gets the chance. She studied for an MA in Creative Writing at Lampeter University. She describes herself as a semi-professional juggler of words and small people.