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Xanthi Barker lives in London and is the author of novelette One Thing. Her short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies including Litro and Mslexia. Will This House Last Forever? is her first book.
It is a personal account of her experience of grief following the death of her father, Sebastian Barker, who was a respected poet with whom she shared an often complicated relationship.
Katy Ward: Before we get started, I wanted to say how much I enjoyed Will This House Last Forever? Life writing is one of my favourite genres, and I thought the book was fantastic.
Xanthi Barker: Thank you. I’m really glad you enjoyed it.
KW: The first thing I wanted to ask you about is the concept of oversharing. I always worry about this when I write about my life. Obviously, you’re writing about grief, which is one of the most personal experiences there is. Did you ever worry about revealing too much of yourself?
XB: Definitely, but I almost felt like I had a duty to write about myself as well as my dad. If I was revealing things about him, it would be unfair to hide myself. On the other hand, I also wanted to reflect the fact that I always felt hidden from my dad, as if he didn’t really know me, so that is why some of the personal things about myself I have written about are sometimes obscured or referenced obliquely.
In the earlier drafts, I did perhaps share too much – I think it was important to start writing from a place of total honesty, to write anything and everything in order to find the story and emotional reality of the book. But when I was editing it, my mentor (author and memoir writer Cathy Rentzenbrink) gave me some really important advice: “You don’t owe anyone the whole story.” You can still tell a story that has its own truth without feeling you have to reveal everything.
KW: In the book, you directly address your father. What made you decide to take this approach?
XB: I was doing my MA at the time and thinking about dead characters who come to life and speak: These characters aren’t really ghosts, but they are dynamic, they create action. I was especially looking at Ali Smith, whose books contain a lot of active “alive” dead characters. I was also reading the French writer and literary critic Maurice Blanchot, who writes about the relationship between literature and death and how the act of writing can put things to death by committing them to language, how it transgresses the boundary between life and death in interesting ways. On the other hand, when you address someone, even if you only say their name into an empty room, you conjure them. There’s something about the address that brings back the specific sense of who they are, and who you were with them. That’s why I had to write it in that way.
KW: When it comes to life writing, do you ever worry how those depicted will respond to your work? Do you ask for their input during the writing process?
XB: That was probably my biggest fear. The hardest part was sharing the book with my mum – I was writing about some of the worst traumas of her life. She didn’t like it when she first read it, but it turned out that was mostly because I’d got loads of details wrong.
She wanted me to make sure her characterisation was right. We went through my draft together, which was actually good. She told me a lot more about her life, and I felt like I got to know her better. She wanted me to get across that she was an interesting, unusual person in her own right with her own story and reasons that led her to my dad.
KW: This brings me to another point that really struck me about the book. We all know that memories are imperfect. How do you reconcile this with the memoir-writing process?
XB: I’ve always written a journal and many of the details in the book came from that, so I felt these were quite reliable. But it’s true that everybody’s memory is different and journals are distorting in themselves. I suppose the book also has elements of fiction in it. To recreate events that happened before I was born, and when I was a baby, does require some fictionalising.
KW: Are you referring to the sections set in Greece that describe the early parts of your parents’ relationship? I loved the fairytale quality of these passages.
XB: I’m glad you say that. I was writing some really honest, painful stuff about my dad, but I did want to convey the counterpoint to that, which was this sense of a magical, exciting place and unusual worldview that forms the backdrop to the romantic story of how my parents met and the adventure they went on together. That’s been one of the big conflicts of my life: How does all this beautiful, inspired, imaginative stuff match up with everything else that happened?
KW: That really comes across in the book: both this sense of your dad as a man who left his children and also an incredibly charismatic figure.
XB: I guess my dad just kept changing so much. He would be so playful and open and curious, answering all my questions and willing to think with me about complex things at certain times and then so cold and distant and confusing at others. I wanted to write about the experience of grieving for someone about whom you have such mixed feelings.
KW: Do you have any tips anyone thinking about writing a memoir but worrying their life isn’t interesting enough?
XB: That seems like an ideal memoir to me. I love stories of people who are going about their regular lives – though that is probably a contradiction in terms. Because there is always something fascinating and unusual going on once you focus on the intricate dynamics. It’s paying attention that makes it interesting.
One of my favourite things to read is online forums where people post anonymous confessions or detailed explanations of their lives with requests for advice – I mean the genuine, peer-to-peer, unprofessional ones, with typos and no punctuation. It can be so helpful for people to have the chance to write it all down and to share this stuff with strangers who can support you and give you advice, although obviously the range of helpfulness and sincerity is huge. But I’m interested in how people explain themselves and their relationships.
KW: There’s a received wisdom that the ideal age to write a memoir is in your 50s or 60s. You’re obviously much younger than this. Was this something you were conscious of when writing the book?
XB: I guess so. When I started writing as a teenager, I told my friends I was writing my memoirs. I was obviously joking, but one of them really took the piss out of me for saying that. But however old you are, you can always take a reflective stance on your experience.
What I would say is that this is a book written by a person at a particular time. I was about to turn 30 when I was writing it and my most intense experience of grief will always belong to that period in my life. I would potentially have a different perspective if I had written it in another 20 years. At the time, I didn’t really think that I was writing a memoir but a series of letters to my dad.
KW: You’re a mother yourself now. Do you think that reflecting so much on your relationship with your dad while writing the book has affected your own approach to parenting?
XB: Definitely. I guess there was some feeling of wanting to make up for or recreate what I didn’t have, and I feel quite determined to give my son a different experience.
On the other hand, I understand now how hard things were for my dad and why he probably felt like he had to leave, or felt unable to work and write with young children around. Not that I am excusing what he did, but that I can imagine more easily the existential threat he must have felt he was under in order to do it. Now that I have my own family, I also feel much sadder for my dad as well, as I can see how much he missed out on.
KW: What are your thoughts on qualifications in creative writing? Do you have one yourself?
XB: I did an MA in comparative literature, because I hadn’t studied literature since I was 16 and felt like I needed that education. Hearing from friends who’ve done a creative writing MA, it does seem like an amazing process. You become part of a writing community and have a fantastic reading list.
But, also, it’s very expensive. It took me a long time to save up for my MA. If you want to get involved in the writing community, there are organisations such as Spread the Word, New Writing North, and so on that have short courses or mentor programmes and can help you get to know other writers. Workshopping and challenging yourself are the important things. And reading, most of all. Having an MA is definitely not a necessity.
KW: Can you tell me a little about the writing process? How long did it you to write the book?
XB: I was working in a primary school at the time and wrote most of it in one summer holiday, which is six weeks. Obviously, it wasn’t all written in six weeks. Quite a bit of the title chapter was written just after my dad died in 2014.
KW: How many hours a day did you spend writing?
XB: Even when I had time, I couldn’t write for more than three or four hours at once. But maybe half the book was written at six in the morning before work, so I had about an hour and a half each day. I was studying in the evening, too, and it didn’t feel like a very healthy lifestyle. I was extremely burnt-out by the end of it.
KW: How did the publication actually come about?
XB: My piece “Paradoxical” was highly commended in the Spread the Word 2018 Life Writing Prize, and part of the prize was to work with a mentor, Cathy Rentzenbrink. She later helped me find an agent, and after that it all happened surprisingly quickly. I had been writing fiction for almost a decade and trying to get an agent, or feedback from agents, but I had no idea about the publishing machine and didn’t know which agents to approach or what to say to them. It’s a very daunting, painful process and, even now, I struggle to promote my work and probably need to get better at it.
KW: Do you still worry about rejection?
XB: Definitely. I imagined I wouldn’t feel that way once I had a book published, but now it feels like there are whole new ways to feel rejected. It’s a nerve-wracking time.
KW: Do you have any favourite life writers of your own?
XB: There’s a writer called Lucia Osborne-Crowley who writes about bodies, sexual violence, and women’s health. She has a book called I Choose Elena, which isn’t a memoir as such but a personal essay. I just love the way she writes with such intelligence and clarity about trauma, memory, and experience.
I also recently read Annie Arnaud’s A Girl’s Story. She really investigates what has happened to her and the effect these events have had. It feels very philosophical and constructive, as though she’s working out the ways in which experience, memory, and language form and are formed by each other.
KW: Do you have any plans for your next writing project?
XB: I started writing something last year about early motherhood, birth trauma, COVID, and the effects of isolation on memory, but it’s still very embryonic at the moment.
KW: That sounds fascinating. Thank you so much for talking to us and it was really great reading the book.