The Still Point - Amy Sackville interview
Writing as though she was around in regency England, Amy Sackville tells Claire Sawers about her adventurous Boy’s Own debut novel
A married couple is asleep in bed. Back to back, knees bending, and feet touching, ‘they form the uneven outline of an urn’. Bizarrely, they are both dreaming of the same freezing cold place, but it means two very different things to them. To Simon, the Arctic is a frustrating place. Largely unmapped and unknown, it raises more questions than it answers, which is hard for his detail-loving, precision-craving head to get around. Next to him, Julia also dreams of the Arctic, but finds the idea of an edgeless, limitless space very calming. Vast, silent expanses let her lose herself in a sea of blues, whites, indigos and greys. There at the North Pole, she could enjoy the ‘still point’ at the top of the world, while the globe spins under her.
It was this idea that formed the basis, and opening pages, of Amy Sackville’s debut novel, The Still Point, an Arctic love story which has already drawn comparisons with Virginia Woolf. When Sackville started researching the area by trawling through explorers’ diaries from over 100 years ago, her original short story grew into an historical novel, and took on what she calls a ‘Boy’s Own spirit of adventure.’ Set in modern-day England, Julia is the great-grand-niece of the Arctic explorer Edward Mackley. When the pace of London life becomes too much, Julia and Simon move to her family’s country home, where she begins sifting through Edward’s belongings. The story of her relative and the newlywed bride he left behind fascinates her. Bored with her new stay-at-home routine of cooking, napping and savouring long cigarettes in the sunshine, Julia is hooked in by Edward’s brave journey into the unknown, and his wife’s loyalty as she waits for decades on his doomed expedition to return. But what is ultimately more romantic, Sackville seems to be asking: a hero fixated on reaching an undefined point in the North while his wife pines at home? Or a safe, humdrum husband, the kind of man who synchronises all clocks and watches in the house, and labels butterflies for fun, who stays by his wife’s side?
‘My writing tends to focus on couples and family relationships,’ says Sackville, who graduated from Goldsmiths’ Creative and Life Writing course just over a year ago. ‘I’m interested in what we don’t and will never know about another person; the different sides of people and what draws them together.’ So while a perfect love affair plays out in Julia’s head - full of long distance longing and chaste devotion - the reality of her own marriage seems disappointing, until some home truths emerge about Edward.
Flicking her vivid narration between the dazzling landscapes of the frozen north and a languid, sticky-hot English summer, 28-year-old Sackville creates some soaring prose, full of elegance and confidence. Although she writes as though poised with a fountain pen, dressed in an empire line dress in regency England, Sackville admits it was written mostly at home, sitting in a vest, sweltering through a London summer. ‘I did quite enjoy writing these faintly Austen-esque social scenes,’ she laughs. ‘There’s something about that rarefied world that I enjoy. I suppose, there’s a bit of me in Julia; I’m happy to escape into the past, and retreat into these imagined worlds.’
The Still Point is published by Portobello on Thu 18 Feb.