Sometimes a single line of a pitch is all you need to make you know you want to find out more. I knew Viv Tuffnell from twitter(she tweets as Guineapig66), and out of curiosity clicked to her book, Strangers and Pilgrims, on Amazon. Line one of the pitch leapt out at me: “”My heart is broken and I am dying inside.” Six unconnected strangers type these words into an internet search engine”
That was all it took to hook me. So I asked Viv if she’d mind if I asked her my usual brand of unusual questions, and to my delight she said yes. So here we are. Ooh, before that, check out her fabulous site Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking.
Dan: The pitch for Strangers and Pilgrims intrigues me because it feels like a suspenseful mystery, a deep human drama and a spiritual book all at once. Is there a single most important aspect of it?
Viv: The component(if you can call it that) that links all those three elements of the book into one is the concept of the isolation created by distress. Each of the characters is at the end of their strength, trying to cope with their heartbreak, but each has found that they have been unable to communicate with friends and family quite the nature of their distress. In all cases, the source of their pain is actually far removed from what those around them believe their distress is caused by. For example, Gareth has been shot in the line of duty (he’s a policeman) but while he is signed off work with PTSD and is falling apart, the real reason why he has not bounced back is beyond the imagination of his older sister who is trying to get him to pull himself together again. There’s a line in a classic old folk song, She Moved Through The Fair, that says, “No two e’er were wed, but one had a sorrow that never was said,” and for me it emphasises that people have hidden sorrows we cannot guess at. In another novel, after losing both wife and newborn child, the main character finds himself in an agony of isolation because all around him assume his anguish is simple grief when in fact he’s being destroyed by guilt because he’s so relieved his wife is dead. The characters in Strangers and Pilgrims are all isolated by their pain because they cannot tell anyone why they suffer so; that’s what drives them all to the anonymity of the internet. This isolation is what underpins both the mystery and suspense, the human drama and is at core an issue of the spirit.
Dan: Ah! Now those are themes that really interest me – isolation and pain. I said in an interview recently that my writing boils down to this – the one thing that connects us is our aloneness. May I ask whether, in Strangers and Pilgrims, the pain is what also connects the characters ultimately?
Viv: No, the flip side of pain is probably what connects them finally. I’ll leave you to decipher what I might mean by that.
However, the sharing of pain is a powerfully bonding experience. You read accounts of people who suffered together, such as in POW camps etc and who had nothing in common but who stayed lifelong friends after the pain was over. To go through hell with someone usually means you will not walk away from each other later, except physically. It’s a strange alchemy, of transforming pain from its raw state into something powerful and beautiful.
Dan: I think the thing I find most intriguing is the idea of strangers with nothing in common but that they are dying inside (It also reminds me of the brilliant play/film Insignificance, in which Joe McCarthy, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Albert Einstein spend a night together in a hotel).That’s how I see the world in microcosm and is such a powerful metaphor. To what extent is this the way you see society?
Viv: Yes and no, really. We are often so focussed on differences that we fail to see what we do truly have in common. Superficially the characters seem to have nothing but the inner death in common. You have an ex-nun, a faith healer, a traumatised young bobby, a fussy academic, a new age former mental patient and an agoraphobic collage artist; doesn’t sound like a lot in common. Yet digging under the surface they have a great deal in common that goes beyond the usual divisions society expects us to slot into. Each of them was at a personal pinnacle of some sort when their catastrophe happened and took away their meaning in life. Each of them lost something so precious that it initiated this slow inner death, and yet, they are unable to articulate that loss or even identify it accurately. They each think they know what the loss is, but as the story progresses it becomes blindingly clear they didn’t really know the deep nature of that loss.
As a society we are woefully under-developed in terms of both empathy and the essential nature of community. Community is not just about being the same as each other; it’s about learning to value and incorporate the needs and gifts of everyone. Totally alone, we all perish, lonely and in despair, given enough time. So we need to cherish the differences but also look always for what we share. At the most basic levels, our similarities are animal: food, water, shelter, sex etc. Recognising our shared needs and honouring those of others is something that makes us more than animals.
Dan: I agree about the complexity of community. I come from a slightly different angle – that we can only truly appreciate other people when we understand how radically different each of us is – in other words there are no “interest groups” or commonalities – to me anything we look for in common feels slightly lazy – it’s a short cut that stops us paying due attention to the individual we’re with.
Viv: You are right. But few people that I have so far met have been secure in their own soulfulness to be able to stand for differences; most people are frantically scrabbling to include rather than exclude you on the basis of shared whatevers.
One extraordinary way to cut through the layers of bullshit is to go on a silent retreat. You totally bypass all the socail chitchat and meet at a soul level. It’s scary because there’s nowhere to hide, there’s none of the usual wall of words we throw up around ourselves to hide who we really are. I find socialising with people who do the same job as me really hard, because once you get past the first run of sharing of experiences, I end up feeling bored because there’s nothing new to find. The questions we ask on first meeting people are strange: what do you do? Where do you live? Are you married? It’s all about finding a box to put people in.
So I think your way is a better one but I’d love to find a world where it’d work without radical exclusions occurring as a result.
Dan: One thing on your blogs that struck me above anything else was the line “I don’t want an easy life. I want a meaningful one.” Can you explain, maybe give some examples?
Viv:Life in the West, even on a low income, is easy. I’m talking about in comparison with much of the rest of the world here, so don’t think I’m dismissing the struggle of living in poverty. In personal terms I’ve always done things the hard way. I’ve had a strong sense of taking the easy way leads for me to an inner death. In practical terms, I do two jobs. Neither is well paid, and in one the frustrations and the problems drive me crazy at times. The obvious thing to do to deal with the low pay, irregular hours etc would be to take a PGCE and train as a “proper” teacher (I teach EFL) and get a decent well paid job with long holidays. I have plenty of friends who do just this. But to do this would mean cutting out a great deal of my own self, the Bolshie bits that hate the current education system and the part that believes that funnelling young people into a sausage machine of exams is not education at all. I’d have to anaesthetise myself at some deep level to do it. Neither the money nor the job security is worth this.
I’ve been given certain gifts in life. I believe that I need to use them not just for my own personal benefit but for the good of others too. So meandering through life, looking out solely for myself, making things easy for myself at every turn will not achieve this, except perhaps by occasional accident. Life is short; I want that my life achieves something worthwhile, at least on some level. If I wanted an easy life, I’d not fight with my mental health, I’d give in and take the pills and turn my brain off and become another lost housewife, sitting on the sofa watching daytime TV and eating gypsy creams, dimly aware that I’d maybe traded meaning for comfort but too drugged up to care.
Dan: Not a lot to say to that other than absolutely; I hope you get somewhere you really want to be; and does that mean I can pilfer your gypsy creams?
Viv: Of course!
Seriously, thank you. In some ways, I think the better thing is to get where I’m meant to be. Not everything we want turns out to be the best thing for us. Some people get what they want in life, turn inwards and selfish and switch off. Life as a journey is an overused metaphor but if it is a journey, then the destination is always ultimately death. So taking shortcuts just brings that death (whether a literal death or a metaphysical one of switching off and being self focussed entirely) closer. It’s the equivalent of the Get Rich scheme; you may get the money but you don’t get the wisdom etc you earn by doing things the hard way. That’s another reason why I have a certain scepticism about things like writing classes, MAs in Creative writing and writing groups; there’s a lot of effort focussed on homonegising the process, of reducing it to a formula that can be reproduced. Success in writing(by which I mean both the process of writing and of publishing success etc) is akin to the various versions of Chaos Theory; there are too many variables to be able to learn it like a paint by numbers flow chart kind of thing. Best to let the wind take you where it will; you may not learn how to fly but you will learn how to land!
Dan: Another line, when you’re talking about depression, you talk about tears of self-pity and say “These are pure acid and I will not shed them.” That’s an incredibly powerful line. Would you be able to elaborate?
Viv: Tears are an interesting phenomenon. Analysis of tears shed at different times shows profound differences. Tears that are just to clear the eye of debris are basically little more than water. Tears shed during grief contain substances that are chemically similar to morphine. If you’ve ever spent a couple of days crying, you’ll know that eventually you become slightly numb, slightly high and then you sleep like the dead. But I’d like to find out what tears of self pity contain because they feel corrosive as you shed them, and they actually hurt.
That’s on one level. The other level is harder to explain. For me, self pity, except as a brief stopping place, is as close to being in limbo as you can get. It freezes you there, and if you stay too long it makes you bitter and harsh. You turn on others because they don’t seem to understand your pain. You’ve become selfish and that’s when you can lose any chance of redemption. If you read the song of St Francis, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace, it gives some powerful pointers to the way out.
When I feel the burning of those tears of self pity, where all I am thinking of is the whole poor-me thing, I try to recognise the lie of it all. If I can cry for something else, not for me alone, then something changes. I turn outwards and not inwards in that self destructive frenzy of self hatred that is the twin of self-pity. Oddly enough, physical pain can help. I’m not advocating hurting yourself as such(though this is something I will do) but a hard workout, thumping a punch-bag till your knuckles hurt or other stuff can trigger physical changes(endorphins, adrenaline etc) that can give you enough of a jolt to derail that ride into hell. Weepy movies work for some people.
Dan: As you probably gathered from The Company of Fellows I used extreme workouts in exactly this way. I find it very difficult to talk about this in public (being aware of the need to be responsible in regard to readers) because I have very strong tendencies to self-harm, and still find pain the most incredibly soothing thing because it swallows up everything else. It’s like being at a gig with the music playing so loud it drowns out everything in your head. I’ve learned to control it, because I don’t want to harm myself in the long term. But in the short term it’s difficult.
Viv: I have a dark gift of chronic pain that seldom ever leaves me. Without boring anyone with details I’ve got a couple of incurable conditions; one causes me more of less constant pelvic pain that can blossom into such agony I have to be admitted to hospital for treatment because the pain causes rapid dipping of blood pressure and passing out. So deep pain is always with me, and while it creates problems, I do think it has some weird benefits. Compassion and concern for others. And willpower you can bend iron bars over. I once crawled about a mile over frozen ground so that I had a chance of being rescued (that day they sent a helicopter to get me as I was a long way from civilisation at the time) without someone else having to carry me. Needless to say, these days I never leave home without a mobile phone and I do try to avoid being too far from a road. I was deeply embarassed at having to be rescued by air ambulance; at the time, I had no idea that something that severe could happen or I’d not have gone as far from civilization.
Dan: Tell me a little about your poetry.
Viv: I don’t really think of myself as a poet except by accident. It’s on my Twitter bio more as a joke than anything else.
I don’t write poetry; I can’t. But sometimes a poem comes to me and I write it down. That’s it. I don’t usually rewrite and I don’t fiddle around and agonise over the perfect choice of words.
I’m good enough at wordplay to play the games of poetry writing, but what emerges when I set out to write a poem always feels flat and dead and a fake. I quite enjoy messing about with haikus, the way some people like crossword puzzles, though. It’s a challenge. But I seldom think of the haikus I produce as actual poems, just as puzzles solved.
If I have a poem come to me, if I don’t get it down in one go, I very rarely come back to finish it. My notebooks are dotted with half finished poems, stopped at the point where my train came or the phone rang or someone spoke to me.
The poems arrive mostly fully formed, words ringing inside my head as if they’ve been beamed there. Sometimes they rhyme, usually they don’t. They’re always in response to something that’s been going on in my head, rumbling on in the background somewhere, a kind of “voices off” effect. They’re also often purely cathartic in nature. I wrote one when I was beyond rage about someone at work* It took away the need to go and exact my revenge on someone; the feelings were expressed and then were gone. It’s possibly one of the angriest pieces I have ever written but once it was down I could forget the anger.
I’ve written poems pretty much my whole life, in this way, but over the last ten years I’ve written far more as I’ve been allowing myself more and more expression of my inner life. Sometimes poems like The Swordsmith scare me because it reveals more about my shadow side than I am comfortable with letting others see. But that’s part of the point of working with shadow, that it is revealed. And part of the point of poetry is that it is shared: held out as something others may relate to or find resonances.
More than that, I’m mad.
But the red cools fast
And I plunge the hot metal into water
Watch the steam rise
Needs more work
Back to the fire,
Pump the bellows
Watch the metal glow white hot
Lay it on the anvil
Beat the ringing steel
Till the forge sings
Again and again,
Folding hot metal
Beating it flat,
Finally, the steam clears
And the sparks begin
Hold the metal to the grind stone
Hone it till the edge holds.
Fit the handle
Bind with damp rawhide
Heft the finished sword
Watch the light gleam
On newly minted death
I don’t get mad
I get even.
Dan: Thank you so so much