By Alex Oxford
In an unnamed town, on an unnamed river, a mother regales the story of her family and their labour of love: a barge named Ann of Goole. A tale of love, loss and beauty, Charlotte Fairburn’s Cried Out the River for Love is Linen Press’ latest publication. In this issue, we speak to author Charlotte Fairbairn and Lynn Michel, founder of Linen Press, to hear their perspectives on bringing this story to fruition.
What drew Linen Press to Charlotte Fairbairn’s Cried Out the River for Love?
LP: When Cried Out the River came in as an unsolicited submission, within a page or two I knew I had something different and daring and very accomplished. The breathless pace draws you in and keeps you reading. [...] I am drawn to the double layered narrative, on the surface a magical fable in a mythical setting and underneath an exploration of the complexities of family relationships. Charlotte asks important questions: What does lost mean? And found? How can a mother and father who adore their daughter, lose her?
Cried Out the River for Love centres its story around the natural landscape – were you inspired by a particular location when writing this novel?
CF: In the summer of 2020, I had a bit of a budget to buy a place in London. I live in Cumbria and am very happy here but miss the hurly burly of friends and events in the city. I thought about buying a flat but all I could afford was a broom cupboard in the outskirts. Then I suddenly thought, houseboat? My children and I went to look at several and the first one we saw, Ann of Goole, moored in South Dock in southeast London, blew our hearts and minds. In September of that year we moved in. I promised the person we bought her from that she would appear one day in a novel – and so she has. [...] What I did not expect when buying a boat – and she is a barge, not a narrowboat – was the glory of living on water. You can take the river taxi from very close to us and the romance of the river, of the old stories and the new jostling for space side by side, leached into this book.
How did you find juggling the spotlights placed on several of the individual relationships within a family dynamic?
CF: Tricky question to answer. I wrote this novel very quickly, in about five months including a two-week gap around the sudden (but timely) death of my mother. To be honest, I did not spend a great deal of time juggling. I just wrote it as it unravelled in my mind. I wanted to look at how parents can do everything “right” as far as bringing up their children is concerned and still end up with something they cannot conjure with. I am interested in writing about people whose faces you do not look into and with Eustace, I tried to explore a man who was full of love but whose deeds were more eloquent than anything he said. Sybilla, the daughter, is an enigma to both parents and maybe she is just a cipher in the end, an emblem of your worst fears as a parent. This book is meant to be full of wonder and joy, not just at the natural world, but at love. And also, first and foremost, at the powers and possibilities of language. To that extent, I wrote this book thoughtlessly and with urgency.
What stands out to Linen as the difference between a good book and a great one?
LP: The writing, the writing and the writing! While the bigger companies increasingly seem to restrict their choices to crowd pleasers, quick reads, and series of formulaic novels of little substance, Linen Press continues to publish books that are challenging, wise and surprising. Our bar is very high. [...] When I set up Linen Press, literary fiction was everywhere, in book shops on the stands with green-spined Virago books on one side and the striped spines of The Women’s Press on the other. The choice was vast. Now literary fiction has shrunk to a genre, but we continue to keep the torch alight.
Are there any authors or books that have served as inspiration to your writing?
CF: I went to a book launch in Cornwall last week [...] and was asked the same question. I replied that my greatest inspirations were the South American novelists, whose books I studied at university. But that was not the right answer in truth. I think that on the one hand one’s greatest inspirations, or at least mine, go much further back. Think Babar, think Alison Uttley’s Sam Pig, think The Secret Garden. Where the wonder of reading and the possibility of stories are unlimited. On the other, because I studied languages, I read a lot of books in translation. I think that disconnect between what you read and what you understand, given that you are reading in a language not your own, gives you a wonderful dreamy sense of literature. The meaning is just out of reach so you have to – or I had to – supply your own understanding. That I think is one of the great gifts of fiction – that you as a reader can make the book your own.
Charlotte Fairbairn’s Cried Out the River for Love is now available from Linen Press.