Sarah Moss on Brexit, Borders, Bog Bodies, and the ‘Foundation Myths of a Really Damaged Country’

Sarah Moss’s tale of Iron Age reenactors and parental abuse is her way of addressing Brexit. “Putting the skulls of the ancestors up in some attempt to hold back history never works.”

Tobias Carroll  | Longreads | January 2019 | 16 minutes (4,245 words)

Silvie, the young woman at the heart of Sarah Moss’s new novel Ghost Wall, has embarked on a fascinating project: living with her family and several others in a style inspired by Iron Age Britain. It would be a fascinating foray into archaic ways of living, except that the academic conducting this research doesn’t seem entirely reliable in his methods, and Silvie’s father quickly reveals himself to be controlling and physically abusive. Soon enough, the oppressively patriarchal society from which she seeks to extricate herself has taken on another aspect, and the landscape abounds with sinister portents and ominous structures that seem designed to prevent escape and stifle dissent.

In Ghost Wall, Moss blends evocative and stark language with a disquieting narrative. In a different work, these might be hallmarks of a coming-of-age story. In Ghost Wall, the goal is more one of simple survival.

Moss’s earlier work has included both fiction and nonfiction, with a shared fixation on landscapes and their effects on people. In the novel Signs for Lost Children, a couple are separated for six months on opposite sides of the world (specifically, Japan and West Cornwall); in Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland, Moss chronicles the time she and her family spent living abroad. She’s one of a host of writers probing the landscape and language of Great Britain for new perspectives, such as Helen Macdonald’s stark evocations of wilderness and Gary Budden’s unsettling works of “landscape punk.” Ghost Wall is a haunting reminder of the narrative power of a distinctive location and its history, and of the many layers on which such a story can play out.

I talked with Moss on a winter Friday via Skype; an edited version of our conversation follows.

Tobias Carroll: In your acknowledgments you talk about there being two distinct places where you began work on the novel, and the first of those started out of a residency. What was the story behind the residency that gave rise to this?

Sarah Moss: It was in Hexham, which is a town right up in Northumberland near the Scottish border. It’s just by Hadrian’s Wall, and all around there feels like a border. Nowhere in England really feels like a border because it’s an island, but that’s the border with Scotland. It was also the border of the Roman Empire for a few hundred years. It has a very beautiful sweeping coast with a very long tidal reach. Even although you’re on the coast, and the edge feels as if it should be obvious, when you walk across that beach at low tide, you can walk nearly a mile before you get to the sea.

So I had this sense of the edges of a place, in a country kind of grieving with the tide getting larger and smaller. Although it’s not Iron Age — it was long before the period I was interested in — there used not to be sea there. For quite a long time you could walk from the Netherlands, Denmark, to what’s now England.

That’s Doggerland, right? Which you allude to a little bit in the book?

Yes. I was really interested in Doggerland, but it’s too early for me. It’s Neolithic, not Iron Age.

I didn’t mean to interrupt before.

Oh, no, that’s fine. It was just in the wake of the Brexit vote as well. So there was a lot of very angry public discourse about walls and boundaries. Who are the barbarians, and who are the civilized people? Who’s in, and who’s out? Who’s English, and who’s not English? Who’s British, and who’s not British? National myths of origin were very much in my mind while I was there.

Then you wrote about going to the National Museum of Scotland, and being inspired by something that you saw there as well?

Yeah. They’ve just got lovely things. I’ve always really liked objects, and material culture. I like making things as well. I do a lot of knitting and sewing. The really interesting thing about the Iron Age in Northern Europe is that it is surrounded by people who were reading and writing, and leave us literally legible accounts of what they were thinking, or what they were doing. The Romans were there for centuries, and we’ve got lots and lots of Latin texts. There’s some writing in Ireland, lots of the Celtic peoples were literate.

There’s this strange kind of innate bubble of silence in England, what’s now the Nordic countries, some of Germany, and the Netherlands. The objects from that period really fascinate me, because they’re kind of all we’ve got. You can go to the places where they were, and we find lots of bodies. The objects that they made are so beautiful and intricate, and are really difficult things to make. You’d need specialists, craftspeople, and an economy that had enormous respect for art. It really interests me that you have that without writing.

The really interesting thing about the Iron Age in Northern Europe is that it is surrounded by people who were reading and writing… There’s this strange kind of innate bubble of silence in England.

Were there any particular objects that you saw that particularly captivated you?

Well, bog bodies, of course. There aren’t any in the National Museum of Scotland. In the National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen, there’s a whole section of things that were thrown into bogs, which includes war trumpets. They’re so beautiful and complicated, they’re like overgrown trombones, but more twirly.

They’re amazing, and they’re hanging up in the air when you go in, so they kind of come down at you. They’re very, very shiny, and very ornate. And there are plats of human hair. So people were giving their hair to the bog, and also, of course, the bodies. All of those lost or sacrificed broken objects really intrigue me.

Your background as a writer includes both fiction and nonfiction. There is this ostensibly scientific or sociological effort at the center of this novel. Did you see this novel as kind of occupying a middle place between these two disciplines that you’ve worked in?

That’s interesting. I think if I think about myself as working between two disciplines it would be creative writing and English literature. The interest in archaeology is lifelong, but definitely amateur.

In Ghost Wall, you have this story of a fascinating effort to reenact Iron Age England, but you also have the story of your protagonist coming to grips with the fact that her father is not a particularly nice person, and is in fact abusive. Where did that juxtaposition come into play?

That was kind of Brexit discourse; a serious effort, I hope, to understand the rage in times of disillusion that became apparent in England in the wake of the Brexit votes. For people like me, for well-educated professional people, I think we hadn’t understood the depth of poverty and anger that we were living around. It’s probably a bit like the Trump election. You suddenly see a darkness in the country that you thought was your own, but you don’t recognize it, and you realize that the country you thought you were living in is not actually the country that you’re living in.

I wanted to try really hard to think about the other side of that, because it’s still going on. It’s really easy for one side to say, “You’re elitist snobs,” and the other side to say, “Well, you’re ignorant racists.” That doesn’t actually help. It doesn’t get you anywhere. Even if that’s what you think, and some of the time it is what I think, it still is not progress of any kind. I grew up in the North. I grew up in the places that are now strongly supporting Brexit. I knew what poverty looked like when I grew up with it all around. I only moved to the south of England to go to university.

So I really wanted to think back to the late 80s, early 90s, to my own childhood and adolescence, and what it was like in those Northern towns that had really been betrayed by postwar progress. They’d been industrial, and they weren’t industrial anymore. That had to do with the decline of empire as well, but it leaves people washed up, angry, and feeling unvalued. That’s pretty dangerous. So it was those stories coming together really.


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Was the debate over Brexit going on as you were writing the novel, or were you mostly finished by a certain point?

I wrote it in some ways quickly, and in some ways slowly. That’s a silly thing to say really. I don’t think the terms of the Brexit debate have changed since the vote was called, and that’s partly the problem. It’s a nation where we’re completely divided, and completely stuck in our division. Oddly, I wasn’t bothered by anything changing, because nothing really was changing, and I don’t think anything has changed. I know it’s very hard to see how it’s going to go now over the next few weeks, but nothing surprised me. So it was more of a kind of book that was looking at the foundation myths of a really damaged country than thinking about resolutions.

I would hope that I’m doing something different from Robert Macfarlane and Paul Kingsnorth. I think both of them write beautifully, but I find them deeply nostalgic, and I’m not really interested in nostalgia. I want reasons to be excited about the future.

I feel like your book is one of several recent works that goes deeply into the history of England, and addresses questions of Englishness. I’ve been recently reading a couple of Paul Kingsnorth’s books that have also approached similar questions; Robert Macfarlane’s books about language and landscape also come to mind. Do you think that this is a new literary moment where writers are attempting to address these questions?

It’s interesting, isn’t it? I don’t know if you can see these movements when you’re in them. I think to some extent it’s always been going on. My academic background is in the Romantic period, which in some ways was quite similar, because it’s the wake of the French Revolution and the American Revolution. There were lots of angst about who are we, and what are we doing, where are we going, and are we going to go the French way, or are we going to go the American way, or how can we kind of sandwich something here and do something distinctively British?

I suspect that those debates have always been there, and Britishness and Englishness have always been contested, as they should be. They’re particularly urgent at the moment for reasons that are relevant across Europe, and perhaps in a different way with different myths of origin in the U.S. I would hope that I’m doing something different from Robert Macfarlane and Paul Kingsnorth. I think both of them write beautifully, but I find them deeply nostalgic, and I’m not really interested in nostalgia. I want reasons to be excited about the future.

The situation that the protagonist moves through has this feeling of a nightmare at times. What’s was it like for you in terms of writing about an academic scenario that is ultimately of, perhaps, dubious meaning, and is being carried out very, very badly in many ways?

I worry that I’ve been unfair to experimental archaeology, because actually I’m very interested in, and respectful of, experimental archaeology. I know experimental archaeologists who were doing really fascinating work, but they’re doing that work with an acute awareness of its and their limitations. It’s one tool for thinking about bits of the past that don’t come with a historical record. The academic thing is a conceit, really. It’s a game in this book. A few of the British reviews have said it’s set on an archaeological dig, but it’s quite important to me that it’s not. There’s nothing real there. They’re not in a place where anything in particular happened in the past, they’ve just chosen to magic up a fictional community, and then try and inhabit it.

It also seems significant that in this immersion of the past you have a bog, which is a kind of vortex that keeps threatening to pull people in.

I like vortexes.

This book is a short novel, but it’s also one where there are a number of major characters, and where a lot of their relationships have existed long before the first page. How did you know what to put in and leave out?

That’s always the major question, isn’t it, whatever you’re writing? I often think that what you leave out is at least as important as what you put in. In some ways, I think what you put in doesn’t matter all that much. What I always say to students struggling with which bits do you miss out is that if you’re making a film, you’ve got an hour and half, maybe two hours, and you might well be conveying six months, or a year, or many years of happenings. There’s almost an infinite number of scenes you could choose that would tell that story.

It’s not that there’s one way of doing it at all. It’s that you could choose any set of scenes, and tell the same story. So which scenes you pick doesn’t necessarily matter all that much, as long as each of them is done well and the reader can make the connections between them. So I didn’t worry very much about that. I did that in quite a playful way.

The novel is titled Ghost Wall and some of the most vivid imagery comes from the building of a ghost wall. Where did you first learn about that type of structure, and how did you decide that that was going to get worked into the book, and ultimately would become the title of the book?

Well, my working title was Pharmakopoiia, but you can’t sell a book with a Greek title that people will associate with chemistry, and I kind of knew that all along. So it was just an indulgence to allow myself that as the working title.

I always have trouble with titles. I always change my mind lots of time at the last minute. As in the choosing of things, the choosing of a title was slightly arbitrary at the end. The story of the ghost wall is deeply dodgy, and not very well authenticated at all. Tacitus refers to it as something that someone in Britain had told someone who told Tacitus about it. So there we’re at the least three or four removes by then.

The story is that as the Romans were invading northern Britain, there was one Iron Age tribe who, as a last ditch attempt to seal off the approaching Roman Legion, constructed a kind of paling, or fence, and put the skulls of the ancestors on the top of it as their kind of lasting darkest magic. And of course, you don’t stop the Roman army with the skulls of the ancestors. They just kept right on going, although plainly they noticed it enough to make it into the historical record. There’s not much archaeological evidence for it. There’s only that one rather ghostly account of it, but I like it, and I don’t need to worry too much about how far we can back it up.

As I was thinking about it, it was just around the time that Trump was making a big fuss about the wall. Which, as we all know, was built on the first day of the presidency as promised. The Hungarians were building this really serious fence that is now there to stop refugees entering Europe. I was on Hadrian’s Wall, and there was just this sense of walls and borders going up all around.

I was thinking the old ghost wall was, in the end, putting the skulls of the ancestors up in some attempt to hold back history, and it never works. I spent a lot of my childhood summers in Eastern Europe in the 80s, so where all of those walls were up. I saw the Berlin Wall when it really was the Berlin Wall. We passed through the borders between Western and Eastern Europe several times a year. Then they all came down when I was in my mid-late teens, and I was spending my summers in Hilmsen, Germany as a teenager, and I was in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down.

Having seen the borders and the boundaries, the walls, having crossed the raked earth, the barbed wire fences, shown our passports, and taking everything out of the car every few hundred miles crossing Europe, it seemed so natural and so much a part of the future that my generation was going to inherit when the walls came down and the barbed wire was rolled up and the border guards went off to do something else. Then as an adult in my 40s, to see it all going back up again, it was really alarming. My kids now are about the age that I was when the walls were coming down. So thinking about the future that we’re building for them is pretty grim.

I was born in 1976 myself, and so it’s been similar for me — this sense of, “wait, this was supposed to be getting better and getting better and getting better, and now all of a sudden it’s a little terrifying.”

Isn’t it? It’s the realization that progress is not inevitable.

Because we were really lucky to be able to think that it was for a decade or two actually, but certainly in Britain now you can see the infrastructure coming apart.

It seemed so natural and so much a part of the future that my generation was going to inherit when the walls came down and the barbed wire was rolled up and the border guards went off to do something else. Then as an adult in my 40s, to see it all going back up again, it was really alarming.

I remember watching the Brexit vote come in live, and being pretty shocked by what I saw. So when the election results over here came in, I was also surprised, but having already witnessed one completely unexpected thing… It’s unnerving.

And it is across Europe. I’m deeply ashamed to be British at the moment, but actually, one of my friends who’s living in Denmark was saying Denmark is kind of a similar cauldron of racism, it just hasn’t had the opportunity to be expressed in the way that the British version was in the Brexit vote. If you look at what’s going on in France at the moment, that’s not explicitly about immigration, but it’s certainly about a very light minority of people being very, very angry for a very, very long time.

That Austrian election a couple of years ago very, very nearly went to the fascists. Then there was a Dutch election, nearly a third of them voted for the fascists, and France came really close. It’s not much consolation that it’s not just the U.S. and the U.K. In fact, there’s not consolation at all, but there’s a wider problem here.

Do you have an expectation of what American readers who may not necessarily have some of the same historical knowledge are going to view, or not view, in terms of this novel?

It will be really interesting to see. I hope that it works as a book about national myths of origin and racial purity in class and education across different contexts. It’s being translated into a few European languages, and I hope that you don’t need that very specific history about the Romans in Iron Age Britain, and Brexit, for it to make sense, because as I was saying earlier, it’s not just a British problem. I think that that nostalgic thing about blood and lands is global, isn’t it? That’s how we all start our wars. So I hope it will work, and maybe it will work differently as well. That will be very interesting to see.

Was there anything that, as you were researching the past for this, you discovered that you couldn’t quite fit into the book, but still found interesting enough to be notable?

Well, everything about the Iron Age, really. I’d like to do something else with the Iron Age. Probably nonfiction. It’s the thing about the bubble of silence, and I haven’t really thought about it properly until I was researching the book. There’s so much more I’d like to do. Not only with bog bodies, but with the other things that were put into the bogs. Those musical instruments really fascinate me. I think you could almost make an Iron Age soundscape, and you could hear it even if you can’t read it, or hear a version of it.

You talked a little bit about this book both taking a while to write, and it being written very quickly. Has that been similar to how you’ve written your other books, or does this one stand out in your bibliography?

It’s sad that I have this terribly messy and inefficient writing process, where I seem to need to write a thing to realize that it’s not what I want to be writing, or that I haven’t got it right. So for almost every book there’s been a complete draft that I’ve then ditched and started again from blank documents.

And I don’t mind. I find that moment very, very liberating and exhilarating when I realize that I can see everything that’s wrong with the book I’ve just written, and I might delete it and start again knowing how to do it properly this time. I’m always convinced that yeah, clearly other people write more efficiently, more neatly, and do a better way to doing it than mine. This one was similarly kind of rescued from a mess. My previous book which didn’t come out in the States, called The Tidal Zone, had been emotionally quite hard to write.

Afterwards I thought, I just want to take a break. I just want to read for a few months. I’m not going to be writing. I’m not going to be thinking about what to write, and I’m going to try in not having a fictional world in my head for a bit. That was interesting, and I did manage it, but at the end of the few months, I’d come up with a completely crazy plan for a book that I knew I would never be able to write, but I thought I might have a go. It had five timeframes, and a bunch of first-person narrators who were wandering between timeframes which was spread from the Iron Age to the present day. Stopping off in World War Two in the 19th century and, oh, it went into the future as well.

I could see right from the beginning what was going to go wrong with it, but I thought it would be worth having a go just to see what happened. So I did, but when I describe this to people, some of them know exactly what I mean by solving a puzzle. It was like when you’re driving your car on the motorway and it starts to make a funny noise. At this point some of us turn up the music and keep going, and hope it will sort itself out. Some other people who’re signed up to — within this country, the AA or the RAC — one of those services that will come and rescue you when your car starts to make a funny noise, do that.

So I am obviously of the school that turns up the music and keeps going. It gradually gets louder and louder when you turn up the music louder and louder, and after a while you think you’d better come off the motorway and go down the roads where it will be easier if you have to stop; and you might find a garage. Eventually a wheel falls off where it bursts into flame or something. Then you really do have to stop. So writing that book was a bit like that, and it was making the funny noise right from the beginning. I knew that before I ever started, but I got quite a long way before the wheels fell off. Then I was left with the ruins of about three-quarters of a technically impossible novel.

I was just kind of picking my way around the ruins, pulled out a bit and sent it to my agent, and said, “Do you think there’s any point in trying to rescue any of this?” And she said, “Yes, yes. This bit. This bit.” Which was the story that turned into Ghost Wall. So that was how that happened. Then I binned the whole thing, and rewrote it.

That is an amazing metaphor, and one that feels, as someone who has also had many car troubles over the years, incredibly vivid.

The thing is with words, you can throw them away with no cost. It doesn’t cost anything to type them, and it doesn’t cost anything to delete them. It really doesn’t matter, whereas cars are much more expensive.

Did this book also take a lot out of you in terms of writing it, or do you feel ready to work on whatever is the next thing?

I’m working on the next thing. Ghost Wall has been out for three months in the U.K., so the last time I was actually working on it was months and months ago. The thing I’m writing at the moment is kind of wild and mad. I’m not sure where it’s going, and I suspect that I’ll get to the end and then be able to see what it is I was actually trying to do; and have to start again. Which is fine.

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Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the books Reel and Transitory.

Editor: Dana Snitzky