Sophie Wall talks to Alex Allison about The Art of the Body
For the launch of the Audrey audiobook of Alex Allison’s debut novel The Art of the Body (Dialogue Books, 2019), Audrey Guide Sophie Wall interviews the author about class, creating a voice, and finding poetry in the discomfort of care work.
Illustration by Linda Merad for Audrey
Sophie: I'd be interested to discover more about your relationship with class (a very British obsession!) I was brought up in a council flat by my single mum, and am a carer, but am constantly questioning which class category I fall into/identify with. How has your experience of class impacted your life, and consequently the work you make?
Alex: I was also raised by a single mum in a council flat. I’m part of the current generation who are the first in their family to go on to higher education.
In terms of how my class background has impacted my life, I know for certain that my accent is an artifice. It has been shaped by my mother, who semi-consciously modulates her own voice to sound less common than she actually is. I honestly believe that breaking through in white collar industries in the UK is influenced to a huge degree by how you sound and the register you adopt.
My girlfriend thinks I have an unhealthy relationship with class identity. She calls me out for how heated I can get when people deny their privilege. I’m not sure if I could be close friends with someone who felt entitled to certain opportunities by virtue of their circumstances.
The liminality and thresholds of class are much less interesting to me than how they influence lived behaviour. For example, I’m still tremendously uneasy with calling myself an author – it feels like a rarefied title still. I qualified for my publisher, Dialogue Books, by virtue of being working class. They’re doing amazing works in championing less traditional voices and taking risks with stories that other people might not touch. No one else in the UK or the US was willing to publish The Art of the Body. But that said, it foregrounds my class in a way that I don’t fully have the means to process.
Because of me being super conscious of money and my material circumstances, I don’t think there’s any amount of authorial success that would put me enough at ease to quit my other jobs and write full time. That still seems impossible to me. The advantage to this though, is that I can write the novels I want to. I’m not restricted by trying to produce commercially appealing stories. I am free to write the stories that I feel most compelled to tell.
Sophie: I think you've really effectively captured the highs and lows some carers experience. I wonder — how were you able to create an authentic voice, given that it is quite different from what I've read about your own lived experience?
Alex: The Art of the Body started life while I was studying writing in Manchester. At the time, I was 21 and producing prose that was desperate to demonstrate how clever I was. At some point during the course of those studies, I was encouraged to instead focus on producing impactful writing, drawing on the most emotionally resonant moments in my life. What came to mind immediately on being prompted was my experience of care work, and supporting my disabled friends. There’s something profoundly humbling about care work that cuts through teenage cynicism. I think my few weeks of doing full time care work for strangers matured me a lot and stuck with me in profound ways.
That process of maturing through that work is the spine of Janet’s growth and journey through the novel. The authenticity of her voice is hopefully a product of diligent research and many conversations with disabled friends and their Personal Assistants.
I don’t think it is important for the care work in the novel to be textbook accurate. I would rather it was emotionally engaging. The story would be very tedious if it was bogged down in sluggish detail. The reality of care work is Sisyphean and hard to dramatise effectively. I honestly believe this is why there are so few good stories on the subject.
Sophie: I found many of your descriptions of care work to be poetic as well as practical. Were you struck by the unusual beauty of these images whilst doing the care work itself, or did the poetry come during the writing process?
Alex: I love writing and art and music that is grounded in corporeality. There’s a huge advantage to telling a story in first-person present-tense, in that the present restricts contemplation, and subsequently accentuates the poetry and beauty of raw, emotional responses. As the narrator, Janet has no where to hide – there’s no façade to her. She is deeply sensitive and horribly conflicted, and this tension is crucial to making the more poetic flourishes stand out.
Sophie: From reading a few Goodreads reviews it seems that Janet, and her often unkind thoughts about Sean's body, smells and habits, make some readers feel uncomfortable. Why do you think this is?
Alex: It’s completely reasonable to be uncomfortable reading this novel. The lived reality of both art and the body/care work and the creative process are unglamorous and full of indignities, both big and small. Readers conditioned to expect narratives around disability as noble or art as salvatory are going to be thrown off by Janet’s character. I know that the readers who have enjoyed The Art of the Body the most have pointed to this discomfort as among the story’s strongest assets. I personally wish more novels made me uncomfortable.
Sophie: Whilst reading, I constantly wondered what Sean was thinking about Janet. There are a couple of clues in his dialogue... what did you imagine Sean to be thinking?
Alex: I think that Sean is obsessed with his work, and has deep affection for Janet. I wouldn’t want to say much more than that, because it’s so important to leave blank spaces for the reader to project onto.
The audiobook, accompanied by Sophie’s guide to the novel, is available to download now on the Audrey app.