"Out at sea, in a sudden storm, a man is struck by lightning. When he wakes, injured and adrift on a kayak, his memory of who he is and how he came to be there is all but shattered. Now he must pit himself against the pain and rely on his instincts to get back to shore, and to the woman he dimly senses waiting for his return."
The publisher’s blurb describes your latest novel “Cove” as the story of “a man locked in an uneven struggle with the forces of nature”. Now the image that immediately springs to my mind reading that is of an action-packed adventure with the hero facing huge mountainous waves and maybe a killer whale or two thrown in for good measure, but I’d have imagined wrongly! How would you describe it?
Cove is about attrition, and faith. Those are the two things you need in the face of overwhelming odds; and Nature is overwhelming.
At ninety-five pages ‘Cove’ certainly isn’t a long novel, and there’s a feeling of everything being pared down to the merest essentials. How did the writing of it progress; was it always going to be this short, or did you start with a massive epic and chip away at it till the very bones were left? Could it even be a case of more words would not have added anything?
At one stage the manuscript was 30,000 or so words. There was more before the storm, and the story travelled past the point is ends now. But something wasn’t right. I kept trying to write around that. It got worse. Eventually, I stepped away, let the book settle in my head until I saw it clearly, and went back to the desk months later. The story found its form around 11,500 words. That’s why it wouldn’t work at 30,000…
There’s a thank you at the end which infers that at least some of this novel is written from personal experience. How much did that experience add to the story? Could you have written it without this having happened?
The thank you at the end is chiefly allegorical, but a number of personal experiences found their way into the book. I was on the beach when a lifeboat came searching the shore; I’ve been thrown out of a kayak in a squall (something about that here); I was visited by glow-in-the-dark dolphins while night fishing as a teenager.
The idea of casting a man out alone on a kayak, bringing in my experiences on the water, was in my head for some time, but it took years for that idea to fuse into a story. The lightning strike delivered the point of fusion.
One moment particularly terrified me – a point at which the kayak has drifted out of sight of land, absolute emptiness on all sides with no sense of which way to paddle to safety, then the man looks down into the depths – and it seems like he’s balancing on the edge of a cliff and could easily fall over. I’d never seen water this way but as a person with a fear of heights, I’m never going to forget this image!
The surface is everything, in Cove. It’s the place of awareness. The point where depth and space meet.
Dare I ask you to elaborate on that?
It is, absolutely, a physical thing too, the surface. But there's so much meaning in it - the meniscus that physically supports him; the place two elements (we are not able to inhabit properly - water and air) meet... it's both the tightrope and the safety net.
That image of a man precariously balanced (which again terrifies me) leads nicely to the next question ...
Although ‘Cove’ is the story of one man, I saw a wider relevance – that this is a story for any of us that feel we’re out of our depths - and an echo of Stevie Smith’s “I was much too far out all my life/And not waving but drowning”. Where you thinking in this way when writing or am I being guilty of reading too much into it?
I was absolutely thinking this way. Ostensibly, I wanted the narrative to be straight forward and physical and limited to the capacity of one damaged character. But beyond (below, and above) that, it had to be massive, universal, ambiguous and faceted.
And lastly, although it’s difficult to discuss without spoilers – how did you see the ending... I saw it as hopeful, other reviewers say it isn’t. Can we agree that’s it’s at least ambiguous?
Ah! I just used that word ambiguous. I know what happens to him because the first drafts went past the point the book now ends. So why end it where it ends? Because the story should always go beyond the book. And that happens in the reader’s mind. Would you survive? Make it back? Give up? Much of the ending relies on the character of the reader. Clearly, you believe in the outside chance. There’s hope. Right?
Definitely! When all else is gone, there's still hope, or so I believe. It's interesting though that reviews may be letting us inside the reviewer's head ...
Thanks for dropping by, Cynan, and giving me possibly even more to think about!