1, What drew you to the story of Bella?
At first, it was the open ended nature of the mystery. There’s something irresistible about things being unsolved, being a mix of hearsay, true crime and folk tale. But more than this too, it’s a central piece of urban folklore from the Black Country, and I’m really interested in what makes up regional identity and sense of place – part of it is the stories we tell each other about our locales, the Bella story runs deep in the minds of these estates.
2, How do you think the telling of the story through various voices helps the narrative?
It seems appropriate to form a novel like Bella through a multi-voiced perspective, since it’s about marginal, fragmented and liminal people, cultures and customs. Again, the Bella myth is an amalgamation of half-truths, and that idea runs throughout the novel in different guises. I wanted to create a textual version of the pub conversation – people holding forth, digressing, being interrupted, repeating themselves and echoing each other, that slowly and strangely building a collective fiction, experience and memory.
3. Why did you use dialect, and knowing how dialect can be used from the occasional word to paragraphs where it becomes like another language the reader has to learn, where did you draw the line?
The use of dialect is connected with that vision of creating a textual pub conversation, but it’s also because the Black Country dialects are so gorgeous and rhythmic. It really is poetic, especially when it’s captured with that slick working-class wit. This novel is my love song to the Black Country, and part of that is a deep admiration for the way we spake.
There’s an element of archiving at play too. Much of the peculiar turns of phrase and grammatical choices are dying out, so I wanted in some way to keep it going in some way.
And politically too, there’s something subversive and politically playful about creating very smart characters from an overlooked place, talking in a way that most people assume makes them dumb.
I didn’t really put any limit on its use. I wanted to capture as close as possible the way people talk. There are, I suppose, some limits in the way I attempted to differentiate the voices of my characters – each having their own idiosyncrasies. The Pakistani characters are a good example, littering the regional voice with Urdu in the gorgeous way Asian communities do in this country.
4. Your description of the edgelands, the verges and bits of vegetation amongst the concrete and steel becomes a character in itself, almost becoming Bella, herself.
I’m so happy to hear that came through. Thanks. It’s a Gothic tradition, and I see Bella’s landscape as a sort of Black Country Gothic or Post-industrial sublime. The liminal, off-kilter spaces are haunted zones, literally and symbolically, but also ones separate from normal rules and codes, so they’re ripe for transgression. So, yes I think you’re right; there’s a sense that the very makeup of the land is responsible for the action that takes place in it.
5. It feels like an exploration of the outsider who becomes a victim.
It is many ways, yeah. It’s a feeling of being connected and dislocated simultaneously. And I think you could see that in all the characters. They’re all outsiders in different ways. And as you noted before, it’s the space itself that triggers it.
6. I love the way you weave in the myths and legends of other cultures, like the Qarin.
Thank you! It’s great to hear that landed too. At the heart of this novel is a ghost story. A lost soul, doomed to relive her tragedy forever. It makes sense to me that a spirit or being of this nature would manifest itself differently depending on the person witnessing the haunting. This then becomes another way of showing the disparate elements that make up a place, community, and especially in this case, the genius loci.
7. There is a lot about sleep (or lack of), dreams and nightmares.
Well spotted. I think this is probably down to my obsession with Sigmund Freud’s work. I really wanted the mood or energy in the novel to be soaked with the uncanny and with abjection – more examples of that in-between-ness – and a good route into that is exploring character’s dreams. It’s also good fun for a writer – working in the abstract and unusual into the realist. I hope this makes for fun reading too; it seems to help with pace and dynamic shifts.
8. Why does Bella say “Memory is difficult”?
Two reasons for this. I see Bella as a being stuck in a sort of psychic loop, in a ghostly limbo. She’s disembodied, outside of normal space-time. So it makes sense that she’d find the usual processes of feeling, thinking, sensing dislocated too. The other side to this is the sense that she represents a collective cultural memory, and one that is fractured, full of dead ends and red herrings.
9. What is it about in-between-ness that fascinates you?
As I mentioned in your other question, I’m really keen on Freud’s work. Especially the Uncanny. At the heart of Freud’s theories is the that life, being, experience is about two poles bearing against each other. So we experience things in ambivalences. The uncanny is an experience of something both familiar and unfamiliar, homely and unhomely. By navigating these the subject comes to understand themselves with more clarity. This is a rite of passage, a shaman’s journey, and it’s at heart of narrative.
10. The sense of touch features highly in your descriptions more than the other senses.
That’s another really astute observation. I guess there’s something about physically touching the ground, the body, the concrete floor of the myth itself. And attempting to connect with things that are beyond in different ways – through death, loss, history, repression.
11. What do you want the reader to be left with after reading Bella?
I want them to leave with a fresh and more nuanced perspective on the Black Country, wider Post-industrial communities, and on working-class culture.
But mainly, I want them to FEEL sad, hopeful, scared, repulsed and beauty-marked in equal measure. And then buy a copy for a friend 😉
A copy of Bella can be obtained here:
There is also a free ebook available
Readers may find the interview I did with R.M. Francis in 2019 interesting reading: