Known for her daring, thought-provoking and original writing, Joanna Wash's Break.up explores how we love in a digital age. Our Marketing Director Niamh Murray asks Joanna about her brilliant novel.

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Joanna, you’re well known for your contribution to autofiction in the form of short stories, and your essays, and the interactive project Seed but this is your first novel. Has the longer form brought changes to your writing? And if so, in what ways?

I began to write Break.up as a series of essays, which developed into a novel. What do I mean by that? I guess that it has a fictional narrator, and a story arc of some kind. But I always start work without a clear idea of what form the writing will finally take. Break.up is a 'novel in essays', and it imitates the slippery clickthrough of online reading, so chapters about love become examinations of boredom, music, antiques, dreams... I think we all think (and feel!) in nonfiction as well as in fiction. 

Break.up follows the end of a romantic relationship, conducted online, via email and other forms of digital communication, and the gap which happens when that communication stops.

And the narrator travels - to get away from the end of love, and its absence. But the internet is always on and we are always connected. Do you feel that this prolongs the affair ... and its pain?

It's difficult to get away from anyone when you can still 'see' them (and often so much of what they do) on Facebook, Instagram, or whatever. It's possible, if very difficult, to turn away from the temptation to look, to write back, it's very difficult to simultaneously present yourself to the world via the same channels. These are new skills we've had to learn over the last ten years or so, and that change in personal boundaries is an extraordinary shift in what it means to be human.

Break.up has strong elements of flaneurism as we follow the narrator and see what she sees. Do you see yourself as a European/continental writer and part of that tradition?

Yeah the book is very much a response to male European writers who have claimed romance x travel as a creative act, from medieval romance/quest narratives to Baudelaire, to Breton. In all of these narratives, the man's mobility tends to hinge on the (non) presence of an immobile woman who is sought, or left and returned to. This is something Break.up turns inside-out. I very much like the book Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin, which reclaims the space of walking in cities as a creative act for women. 

The book is interspersed with your photos - taken from buses, trains, from walking around the cities the narrator visits. They appear to give us glimpses of what she sees: snatches of skies, just missed windows on the edges of cities where railway stations lie. What is your intention in including these pictures?

I found myself taking photographs over a period of travel. I write a lot in Break.up about what it is to be a 'tourist' – a word that's often used pejoratively – and I'm deeply interested in ideas about amateurism, both in the sense of an activity being non-'professional'  unpaid work for the love of it – and of it's being botched, or not up to 'professional' standards. So the photos in Break.up look like tourist photos gone wrong: the corner of a building at an unsteady angle, in front of a slice of sky. I wanted to photograph the sky in every place I stopped to find out whether the sky, like the countries I crossed, had discernible borders.

And the formatting of the book is interesting: the way you use footnoted quotes, many from European philosophers (Badiou, Barthes, Kierkegaard), writers (Kraus, Woolf) often about love, but also about existence, repetition, time. It’s almost like a philosophical Rough Guide in how these detours complement and pull you off the main route of the book then guide you back again. I wonder why did you choose to have the quotes laid out like that rather than as conventional footnotes and what the structure signifies?

I love the idea of a philosophical rough guide  thank you! Conventional footnotes placed at the end of a chapter move the reader out of the flow of the text and that can be fun and productive too, but it's not what I wanted here. Nor did I want the equally intrusive 'as Freud said' or whatever, framing each thought I cite within the body of the writing. So I kept the footnotes outside the text, but on the same page as the passages they refer to I'm interested in the way the reading eye can absorb several pieces of writing at once. Again that's a largely online method: think of scrolling down an article, half-reading the text, half-absorbed by the sidebar. I think there's more room in print media for playing with the reader's capacities here.

Like any journey of extended travel, there’s a lot of waiting around, anticipation, boredom, the killing of time. And this echoes the waiting - for the ping of email, for the tones of an incoming Skype call. You talk about this sense of waiting being like a hallucinogen, and how that’s the kick, the addiction is when nothing’s happening. Do you think love has always changed it?

The gaps necessary in the production of desire are constant: only technology has changed. Both Breton and Barthes wrote about the delightful agony of waiting by the telephone. One of my favourite books, Zoo by Viktor Shklovsky, was written in the 1920s, and centres on an exchange of letters between the author and Elsa Triolet with whom he was - unrequitedly - in love, and which arrive and are sent sometimes several times a day. I like to think not only about how technologies enable desire, but how desire has been a pull on the development and uses of technologies.

It’s also very playful: the narrator takes herself seriously and then catches herself doing so, and the reader’s complicity. Are there traces of Beckett here?

Thank you. I like to play. Beckett's a big influence on my writing but I wasn't thinking of him particularly here, not any more than I'm always thinking about him, particularly about how he thinks about how words work against, and in conjunction with bodies (which I think might be what shame is), and how people are always explaining - performing! - themselves to themselves.

It struck me while reading Break.up, as the narrator travels through Europe mourning the end of a relationship and replaying its critical moments, questioning the cause of its demise, how much that’s been reflected in the mood of vast swathes of the country since the Brexit referendum. Is this a Brexit novel?

I wrote the book pre-Brexit. I have no idea what most of the UK's mood is about Brexit; I've spent as much time as possible since in the Europe of which I am, at least temporarily, still a citizen. 'Remainers' are frequently asked to 'understand' what prompted the leave vote. Apart from blatant deception writ large on the sides of buses, I don't want to understand a process so deeply reliant on the legitimisation of racism, which has been so wrongly predominantly laid at the door of working class voters worried about their jobs. Brexit looks less like the sad break.up of a relationship than a psychotic gaslighter unflaggingly negging his (his?) former significant other. But then Break.up (the book) describes an hallucinatory relationship, for all that the feelings involved are solid and have consequences. So perhaps there are a few similarities after all.

 

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