An Interview with Sarah Moss

I have decided to republish this interview, done in April 2013 for Warwick’s student newspaper The Boar after the success of Sarah’s latest novel The Tidal Zone and her nomination for the 2017 Wellcome Book Prize.

Sarah Moss, author of Names for the Sea, a lecturer in the Creative Writing Department here at the University of Warwick and a nominee for the RSL’s Ondaatje Prize 2013 talks ‘pissing’, place and the pleasures of living in Iceland.

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I meet Sarah in her office here at the University of Warwick. Softly spoken and articulate, she greets me warmly and we waste no time in getting down to the questions.

Having just had friends that came back from Iceland, I was eager to get Sarah’s opinions on their exclamations that it’s an undeniably ‘foreign’ country, whereby winter is devoid of light and the landscape is breathtakingly different. Whereas “here we tend to think of it in binary terms, either it’s light or its dark, in Iceland in winter there’s this incredible slow sunrise that lasts 3, even 4 hours”. Already it’s clear to me that a profound sense of fondness for this environment resides in Sarah, who has proclaimed to “like the far North” and whose description of a “pink and westerly sunset and the graduations of light and dark” immediately evoke a stark beauty that no doubt draws visitors in to Iceland.

“The big question”, of course, is what prompted the move to Iceland, the premise and experience of which forms the content of Sarah’s latest novel, Names for the Sea. She recounts a “summer spent there when 19, with a friend”. Devoid of money and food, they set off around “one road that goes all the way around the edge of Iceland [with just] a tent and two sleeping bags”. This was after all “the late 90s” and not a ‘gap-yah’. “No mobile phones, no twitter”, there’s a sense of abandonment, but also of complete freedom. Sarah affirms that they “had an amazing time, particularly for young women to be completely free and completely safe…was an astonishing experience” that prompted her desire to one day return.

After marriage and two children, the circumstances to return and perhaps relive the adventures of young adulthood fell into place. “I was just kind of messing around on the internet and saw a job as a lecturer of English at the University of Iceland… My husband and I agreed I’d go for the interview and just see what it’s like and I went and I loved it again. So we all went for a week, so everyone else could see if they loved it. And in the end we thought ‘let’s just do this’. You don’t get these opportunities very often”. It’s the sort of courage of conviction that many of us lack and which proves very inspiring.

I ask whether the sense of freedom felt so potently the first time around was replicated. Of course “with a husband and two children” in tow, there’s now a responsibility that perhaps wasn’t present at 19. However, “there were different kinds of freedom, not all of which I recognised at the time, just being outside my own culture for a year – anywhere – gave me a kind of freedom and a kind of distance. Being able to walk around the city by myself in the early hours of the morning, even in yours 30s, that’s something you don’t get to do very often”.

Icelandic volcano

A “beautiful” country, but one also recently wreaked by disaster – both of a natural and a financial kind. In fact, Sarah and her family were living in Rekyjavik when the Icelandic volcano, that became a stalwart feature of British news, erupted. Sarah recalls this “bizarre experience”, but that there was no real sense of crisis on those living in Rekyjavik.

Settling in to a new school or University can be difficult, let alone a new country, where language barriers, different outlooks and a new way of life present a whole host of challenges. Sarah admits that it was “harder than expected” and that learning Icelandic was “really difficult”. Working in the English department at the University of Iceland and “of course speaking English at home” no doubt compounded the problem. “My only opportunities to speak Icelandic were in shops and buses”. Much the same to learning GCSE French and realising you can tell someone the contents of your pencil case, but not engage in a colloquial conversation. A case of lost in translation in some respects. Perhaps exacerbating the difficult of learning another language, was that her 2-year old son was picking up words at lightning speech, a process which Sarah describes as “fascinating”. Within 6 weeks, his nursery claiming that he “sounded like an Iceland 3-year old”.

Teaching in Iceland, was no doubt, a very different experience from that of teaching at Warwick. “In Iceland, there are no tuition fees and there are no entry requirements.  It is an absolutely fundamental principle of Iceland that the University is supported by the state and anybody can go. But because of that there’s no control over group sizes, so I had groups of 40ish. And I was supposed to be teaching Creative Writing, so I had to change how I did it…It was a bit of a shock for them and for me I enjoyed it very much”.

Sarah recalls one anecdote involving the word ‘piss’: “One of things that was quite funny was there was only one Icelandic word for ‘peeing’, which is ‘pissa’, so Icelanders will translate it as ‘piss’. So you’re sitting in a seminar and somebody will raise their hand and say ‘I’m just going to piss’ and you just think ‘Oh, right’. (Laughs) But they don’t have that sense of ‘excuse me a moment’, all of that sort of euphemism and because it doesn’t exist in Icelandic, they assume it doesn’t exist in English”.

As aforementioned Names for the Sea recounts the disruption, delight and difference of moving to another country and I wonder whether this book was planned before the venture, or whether it took shape whilst out there. “I knew it was likely I would end up writing about Iceland, but I didn’t do it in order to write about it. I think it would’ve been a very different experience if I had. Towards the end the project was taking shape and I had a sense of the themes I might write about, but I didn’t have a clear structural plan in mind”. This novel also charts Sarah’s transfer from the mode of fiction to non-fiction: “it was extremely good for me to turn away from fiction. Change of perspective, change of technique, it was also the coming together of my academic and my writerly interests. My academic background is in travel writing and nature and place writing, so it was really nice to be doing the form that I’d been studying for ten years. And I’m now more confident about using them in my teaching”.

The teaching Sarah refers to include a module in the Warwick Writing Programme on experiencing place and belonging. I wonder whether Sarah ever felt she could belong in Iceland. Belonging is one of the things that really interests me academically and creatively. I’ve moved around a lot, I was born in Scotland, grew up in Manchester, spent 10 years in Oxford, 4 years in Canterbury, 1 in Iceland, 3 in West Cornwall. I’m half American. The American half is Jewish Diaspora. Lots of different places and lots of different ways in which I might claim belonging. All of these different ways of claiming place. I certainly want to go back to Iceland. I miss it. I feel connected to it in ways I don’t feel connected to other places, but whether that counts as belonging I couldn’t say”.

Any advice for students at Warwick seeking publication? “Give it all you’ve got – but for a set period. Focus completely and decide how long you’re going to do it for. The great thing about your early 20s is that you can try things with very low risk. There’s no reason why at 22 or 23 you shouldn’t devote yourself to your writing and see where it goes”.

And of course, Sarah is amongst the nominees for this year’s Ondaatje Prize, with the winner to be announced in late May. An “encouraging, exciting, gratifying” honour indeed.

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland was published by Granta at the beginning of July 2012. 

Sarah is currently working on a pair of novels.  

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Redcurrant & coconut sponge

20170618_143142Ever since learning how to bake I’ve been a fan of the one bowl method. A.k.a. Skip all the faff of sieving and separating and just tip all the ingredients into one big receptacle, whisk and bake. As a result its remarkably simple to create an impressive cake from scratch and swap out or add in different ingredients and flavours depending on the season and what’s available.

This recipe is akin to a basic sponge, just a dairy and gluten free version! I swapped out the sugar for agave syrup and butter for olive oil. I would normally use coconut oil, but I didn’t happen to have any this time around. The coconut milk is a deliciously creamy addition and helped keep the sponge light and moist. I used redcurrants just because we had some in the garden to use up, but this could work just as well with any summer berries! That being said, the tartness of the currants worked really nicely with the crunch of the dessicated coconut and its subtly sweet flavour. Enjoy!

Prep time: 10 mins
Cook time: 45-50 mins
Total time: 60 mins

Recipe type: Dessert, Baking
Serves: 8-10
Ingredients
  • 1 egg
  • 175g of gluten free plain flour
  • 2 tsp of baking powder
  • 4 Tbsp of agave syrup
  • 1 tsp of vanilla essence
  • 2 Tbsp of olive oil
  • 300g of redcurrants (or however many you picked)
  • 100g of dessicated coconut
  • 1 400ml tin of coconut milk (I used the essential Waitrose brand. Coconut cream would also work).

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF/gas 6.
  2. Add all of the ingredients in a bowl, making sure to have washed and de-stalked the currants.
  3. Whisk together until smooth and glossy.
  4. Add to a well-greased cake tin and bake in the oven for 45-50 mins, or as long as needed until golden brown and cooked through. (Mine was quite a deep cake and so took a bit longer).
  5. Once cooled, dust with icing sugar.
  6. Serve with Pimms for a delicious summer treat!

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Salted Caramel Fudge Squares

These were a completed baking whim and I am gobsmacked they turned out so well, considering. Again they’re a little on the messy side – do you see a trend appearing? But in terms texture and flavour, I am downright smitten. They’re squidgy, fudgy and a little bit like miniature sticky toffee puddings, just with less sauce. This batch could probably have done with a touch more salt to offset the richness. And I reckon apple would also work very nicely inside the sponge too.

I find that as long as you keep eggs, plain flour, baking powder & sugar in stock then you can pretty much bake anything as and when you feel like it. I’ve taken to baking much more with olive, or coconut oil instead of butter. And sometimes agave syrup instead of sugar. That being said I don’t make desserts or treats that frequently, so when I do, it won’t hurt to use the basics. Regardless of what any clean eating blogs might tell you. Equally, if you are only going to whack a cake together once a month or so, it’s best to splurge a little more on really good ingredients.

On my list of extravagances are: organic vanilla bean paste, brown rice flour and agave nectar syrup. I also like to keep ground almonds, desiccated coconut, cocoa powder and some spices like cinnamon and nutmeg on standby or any baking urges that might occur.

Prep time: 15 mins
Cook time: 25 mins
Total time: 40 mins

Recipe type: Dessert, Baking
Serves: 8-10
Ingredients
  • 1 egg
  • 250g of light brown sugar
  • 150g of plain flour
  • 1 tsp of baking powder
  • 2 tsp of salt
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil
  • 1 tbsp of porridge oats or crunchy granola
  • 1/2 an apple, diced into small squares
  • 1 tsp almonds
  • 1 tsp of hazelnuts
  • Drizzle of maple syrup

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF/gas 6.

For the salted caramel:

  1. Fill a large pan with water, so that the bottom is completed covered and bring to the boil on a medium heat.
  2. Add the 250g of brown sugar and the 2 tsp of salt. Stir until the sugar melts and is a liquid-y, caramel-y brown. Take off the heat.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, flour, baking powder and olive oil.
  4. Add the salted caramel mixture and stir together until smooth and glossy.
  5. In a greased square baking tin, pour in the mixture.
  6. Cook for 25-30 minutes, until a deep golden-brown.

For the topping:

  1. Blend the oats or granola, apple, almonds, hazelnuts and maple syrup into a sticky, crunch topping.
  2. Once the cake has been removed from the oven, cooled and cut in squares, spoon a little bit of the mixture onto each of the squares.

Eat and feel smug.

Spinach & Farfalle Pie

So I’ve got more spare time on my hands than usual at the moment and one of the things I wanted to do with it was more cooking. Especially more experimental cooking. I’ve gotten into a bit of rut with my repertoire of recipes and as tends to be the case when you don’t have an unlimited budget, you develop a roster of quick, easy, reliable and affordable meals that you return to repeatedly. Which is fine for busy weekdays when you just need to get some food down your throat stat but which can get a bit boring in the long run. And thus began my endeavour to branch out.

Quick shout out to The Smitten Kitchen, a blog that has quickly become a favourite for inspiration and recipes ideas. I came across this unbelievably handsome spaghetti pie and an obsession took hold. Why had I never thought of putting pasta in a pie before? It’s genius.

However, I’m terrible at following a recipe. Namely, in that I don’t. If I’m cooking for people, I’m a fastidious measurer and weigher and pourer of ingredients. But if I’m just cooking for dinner for myself, I’m very much a ‘let’s see what I’ve got in the cupboard and can concoct’ kind of person. Which leads to all manner of strange combinations and often something which tastes good (and occasionally doesn’t) but which won’t win any beauty prizes.

That method created this dish, which to be honest, I was very ready to throw in the bin. But luckily it turned out ok in the oven and though I’d be a bit red-faced about serving it to any guests, or indeed any real chefs, I figured I’d share it on here anyway. Because cooking is all about messing up, wiping the counter, making adjustments and starting over again. And if it’s edible, then you’re half way there.

Prep time: 15 mins
Cook time: 35 mins
Total time: 40 mins

Recipe type: Dinner
Cuisine: Vegetarian, Gluten-Free
Serves: 4-6
Ingredients
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 large handfuls of washed spinach
  • 250g tub of ricotta
  • 250g of farfalle pasta
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF/gas 6.
  2. Bring some water to the boil and add the pasta. Cook for 10 minutes.
  3. Mix the eggs, ricotta, salt and pepper in bowl. I also added some crushed chilli flakes because I put chilli with everything. I then added all of this to the blender and add a handful of spinach for the intense green colour, as well as later adding the rest of the spinach for the leafy texture.
  4. Pour a kettle of bowling water over the spinach and once drained, add to the mix.
  5. Once the pasta has boiled and also drained, stir all together.
  6. Add to a pie dish and put in the oven.
  7. Bake until crisp on top. Around 30-35 minutes.

So this is super easy to bring together. My worry was that the mixture looked incredible runny when I poured it into the pie dish and I wasn’t sure it would be serve-able. Advice to my future self and anyone trying this would be to make sure the spinach is fully drained. Absorb any excess moisture with some kitchen roll. Or try steaming the spinach.

Regardless of the amateur aesthetic of the food, it did taste pretty darn good and I’ll definitely be refining and trying different types of pasta another time.

May Culture Round-Up

TV 

I Love Dick, Series 1, Amazon

Arresting and squirm-inducingly intimate, this is a defiant depiction of obsession and desire, in all its forms – ugly, unrequited, unruly. Based on Chris Krauss’ memoir of the same name, Transparent’s Jil Soloway is arguably the perfect helmer for this provocative source material and in her hands it becomes even more cerebral and transgressive.

The art world might be alienating to some audiences, but Kathryn Hahn’s aptitude for awkward charm and Kevin Bacon’s aloof roguishness are enough to keep you enthralled. (If you need more convincing there is a scene where he is shirtless and carries a sheep.) The soundtrack, cinematography and direction are also astonishingly good, with Andrea Arnold taking the ropes in a few episodes, utilising the raw-nerved, hypersensitivity on which she has made a career to sizzling effect.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Series 1, Hulu

Reed Morano has long been a favoured cinematographer of mine. Since seeing her work in Frozen River, Little Birds & For Ellen I have been enchanted by the visceral, vérité-style of her shots and her gorgeous attention to detail. It was exciting news then to hear she’d be given her biggest platform yet directing and executive producing The Handmaid’s Tale for Hulu.

A damning and darkly modernised version of Margaret Atwood’s novel, there’s a spiky wit and stylishness which pulsates throughout. Its self-reflexive, pop-cultural nods are put to particularly good use in the soundtrack department, as seen in the first two episodes when Leslie Gore’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’ and Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You Forget About Me’ play towards the end. Its spine, however, never loses its morality or for that matter, its chill. Despite the hubristic sense of humour, The Handmaid’s Tale sadly remains a timely tale of female subjugation and exploitation.

The casting is also cunningly brilliant. Elisabeth Moss might just be the hottest property in television right now, what with Mad Men and Top of the Lake also on her CV, and her Offred is another bastion of strength, smarts and vulnerability. Samira Wiley and Madeleine Brewer, of Orange Is The New Black fame, also appear as fellow handmaids, whilst Alexis Bledel as the mutilated Ofglen will make you forget she ever played Rory Gilmore.

This is tense, imaginative and rousing TV. Poignantly performed and executed with exacting technical precision, it’s hard to watch but you won’t be able to tear your eyes away.

FILM

Berlin Syndrome (DIR. Cate Shortland, 2017)

Teresa Palmer plays a nervous solo traveller in Cate Shortland’s third and most accessible film yet. As a Berlin-based romance turns sour, and as the title alludes to, escalates into a hostage situation, what begins as moody indie fare turns into something weird, intense and cerebral. The muted performances and consistently menacing, irresistibly mounted cinematography breathe life into a somewhat spare plot. However, predictable this is not. Shortland explores the predator/prey dichotomy with a startling empathy, and eschews the cliché of villain/victim to summon something as sensitive as it can be sickening. As in her debut Somersault, and follow-up Lore, Shortland continues to prove herself a brilliantly tactile and evocative director, weaving a texture at once sensuous and suspenseful. It might be minimalist in design, but the effect is resounding, with the last 30 minutes especially thrilling.

In cinemas now.

BOOKS

The Girls – Emma Cline

I finally got around to reading the wunderkind Emma Cline’s literary sensation The Girls. A novel so talked about its pages were practically curling under the weight of expectation. And sadly, I wasn’t wowed.

The narrative concerns 13-year-old Evie Boyd and her fleeting, though formative experience of a Charles Manson-esque cult, where a ragtag group of women worship their mysterious leader Russell. Cline is especially good at evoking the sun-drenched and soporific landscape of 60s California, as well as the bewildered internal landscape of adolescence that tempt Evie into this world. However, as a reader we’re always kept at a frustrating distance. Evie’s perspective is curbed by her half-hearted initiation into the group. She experiences some, but not all of their deviant activities and in firmly sticking with Evie’s viewpoint, Cline rather limits her own ability to delve deeper into the savagery and sadomasochism of the cult.

As The New York Times so succinctly put it:

What results is a historical novel that goes halfway down the rabbit hole and exquisitely reports back. Then it pulls out, eschewing the terrifying, fascinating human murk…Still, it’s a spellbinding story.

 

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

At a lithe 147 pages, Riley’s thoroughly British novel(la) is all the more intriguing when you consider its being shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction and that other such novels to have been nominated include Hanya Yangihara’s behemoth A Little Life and Donna Tartt’s equally weighty The Goldfinch. It says a lot about the particularity and potency of Riley’s writing that she’s considered among them. And not wrongly so. This lovely, if mordantly sad book, concerns Neve and her strained marriage to the ailing Edwyn. In vibrant brushstrokes Riley depicts quite how she ended up there and in doing so, proves herself an absolute fiend for tight, lucid prose. Take the following:

Back in the summer she’d had a birthday M&S voucher she said she wouldn’t use: did I want it? I did. She’d started her turn then as we crossed the floor to Hosiery: surrounded, as we were, by strange statuary. My mother blenched extravagantly at the gussied-up torsos, blinking hard like someone had flashed a torch in her eyes, saying she couldn’t understand why anyone would buy, wear, matching underwear.

For her sheer powers of observation and her ability to locate humour, tenderness and melancholy in the gut-wrenchingly ordinary, Riley must be commended. It’s perhaps a bit on the scant and under-sketched side for my taste, but it’s easy to relate to her exploration of muddied relationships – whether parental, platonic or romantic.

THEATRE

Woyzeck at The Old Vic

I saw this Jack Thorne penned revival of Georg Büchner’s classic on its first night of previews, which means I had the advantage of being completely unswayed by public opinion, but the disadvantage of seeing quite a nervy and fluctuant production. John Boyega takes on the titular role of a hard-up soldier, struggling with past traumas and drug-induced paranoia, though the setting has been relocated to 1980s Cold War Berlin. He’s a charismatic actor and can more than carry himself on stage, and here he delivers a committed, if somewhat gauche performance. Surpassing Boyega in subtlety and charm is his Irish Catholic girlfriend Marie, played by Sarah Greene (Poldark’s former squeeze apparently!), whose got the tough job of being the stable axis around which Boyega erratically rattles. The supporting actors likewise, bring presence to their occasionally stereotypical characters.

Ultimately this is a fierce and robust play about poverty, masculinity and mental-health, and the set design, music and direction all do well to limn the claustrophobic environment and its increasingly malevolent protagonist. However it struggles to reach the levels of gravitas its so desperately striving for.

ART

The American Dream: Pop to Present at The British Museum

Warhol, Liechtenstein, Pollock – the greats are all on display in this exhibition that claims to chart ‘The American Dream’ in all its monolithic, prevailing and consumerist glory. And certainly its scope is extensive, and impressive: there are more than 200 works from 70 artists working between 1960 and 2014 on displays and art movements including abstract, minimalism, photorealism and portraiture are all touched upon. Ed Ruscha’s pleasingly geometric gas station prints and the orange glow of the California room were particular highlights.There are political allusions – AIDs, gender equality, civil rights, the Vietnam War – but the exhibition as a whole felt too hurried and surface to be exploratory or penetrating.

On reflection, I don’t think pop art is my thing.

MUSIC

Angel Olsen at Camden Roundhouse

Angel Olsen knows how to make an entrance. As the woozy backbeat of ‘Heart Shaped Face’ is kickstarted by her suited-and-booted band, she appears, a few bars in and lets her soaring vibrato fill the room. It’s almost better to have not listened to her latest album in a while; to have forgotten how good Angel Olsen is, because her live performance more than reminds you. The show as a whole is muted and magical, with the volume turned way down low on theatrics or distractions, and the focus solely on Olsen’s enthralling, transporting vocals. ‘Shut Up And Kiss Me’ and ‘Not Gonna Kill You’ provided energetic interjections, but ultimately this show was an extension of her album: subdued, smouldering and sublime.


Books read in 2017…

January

  • City On Fire – Garth Risk Hallberg
  • Beyond Good & Evil – Friedrich Nietzsche

February

  • The Last Interview – Nora Ephron
  • The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

March

  • This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell
  • The Versions Of Us – Laura Barnett

April

  • The Thing Around Your Neck – Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
  • The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes
  • Future Sex – Emily Witt

May 

  • Between The World And Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • On Photography – Susan Sontag
  • The Girls – Emma Cline
  • First Love – Gwendoline Riley

June

  • The Tidal Zone – Sarah Moss
  • The Lonely City – Olivia Laing

July

  • Blue Nights – Joan Didion
  • I Love Dick – Chris Krauss
  • 300 Arguments – Sarah Manguso
  • No Is Not Enough – Naomi Klein

August

  • The Power – Naomi Alderman
  • The Engagements – J. Courtney Sullivan

September

  • American Pastoral – Philip Roth
  • The Good Immigrant – Edited by Nikesh Shukla
  • Americana – Don DeLillo

 

Sweet potato fries with a spinach, pine nut & chilli dip.

God I love me some sweet potato fries. They’re substantial and carb-y and feel like a treat, but retain that colourful glow of goodness. Plus they’re really easy to bung in the oven and share with friends, so its a cooking win. The spinach dip is an optional addition. Just as good served with homemade guacamole or mayo.
Prep time: 15 mins
Cook time: 30 mins
Total time: 45 mins
Recipe type: Side, snack.
Cuisine: Vegetarian, Gluten-Free
Serves: 2
Ingredients
  • Drizzle of olive oil
  • 1 sweet potato
  • Paprika
  • Turmeric
  • Salt and pepper

For the dip:

  • 1 Tbsp of pine nuts
  • 2 handfuls of fresh spinach
  • 1 Tbsp of cornflour
  • 2 Tbsp of crème fraîche
  • Crushed chilli
  • Squeeze of lemon juice
  • Salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF/gas 6.
  2. Rinse your potato under water. No need to peel.
  3. Slice the sweet potato into thin strips or small wedges.
  4. Arrange on a baking tray so they’re evenly spread.
  5. Drizzle with olive oil, then season with salt and pepper, turmeric and paprika.
  6. Pop them in the oven for 30-35 mins, or until crisp and cooked through.

Whilst they’re cooking, you can prepare the dip.

  1. Blend the spinach, crème fraîche, pinenuts, chilli, lemon juice and salt & pepper until smooth and creamy.
  2. If the consistency is too watery, you can add the cornflour and heat in a pan to thicken it.
  3. Otherwise, serve in a bowl and add some extra pine nuts to garnish.

Once the fries are cooked, serve in a bowl. For best results eat with your fingers!