By Sol Noya
Dr. Naomi Booth, an Assistant Professor at Durham’s English department, has recently published her second novel, Exit Management, to much critical acclaim. I was able to sit down with her (via Zoom, as unprecedented times extend to interviews these days), where she was incredibly patient and keen to discuss all things books and Durham –especially considering I had to keep checking on a cake that was taking too long in the oven during our interview and the inevitable failure of my Wi-Fi.
How did you end up in Durham, and how long have you been here?
This is actually the beginning of my second year, so I still feel like a newbie!
I had a slightly unusual route into creative writing. I did my first degree in English Literature and worked in publishing for a while, until I realised I wanted to write. I then did an MA and PhD in Sussex, researching the literature of swooning. Within this – admittedly niche! – field, I’ve worked creatively and critically: my first novella was about swooning.
I do realise you’re quite new to Durham, but have you had a favourite module to teach?
I think the third-year module I co-direct with the brilliant Sunjeev Sahota, on writing prose fiction. It gives students a chance to write their own work, and it’s wonderful to see them explore the things they’ve wanted to write for years as well as experiment with new ideas.
How do you see the role of fiction in today’s world?
I often come back to Susan Sontag’s reflection that writing is about paying attention – fiction is a way to notice things that are important in the world. It’s a sort of oppositional consciousness; it allows us to carve out the space to see things differently. Literature, generally, forces us to pay attention in a way we usually don’t in everyday life.
On to discussing your actual writing! Could you tell our readers a bit about your latest novel, Exit Management?
The novel follows three main characters whose lives become interconnected within a house in London. Two of the protagonists are young: Lauren, who’s from West Yorkshire, specialises in exit management in HR and Callum, who’s struggling to find work in London, makes a living by looking after the homes of rich people in London. The third protagonist is Jószef, the Hungarian émigré whose house Callum takes care of.
The novel is about work, and security, and all the different ways that people relate to property. And the title comes from Lauren’s work, but also from how the story deals with different kinds of exits – Jószef is very ill, and it’s all set in 2018 and 2019, with the build-up to Brexit. It’s funny, because I was writing and revising it in real time, and back then I thought that we’d look back on those years as the build-up to Brexit. But of course, now they’ve come to signify something else too, being the last years before Covid-19.
You mentioned that one of your characters is from Yorkshire, and you’ve been at Durham for the last couple of years. How does the north relate to and inspire your work?
Well, I’m from Yorkshire originally: I grew up in West Yorkshire, spent some time in London and Brighton, and now I live in York. My publisher, Dead Ink Books, is based in the North – I feel affiliated to a culture of publishing and literature here. My first published work, the novella, begins in the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire. I’m also working on a short story collection, and most are based in places in the North.
How did lockdown affect your writing?
Initially, lockdown made writing feel quite hard, especially with teaching and having a three-year-old in the house. Though I haven’t been writing directly about Covid-19, I think it definitely will affect what people are writing. I’ve certainly come back to my writing with a new eye. Sometimes, writers write from a place of anxiety about where the world is at now, and sometimes those anxieties are proved true. I find myself increasingly grappling with how to balance hope and anxiety within my own writing.
Thank you so much, Naomi! Have you got any final thoughts you want to share?
I think writing is often a really valuable practice even if you’re not looking to be published. Taking notice and keeping notes can be very useful practice, especially in times of anxiety and stress like these, to make room for different kinds of thinking.
Image: Anna Kuptsova