Foxlowe is a debut novel like no other. In it, Eleanor Wasserberg delves into the farthest recesses of the human psyche, delivering a story pulsing with tones of the macabre and possessive love. In telling the story of the decrepit home where the pieced together Family lives, Wasserberg creates a world onto itself – deeply unique and startlingly creative. When she steps into the protagonist Green’s shoes, her prowess in understanding her characters and the way they think is radiantly clear. Her ability to honestly portray the Family’s disquieting qualities and quintessentially human ones is extraordinary. The residents of Foxlowe band together to create a self-sufficient society away from the Bad of the Outside. But, not all members of the Family are equally committed to the vision of separate but better.
The story is told through the eyes of Green, who has lived at Foxlowe all her life. It is fascinating how well Wasserberg delivers this myopic viewpoint, making the reader wonder how their perspective would change under the same circumstances. Whether contemplating the punishments administered by the matriarch of the group or dealing with the arrival of a baby sister, Green’s observations fit her upbringing, making her a believable character that is an equal mix of qualities that are both disturbing and understandable.
BCB is delighted to chat with Ms. Wasserberg about her impressive debut novel.
Amy M. Hawes: Foxlowe is a very dark novel. Normally I dispense with the how did you think of it question, because it’s so cliché. In your case, I’m really interested since in your acknowledgments you mention what a loving and supportive family you come from. So . . .
Eleanor Wasserberg: Yes, it really is a strange book for me to have written, as my own upbringing couldn’t be more different (although we did have goats and had a huge field and woods at the back of my childhood home in the area the book is set.)
I think perhaps in part it was writing what I don’t know and being drawn to the idea of something fascinating and “other” to me. Also, I tend to write about what I’m afraid of. I am actually a complete coward about violence; I can’t watch it on TV or in films. I just cry. So I wanted to explore that and pick at that anxiety in my writing.
So that’s the broad answer…in terms of specifics, where the book came from is really two-fold: one from the landscape of the Staffordshire Moorlands, which really is as wonderfully spooky and full of pagan stone sites and beautiful wild flowers as I hopefully depict it; and the other from Freya’s character, which I had been trying out in various guises for a while, in short stories, and just couldn’t get to work anywhere. Then when I put her in this landscape, the story started to take shape. But as for why I had a character such as Freya in my subconscious in the first place? I have no idea! I think she’s the daughter of lots of characters I’ve met: a sort of Medea meets Turn of the Screw’s governess meets Carrie’s mother…
AH: Although Foxlowe exists within the world, it is self-isolated. It has its own language as many remote places do. How did this language develop for you? Was it a product of the story or did the language help create the story, if that makes sense?
EW: The language mostly came from trying to find Green’s voice in early drafts. It took a while for her sound to work – in terms of her understanding being limited but also that she is naturally bright and so would find a structure and language for things. Then as I got into later drafts I found that things like “grown/ungrown” and “leavers” worked better as a language for the whole group. I wanted it to be only slightly off key, so that it was perfectly intelligible but still somehow “off” for the reader. The way that stories and language would work in a place like Foxlowe was interesting to me; ways that these structures are used to create sense of belonging. You see a benign version of it in most institutions, especially schools and universities, just that shorthand that only “insiders” understand. In a world that’s all about creating that sense of belonging and family (or “the shoal”), language becomes a very important part of almost tribal bonding.
AH: Another type of language in the book is the language of pain. The de facto leader of the group Freya uses pain to exorcise the Bad, which amounts to anything she disapproves of. The protagonist Green and her slightly older friend Toby have developed a language of kicking, spitting, kicks, and pinches. At one point Green says, “Toby pinched me hard. It was to say Sorry and There, because you shouted at me and I was trying to be nice to you, and It might really be true what I said so get ready. How did you determine you would utilize pain as vocabulary and communication?
EW: That scene between Green and Toby is one of my favorites for them, because it shows that they are bound together by affection, but it’s expressed in this brutal way. Green, in particular, has learned from Freya that violence and pain is a kind of love language. It’s how she is being brought up, as simple and awful as that. From Freya’s perspective, she can use pain to control and provoke fear, and the Bad is a convenient mask for that. Her philosophy is so flimsy, and she knows it; in fact, her whole hold is a very flimsy illusion. Violence is a way for her to attempt to keep her grip from slipping.
AH: Because the characters in Foxlowe believe they are at the mercy of the Bad, they have few chances to evolve since little is in their control as they see it. The only real choices they have are to stay away from the Outside, where the Bad comes from, as much as possible. Or, become a Leaver and give up both Foxlowe and its doctrines. Another option is to stay, tormented by conflicted feelings over the commune’s rules. Do you think making people choose between one thing or another stifles their sense of freedom?
EW: That’s how Freya feels, and how she wants them all to feel, that Foxlowe is the only safe place. As I imagine it, it’s not really until Kai’s storyline that most of the adults at Foxlowe really buy into Freya’s stories. Before that, and for some of them afterwards too, they are almost playing along with this half-baked ritualistic world she’s created, because the things that do matter to them—being free, not having to engage with the outside, because they are afraid or lazy or are running—are there in enough supply to have them indulging Freya. Besides, they’d reason, the pagan style rituals are fun and harmless. The children are Freya’s business, so it’s easy for them to turn a blind eye to the more uncomfortable elements of living in this beautiful place. Of course, for the children it’s entirely different: they are convinced, and Green believes in the Bad completely. In that sense, the path that Blue and Toby take is really brave.
AH: When Freya brings a baby to live at Foxlowe, she doesn’t explain how she acquired the infant, and the Family doesn’t ask. We never discover Blue’s mysterious origins. Are we to assume she was stolen? Why doesn’t anyone come looking for her?
EW: I’ve been asked this a lot, and I wish I had made it clearer! Blue is Richard’s daughter, so Green’s half-sister. Her mother was the “last Leaver,” Brida, who Green and Toby mention in the scene when they are under the kitchen table just before Freya brings Blue. When Freya discovered her pregnancy by Richard she chased her away from Foxlowe out of jealousy. Then she goes to collect the baby and makes the poor woman agree to let Richard raise her. That’s why Libby keeps asking “Did she say it was all right, did you ask her?” when Blue arrives, as she’s (rightly) anxious about how Freya might have bullied the mother. It’s also why when the social workers come, the grown reassure each other that “everything is in order”—as far as the outside rules go, Blue is in the legal custody of her father.
AH: When Green, Toby, and Blue meet an elderly gentleman in the fields surrounding their house, they bring Kai back to meet the Family. You portray Kai as a kindly soul. He comes across as a teacher at heart, who wants those around him to feel good. It was surprising to me that he had nothing to say about the punishments Freya inflicts with regularity on Blue. I’m curious if I missed something in the subtext about Kai? How does he reconcile his good nature with the darker side of Foxlowe?
EW: For me, Kai is one of the book’s biggest tragedies. He comes to Foxlowe because he spent time there as a young boy: he was evacuated there during the War and had an idyllic time there with Richard’s grandfather and father. He comes into the novel just as he’s at a time of crisis in his life; he’s struck with grief at the loss of his granddaughter and finds himself lost, so comes back to a place where he was once happy. He’s so desperate to find this happiness again and not to have to face his grief that he, like the others, doesn’t follow his instincts that something is deeply wrong. That said, if he hadn’t been blighted by memory loss and confusion as the novel unfolds, had he been of sound mind as the darkest parts of Green’s story happen, I do think he would have tried to step in. He does attempt to stand up to Freya once or twice, but she is easily able to overwhelm him by confusing him and mocking his state of mind. So he is trapped in this place that once meant so much to him, still lost and confused, and unable to do anything effective to change the situation or to leave. I wrote a scene where he is collected by a loving son and daughter-in-law late in the novel, but in the end I liked ambiguity about where they had all ended up because Green wouldn’t know.
AH: Solstices play an important role in the cycle of life at the commune. Was there a particular reason you were drawn to the concept of solstices as a time of resetting and healing?
EW: In that part of England there really are stone circles that were originally intended to mark the solstices; the Standing Stones are partly based on Ludchurch Stone Circle, which has a sun stone and was positioned to filter the setting sun around the summer solstice. The double sunset is also a real local phenomenon, which can be seen (clear skies etc. permitting!) from a local churchyard. So that ancient rhythm of the year I thought would make a great basis for a world like Foxlowe, which makes claims to be connected to an ancient landscape and way of life, and that particular landscape really does still respond to the solstice in an echo of the past.
AH: While birthdays aren’t celebrated, the Foxlowe year has its own calendar of ritual days. Do you think humans are predisposed to ritual-creating? How did you decide which “special events” would make sense for the Family?
EW: Yes, I think ritual is so important in world building and again, like the language, creating a sense of community. I’ve always had a deep-rooted suspicion of ritual (probably from reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” too many times), so I was drawn to that mixture of gentle rhythm and possible sinister undertones as a way to structure the book. I started with the summer solstice, and that naturally meant it made sense for the winter solstice to also be celebrated, with the lore of the Bad bound up in both. There are so many brilliant superstitions and practices I wanted to include; it was a case of whittling them down to what was needed for the plot! Originally I had a much longer version of the Scattering called “First In”, which is a superstition over here (maybe in the US too?) that at New Year’s Eve you must run around your house holding sugar, coal and a coin, so that the house will be full of food, warmth and money for the year ahead. Others came out of what ideas became important as I wrote, such as the Naming as a way to claim someone for Foxlowe and efface their past life.
AH: Often writers feel a story as a sentient thing within them that wants to come into the world. When you were writing Foxlowe, did its dark tone seep into your everyday life? Or did you not see it that way as you wrote? Was it easy to separate yourself and enjoy the process of the story unfolding?
EW: If I felt any darkness as I was working it would just be the frustration of having a bad writing day or not being able to get a scene right, rather than being affected by the storyline. Once I had the world of Foxlowe established and I found Green’s voice, I really enjoyed spending time there—I’m not sure what that says about me! I felt bittersweet about some of the characters and sad about some of their fates, but all of that was secondary to the joy and excitement of finishing the novel and particularly seeing it in print.
Eleanor Wasserberg holds a BA in English and Classics from Oxford and a MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. FOXLOWE is her first novel.