Interview | Sophie Mackintosh

© Sophie Davidson

Last month Megan Girdwood reviewed Sophie Mackintosh’s debut dystopian novel The Water Cure, rendering it uneasy, hypnotic and yet so captivating. We asked Sophie about her feminist piece which tells the story of three sisters, excluded from the rest of society and the literal toxicity of men by their parents. They struggle to navigate themselves around the disappearance of their parents, and around the arrival of three strange men who wash up on their shore.


Was the choice to make a feminist novel an active one, or just a by-product of writing about women?
It was more of a by-product – the focus was originally more environmental and apocalyptic, but it was the bond of the girls that drew me in, the story of how they exist in a difficult world. The women are the centre of the story, finding out how they can survive, live, and find their own agency; I couldn’t avoid making it feminist, with everything else happening in the larger world influencing the words I put on the page. 


The narrative renders masculinity physically toxic to women, what was the inspiration for this?
The toxicity of the world can be interpreted as the world literally being toxic thanks to patriarchy – that’s where the seed of the idea originally came from. I felt very tired and angry around the time of writing the book, and was thinking a lot about having grown up navigating within a patriarchy. Sometimes the world does feel poisonous – so I wanted to make it literal. 


The sense of sisterhood in the novel is such a powerful and complex force, is it something you can personally relate to?
Absolutely – sisterhood is really important to me and something I think about a lot. I’m very interested in the dynamics of sisterhood, of how love, hate, and envy are mixed up together into this queasy mixture, even in loving families. I’m from a big Welsh family – I have one sister but several female cousins around my age, and we all grew up together like siblings. 


The sisters perform painful and testing daily therapy rituals, and as the title suggests, damaged women arrive to the island to receive a rejuvenating ‘water cure’ carried out by the mother. Where did you get the inspiration for these therapy games?
I was inspired a lot by Victorian hydrotherapies – some of them were incredibly bizarre. I also drew on the strange games you play in childhood and adolescence, when you’re sort of testing your body, figuring out what it can and can’t do, and not always sure why you’re doing it. 


Would you consider the family as matriarchal or patriarchal, and would you say that the women in the novel are the most damaged by men, or by one another?
I think a patriarchy with a complicit matriarch, maybe. Like in our world, women in power can wield as much damage as men – having a woman in power doesn’t mean they won’t continue to prop up existing damaging structures and enact policies that harm and disenfranchise people.

That’s the paradox – they’ve been told so much that men are dangerous that they willingly harm themselves and put themselves through so much to stay safe. I think there’s damage implicit everywhere, even in the act of loving something or someone. 


How do you want men to react to your novel?
I don’t want them to have a knee-jerk reaction and be like “Oh, this is a man-hating book”, because it isn’t at all. I hope that men read it and enjoy it, and take something positive or useful from it. So far, I’ve been lucky that men who’ve read the book have largely been really lovely and generous, and have told me it’s given them food for thought. 


Are you open to the idea of your novel being adapted for another media form?
As I was writing it I approached it very visually – it all felt very real to me, so I would love to see it adapted into a film or play. My approach to writing is quite filmic, with the aesthetic of films such as Dogtooth and Valerie and her Week of Wonders (just to name two) having a big influence on me. 


Did you have any idea of where their journey across the border will take them, and do you intend to visit these characters again?
I’ve explored their stories as much as I want to. I like to think of them finding a safe place, happiness, a home where they don’t always have to live in the state of emergency, but I want people to reach their own conclusions. 


The Water Cure is out now. (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99)