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Interview | Amy Sackville

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Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, a painting often referenced in Amy Sackville's novel Painter to the King.

Back in March at the London Book Fair earlier this year, Vanessa Wheeler sat down with the author Amy Sackville to ask her about her writing techniques, and the release of her third novel, Painter to the King (Granta Books, 2018). The novel—an immersive blend of art history, sensory detail, and spatial exploration—tells the story of the complex relationship between King Philip IV of Spain and his Court painter Diego Velazquez during the chaos of the Spanish Golden Age, and has since earned critical acclaim.

You said earlier during your talk at the London Book Fair that you don’t write every day; how did you learn to embrace this unconventional habit?
It is a combination of anxiety, laziness, and business. What I’m not very good at is picking up; I’m either in a book or I’m not. Where some people will write as soon as they get up and then get on with their day, I find it very difficult to re-engage my brain if I’ve been thinking about spreadsheets or designing a timetable. I wish that weren’t the case; I would like to be able to change that, but I find it very difficult.

Your honesty is refreshing, especially since writers can feel expected to wake up early and write solidly all day.
I don’t have the luxury of being able to do that—I enjoy my work, but I also have to work to support myself. Even if I could, I’d find that difficult to write in a sustained way because it’s unusual for me to sit down and work on a book for a full day. I think one of the things that I’ve learned, having now written my third book, is recognising what my writing process is and that all the research that I do—either directly referencing what I’m writing about but also just reading books all the time—is a part of the writing process and it’s not something to feel guilty about. I typically won’t start writing until three or four o’clock in the afternoon, and I wouldn’t normally write for longer than four hours at most. I also think that writers work differently, some go back over every sentence as they’re writing it and comes out slowly, but at the point I manage to sit down and work it’s quick.

What piqued your interest in the Spanish Golden Age?
It was a roundabout route to where I ended up with this book. My very first inkling of this idea – about seven years ago when this was starting to seed—was that I wanted to write a Jacobean play, and actually, Spanish Golden Age plays are in a similar vein.

You studied theatre at the University of Leeds, has that inspired your work?
Yes, that certainly fed into it. I think spatially; I tend to start with a place, and the idea that I had for this novel was of a court or a palace that was intricate and labyrinthine. There’s a great Spanish play that called Casa con dos puertas mala es de guardar (A House with Two Doors Is Difficult to Guard), by Pedro Calderón de la Barc that fostered the concept of hidden entrances and secrecy. From looking at the theatre of that period, first English and then Spanish, I developed the idea of using a Court painter that would occupy a Mediterranean Court. Then I went to Madrid explicitly with the intention of looking at Velázquez’s paintings and also others that might have fed into this idea of the fictional court painter. It was really when I saw his paintings and learned about his life that I thought that I could actually use his story—I realised that it was a gift and I didn’t need to make up this different story that I think would have looked much more gothic. My novel changed significantly through that discovery of using Velázquez.

Can you speak Spanish? You’ve integrated the Spanish language effortlessly into your novel.
I’m ashamed to say I don’t speak Spanish! I was interested in using the specific vocabulary attached to King Philip IV’s Court and the terms that apply explicitly there. Some of the chapter titles are tied to some plays, some are titles of paintings, some are words for painting techniques or styles or modes. I give the chapter titles in Spanish and then English—or sometimes Italian and then English, sometimes Latin and then English—but those translations aren’t necessarily directly mappable. I was interested in exploring the gap between language.

You have used a mixture of art history and narrative fiction; how did you balance these to find the right combination?
With a great deal of difficulty! The art was my starting point and that was what I always wanted to use as the structuring principle; it moves through time, it’s chronological, and it intends to tonally map onto the development of Velázquez’s style of painting. The structure of the book is episodic so it’s moving through a series of static works.

Would you say that the structure borrows similarities from the traditional Spanish picaresque novel?
Yes, like that kind of model as well since each chapter functions on its own. There’s not much in the way of a cliff-hanger and there’s not much in the way of narrative propulsion, which is a deliberate choice on my part. I felt resistant to the idea of taking something that had happened to people and shaping it into something that works more neatly as a narrative and pretending that there is a tidy form to people’s lives because lives are messy. Balancing narrative and history is a difficult thing. For example, you could make up the story of the King and say ‘When he was young he was a bad boy who slept with lots of courtesans, and then he had a reckoning and grew up and became more serious King’—and that’s sort of true, except he didn’t stop sleeping with courtesans. There’s a narrative inconvenience there, that people are contradictory and messy.

The novel includes a curated selection of Velázquez’s paintings how did you decide which works to use and why did you integrate the art visually into the book?
It was really difficult! What I wanted was for the paintings not to be deictic or illustrative; they should be a surprise, a jolt, or a defamiliarising tactic. The relation that the image has to the text isn’t immediately apparent; it’s supposed to function in a different way to that. To make you stop and to pause. There are a lot of eyes [in the printed paintings] because I was playing with how perspective functions, in the same way that Velázquez’s work, the classic example being Las Meninas, throws your gaze around so that you don’t quite know where you stand in relation to it. You’re reading and suddenly someone is looking back at you; that weirdness of suddenly encountering a pair of eyes on the page. This is what Foucault wrote about in the opening chapter of The Order of Things.

Why do you use so many dashes to visually format your prose?
It’s because I want copy editors to hate me! *Laughs*. That’s something that was intuitive and then post-rationalised. I wanted the language to feel gestural in the way of a painting; it might be that you’re tracing back over something, you’re pausing for a moment, you’re lifting the brush off and going back over. Having done that in a fairly arbitrary ad hoc way, I then made a rule which I don’t expect the reader to distinguish since it’s purely for my own purposes, but there is a rule for how those dashes function. Part of the narrative voice, to me, is the texture of the language.

What was your favourite part of the novel to write and why?
There’s a long chapter near the middle of the book which is about a period in the 1640s when everything was falling to bits within the empire and the Court’s response was to just keep having parties to hide what’s happening from the King. It’s this relentless chapter of big long stretches of carnivals and parties, and it’s one of the chapters that gave me the most trouble in the editorial process because it would go on for too long. It’s almost supposed to go on for too long, to elicit that feeling of ‘Oh, God, I’ve had enough, I really don’t want to go out again tonight, it has been too many nights in a row!’. I had to find the balance of educing that feeling in the reader without them wanting to throw the book away.

Which books have inspired you lately?
I’m in the middle of reading an Alain Robbe-Grillet book, Into The Labyrinth, which addresses some of those structural textural questions. Something I’ve loved this year that came out recently has been Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. I haven’t read the third one yet but her prose is incredible! She’s precise and attentive and very funny, but in a sparing way, and there’s a remoteness to her writing but it doesn’t feel cold. Jesse Greengrass’s book, Sight, that came out recently does something similar. It’s very intelligent and it’s not afraid to be intelligent; it’s well paced, it takes its time, and it asks big questions. I do read for style more than anything else so that’s really what I’m looking at.

Interview by Vanessa Wheeler.

For more information on Amy Sackville, visit her website.


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