Andrew Cowan Interview

Questions  for Andrew Cowan on the novel Crustaceans by Kouhei Furuya, Eri Higuchi, Yuko Kato, Jun Ohashi, Akira Ohkubo, and Takuya Osada.

Tokyo University, 6 November 2003

Your book, Pig, was a story about a pig. The word ‘crustacean’ is quite difficult, unfamiliar, and were you not afraid that the readers will find it difficult to imagine that this novel is about a father-son relationship with this title? Have you ever thought of having another title?

No, this was always going to be the title. It has three kinds of resonance for me.  1.  It’s a word of private significance for Paul, because it’s the first word he imagines teaching his new-born son.  2.  It has seaside connotations. 3. It has connotations of being introverted, hiding away, retreating into one’s shell for protection, all of which apply to Paul.

Also, I felt it had a kind of ‘family connection’ with ‘Pig’ – a single word, natural history.

(Actually, in my local bookstore the novel was briefly displayed on the Natural History shelves.)

For a writer, I think, the name of a book is as important as the name of his child.  It has to have some kind of personal resonance, it has to feel ‘precious’ and ‘private’ in some way.  I’ve never believed a reader cares all that much. It matters to me that my daughter is called ‘Rose’ and my book is ‘Crustaceans’. So far as the rest of the world is concerned, they might as well be called ‘Arthur’ and ‘Damascus’ – both equally fine names, but not mine.

Having said which, I was working last year with a Japanese translator (an MA student at UEA) who was translating the start of Crustaceans.  She had enormous difficulty with the title because it seems it doesn’t have a non-technical, single-word equivalent in Japanese, and doesn’t have the same connotations of seaside and introversion.

We, Japanese students, are not familiar with English names.  Do the names of the characters in your novel have any particular sense or meanings?

No, I always struggle with characters’ names.  The main thing is to avoid using the names of friends and relations, which can cause upset or confusion.

None of my characters, so far as I can remember, has a name with wider cultural associations.

Do you have any particular beach or town in your mind to write this novel?

Yes, it is an amalgam of Hunstanton (the cliffs), Sheringham and Overstrand (the caravan site), Cromer and Yarmouth (the town) – all of them seaside towns in Norfolk, England, close to where I live.

In Crustaceans, there are a lot of impressive images, which seem to represent the character’s emotion. For example, the colour white seems to express the pessimistic mood of the narrator. In your process of writing Crustaceans, which did you create first, characters or images?

I wasn’t honestly aware of using white to express pessimism. I’m very often unaware of the wider significance, for a reader, of what I put on the page.

This is an extremely difficult question to answer because the way I write is a mystery to me.  Someone has said that writing is a form of thinking. I don’t, as a rule, think (or imagine, or invent, or plan) before writing. I put down a sentence; I revise it endlessly; I put down another.  Slowly – very slowly – a world develops (suggested by images, details, etc).  Characters develop in the same way. They don’t exist prior to my writing them down.

In contemporary literature, use of present tense is considered to be fashionable.  Did this trend affect you when you were choosing the main tense of Crustaceans? Or did you have your own reasons?

I wasn’t aware that present tense was fashionable. If I’d known I would have avoided it!

I chose present tense, and first person, because they are intimate and immediate, and the book is supposed to be a father talking to his son, over the course of one day, so they seemed appropriate.

Plus, there is a lot of remembering in the book, which means a lot of flashbacks to the past.  So, technically, it would simplify matters (in terms of getting grammatical tenses right) if I began in the present tense.

The frame of the novel is Paul, the narrator, telling a story to Euan, as if the boy was there.  Paul then describes having sex with Euan’s mother, Ruth.  Does the frame of the novel break down in these, or any other, episodes?

I hope not.  I was aware of the jarring this might cause to a reader’s sensibilities, and in a way it was deliberate.  I wanted to emphasise the ‘madness’ involved in Paul’s narration. He is taking his dead, absent son on an excursion to the seaside, after all. 

Many parts of the expression in Crustaceans clearly show the state of someone who is in depression.  Did they come out of your own experience of being seriously depressed?  If not, how did you research depression?

I became very depressed during the writing of this book, yes.  It took me 4 years and I was often blocked. The mystery for me is whether  it was the writing of the book that made me depressed, or whether the book was the result of my being depressed in the first place. 

I am happy now, though.

Was it before or after the birth of your own daughter that you first decided to write a novel about a father losing his son? If it was after your daughter was born, why did you make it a son, not a daughter?

Becoming a father made me suddenly vulnerable to all kinds of emotions I wasn’t previously aware of.  It also made me much more responsive to the vulnerabilities of others, and made me better able to empathise with parents who had lost children.

I often clip stories from newspapers, if they interest or disturb or affect me.  I paste them in scrapbooks, and when I finish a book I usually look through my scrapbooks for a clue as to what to write next.  I was quite shocked to see the number of stories in my scrapbooks concerning parents losing children. These were collected after my daughter was born. There was 5 years’ worth.

I found them very upsetting. And I was intrigued, in a way, that I found them so upsetting. I think I began Crustaceans as a way of exploring that rawness, or vulnerability, in myself.

To write about a girl would have been too close to home; it would’ve felt like tempting fate.  Also, I wanted to make the point that Paul had lost two young boys.  The first was himself.  He is grieving almost as much for his own lost childhood as for Euan.

In Crustaceans, relationships between parent and child are often described as painful ones.  Do you think today it is possible for parent and child to have good relationships naturally with each other?


I would say that most of my contemporaries had a difficult relationship with their parents, and that most are trying to correct that failure in their relationship with their own children.  Part of that effort (if this isn’t a paradox, or a contradiction) is to have a natural relationship.

Does writing come easily to you? The class here in Tokyo thinks probably not. Would you describe writing, and being a writer, as pleasures?

Why does the class suppose writing doesn’t come easily to me?

But it’s true, it doesn’t. I rarely find writing pleasurable. It is a daily encounter with failure, with inadequacy.  The achievement never matches the ambition. The words never seem the right words. The effort is always so much greater than the reward.

But, I’d be lost if I didn’t write.  I’ve fantasised for years of finding something else to do.  I think I realise now that nothing else would quite hold me together.  There is a definite need to write.  If I didn’t answer that need I think I’d feel without a centre.

Having said which, I have found the perfect antidote to writing, the perfect counterbalance. Pottery – handling clay, making things quickly, using my body and visual faculties – helps alleviate the frustrations of writing (or, in my case, for much of the day, not writing).

What are your favourite books, both classics and contemporary, and both fiction and non-fiction. What book(s) do you think affected you most?

My favourite classics are those I encountered at school, that in some way awakened me – the novels of Thomas Hardy and James Joyce.  They’ve very unlike each other, but equally important to me.  I wouldn’t say either has been influential on my own writing, however.

My favourite contemporary writer by a mile is the American Richard Ford.   He is a definite influence in terms of range of subject matter (fairly narrow, provincial, domestic) and style (realistic, naturalistic, first person, intimate) though what he has and I never will is a fluent, mellifluous, accommodating, infinitely flexible way of writing a sentence.

If Crustaceans should be made into a movie, do you think that the essence of the novel would be lost?  Are there things that can be expressed only in the form of a novel?

This is a very interior book; it all happens in the mind of one man; it’s a whispered monologue to an imagined child.  I cannot imagine it being made into a film. I think there are things that can only be expressed in a novel, yes.  

Pig, however.