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Writing at a Slant

A Perfect Mother is about a middle-aged man, Jacob Bedford, who is estranged from his wife and living separately to his teenage sons. At the start of the novel he arrives in Trieste (in Northern Italy) to write a magazine piece about the city and to do research into a lost ancestor. There he meets two women, Jane and Charlotte. Over the course of the novel he develops a friendship with one and a love affair with the other. The story is about the unforeseen consequences these relationships have on his life.

I was inspired by reading Jan Morris’s haunting book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere and Stefan Zweig’s novella 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman. Morris’ book evokes a city at the crossroads of Europe, a city subject to moodiness and change. Zweig’s novella uses an embedded mediating narrator to tell the story in monologic form of a strange woman the narrator encounters in a hotel.  The two elements  - Trieste and the embedded mediating narrator - provided the springboard from which I started writing. They gave me place and form.  

Both these things, place and form, fed into the themes I wanted to explore. I had chosen a place that I associate with an atmosphere of change and strangeness; and an embedded mediating narrator that led me to elaborate thematically on the ways in which storytelling shapes how we know each other; how we love; how we are parents, children, friends and lovers;  and, importantly, how we learn about the past.

The title of the novel is an ironic riff on our ideas about parenting and family. The phrase ‘a good enough mother’, coined by the psychoanalyst DW Winnicott, came to mind when I started thinking about how I would develop themes about gender and family.   Perfect mothers don’t exist, any more than perfect fathers, parents, friends, lovers or families but somehow seems to me to be an ideal,  even aspiration, that continues to be at the centre of our society - even if social attitudes towards the traditional nuclear family have evolved.

I chose to write entirely from Jacob’s perspective (in third person) in order to approach at an angle sensitive issues to do with parenting, motherhood, female friendship and mental illness. I crossed the gender barrier as a way of avoiding sledgehammer depictions of the three main characters. I had to really work my imagination and do research to write myself into Jacob, and to imagine Charlotte and Jane through his senses. This pushed me to think about how certain kinds of female behaviour might be felt or experienced, and shifted the subjectivity from Jane and Charlotte to Jacob.

At the start of the book Jacob is adrift; unmoored from the anchors of family and profession. He embarks on his relationships with the two women at a point of psychological vulnerability and change. He suffers from a feeling of unbelonging. 

Keeping strictly to Jacob’s point of view limits what the reader can know: we only ever know or discover what Jacob does. We only know the two women through him. He is not a dramatic protagonist in the Aristotlean sense. He listens, he feels, he thinks, he records and reports. He rarely acts.

This technique allowed me to write away from the centre. Jacob is on the sidelines. Central to the plot is a tragedy that occurred many years before involving the two women. It underpins the evolving events in the present-day of the novel. Yet the main dramas happen ‘off-stage’ (think Shakespeare!).   I decided against using flashback or multiple points of view because I wanted to be faithful to the idea of unknowability. I also wanted to keep the emphasis closely on Jacob. 

The writer is of course the omniscient creator and knows her characters very well. As I wrote Jacob, limiting myself to his point of view, the two women emerged. At a certain point, I stopped writing Jacob, and wrote many pages in the first person of Jane, and then of Charlotte. In doing this I fleshed out their individual stories.  So that even if Jacob only discovers a certain amount about them, I, the writer, knew a lot more, and this provided me with the material that I could selectively use in the unfolding narrative; this allowed me to plot. 

Sticking to the subjectivity of Jacob, and using the form of storytelling to take the plot forward (for example: Jacob is in Trieste because of stories told to him by his grandfather; Jane is there because of a story about James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia; Jacob learns about Charlotte by stories told to him by Jane, and so on throughout the novel) I was able to sidle sideways towards sensitive issues. 

That we never fully know what happens seemed to me to be far truer to our experience of being human, of subjectivity, than had I adopted a technique of dramatising events head-on;  and in so doing to make it all fit together nicely like a jigsaw puzzle. In addition, I didn’t want to directly represent violence or mental illness. Dramatising lends itself to objective representation, to spectacle, and this to me didn’t feel true to either the unknowability or the subjectivity I wanted to maintain.

The novel is at its core existential, a novel of ‘being’; specifically, Jacob’s being.  He is untethered from his role as husband and father within the traditional structures of family life. His financial situation is declining. His professional life is on the wane. The unbelonging puts him at the sidelines, and from here he must begin again the business of creating life anew.  

Born in France of an American mother and a Viennese father, Katri Skala has lived in the United States and across Europe. She has worked as a senior arts administrator, script editor, and literary editor in the field of new writing in Britain and the US for a range of organisations that include Channel Four, BBC, the Manhattan Theatre Club, the Arvon Foundation, the University of East Anglia, and the Writers Centre Norwich. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in literature and journalism from Vassar (in the US), Cardiff and the University of East Anglia. She has had published short stories and magazine features. A Perfect Mother is her first novel and is available to purchase here.