Interview: Luke Williams on The Echo Chamber
Luke Williams is the author of featured Book Talk title The Echo Chamber. It's his debut novel, and as we discovered when we interviewed him, it began as a straight history book that developed into a narrative the deeper Williams got into the subject. Read on to find out more, including why Williams was willing to allow two chapters of his book to be written by another author.
Interview by Claire Stewart
How did you first come to write The Echo Chamber?
I was studying History at Edinburgh University, and I was doing quite a lot of West African and Colonial History, and I’d gathered a load of material relating to that period which fascinated me. I realised I could use that material better in a fictional form than in a history book, so when I started doing that it gave me a lot of freedom. That period at the end of the 1950s – the end of the British Empire – is a really interesting period, and I found out that that generation of Colonial servants who were living in West Africa generally all wanted to tell their stories – partly as they were, to put it bluntly, dying - so there were a lot of memoirs being written and diaries published. So of course I began stealing these stories, and a lot of them went into The Echo Chamber.
How would you describe The Echo Chamber?
It’s a book about a child, and it’s narrated by this woman looking back on her childhood. She’s a strange, freakish child who believes she’s got remarkable powers of hearing. Her mother dies in childbirth and her father doesn’t know what to do with her, and basically she’s left to grow up feral in the markets of Lagos in the 1950s. She considers herself not really Scottish, not really British, not really Nigerian – she doesn’t know what she is. And now in her 50s, looking back to her childhood and trying to remember what was going on, she remembers it aurally, through the sounds that she heard. The problem of course is that now she is going deaf, and she finds it hard to remember the sounds.
The book has been described as magic realism by some people – how do you feel about that?
I resist that term quite strongly. It’s my feeling that magical realism doesn’t really exist, apart from bad imitations of certain writers like Marquez or Rushdie, or Gunter Grass or Bulgakov. I would hope that mine isn’t a bad imitation of these writers, who were big influences on my book! I suppose the reason why I would resist that is because [while] my character is a fantasist, [and while] her stories - which are remembered often 50 years after the fact – don’t correspond to an immediate idea of reality, that doesn’t mean that they’re not every bit as important to her. And I think that’s also a comment on all of us – I think we’re all fantasists in some ways, and we all rely on imagination to understand ourselves and our relationships and so on. So actually I think magic, or fantasy, or illusion is a big part of the human experience and therefore real, if that makes sense.
So with a fantasist as a narrator, how do you go about setting a limit for her fantasy?
That’s a really good question! I think what I wanted to look at was a child who was in many ways an odd kid growing up, perhaps odd looking, perhaps with some odd ideas, and kind of felt bereft or somewhat not at home in the world. So I thought her aim in the book was to reclaim her past as something she could feel at home in, almost like revenge on that past. Her fantasy is to turn that sad kid who liked to listen and didn’t talk much into someone with almost superhuman power, which adults do; they look back at childhood failures and twist them round. So in terms of limits, I was definitely concerned to locate her fantasy in her childhood, so any delusions or madness relate very much to her psychology as a kid, rather than just being a wild explosive trip.