March 2011

Andrew Stout

features

An Interview with Rebecca Hunt

When Rebecca Hunt was 11 years old, she took a day trip from her hometown in Coventry to London. She would spend her adolescence yearning to return to The Old Smoke. When she did, it was as a student at the vigorously cross-disciplined St. Martin's College, where she studied painting. Ten years later later, she still lives in London. And while her debut novel, Mr. Chartwell, is droll tale of depression and courage, it is also a highly idiosyncratic ode to a bygone city, the London of her teenage daydreams.

In Mr. Chartwell, Hunt re-imagines Winston Churchill's euphemism for depression -- his "black dog" -- as a living and talking antagonist named Black Pat. With her pooch, she has entered the small house where poetic and ironic ambiguity come together and kick up their heels. This is wit's domain. It's good to see Churchill's black dog -- and 11-year-old Rebecca -- have returned where they belong.


I think a good starting point for our talk is Black Pat. How did you create this unusual character?

For me, the central premise to Mr. Chartwell was Winston Churchill's notorious black dog of depression, which becomes an individual character, not just a description. He actually becomes an entity. And that was where the book started. I was really struck by the idea. I realized right off I could use it to go in a variety of directions. So even though in Mr. Chartwell, the black dog is a metaphor for depression, I also use him as a vehicle to access the interior thoughts and feelings of the characters affected by his visit -- or his presence, if you like. He was really useful as a character because depression is something you experience alone, but if you have a character who is depression, he is what they're feeling, he's the embodiment of their suffering and their affliction. So you don't have to explain why they're depressed. The dog knows why they're depressed and he can tease the details out of them. As well as depression being, obviously, dressing, I was trying to understand the more seductive elements of it.

Something remarkable about Black Pat as a literary character, besides obviously that he's a talking dog, is his enormous charm and good humor.

Well, I think he has to be seductive. Because he's charming, it makes him so much more sinister than if he was just a big, bad wolf.

But Pat's charm completely fails to move his clients. Which is a very funny dynamic throughout the novel -- that lack of connection. It's hilariously awkward.

I always wanted the other characters to be strong characters equally and in different ways. So for me, it wouldn't have worked if they had absolutely no resistance to him. If he just came in and won, that would be a paragraph. Because the things I find interesting are the battles people fight -- whatever demons in any guise. For me, it was always going to be about two opponents.

I want to go back to something essential we've already touched on a few times: why did you choose depression as a theme?

I didn't set out to write about depression. I think the story presented itself. Then you realize what it is you've got. So something appears, and it's just a rough idea -- Churchill's black dog. And I started to think this was a way for me to have a conversation about something I find fundamental and fascinating. This isn't a definitive description of depression, because I don't think such a thing exists. But this was my attempt to make something that resonated with my understanding of depression. Once I decided to see this idea thorough to the end, it became important to me that the book wasn't only about depression. I wanted it to be about what I think if as the twin sister to depression, which is courage.

Tell me about what this idea looked like before you decided to see it through.

I remember waking home from work and I was suddenly thinking about this proverbial black dog being an individual who is free to move around -- he's free to converse and disagree and argue. And he doesn't just belong to Churchill. I didn't really talk about it much to anyone, I just started to do it. It was almost an experiment to see if I could. Then the more I wrote, the more I committed to the project. And at this stage it was something I did quietly -- and nerd-ly -- alone. It was only toward the end of writing I told my family, "yep, here's the news: I'm writing a book" -- cue mortified stares.

[Laughs.] Why didn't you talk about it?

I think I was testing out my commitment to the idea.

I see. Now, was it always going to be a novel? Or did you ever consider pursuing the idea as an essay or even a painting or graphic novel?

Yeah, I think it was always going to be a book of some sort. I didn't immediately know the length of it.

So why did you immediately see this as a book?

Well, there are a few stories in there. So it's the intertwining of different lives. For that to be explored fully, I had to have some space to do that. If it had been an essay, I think it wouldn't have been able to go as far as it did. So, for example, Churchill's retirement is critical and so is Esther's husband. But if you didn't know these characters, you wouldn't be experiencing the full story. So it was important to build up some background, so when you see what this depression is doing to them, it means something.

What were some of the problems you had working out the story?

There was a lot of research to do. Tackling Winston Churchill as a character is research-heavy. So I read a lot of Churchill books and went to some of the places Churchill knew -- the House of Parliament and Chartwell House, clearly, and the war rooms -- to get a more tangible feel of the man. I tried to take him off the page and bring him back into the tangible world. More than a problem, that was really a challenge. Also, writing about the sixties was a bit of a challenge.

How did you feel about your first draft?

Pretty psyched! I remember finishing it and looking up and seeing my boyfriend and saying "a-ha! first draft!" And obviously I knew it wasn't finished. I knew I was only one step along this mile-long road. So it was a real sense of achievement, but also a premature sense of achievement. But it was a pretty cool feeling.  

As a teenager, which did you do more of: writing or drawing?

Drawing. Definitely.

What did you draw?

I don't know -- just stuff. I really enjoyed drawing so I would draw anything: still lives or more experimental drawings, or just whatever. They weren't really precious to me. I could do one and just chuck it afterwords.

What did you write at that age?

When I was a teenager I wrote a diary that is long since gone. So I probably did a lot of ranting in my diary, or probably yearning for something or other. And I would also sometimes write stuff just for fun: short stories or -- and here's a hideous, hideous memory -- I'd probably try out a few teenage poems, which I'm sure were excellent. [Laughs.] So, classic, classic teenage stuff. I don't imagine it was any different from other people's shamefaced teenage writing past.

As a teen, while you were doing all this drawing and writing, what did you imagine your adulthood would be like?

Oh, man. I think I've always been very positive about the future. Sometimes, of course you feel anxious or fearful of certain things. But I'm also a pretty easygoing person. So when I was a teenager, I often thought about how adulthood was going to be an amazing cocktail of freedoms.

What factors weighed on your decision to go to St. Martins College?

I've always, always known I wanted to go to art school. I think I was 12 when I started to think of the future more in the long term -- beyond this weekend and "can I buy a hamster?" And my parents were really encouraging, too, about anything creative I did. So coming to London was a huge factor and St. Martin's was a really, really well respected school. It's in the center of Soho, so you have access to all the central galleries. And you've got the excitement of London life. So getting into St. Martin's was probably one of the most adrenaline-filled and euphoric moments of my life. It was the feeling of such joy of things falling into place. And then there's the knowledge that you definitely know what you're going to do for the next three years and you're totally into it. I think of it really fondly these days -- I absolutely loved my time there.

What lesson learned in art school do you most apply to your writing?

Some people say they can't see any correlation between the way I paint and the way I write, but I feel they are quite connected.

Where do you see the connection?

I don't know. It's hard to explain, really. It seems they come from the same place, in terms of -- this is going to sound so pretentious, just bear with me, okay?

Watch your step!

OK, brilliant. [Laughs.] I'm going to sound like such an idiot, but I'll say it anyway. So brace yourself. My painting and drawing? I think they come from the same place mentally. It's the same creative muscle I'm flexing, but in a different way. It's the same sort of enjoyment, which is a weird enjoyment because you are on your own all the time. Most of the time I'm in this really cold room, painting away. Or I'm in my flat, writing away. So it's very antisocial. It's me talking to myself, obviously internally. [Laughs.] It's a conversation between your own thoughts. I think Mr. Chartwell, for example, is a funny book but also, in some ways, it's really serious. I think that's true with my paintings -- they are sort-of fun but they come from a very focused and serious place. Because I don't necessarily think because something's funny, it's superficial.

We are on the very same page here. Maybe my favorite thing about Mr. Chartwell is how it's a thoroughly funny read that, days after putting away, takes a pretty profound shape in the imagination. And by the way, I think I just crushed your puny attempt at pretension with what I just said.

[Laughs.] I think using humor can be a way of talking about something that's quite tricky in a more stark way. Also, it's a way of feeling towards something that's difficult to talk about in its awkwardness, or you want to make it easier for the other person to talk to you more truthfully.