Today, the 3rd December, marks the 160th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Conrad, and 2017 is a special year for him: in Poland, the government have named 2017 the Year of Conrad in celebration; and in the UK, the British Council and London Book Fair have dedicated their time to promoting Polish literature across the country and the globe.
Our own contribution – birthday present, if you like – comes in the form of a new anthology of short stories and essays, written in direct response to the work and themes of Conrad, from his practically synonymous Heart of Darkness, to Nostromo, The Secret Agent, and a whole arsenal of lesser known short stories. We asked 13 writers to immerse themselves in his literature, and explore his often controversial themes – colonialism, terrorism, race, transnational business, psychology – in their own, new, 21st century versions of Conrad. And from essays exploring virtual reality, and personal reflections on how a generation of writers was influenced by his literature; to near-futuristic worlds ravaged by disease, and adventures upon the high seas, these new writings surely deliver.
To give you an insight into the book ahead of its launch next week (London on the 5th December, Liverpool on the 6th – come and join us!) we asked one of the contributors Sarah Schofield to explain how she tackled the brief for her story ‘Expectant Management’, which uses the short story ‘The Secret Sharer’ as its inspiration.
You can order Conradology: A Celebration of Joseph Conrad from our website now.
How do you go about writing a story that celebrates the work of a writer like Joseph Conrad? Where do you begin?
I spent the early stages of the commission simply reading and rereading as much of Conrad’s work as possible, searching for my hook. One story in particular resonated with me; ‘The Secret Sharer’, written in 1909 and first published in Harper’s Magazine. It is about a captain who is new to his ship and doubting his authority and ability to command. He rescues a man from the sea; a fugitive who has escaped another boat where he has been accused of murder. The captain hides him, and this mysterious character becomes the captain’s confidant. His other self. As I studied the text, I wondered if the captain could be experiencing a kind of Third Man Syndrome. Also referred to as Third Man Factor, this is where an apparition appears at a time of trauma or physical exertion to lead and support an individual. Shackleton reported this phenomenon on expedition and TS Eliot references it in ‘The Waste Land’. This idea intrigued me. It felt like something to explore in my creative response.
I usually try to avoid writing directly about my own experiences. Of course, I use glimmers, snippets and emotional truths from my life in my stories but I find that trying to reproduce experiences wholesale often creates something much flatter than the reality. The whole truth is slippery and elusive. It is never quite there on the page. There are many writers who do it brilliantly. I admire them tremendously. Conrad is one of those writers. He was a life magpie, unpicking situations he had lived and weaving them into his work. ‘The Secret Sharer’ has much in it – the seafaring, the loneliness of captaincy – that Conrad directly experienced.
When I was developing ideas for this commission, I had a creeping feeling that this was an important quality in his work that I should embrace. It made me uncomfortable. But I think anything worth writing and reading should probably have some degree of discomfort to it.
I kept returning to a time from my own life that seemed to align strongly, but somewhat unexpectedly, with Conrad’s story. In 2015 I had a miscarriage. I had a second miscarriage a few months later. It was one of the most traumatic times I’ve endured, both in the immediate and also long term. Tragically, miscarriage is very common. As many as 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage*. There is a high probability that you, reading this now, will have had direct or indirect experience of miscarriage. With this in mind, I felt quite conflicted about whether to tackle it in my story. How do I approach it in a way that is sensitive but without pulling punches? In ‘The Heart of Darkness’, Conrad’s character Marlow talks about his desire to explore ‘the blank spaces’ on maps. I think this is what drove me here. I have read few accurate or specific accounts of characters dealing with miscarriage in fiction. It feels like something unspoken; a blank space that I felt urged to write into. Thematically, this seemed pertinent to Conrad’s story – so much is unspoken among the ship’s crew. Just as miscarriage is still something of a taboo. As a side note, there is speculation that Jessie George had a miscarriage shortly after marrying Conrad which I felt was an interesting, pertinent correlation.
My story ‘Expectant Management’ is about a woman, newly appointed as a ‘superhead’ of a failing school, experiencing a miscarriage. Feeling isolated and with the burden of a commanding job she conjures an imaginary friend to support her through it. The protagonist in the story is not me. I have never been a head teacher. I did not have an imaginary friend during my miscarriages and the mother in the story is not at all like my own mother (although it is true that she gifted me epic cuts of meat, just like the mother in the story – thank you, Mum.) But in terms of writing from experience, I definitely sailed much closer to the wind than I do normally. I leave the reader to decide how effective this is.
There is much that went into the process of writing my story that perhaps doesn’t shout in the final edit, but is important in the drawing together of the narratives. I lifted ten moments from ‘The Secret Sharer’ as my structure from which my story grew. There are also the obvious plot points and details that I felt were important to mirror; the white hat, the sea, and several ‘almost’ identical phrases and words at key points through the story. There are also thematic links; emotional duality – rational/irrational, public/private… and the burden of command and isolation that both protagonists experience.
Where I deviate significantly, I think, is in narrative form. I wanted my story to take a more episodic, lyrical shape. So my ending is obviously much more open and ambiguous than Conrad’s climactic brush with death against the cliffs.
It has been a great privilege to revisit Conrad’s work and to offer a creative response. I’m intrigued to see what directions other writers have taken and how their responses might add new dimensions to Conrad’s writing.
*According to Tommy’s.org. Tommy’s fund research into miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth, and provide pregnancy health information to parents. They also offer invaluable support and advice.
Sarah Schofield’s prizes include the Writers Inc Short Story Competition and the Calderdale Short Story Competition. She was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2010 and was runner up in The Guardian Travel Writing Competition, and currently teaches Creative Writing at Edge Hill University. Her stories have appeared in several Comma Press anthologies: Lemistry, Bio-Punk, Beta-Life, Spindles, and Thought X. She is currently working on her first collection.