Books·How I Wrote It

Anakana Schofield: How I wrote Martin John

Anakana Schofield explains how her disquieting novel, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize, came to be.
Anakana Schofield is the author of the novel Martin John. (Arabella Campbell/Biblioasis)

Martin John, the Scotiabank Giller Prize-shortlisted novel by Anakana Schofield, is an extremely creepy tale of a serial sexual predator and what he can get away with. It's also a heartbreaking portrait of a man on the margins of society, being crushed by the weight of his mental illness.

In her own words, Anakana describes the experience of writing this disquieting, unputdownable novel.

Problem child

"Martin John was a spectacularly difficult book to write. I can honestly say it was quite terrifying writing this book, and I was equally terrified of what the response to this book would be. I thought this book would probably sink me as a writer. I thought, 'Hmm, really you should have written a nice book about nice people, and you've gone into the dark side of humanity.' I was very nervous, right up until — well, I'm still very nervous. You know that you can't write around the dirty stuff, and to actually spend time thinking about someone with those urges is not a pleasant place to be. I still look at Martin John on the table and worry about it.

"But I was very determined, just the same. I'm loath to become a popup expert on the issues in this novel, but I did feel that we tend to imagine that sexual deviants and molesters are some kind of aberration that's very, very far from us, when the reality is that they're at the kitchen table with you. They're on your bus. They're not actually that far. It's much easier to avert your gaze, it's much easier to decide that we should give up on them. And I was determined on some level to face that. 

"So having chosen to do that — I had this book, yet there's this horrible feeling of 'But I want to be liked! What are people going to think about me, how would they imagine I must be?' And I think that comes down to the pressure on women writers especially, to be in a role that doesn't disturb. It's vital that we as women respond to these things, because we know them."

Martin John, be gone

"Martin John was the character "Beirut" at the end of my first novel, Malarky. We've travelled very far from that book to this book. Malarky was a parallel narrative for a long time, about two mothers and sons: One was Martin John and his mother, and one was Our Woman and Jimmy, who ended up populating Malarky. After so many torturous years of wrestling these two narratives, a writer friend of mine said, 'Martin John, be gone,' and I threw him out.

"In the finished Malarky, Martin John is an old man with Our Woman in the psychiatric ward. He's a funny, eccentric, likeable man with whom Our Woman has this exchange about Beirut. And Our Woman became enthralled with this. And then in Malarky when Martin John's mother comes to visit him, I put in a devilish little note that says 'See Martin John, a footnote novel.' And that was really a little provocation to myself, to tell his story and to write that novel. 

"You do see a slight replay of the same theme in Martin John — I invert that scene, so Our Woman climbs into bed with Martin John, and he doesn't want her there." 

Circuit training

"There are five refrains that guide the structure and narrative of the entire novel. Martin John's whole existence is predicated on these loops. He lives in these cycles, circuits, circles. He has these refrains to cover up his wrongdoings. The idea behind that was that sexual offending, mental illness — it really is very circular. How do we break these loops? I was interested in creating a work that would be utterly circular. That's why I did it. 

"And in the writing process, I really lived through what I imagined Martin John living through. I would get into some loop, and I wouldn't know quite how or when I would get him out. It was very challenging. I didn't know where I was going to end up. When you write like this, the interesting thing is that your destination is never your departure point. You may not even ever get to your destination, and many writers have to face that. It's very brave to do that. I think that readers are extraordinarily smart and I have such faith in them. That's the thing that writers need to know. You take risks — and courage is rewarded." 

Anakana Schofield's comments have been edited and condensed.

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