BOOKGASM: I understand you started writing THE ECHO CHAMBER while you were attending University of East Anglia. How helpful was the creative writing course?
WILLIAMS: The course was hugely helpful. It gave me confidence — the right kind, in the end; I think I began with entirely the wrong kind and soon had this knocked out of me — as well as the space and time in which to think and research and write intensively. All invaluable to a novice writer and one reason to recommend that aspiring novelists consider developing their projects on such a course.
It also threw me into the path of other writers who’ve since become good pals, trusted colleagues and, in one particular case, my first reader and on/off collaborator. But I’d say the course’s most significant impact on me was the term I spent studying with W.G. Sebald, our workshop tutor. I was already a huge fan and drew much inspiration from his books, but his teaching also shaped my work and my approach to it.
BOOKGASM: Your book is the result of both research and imagination. How easy was it to merge the two into a singular story?
WILLIAMS: I wouldn’t say it was easy, but since it was my objective from the outset to do just that, in a way, I had no choice. This approach — the fusing of historical research and my creative response to this — defined the project at every stage. For me the imaginative process is essential in our consideration of the historical record, which can only ever be a partial account of events. Imagination allows us to question and challenge what the historical record presents.
BOOKGASM: Lagos is an odd setting to choose. With all the other spots the story takes place in, why that one?
WILLIAMS: The idea for the novel emerged as a result of my undergraduate studies in history — a course I took in African Imperial History, specifically the British colonial legacy in West Africa. I originally wanted to pursue postgraduate studies in history in order to interrogate more closely the records relating to this period, in particular, the interstices or gaps existing within these.
And then I realised that, for me at least, writing fiction was a more fruitful — and fun — way in which to explore this. It’s very much a fictional Lagos which I present in the book — I’ve not been there, and I didn’t want to go while writing THE ECHO CHAMBER since I couldn’t visit the Lagos I wanted to write about.
Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and the notion that the idea of a city can in many ways be more compelling than the actuality, was influential here. I thought the Lagos in THE ECHO CHAMBER should be more faithful to Evie’s childhood memory of it than the actual Lagos, whether in the ’50s or now.
BOOKGASM: Sound and hearing are ever-present themes in your novel. From where did that idea emerge?
WILLIAMS: This boils down to my beginnings as a large-eared child! I’ve always had a difficult relationship with my ears. For a long time, I thought of them as appendages that really didn’t belong to me or weren’t really part of me, kind of like a snake’s skin or a hermit crab’s shell. I guess I hoped that one day I might shed them. At the same time, I had a strange pride in my outsize ears and there were private moments when I convinced myself that I could hear things that no one else could.
Another reason, more related to the book, is that I wanted my narrator to be a kind of History’s child, like Oskar from THE TIN DRUM or Saleem from MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN or Azaro from THE FAMISHED ROAD. History’s children are freaks. They have — or think they have — special powers. And so Evie has — or thinks she has — amazing powers of hearing.
BOOKGASM: You’ve also written the novel from the female POV. So, being a man, was that tough?
WILLIAMS: My first attempt at a novel featured a protagonist not unlike myself at the time of writing: a neurotic, self-absorbed, 20-something bloke. With literary ambitions. I didn’t get far into the book before I got sick of him and myself, and realised that if I wanted to explore the themes which interested me, and to remain engaged throughout a long-term novel-length project, I’d have to make the protagonist considerably different to me. Hence the 50-something woman.
BOOKGASM: You have some strange, almost unreal elements in the book, like Evie being able to hear inside her mother’s womb, but they feel grounded. How did you achieve that, again, blending of the factual and fictional?
WILLIAMS: Part of Evie’s project is to question narratives of power, and by extension, the role of narrative in enforcing power. Given Evie’s self-appointed status as freakish outsider, it was crucial that her story transgress the boundaries of “reality,” which, after all, in fiction, is never really “reality,” but just one account of it.
BOOKGASM: What other writers do you admire or have influenced you in some way?
WILLIAMS: I’m far more a reader than I am a writer, and this is a list I’m constantly adding to: W.G. Sebald, Gunter Grass, Georges Perec, Sei Shonagon, Susan Sontag, Beckett, Bellow, Bruno Schulz, Lawrence Sterne, Bulgakov, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Lydia Davis, Arundhati Roy, Ken Saro Wiwa, Dambudzo Marechera, Hannah Arendt, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Francis Ponge, Thomas Bernhard, James Kelman. And Natasha Soobramanien, writer of the Damaris Diary section of my novel, who’s just written a stunningly beautiful novel called GENIE AND PAUL.