Saturday, October 30, 2021

Tess Little

Tess Little is a writer, historian, and Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.

She was born in Norwich, read history at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and is currently studying for the MA in Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia. She recently completed a doctorate on 1970s feminist activism in the UK, France, and the US, having interviewed activists and visited archives across all three countries.

Little's short stories and non-fiction have appeared in Words And Women: Two, The Mays Anthology, The Belleville Park Pages, The White Review and on posters outside a London tube station.

Her debut novel was published in October 2021 as The Last Guest (North America) and The Ninth Guest (UK); it was first published in the UK as The Octopus.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The Last Guest has had almost as many titles as full drafts. It began as a novella, with an extremely long title to balance out the brevity of the story—When we Called the Police to Collect my Ex-husband’s Body,—and that title ended with a comma because the first words of the prose continued on from the title: ‘We believed he had died from an overdose’.

This first sentence survived various edits because the story still launches from the same jetty. The narrator, Elspeth Bryant Bell, arrives at the Hollywood house of her ex-husband, British film director Richard Bryant, for his fiftieth birthday party. She expects to find an enormous, sprawling celebration in his honor, but instead she is met by only seven other guests. In the morning, Elspeth finds Richard’s body, sprawled across his couch. The director is dead, seemingly due to an overdose. Then the police discover that Richard was murdered, and each one of his guests becomes a suspect.

But of course, the original title was far too long for a published novel, so when my agent and I first sought publishers, here in the UK, we decided to rename the manuscript. I toyed with Aquarium, To the Surface, Chromatophore—and eventually settled on the title which these ideas were circling: The Octopus.

When Elspeth arrives at Richard’s house, she meets not only his seven other guests, but also his pet: a giant Pacific octopus named Persephone, who watches over the party, silently, from her tank. And just as Persephone’s aquarium sits at the heart of Richard’s house, so too does the captive octopus sit at the heart of the novel—embodying the stories of Elspeth and the other party guests.

But that title is quite cryptic and metaphorical. It doesn’t give potential readers any idea of genre; The Octopus might well be sci-fi, fantasy, or even non-fiction. For that reason, my American editor was interested in trying a different title—something darker, mysterious, a little Agatha Christie-esque, perhaps.

We went with The Last Guest, which I like to think is not too distant from the UK title. While the ‘last guest’ could be read as Elspeth—the final human to arrive at the party—to my mind it represents Persephone. She’s the last guest the reader meets, crawling out from her rocks after Elspeth’s arrival.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I begin every story I write with the first sentence—which sounds obvious and trite, but many authors don’t. I’ll carry around the kernel of the story for a while—perhaps collecting characters, phrases, images—but I find the writing doesn’t flow until I have that very first sentence. It has to capture the voice of the narration, the atmosphere, the pace, and once you have those elements the rest will follow.

So I’m very careful with my first sentences; I don’t write them down until they feel right. And looking back at everything I’ve written, I can see that those sentences always survive multiple drafts. ‘We believed he had died from an overdose’ is Elspeth’s voice, and that sentence holds the story of The Last Guest.

My endings, on the other hand, often change. I’ll begin a story knowing the rough arc of the characters—maybe a realisation they’ll reach, or a decision they’ll make—but not knowing exactly where the writing will end.

This is a dangerous way to live when writing a murder mystery—a genre which famously requires every detail to reconcile with the solution. I rewrote the ending of The Last Guest with almost every re-drafting and seeding each solution through the novel took much careful thinking, and much time. Hopefully this makes the red herrings all the more credible. I certainly believed them myself at one point or another.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Writers are often told to write what they know—or at least, to begin there for their debut novel. The characters in The Last Guest, however, live entirely different lives from mine. Elspeth is middle-aged, a mother, American, wealthy, divorced; she worked as an actor—I’ve never been any of those things. And that’s just my protagonist, who at least shares my language, race, and gender, unlike other characters in the novel.

I think I wrote this story, in part, to escape myself and my life—or to grapple with questions that have occupied my mind in a more removed way. I enjoy telling stories, telling truth slant. But of course, that requires some knowledge. Imagination isn’t plucked from thin air.

Despite the prima facie differences between myself and my characters, they did emerge from two personal places. The first is listening. While writing The Last Guest, I was completing my PhD in history. Researching and reconstructing other lives was my bread and butter, whether from archival sources or, quite literally, listening: I was conducting oral history interviews as well. My interviewees were all women, all older than me, and many were of different nationalities to me. Having spent hundreds of hours listening to such voices, Elspeth’s voice came to me quite naturally.

In listening to other people narrating their lives for my historical research, I’ve never failed to find some commonality. This is the second place from which my characters emerged: my own thoughts, experiences, ways of being. I gave each of them at least a sand grain’s worth of myself—as writers often do.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

The Last Guest was influenced by many non-literary works. By film, of course, given the novel is set in LA: classic film noir, as well as Mulholland Drive, The Invitation, The Player, Play it as it Lays. I also watched a great deal of octopus footage, to study their movements and behaviour: Jean PainlevĂ©’s silent, black and white depictions were the films I returned to most often, and they ended up making a cameo in the novel.

I returned to certain works of art too: Hockney’s technicolour depictions of California, Bernini’s Proserpina. While writing, I came across the Sunset paintings of Caroline Walker, a series depicting a former beauty queen living a lonely existence in the beautiful, cinematic emptiness of the Hollywood Hills. (The cover of The Last Guest features her dark, aquatic oil painting Plunge Pool.)

Architecture was another major influence—Sedgwick, Richard’s modernist home in the Hollywood Hills, is a reimagining of the old country manors of Golden Age detective fiction. Where those stories took place amid the crumbling bricks of English tradition, The Last Guest unfolds within brutal concrete and clean glass. Still a home for the isolated elite, but the Hollywood version—this time literally perched above the masses, looking down across the cityscape.

Here, John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein Residence was my main inspiration, as well as the work of photographer Nicholas Alan Cope, who captures stark LA architecture in black and white on the pages of his book Whitewash.

As for music, I couldn’t name all the songs I listened to while writing The Last Guest, but I do remember feeling greatly affected by Nina Simone’s 1976 Montreux Festival performance of ‘Stars’, which tells a beautiful, heart-breaking story. It’s everything I wanted for Elspeth.
Visit Tess Little's website.

--Marshal Zeringue