Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall was published in 2019 to a chorus of near-unanimous praise. Reviewing it at The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot wrote, “[Ghost Wall] is a worthy match for 3 a.m. disquiet, a book that evokes existential dread, but contains it, beautifully, like a shipwreck in a bottle.” The novel tells the story of Silvie, the sheltered daughter of a brutish father obsessed with the ancient lifeways of pre-Norman conquest Britons. Silvie accompanies her father and mother on an anthropological journey through Northumberland with a university professor and group of graduate students. As they move through the countryside and bogs, they move back through time and the journey becomes increasingly harrowing, as it invites the reader to ask, “How far removed are we really from our ancient ancestors and their traditions?”
The paperback edition of Ghost Wall was recently released, and I was lucky enough to have a chance to talk with Moss about her novel-writing process and technique in the first of what will be an ongoing new column at The Millions focused on craft.
Adam O’Fallon Price: One thing I love about this novel is that it’s short! And I don’t mean because it couldn’t be longer, or because I wasn’t enjoying it, but I simply like a short novel, and in my limited publishing experience, it is quite difficult to get a very short novel through. We need short books! Can you talk a little bit about the length of this book and related process?—i.e. was it whittled down from a much larger draft, or did this always feel like this was the right size for the story? And was there any pressure from the publishing side to pad it out more?
Sarah Moss: It really just came that way. I finished it and there it was, short. At first I thought that meant it was an interesting exercise but of no use; I was working on a longer novel anyway and this was the distraction project. But I mentioned it to my agent and she wanted to see it, and then to send it to my editor and so it went. At first I kept protesting that it wasn’t a novel and I didn’t want to give readers short measure, but I was more or less persuaded that people really don’t buy books by weight. Certainly no-one suggested padding.
AOP: On a semi-related note, I think one of the reasons for Ghost Wall’s brevity is it doesn’t muck around with a great deal of backstory or throat clearing. The main narrative puts us right into the reenactment excursion and keeps us there, a perfect choice as it creates a sense of readerly discomfort that matches the unnerving journey of the characters. Was there a temptation to do more exposition and general setting up?
SM: I think all my books start rather suddenly. I like to put the reader behind the narrator’s eyes in the first sentence and worry about setting up later. As a reader I’m patient with exposition and landscape and weather—I rarely read for the plot and like slow books—but as a writer I want every word to be earning its keep.
AOP: I’m also curious about when you really felt you “knew” your main character, Silvie: her thought process and personality. Was there a particular place where she emerged, or was it gradual? I’ve been asked this question before and my best answer is that I tend to feel like I know a character when I know their sense of humor. Is there, generally speaking, a way that you tend to find “into” your characters’ heads?
SM: I think for me it’s maybe about inhabiting the character’s body. Once I can feel her skin and push her hair behind her ears, feel her shoes on her feet, I can start.
AOP: Ghost Wall features a good amount of area-specific (Northumberland, correct? I’m a hopeless American.) flora and fauna as well as a great deal of information about Iron Age lifeways. I wonder how much this background inspired the novel, and how much writing the novel simply necessitated this information. Chicken, or egg, or both?
SM: Yes, Northumberland. I love that landscape partly because I have no history there, no personal or familial claim on it. My desire to be there is simply aesthetic and I feel no need to belong to or own it. I became suddenly interested in the Iron Age before I had any idea I might write about it, which is how it often goes for me; a passion for Japanese textile design or the history of obstetrics grows in my mind and later I find it’s for a book. (Or not; sometimes the fascination comes and goes without producing anything much.) So background first. I always start with a place: weather, birdsong, soundscape. And then history, archaeology, architecture. Characters come later.
AOP: One of the interesting choices in this novel (among many) is the lack of quotation marks, with dialogue embedded in the narrative. It seems right to me, though in a way I find difficult to articulate—something, perhaps, in the way it captures Silvie’s budding, confused consciousness. I wonder what you think it does, and how you feel the book would read differently with standard dialogue?
SM: I’ve been surprised by how much some readers mind about speech marks. After all, different languages do it differently, and I wonder if readers who are upset by the dialogue in Ghost Wall are similarly bothered by French or Spanish. I’d been playing with dialogue and interior monologue in my previous novel, The Tidal Zone, and here I wanted to take it a bit further. It’s all in Silvie’s head anyway; the narrator is older, remembering, so the speech isn’t exactly direct in the first place.
AOP: Were there any moments in the drafting of Ghost Wall that really surprised you? Not asking for spoilers, but were there any character moments or small but significant plot turns that seemed to pop out of nowhere?
SM: I liked the way the animals emerged and made patterns. It wasn’t planned until I saw that it had started to happen, and then I developed it.
AOP: Finally, a very dumb, but perhaps thematically appropriate question to end: in terms of writing a first draft, are you a plan ahead-er or flashlight in the dark walking through the woods-er?
SM: Both! Spend two years making a map and then put it in your back pocket and ignore it while you hack a path through the wilderness. Just remember that you invented that wilderness and, however it feels, you’re responsible for everything from the mining rights to the sunset.