13th September 2023
This conversation between Sophie Haydock and Keith Jones was wide-ranging and full of fascinating details. Keith introduced Sophie as a woman of letters, short story champion, and winner of the Impress Prize for debut novelists.
Asked how her novel The Flames began, Sophie told us about her visit to an exhibition of Egon Schiele’s work in 2015. She described how the four muses had ‘challenge in their eyes’. She later suggested the paintings were ‘psychologically demanding’, and showed too, Schiele’s own anguish, and that of the melting pot of Vienna in the period of transformation in the early twentieth century. Sophie felt almost ‘assaulted’ by the array of naked women and wanted to know them better and give them an opportunity to ‘paint a portrait of the artist.’ She said that writing The Flames changed her life. And she ‘shudders at what my life would be like if I hadn’t gone to that exhibition, got to know these women intimately and taken a leap of faith.’ She gave a short portrait in words of each of the four women, and remarked that it’s almost a personality test for the reader to see whom you connect with most. Adele is Sophie’s favourite, and she loved thinking about her as a woman of 78 attending an exhibition, reflecting on her time with Schiele.
‘But how do you approach a subject like this?’ Keith asked. Sophie said it would have been much easier to tell a linear story, but each muse demanded that she tell their story. She found it hard to write from four points of view but took inspiration from Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway, where the reader’s allegiance and loyalty would shift depending on whom they were ‘listening to’. Her training as a journalist gave her the confidence to approach top Schiele scholars. Two of the muses had been interviewed in the 1960s. Although Sophie couldn’t understand the language, their voices on the recordings told her a lot. After being deeply immersed in their lives, the muses began to ‘speak’ to Sophie -- she felt like she was interviewing the women. She said that sometimes, as she reads her own work back, she thinks, ‘Gosh, did I really write this?’
Sophie went on to discuss how she enjoys being edited, and how she began her journalistic career with giants of journalism like A. A. Gill and Lynne Barber, who taught her a lot. She made us laugh as she revealed how A. A. Gill, severely dyslexic, would dictate pieces over the phone to her, how often things would go awry as she transcribed, and how demanding he could be. Shades of Schiele perhaps? She then talked about her love of short stories and her work judging competitions for the Sunday Times and more. Her advice is that short stories are multilayered concentrated moments in time, vignettes. ‘Pick a nugget, make that moment count.’
Looking forward, Sophie has written a short story to be broadcast on the BBC in November, about ‘things that get lost that should perhaps stay lost’. Very intriguing! And, in a scoop for us, she talked publicly for the first time about her new novel, which will delve into the lives of the women who posed for Matisse. Matisse’s family have tightly controlled the narrative until now; Sophie said that to go against this is exciting, a bit scary, but you can’t libel the dead. Questions for Sophie covered her portrayal of place, her use of music, and more on Schiele himself. The whole hour was a concentrated moment in time, which thoroughly absorbed our audience. Thank you, Sophie Haydock!