Tobias Hill is the author of three previous novels, Underground (1999), The Love of Stones (2001) and The Cryptographer (2003), as well as three award-winning collections of poetry and Skin, a collection of short stories, which won the 1998 PEN/Macmillan Award
for Fiction. His latest novel, The Hidden, was published in the UK by Faber earlier this year, and will appear in the US in October from Harper Perennial.
The Hidden begins with an epigraph by Anthony Thwaite, and the scene is set:
I have hidden something in the inner chamber
And sealed the lid of the sarcophagus
And levered a granite boulder against the door
And the debris has covered it so perfectly
That though you walk over it daily you never suspect.
The muscular language, the heavy stone closing over whatever is hidden, and its perfect concealment, all find their echoes in Hill's novel, the story of a recently-divorced young graduate student, Ben Mercer, who finds himself on an archaeological dig in Sparta with a group of mesmerizing and vaguely threatening people.
Hill was kind enough to answer some questions we had about the novel, his research and writing process, and writing after 9/11.
Maîtresse: The Hidden is set in modern-day Sparta, where a group of archaeologists are on a dig, and the narrative is interspersed with the dissertation notes of a young academic who has recently joined the others in Sparta. What kind of research did you do in preparation for writing about ancient and contemporary Sparta?
Tobias Hill: The novel took five years, of which a year was taken up with research. Much of that took place in libraries and archives, but I spent a while in Sparta. The sense of a place matters to me. And Sparta was more than a setting for me – it’s a metaphor, a wide-angled thematic image – so it mattered more than a setting normally would. The books don’t tell you how beautiful the mountains are, or how sleepy and nondescript the town has become. I needed to get the feel of it. It does have an odd feel: to look at it now you wouldn’t guess it ever harboured power. The quietness gives a sense of innocence. Even the teenagers in their Marilyn Manson T-shirts, racing dirt bikes around the old acropolis, are muffled by the olive and orange groves. You could pass through and think it was just a wide spot in the road, not the home of one of the most famous and potent extremist philosophies in human history.
There are writers who favour invention almost to the exclusion of research. I’m not one of them, and I do envy them. The opening scene of Jim Crace’s ‘Being Dead’ is an example of how good that kind of writing can be: it precisely details the physical decomposition of the protagonists, and is absolutely convincing, yet Crace didn’t bone up on the scientific facts of decay to write the passage. Ian McEwan’s ‘Enduring Love’ contains a similar example of the power of invention, a fictional psychological paper on erotomania which purports to be genuine – and might as well be, since reviewers and even psychiatrists believed it to be so. The best writing doesn’t need to be factual to be true.
Maîtresse: How did you find the right balance between Ben's research and the story itself?
Tobias Hill: Rewriting. In early drafts Ben’s journals were more prominent, and were braided into the narrative at earlier points.
The journals are important for the reader, mainly because they allow the reader to deduce the way Sparta works as a parallel for various elements of modern societies: to understand the image, and get at the larger theme, the reader needs to understand Sparta (and what I have to say about Sparta). Less important, but still useful, is the way the journals enrich the reader’s understanding of what Ben is doing – where he is washing up, when he washes up in Sparta, and what exactly he is digging for.
Because of that importance it was tempting to use the journals often. But the novel begins slowly, and gathers pace only towards its conclusion. In the early drafts, the greater prominence of the journals played havoc with that pacing. Umberto Eco demands that his readers work through the heavy inertia of his openings, and readers of The Hidden need to have a degree of patience with its early stages…but I wanted there always to be a sense of forward motion – faint at first, but gathering: the protagonist moving towards his fate.
Maîtresse: Laura Kroetsch, in her review of the novel, calls it a post-9/11 novel, even though this is never made explicit, because the novel deals so much with the idea of "terror and retribution." Is this something that you had in mind? What do you make of this idea?
Tobias Hill: I think any decent novel covers a lot of ground, but yes, extremism is what I set out to write about. Sparta is an example of a state that rules through terror; in the modern world it is echoed by both Fascism and the dire extremes of Communism (‘All extremisms are alike,’ Ben writes, ‘And in Sparta all are prefigured.’). As the novel unfolds it examines the way such a society can echo other forms of terrorism, too. I suppose one of the questions I want people to ask, as they read, is ‘What is hidden?’ And there are several answers, but one of them is, ‘Terror’.
This is the novel’s impersonal theme. If that was all it was about, I don’t think it could work as a human story. On a personal level it’s also the story of an outsider, someone with a grasping need to belong (that is really Ben’s flaw). And it’s about secrets – their toxicity; the way their toxins stain and spread. The relationships and politics of the group at the dig are governed by this. There’s a line from Henry Ward Beecher prefacing the novel: ‘The power of hiding ourselves from one another is mercifully given, for men are wild beasts, and would devour one another but for this protection’.
Maîtresse: And if we say "this is a post 9/11 novel" do we mean because it is thematically related to the events of 9/11, or because this is the kind of novel that is needed after 9/11? What I'm trying to get at here is the distance of the novel from the event; does the novel belong to the event or is this just what the novel looks like after the event?
Tobias Hill: That’s a fine point. Um. Well, it’s a novel that examines extremism. I was trying to get at the roots of that. 9/11 is a symptom: I wanted to look at the cause.
But of course it is a post 9/11 novel. I wouldn’t have written it if we didn’t live in the world we now live in, which is a post 9/11 world.
Is such a novel needed? Yes. We’ll always need social novels. But you mention distance, and actually I think the distance from the event is important. 9/11 has changed the world. I think artists have needed time to come to terms with that, to see what it has meant and what it might mean for the future.
I remember clearly where I was when the planes hit (and we all do, don’t we? It’s more of a Kennedy Moment than the grassy knoll itself): I was at my writing desk, and I was halfway through my second novel, The Love of Stones. The Hidden is my fourth. I couldn’t have written it any sooner. It was years before I even began to understand what I felt and thought about 9/11 and everything after it. And one of the reasons The Hidden took so long, too, it because I found it very difficult to make some sense out of the age we have entered, and where we stand now, and to write about these things without writing over-emotionally, or emotionlessly, or saying nothing, or saying nothing worth saying. I needed Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquility.’
Maîtresse: You are a poet as well as a novelist. How do these two genres relate to each other, for you? Are they two different activities/parts of the brain, or i
s it more fluid?
Tobias Hill: They’re different countries, for me. Most of my life I’ve felt more at home with poetry, but that’s changing. It might have something to do with getting older. I feel as if I’m only just beginning to understand what the novel is capable of. I also think, myself, that many poets produce their best work when they’re young (not all, but most), whereas the very best novels are often written when authors are older (not always, but often). The lyric impulse is youthful, but the novel benefits from patience, knowledge and – old-fashioned thought – wisdom. There’s also a gender issue here: many female novelists only have a chance to hit their stride after they have had children. Although that may be changing. Very slightly.
In a day to day way, poetry and the novel are also different for me. When I write poetry I walk – walk all day, given the chance. I listen to people, watch people, talk to people, and it all goes in, as does the rhythm of walking. The novels are…less wholesome. I sit at home, in raggedy house clothes, surrounded by accretions of books and half-eaten food, and write for as long as I can bear to do so. Sometimes it’s not a burden – there are days when I surf along for ten hours, and that’s a joy. But it can’t all be surfing, or there’d be nothing but surface. The hard days are the ones that matter.
Maîtresse: What would you be doing tonight if you were in Paris?
Tobias Hill: Eating well, with good friends, after a day in La Sainte-Chapelle.