Berlin/Wiltshire - For the past decade Victoria Gosling has run The Reader Berlin, a platform offering courses and services for the city's large community of English-language writers. Her own debut novel - Before the Ruins - was published by Henry Holt and Co in the US on 12 January, with the UK release planned for May. It's a cracking read with nary a dull sentence in it. A classic murder mystery of a sort, the story includes an English manor house and some missing diamonds - woven into a contemporary tale of heartache and alienation. Victoria spoke to us on the phone from her parents' house in Wiltshire, where she's been caring for her poorly mother, just a few miles away from the setting of her novel.
Can you talk about the genesis of Before the Ruins? I get this feeling that there’s something very personal here.
Any novel you spend three or four years writing is intensely personal. Of course, it’s all hidden amongst the fictional. I think all the concerns the novel has are definitely my concerns. I think there are two impulses for me to writing. One is to explore all these issues that I’m concerned about and I think those include domestic violence, addiction, morality, class and sexuality. I’m also quite childish. What inspired me to write when I was a child were books about missing diamond necklaces and unsolved mysteries – and I didn’t want to do one or the other.
When I started reading it triggered the same sense of excitement I felt when reading Enid Blyton books as a kid.
I was a massive Enid Blyton fan. My cousin was Julian. My sister was George and I was Dick. We were obsessed with Enid Blyton. And all those books that were similar, like Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Sherlock Holmes’ The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle – the architecture of those stories and that feeling you have as a kid when you open a book that is about a missing diamond necklace or smugglers or pirates or something. I really wanted to tap into that. At the same time, I’m 43 years old and I wanted to explore some of the more grown-up concerns I have.
You write very well about natural settings.
It is set basically where I grew up. I grew up on a dairy farm just a few miles away from Marlborough where [the narrator] Andy grows up. I didn’t value it very much then. I was very sad that I hadn’t been born in London. I travelled and lived in lots of places in my twenties and moved to Berlin when I was 30. There is so much about Berlin that I value and appreciate but one thing it is not is a rural paradise. Visiting home over the past 10-11 years, that longing for home has just grown and grown. We live on the edge of the Downs, these huge chalk hills. A lot of them have ridges you can walk along for miles. Especially in summer, when a large section of the book is set, it's so beautiful. After a decade in Berlin there was a longing for that countryside. I think how much I missed it pervades the book.
Did you write it in Berlin?
Mostly. I wrote a portion of it Greece. I went of to Greece for a month and did my own writing retreat in October sitting in a village emptied of tourists. Because I was doing so much other work, it took me about three years to write. The vast majority was written in Neukölln.
Did you have those concerns you mentioned earlier in mind when you started writing?
I think your concerns are largely unconscious. I became aware when I was writing that there were things that I wanted to say. But I didn’t sit down and say I want to write a book about alienation or loneliness. There's a lot in there about consumerism and addiction. Those are my concerns, so they were always going to end up in the novel. I cut a lot from what I write. Some days I get going and realise I’ve just written a rant about something I don’t like and it has to all come out because it doesn’t serve the book. I normally write almost double what ends up in a book. The plot grows quite slowly, so you have to kind of kick your heels while you’re waiting for the next bit of plot to come along and then I just try to cut it back to the bits that are really good.
So you didn’t have it all plotted out before you began?
When I start off I tend to have a few scenes. The manor in the book was a place that I went as a teenager. I have a love of old English houses and when I was 17 I was out in Swindon and one of the people I was with said let’s go to Zack’s house and Zack ended up living in this incredible manor house. This is not my background. I come from a very average family. The rich person in my village was the one who had two cars. So I had never been to a place like that before and we were all drinking and I was invited to stay over because I was too drunk to make my own way home. I think I spent the night in a Queen Anne bed on the third floor and then scurried away feeling quite embarrassed the next day. It stayed with me. Quite a lot of books I read while growing up - like Brideshead Revisited - were about these beautiful houses. They are also interior landscapes or dreamscapes in some way.
Which authors have inspired you?
As a teenager, it was definitely people like Graham Greene, Daphne du Maurier, Evelyn Waugh. Maybe Conrad, because he was always writing about adventures. In more recent years: Pat Barker, Sarah Waters, Carmen Maria Machado, Anne Carsen, Sophie Mackintosh, Tim Winton. I try and read a lot of the Berlin-based authors as well because I’m obviously part of that scene. There’s such a great crop of writers coming through Berlin these days, like Saskia Vogel, Ben Fergusson, May-Lan Tan, Kate Naughton, Jane Flett, Elnathan John and so many others.
How did you end up founding The Reader?
I started it in 2011 doing a bit of manuscript assessment and teaching a workshop one evening a week in the cellar of Another Country, the second-hand bookshop in Kreuzberg.In my twenties I did a mixture of teaching English and care work. I had written a novel that had found an agent but hadn’t found a publisher so I came to Berlin and was teaching English part time and writing. I felt very disconnected. Facebook was really popular and it was really possible to connect with people. I set up a website and a Facebook page for The Reader and very quickly it established itself. I met all these other writers. It took off and I found other tutors who wanted to run poetry and scriptwriting, so soon we had a line up of a lot of evening courses. We were getting about 60 per cent native speakers but also a lot of people from Finland and Italy and Germany. Back then there were very few creative writing courses in Germany. We started running the Berlin Writing Prize. The timing was very lucky. In 2008, if you didn’t speak German, your choices for employment were being a tour guide or English language teacher. There wasn’t much else. That changed in 2010 with all of these start-ups and a whole wave of people who were quite creative and also quite willing to do creative writing courses, which maybe the older guard weren’t quite so keen on.
How has corona affected The Reader?
In the beginning everyone took a couple of months off and then we realised that it wasn’t going to end any time soon so we took our courses online. After a shaky start, all our course are full. We’ve got the same line-up, the same number of courses as before corona. I was terrified it was going to mean the end of the whole thing and I thought that would be a shame because I have met so many people through The Reader. We’ve had a few thousand people come through our courses. We were very lucky that we managed to do our writing retreat in Greece last October. We hope to be able to get back to in-person events soon.
Are you working on another novel?
Yes, I have a two-book deal. I’m supposed to deliver it in May and that’s not going to happen. I also do a bit of work for the relaxation app Calm. They do sleep stories and they’ve commissioned me to write one for a hot new young actor, Regé-Jean Page, the hero of the Netflix series Bridgerton. They’ve asked me to write a story that he’ll be lulling us to sleep with. The idea is that the stories are quite unexciting. They tend to be quite lyrical with lots of description.
So the idea is that you listen to the story and fall asleep half-way through?
Yes, they try to find actors who have melodious voices. I wasn’t a believer in the beginning, but if you’re very worried and your mind is going in circles and you’re stressing about something, and you listen to a story you can filter out some of that internal conversation. It’s been quite fun, actually.
So that’s what writers do these days – write for apps?
They’re the only people who’ve got any money! Recently someone was saying that Norman Mailer or somebody of that generation could make a living from two short stories a year. That’s not the case anymore, is it?
What are you looking forward to in post-pandemic Berlin?
A big boozy picnic by the Teufelsee with some friends. A cycle around Tempelhof and then dinner at Caligari, a little Italian restaurant in the Schillerkiez that I like. With lots of Campari spritz. A gig and then a good dance somewhere. Katerblau on the river in summer. Berghain beer garden. The garden at //:about blank.
Are you a Berlin lifer?
I don’t know. I feel like I’ve got a split personality. At my parents house in England I look out the window and it’s beautiful. In Berlin I live on Kottbusser Damn. When you step outside your house it’s just so grim. But especially in summer, Berlin feels like such a free city. I moved there because it was the city of possibilities. I do love it. Increasingly I go between the two. When I’m in one I can’t imagine living in the other.