Catherine Banner on writing, books and Brexit

the house at the edge of night catherine banner

As part of the biannual bibliothon challenge at the beginning of this month, I read Catherine Banner’s beautiful novel The House at the Edge of Night. You can find my full review by clicking here, but in short: I adored this book. It’s a slow and gentle novel, but totally absorbing; it swept me off my feet to the tiny island of Castellamare.

After reading the novel, I had the privilege of speaking to Catherine Banner about her writing process, her favourite The House at the Edge of Night characters, and even her thoughts on Brexit. Here’s what Banner had to say.

The book spans a whopping 95 years: is there a generation that you felt Castellamare, and the House at the Edge of Night bar, “belonged” to in particular?

There are two generations: Maria-Grazia’s and her granddaughter Maddalena’s. When I first began writing the book, a tension started to develop very quickly between the ways in which the different characters participated in history over the years: the male characters who were always busy taking part in recorded history – fighting in wars, acquiring property, marrying, making money – and the female characters whose story went largely unrecorded, in the official sense, but had become, for me, the central story of The House at the Edge of Night. Both Maria-Grazia and her granddaughter make sacrifices for the bar, lead it with great strength, and under their care it flourishes. It’s Maddalena, in the end, who despite the difficulties of the post-financial crisis world gives her grandmother hope for the bar’s future. So for me, these two generations are key to the bar’s survival, and the family’s, and the story’s. They keep everything going.

You’ve said that you were inspired to write this book because of the 2008 financial crisis, but then found more stories further back in history. How did you decide where to start?

What happened (luckily, or I might still be researching!) was that I found a very clear cut-off point in the history itself. The First World War is important in the book because it’s a time when another generation of young Europeans, a hundred years before my own, was forced to deal with the shockwaves of history from the outside world and with great changes which had happened as a result of the actions of previous generations. So to me, it felt very natural to begin my story with that conflict, because that felt like the beginning of one long chapter in Europe’s history – a chapter which changed forever the way that young people saw the world, in which the aftermath of two world wars was followed by greater prosperity, and which then drew to a close with the financial crisis and the long shadow that fell after it. There is some history in The House at the Edge of Night which goes further back than this, but it’s very much prehistory – family legend and myth. And there are some hints towards what might come after, but I wanted to leave that part of the story mostly open, because by the end I felt that I was chronicling a story which wasn’t yet finished, which was emerging as I wrote. That’s why I cut the story at 95 years, just short of a century – to leave that story purposely unfinished.

How did you find going from writing YA novels to The House at the Edge of Night? What was different and what felt the same?

I actually never expected to write a book like The House at the Edge of Night! I had written three young adult novels, but I was very young when I wrote them and I went on to do other things: I studied at university and worked as a teacher. By the time I had the idea for The House at the Edge of Night, I wasn’t writing any more. But the idea itself wouldn’t let me go – it became a preoccupation, even though I wasn’t sure I was the right person to write this book at all since I had only ever written young adult novels. But eventually I decided to try and write it. In many ways I was a debut novelist again when I was writing the book, having to define the process as I worked, like sweeping a torch over a darkened room. I had one great advantage, in that I knew that novels are messy and disordered during the writing process, that it’s just a matter of putting one word in front of the other, and that you should never abandon them at the moment of maximum chaos. Everything else I had to build again from the foundations, and although it was difficult I think the work is better for having been written in that position of uncertainty and exploration rather than from a position of surety and strength.

As a Brit living in Italy, how do you feel Brexit will affect emerging European writers?

I can’t see Brexit as anything less than a disaster for emerging writers, and for all outward-looking British artists and creatives. It’s true that some of literature can be placed neatly inside national boundaries, but much of it can’t, and shouldn’t be. Therefore British literature is also European literature, and world literature, and the more closed our borders get the harder it is for artists to break those borders – whether to obtain funding, to reach readers, to connect with other writers, or in practical terms to make a living from their work. My very favourite writer, the poet Derek Walcott, wrote that ‘The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself.’ I believe that writing must cross borders and divisions, and literature itself must be a continent which is as open and connected as possible. For a young writer like me, there is no option to leave Europe: I come from a mixed British-EU family; I research in one language and work in another; I work with seventeen separate European publishers, of which only one is based in the UK. As artists, when faced with divisions like these in the world that surrounds us, I think all we can do is take it upon ourselves to create a continent of literature which is as diverse and inclusive as possible – we need those connections more than ever in times like these.

The House at the Edge of Night is available to buy now — do it!!