Cheyne Walk
A conversation with Julia Sutton about her book A Sea of Straw

Q. How did you come to write about Salazar’s Portugal?

A I was working in my studio on some large abstract paintings, which played with and reflected on the notion of revolution. I was also re-reading Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago at the time. And during the second painting of the three I had to produce, I recalled that I had seen David Lean’s epic film of the same name, when I was in Lisbon in 1966. Also that the Portugal I had encountered then had been in a pre-revolutionary state. That I met people who suffered under the regime there, but who could tell me little and, later seemed to disappear. And that the Carnation Revolution had been forgotten. The third painting aborted, but by then I had begun to ‘see’ that there was a story in all this and that maybe I should try to write it.

I questioned whether it would still possible to write a great love story, the kind in which the conflicts of a society in transition are played out in the human heart, and moral constraints or outdated mores make relationship a struggle. And I immersed myself in reading about the politics of Portugal. Yuri and Lara’s supposed daughter Tanya, as played by Rita Tushingham, provided the image that led me eventually to the character of Jody. At first, Zé and Jody embodied for me the two sides to the social revolution of the sixties, expressed through fashion and pop music in the Anglo-Saxon countries and through politics and group activism among the European youth. And I got to know them as unique individuals only gradually through the many drafts of my novel.

Q. How did you go about researching your subject?

A. I devoured everything available at the time, written in English, on the Estado Novo in Portugal from its creation in 1933 until the Carnation Revolution of 1974. But I waited until I had a sense of where my story was heading before I revisited the country. I had guessed from studying maps, for instance, roughly whereabouts fugitives of the time might have crossed the border with Spain, if they did not want to head north. And on a walking trip in the foothills of the Serra de Săo Mamede, I found out by asking the locals that my guess had been right. At other times I stayed in Lisbon, where I could make use of archives or attempt to talk with army officers at their headquarters. And from where I could take a bus to Santarem or Peniche. The fortress at Peniche, which was a prison during the dictatorship, is now a museum that welcomes tourists and well worth a visit.

Q. The structure artfully balances and interweaves two timeframes: how did you decide on this method to tell your story?

A. I had long harboured the ambition to write in a way, which attempts to mirror the way we live and the way we recount our personal experiences to one other. Never content to live in one place or one time frame, we inwardly transport ourselves elsewhere, or back and forth in time. But what we do instinctively in telling our own stories, can be difficult to carry off in fiction, even if it is appropriate. So, as this was my first attempt at writing anything, I decided to keep the narrative chronological, beginning with the arrival of Jody in Zé’s life. But after seven drafts, and knowing that the structure still didn’t quite work, I had to cut the first eight chapters, and begin my story where the trouble started - on Jody’s return to England. And feed in the chapters of Jody and Zé’s time in Portugal through memories and letters. By the time I reached this decision I knew the sequence of events by heart, and so could let myself cut back and forth in a fairly natural manner.
The result added layers, giving me new perspectives and insights I hadn’t seen before. And for the first time it worked.

Q. What have been the influences on your writing?

A. Difficult to say. I started writing late, long after I had found my voice as a painter, and so my writing voice was there from the beginning.
Shelley must have been a huge influence, I think. While in Paris, I gave myself a year to read everything he wrote, and his works, especially Prometheus informed my painting for years. I also read most of Hardy while I was there, but I don’t think it was an influence, unless you think the fact my father read The Return of the Native to me as soon as I started school instilled in me a love of landscape settings.
Consciously though, Robbe-Grillet made me love the third person present. I love the voyeuristic tone of it and the way it lends itself to situating emotive content in objects, making dreamscapes out of action. And it lends itself so easily to cutting back and forth in time. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. I copied out whole chunks of it by hand before I wrote my novel. And Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender is the Night contains so much I wish I had written. Cormac Mc Carthy too, especially Suttree and The Crossing, influenced my short stories. It is easy to impose a Southern Gothic aesthetic on the English Fens.