“I wanted the novel to feel haunted by the prospect of hope, without it ever being secured”: an interview with Naomi Booth

Naomi Booth is a Bradford-born writer and academic. Her fiction explores unsettling landscapes, strange compulsions, dangerous bodies and contamination. Her debut novel, Sealed, explored pregnancy and body mutations and was shortlisted for the Not the Booker Award. In September 2020, Booth published her second novel, Exit Management (Dead Ink), which dissects Britain’s class divide, its relationship to capitalism and the manifestation of trauma within the stifling landscape of London.

Zoë Turner interviews Naomi about her new book, the intersection of womanhood and femininity within its themes and whether or not the story, full of anxiety and insecurity, offers us any hope for the future.

One of your protagonists in Exit Management, Lauren, is running away from her past life in Dewsbury: one of trauma and dead ends. In London, she has risen through the ranks of professionalism and dreams of wealth, stability and status which are overarchingly symbolised in the book by unattainable property. To achieve such a lifestyle, Lauren feels the need to sanitise and perfect herself. Her body, when pursuing a man who she believes is well-off, is described as “a laminate of hot virtual encounters: photos, videos, porn sites.” When she has moved into what she believed to be his house, her appearance is attuned to that of its rooms: “In the dark kitchen window, her cheekbones glisten along with the glasses and the sparkling cutlery on the table.” What are you trying to determine about the intersection between femininity and class in the novel?

One of the things I’m interested in doing in Exit Management is a kind of behind the scenes look at certain aspects of the staging of luxury. Lauren is a character who is completely in thrall to luxury — both in consuming it by finding a way to ‘move up’ in the world, and through producing herself as a kind of luxury feminine item. She has discovered what she thinks of as the ‘dark art’ of beauty rituals early in her life as a way to transform damage into ambition and gorgeousness. She’s building her ‘erotic capital’ as a means of personal escape, but this is a risky business: in the later stages of the novel she’s experiencing some extreme forms of alienation and her own reflection becomes part of a kind haunting.

There are reoccurring images of waste returning: the smell of a hidden landfill on a hot day, a broken condom lost somewhere inside Lauren, the remnants of a miscarriage defrosting. Were you conscious of climate anxiety and sexual/bodily trauma colliding in this way and how do you think the two things speak to one another?

Yes, those images of abjection and decay are really important to the novel. I see Lauren as a character who is desperately trying to seal herself off from damage and corrosion in the world — trying to repress violence and losses over which she has no control. But it’s a losing battle: those abject objects haunt her, and she’s dogged by both the things that have been done to her and the ways that she’s damaging the world in turn through her own acts of violence, and her complicity in larger systems of destruction.

One way the novel poses this, I hope, is the question about what’s alive and what isn’t. Supposedly dead or inanimate objects recurrently come to life in the novel, and I hope that speaks to the idea of a kind of malevolent aliveness of the past — including the material waste that we might try to forget about. The novel tries to dramatise the idea that we’re unable (in the long evening of late capitalism) to dispose of anything safely or cleanly.

She’s desperately attempting to believe in personal achievement and meritocracy, because it offers the idea of an escape for her

There is a tension between Lauren’s “You’ve got to take care of yourself” attitude inherited from her Nan – a stance that justifies her in her dismissal of her sister and mother and the help they might need from her, one that elevates herself above them because she seemingly has all her problems under control while they continue to struggle – and her dependence on Cal to reach what she deems as fulfilment. Why do you think that is?

I guess this highlights the inherent contradiction in her way of thinking about being in the world: she’s focused on the idea of self-reliance, and has had to be to survive certain things that have happened to her. She’s desperately attempting to believe in personal achievement and meritocracy, because it offers the idea of an escape for her — both in terms of her own hope of social mobility, and in allowing her to limit her guilt about those she’s left behind. But it’s a chance encounter with Callum that gives her the opportunity to finally seize what she wants. I think she’s a deeply lonely character, with a kind of tragic grandeur.

The way that Lauren cares for others, when she does, seems to be with resentment, but Cal is genuinely driven by caring responsibilities: for József, for his mother, for the sick and the elderly. Were you aware of a subversion of stereotypical gender roles when writing these characters?

I definitely wanted to explore a relationship between two men that was marked by tenderness, care and interdependency, and also to think about Cal as someone who feels a lot about other people in a way that makes it difficult for him to get on in the world: he struggles with uncertainty and anxiety, and with his own desire to care for others. Lauren characterises his attention to suffering as morbid. I’m trying to explore how gender intersects with care and violence in both of their characters.

One question the novel seeks to ask is what sort of a relationship we can and should have to the past, both intimately and collectively and I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to that

Tell us a little bit about the significance of József in Cal’s life: is his past romanticised by Cal because it’s so separate to his own? Did Cal need another male figure to aspire to (he and Lauren’s relationship being first built on the lie that József is his father) and what does he learn from his presence and, later on, his absence?

Cal is interested in history he’s dropped out of a history degree and yes, I think there is a certain amount of romanticising and idolising that goes on in his relationship with József. József was born in war-torn Budapest, where Nazi fascism was literally battling with Soviet communism. And he then fled to the West. József lived in direct contact with some of the biggest political forces of the 20th century. Cal is fascinated by this, and feels his life to be static and ahistorical by comparison. He experiences himself as uncontextualised, I think, and wants that bigger context. There’s definitely a kind of romance to the way József relates his life: I see him as a kind of narrator of historical fiction, building his life story through anecdote. József is a performer, a consummate raconteur, and he loves having Cal as an audience. But the narrative never gives access to József’s interior thoughts, and Cal is always construing him to some extent, building him as a figure partly constructed through fantasy.

In the immediate aftermath of József’s death, Cal is stunned, and there is, I hope, a sense of how much of József’s life has actually been inaccessible to him. But Callum wants to keep a sense of József with him: he accumulates loss, rather than denying it, as Lauren tries to. I suppose that could make him a kind of ruin gazer. One question the novel seeks to ask is what sort of a relationship we can and should have to the past, both intimately and collectively and I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to that.

Lauren is aware of her own hypocrisy when confronted with blatant “grubby” racism back home in Dewsbury where there has been “no progress”, she tells herself not to think about the quieter versions of the same system in the City: “Isn’t the City proof of progress?… Just as long as you don’t think about who cleans the toilets.” How does Lauren’s being white intersect with the rest of her character? 

Lauren performs a certain kind of white thinking that is very familiar to me: intellectually, she doesn’t want to live in a racist world, but she also doesn’t want to think very hard about how racist-capitalist structures operate and how she might benefit from them. Thinking hard about these things is too compromising for her. She’d like to think that she’s done her bit: she’s been an “equality champion” in her workplace, for example. She’d like this action to mean that she doesn’t have to think about racism anymore. In particular, she’d like to separate herself from the explicit forms of racism she encountered where she grew up. Fundamentally, I see Lauren as a character who turns away from suffering who tries to deny it, or to think that it can be dealt with quickly and cleanly. That she can exit from it if she just follows the right sequence of steps. She rejects what might be the long, messy, lifelong process of thinking about the damage that’s been done to her and the damage that she’s doing in the world. Her whiteness is part of how she sustains violent modes of denial. By the end of the novel, I think there’s a sense that this denial can’t be sustained for much longer.

I think to be too despairing and or too hopeful is to live without really acknowledging the possibility of the future as unwritten

There is only one tiny moment when Lauren imagines a baby in her future. Does she want to be a mother?

I think that moment when she imagines the baby, and when she talks about having a family,  is part of the impossible fantasy of the house that she hopes to own, and of a life that she hopes to live in which there is no suffering and no desire. She conceptualises motherhood in the absence of a real infant. That moment when she imagines a baby in a nursery, she imagines a child without any needs, which I think is a violent fantasy: it’s a kind of wish that she herself could be a child without any needs, and that she could mother an infant that needed nothing, that was born self-sufficient. It’s a vision of motherhood as an erasure of need.

The novel ends with a line that Cal repeats to himself often, something that József would say: “You’re alive. You’re alive, aren’t you? So there is hope.” But I don’t know how much either of the protagonists believe this. To me, it reads like weary desperation. Do you think there is hope?

I think there is hope, though (to misquote Kafka) perhaps not for them. The final lines of Exit Management feel ghostly to me. It’s not clear in the narrative who is thinking/speaking here, and I wanted the novel to feel haunted by the prospect of hope, without it ever being secured. It was also important to me that József’s voice was heard again at the end. I often come back in my own thinking to the power of the final paragraph of Wuthering Heights: the narrator, under a “benign sky”, looks at the graves of Edgar Linton and Heathcliff and watches “the moths fluttering among the heath and the harebells … and [I] wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.” Brontë’s novel has been about just that ‘unquietness’, so this final conjuring of quiet is, I think, really eerie. I wanted to try to do something similar here, in that József’s former optimism, and the way Cal clings to it, rings out here in a strange way. One of the big questions for me in writing is always about finding the right balance between hope and despair at the end of a narrative. I think to be too despairing and or too hopeful is to live without really acknowledging the possibility of the future as unwritten. I’d like to think (or hope) that the ending holds open different possibilities.

Exit Management by Naomi Booth is published by Dead Ink Books and is out now in paperback.

There are two images in this piece. The first is an author image of Naomi Booth, used with permission, courtesy of Dead Ink Books. This shows a smiling white woman with red hair against the background of a snowy field. The cover of the book is also featured. This shows a red house with windows and a door, and the author name and book title.