DCSIMG

An interview with an author of a dark debut about not so ordinary farming folk

LANKENSTEIN, THEY CALL HIM. He's 17, clearly disturbed, expelled from school after a girl claimed he had tried to rape her. So he works on the farm bordering the Yorkshire Moors, where his brutal father and silent mother try to keep their only son out of trouble.

You know they won't succeed, because dysfunctional protagonists in first novels have a tendency to tear the world down around them. And with Lankenstein – or to give him his proper name, Sam Marsdyke, the defiantly unreliable narrator of Ross Raisin's debut, God's Own Country – you know you might not have to wait for long.

Or, in fact, at all. By page two, he has ambushed a group of ramblers with a flurry of excrement-covered rocks; soon, he will be welcoming his new neighbours, a yuppie family up from the south, with a bowl of maggoty mushrooms. And though he says he didn't really mean to do it, you don't exactly believe him. Because Marsdyke hates the "towns", as he calls the rich incomers, just as he loathes the nature-loving ramblers who come up from the city to admire the views, with their Thermos flasks and picnics and pink bobble-hats.

What separates Raisin from many other 27-year-old first-time novelists is the skilful way he takes us inside Marsdyke's mind. His hates are contextualised in the slow smothering of the old ways he sees all around him: the village pub facing yuppiefication to cater for a Pinot Grigio-swilling clientele, the butcher's shop closing, bankrupt farmers selling up to second-homers, all add to his feelings of resentment.

But it's the thought-language Raisin gives to Marsdyke that marks out his skill as a writer. It's not just the subtle way in which he sifts his own, new-coined words with Yorkshire dialect so that you can hardly tell which is which (you try: beltenger, raggald, nimrods, jarped, blashy, gomerils, powfagged, fratchen, yonderly, tantle, blutherment, snitter), although that is impressive enough. But if the vocabulary pulls us further into Masdyke's darkening mind, so too does the randomness of his thoughts, the way Raisin allows them to eddy in daydreams and conversations with animals and inanimate objects before rejoining the main narrative current.

All this adds up to a strikingly assured debut that has already attracted praise from both Colm Toibin and JM Coetzee. In person, when we meet at his London publishers, he is perfectly affable but less sure of his answers – which, as this is his first interview, he's allowed to be.

He was born in Keighley and grew up on Silsden Moor, which is what Ilkley Moor becomes when you head towards Bradford, where he went to school. After university in London, he was a trainee wine bar manager before taking a post-graduate degree in creative writing at Goldsmith's College. It was there that he started working on a novel, the outline for which emerged one Sunday about five years ago as he and his girlfriend, a freelance theatre director brought up near the North Yorkshire Moors, talked about what would make a good subject.

"It started with the character – someone who didn't fit in and was ostracised and had a bad reputation. Then I thought about writing about farmers because you don't get too many books about them."

Were there any there signs of yuppification in the villages near Silden Moor? I ask. "I suppose so," he says, as though he'd just realised it.

"My parents bought a dilapidated farmhouse high up on the moor and gradually did it up. That was the house I grew up in. I think it took decades before local farmers were on friendly terms with them. The people who have moved in now, I hear, commute to Manchester and don't make any effort to engage with the local community. They've added things to the house and made it almost unrecognisable. So I suppose they were the kind of people I had in mind. But what liberated me in writing this was that I wasn't writing from experience: I was doing research into subjects I don't know anything about – like mental illness and farming."

He's not, he says, an easy, fluent writer. Although the voice for Marsdyke was fairly steady from the start, he says, there was never a moment when he felt the writing poured effortlessly out of him. "I'm never fluid and wish that I was and that I could enjoy it more. I do enjoy writing, but it's tough and I'm always deeply envious whenever I hear writers talk about how they can get up in a morning and words pour out of them."

His next novel, he says, will be about a homeless man and begin with his death on the streets before looping back to look at his Glasgow childhood. "I haven't found the novel's voice yet, or the way to make it more human, but I have started research up in Scotland."

If God's Own Country is anything to go by, it will be worth the effort. Both yours and his.

&#149 God's Own Country by Ross Raisin is published by Viking, priced 16.99.

 
 
 

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