MIRROR WATER: Can you introduce us to Will This House Last Forever?
XANTHI BARKER: I wanted to write about the experience of grieving for someone who you have very strong and very mixed feelings about. Will This House Last Forever? is about my relationship with my dad, who left when I was a baby. He was a poet, hugely intelligent, and this magical presence and a real playfulness when I was with him though I didn’t see him much. I was kind of in awe of him and in some ways we were close but he often let me down. He died when I was 25 and so the book is also about caring for him while he was dying and trying to work out our relationship. It’s also about alcoholism and eating disorders and growing up with a single mum too.
MW: Your book presents grief as a process, in all of its unfinished-ness. Did this grief make the book hard to write (or finish)?
XB: Unfinished-ness is a good word for it because the grief process is never really finished. You think you’re not grieving anymore and then a few years later you realise that everything you were doing was still done out of grief. The first chapter is all about thinking my dad’s not dead, and while I was writing that I was still convinced that he wasn’t dead. I thought I was writing some kind of philosophical proof, that people would finally believe me. But by the time I reached the end of the book it felt like he was really gone. Maybe writing it was the final stage of grief.
MW: What is it like for the people in your life to read something so personal?
XB: My brother said I’d solidified his memories of our dad. My dad’s sister said she felt that she had her brother back, that he came back to life for her while she was reading it, which meant a lot to me.
It was probably hardest for my mum because she is most implicated in it. I think the emotions were too raw, though. I wanted to write it for her because it’s her story as well. In a lot of my dad’s obituaries our family was written out, or conflated with his previous marriage — it felt like confirmation of our rejection from his life. But my parents’ relationship was such a romantic, beautiful story and I didn’t want it to be lost. I think readers will sympathise with her. She did everything for us with no one else to help, living alone with two small babies, on benefits in all the deprivations of those conditions and completely heartbroken. (Xanthi looks over to her phone which is ringing) It’s my mum! She knows we’re talking about her!
My boyfriend was upset the first time he read the book. He read it one morning and then he came to my work because he wanted to see me straight away. When you meet someone in the time after events like this they don’t always know the whole story so reading the book meant he could understand things about me in a way he might not otherwise have been able to do.
MW: Have you always wanted to write? Can you tell us about some of your earliest writing?
XB: I was one of those children who wanted to write stories all the time. Maybe because my dad was a writer and I wanted to be closer to him, to be part of his world. My mum took me to a creative writing class where you make a little book over a few weeks. But I think I shocked everyone because I wrote about a dog who convinced a woman to marry him and then he ate her on their wedding day.
Another time—I think I was 9 or 10—I had a teacher who would get us to meditate before writing poetry, which is something I still think is useful. You relax your muscles, follow certain visualisations, and then write about what comes to you. I wrote a poem about how I hated my stepdad. The teachers took me aside to see if I was okay and one of them asked me if they could publish it anonymously in the school magazine, which caused a lot of upset in the end. I can still remember it: ‘We were fine / until you came along / like a tyrannosaurus rex’. I was so pleased to have made something out of my fury, I can still remember the feeling.
My mum, my brother, and I were living on benefits with a flat falling apart, no money to replace anything, things like that. And then, in the background of that, we would go and see my dad and—though he wasn’t living in luxury either, by any means—but he would always be making something, or painting something, and showing us how to do it too. I think a parent who is seen rarely is always able to uphold an image of freedom and fun and excitement more easily, for obvious reasons, but he really instilled in me a sense of wonder. There was a manuscript of his that was tied together with string, a metre long on his shelf. That poem came out when I was little and was part of the reason that my parents split up, because he was so obsessed with it. But that manuscript fascinated me, that you could write something on that many pieces of paper, with that many iterations. There was this idea that you can be a poet as a way of living — not that it was a job, necessarily, but that it was a particular way of being alive.
MW: Are you writing at the moment? MW: When you’re not writing, what is your preferred way to rest and recuperate? XB: Drink loads of water. Have a shower. Put really soft clothes on. Lie down in the perfect temperature with the window open and a blanket. And read something gripping. I was feeling bad recently so I did this and reread Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. The emotional dynamics in it feel so overpowering and so cleansing. Everything is in those books.
XB: I’m trying to write a novel, or something like a novel. I had a baby just before lockdown which has changed my creative process quite a bit, so I’ve been collecting fragments written in moments stolen during nap times, mostly on my phone. At the moment I’m trying to arrange it into a cohesive narrative — fiction based around birth trauma, sexual assault and the effects of loneliness and isolation on memory.
MW: Are you writing at the moment?
MW: When you’re not writing, what is your preferred way to rest and recuperate?
XB: Drink loads of water. Have a shower. Put really soft clothes on. Lie down in the perfect temperature with the window open and a blanket. And read something gripping. I was feeling bad recently so I did this and reread Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. The emotional dynamics in it feel so overpowering and so cleansing. Everything is in those books.