Every Contact Leaves a Trace
Elanor Dymott’s tragic, stunning debut novel EVERY CONTACT LEAVES A TRACE has recently received two glowing reviews. Taylor Stevens, New York Times bestselling author of THE INFORMATIONIST, says, “[It is] coyly revealing [and] …dares us to ask how well we can ever know a loved one.” Likewise, New York Times bestselling author of HEARTBROKEN, Lisa Unger says, “Ms. Dymott doesn’t as much tell us a story as she casts us under a delicate but unbreakable spell.”
Hailed in England as “superb” (Observer) and “very, very engrossing” (Guardian), Elanor Dymott’s stunning debut tells the story of Alex, a solitary lawyer living in London. When Alex is reacquainted with Rachel, the beautiful woman he fell in love with at Oxford a decade earlier, the two are immediately drawn to each other again and quickly marry. But they have little time to enjoy their newfound happiness. One summer night on a visit to Oxford less than a year later, Rachel is brutally murdered, leaving Alex shattered by grief. He delves into the mystery surrounding her death, discovering in Rachel’s wake a tangled web of sex and jealousy, of would-be lovers and spiteful friends, of the poetry of Robert Browning, and of blackmail. Part murder mystery, part love story, EveryContact Leaves a Trace is an unforgettable debut that has earned comparisons to Ian McEwan, Donna Tartt, and Ford Madox Ford.
Where are you from? Tell us a little about yourself!
I was born in Chingola. My family was in Zambia because my father was a mining engineer. I grew up in lots of different places, including Ely, Nevada, and Denver, Colorado. In my teens I lived in Jakarta and I had stints at different schools in England. I have a British passport, but feel somehow suspended, still. Neither here nor there, in a way, though London is home for now. I studied literature at university and I worked in music, publishing, horticulture, PR (for 24 hours), as well as jobs as a waitress and a bartender. I was a commercial lawyer and then, for almost a decade, I wrote up stories from the Royal Courts of Justice in London, reporting cases from the High Court and the Court of Appeal for The Law Reports and The Times. Right now I am writing my second novel and playing jazz flute.
Tell us about your book? How did it get started?
My novel is a love story, and a book about grief, and a murder mystery. It’s about stories and the way we tell them, about poetry and language, and it’s about memory and how unreliable it can be. It’s about how when you know someone even a little, they can have an impact on you that will last forever, leaving their mark in ways you don’t realize until years afterwards. It’s about how people can damage those they claim to love the most and say afterwards that they were acting with the best of intentions.
The book’s German publisher, Kein&Aber, referred to it once as a ‘Love Thriller’ and I like that term a lot. I’d always had an idea of writing a murder mystery, having been hooked on them since I was a kid. But then in 2008, in my mid-thirties, I suffered the first of a series of losses which changed the way I saw the world. At that point, I had written only the two-page Prologue to Every Contact Leaves A Trace, and filed it away to write another time. I’d thought of it as a book I would come back to one day later in life for fun, as a straightforward murder mystery in the cast of TV crime dramas I’d been hooked on since my childhood. Instead, when I began to write the novel proper in 2009, I’d learned for myself that grief doesn’t come with neatly packaged answers. I wanted to explore that, and to have some fun while doing so by playing with the idea of a murder mystery, one of my all-time favourite things, and weaving other stories into it. In the end, Every Contact Leaves A Trace became a story about what it is like to love someone unconditionally, and then to lose them suddenly, so that your life falls to pieces and you have to try to put it back together again.
How do you create your characters?
First there’s creating and then there’s shaping. I let the creating happen for itself. It takes a long time, and I don’t have a particularly systematic understanding of it. I once read an interview with a brilliant writer whose work I admire. He said he uses questionnaires for his characters, so that he knows everything about the way they think and live before he starts. I tend to wait until mine show up in a dream, or interrupt me while I am thinking about something else and keep interrupting me, so that eventually I can’t ignore them and have to write their story.
How I shape my characters is a different thing altogether, and I do that through reading. I read all the time, as many of the classics as possible and as much contemporary fiction as I have time for, and I study the things that people say about how they do it. I’ve noted gold-dust tricks and tips from what James Wood and E M Forster have written about character, and Ford Madox Ford as well, who wrote that a character should emerge in much in the same way as you get to know someone in the golf club: gradually, that is, so you move back and forth across a life, and so your idea of a person builds slowly, accidentally, randomly, unevenly.
Going back to source is really important, as is continually re-reading those sources. The jazz musicians I work with do this, learning by heart the improvised solos of jazz legends and isolating phrases and absorbing them so that they come out in their own playing, and I think that’s a nice comparator for what writers do too. I’ve combed through Tolstoy and Meloy, Seth and Shakespeare, Flaubert and Foulds and Sedaris, trying to work out how it’s done. Their codes are not for the breaking, but any attempt to crack them will provide opportunities for larceny on a grand scale and is therefore worth it.
What inspires and what got you started in writing?
These are some of the things I’m inspired by: People attempting to communicate, and failing; being human, and all of the confusion and fear and excitement that that involves; sea swimming; dawn starts on a mountain; hot porridge and cinnamon; travelling on public transport; not travelling on public transport; Youtube footage of Joe Montana in action; and recently, a cat called Pichu, Chickweed Wintergreen by Harry Martinson and I Got A Name by Jim Croce.
What got me started? My parents, who taught me to read and told me stories and told me as well that it’s never a good idea to assume anyone means what they say, or to believe what you see in front of you, or to take anything for granted.
Where do you write? Is there something you need in order to write (music, drinks?)
I wrote one of the chapters in Every Contact Leaves A Trace while on a train between Oxford and London. I write big chunks of things in my study in London, and I write in cafés, in museums, on planes, in bed, at breakfast, in the queue at the train station, on beaches, in parks, on receipts, in notebooks, on my hand. The chapter on that train journey was written on a cardboard box, since that was all I had with me at the time, having left my notebook in my rucksack, under a pile of suitcases.
I came to depend on yoghurt-coated-cranberries while writing Every Contact Leaves A Trace Part I, but that was just a phase. Food got to be a bit of a problem while I was writing Part II in the summer of 2010, until a good friend of mine who is a chef, Florence Dollé, came by and found only Weetabix in my kitchen. Not only is she a chef but she’s also French, so she refused to condone the situation. From then on she took over my kitchen once a week, until the book was done. We agreed terms and she cooked me menus that fed into the book and were planned to fit whatever I was tackling on any given week. She chose her ingredients according to whether I was plot-crunching or having to pour out some sadness on the page, and her cooking got me through the book, big time.
I listen to music while I write. Most of it is classical, or jazz, or music from movies, but in the closing stages of editing I found I needed to play Forever Now by Level 42 on repeat day and night.
For my new book, I’m liking a quiet room. Chai tea is a constant right now, and occasional visits to Florence’s kitchen help. She’s making amazing spelt bread these days, and a killer chicken liver pate that she won’t reveal the ingredients for, though I’m still asking.
How do you get your ideas for writing?
From things people say to me, or to one another. From my friends and the stories they tell me about their lives. From reading the newspaper and watching movies and TV and listening to the radio and seeing plays and reading books. From case law, from opera plots and the words of jazz standards, and from other places.
What do you like to read?
Right now I am reading: Macbeth; The Tempest; King Lear; Jonathan Bate’s Soul of the Age, A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare; Harry Martinson’s Chickweed Wintergreen (Selected Poetry, translated by Robin Fulton); Photography: A Cultural History by Mary Warner Marien; Don McCullin (A Jonathan Cape book of his photographs); Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel; Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen, A Life in Small Things; Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light (especially the poem, Signs on a White Field, which I keep coming back to), and One Secret Thing by Sharon Olds. This morning I just finished A Life with Books by Julian Barnes, and Ismail Kadare’s The Ghost Rider (Canongate), which was really amazing. I’m dipping back into and noting up Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels and Andrew Miller’s Pure.
What would your advice to be for authors or aspiring in regards to writing?
I have a book of interviews with Lee Konitz (Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art, by Andy Hamilton.) He is pictured in a t-shirt with the word, ‘LISTEN’ written across the front in capitals.
The equivalent t-shirt for writers would say, ‘READ.’
Anything else you’d like to share?
I copy things out sometimes and stick them up on my kitchen cupboards. One of them, which I copied out and stuck there this week, is from a piece by Elif Batuman in n+1 (Short Story and Novel, American Writing Today, June 2006):
‘Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things. Dear young writers, write with dignity, not in guilt. How you write is how you will be read.’