I’m thrilled to welcome author Tara Guha today to talk about her debut novel. Untouchable Things is an excellent if unsettling psychological thriller about a disparate group of people brought together by an enigmatic host who stages themed soirées for them all. It was the winner of the Luke Bitmead Bursary in 2014 and is published by Legend Press.
Hello, Tara, lovely to have you here!
Hello and lovely to be here!
Untouchable Things is such a great ensemble piece about these people, who meet as the Friday Folly: but can you tell me where it all started? Was it with an idea you wanted to explore or did one or more of the characters pop up, demanding that their story be told?
I think the idea and the character of Seth arrived hand in hand and are in a sense two sides of the same coin. I wanted to examine the impact of a highly charismatic person on a group of people, and through that explore the workings of groups themselves. What parts of myself do I need to hide to be accepted into a group? How far would I compromise my own values to remain in a group? So I suppose the true answer is that the idea was the driving force, and Seth the means of executing it.
In many ways, it feels as if Seth auditions each member of the Friday Folly, but how did you assemble your cast of characters?
Hmmm, it’s almost ten years since I started writing Untouchable Things and I’ve lived with these characters for so long it’s hard to remember that somewhere along the line I imagined them into existence! Rebecca came along very early, as did Michael: one character who is glad to get swept into Seth’s orbit, and another who struggles hard against it. Almost all the characters started with a predominant character trait, and from that I fleshed out their backstory and worked out how hard I could push them. Lots of people ask me if the characters are drawn from life; the answer is that there is some of me in almost all of them (Jake perhaps being the exception), along with a mish-mash of character traits I’ve encountered over the years – and a healthy dollop of imagination.
One of your characters, Rebecca, is an up-and-coming actress on the stage when the novel opens, and indeed the whole book has a theatrical feel to it with the performances that the Friday Folly put on for each other’s benefit, the way in which they are all stage-managed, even down to the way in which the book is structured, divided as it is into acts and scenes. And then there’s the Ancient Greek mythology underpinning it all. Did you see the novel in this way from the outset or is it something that was more organic and which came about as you wrote the book?
I always knew that I wanted the book to begin and end in a theatre, but in the first draft I stuck to a pretty conventional narrative in between. Then I realised I could push the theatrical concept quite a bit further, integrate it into the book’s style and structure, and I started to get excited. So yes, the whole thing developed quite organically, resulting in acts and scenes rather than chapters, sections of stage dialogue, and the reader at times becoming audience and voyeur. Some of these devices had practical as well as artistic benefits – so with a large cast of characters, stage dialogue can help to up the pace and create a sense of quick-fire conversation and repartee.
Rebecca takes part in a play which is performed as theatre in the round and that’s what reading Untouchable Things felt like to me: there’s an immediacy to it with each character telling the story from their point of view. The reader’s right there in the midst of things, no matter who’s ‘on stage’ at any one time. That’s a difficult balancing act with so many people’s voices and threads to manage, how did you approach writing it? Did you write it chronologically or piece it together later?
I love that image – thank you! It was incredibly difficult managing so many characters, and making it manageable for the reader. Reading books on structure didn’t help: I’d be advised to do a timeline and story arc for character A, and “then repeat for character B if necessary.” In my case there were characters C, D, E, F, G and H waiting in the wings too! I knew that I wanted each character to be fully rounded with their own motivations and development – I didn’t want any cardboard cut-outs to fulfil plot demands. In order to fully explore groups I also needed the reader to experience each character in their own point of view, in the point of view of other characters, and in terms of their role in the group. As a debut novelist I really couldn’t have made it much harder for myself! In the end I wrote a large chunk of the main action chronologically and then worked character by character, weaving each of their narratives through the story and then together. It took a long time…
There’s a real sense of this group being all consuming, even incestuous. It seems to demand more and more of the members’ time and sub-groups meet up in between their official get togethers. It was fascinating to watch how much the group came to mean to some of its members, how it impacted the rest of their lives, and how others kept going along to meetings even when things were upsetting them. Was this a look at the sheep mentality we can all be susceptible to at times or simply something that was in keeping with the oedipal theme in the book?
I think what I was trying to draw out is that the Friday Folly and particularly Seth became like an addiction for most of the characters, plugging a gap inside which Seth had illuminated for each of them. Like any addiction, the bad in the end starts to outweigh the good. But how easy is it to go cold turkey?
I loved the real sense of moral ambiguity in Untouchable Things with each character having talent and strengths but also their share of weakness and failings, and the book shows how these can both be a good thing and be encouraged and supported while also leaving us susceptible to being exploited because of them or misapplying them ourselves. Was this important to you in making the novel work and something that you wanted to explore in Untouchable Things?
Moral ambiguity is at the heart of the book and starts with Seth himself. His charisma draws people in, energises them, feeds them; he can be incredibly generous, perceptive and he makes things happen. Then there’s the flip side, which starts to dominate. He sees into the others, offers them connection and even salvation, and then when they are completely dependent on him, he withdraws. Their desperation for his attention, his presence, drives them to the extremes of their being and what they are capable of.
Untouchable Things also takes a look at the pasts of the characters with these informing how they are as grown-ups, and which for some has caused lasting damage. It’s up to us how we deal with that and how that damage manifests itself but did you play with different scenarios and outcomes for your characters while writing, or did you know where you were taking them from the outset?
I “met” the characters in a particular moment of time, the point when the novel opens. For a while I explored them in their present. Then I went back to find out more about their back story – and some of what I “discovered” surprised and even shocked me. And yet it all felt congruent and in keeping with where they were now. That understanding then informed how the characters would react to events and where they would end up. The only character’s outcome I played with was Seth’s, and that was the crucial one. Once I had his nailed down, the rest just followed.
Finally, if you’d been invited to join the Friday Folly, would you have gone along to meet them, and if so, what would you have taken to perform?
What a great question! It’s quite unsettled me to answer it. The answer is a resounding “yes” – I know I couldn’t resist an invitation like that, whatever misgivings I might have. If I’d been confronted with the same theme as the first Friday Folly of the book, I would have chosen to sing and play a Kate Bush song at that wonderful piano – a song called Feel It, from her first album, The Kick Inside. The lyrics are suitably explicit and the song has an erotic charge that would have blown most of their minds – especially Seth’s, with his ignorance of any music beyond classical. It would have certainly given them all something to think about.
Today’s the last stop on Tara’s blog tour for Untouchable Things but be sure to visit them all. Here’s the blog tour schedule: