I wrote Whether Violent or Natural in Bray, sitting at a tiny Ikea desk wedged into a 73-cm gap between the fridge and a masonry wall. I was renting a one-bed flat with my then-fiancé and, barring the exception of being occasionally polluted with the stench of raw sewage, it was grand. But its best feature by far was being handily located for the DART, which – given we moved in at the end of 2019 – quickly became immaterial.
For about nine months, I toiled away on a manuscript that wasn’t working – a sprawling fantasy that somehow contrived to be both esoteric and pedestrian at once, and that I absolutely hated. Even so, I couldn’t quite bring myself to set it aside. There was clearly something in it that intrigued me, but I didn’t know what it was. I rescoped, stripping away as many extraneous characters and plot points as possible, narrowing the setting to a single location. It was no good. Even with this distilled version, I couldn’t say what the story was about. I’d pace up and down the prom – after dark, when it was easier to maintain social distancing – trying to think of a solution, getting variously distracted by a chalk-white moon or how, on some nights, the border between sea and sky seemed to vanish entirely, the eastern vista turning into one vast black chasm.
Then something happened. I can’t describe it without sounding touched, but what it felt like was that I’d been smacking my head against a brick wall when it finally caved in. And just like that, there was my protagonist, Kit, waiting on the other side, wanting to know what had taken me so long.
Looking back, I can only suppose the result of having spent so long grappling with the text was that the salient themes got pushed down into my subconscious, and that I must’ve suddenly hit a point where I could write more instinctively. Whatever the case, Kit’s voice started coming through loud and clear, sentences spinning out into paragraphs, into pages, into chapters.
Even better – and somewhat more critically – Kit’s arrival also precipitated a revelation as to subject matter.
I had, for a long time, been interested in antibiotic resistance, not least because – at six weeks – I’d nearly died of an umbilical cord infection. A course of intravenous penicillin saved my life, but push the date just 60 years in either direction and it could’ve been a very different story. Too early, and antibiotics wouldn’t have yet been in use. Too late, and misuse and lack of funding might’ve rendered them ineffective. It’s a bleakly fascinating issue – showing humanity at its ingenious best and foolhardy worst – and though I’d always thought it would make good material, I didn’t know in what capacity until Kit came along. Then I had it: the story would be about two survivors in a world devastated by antimicrobial resistance and how their reality starts to crumble when a woman washes up on their island.
Once I knew what I was doing, everything was straightforward. I set myself a strict routine, hardly moving from my desk until I’d written my 2,000 words for the day. Then I’d stop – whether I wanted to or not – and take care of admin and emails, try to squeeze in some exercise, have dinner and go to bed, where I’d lie awake with Kit whispering in my ear, preparing me for what was to come the following day. I listened to David Bowie’s Blackstar on repeat while I worked, which helped me get into the right frame of mind. And if I ever got stuck, I’d turn to John Donne’s funeral sermon, ‘Death’s Duell’, which always put me right. I ended up taking my title and chapter headings from it, and I hope I managed to capture some of the unsettling metaphysical intensity that characterises both that text and Bowie’s final album.
Throughout, I kept the manuscript private: a secret between me and Kit. I didn’t show it to – or discuss it with – anyone. I needed all possible versions of it to exist simultaneously, and I knew that if I so much as talked through the plot, I’d fix it into a single, non-viable form and that would be that.
The first draft took no more than three months and I poured everything into it: our isolation, the grey walls of our flat, the wild expanse of the sea, the disconcertion of being back in a country I knew and loved but wasn’t my own, as much research as I could lay my hands on. Then I took a break to get married in the National Gallery – masked up and with only our immediate family in attendance, bubbled into their separate households – and after that to join my newly minted in-laws for Christmas in Sligo. I came back to the manuscript at the start of 2021 with fresh eyes and confirmed what I’d suspected: I’d written something right at the edge of my abilities. I asked my husband to have a read, just to make sure at least one other person could get through it, but I otherwise skipped the beta reading process. This betrays a certain arrogance on my part, a perhaps unfounded trust in my own critical skills. But it was also expedient. In the end, only one opinion would matter: that of my agent. Either it was a book he could sell or it wasn’t. No one else but him could tell me which.
Now I’m at the point of publication, I’ve had enough distance from the book to see several things I’d do differently, but I’m happy with it as a product of what I was capable of at the time. My only misgiving is Kit – in bringing this story to a wider audience, I can’t help but feel I’ve betrayed a confidence. I know: ridiculous. I hope, though, that others will enjoy Kit’s company as much as I have.
(c) Natasha Calder
Author photograph (c) Alex Krook
About Whether Violent or Natural:
Whether Violent or Natural is a darkly brilliant and twisted solo debut novel about secrets, lies – and strange revenge.
Years after complete antibiotic resistance has resulted in the loss of most human life on earth, Kit and Crevan eke out an existence on a remote island. Under a collapsing castle, they spend their days in an underground bunker packed with emergency stores, venturing out only at night. They are safe.
One evening a woman washes ashore, nearly drowned. Crevan wants to keep her alive, but Kit isn’t so sure.
The new arrival will implode Kit and Crevan’s world with dire and fatal consequences, churning up the waters of the past and unearthing secrets they have kept from each other and from themselves. Who is really in control – and what are they both capable of doing to protect their haven?
Gripping, treacherous and visceral, Whether Violent or Natural is an unforgettably dark and strikingly original work by a major new talent.
Order your copy online here.