Asked his idea of perfect happiness, David Bowie replied, "Reading." I couldn't agree more.
When best-selling novelist, Christopher Yates, invited me to breakfast at hipper-than-hip Atla in NYC to discuss his newest book, Grist Mill Road, I jumped at the chance.
Grist Mill Road tells the story of 3 friends--torn apart by a violent act. A 14-year-old boy (Matthew) shoots his 13-year-old crush (Hannah) 49 times with a BB gun, leaving her for dead. Nearby, their 12-year old friend (Patrick) watches, but fails to intervene. The book effortlessly weaves between present and past--detailing the events that lead up to that fateful day and how their lives as adults remain connected.
Over mao feng tea and chia seed pudding (so creamy and decadent I wanted to lick the bowl), Chris and I talked love & relationships, higher consciousness and gender roles in modern society.
1. You call Grist Mill Road a "love story." Many consider it a suspense thriller that ends tragically. Could you explain?
Grist Mill Road does end in tragedy (death), it’s true, but it also ends very strongly with love--the moment two people gave themselves to each other. For me, these are the two goalposts of life—love and death. One of them is immutable because, spoiler alert, we’re all going to die.
But my feeling at the end of Grist Mill Road (and this is just my own opinion, readers shouldn’t ever feel bound by the writer’s thoughts) is that there’s an expression of the idea that life, no matter when it ends, has been worth living if one has loved—properly loved. At the end of the novel, this is portrayed as romantic love, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be love for family, or love for a cause, a passion, a hobby, even. The quality of a life trumps its length.
2. You said that you originally based this book in the United Kingdom, but moved the setting to the USA. Why?
Three words: guns, guns and guns. I knew that this novel would begin with a BB gun and end with a real one. In the UK, we have seriously strict gun control laws that we tightened even further after a lone shooter killed numerous schoolchildren (Dunblane, 1996). In the United States, someone can snap and be the lawful owner of a lethal weapon thirty minutes later. This is very helpful for a novelist. Arguably, it is a less good thing for humanity.
3. I believe true love calls us to be better humans--for the sake of our relationships. How did each of your 3 main characters evolve in consciousness because of love for others?
Patrick is a lost soul—at the age of 12 he stood by while a terrible crime took place and he feels guilty in adulthood. He finds solace in devotion to his wife, caring for her, cooking for her most nights. As he states it in the novel “food does not have to be only sustenance, food can be love.”
Hannah is a harder case—she loves her husband, but when he sinks into depression, she finds herself all at sea and, not knowing how to help him, she withdraws into her work as a crime reporter, a job that she loves. (Oh, the sinuous nature of love.)
Matthew is an interesting case. Without spoiling anything, he has a complicated view of human sexuality, something summed up by his frequent invocation of the phrase “labels are for soup cans”. His love is the most tragic of all—for someone who might have but can’t love him back. Yet he devotes himself to this person. It’s his own personal form of redemption. Whether the reader accepts such redemption is entirely up to them. Matthew did something truly terrible when he was a teenager. Is that something we can ever forgive?
4. What traits in Hannah inspire such admiration (and bravery) from the men in her life?
There are many ways in which women are attractive to men, some of them more obvious than others. Hannah taps into one of the lesser known powers that a woman can have over a man—she relates to men as if she were one of them. And this is a superpower she can very much turn on and off because she’s not pseudo-masculine, quite the opposite, it’s just that she can play their games, joke their jokes and laugh their laughs. It’s not dissimilar to the allure to young men of a tomboy. What this says about the ludicrous nature of straight male posturing, I’ll leave alone for now.
5. Healthy love (grounded in higher consciousness) calls us to examine our childhood. We break unhealthy cycles passed down generationally, while retaining those traits that are positive. Your main character, Matthew, is the anti-hero who commits a heinous crime in the beginning of the novel. He grew up with a co-dependent mother and an abusive father. How did his childhood impact his ability to love? How did he reinvent himself and grow for love's sake?
Wow, I could write a completely new novel about this topic. Matthew is abused as a child and becomes a carer for someone he loves as an adult. I think Matthew would tell you that this is coincidental—but Matthew is furiously independent and would refuse any analysis of his choices as an adult. As he says in the novel “I won’t ever let another human being label me. I love who I love, that’s all there is to it.” Is he right? This is one of the things I love about literature—we all get to play amateur psychologist.
6. Your main character, Patrick, loses his job and suffers a crisis of identity. He becomes the "homemaker," cooking elaborate dinners for his wife. How does occupation (or being a provider) influence a man's identity? Do men (and women) benefit from an expanded conception of traditional gender roles? How can women positively influence men to step into their greatness, especially if they suffer after downsizing or job loss? How can women help men assume more domestic work, especially as if forces them to go against traditional gender norms?
So this is true of me—I am a homemaker who cooks elaborate dinners for his wife. She works full-time at a very demanding job. (OK, I also write a little.)
However, I wasn’t helped to this position by my wife—it’s just what I like to do and I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks about me in this regard. (I’ve been trolled about this—honestly, it made me laugh like a drain.)
This is certainly not to say that my wife hasn’t helped me. Quite the opposite—I wouldn’t have two novels under my belt were it not for my wife’s support. I don’t know, this is a really tough question—I think neither me nor my wife care one little bit about expected gender roles.
How do you convince a very traditional guy that non-traditional guy things might be worthwhile? I don’t know—you could find those non-traditional guy things attractive, alluring, or even sexy. Even traditional guys don’t live entirely in a testosterone vacuum. When it comes to cause and effect, women have to take responsibility for being part of the cause.
7. In today's world, it's important that we develop empathy for those who are suffering--including those who commit crime. Your book does an amazing job of expanding a reader's consciousness, as each character's childhood had profound influence on their behavior. Can you expound on this in relation to the characters? How can we expand our empathy for the complicated plight of many children who commit crime today?
I studied law for four years and qualified to be a barrister (those are the lawyers who wear those wigs in UK courtrooms), so hopefully I understand what a complicated area this is.
I believe in empathy for criminals, but I also believe incredibly strongly in empathy for victims and completely understand a desire for punishment.
Grist Mill Road begins with a terrible crime and the most common thing I hear from readers is that, at the beginning of the story, they can never imagine feeling sympathy for the person who commits this crime. And yet, the last third of the novel is devoted to explaining what led to this terrible, violent, seemingly senseless act of violence. How each individual reader responds to this is very much up to them—but I have been moved and grateful to learn that many readers have found their opinions changed by the last third of the book.
Criminal acts are rarely entirely black and white.
8. What are your thoughts (as a British expat) about dating and relationships in the United States?
Point number one: I know a lot of wonderful American men.
Point number two: I live in New York City and therefore see many, many dates-in-action when I’m out at restaurants. So I’m not sure why I don’t see more people like the wonderful American men I know on these dates. What I see are a lot of self-satisfied dude-like guys making absolutely no effort, sitting opposite tremendously attractive, tremendously strong women. These men are schlubby, effortless, charmless and seem somehow utterly entitled.
I know a number of whip-smart, hilarious, powerful American women who are single—I am constantly marveling at these women and wondering how they are still single. (I happen to know they don’t choose to be). I lived in London until I was in my mid-thirties and I swear if these women were in London they would be swarmed over by English men. Perhaps I should set up a trans-Atlantic dating agency.
Or, perhaps I’m just blinded by the fact that my wife is American, whip-smart, hilarious and powerful. After twenty years, I’m still besotted by her.
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Over the next coming months, I'll be interviewing thought-leaders on higher consciousness, boundaries, gender roles, and relationships. As School of Love NYC grows, I hope you'll come along for the ride.