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Interview with longlisted author Laura Cumming

Interview with longlisted author Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming talks about the challenges she faced when researching her mother's disappearance for her longlisted book, On Chapel Sands.

What does it feel like to be longlisted?

I feel elated, and honoured to be among such a company of writers and such a magnificent range of subjects. I want to read every single book on the list.

How did you research?

I had been trying to solve the mystery of my mother's life entirely in terms of words — letters, documents, diaries, certificates, all the usual ways. But one day I was looking through the family photograph album, a modest little book with tiny black-and-white shots from the 1920s and ’30s. I began to notice things I probably should have seen years before. There were no pictures of my mother before the age of 3, significantly, or after the age of 13; half the album was mysteriously empty. I began to think about who had taken the photographs, why my mother was always alone, never with her father or mother, and to re-examine what I knew about her life in light of these images (the book's a campaign to keep looking closer). And then in contrast to the miniature faces in the album, with all their clues, there was the vast history of what had happened on Chapel Sands itself, from Romans scavenging for edible seaweed to Tennyson's sea-walking, Second World War dogfights and the numerous disappearances that echo through the book. It is the tale of one person on a fraction of English coast that expands out to human experience all across the globe.

What obstacles did you face trying to piece together the puzzle of your mother’s disappearance? Were they investigative or personal?

The central obstacle was so vast and staggering that it becomes part of the book's subject - namely the iron silence maintained by a whole community for over eight decades. My mother had no idea who she really was, why she was kept indoors all the time, who took her from the beach, but everyone around her knew. And even after almost all of those involved had died, villagers still kept up the omertà. So I had to pierce through, and find out all the different motives for the collective silence. Personally, I had to lay aside some of the childhood tales my mother told me, which I cherished, in order to discover all the other sides to the story.

What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?

I am addicted to essays, the way non-fiction can take on the shape of a short story with great essayists from Sigmund Freud to Richard Feynman, Robert Hughes, Joan Didion, Vivian Gornick, Stephen Pinker. With a gun to my head, I would find it hard to choose between R L Stevenson, Arthur Danto and S J Perelman, but the real toss up would be between Anita Brookner's Soundings, on everything from art to the Scarsdale diet, and John Updike's miniature memoirs in Self-Consciousness.

What are you working on next?

Seeing things: I guess that's what it is about, from masterpieces of art to mirages, double takes and second sight, the way we picture the world.

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