- 03 Jun 21
Sue Rainsford discusses her apocalyptically-themed new novel Redder Days, transgressive fiction, and attending one of US literature’s most famous campuses, Bennington College.
Irish author Sue Rainsford has delivered one of the novels of the year in Redder Days, the gripping tale of two twins, Adam and Anna, who have been raised in a strange commune. As the novel opens, they are now the commune’s sole inhabitants, and together face into a looming apocalypse.
Complicating matters further are the threat of a deadly virus called Red; the psychological disintegration of the commune’s one-time leader Koan; and the spectral presence of the twins’ mother, Eula.
Reminiscent of authors like Cormac McCarthy and JG Ballard, Redder Days’ end-times atmosphere gives it uncomfortable resonances with the Covid era. Indeed, it’s been an unavoidable discussion point for Rainsford in her conversations about the book.
“A lot of people have asked me if I wrote it over the initial stages of lockdown,” she notes. “I was really flattered that people think I can turn around a 50,000 word manuscript in that amount of time! I actually sent the final version, bar a couple of tweaks, to my editor on March 14 last year. I was teaching at a couple of universities at the time, and later that evening was when we got the email saying, ‘Don’t come onto campus.’ In a weird way, I kind of felt like I’d sent a hex out into the world!”
Still, one wonders if there wasn’t something in the air over the past few years that contributed to Redder Days’ sense of foreboding. Certainly, given the international rise of the far-right and the growing threat of ecological disaster, there has been – literally – a shift in temperature.
“I was thinking about the slow, creeping terror,” says Sue. “I’m about to turn 33, and like you say, there’s been such a sense of change in communal psychology around the tenor of daily living. I suppose with the book, I was really interested in how we subconsciously work to normalise those sort of terrifying subtexts. One way or another, we have to normalise the fact that the planet is slowly expiring in order to get up and perform micro-actions!
“Obviously it’s pushed to extremes at different stages of the book, like the belief system that they fabricate. But I’m really interested in that process – normalising things as a coping mechanism, and the moment at which that becomes a pathology.”
Redder Days is Rainsford’s follow-up to her award-winning debut, Follow Me To Ground, and again demonstrates her ongoing fascination with visual art. In particular, the output of the late Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta was an influence on the story.
“I’ve been really fixated on her work,” explains Sue. “She came over to the USA through a political asylum process for children, and ended up in Iowa. Obviously, it was a big transition – she came over with her sister and the father was a political prisoner. She made this ongoing piece, the Silueta series, in America and Mexico.
“Essentially she would just go out into different landscapes, and would lie down and make an impression of her body. Right away, you have this visual methodology around the female archetype, women making a mark and so on. She would then fill the silhouette with pigment, or gunpowder, or she might set it alight. Also, she worked a lot with animal blood, which kind of links into an Afro-Caribbean religion she was influenced by. I was really interested in how her artwork functioned as transcripts of different kinds of experiences.
“I’m very interested in methods of expression that forego rational language, because of the types of expression those methods make available to people who’ve been othered by language.”
The extent of Rainsford’s engagement with visual art, and the ingenious ways she braids it into her stories, makes her a very unique writer – I can’t think of another author with a similar modus operandi.
“I know I’m not the only one working in such a manner, but I have not come across a novelist who cites visual art references in this way,” she says. “I would love to come across concrete examples that I could spend lots of time with. There are so many authors who I feel a strong kinship with, in terms of a literary treatment of visual references. For example, there’s someone like Bhanu Kapil, who has written about Ana Mendieta and her performance work – she just won a poetry prize.
“There are people like that, who are working in a space where literary and visual references overlap. I’d feel a strong connection with their work. But in terms of the actual practice – getting fixated on artwork by a particular artist, and getting fiction out of it – if you come across any examples, I’d love to know!”
Interestingly, the claustrophobic atmosphere of Redder Days gives it some of the feel of horror fiction, although Rainsford’s work isn’t often discussed in such terms.
“It’s something I resisted for quite a long time, and I don’t know why to be honest,” she says. “Because I consume so much horror film – I adore it. Even a film not technically in the realm of horror, like American Werewolf In London; I’m intrigued by the tactility of the makeup and the transformation. Also, Bram Stoker’s Dracula with Winona and Keanu – a couple of scenes in that would have had a big influence.”
Such reference points also fit in with the “body horror” aesthetic pioneered by cult Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg.
“I spent a lot of time reading about Cronenberg in this book The Monstrous-Feminine by Barbara Creed,” says Sue.
“It’s about psychoanalytic theory and the female body. One of the pieces she references is Cronenberg’s The Brood – again it’s the physicality. And I suppose the therapeutic effect of catharsis in your own body as a viewer, when you have this pitch of release in a safe space. All that stuff was really interesting.”
Amongst the many, many movies I viewed during lockdown last year, I rewatched Cronenberg’s 1983 masterpiece Videodrome. In its depiction of a world so media-saturated, images literally emerge from the TV and warp the sociopolitical landscape, it was a film radically ahead of its time. Still, Cronenberg’s transgressive treatment of sex and violence in Videodrome – and also Crash, his adaptation of Ballard’s dystopian novel about people sexually aroused by car crashes – is enough to prompt the dread question, “Would it get made today?”
At times, it feels like we’re currently experiencing a severe cultural regression.
“I was listening to an interview with the artist Garth Greenwell, whose book Cleanness just came out in paperback,” says Rainsford. “I was struggling with that concept and how to parse myself eloquently around it. He said, we have to set the bar so high for cancel culture – there has to be a very, very high standard of wilful offence before we’re just removing people from the conversation.
“Ultimately, I do feel that the more that’s seen as taboo or transgressive, the further back we’re going. Which is not to say that I don’t think that everybody should be feeling safe in as many places as possible.”
There is something we badly need to untangle in the culture – specifically, how an examination of a particular mode of behaviour, or world view, in a work of art is not an endorsement of it.
“We also need to maintain the sense that any artwork, whether it’s a novel or a film or whatever, is a place to work things out,” says Sue. “Sometimes now, there’s a biographical tendency, where you’re sort of conflating the maker with the perceived statement the piece is making, as opposed to it being an unresolved, open-ended question.
“It maybe leads to conversations and opinions, but it’s not a material opinion in and of itself. That’s something I find frustrating. It feels to me sometimes there are only so many opinions going around at the moment, and you have to make work that ultimately trickles through into one of those.
“I also think about that AM Holmes book The End Of Alice, which got such a huge backlash, although it was also lauded. But I went back and looked at some of the responses to that a little while ago. It’s not an incredibly old book, but some of the conversations that it got going… Even her justifications around it, where she said, ‘Art is the place where we spend time with these things.’ Like you say, I wonder how that would hold up if it was to come out later this year.”
In terms of her own academic background, Rainsford notably studied at Bennington, one of the most storied colleges in modern American literature. In particular, the campus’ ’80s era – when it was simultaneously attended by iconic authors Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt – has penetrated pop culture so deeply as to become lore. Of late, the young Ellis and Tartt have even inspired a couple of characters in the hit Netflix series Riverdale.
“It was because of a talk by Donna Tartt in Dun Laoghaire that I applied to Bennington,” says Rainsford. “I adore her, I’m an ardent fan, and will hit anyone over the head with The Goldfinch who says it didn’t deserve the Pulitzer. It was really a very, very special time at Bennington – it was a low residency, so I was going for predominantly two-week intervals in January and June.
“We’d be there in the height of summer and the height of winter, and all the long-suffering undergrads had to clear out of the dorms for the MFA students over the holidays. I only kind of clocked that halfway through. I was like, ‘Of course, where else would I be staying? Where do I think all these empty dorms are coming from?’
“Obviously, Shirley Jackson was rocking around there as well at one stage. I found it to be a really formative, lovely time.”
• Redder Days is out now, published by Doubleday.