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Caroline Spalding
Features Correspondent
7:20 PM 4th December 2020
arts

Interview: Natasha Randall - Author of Love Orange

Natasha Randall
Natasha Randall
Love Orange is the debut novel from the acclaimed translator of Russian literature, Natasha Randall, and it is one that adds a new, dystopian perspective on the fragility of modern life - the roles we assign to ourselves, and those to which we are assigned.

The pervasive nature of technology and the impact it may have is an underlying theme of the book, and indeed acted as a catalyst for the novel’s creation. Natasha is concerned by the “fragmentation of (the) lived experience” and is still “trying to understand how to live this new life, half-lived on the internet”. She isn’t alone in her mistrust of technology, and its effect, intended or otherwise, on the fabric of our society. She wanted to explore its influence on “the most typical and traditional small unit we still have” – that is, on the nuclear family.

Extending the analogy, if we view the nuclear family as a type of machine, the influence of technology could be akin to a fault spreading through the machine’s inner parts. What then happens when the impact reaches the smallest of cogs, like Jenny, one of the central characters in Love Orange? She sees herself as only “‘semi-useful’ – in that most of the things she did for people were something that the person could have done by themselves”, and her passive rivalry with the Tinkleys’ ‘smart house’ sits alongside her bigger search for purpose and identity beyond that which convention dictates: that of wife and mother.

Love Orange is told from various perspectives, which provides the reader with objectivity. The narrative has a specific focus on human relationships and the role of these in the structure, our web of reality. It explores how human actions may upset stability, how easily holes can be ripped in our web, causing it slowly to collapse.

Thematically, Natasha Randall tells me that the novel is intended to demonstrate to readers that “the nuclear family is a failed construct, and it effaces women” and that “we invite technology into our lives at our peril”. On a human level, we believe our actions are determined by choice, decisions usually more significant than we allow for, but conversely andto a large extent, we do not really have a choice and “life just happens to us”.

The narrative touches upon dark aspects of our modern humanity, specifically the opioid epidemic afflicting America. However, some themes, Natasha believes, are endemic to wider Western society: the role and purpose of gender, the “catastrophic rift” of racism, even the access children have to pornography online. Not every disorder of modern life is explored in the novel, however there are subtle hints and above all, we get a sense that Natasha is acutely aware, not only of herself, but of aspects of wider society. And this is why she is so elegantly able to unpick the fabric of suburban American life in the story.

Natasha adds that whilst Jenny loves Obama and Hank would now vote for Trump, this division and duality amongst families is not bespoke to America. Far-right populism is increasing worldwide, with even the more ‘everyday’ politics proving divisive, so the dichotomy within the Tinkley household has a far-reaching relevance.

Natasha is, she says, “wedded to observation”, which has proved to be tricky for her when writing during the extended periods of lockdown, isolated from wider society. Her writing is largely in response to what she sees and the people with whom she engages. The effect of social distancing this year has intensified her sense of self-consciousness and has been challenging to her writing because she subjects herself to the strictures of internal, often chiding, observers. Writing, at least currently, is like acting – pretending to be “someone else to get anything actually on the page”.

We know that the process of writing and publishing can be incredibly protracted. Natasha sums it up nicely with a neat analogy: like pushing a big and slippery boulder up a tall mountain. The concept of a false summit is a reality in publishing, “you never truly arrive” but, to some extent, she does see this as a positive – encouraging a writer to keep going, providing the next challenge to overcome.

Natasha is in the process of writing a second book, but currently she describes it as “amorphous (and likely to be) extinguished by the slightest wind”. Her writing process is ad-hoc, with real life responsibilities preventing a “sacred routine”. For her, the characters lead the way, never starting with a story specifically in mind. Despite stating that her authorial presence in the book is “highly self-conscious… lend(ing) an uncanny and indeed unsettling quality to the narrative”, she is also troubled by the notion that her authorial voice is “too knowing”. Context is important, and characters must be considered in a wider frame of reference. In Love Orange the characters make choices, without malice, but nonetheless informed by unconscious bias. Natasha feels that she cannot earnestly foreground relatively privileged characters, without drawing a parallel with others who have it far worse.

In the review I drew comparison between Love Orange and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel of 1921, We, in which humanity has become subject to a totalitarian state, and the characters are ciphers, identified by number, and not name. Natasha conceded that “Love Orange owes a tremendous debt to Zamyatin’s We” and that Russian literature has a great, if subconscious, influence on her own writing. She has drawn on the themes of alienation from Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and says that Gogol “encourages me towards the absurd, and indeed, if I could get away with it, the demonic”. She likes the distilled metaphors of Zamyatin, the “detail that could be glimpsed from the window of a speeding car”, but beyond Russian literature, she loves the vivacity of characters created by Grace Paley and Paula Fox – “characters that leap from the page whose breath you can feel in your face”. In Love Orange there are clear nods to authors such as the Pulitzer Prize winner, Wallace Stegner, Gustave Flaubert, Richard Yates – identified with the mid-century “Age of Anxiety” – and, contemporaneously, Don Delillo.

Before writing Love Orange, Desperate Characters by Paula Fox was a novel cherished by Natasha; however more recently her reading tastes have swayed toward “sparse, quieter fiction”. In her own writing she believes that the idea of “being trapped” will become a recurrent theme. The pandemic has clearly presented a set of unique challenges for new writers in 2020 but for Natasha, one curious, somewhat unsettling experience, was that Love Orange was released almost without editorial amends. Getting published, with so little editorial input, was, she said “oddly exposing!”, but she was perhaps not prepared for the potentially negative publicity that can be placed on authors, nor how one is compelled to “throw yourself forward for many months”, dizzying as that may be.

I personally look forward to Natasha Randall’s next novel – I hope it does “find its story”. I already thought she had a skilful way of unpicking our reality, shining light on aspects we would rather leave in shadow. Now, having understood more of how she thinks, responds, and indeed what she herself is trying to resolve through fiction, I am firmly convinced hers is an authorial voice not to be ignored.


Love Orange is published by Riverrun, an imprint of Quercus

Find out more about Natasha on her website http://www.natasharandall.com/