Sarah Moss’s seventh novel hits the ground running: it’s early morning in the Scottish Highlands and the runner is Justine, middle-aged mother of two boys. “There won’t be a plane this summer, or next. Who could afford to travel, now?” she wonders, as she struggles into her sports bra and sets off at a lick along the rain-lashed shores of a loch.
Justine’s voice sucks you in, instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever found themselves in a close holiday confinement with their nearest and dearest: she’s peevish about the proximity of other people’s bodily functions, rueful about the exotic places she never visited, and determined to colonise the one part of the day that is hers alone, regardless of the weather.
Moss herself is a runner and the mother of two boys, who recently spent a break in a holiday park on the shores of a Scottish loch. “That bit is pretty straightforwardly autobiographical,” she says. “I’d been rather fascinated by the life going on in all these different cabins. It was a group of people gathered together when all we had in common was that we were all on holiday in this place we’d chosen because it was remote and beautiful. But it rained and rained and I was very interested in how different households responded to it. In the main, we just got on with it because that’s the kind of upbringing I had and the kind of upbringing my kids get.”
But there the autobiographical element ends. Soon, we’re off into the morning ritual of a retired GP, who is making the first pot of tea of the day when he spies the “lass” in the Lycra, “wearing out her joints, pounding down that hill in her underwear”. A little over 200 pages long, Summerwater is a gem of compressed storytelling, narrated by 12 holidaymakers over the course of a single day. Their accounts of the day are interleaved with fleeting dispatches from a natural world under pressure from abnormal rainfall: owls unable to feed, ants barricading themselves into their castle, the loch itself, sedimented with the detritus of centuries of drowned children.
Like her previous short novel, 2018’s Ghost Wall, Summerwater was written as a “distraction” from a bigger project. “The thing I was trying to write when I wrote Ghost Wall was completely unworkable and I knew that from the beginning,” she says. “It was an experiment to see how much of this impossible thing I could do and I kind of always knew it was going to be abandoned.” The novel she jettisoned for Summerwater had gone further. “I did finish it, but it didn’t work. Looking at it from a teaching or a reviewing point of view, it had all the things a novel ought to have, and they were in the right order and functioning together, but it just wasn’t alive.”
Moss is not regretful about these abandoned novels, saying: “I always say to students, time spent writing is never wasted because you learn from it.” It’s a reminder that she has always fitted her fiction around an academic career, and that her life and her work reflect and spark off each other. She had a job at the University of Kent when she became a novelist. “I was writing my first novel on maternity leave with my first child and it came out when I was on maternity leave with my second child, so my whole writing life has overlapped exactly with my life as a parent,” she says.
That first novel, Cold Earth (2009), was an offshoot of her Oxford University PhD into the influence of polar exploration on the Romantic imagination: set on an archaeological dig in Greenland, it seems creepily resonant today with its suggestion that its six young archaeologists have been marooned by a mysterious virus back home, much as the Nordic settlers whose traces they are studying were stranded by the Black Death back in the 14th century.
Moss’s interest in the far north was further stimulated by a year at the University of Iceland, which produced a memoir, Names for the Sea. A stint at the Cornish outpost of Exeter University was followed by several years as director of the writing programme at Warwick University, from which she has just moved to Ireland to take up a new job at University College Dublin. She’s speaking from a rented cottage in the Irish port of Dún Laoghaire, where she moved with her husband and teenage sons six days before this interview.
The choice of this seaside town for their new home was partly because she could cycle to work and partly the legacy of her own childhood holidays. Though she was born in Glasgow, the family moved to Manchester when she was two years old so her economist father could take up a job at Manchester University. “My parents had a battered old wooden boat and we used to sail it back and forth across the Irish Sea. I’m very much enjoying a place that I found quite dull and difficult when I used to visit as a child and which now doesn’t seem that way at all.”
But this isn’t so much a move as an emigration. In a blogpost on her own website in the middle of lockdown, Moss explained how the decision had been partly inspired by an Irish book tour: “I found myself staying up late talking to new friends and strangers in a way that I haven’t done since I was a student in England. I want to live in Europe. I want to live by the sea again. I want my kids to start their adult lives in a country more interested in the future than the past.”
I don’t see how you can be curious about the world and not interested in science
Dismay about the Brexit vote infuses both her most recent novels. For all that she was living in the solid Leave area of Coventry, none of her circle saw it coming, she admits. “It started me thinking about the narratives around Brexit and the kind of storytelling it produces.” In Ghost Wall it turns a back-to-the-bronze-age experiment into a terrifying sacrificial ritual. In Summerwater it takes a darkly comic turn. “How could the English be so stupid… how could they not see the ring of yellow stars on every new road and hospital and upgraded railway and city centre regeneration of the last 30 years,” chunters the elderly Scottish GP, while a succession of bored holidaymakers are enviously affronted by partying “immigrants” in one of the cabins, without being sure which eastern European country they are from.
But Moss is the first to acknowledge that Brexit is a distraction from far bigger problems. The rain that sweeps through Summerwater is torrential and ominous: its human cameos bob along on sub-currents of climate crisis, deep history and biology. Moss has three times been shortlisted for the Wellcome prize, an award for literature that engages with medicine, health or illness. “In some ways it’s very funny because I have one of those terribly lopsided English educations, which is to say I took all the languages at GCSE and dropped all the sciences and that was pretty much that, but I don’t see how you can be curious about the world and not interested in science: it’s not separate from any other kinds of curiosity,” she says.
Two of her nominations were for a historical diptych Bodies of Light (2014) and Signs for Lost Children (2015), about the struggles of a pioneering Victorian female doctor to find her place, and her sanity, in a man’s world. Summerwater touches on maternal depression – a condition with which Moss was herself diagnosed after the birth of her first child. “It’s really back to my interest in the boundaries of what is mental illness and what is the manifestation of social illness. And we’ll never really know,” she says. “But I was told I had postnatal depression after my first child was born, and it seemed to me that my mind was absolutely fine. I was in a depressing situation – no sleep and a screaming baby – to which I was responding appropriately.”
For all that her framing of science is often psychological, “it’s never just a human story”, she says. “I always find it strange when I’m teaching students and they think that writing about the natural world is some kind of optional extra. And I think, where do you think your food comes from? Where does the energy that allows you to compose sentences come from? It makes no sense to me that we should imagine our own materiality is optional or a minority interest.”
The whole idea of the protagonist is a symptom of privilege: the idea that you can control what happens to you
Her third Wellcome-nominated novel, 2016’s The Tidal Zone, opened with the near death of a 15-year-old girl on the school sports field. Jogging Justine in Summerwater is also aware of a flutter in her chest, but carries on regardless. Heart failure, in both instances, embodies another recurrent theme of Moss’s work – that life is a state of jeopardy, to which fiction was partly invented as a response.
“There’s an extent to which the whole idea of the protagonist is a symptom of privilege: the idea that you can control what happens to you is deeply built into the novel from the 18th century onwards,” she says. “It’s one of the consolations of fiction, right? The idea that there is meaning or purpose or pattern. But this seems increasingly questionable, and not just in relation to climate change and pandemics – the body betrays us all the time, but it’s not really a betrayal. It’s a statement of fact.”
The climate emergency poses a particular challenge to the novelist, because it confronts us so starkly with the limits of our own agency. “So then I was thinking about how you tell stories about beings that we don’t imagine as having that idea of agency – ants or trees, for instance – and what kinds of stories are happening all the time? How do you write that without succumbing to anthropomorphism?”
She’s not the only recent novelist to use non-human interludes in an attempt to address this question (Lucy Ellmann invoked a lioness and her cubs in the spaces between the stream-of-consciousness of her novel Ducks, Newburyport): this is the growing tip of the novel in the age of catastrophe. But Moss isn’t about to abandon the consolations of literary convention any time soon: “I think the form of the novel is absolutely committed to the story of meaning and purpose,” she says. “And I wouldn’t want to write one that didn’t have those things, because that’s why we read: to find a pattern that we don’t find in life.”
• Summerwater is published by Picador (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15