Q+A with Kathryn Bromwich about At the Edge of the Woods
(Author photograph by Alice Zoo.)
On June 6, 2023, we're thrilled to be publishing journalist Kathryn Bromwich's debut novel, At the Edge of the Woods, in a super classy paper-over-board hardcover edition that we've come to adore. At the Edge of the Woods is a rich, gorgeously descriptive and remarkably assured story enthralled with nature, that I've been describing as if Richard Powers wrote a Shirley Jackson story.
Sarah Rose Etter, author of The Book of X, calls it "A rich and bewitching novel. Kathryn Bromwich has spun up a delicate world that interrogates the dark side of love, the wild power of nature, and the strength it takes to break free." Maryse Meijer, author of The Seventh Mansion, calls it "a stunning experience not to be missed."
The story takes place in the first half of the twentieth century, and follows a woman named Laura who lives in a remote cabin in the Italian Alps. She’s left her husband, and appears to be in hiding. Laura spends her days alone, rekindling her sense of self by exploring nature and the countryside around her. The cabin is on the fringes of a quaint, conservative, religious town, and when Laura ventures into the village for supplies, she’s met with curious stares and wariness. Laura begins seeing a bartender, who informs her of the villagers’ suspicions.
One day, someone from Laura’s past appears, alerting her to all that has transpired since her disappearance. Meanwhile, Laura’s behavior becomes more erratic, which causes the villager’s suspicions and mistrust of her to mount, and accusations of her being a “strega,” a witch.
Kathryn Bromwich is a writer and commissioning editor on The Observer newspaper in London. She writes about all aspects of culture, including music, film, TV, books, art and more, and has contributed to publications including Little White Lies, Dazed, Vice, Time Out and The Independent. She has lived in Italy, Austria and the UK and is currently based in east London.
Following is an interview with Kathryn Bromwich about At the Edge of the Woods.
Question: The profound respect for nature in the book is palpable. Secluded in the Italian Alps, Laura goes on rigorous hikes, immersing herself in the natural world, and in so doing grows to better understand herself and the world around her. How did concerns for the environment come to be interwoven with the storyline?
Kathryn Bromwich: I didn’t set out to write a book about the climate emergency. I mainly wanted to write about mountains: I have been suffering from long Covid, and found myself drawn again and again to these landscapes, probably because of their grandeur and stillness. For a long time I felt trapped, both inside the flat and my body, and the mountains offered a powerful sense of freedom and escape. Through writing I could relive my experiences hiking in Italy, France, Austria, Scotland, California, Peru – something I loved doing before falling ill and which I am still not sure whether I’ll ever be able to do again. But while writing, there was no way of escaping the reality of what is happening all over the world: catastrophic floods, deadly wildfires. Saint-Martin-Vésubie, a beautiful village in the French Alps where I went hiking a few years ago, was recently ravaged by a violent storm: several people died, houses were destroyed, landslides wiped away huge swathes of the mountain. Extreme weather is now the norm. Reading the news every day was like that moment at the end of nature documentaries where they tell you that all the incredible things you’ve just seen are dying, and we are to blame. That sense of loss definitely informed the writing: I don’t think anyone could write about nature these days without being acutely aware of the dangers it faces. So while I wouldn’t say the climate crisis is the novel’s primary subject, it is a shadowy presence lurking in the background, biding its time.
Q: As the months pass with Laura living alone in the cabin, and as she becomes increasingly alienated from the traditional mindset of the villagers, she begins to drift further into nature and further into herself, experiencing mystical visions. How do you see the surreal imagery meshing with the fabric of the book?
KB: It’s an integral part of the book, but I am wary of explaining my reasoning around it too much – I think it’s up to readers to decide what it means for them, as it will be slightly different for everyone. What I will say is that I was meditating a lot when I started writing, and I was reading widely about mysticism, neuroscience and trauma – the Upanishads, Margery Kempe, William Blake, Emanuel Swedenborg, Bessel van der Kolk, Lisa Feldman Barrett. I became fascinated by experiences that could be interpreted as moments of enlightenment, or madness, or somewhere in between. Most definitions of mystical visions share certain specific characteristics: a sense that the person is experiencing something of the utmost importance, more real than the real yet ineffable, an experiential understanding of the deep interconnectedness of all things; often, these experiences can offer a powerful way of working through painful memories. This is a state that can be achieved by letting go of the ego, either through psychedelics or certain forms of meditation or through more mysterious means. I was very attracted to this idea that there could be another layer of reality enmeshed with ours, and the ways it could be accessed. The best description I’ve found of this was in a recent interview with Nick Cave in which he talked about the “imaginal realm”, a term from priest and religious writer Cynthia Bourgeault: Cave calls it “a kind of liminal state of awareness, before dreaming, before imagining, that is connected to the spirit itself. It is an ‘impossible realm’ where glimpses of the preternatural essence of things find their voice.” That state of liminality is at the core of many aspects of the novel, so I wanted to explore what such a realm might look like.
Q: The book addresses expectations of what might be considered traditional femininity, through the expectations the villagers and her husband impose on Laura. Even though the story is set in an earlier time period, do you feel as though these questions are still topical?
KB: Absolutely – we are seeing now, especially in the UK, how trans women are being increasingly excluded from women-only spaces, how their very existence is being questioned. Anyone who is considered to be outside of “the norm” is feared and rejected. This anti-trans (or, as they like to call it, “gender critical”) discourse is narrowing the idea of what a woman is to a purely biological perspective, which not only excludes anyone who is trans or non-binary, but also anyone with medical conditions that fall outside of their parameters. Maybe it’s just me, but defining women based on their reproductive organs doesn’t feel like progress. There is also a strange insistence from certain quarters that unless you are a mother you don’t truly understand feminism, which is a spectacularly backwards step. As we learn more about intersectionality and different lived experiences, feminism should be getting more expansive and inclusive, not less. But even though more and more women are deciding not to have children, the world is very much geared towards nuclear families. When you hit your early-to-mid-30s, a shift starts to happen: people move out of the city, and suddenly nights out are replaced by hen dos and baby showers. Everything becomes a lot more gendered, which can be quite disconcerting if you have an uneasy relationship with femininity. So I’m writing for any women and non-binary people who feel excluded from the term, or who are unconvinced by the traditional gender roles we’ve been raised to believe in.
Q: There are just so many elements of At the Edge of the Woods that I admire, from its discussions of class, infertility, its tonal meandering through the natural world, and also the subtle, ratcheting tension of the story. There were times as the sense of menace and dread was building, where it felt to me like a creepy fable, or a Shirley Jackson tale washed in acid. I know in discussing it with you that so much of the book came from the experience of long Covid, and the effect it had on your mind and body, but how concerned were you with creating a sense of mounting unease and tension as you crafted the story?
KB: The past two and a half years have been like being trapped inside a horror story, both on an international scale and a personal one – apocalyptic dystopia and Cronenbergian body horror. Not only have we lived through a global pandemic, but the virus has attacked every part of my body: my lungs, my heart, my muscles, my nervous system. I am slowly improving but I can only work in short bursts, I can’t exercise, I need constant rest, I have terrible insomnia. It’s still unclear whether I will ever fully recover, and the psychological effect of that has been devastating. A lot of people felt a profound sense of isolation during the pandemic, but this feeling was magnified by illness, and now that things have opened up again it has only intensified. At times it has felt like inhabiting a ghost story: life goes on for other people but I feel frozen in time, existing alongside the rest of society but unable to join. Writing was a way for me to process these feelings, though I should clarify that this is very much not an autobiographical novel – I live in central London rather than a cabin in the woods, and I have not quite lost grip on reality to the extent the protagonist has (I hope). But I did want to capture some of that feeling of dread and mounting frenzy, then dial it further and further up to see where it would go.
Q: Laura comes to be flagged by the villagers as a witch, and At the Edge of the Woods takes place in the late-19th or first half of the twentieth century. You are British and Italian, and your Italian great-grandmother was apparently considered a “witch” — was there any seed of inspiration there for the story?
KB: That was in the back of my mind when I was writing, but the character is not based on my great-grandmother in any way, except perhaps that she comes from the Adriatic coast and descends from fishermen. But she was never persecuted or cast out from society or anything of the sort – it is my understanding that she was a “good witch” who “healed” people from various ailments, and they would come from all over Italy to be cured by her. I don’t know how effective her treatments would have been, but I’m intrigued by the fact that this was something she felt called to, and that people believed in it. I think the reason witches still hold such a powerful hold over people’s imaginations is that it was a catch-all term used to describe women who were in any way different, or whose behaviour went against the grain. Most women alive today would probably have been considered witches at some point in the past.
Q: Do you feel as though your non-fiction writing on culture influenced or shaped your fiction writing in this novel? Having interviewed so many incredible and brilliant artists yourself, was there anything anyone said to you over the years that influenced your approach to this book or to this story?
KB: A lot of the elements that make good non-fiction writing still hold for fiction: clarity, structure, precision. You have to (hopefully) be entertaining. But there are also many aspects of fiction that are in some way the opposite of journalism – making things up, stepping away from the factual, including your own thoughts and feelings. So it was a bit of a struggle to let those things go. I started writing a dystopian sci-fi novel a few years ago which was very “issues”-based and probably quite didactic. With this project I wanted to do something completely different, much more personal – turning inwards rather than outwards. But as I was writing I noticed that themes such as feminism and the climate crisis kept creeping in: it’s impossible to escape the real world even if you’re writing fiction.
One of the best things about my job is that I get to speak to so many interesting people about their art, so there are too many to choose from. I enjoyed talking to Michael Pollan a few years ago about Richard Powers’ The Overstory and the ways trees communicate, which must have sparked something in my mind. Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker was fascinating about illusions versus reality, and I liked what Perfume Genius said about PJ Harvey talking to the devil “and magnifying her darkness” in her art. I was also very struck by something Samanta Schweblin said, about how a novel happens half on the page and half in the reader’s mind, but how what happens there has been well calculated by the writer. So that was something to aim for.