Elizabeth Reeder on her fascination with archives and the making of relationships.
How did your idea for An Archive of Happiness first come into being?
As with most writing projects, some mini-obsessions started to meet in my imagination and took form as places, characters, story. For An Archive of Happiness two places in the Highlands became a fictional location bound to these characters, the Avens Family. Within this space was also an ongoing curiosity I have about the nature of archives. And from there the writing took hold…
What is it about archives that interests you?
When most of us think of archives, we think of musty boxes stored in dark basements and hidden corners of museums and only really ever rarely accessed by the odd archivist or researcher. The focus on the physical manifestation of archives looms large and can make it feel like archives are located in and about the past, and not only solid but factual – that they aren’t ours but rather something that belongs to another time, other people. However, simply, archives can be considered attempts to gather and hold specific moments of time so they may be shared. If that’s the case then we all have the ability to create, access and share archives.
Radical archival thinking considers the power relationships, biases, silences and absences archiving inherently involves. In a bid to understand how these work, I wanted to move away from the ready objects that are often at the heart of archives and explore how the unspoken (like emotions) might be driving forces within archives. This idea is inherently rooted in intimacy and so when a family emerged from scenes I was writing about a woman running through the woods, making them home, this made sense. The Avens family is an average sort of family in which there’s a strong line of mental health struggles, addiction, love, conflict, difficulty with parents, tender and fraught sibling relationships – just the usual really.
I was wondering how we might try to survive within a situation where there’s resentment and error as well as love, and how we might find ourselves thinking about what it would be like to be happy. If we start to think about what happiness is and understand that we’re holding the harder emotions – fear, anger, resentment, grief, worry – right in the mix with contentment, pleasure, bliss then that raises loads of questions and it’s with those pinging in my head that I started writing An Archive of Happiness.
How were you thinking about tradition when writing the book?
Although I didn’t actively think about tradition when writing, I can see where this question comes from. In my thinking, there is a place where archive and tradition meet and that’s in expectation, which projects ‘this is who we have been’ and makes it, this is who we should be.
These shoulds. You should be this. I should be that. Together we are this.
Family is a small unit that embeds and encourages us to uphold tradition. For most, we are rooted in the idea that families are something we’re born into and this is given priority. However, I am more interested in family we make and how we need to continue to make our relationships each day with the actions we take – with how we show up.
In terms of An Archive of Happiness, Sonny (the father) has expectations about what his kids should be. For Ben this means a well-paying job and it’s about ‘manning up’ – a specific iteration of ‘toxic masculinity’. Ben is, at heart, not an engineer and it’s a job that is slowly killing him. Just like how Nic, one of the daughters, who should be a joiner, chooses to have kids first and motherhood comes to primarily define her, and this also leads to discord for her. Neither Ben nor Nic are clearly fulfilling the spec their dad has laid out for them and their unhappiness indicates an urge to break with expectations. And that’s who I like to write – people who are not at ease with tradition, but those who agitate on the edges of it or need to create lives outwith what is expected of them.
A reader emailed me to say they loved the book and how it was about ‘the unsentimental work of love’. I love that phrase and can’t quite, don’t want to, move past it. It’s seems so pertinent to where we are now. Just like happiness isn’t asinine or banal, but active, and includes so many vagaries, I’m completely motivated by the idea that love is something mutual, something that must be built together. If there is abuse, or even indifference, or presumption, if there are too many pressures from outside, or when it is fractious, stormy, it can more easily broken and harder to sustain.
I suppose I wanted the Avens family to be all these fragmented things and yet to come into crisis ready, perhaps, to find new ways forward. Because the situation they find themselves in alters everything irrevocably, and in these circumstances they can choose to change too and to hold a space for a love that’s damaged and altered and resilient so that the future is different, better.
How has it been to send the book out into the world?
It’s been great. I love hearing what people think about the book, as they’re reading it, as it keeps them awake, as they take the time to tell me what they’ve thought. It’s been important in these virtual times and I miss, I miss seeing people in such a powerful way. I miss making eye contact and hugging and the buzz you get from being in a room. But virtual launches mean that family and friends from around the world can be there and that’s been brilliant.