What Lies Beneath: A Conversation with Victoria Gosling

February 4, 2021   •   By Rachel Barenbaum

SECRETS HAVE MANY layers, and in her brilliant and propulsive debut, Before the Ruins, Victoria Gosling shows the deeper secrets lie, the closer they are to a person’s true self — only that self changes, sometimes without warning. And so, she asks, can we ever really know a person, even if we find their deepest, darkest secrets? Tearing from past to present and back again, her characters reel between a shattered childhood game in which they search for a mythical lost diamond necklace and their imploding adult lives in which Andrea, known as Andy, searches for a member of their group, Peter, who has disappeared. None of them have been close in years, but Andy brings them back one by one to unravel a murder in the past and save Peter in the present. And while many novels that send characters to find missing friends end with forgiveness or apologies, this novel does not. Digging deeper only finds thicker layers of deception. We all lie, don’t we?, one of her characters asks, and that seems to be Gosling’s point.

While Gosling’s characters are beautifully drawn, it is the undercurrent of quiet violence that is most compelling and terrifying. Not shoot-’em-up Hollywood-style violence but a more insidious domestic violence hangs in these pages — and its muted undertone is the heart of the novel. It is the worst kind of violence, and yet so rarely discussed even among the best of friends. Leaning into this theme, Gosling brings to light another one of her most salient points: assumptions are at the core of every story and every relationship. An adult version of Andy realizes just this — that she made her friends into what she wanted them to be and never saw them for who they really were. As Gosling shows, most of us do this — make people into what we want them to be without looking at what secret ruins lie underneath.

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RACHEL BARENBAUM: Victoria, I loved this book and as soon as I put it down I wanted to ask you about the game layered on a game, layered on a game — the search for the diamond necklace. There were three layers: (1) The mythical murder and search for the diamond necklace that inspired (2) the childhood reenactment and (3) the adult version of the very same. Why did you choose this classic ruse, a play within a play? And why do they search for a diamond necklace in particular?

VICTORIA GOSLING: Like Peter and Andy, I have a weakness for games. Games can be a form of ritual and a form of spell. At their best, they are entirely transporting. I can remember playing murder in the dark with my sister and cousins as a child and being utterly terrified and thrilled. I was always hoping to stumble upon a nefarious plot or a treasure map, best of all would have been a trove of diamonds. I learned this from the books I read: Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, d’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers — all get entangled with diamonds at some point.

Also, while diamonds are both incredibly precious and resilient (two qualities worthy of investigation) unless you’re an expert, it’s very hard to know if they are real or fake. That was something I wanted to think about. I was also keen to compare the game Andy and her friends play at the manor as teenagers to the ones she plays later on in her adult life. We have to be careful of the games we play as grown-ups; we’re less likely to acknowledge them as games, and that can be dangerous.

In the beginning, I planned to write a different novel, one with a section set in the 1930s at the manor on the night the diamond necklace goes missing. I couldn’t find my way into it and had to give up (although I hope that I’ll one day write that book), but its echoes can still be heard in Before the Ruins. That probably accounts for what you call the “play within a play.”

Andy’s relationships are complicated — with men and women. Her sexuality is bound up with all sorts of horrid memories and pain. This weaves together with a larger theme of appearance in the book. One scene marking this importance was particularly haunting. It is the scene where Andy stands in front of a mirror in a dressing room. You wrote:

There was something archetypal about it. All those women, all across the world — women in Paris and Moscow, Lagos and Sydney — women throughout time — at the court of Louis XIV, in Weimar Berlin, in sixties San Francisco — and all of them, having that moment, the moment of self-appraisal before their reflection. If the clothes parsed the right code, if they accentuated what you had, if they disguised what you lacked: beauty, money, class, confidence, youth.

Can you tell us about this moment, this passage?

I love that you picked this passage out. Andy is off to meet someone who she never liked and once did something pretty unforgivable to, but whose help she now needs. She wants to wear the right outfit, one that will conceal all her vulnerabilities, that will be a kind of armor.

In her adult life, Andy is in hiding. She’s engaged in another game, which is presenting a successful appearance to the world. This game — which is also work — is joyless because it’s based on the fear of being truly seen. But here, in this moment, she realizes what she’s experiencing is not unique to her, that it’s a game that almost everyone plays at some time, in some form. This leads her to a sudden moment of compassion for the woman she’s going to see, and that eventually paves the way for the encounter to be transformed from a kind of contest into one of exchange.

Another one of my favorite passages comes from adult Peter. He is sitting with Andy and he says:

People do that sometimes, don’t they? They just walk out on everything all at once, because they don’t know how to do it piece by piece. Your life doesn’t want to let you go. If you think about it too much, it won’t happen. You’ve got colleagues, projects, subscriptions, deliveries, memberships …

This is a bit of foreshadowing, but there’s more to it. Can you tell me about this thought, the idea of walking out on a life?

I’m fascinated by stories of people doing it. You know, going out for a packet of cigarettes and never coming back. I find it surprising it doesn’t happen more often. It’s so easy to make a mess of your relationships, to feel stuck in your work and routines — or just to start wondering about other lives you might have. Reading books, you get to be someone else for a bit and that can satiate the need for a while … but quite often I hear a little voice telling me to run, and I doubt that’s unusual. Although often what you’re running from belongs to you, so it’ll track you down in the end anyway. In Andy’s case, however, it’s 100 percent the right thing for her to do. She’s built a secure life for herself very far from her unstable beginnings, but it’s become a prison. All the way through writing Before the Ruins, I was so hoping she’d find a way out.

The theme of domestic violence is rendered with enough terror that I was petrified even without seeing a single drop of blood or act of aggression until the very end — and even there it was only brief and no one was hurt. Why did you feel it was important to fold domestic violence into your work, and why did you do it without putting it in scene?

I’m not sure I made any of those decisions consciously. It’s interesting, now that you mention it. Perhaps it’s not in the book because domestic violence so often takes place in secret. It’s hidden away but resounds in the lives of those who have experienced it. Young Andy is vibrating with it, with what she’s lived through. Maybe I’m also more interested in repair than damage. People try to repair, restore, and transform themselves in all kinds of ways — some more healthy than others — and that’s something I’ll never tire of exploring.

The plot and language in this novel are both gorgeous and complicated. Authors often focus on one or the other. How did you divide your time between polishing sentences and building the structure and plot? What came first, individual scenes or the larger picture?

I’m not sure how other writers go about building plot. For me, characters come first. Andy arrived and hung about, kicking her boots, and then there was Peter, her friend, who she loved so much. But there was this space between them and a great silence — why was that? I get these little fragments that provoke questions, and eventually a plausible explanation turns up and that becomes the plot. I think I work quite intuitively and often I have to wait around for answers, and that’s the time I spend polishing my sentences.

How long did it take to write Before the Ruins? And where did the idea come from?

About three years, perhaps closer to four! I was working two jobs, and that slowed me down. I’m giving myself 2021 to just write and taking time off from everything else, although I’m slightly anxious that writing more quickly will mean dilution. We shall see …

Where do ideas come from? I’m not sure. I could say that the abandoned manor is inspired by a beautiful house I drunkenly visited one night when I was 17. Or that the flooded city draws on my experience of living in Prague during the terrible floods of 2002. But I think the real meat of a novel, what lies at its heart, comes from a place deep inside that our everyday selves don’t get to visit. Writing is a way of getting at it.

Finally, what are you reading now? What do you recommend?

I’m reading Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, which just won the Booker Prize. I was given it as a present and wasn’t sure because it sounded quite grim and I’m afraid I often read to escape. But it’s brilliant. It’s set in Glasgow, and there’s such incredible verve and poetry to the way the characters speak. I also just read and loved Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am, which tells of the author’s near-death experiences via 17 essays. I’ve been dipping in and out of Irenosen Okojie’s wild and wonderful short story collection, Nudibranch, and was recently blown away by Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. Finally, I am so very excited that Jo Ann Beard will be publishing a new short story collection, Festival Days, in March. I’m counting down the days till it comes out.

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Rachel Barenbaum is the author of A Bend in the Stars.