Sometimes, your Flick correspondent stares at herself in the mirror, scrunching up her forehead the better to appreciate the little vertical furrow that sits between her eyebrows. When did it appear? Why has it come? And the most naggingly insistent thought of them all – can I make it go away? Clara, the heroine of India Knight’s new novel Mutton, is in the grip of the same obsession.
When a friend comes back from California in pristine Hollywood shape, looking 15 years younger than her actual age, Clara is pitched into the strange world of cosmetic surgery. And while Clara decides what to nip and and what to tuck, the warm untidiness of family life erupts around her. We interviewed the lovely, funny India Knight about her lovely, funny novel, and she told us why women need a new blueprint for getting older, why she wants to democratise the horn, and just how much she worries about Game Of Thrones author George R R Martin…
THE FLICK: Mutton is charming and witty, but it’s also very astute about women, ageing and our relationship with our looks. Do you think women have an especially angsty time with the ageing process?
INDIA KNIGHT: Thank you! And yes, I do, and I also think it’s often completely unexpected. By the time you get to middle-age, you’re probably reasonably comfortable in your skin. You think, “thank God all the anxieties I had in my teens/20s/30s are broadly over.” You feel like you know who you are, know what you care about, know how you want to look… and then suddenly you wake up and discover that something has fallen, or some sort of crevasse has appeared, or, like, your TEETH have moved (this is a thing) and you think, “Woah, what the fuck happened?”
And then – and here’s the massive drag of it – you’re forced to acquaint yourself with a whole new set of anxieties: do you ignore the crevasse and just get on with life, do you attend to the crevasse, do you atone for the crevasse by for example wearing younger clothes, etc etc. It’s quite knackering. Also of course it used to be that women were allowed to age in a normal way. Now, were you to straightforwardly embrace decline, people would see it as some appalling failure that was possibly indicative of deep inner misery / broken self-esteem.
You’re supposed to still “make an effort” – but of course not too much effort, because that looks tragic. Whole subject not helped by the fact that there’s no blueprint – our mums’ middle-age is not our middle-age, and so on. ALSO: the menopause. I have no idea about the menopause, except that one day it will come. Beyond that – zilch. It’s the last taboo subject: nobody will talk (or write) about it. Where’s our manual? Why’s everyone so embarrassed?
TF: One of the things I love about the novel is that it’s totally unembarrassed about the dizzy joy of wanting to jump sexy people. Did you make a conscious decision to write frankly about the horn?
IK: I did, yes. I’m appalled by the idea that the horn dies – it so doesn’t – or that beyond a certain age the horn is unseemly. In my experience, the horn is an omnihorn, plus it seems crashingly obvious to me that the older you get, the more you know what you like and the better you can make the horn work for you. So I wanted to write about it. I don’t like the idea that the only way the older horn ever gets a print showing is in the context of “cougars”, instead of in the much more realistic context of your children not waking up three times a night any more and you no longer being permanently knackered.
I wanted to democratise it and reclaim it. It is all our horn. We are all in the horn together. Also (though possibly I have made this up and willed it to be true) women hit their sexual peak somewhere in their forties. Also, imagine no shagging – I mean, you’d die. It gets on my nerves that elderly male novelists can write about jumping sexy people and everyone goes, “Ho, yes, marvelous so potent and virile and masterful,” and women with exactly the same impulses are supposed to pipe down and write about Agas. You know? Why?
TF: There’s a blended family at the heart of the story, and it’s a beautiful picture of family continuing after the romantic relationships have ended. Is that something you deliberately seek to portray?
IK: The blended family thing is present in all four of my novels. It’s partly that the subject interests me for autobiographical reasons and partly that, in the first instance, I was really sick of only ever reading about how small human mistakes – mistakes that one in three married people make, for God’s sake – inevitably lead to misery and fucked-upness and to devastated children rocking in their bedrooms, dissecting small mammals and crying. It’s just not true, in my experience – or at least, it needn’t be true. You should come to Christmas lunch at our house – we’re the living proof, ex-mothers in law included.
TF: You obviously did your research about cosmetic procedures for the novel. What was the strangest treatment or surgery you discovered? Was there anything you were tempted by?
IK: There’s a really creepy thing where you have blood taken from your face and then re-injected. It’s called “Dracula therapy”, and when I chatted to a doctor about it I did actually think, “Everyone who has gone mad.” I also think this about labioplasty where you look at the before pictures and think, “I don’t get it – that’s a normal vagina.” (I was at an all-girls boarding school – communal showers).
People blame mainstream porn – rightly, probably – without ever mentioning the fact that homemade porn – the porn that’s easiest to access for free – is very reassuring in various bodily respects – stomachs, wrinkles, saggy tits, no Hollywoods, plenty of podge, unusual fronties, etc etc. I’m hesitant to recommend it as a remedy for people suffering from body image issues, but it’s very cheering.
And no, I wasn’t tempted by any of it, probably because I’ve had Botox and fillers in the past. The Botox made no difference because I don’t have wrinkles due to fat in my face (yay) – it just made my eyebrows go all Ming the Merciless. The fillers added to the “fat in the face” effect, which I felt was superfluous.
TF: There’s a subplot involving a George RR Martin-alike fantasy novelist being dispatched to a remote island to finish his epic series. I know you’re a big Thrones fan – do you have an advice for Mr Martin on getting A Song of Ice and Fire finished so that you, me and everyone else can stop worrying about who the *SPOILER* of *SPOILER* *SPOILERED*?
IK: I can’t bear it that he’s not hurrying up. Someone worked out that at the current rate of output, the seventh and final volume won’t appear until 2021. On the other hand, they’re incredibly complex works of genius and obviously he can’t just bang them out, but as far as I can see he spends an awful lot of time addressing the faithful at conferences all over the world. I wish he’d stay home more, near a desk, possibly shackled. Also – and this is a terrible thing to say but I can’t pretend I don’t think it – what if he dies? I worry about GRRM more than I should, really, at least once a day.
Mutton is published by Penguin, and signed editions are available now from Primrose Hill Books priced £12.99