‘The book is inflected by a general sense of apprehension that we all have at present – an awareness of the possibility of world-ending events.’

The first thing you’ll need to know about Missouri Williams’ The Doloriad is that an environmental disaster has destroyed the earth and most of humanity, leaving behind a family led by a figure known only as The Matriarch. As her many descendants struggle to survive outside an unnamed city, they’re forced to scavenge and sift through the ruins of the old world. Recreation comes in the form of watching old episodes of a television show called Aquinas Will Fix It, in which Thomas Aquinas is called on to, well, solve all sorts of dilemmas. The Doloriad is strange, dark and unapologetic — a dispatch from a ruined future in which the trials of one extraordinary legless child named Dolores threaten to bring about the destruction of the Matriarch’s order. It’s a formally daring novel. The sentences stretch on and on, and then on and on again. The imagery is shocking, the language epic. In her memorable debut, Williams risks it all.

Five Dials spoke to Missouri Williams at her home in Prague.

Five Dials

One thing I loved about the book was its sentence structure. The sentences are long; they unfurl. Were you following instinct? Or was this a conscious choice?

Missouri Williams

It wasn’t conscious at all. Around the time I was writing I was diagnosed with epilepsy, which affected my language skills and memory. I can see that in The Doloriad, because the structure of the sentences is so weird and so circling. They begin with one thing, beget another, and then circle back again. With a lot of the sentences, it’s like they’re forgetting how they started and trying to reassure themselves by going back and back and back endlessly. That’s definitely how I was feeling a lot of the time. But then on another level, I feel like the style arose out of the necessity of explaining those characters and their lives. It was surprising to me, because I’d written other things before, but when I wrote The Doloriad I felt like I found my style, even if I wasn’t sure where it had come from.

Five Dials

What about the speed of writing? In order to write these unfurling sentences, were you working at speed?

Missouri Williams

I write first drafts quite quickly, I think. Because the sentences all have their own rhythm, it’s like they propel me to keep on adding.A lot of the sections of The Doloriad were written in one go, like the episode with the epileptic brother and the cheerleader, for example. I wrote that without stopping for any breaks. It felt like such a cohesive thing. I spend a lot of time editing, however. Speed produces something, but that something is far from perfect.

Five Dials

Can you give me a sense of your relationship with Prague? Obviously the city influenced the book. How does it influence your writing life?

Missouri Williams

The city definitely plays a major role in how I think about space and even time. A lot of The Doloriad is borne out of the experience of being a stranger in this city, and someone who didn’t initially speak the language. A major theme in the book is the idea of being at home somewhere, of being welcomed. Ultimately the Matriarch’s experience of the city is one of failure: she never integrated, and she never learned the language.That’s why she hates the place so much. Her brother’s experience is different. And then Prague is also a very empty city — it doesn’t feel densely populated. In the summer, everybody goes away to the countryside, and so the whole city becomes this massive graveyard. If you’re not lucky enough to leave, then you’re stuck in this deserted, sweltering city.

‘A lot of The Doloriad is borne out of the experience of being a stranger in this city, and someone who didn’t initially speak the language.’

Five Dials

We have to talk about the fictional TV show featured in the book. It’s called Get Aquinas in Here. Where did the idea for the show come from? It’s very important in the world of the novel.

Missouri Williams

It’s so stupid, really. I had a teacher of religious studies back when I was at school and he would tell us about various theological problems and would always say: Well, eventually Aquinas comes and sorts this out. It was his answer for everything. At the time I was still a teenager and it made a deep impression on me. So the idea comes from that, but I have no idea when or why I decided it had to be a television series. But it definitely has something to do with my style — I’ve always been interested in combining high and low forms of culture. So if Aquinas were to appear in the debased world of the novel, it had to be in quite a bastardized form. And that’s the show. And it’s even worse because it’s a really trashy one.

Five Dials

This is a novel that is rich with imagery. Did the imagery arise from your love of language? Or is there usually a visual that guides you?

Missouri Williams

I think I work with very decided images. There’s the first image of Dolores and the wheelbarrow almost toppling over because she makes this gesture to acknowledge her uncle as he approaches her. This very small movement sets everything awry. For me, that first image contained the whole novel. You have these characters who are trying to realize their desires, but they’re constantly let down by something in their nature which sabotages them. So the images that accompany them have to convey that, they have to be absolute. A lot of the imagery in The Doloriad is very influenced by epic poetry, especially in its repetitiveness. It’s called The Doloriad after the Iliad, and both there and in the Odyssey certain images are repeated the whole way through: rosy-fingered dawn, the wine-dark sea… Every character and thing has their epithet. I wanted to have some of that in The Doloriad, for it to be bright, flat, and repetitive, only here the epic mood is transplanted into a very different context. My agent used to be so obsessed with the wheelbarrow, which is almost always the ‘metal’ wheelbarrow. He thought it was so funny because of course that descriptor doesn’t need to be so relentlessly repeated. But we agreed that it had to be the metal wheelbarrow, that it belonged to the style.

I was also very interested in the force of repeated imagery. So if you have something the same the whole way through it grinds on the reader, just like it grinds on the characters. The sun is always so bright and the forest is always so green and so dense. When those images and adjectives are repeated they push down on the reader; they start to feel overwhelming. And then like I said above, throughout The Doloriad the voice and sentence structure are always pushing for certainty. In this world, consciousness has been shattered, all reference points have been lost, and all these characters have been affected in some way. So the form of the novel mimics that and is constantly looking for something to anchor itself on. It wants certainty.

Five Dials

Did any of your images surprise or shock you?

Missouri Williams

Yes! But right now I can only think of two things. Both are in the sequence where the Schoolmaster finds Marta’s corpse by the river. The first happens when he crawls down the street and he notices a trio of cars. He starts thinking that they’re alive and that they’re talking together, but he’s excluded from their conversation; he can’t possibly understand it. And then he starts thinking that the city is full of objects which are more alive than they are, the schoolmaster and the family. He imagines this great community where all of these abandoned cars and buildings are whispering together, and he’s shut out from it because he’s a human and not one of them.When I reread that passage I thought that I must have been so lonely that summer, which surprised me because I hadn’t realized it at the time.

The second image occurs when the Schoolmaster finds Marta’s body: he thinks that there’s a warning indexed to her like the number on an old coat, meaning one that’s been languishing in a cloakroom for a long time without its owner coming to collect it. I thought it was such a strange image to connect to this moment. But I kept it in because it’s so jarring and so innocent. It belongs so strongly to the world that they’ve lost, and it’s almost completely incomprehensible in the context of a dead body and the threat of violence that hangs around it. But I wanted to respect the strangeness of that image and draw out that contrast.

Five Dials

Tell me more about respecting the strangeness of the piece. Was there ever an impulse to excise the strangeness from the work? Did you have to fight yourself to keep in and respect the strangeness?

Missouri Williams

I didn’t have to fight myself. The Doloriad had quite a slow path to publication because it was bought by Dead Ink in the UK in 2019. And then after I’d edited it for a year, it was bought by FSG in America. Anyway, in that year I made so many changes that improved the novel. But in a sense I doubled down on how strange and aggressive it was. It was strange and aggressive before, but less so, and even then people had rejected it for being too strange. But over that year, it became so much more concentrated and even more violently itself, and it became a better novel because of that.

Five Dials

Did that amount of time allow you to appraise the novel from different angles?

Missouri Williams

Yes, definitely. I had to because it’s such a horrible and offensive book. I’m aware that it has upset and probably will upset a lot of people. If you write something like this, you need to make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. You have to be able to provide an explanation for yourself, even if it’s not one that you ever decide to share with other people. Especially when you’re dealing with something so painful. These things should be considered.

Five Dials

Were you thinking of climate change while writing the novel?

Missouri Williams

It was on my mind. Not in the sense that I started writing with the thought that I wanted to write a novel about climate change. The Doloriad began with an image and a feeling. But I’ve always been interested in how we relate to the world around us and to animals. Like what duties do we have to the world? If we destroyed it, should we rebuild it? If so, how should we rebuild it? And in a world without us, what new possibilities can arise? However, the nature of the disaster that has destroyed the world of The Doloriad is never specified. The novel is less concerned with climate change than it is with a changing relationship to non-human animals and things. The role of objects in the novel was something that I considered very carefully.

Five Dials

Did you specifically read about climate change while writing? Or were you just taking in stories about depletion of species and extinction.

Missouri Williams

It’s more that the book is inflected by a general sense of apprehension that we all have at present — an awareness of the possibility of world-ending events. This isn’t unique to our time, but perhaps we have more forums on which to imagine it, and so many people doing so. I didn’t research climate change or extinction events very closely. I figured other people were writing more realistically about it and that there was enough out there without me. I wanted The Doloriad to feel grounded, but just grounded enough. I would never pretend that The Doloriad was a well-researched piece of work. I was interested in different things.

Five Dials

How important was plotting to you?

Missouri Williams

It was important. Maybe that’s strange of me to say because The Doloriad is a relatively plotless book. But I knew how it needed to end, and all the events that happen along the way, even though there aren’t that many of them, are essential to the story and its movement. But the book is more driven by character and ideas, I guess. I was very interested in family, and especially in a family losing control of itself. I’ve always been interested in claustrophobic, closed environments, spaces where a person can have an absolute kind of power over others. And I wanted to imagine what that would look like if it were to collapse. So the shape of the story was always there, but it wasn’t important to me that it be that gripping. I never felt as if a lot had to be happening. It just had to have a feeling of slow disintegration. But I have a lot of patience as a reader and I read a lot of gruelling fiction, so maybe it feels more natural to me to write something that’s not straightforwardly enjoyable. And when people say: Oh, there’s no plot, I’m like well of course there is. It’s just not the kind we’ve come to expect. Why should it be?

Five Dials

‘Why are you starting from that assumption?’

Missouri Williams

Yes. I mean, hopefully you do enjoy this book. But I don’t think that’s my first concern.

Five Dials

Were you looking to incorporate sources like the Old Testament and Shakespeare and the Greeks?

Missouri Williams

The Doloriad draws from a lot of different sources, but it’s a way of thinking that feels quite natural to me. It’s just a consequence of my childhood and education. Maybe I had a really weird upbringing, I don’t know. There’s a Piers Plowman reference in there. Maybe that makes me sound like a freak, but that’s how it is. However, I did want there to be a sense of history, and what they’ve lost. And then for those words and phrases, which were once beautiful and full of meaning, to be exhausted in this kind of setting. The children simply cannot understand them.

Five Dials

What was your eclectic education?

Missouri Williams

I was homeschooled most of my childhood. I only attended school when I was in my middle teens and had to play catch up to everyone. My parents had a very specific homeschooling ideology. I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. I could read anything I liked, and so I spent my whole childhood reading. But then I could barely even add up properly until I was 14. So you gain some things and you lose others.

Five Dials

But we do have calculators for adding up. We don’t yet have a machine to create fiction. So maybe it was a good choice.

Missouri Williams

That’s a positive way of thinking about it.

Five Dials

I read a very short review of the novel, a one line review, that just said ‘Not for the faint of heart’. You’ve talked about the aggressiveness of the book and some of the shocking imagery. Should we be making art for people who are faint of heart?

Missouri Williams

Art should be forceful in some way. It should leave you thinking about things, and if those things are uncomfortable or painful, then it’s even more necessary. We go to different books for different reasons. Often I’ll read something that isn’t particularly demanding because I know I’ll enjoy it in a straightforward and easy way, but we also go to art in order to have confrontation with the world and ourselves. Hopefully it’s one that we’re enriched by. The Doloriad is about important things. And I’ve never wanted to apologize for the way in which I saw fit to address those things. I think it’s important to see that kind of unhappiness and maybe it should hurt. Even if the methods I chose are flawed, that cruelty exists and that cruelty is part of our world. It’s something that we need to see and acknowledge.

Five Dials

The line ‘Nature hateth emptiness’ jumped out at me. Nature goes forward. People move forward, even though they might not know the best way to proceed. Where did that line come from?

Missouri Williams

It’s actually a mangled quote from a poem by Andrew Marvel, but I can’t remember which one. But this seems appropriate because no one in the novel can remember where things come from either. Anyway, their Uncle remembers it in that form, and thinks that it is a powerful truth. It was an idea that really interested me. Even when they have nothing to hope for and are trapped in this unbearably hostile reality, some blind, mechanical instinct keeps people going, keeps them producing, and the whole world kind of lurches forward alongside them.

Five Dials

I sense a little bit of hope. Life will continue in some form.

Missouri Williams

I think The Doloriad is a hopeful novel. It probably doesn’t strike many people as being that way. But at the end there is some kind of reconciliation between different ways of seeing, and you have a sense that for the next generation — and this is the most hopeful ending of all — maybe things will be different. Once the Matriarch’s imperative to conquer and crush has been discarded, there is space for a new and more inclusive way of being, one that does away with the hierarchies of the past. Something is opened up. So yes, I do see The Doloriad as hopeful.

Five Dials

Take that, ‘faint of heart’ reviewer. ◊