Tom Watson: Metronome

Tom Watson’s chilling debut Metronome is an unsettling portrayal of a couple exiled to a remote croft, the unravelling of long-held secrets, and survival in the wilderness. Published by Bloomsbury, Metronome will be featured on Sara Cox’s Between the Covers in June 2022.

Tom, congratulations on the very recent publication of your debut novel, Metronome! Where did the inspiration for your novel come from, and has the final version strayed far from your original concept?

Thank you so much. I’m still doing double takes when I see it in bookshops but it all began in early 2017 while I was studying for an MA at UEA. I was thinking, what could be worse than solitary confinement, and I had this idea about a couple who are imprisoned on a remote island with supplies running low and no sign of parole. It quickly became apparent that this prison had been specifically tailored to test the foundations of their relationship, making it a twist on Room 101. At the same time, three Anthony Gormley sculptures were installed on the UEA campus. The figures were all cast from his body, though they seemed to have entirely distinct personalities and outlooks. One gazed inward, the other to the horizon, and the third remained hidden. Ultimately they became the basis for Aina and Whitney. Some of the details took a month or two to finesse, such as the pill clock that keeps them tethered to the croft, but most of the key drivers were there from the off.

Metronome is a novel of contrasts – the mundane and the unexpected, imprisonment and freedom, secrecy and honesty – which are as unsettling as they are familiar. How did you decide which dystopian elements to include, and was it difficult to rein in your imagination once you got started?

Yes, I wrote Aina and Whitney against a backdrop of Brexit, Trump, climate change activism vs denial, and this sense of polarisation seeped into the book. That said, I felt it would be reductive to over-engineer the world. As a couple, they are being punished by a government that has taken control of certain basic human choices, but I wanted to portray the after-effects of this on a micro level, within the relationship. That meant keeping Aina and Whitney front and centre. They are dealing with their own trauma, and as they argue about what to do and how to survive, certain little frictions start to spiral. It felt a natural step to have the granular details of the dystopia drop out of focus, in order to share their growing sense of disorientation and mistrust.

In Aina, you have written a very strong female lead, who drives the story and carries many of the most difficult aspects of the plot. Why did you choose to write from a female perspective, and which parts were the trickiest to write?

I’m really glad you think so. She’s logical, inquisitive and having spent so much time with her, I miss her a lot. From the first scene, which was them sitting in the croft having a cup of tea, it was clear that this was Aina’s story. The mechanics of their world are calibrated to a male viewpoint, and Whitney to some extent is complicit with that. He’s grown complacent, doesn’t perceive the risks and chooses to uphold the status quo. Aina on the other hand has a very different take on things, she’s the one who wants to escape, and by virtue I wanted to be poised at her shoulder throughout. It wasn’t always easy. I remember one scene with Whitney in particular and another in the backstory that were far from comfortable to write. In those situations, I did my research and spoke with people who have been through similar experiences. I wanted to avoid any gratuitousness. Hopefully it meets their blessing.

The natural world sits firmly at the centre of Metronome – the wild, rugged beauty of the landscape reflects elements of the western isles of Scotland and the Yorkshire Moors and serves as a desolate backdrop to the intimate, discomfiting claustrophobia of the controlled life inside the croft. Why did you choose these settings for your novel?

Good question. I wanted to create a quiet, layered sense of oppression that percolates and builds. I’ve spent time in Yorkshire and Cornwall and dug peat out on the Western Isles, and I’ve always been intrigued by peat, how it seems to decay and preserve simultaneously. A moor seemed perfect. It’s a sea of sorts, featureless and flat, and I love how it plays tricks on the eye and the mind. Notions of time and distance become ambiguous and difficult to measure. And of course, while they have space to roam and freedom to establish their own routines, they are bound to this pill clock that sits at the heart of their croft, dispensing these life-saving pills at eight-hour intervals. The clock also elevates the treacherousness of the landscape, leaving them trapped on this beautifully barren island with only their memories, their guilt, and each other. So the setting is primed for divisiveness, it’s waiting to be triggered. And that’s when the sheep shows up.
What are the best – and worst! – pieces of advice you received as you embarked on writing Metronome, and can you tell us a bit about how you signed with your agent, Karolina Sutton at Curtis Brown?

For me, the most meaningful advice comes from people you either love or respect, and ideally those who have read your work. The best piece of advice I received was from my wife, Jen. In a moment when I was doubting everything, she simply told me to keep going. We probably all need to hear that sometimes. In terms of the worst advice, I’m sure there’s been some, but it tends not to stick.

I met Karolina in 2017. She visited UEA when I was doing the MA. I had submitted things to her previously, so I knew who she was, and I was massively taken aback when Metronome won the Giles Gordon prize, which she judged for Curtis Brown. So that was the start of things. She has provided such valuable support, always knowing what to say, and how and when to say it.
Are you a very disciplined writer, and what does your typical writing day look like?

It varies. I love the idea of writing every day, and right now I’m in a phase where I’m rising early and trying to meet a word count before the house awakes. I find that’s harder to sustain in winter. I’ve got a day job, so I’m always cramming things in round the edges, and I’ll need a breather every once in a while to reset. For me, that’s important. Ideas take time to settle and a degree of variation helps.

You must have been delighted to have been picked for Sara Cox’s Between the Covers! What does this entail, and when will your programme be broadcast?

Delighted is an understatement! Emma Herdman, my editor, shared the news in January and it came as such a shock. But Bloomsbury did a great job getting the proofs out early and raising awareness, so I’m sure that helped. I spent a cold February morning filming an interview for the episode at a cabin in the middle of nowhere. It was drizzling and the main prop we had was a cup of tea, so it felt very fitting. It’s such a thrill to have Metronome selected. The show’s definitely helped the profile of the book. And I can’t wait to hear what Sara Cox and the guests made of it. It’ll be broadcast on Wednesday 8 June at 7:30pm.

Which novelists inspired you to write, and what debut novels have you enjoyed recently?

I read a lot of author interviews to suss out how other writers manage. J.G Ballard’s Paris Review interview had a big impact, as did Stephen King’s book On Writing. These won’t be for everyone, but in terms of how they both managed family and writing while juggling a host of other commitments, they both gave me real impetus. For inspiration I go to Annie Proulx, Jon McGregor, Sarah Hall… but it changes. Recently, I enjoyed Dreamland by Rosa Rankin-Gee immensely, and I’ve been taking hits of Ted Chiang too. In terms of debuts, I thoroughly enjoyed Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett, The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex, and Victoria Park by Gemma Reeves is exquisite. Lastly, it’s not a debut, but I’m also really excited for Your Show by Ashley Hickson-Lovence. A novelisation of the life of Uriah Rennie, the Premier League referee; I’m all in.

And looking forward, what do you have planned for your next project?

I’m wary about jinxing things while they’re in flight, but right now I’m working on a novel about a fella being haunted by his dead wife. It’s a ghost story with a side of physics. When I pitched the full version to Jen, she said, “I would read the shit out that book”. I’m enjoying it immensely.

And finally, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2023?

Do it! Absolutely without doubt, do it! One of the hardest things for a new writer is getting noticed, and the easiest way to tilt the odds is by getting your work out there. The Caledonia Novel Award is a great way to do that, and there’s really no downside. To be longlisted or more, or simply just entering can give a valuable boost. It’s such a great prize with a terrific reputation, I mean, why wouldn’t you?
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