Bookish Berliners have long known Victoria Gosling as the founder of The Reader, an organisation that has been offering creative writing courses, manuscript assessments and events for about a decade. Now, she is finally in print herself: her debut novel Before the Ruins (Henry Holt & Co.) was just released in the US, to serious critical acclaim.
Its protagonist Andy thinks she has put her difficult youth behind her and settled into a flashy (if unfulfilling) corporate job. But the sudden disappearance of her childhood best friend Peter sends her digging through her past – particularly the days that she and her friends spent playing an imaginative treasure-seeking game in an abandoned country manor.
Congratulations on your novel. Is this a strange time to see it come out?
Yes, it was supposed to be out last year, but it was moved because of the pandemic and the US election. The publishers were probably thinking, well, January will be a little calmer! But I’ve been really lucky with the reviews. The New York Times chose it as a best upcoming book. I was not expecting this kind of reception. I mean, in a really fucking shit year [laughs], personally there have been these very nice things happening.
One of the novel’s themes is the relationship between the real and the unreal. Does that feel pertinent in this moment when everyone’s living rather separate and virtual lives?
It’s definitely sped up the process. Andy is someone who’s very isolated – and most people are more isolated now than they were a year ago. I have a big internet habit, I spend way too much time online. And I think that’s probably just increased for people this year. The internet has offered many fantastic things, but there is a reason we all trash our social media and news habits – we know that the things we seek from them, the things they give us, are just facsimiles. With Andy, what she looks for online is what she lacks the confidence to seek from other people in real life.
In a traditional coming-of-age novel, the main character learns to give away childish games, to embrace what’s real and settle down. But grown-up, professionally successful Andy is unsettled…
Definitely. You know, her younger life was so rocky, and then she went to London, which is a very easy place to slip between the cracks. She’s achieved these things that are really difficult – things that she presents to the world outside – but they have come at the cost, I think, of her not having any intimate connections. Peter’s disappearance is the catalyst she needs. She sets off exploring her past and what happened at the manor, because she knows the key to escaping the trap she’s created for herself lies back there.
It’s a way of healing, for her, and she has a relationship that’s really transformative. Intimate relationships – really intimate relationships – are the places where transformation is possible. Where we risk things and gain things. When you’re very intimate with someone, you get to see how they see the world; and if you have to resolve conflict, then it’s a place you have to develop trust. That, for me, is something quite special.
Andy reflects later on that life is full of mysteries that can’t be solved, but we all must keep on investigating ourselves. Is that true for everyone?
Everyone, everyone! It’s very easy to forget how amazing everything is, and to get sucked into a materialistic view of the world. There are these deep mysteries about ourselves, about why we’re here – about our relationships with other people. There is so much we don’t know about ourselves, too, about what the people around us really think about us. So we’re all operating blind a lot of the time, and to remain interested in life’s mystery – that’s something that’s really important.
We’re all operating blind a lot of the time, and to remain interested in life’s mystery – that’s something that’s really important.
It must have been hard to find time for the novel, considering all your activities at The Reader. Does teaching writing help your writing?
Absolutely. I don’t think I could have published this book if it hadn’t been for The Reader. I’ve learned so much from working with other writers, trying to think why something is or isn’t working. I think it really alerts you to a lot of your own bad habits. A lot of things I would get frustrated with when reading other people’s work, I’d then realise I was also doing them myself [laughs]. It’s all incredibly helpful, and it’s improved me as a writer.
Has the community around The Reader changed much in the last decade?
In 2008, when I arrived, if your German wasn’t good then you could either work as a tour guide or an English teacher. I’ve watched the city become this tech and start- up hub, and the community of people who speak English and want to write creatively has just exploded. This is a city for young creative people. And that has brought a lot of people to The Reader – but it isn’t just young people, we get people in their 70s coming in for workshops too.
The city’s also become more expensive. Is Berlin pricing out its writers?
That’s what first brought me to Berlin – that I could work part-time and write the other half. The rents have gone up a lot, which means people have to work more. But this new rent cap is levelling the playing field again. I have friends whose rent has been halved because of the cap. If it continues, that would be fantastic. What you need as a writer is – well, here is what I need. I need time, lots of time. I need space. And a bit of community is really helpful. When I was working on my own, it could sometimes be hard to get the wheels turning. Being around people who were also writing and sharing their work is very motivating.