Charlotte Faibairn in conversation with Imogen Davies about her fourth novel Cried Out the River For Love

How would you describe your book in a few sentences?

Broadly speaking, Cried out the River for Love is about love within families and, more specifically, about the unknowability of everybody including and especially those you love. A sculptor, Eustace, a costume-maker, Isabella, and their daughter, Sybilla, live aboard a barge. As Sybilla grows older, she grows away from her parents in spite of their love for her and in spite of their apparently happy existence. At some point, Sybilla disappears and the book follows the parents’ journey towards ‘finding’ her.

What sparked the idea for this novel? Why did you write it?

I have always been drawn to writing about characters whose back is turned to you. What you imagine they are thinking as opposed to what they are thinking. I suppose this is the basis of all fiction, that you give your characters life and then you have to inhabit something that may have become independent of you. Much like having children. The idea behind this novel in particular was, like many ideas, an agglomeration of snippets of stories I had heard that finally gelled into something I could imagine and make my own.

The title for your novel is unique. What was the inspiration behind it?

I like to start writing a book with the title set – it gives you a direction to head in – and I knew I wanted to write about joy and pain and a river. So there it was.

Cried Out The River is all about family ties, what does family mean to you?

Family means to me what it means to everyone – all the closest and dearest and most poignant and most wonderful of experiences are shared with your family. As are the most painful.

The novel is set in a fantastical nameless city, the main characters living in a barge that floats upon a river that flows through it. What influenced this setting?

We live in Cumbria and in 2020, I wanted to buy myself a base in London. Halfway through lockdown, I had an epiphany and thought of either a broom cupboard miles from the centre or a houseboat. We chose the latter and bought Ann of Goole. While the nameless city and river have their own identity, the spirit of our houseboat feels like a great floating cradle to me and those who live aboard. I love metre and musicality in writing. I love hinting that place might be sentient. In my very first book which I wrote yonks ago, I gave a voice to a house, and that is very much part of this novel.

Your language in the book is so expressive and magical. Do you have a writing routine or writing habits?
1000 words a day, usually in the morning. 5000 words a week, editing as I go. All that when I am actually working on a book. Otherwise very random.

What was the most challenging part of writing the book?

In all honesty, this book was a joy to write and easy. I suppose I struggled to make sure the ending matched the rest, but it took me five months from start to finish.

What’s your favourite passage of Cried Out The River and why?

There are lots of parts I am proud of, but one of the ones I remember most clearly writing was the passage towards the end when Isabella knocks a red geranium and the petals spread like tears across the water:

One day I am standing on the roof of the cabin of the boat and I see Jemima or Jennifer, I am sure it is her, at the far corner of the basin. I am sitting cross-legged on the camomile and the smell of it is warm in the sun, around my knees, spongey and warm. I stand up in a jerk, it is her, it is her, and I knock a red geranium and almost kick it into the water and although it does not fall, a shower of its petals does, red tears streaming down the side of the cabin and onto the water. I climb down and I run down the steps and along the, I don’t know, the razor blade of everything, the razor blade of hope because maybe Sybilla has come back, maybe she is found, maybe she has come back. If lost means that she does not want to be found, found means that she wants to be found, that she chooses to return. Found means I should run like the wind to the place where the girl is standing and throw my arms around Sybilla because she will be there, next to her. Found means that I should stand somewhere high and wrap my hands around my mouth and shout out to Eustace, wherever he is along the river, EUSTACE!, she is found. Found means that I should burst into Mrs Wilson’s class and try not to frighten Freda while I pull her by anything I can get hold of until I can explain and she can run with me and she can run with me.