In a new series, journalist Jo Rodgers meets authors to discuss their latest books, find out what they’re reading, and get a glimpse into their lives.
This month, Jo meets London-based writer Natasha Brown on a hot summer day at the canalside cafe, Towpath. Here, they discuss writing rituals, aerial circuses, and Natasha’s debut novel, Assembly.
While she was working full-time and outlining her first book, Natasha Brown, author of the debut novel Assembly, aimed to write 100 words per day. On weekdays, she would get up early in Mile End, London, brew a large pot of black coffee, and write from 6am to 7am before catching the tube to the City. “And those 100 words would take me the full hour and sometimes longer,” Natasha says, “because I edit as I go, which everyone tells you not to do.” Weekends were reserved for planning and more editing. Holidays were spent, gratefully, on unconstrained writing time. “I had no social life, I forgot about the gym,” she says, laughing, leaning sideways in her chair.
During a heatwave one morning in late July, Natasha and I are walking along Regent’s Canal, having the same can-you-believe-this-sunshine exchange as everyone else. Shoals of power-walkers and cyclists pass, and the fug of sunscreen makes it smell as though, eyes closed, we might be on a beach. We find seats in front of the kitchen at Towpath Cafe, where cooks are slicing Marinda tomatoes and filling cups with quince jam.
Assembly was published in the UK in June. “I take hope from Assembly,” said the writer Diana Evans, “not just for our literature but also for our slow awakening.” Ali Smith called it “a quiet, measured call to revolution.” In brief, rhythmic prose, we follow an unnamed Black woman to work, to the doctor’s office, to the station platform. This woman, the narrator of Assembly, is a middle-class triumph. She graduated from Oxbridge, joined a corporation, made—in the words of her white, aristocratic boyfriend—“a shit ton of money,” which she used to buy a Georgian flat in a neighbourhood that’s also on the up. She keeps her head down, challenges nothing, and ascends: a promotion; more money; an invitation to the boyfriend’s family home in the country, where there’s a garden party tomorrow. She’s had to numb herself, though, to sustain the racism that’s endemic to the world she’s in, and by the time we meet her, she is eerily passive. Parallels to the 2017 film Get Out are sharp. A cancer diagnosis spurs the narrator to look at the life that she has pieced together.
At the cafe, Natasha and I are sitting side by side at the end of a folding table, in a narrow slice of shade, facing the paddle boats in the canal. Iced coffees, two plates of tomatoes on toast, and a bowl of cherries are in front of us. We both have quieter-than-average speaking voices, so we’re slightly hunched, trying to stay close enough to the recorder to be heard. Brown is quick to laugh, and quick to make me laugh, so the recording is full of soft voices and louder cackling.
First the ice breakers: Natasha is 31 years old, born and raised in London to a family who surrounded her with books (“my mum would do things like challenge me to read all of the Shakespeare in my grandparent’s library, which I didn’t manage to do”). She’s a vegetarian, doesn’t drive, and read mathematics at Cambridge. Assembly is not autobiographical, a question she gets asked a lot. She asks if I’ve heard of aerial circus (“trapeze and things”), which I haven’t. Natasha used to do it for fun, travelling to a specialised gym in Greenwich to suspend from silks. Fitness is her hobby—she’s also done calisthenics (“so handstands, learning how to do a pull-up, that kind of thing”), CrossFit, and weightlifting. During the pandemic, she took up spinning from home.
She is influenced by writers such as Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Hanif Kureishi, Maggie Nelson, and ZZ Packer. When she saw Packer listed as a literary influence on her agent Emma Paterson’s profile, back before Paterson represented her, “there was a big moment of oh, I really hope she likes my book.” Paterson did. They worked together on Assembly to make it slightly longer, though still slender at a hundred pages, and submitted it to editors in time for the Frankfurt Book Fair last year.
We talk about what it’s like to be publishing a book about racism, at a time when people are eager to read about it. “I wanted to write it in a way that you don’t feel lectured by this character,” she says. “You’re exploring these ideas with her [the narrator], and I don’t want it to feel insubstantial, but I did want there to be plenty of space for someone reading it to bring their own life and experiences and perspective to it.” I wonder whether she was hoping to provoke any particular response from readers. “I suppose the question I wanted to ask was can language be neutral,” she says, “particularly when we’re talking about race, is it possible to talk in terms that aren’t political? I think those were the questions that I was reading nonfiction to understand. It really is a questioning novel. I feel quite lucky that those questions are coming out and people, readers, seem to be having conversations. That was really what I wanted to do.”
Lately, she’s been reading Of the Farm by John Updike. Her next novel, which features a character we already know from Assembly, is partially set on a farm. Natasha has been researching the rural setting and hopes to travel and take notes in person soon. She left her office job in February to concentrate on the publication of Assembly, and with so much momentum behind her, I wonder whether she’ll ever get the train to the City again.
Natasha looks at the canal and hesitates. “It seems strange to me to rule out going back. I know a lot of people expect me to say that, but I still feel as though I have plenty of years ahead of me… sometimes structure and constraints are helpful too. I’m not at the point where it makes sense to rule anything out.”
Interview by Jo Rodgers.
Photographs by Marco Kesseler.
Assembly is published by Penguin.