Adam Scovell: On Mothlight


Earlier this year, author and academic Adam Scovell’s debut novel Mothlight was published. A “story of grief, memory and the price of obsession”, it is a deep dive into place, identity and the uncanny told through the relationship between the protagonist, Thomas, and Phyllis Ewans, a prominent researcher in his care. Adding to the experience of the reader, the book’s narrative combines text with found photographs left to Scovell, to conjure what he calls the “contained life” and awe captured in the aspic of photography. Here, using excerpts and some of those images interspersed throughout Mothlight, the author provides a glimpse into both his and Thomas’ relationship to the photographs.

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What Thomas says: “I decided to take a picture of the room, which was now tidied so that I could sleep in it comfortably. It was taken on an old Polaroid camera of Phyllis Ewans’ rather than my own, which had a handful of photos still left in it. I held the Polaroid photo in my hand, staring at it and comparing it to how the room looked through my eyes. It was still her room, no matter how hard I tried.”

What Adam says: There were so many beautiful Polaroids in the box of Phyllis’ photographs that it took a long time to figure out which would be left out of the book. But there were around three or four that took my breath away and this was one of them. It’s such a banal photo at first but to my eyes it looks nothing less than a room neatly arranged after someone has died; it’s sunny but the curtains have been drawn; it’s tidy but in a really absent way. It’s all so quaintly domestic but there’s something odd in the very action of documenting it. It’s also the only photo in the novel that Thomas takes credit for which is important.

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What Thomas says: “One of the few directions she left after her death was regarding the photographs to be used in any pamphlets or handouts for her funeral. The first she chose was a picture of her when she was much younger, a picture I remember her describing to me with a rare sense of pride. ‘Don’t you think I look like a scientist,’ she had said to me one day, many years earlier. I concurred, and considered that I had not seen any photos of people that looked more scientific.”

What Adam says: I love this photograph of Phyl. She was always old in my eyes as she was in her seventies when I first met her so any photo of her when younger plays with the limits of my own perception. It’s such a simple portrait and yet there’s so much character in there. Knowing the person she was later on, living in a virtual labyrinth of books, it seems a fittingly bookish photograph and I especially adore her bow tie. I think she was actually working in accounts for a company at this point.

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What Thomas says: “After the death of Miss Ewans, I was searching through her photographs when I came upon a Polaroid. It showed a slightly descending green hill, littered with black-headed gulls. At the end of the hill there sat a lake, rippling in the breeze with a handful of boats sitting on the water. I could not explain why a vision of this place had appeared before me in the forest whilst chasing the copper blue, but I knew that it would plague me if I did not at least try and figure out the whereabouts of this vision and what it meant. Miss Ewans had clearly taken the photograph. It conformed to her typical compositional eye for bisecting the photo with strong lines of land, water and sky. But, I questioned whilst sat in her living room holding the photograph, whose hand had held mine?”

What Adam says: Again, I love the ordinary nature of so many of the photos that Phyl took and wanted to find a way in which to make them seem a little stranger. In this case, Thomas actually ends up having a vision of this photograph early on in life. The trip it was supposed to have been taken on is really the event that haunts the novel from Phyl’s point of view too. The colours of those 1970s Polaroids are endlessly glorious and I like the idea of a brighter haunting rather than a moodier one.

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What Thomas says: “She pulled out one photograph from a drawer and showed it to me, the nostalgia coming full circle as it fixed the memory with a warm visual. ‘This was the last photograph I took of the house before I moved here,’ she said, almost with pride. It was of the hallway of the house on a sunny day, spring edging its way in. The light shone beautifully.”

What Adam says: This for me is the best photograph in the novel for a number of reasons besides it’s obviously beautiful aesthetic. It certainly reminds of the way that Andrei Tarkovsky used light in some of his Polaroids but the doorway was the one that I came to know when I knew Phyl and so it’s one of the few photos that properly connects to my own experience of knowing her. I can still feel the sunlight drifting down onto that carpet and see the dust that it lit up in the air. I also felt on revisiting it later in life that it reminded of the doorway from the opening of Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) which is still a favourite of mine.

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What Thomas says: “Billie looks pale but happy in the picture, typically glamorous as she arranges a huge vase of flowers. It would have made for a better funeral photo. Her hair is surprisingly darker than the platinum blond in all other photographs of her. I suspected briefly that it was the flowers that had led to the photograph being saved rather than as a memento of a sibling, but the absence of Billie from all other aspects of the London house showed it to be otherwise. Perhaps, so I thought at the time, it was quiet evidence that Phyllis Ewans thought of her sister with more than simply the malice I had seen her fall back into during reminiscences.”

What Adam says: The photographs of Billie are mostly in the first chapter and I wanted to make sure there were plenty as she was so polar to Phyl as a person, in the book and in real life. Certainly her character was more true to reality than Phyl’s in the book and she was always glamorous, rather like the character from one of the 1960s Robert Aldrich films. I can image a late Joan Crawford playing her with aplomb. The light in this particular photo is beautifully strange too, not quite colour yet doused in a rather camp purple which I really like.

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What Thomas says: “The photograph was just as vibrant as the fragment, suggesting that the pictures had been taken in the same period. It was an incredibly blue picture showing a small harbour, undoubtedly constructed for pleasure boating rather than business, by some lakeside that I guessed was probably in Wales, the same place I had seen in an earlier photo and in my teenage vision in the forest. I could hear the gulls again, feeling the occasional spray of water on my face, becoming momentarily held within the photograph as if it was my own or, more accurately, as if I was at that moment in the act of taking it.”

What Adam says: I love the pairings of photos from this trip that are so pivotal to the latter two chapters of the book. They seemed ripe to use in the narrative. I’m pretty certain that it’s Lake Bala and the landscapes are beautifully rendered in the colourful grain. I also really like the subtle markers that this isn’t the present; the coat, the boat, the small 70s looking dinghy. Whenever I take my own Polaroids I’m always conscious of how the analogue grain is constantly battling with the garish, glistening elements of modern life and design. So these photos have a purity of image which I think is virtually impossible to recreate without great effort even though they’re essentially just holiday snaps.

As told to Mike Pinnington

Read our interview with Adam.

Catch the author in conversation at Spike Island, Bristol: Novel Writers: Adam Scovell, Mothlight

Posted on 19/07/2019 by thedoublenegative