Talking to The Wastes


“Truth, pretending, endings, and the stories we necessarily tell ourselves and each other.” Ellie Hoskins on a fragmentary and poetic debut novel by Roy Claire Potter…  

A good book, to me, feels like a good conversation. I want to read something and be hit so hard by its truth or its beauty or its good humour that I find myself passionately underlining passages, and scribbling responses in the margins. My copy of The Wastes, the debut novel of artist and writer Roy Claire Potter, is littered with such annotations. I underlined what I related to the most: the parts about the truth, pretending, endings, and the stories we necessarily tell to ourselves and each other.

The story Potter tells in The Wastes is fragmented and poetic. Past and present collide to paint a portrait of the narrator, whose mother is dead, and who is headed to the Pennines, to a piece of land which bequeathed the book its title, ominously called The Wastes. We learn that they hate public transport and struggle with doors; that they used to sit in an unsuspecting housemate’s bed, surveying their room; that their mother taught them to always keep a few biscuits hidden in reserve, so that, at some unspecified future time, they could experience gratitude.

I met Potter when I was an art student; they visited my university to give a lecture. Afterwards, during a tutorial, they questioned one of my verb choices, and wrote a list of alternatives, asking me to consider the impact each might have on a sentence. It was the first time I’d stopped to question the power of a single word. I’ve carried what I learned during that interaction ever since. So it came as no surprise to me that language is deployed with laser precision in The Wastes. Words are perfect, sentences are sharp. You can get a taste of them in the text below, which can be read as a conversation between the book (bold text) and me (plain text).


In, or out. 

A figure dithers in a doorway, incapable of crossing the physical threshold.

Whatever it had been, it was over. 

There are mental thresholds, too. Ones that you can’t see, but that you can feel. You pass them like a shadow-line, unknowing, until you gain some distance, look back and realise: it’s over. Done. Youth is lost in this way. Great days spent with people you love are lost in this way. It’s almost as though there are thresholds so impossibly sad that our hearts have figured out a way to shield us from them. We’re driven through them blind to stop us from exploding. What we aren’t protected from is the compulsion to look back through the rear-view mirror afterwards, and the knowledge, in hindsight, that that was it, it’s over, done.

Everything was so casual, somehow. 

It is insane to me that reality unfolds as casually as it does. I walk outside and expect to find the streets filled with people screaming and crying and throwing up, but that’s not what I find.

There’s the odd person earnestly losing their mind or suffering from some kind of heartbreak. I’ve seen a deliveroo driver crying whilst riding his bike. But mostly, people just pass through straight-faced and casually. Maybe they’re just casual people having a casual day. Or maybe they’re just great at pretending.

I want to be able to climb inside a casual-looking person’s brain and see what’s really going on in there. I want the truth. And I want to know what their tactics are for denying the truth so skilfully.

A flicker of honesty passed between us before it was necessarily snuffed out.

The truth is intimate.

It’s possible to catch a glimpse of someone in a moment when they think they’re completely alone. I’ve watched smiles drop, as though from a cliff, from the faces of people who have just turned their back on a brief interaction with someone they kind of know.

It’s hard not to wonder if anybody’s ever seen my own truth – if anyone has watched me when I was certain nobody was. I remember a quote from Tumblr, I must have read it over ten years ago. It suggested that if you were able to watch a person when they were alone, really alone, you’d be forced to fall in love with them. I loved that quote. I felt it was true. I’m pretty sure I still do.

Which begs the question: am I lovable in the moments when I’m alone?

I sit slumped with a face like a slapped arse, mostly. But also, I sit drawing in a state of complete flow, and find myself saying out loud: I love this. I look at my naked body in the mirror, or feel it with my fingers, and feel disgusted, sometimes crying at the level of disgust, sometimes retreating in silent and tired defeat. I walk away from the toilet without washing my hands. I pick at and squeeze the spots on my back and screw up my face in pain. I watch videos about chess and then play strangers online and call my opponents, out loud, into thin air, fucking stupid idiots. I call myself a fucking stupid idiot, too. I get comfy and cosy in bed with a giant seal teddy called Humphrey, and a small penguin called Poppsy and I rub my feet together like a little insect and try to feel cute. I send my finger into the depths of my belly button and then bring it back out and sniff it. I play with the hairs on the most intimate parts of my body. I open cupboards and then close them, disappointed. I eat a lot of shit. I eat entire packets of things that are made to be shared, and then I eat some more. I sing along to sad songs by Damien Rice and boygenius. I scroll for hours. And then I throw my phone to the other side of the bed. And then I pick it up again two seconds later.

These things are all categorically true. And yet somehow, they’re not the whole truth. They don’t feel true enough. For it to be true enough, you’d have to crawl into my body and brain and feel it from inside there.

I’m reminded of another quote, from Acts of Desperation, a novel by Megan Nolan:

“I would die knowing things about myself that nobody else on earth did. They were experiences that lived only in me and could never be replicated or recounted. And sometimes, like now, the distance seemed too sad to live with.”

What a perfect triplet of sentences.

It can get you in trouble, saying what you mean in the wrong context, at the wrong moment, just because you mean it, really mean it. 

I often wonder what the world would look like if we all woke up one day and decided to make a fool out of casual contexts with the truth. I write out scenes in which it happens… reality punctured by something that is actually real. Example:

With my gut wrenched and my mouth full of teeth, I walked into Greggs. The woman serving me was clearly depressed. She took the tongs from the tray and told me she was sick of herself. Took aim at an anaemic looking vegan sausage roll and told me she was sick of only ever speaking in short, angry stories and sick of needing to be needed. Told me she couldn’t get far enough away from herself. She’d tried escaping into sci-fi worlds, into Star Wars, that kind of thing, but it was all so…. shit. She also told me my sausage roll would be cold. I didn’t mind, and I let her know. Told her that I actually prefer them cold because the sausage part hardens during the cooling process and becomes less mushy. She looked at me like I was really strange and handed me my cold pastry. Then she stared into my eyes and advised me: you should get the app. You’re in here so much. If you get the app, you’ll get some free stuff. What a fucking shan. What an embarrassment. I thanked her through clenched teeth, wished her a pleasant day, and never went back to that Greggs again.

In the last few years of her life, my mother sought to rewrite her history.

It’s sad to think of someone at the end of their life, sitting with the truth, and the truth not being enough.

Someone told me that death is like a soup that you spend your whole life slowly making. I need to start being a bit more mindful of the soup that I’m making for myself: I don’t want to get to the end and be inconsolable, filled with mostly regret and shame. I want to be able to remember how in love I’d been with the people and things in my life. How much I’d laughed. How many times I’d made someone else laugh.

It was a story factory. 

Stories, and their telling, is a seemingly necessary condition of being alive. They make sense of the world. They give satisfying beginnings and endings and middles to the ongoing, anxiety-inducing sludge of time, and they soothe and entertain us. At the end of the day, we all just want, no, need, to be soothed and entertained.

Some people are better than others at stories, and we might find ourselves desperate to be around the people that are most convincing in their telling of them. I’ve met people who are convincing. They demand the attention of a room. They are unwavering in their energy. Grounded. They make you feel safe. They make you laugh.

I felt my mother expected a narrative stability of me that I couldn’t live up to. 

Likewise, some people are better than others at playing their roles within someone else’s story. It all comes down to pretending, and some of us aren’t very good at it, at least not naturally. It’s an effort. A slog. Something that keeps us up at night, forcibly rehearsing so that we might be better actors in the lives of other people.

I’m not sure I believe I have a self, not in any definitive way. If anything, I am an archive of scripts and each night I play a game called: Now, what would you say if someone said…
I rehearse the answers.
I pull something out for the occasion. 

We pull ourselves together so often. We pull ourselves together so well.

For the benefit of others, I appear to be at ease.

Have you ever experienced that thing where you’re with someone else and you’re scared and freaking out, but the person you’re with is even more scared, so you find yourself taking one for the team and becoming the person you need to be, a brave person, for the sake of whoever you’re with. It’s happened to me. Almost like there’s a secret store of something good and strong within you, and it was being saved for when it really mattered.

Pretend you haven’t noticed. 

Sometimes, you just need to pretend it’s not happening, until it really isn’t happening. You’re losing your mind in the crisp aisle at Tesco but you manage, somehow, to avoid a scene, to look at ease. Nobody knows that you’ve just remembered you’re going to die. Or that, worse, you’re going to be alive when the people you love the most in the world die. Nobody knows that you’re picturing, in graphic detail, a scene from the future in which world-shattering news reaches you through the phone. Nobody knows that for a minute, you feel absolutely incapable of making it through this life. Nobody knows that you’re knee deep in a psychic crisis that has you feeling like the very concept of somehow coping is completely, impossibly, insane.

It can’t go on, but it does. 

You have no choice in the matter. The world keeps spinning and the people in it find a way to cope, somehow. They tell themselves stories, go to the pub, have orgasms, eat biscuits, travel to find better places, hike until they feel more like a blade of grass than a person, grow blind to the past, grow blind to the future, grow blind to anything that isn’t here and now and manageable.

Jo laughed, so I bought the drinks.

This sentence sits alone on the page, and I like to think of it as a miniature, seven-word story.

Laughter can make you want to stick around a place for a bit longer. To buy in another round. It can really be as simple as that.

Ellie Hoskins

Images, from top: RCP portrait (cropped) by Ilaria Falli; Cover Image Courtesy Book Works

The Wastes is published as part of Arrhythmia, a series curated for Book Works by Katrina Palmer. It is available for pre-order now. Roy Claire Potter is in conversation at the launch of The Wastes at London’s Cafe Oto, 2pm, Sunday 30 June


Posted on 28/06/2024 by thedoublenegative