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Interview: Dr Sarah Jackson

In the last of our New Generation Thinker interviews, Dr Sarah Jackson talks about the strangeness of the telephone, the most famous journalist you've never heard of and her most enduring literary influence.


Sarah is a senior lecturer in the School of Arts and Humanities at Nottingham Trent University. Her current research explores the relationship between the telephone and literature from the work of Arthur Conan Doyle to that of Haruki Murakami and why Sigmund Freud detested the telephone. The project involves research at the BT Archives which hold the public records of the world’s oldest communications company. She is also a poet whose collection Pelt won the prestigious Seamus Heaney Prize in 2012. She reads her poetry and fiction across the UK and USA.

AH: When you pitched to become one of the New Generation Thinkers you focused on the relationship between the telephone and literature. Can you explain more about this now essential everyday item and its place in writing and why you decided to research more about it?

SJ: To tell the truth, I’ve always been a little afraid of the telephone. Perhaps it’s a fear of unanswered calls or of finding myself speechless. But it’s also to do with what the telephone does to our idea of the voice. And I’m not alone: I’m discovering that a number of writers admit to their own a peculiar relationship with the phone. It terrified Franz Kafka, for example, and yet it crops up everywhere in his work. In fact, the phone plays an interesting role throughout the literature of the last one hundred and fifty years; Muriel Spark’s Momento Mori, Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies and Robert Frost’s poem ‘The Telephone’ are just three examples. A couple of years ago I was reading the correspondence between authors J. M. Coetzee and Paul Auster and I was particularly intrigued by what Coetzee had to say about the disruptive potential of the mobile phone in the development of plot. And that got me thinking about how the telephone continues to change the ways that we read and write.

AH: Was there a Eureka moment when you knew that you wanted to become an academic?

SJ: ‘Academic’ is a strange word and it often feels like a strange vocation. The word stems from the intellectual pursuits of Plato’s Academy, but it can also be taken to mean irrelevant or trivial. Actually, I’m not sure that I see myself as an academic at all (in either sense), and there was certainly no single moment that I decided that this is what I wanted to ‘be’. I’m still trying to figure that one out. But I guess if I think about my job in terms of reading, writing, thinking and teaching, then it’s always something I’ve wanted to ‘do’. My love of literature was renewed in my early twenties when I left university and got a job my first ‘proper’ job for a large commercial publishing firm. Although I was surrounded by books – a dream come true – I wasn’t happy. It was during the course of this year that I realised that I still wanted to research and write. It’s not the right place for everyone to do this, but in so many respects, academia is the right place for me.

AH: Can you tell me about a key area of research that you’re working on at the moment that really excites you?

SJ: Right now I’m writing about the early literary history of the telephone, looking in particular at the work of Kate Field, a nineteenth-century American journalist, writer and actor. Written about as much as she wrote, Field is a really interesting figure and can perhaps be considered the first celebrity journalist. At her death she was heralded in the New York Tribune as one of the best known women in America, yet few have heard of her today. In 1877, shortly after her arrival in England, she met Alexander Graham Bell who employed her to promote his famous invention in Great Britain. In fact, she was utterly enamoured with the telephone, describing it as ‘wonderful’ with ‘no end to its utility’, even predicting that one day ‘every house will be connected’! In 1878 she edited a pamphlet entitled The History of Bell’s Telephone, which includes an ‘intercepted letter’ to Ella from Puss describing the latter’s conversation with an ‘invisible’ stranger on the other end of the line. First they whistle, then they sing and breathe, before the inevitable telephonic kiss. This proves, Puss writes, the ‘wonderful delicacy’ of the instrument, although she admits: ‘I can’t say honestly that this final experiment was as satisfactory in its results as the ordinary way of performing the operation.’

AH: Do you have a favourite book that has inspired your passion for contemporary literature?

SJ: It’s immensely difficult to single out a favourite but Jacques Derrida’s The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond is probably the work that has had the most profound and enduring influence on the direction of my own work. The first half of the book is called ‘Envois’, which can be translated as ‘Sendings’, and it consists of a remarkable series of love letters to an unnamed addressee. What’s more, the correspondence has been destroyed in a fire so only fragments remain. In one of these half-burned letters, Derrida recounts discovering a postcard in the Bodleian library featuring an illustration of Plato and Socrates at a writing desk. Discussing the position of these two figures, he wonders whose hand is writing, provoking all sorts of questions about authorship and spectrality – questions that reverberate throughout the text. It’s an utterly haunting and beautiful book, and one to which I always return.

AH: Is there a historical figure that you particularly identify with?

SJ: I can’t say that I identify with a particular historical figure (such figures are most often known for acts of genius or atrocity), but there are a series of early twentieth century women with whom I remain fascinated. Hilda Doolittle, or ‘H.D. Imagiste’ as Ezra Pound hailed her in 1912, is one of them. She was an Anglo-American author who spent most of her life in Europe, where she wrote fiction, poetry, autobiography and criticism. One of the reasons I’m drawn to her is the way that she wrote across formal disciplinary boundaries, publishing children’s books such as The Hedgehog alongside meditative and conceptual works such as Notes on Thought and Vision. As a lecturer in English and Creative Writing, and author of both critical and creative works, my writing also straddles different genres as well as attempting to explore the spaces between them. In that way, I think we share something. But that’s probably where any comparison ends!

AH: What advice would you give to someone thinking of following an academic career path?

SJ: Believe in what you do.

AH: What role do you see for academics in helping us to understand the lessons of history and meet the challenges of the future?

SJ: This is a very difficult question. For a start, I find myself questioning the very idea of the ‘future’. The philosopher Jacques Derrida talks about two kinds of future: there is the future that we can reasonably predict is going to happen: tomorrow the sun will rise, the 2020 Olympic Games will be held in Tokyo. For Derrida, this isn’t really the future. What he means by the future is that which cannot be anticipated. It is related to the French l’avenir and the idea of arrival or that which is ‘to come’, and it can only ever be known after the event. It is, in a sense, the unknowable. So although we often think of academia as being bound up with knowledge, perhaps our role is to think about that which cannot be known. This isn’t just the job of academics, but we do have a particular platform from which to ask such difficult questions.

AH: If you could travel back in time to a particular period of history, where would you go?

SJ: I’m fascinated by Sigmund Freud, and I’d love to travel back in time to witness his ‘talking cure’ in action. It was of course a terrifying and turbulent period in history, but if I could, perhaps I’d listen in on one of H.D.’s psychoanalytic sessions: she undertook analysis with him during 1933 and 1934 and recorded her impressions in Tribute to Freud. Here, and in her letters to Bryher, she refers to Freud’s relationship with his dogs – particularly his beloved chow, Jofi, who she describes as licking Freud’s hand during analysis. I’d love to meet H.D., Freud and his dog, although as Freud tells H.D. on her first visit, Jofi ‘is very difficult with strangers’ and I’d be afraid of getting bitten!

AH: Do you have any top tips for early career researchers that want to get into radio and TV?

SJ: Tell stories.

AH: How have your found finding your voice when talking and being interviewed on Radio 3?

SJ: To return the point I started with, the idea of finding your voice is a peculiar one. It suggests that there is just one voice, and that it is there for the finding. I think I’ll always be caught up in the ongoing process of searching for it (or them) – that’s why I write. And I’ve loved adding the radio as a medium for this search. It’s exhilarating, absorbing and really makes you pay attention to the quality and sound of each individual word. But the radio further complicates the idea of the voice because there’s something particularly unnerving about hearing your own voice played back to you: I hear it and I think who on earth does that voice belong to? It’s certainly not my own.

If you have been inspired by the stories of our 2016 New Generation Thinkers and are an Early Career Researcher yourself, why not apply for the 2017 New Generation Thinkers scheme.

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