INTERVIEW: Tristan Hughes on landscapes, ruins and ‘Shattercone’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Tristan Hughes on the research process behind his collection Shattercone (Parthian Books, 2020).

For me, one of the most evocative aspects of the stories that make up Shattercone is their proximity with the natural world. The level of detail in particular draws many of these stories right up to the line between short fiction and nature writing. I wondered if you could elucidate how you approach collecting and then incorporating natural detail into your fiction. Is there a process by which your experiences of the natural world are translated into setting or narrative, or is the environment more a source of abstract inspiration? How does your use of nature-oriented vocabulary, which permeates the collection, feed into that?

I think for me it’s more a kind of hands-on approach rather than a case of abstract inspiration.  The landscapes I know most intimately (and write about), I’ve often tended to experience with my hands very much in dirt, so to speak.  My father is a farmer, and I grew up on a farm in north Wales, so whenever I write about that landscape I’m seeing it partially through that lens.  So, for example, I’d better know what Ragwort is, and looks like, because it’s bad for cows to eat it.  The same is true for northern Ontario, where many of my friends and family live and work very directly with the land – as biologists, as park wardens, as outfitters – and who like to fish and camp and canoe (as I do).  So I think in terms of collecting natural detail it happens in two related ways for me:  getting to know the names and uses of things because you’re involved in activities that require knowing them, and picking up that knowledge and vocabulary because the people around you are using it.  It boils down to a case of simply having spent a lot of time in those landscapes, and spent it with people who know much, much more about them than me, and in different ways and from different perspectives.  And the most important thing is making sure I listen.

We’ll circle back to that idea of listening shortly, but just to continue on that theme of setting for the moment, I wanted to ask how your personal relationships with the recurrent locales in Shattercone and your wider work have affected your prose. In particular I’m curious as to whether you feel a creative distinction within yourself splitting your responses to Canada and Wales, your birthplace and your home. Do you feel that these two disparate locales split you creatively, draw you in different directions, bleed into your work in divergent ways?

I’d probably describe it more in terms of bifurcation rather than splitting.  Because I’ve moved back and forth between those two places for as long as I remember (and still do), I’ve always tended to see one through the lens of the other, with a kind of double-vision.

This was definitely something I wanted to bring out in Shattercone.  I tried to embody the exploration of lives that were entangled and subtly linked across different geographies in the structure of the collection, through the use of twinned stories.  But also through the wider points of connection and overlap between the stories – threads that are not always resolved or tied up, but intersect for a moment in different places and times.  In many ways, the collection was an attempt to stitch together any split, to bring those landscapes together, to see double.  There’s a great line from the Welsh poet, David Jones, where he says that one of the difficulties (and conditions) of art is that sometimes we’re ‘trying to make a shape out of the very things of which one is oneself made.’   And in some senses the shape of the collection reflects, and is made out of, the two places that formed me.

Underneath the natural description and the complex characterisation within Shattercone, there is also a wealth of human history. Your epigraph explains the meaning of ‘shattercone’ as a fragment of rock ‘formed by violent shock-waves’, and for me this seems like a succinct metaphor for the influence of history within the stories. Would you be happy to describe how historical research fits into the process of your narrative designs? Do you consider your stories to be ‘shattercones’, ricocheting from your historical research, or do they have a less consequential relationship with their social context?

I’ve long been influenced by Faulkner’s sense of the past as something perpetually echoing through the present, pulling it into strange, unexpected, and often tragic, shapes.  And I remember being struck, on a visit to see a shattercone in Canada, by how what I was looking at was essentially a landscape of aftermath – that imprinted into what looked like a cliff fringed with trees was this long echo, these petrified shock-waves.  It felt like a perfect metaphor for what I was trying to do with the stories.

A lot of my fiction has grown out of that collision or overlap of landscape and history – the realisation that what appears given and natural turns out to have been indelibly shaped by the social and historical.  I remember how much I loved discovering ruins in remote or hidden places as a child (an old trappers shack in the woods, a derelict farm house in some distant field), and thinking ‘What happened here?’  Usually someone in my family would have a story about them, just as they seemed to for most of the features of the places we lived, and that was my first historical research (as well as probably the most important inspiration for me as a writer).  And in a way not much has changed.  Of course, I tend to supplement those stories these days with books and articles, but the process and template is exactly the same: some incongruous detail, some relic or ruin encountered where you didn’t expect, will start begging questions and pulling on my sleeve.  And that process is often replicated in the narrative structure of the stories themselves.  An echo or shock wave from the past rears up and – whether it be tragic or affirming, a fork in the road or a loop to get stuck in – can’t be ignored.  A lot of the narrative design of the stories revolves around these moments of emergence and recognition.

That’s where the question of setting, landscape and history all overlap.  Geography is never fixed for a writer: every new character, every emotional or imaginative need, every new shard of history, every new narrative, shifts the ground, so to speak.  It leaves you a bit like a medieval map-maker – you have to include the floating islands (and the dragons and the serpents too), because they’re as real as the continents.

That image of you moving through the local landscape and picking up stories from your family really strikes me. To return to what you touched on earlier, in my recent interview with author Alexandros Plasatis, we spoke in detail about the role of the author-as-listener, particular in relation to creating effective dialogue. Specifically, Alexandros spoke about the practice of listening to people ‘as a human, not as a novelist’, even if our interactions still constitute what I describe in this series as ‘research’. Does this ring true for you?

I love that quote from Alexandros – that’s exactly how I’d see it.  As I mentioned above, when I’m listening properly it’s usually not directed or telic.  I almost never think, ‘This is something I’m going to use in a story’ or ‘This is something I’m researching.’  But often fragments of speech will stay with me, ways of describing things, pieces of information and insight, and later – often unexpectedly – they’ll pop up.  The original speech is almost never copied exactly or transcribed – I’m a terrible notebook keeper – but those bits and pieces of language, a phrase here and there, a rhythm in the way people speak, a way of looking, those feel as much a part of the landscape to me as the trees and lakes and so I like to put them into the stories.

Finally I’d like to ask a straightforward question on the nature of research in general, something I’ve asked many of my interviewees but which continues to give a hugely wide range of responses. Speaking as both a Creative Writing practitioner and as an educator, do you feel that your writing constitutes an act of research in and of itself? Is there an extent to which Shattercone is itself a thesis, an exploration of a central question that can only investigated through fictional experimentation? Does fiction, and short fiction specifically, hold that methodological capacity?

I have a good reminder of this question every year, and I’m not sure I’ve ever really resolved it.  Our Creative Writing students do a project in their final year (essentially a longer piece of creative work), and as part of the project they have to write a proposal outlining what they plan to explore and write, including three or four research questions.  Usually there comes a point near the end of the project, as they’re writing their critical reflection on what they’ve done, when one of them will ask, ‘Do I have to have answered my research questions?’  And I’ll try to explain (to myself as much as them) that although we call these questions, we never actually answer them, not in any straightforward sense.  I end up in all sorts of tangles with these explanations, usually descending into increasingly gnomic, Yodaesque utterances, like ‘Well, one way to look at it is that the answer to the question is the artifact you made to explore it’, or ‘The question is the answer, or maybe the answer is the question’, or ‘The writing is trying to figure what exactly it is you’re asking’, or ‘The methodology is the result.’

Perhaps one of the difficulties here is that when translating the creative process into the language of the academy – like research questions and methodologies – the terminology tends to domesticate and defang that process a bit, taking some of the wild, unruly, contingent, chancy, slightly berserk, nature out of it.

What I could say is something like, ‘Writers tend to have a handful of particular preoccupations, obsessions, hauntings, peas-beneath-the-mattress, cosmic naggings, and every new story they write is a fumbling after them, the scratching of a persistent and perpetual itch.  And what’s meant here by methodology is any-which-way-we-can, or as Faulkner memorably put it, ‘trying to knock together a chicken coop in the middle of a hurricane’.  Now I’m not sure I’d be able to include that in a module guide, or a research grant application, but for me it often feels pretty close to the truth.

Tristan Hughes was born in Atikokan in northern Ontario and brought up on the Welsh island of Ynys Mon. He is the author of four novels, Send My Cold Bones Home, Revenant, Eye Lake and Hummingbird, as well as two collections of linked short stories, The Tower and Shattercone. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies Short Story Award, an O Henry Award, the Edward Stanford Award for Fiction with a Sense of Place, and the Wales Book of the Year People’s Choice Award. He is currently a reader in Creative Writing at Cardiff University.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Naomi Booth on transformations, anxieties and ‘Animals at Night’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Naomi Booth on the research process behind her collection Animals at Night (Dead Ink Books, 2022).

Animals at Night feels like a fitting title for a collection that contains so much imagery of British fauna. Encounters between your characters and the animals whose environment they cohabit are frequent, but it struck me while reading that many of these encounters are with animals that are dying, dead or in a state of suspension (as with the caterpillars in ‘The chrysalides’). I wonder to what extent you feel that that image of the animal-as-corpse, undergoing a chemical transformation in the process of decay, ties in with the broader emotional palette of the collection.

It seems to me now—though I couldn’t have articulated this at the time I was writing—that in each story in the collection an intimate human scene is interrupted and/or intensified by an encounter with a non-human animal. I’m attracted to the idea of these stories being disturbed: that the human progress of each story is disrupted, as well as each story containing imagery that might be unsettling, macabre even, as with the dying animals. I find your idea of the process decay resonant—that’s how I understand life, I think: as a process of uncontrollable and exuberant decay. I recently read Anne Boyer’s brilliant non-fiction work The Undying, in which she describes the capacity for literature to illuminate the ‘blurred edge’ between being alive and dead: death and life, sickness and health, are not binary conditions, she tells us. We’re all bound up in the processes of change that produce life. And this can be a source of mystery and wonder as well as of horror, I hope. In one of the stories in this collection, I quote from another brilliant work of non-fiction, Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body, in which Hildyard speaks to a biologist. He tells her that one of the difficulties in establishing whether there’s life on other planets is that there’s no scientific agreement on the definition of life. I find that mind-blowing! I hope that in these stories I occasionally manage to capture the gorgeous, gruesome strangeness of the organic processes of our world.

I think you do, and I think that is further reflected on the way you capture social processes too, not just the working of biological life. To touch on a singular moment in ‘The chrysalides’ just briefly, there is in this story a nod towards how Western society may be in a state of decay or transformation itself, a feeling which came sharply into focus for many people during the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. Do you feel as though this period altered your perception of our social environment and its trajectory?

The last couple of years have felt to me like an intensification of longstanding injustices. I heard Homi K. Bhabha speaking on the radio during the pandemic about a ‘constellation’ of questions regarding life and death, hope and hopelessness, that were prompted by Covid, by the ‘public execution of George Floyd’ and by the precarity of refugee life. The intensification and increased visibility of suffering during the pandemic sometimes made me feel that we must be close to a collective reckoning of some kind. That’s partly what I was working through in ‘The chrysalides’, in which the narrator feels at certain points in the story that transformation must be coming, that certain oppressive structures are surely about to be destroyed. But I’m also pretty sceptical about the way this character feels about the possibility of change: she seems to believe societal change will just ‘happen’, as though it’s a ‘natural’ process for injustice to be revealed and then demolished. She’s chided by her partner for not appreciating that change requires determined, continual, visionary work. I think what we’re experiencing now, as we move into the chronic rather than the acute stages of the pandemic, is a horrible sense of bathos. The transformation didn’t happen: these moribund political systems totter on, are ever more violent. There’s no easy way to feel hopeful about transformation just now. But I guess this is when the work comes in: we have to find moments of hope, those glimpses that things can be different, in order to make anything change.

To stick with that idea of collective bathos for the moment, anxiety is a prevalent theme throughout the collection, often translated into concerns around contamination and sanitisation. Again, I wonder if this is a product of the pandemic, and to what extent that anxiety around cleanliness is indicative of our response to the trauma and loss of control (both personal and social) that so many people are feeling.

I think the pandemic intensified anxieties of contamination for all of us, but also that these concerns were already there: they’ve been longstanding concerns for me, both in my writing and personally. Anxiety seems to be one of the defining, endemic experiences of our age. I think this is related to the climate crisis, as well as to other ways in which our lives and livelihoods might feel precarious. I’m interested in the ways our psyches might be adapting to the experience of growing up and living in a highly contaminated environment—and to knowing that humankind is responsible for this toxicity. My first novel, Sealed, published several years before the pandemic and is often referred to as a work of eco-horror—it revolves around the fears one woman has about environmental contamination and a pandemic, which is heightened for her during her pregnancy. I’ve always been interested in anxiety in my writing, I think, as an intense, fraught experience of connection between the individual and the world around them.

I’m glad you mentioned that link between anxiety and pregnancy, since the theme of new motherhood resonates so strongly throughout the collection. Aside from the analogous relationship of contamination-anxiety to new motherhood, I feel as though the stories in Animals at Night portray motherhood alternately as tied to both responsibility and culpability. The mothers in the collection have complex feelings towards their children, ranging from ecstatic love and protectiveness, right through to guilt and envy. Both mother and child are vulnerable, and both mother and child are culpable. How do you feel about that?

That profound ambivalence you’re describing feels important and true to me. I tend to think of maternity as an anxiogenic condition—as an experience that heightens one’s sense of the dangerousness of the world—and also a condition in which your own risk and vulnerability increases enormously. This is horribly evident right now in relation to pregnancy: the changes to the law around abortion in the US has prompted an outpouring from people sharing deadly experiences of conception—I mean this in both in the sense of pregnancies that have caused imminent risk to the life of the mother and in the sense of unplanned, forced pregnancies that can be life-ending in a more chronic sense. One way to counter the dangerous terminology of the supposedly ‘pro-life’ movement is, I think, to depict all the risky darkness of reproduction, and the way it produces profound encounters with loss, threat, risk and contamination, alongside and sometimes at the same time as its most positive aspects. I think of maternal relations as a powerful dark ecology: an enmeshed experience, which can be ecstatic and/or totally disastrous.

To close I’d like to hone in on the final story in the collection, ‘Sour Hall’. In terms of the story’s eerie rural setting, it reminded me of the novels of Benjamin Wood, Ben Myers, Andrew Michael Hurley, Jenn Ashworth and others, aspects of whose work might be grouped under what some call ‘Northern Noir’. As a writer born and living in Yorkshire, has the atmosphere of that place has influenced your work at all? Do you feel like the eerie, the lonely and the uncanny have any special relationship with the North?

This is a wonderful list of writers to be in the company of. If I tell you that I was born in Bradford on the day that the last victim of the Yorkshire Ripper was discovered, you’ll have a sense of some of the forces that have shaped me and my writing. There are certainly particular places in Yorkshire that gripped my imagination at a formative age: the post-industrial threat and grit of the former mill-town, Dewsbury, that I grew up in; the Calder Valley, and the beauty and desolation of the Pennine moortops; the reckless energy of Leeds on a Saturday night; the commitment to art and music that I discovered at open-mics in Marsden and Hebden Bridge and at the West Indian Centre in Chapeltown. It makes sense to me that the North might often be depicted by its writers as haunted or uncanny—I grew up surrounded by abandoned mills and derelict cinemas and dying town centres and I felt that there were malevolent forces circling around us. Perhaps there were: Jimmy Saville and Margaret Thatcher spring to mind. But I was also surrounded by great swathes of beauty and people full of walloping wit and fortitude. I hope that might make for a northern gothic that also has a sense of humour.

Naomi Booth is the author of Animals at Night, Exit Management, Sealed and The Lost Art of Sinking. Her work has been longlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and included in the Guardian’s Best Fiction of the year 2020. Her story, ‘Sour Hall’, was adapted into an Audible Originals drama series. Naomi lives in York and teaches at Durham University.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Will Burns on community, climate guilt and ‘The Paper Lantern’

 

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Will Burns on the research process behind his novel The Paper Lantern (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021).

The Paper Lantern belongs to the long, complex tradition of how we represent rural England, and I feel as though the novel is conscious of that throughout. Pastoral ideals of the English countryside are presented explicitly as conventions that are available to be manipulated freely, even by those who have no interest in the countryside or the people who live there except as financial or political capital. In light of this, do you feel the dream of rural England is still alive in the collective unconscious? And why is it so vulnerable to being co-opted and exploited?

I think it’s absolutely still alive, in the conscious and unconscious – you only have to see the disjunct between how ‘rural’ the country as a whole sees itself and the actual state of our environment. We’re a people who perceive ourselves as essentially ‘nature-loving’, whatever that means, and yet seem perfectly happy, politically, with a totally degraded river system, a depleted insect and bird population, uplands basically denuded of natural features in order to exploit them for grouse shooting. I think quite simply it’s vulnerable because so much of the relationship between people and the land is affected with old class tensions, running from a sort of cap-doffing acceptance of whatever the moneyed class want to do with ‘their land’, right down to the urbanisation of so much of British life, which has also perhaps informed the last 50 years or so of our ‘nature-loving’ national myth in the face of a life that’s actually, for most people, turned away from the rural and towards the city.

Obviously this is a feature of British life, the cultivation of that national myth, but I’m curious as to whether that might resonate elsewhere. In a novel about the English countryside, I was surprised to see the influence of so many North American nature writers like Tim Lilburn and Wendell Berry. More explicitly, your narrator talks of a longing for the USA’s ‘vast and apparently wild places’, something that essentially we have very little of in the UK. I wonder how North American nature writing has fed into your ideas behind The Paper Lantern, particularly how it might have influenced your ideas about the English natural landscape. Are there points of tension there?

Certainly. I was interested in trying to articulate how strange the relationship is, culturally, between the US and the UK. The pressure, I suppose, that’s been almost constantly applied since the explosion of what we might call ‘pop’ culture – rock’n’roll, American fashion, TV etc… and for me, there was also this constant corollary to that with a love of those particular kinds of writers too, and a kind of yearning for that whole landscape. It felt a part of it, to me, my love of American music – country music in particular – and the land itself. In the novel, it’s also a feature of the narrator’s particular homesickness – their inability to leave, as well as their sickness at, or with, their own place. America seems like a kind of depository for all the speaker’s dreams and imaginings of what somewhere else, somewhere bigger perhaps, might feel like.

I’m reading a lot of rural novels at the moment, and one thing that strikes me is how many stories in that tradition build and utilise a community of ensemble characters. Within a novel set around a village pub I think that’s a particularly natural device, as we see through the motley crew of ‘Petes’ that populate the area, but I’m curious to know if you feel there’s a reason so many rural novels employ these broad casts of characters and caricatures. Is there something intrinsic to our conception of rurality that necessitates this kind of communal representation?

Well, it’s hard to address what anyone else is trying to do artistically, but what I do think is true, in real life, is that smaller, perhaps rural but even suburban, communities have a different kind of communion to those found in big cities. If you live somewhere with very little choice about where you can go out, or what you can do for work, or where your kids go to school, you’ll end up seeing the same people a lot of the time, and I think the casts of characters you refer to reflect that reality in a way. The wording of your question is interesting though and suggests maybe there’s something else going on – that we perhaps desire that aspect of rural life in depictions of rurality, and so maybe we build that reality, when faced with those places, out of that desire. Hard to say which might come first, I suppose…

At the centre of The Paper Lantern is the son of the pub’s landlord, a reflective narrator who uses his experiences around the pub to meditate on the social fabric of rural England. Among one of his most resonant feelings is the sense of his guilt as a young, rural male watching (and not preventing) the world degrade under the weight of a status quo that he hoped the pandemic might unbalance. This is a difficult and complex emotion to navigate, compounded by the ‘everyday violence’ (p.149) of the climate crisis, and I wonder if this comes from a personal place. 

Without a doubt, yes. There’s no way to avoid that sense of guilt, I don’t think, living in a relatively comfortable way in a comfortable part of the world and watching the disaster of our environmental problems unfold on an almost daily basis. I think the speaker is trying to articulate that sense of helplessness as well as implication. They are essentially inert, I think, incapable of action beyond simply walking and thinking. Drinking, perhaps, but that’s another issue… Maybe that inactivity is a symptom of our individual helplessness in the face of systematic ‘violence’ of the kind you refer to, or perhaps it’s a manifestation of its causes. It feels, on a personal level, like a bit of both for me. I’m as implicated as anybody is, living a normal kind of capitalistic life, but I’m also angry, heartbroken, hyper-aware… I try and do what I can. Grow things, garden with sensitivity, pay attention, consume as little as we can. Talk about it in my work. Is that enough? Certainly not, but then again is anything going to be when the game is rigged against us in almost unimaginably huge, monolithic ways?

Finally I’d like to ask about the future of the countryside. The Paper Lantern is at times quite pessimistic about this, particularly in the light of continuing cultural and environmental degradation in the form of projects like HS2. I’m keen to know if you feel there’s room for hope for the soul of the English countryside, and if so, where might that hope be found?

I think the ‘soul’ of it is probably okay. We seem as connected to it as ever – look at the popularity of TV programmes like Springwatch, The Detectorists, Bob and Paul Go Fishing. And of course I have to make the obligatory mention of our collective love of ‘nature writing’. It seems like all these things are opening up a bit, very gradually, to more and more sections of the population, which is great, though that could always be improved. The imaginative countryside, then, would seem to be safe and well. But the real thing, the actual material spaces – it’s hard not to feel like that is under constant threat. I mean, the state of the rivers is a national disgrace, and I think emblematic of the wider problems the countryside faces. It’s an issue caused by all these things being inexorably drawn into our other national obsession – ‘the market’. And it’s never seemed truer or more obvious to me that the market simply cannot solve everything. In the case of our rivers, it’s just made things shittier. Literally.

Will was born in London and lives in Buckinghamshire. Among much else he likes gardening, sports and birds and is Poet-In-Residence at Caught By The River. He was named as one of the 4 Faber & Faber New Poets for 2014 with his debut pamphlet, praised in The Guardian for its ‘quiet intelligence and subtle ways of seeing’, in that series published in October 2014. In 2019 he released Chalk Hill Blue, a collaborative album made with the composer Hannah Peel, which set his poems to her music. The pair toured extensively, finishing the run with a sold-out night at the Barbican, which also featured a contribution from the esteemed sound artist Chris Watson. Will’s first full collection, Country Music, was published with Offord Road Books in 2020, and his debut novel, The Paper Lantern, was published in July 2021 with Weidenfeld & Nicholson for which he was named as one of The Observer’s Top 10 Debut Novelists of 2021.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Emma Timpany on floristry, ancient civilisations and ‘Three Roads’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Emma Timpany on the research process behind her collection Three Roads (Red Squirrel Press, 2022).

As the title of the collection may allude to, one of the core themes of Three Roads, at least in my reading, seems to be choice and consequence. So many of your characters are dealing with the aftermath of difficult choices, or with the consequences that other people’s choices have forced upon them. Do you think this is a fair reading? How does that theme resonate with your own experience of life, and with your general approach to storytelling?

The theme of the collection is about the fact that change comes to us whether we want it to or not. Often it’s forced on us, or we move in one direction only to find something other than what we expected. Often, change is not something many people like at all. We prefer to stay as we are, safe and settled and unruffled by difficulty, but life is change because we are all bound by time. It’s a paradox because time is our greatest gift and yet, because of its ever changing nature, it sometimes makes life seem disorientating and relentless.

My own life has been full of expected events to which I’ve had no choice but to adapt. The death of my father when I was eleven is still with me, although he died forty years ago this April, but the meaning and consequences of that event continue to resonate as I go through various stages of my life. One thing I love about storytelling, and short stories in particular, is that they can deal with difficulty and accommodate great emotional complexity, because we are all immensely complex individuals who feel differently about things from moment to moment. Compared to life, stories follow a relatively narrow path, within which there is still a great deal of room for recognition and resonance in how we cope with, as George Saunders puts it  ‘ … actual, grinding, terrifying life.’ And the wonder of stories is that, unlike life, events can be controlled and changed and even have some kind of resolution.

While the stories in Three Roads are spread over multiple locations, the most obvious distinction in settings is between the UK and Australasia. As a New Zealander who emigrated to the UK, I wonder how these two locales come into dialogue within your creative process. How do you notice your assumedly quite distinct feelings about these two ‘homes’ being made manifest in your work?

I never expected to spend so many years of my adult life living in London and Cornwall. Many of my stories about New Zealand grew out of my homesickness for the much-missed physical landscape of my childhood, and distance provides its own magic mirror, rendering my familiar homescape extraordinary. The landscape is so dominant in the far south of New Zealand that it is often a character in its own right. Growing up, I spent many holidays with my mother’s family in Brisbane and its surrounding areas, a marked contrast to the southern New Zealand landscape but powerfully affecting in its own way. It’s taken me a long time to set any stories in England, but, as I’ve lived in Cornwall for twenty years now, I feel as though I know some of it well enough for it to appear in my work. London, where I lived for ten years, occasionally pops up in my writing, particularly Piccadilly for reasons unknown to me.

One of the recurring motifs that intrigued me in the collection is the relationship between contemporary, personalised events and deep time, as you alluded to earlier. In multiple stories, action in the present interacts with remnants of ancient history (particularly Roman history), archaeology and mythology, always present and yet often partially buried. I wonder, how do you see the traces of history on everyday lived experience? What might these traces have to tell us?

We are surrounded by traces of the lives lived before us and so must be influenced by them to a greater or lesser extent. At university, I studied anthropology, majoring in archaeology, and learnt a great deal about human history and development. I’ve come to see time and human life as a continuum. I was struck by many things I learnt, such as the model we studied of how civilisations grow, peak and collapse, how such things could be predicted, how societies organise themselves, the function of religion, the way we’ve responded to changes in our environment. Humans have had to be attuned to the environment and study it carefully to survive and pass down knowledge, especially the natural cycles of water, wind, seasons and stars. Mythology has always seemed to me a way of interpreting some physical phenomena and the otherwise unexplainable strangeness of the world through stories.

I learnt Latin at school for three years and, alone of my four classmates, loved it because here was a dead language and a dead civilisation, and yet we could read and translate the words written by Roman poets thousands of years ago and know that they felt like us about many things. I returned to study classical Greek civilisation at evening classes in London at City Lit in the 1990s as I hadn’t been able to study classics at school. I had studied Aboriginal Australian, Meso-American, South-East Asian and Pasifika cultures during my degree, but also felt classics was important. So much of Western civilisation is based on Greco-Roman culture, and we are shaped by our culture and society and by the whole of human history, by attitudes and ideas that have been passed down to us. Aside from me, all of my classmates had returned to study after retirement.

I’ve always been interested in how meanings change over time. For example, the title story of my collection, ‘Three Roads’, looks at the mythology surrounding the Roman goddess of the crossroads, Trivia, whose name translated literally means ‘the place where three roads meet’. In Roman times, all children wore an amulet around their necks to protect them from harm, and, upon reaching adolescence, girls dedicated their amulets to Trivia and boys to Mercury at altars on the crossroads. I was interested in how the meaning of the word Trivia had changed over time to mean a gutter or common place and then has, after further changes, eventually come to mean something of little importance.

While on holiday, I’ve often managed to visit interesting archaeological sites, such as the amazing Mesolithic site of Bru na Boinne in County Meath mentioned in the story ‘Stars’, which also references the important Māori midwinter celebration of Matariki. In another story, ‘Error’, two characters walk through a post-industrial mining landscape from the south to north coast of Cornwall. In ‘Par Temps de Pluie’, a character thinks about the time when Piccadilly was marginal land on the edge of the River Thames or Tamesa, the dark one, as she was known then. The ritual of people coming from all parts of mainland Britain to place very round stones in her waters fascinates me, as do the more recent legends such as why Green Park has no flower beds. I always collected these little bits of knowledge (trivia?) because they interest me, and then, often years later, they weave their way into my stories.

Another theme that especially engages me in Three Roads is nature, especially your use of flora not just to provide delicate descriptive passages but also to drive the action. I’m keen to know whether you have a history of working with plants, and how flora has made an impact, if at all, on your life and work.

You are completely right that flowers and plants have been absolutely central to my life. My parents were both florists who met at an Interflora conference in the 1960s. I spent a great deal of my life until the age of twenty-one in our family flower shop, Miss Reid the Florist, in Dunedin. My father was a great gardener so I spent much of my childhood playing in our garden at home. His favourite flowers were regal lilies, and he had many roses which he called by their names – Margaret Merril, Constance Spry, Cecile Brunner –  as if they were his friends. He grew beautiful rhododendrons like Rhododendron fragrantissima and September Snow, and had planted a whole bed of azaleas in reds, oranges and white and lemon which ran down a slope like a bed of flame in late spring. Our garden was also used to grow flowers and foliage for the business, as was my grandmother’s beautiful garden two doors down, a large section which contained a large east-facing slope covered in native forest.

My Australian grandmother, Minnie, started a flower growing and floristry business in Brisbane after my grandfather, Matie, lost his railways job during the Great Depression, and my mother and her four sisters worked as florists in the workshop beneath Minnie’s house. It was a lively space full of people, dogs, cats, bantams and babies when I visited it during the school holidays, which opened out into a jungly garden of papaya and banana trees, and an empty section used in the past for flower growing. A huge stephanotis vine grew up the back of Minnie’s house and reached through the louvered windows on the upstairs veranda, filling the house with its glorious scent. I’d often go upstairs to pick the flowers to use in wedding bouquets, and it may not surprise you to hear that I now keep a rather large stephanotis vine, which flourishes indoors in the warm air of the dining room ceiling. For me, flowers are memory, and I have grown many beloved flowers of my childhood here my garden here in Cornwall, as the temperate climate is very similar to Dunedin.

At university, as well as majoring in anthropology, I also studied other subject modules to make up my degree including history and two years of botany. The old botany department at the University of Otago was a wonderfully gloomy huddle of low buildings set in an secret, overgrown garden behind the Otago Museum, and its faculty were some of the kindest people I have ever met. We began with the simplest forms of plant life, fungi, algae mosses (I’ve had a soft spot for spaghnum moss ever since) and, as with anthropology, worked our way onwards through time with a special focus on native plants. I see that some of things I learned about pine trees later found its way into my story ‘Girls on Motorbikes.’

During my first five years living in London, I worked as a florist, meeting a huge variety of people and seeing extraordinary places. We were lucky enough to have a tiny garden in our first flat in Dartmouth Park Hill and later, after moving to Cornwall, I had the opportunity to grow flowers on a friend of a friend’s smallholding. Cornwall’s mild and wet climate meant that it was a traditional flower-growing area, so I was able to grow many of the flowers I’d used as a florist and sell them locally. After five years, we moved to a house with a large garden where I was able to move all the flowers from the small holding and develop a proper garden of my own which still includes masses of cutting varieties. I’ve also been able to grow beloved plants of my childhood such as a Japanese cherry blossom (Prunus yedoensis), regal and tiger lilies, masses of roses like Zepherine Drouhin and Gertrude Jekyll, Polygonatum (Solomon’s seal) and all the Camassia, hyacinths, tulips, irises, hellebores, cornflowers, hostas, Nectaroscordum, Eryngium, annuals and vegetables that I can fit in.

Running with that theme of flora and growth, I’d like to close by homing in on a line from the final story in the collection, ‘Flowers’. On page 128 we read that ‘Life holds no story unless that story is the growing and the dying.’ I wondered to what extent this epigraph is compatible with your approach to storytelling, particularly within the short fiction medium. And is there a link there feeding back to choice and consequence?

What a great question, although a difficult one to answer. Flowers are closely associated with all the important rituals of human life – birth, marriage, death – as well as other special occasions and celebrations. They are used to celebrate love and to offer condolence silently, replacing the need for words. Their beauty is a comfort to us and their life cycle reflects our own, connecting us to the natural world of which we are a part, as much as we might try to deny it. That is the only story, really, isn’t it? We live and, one day, we die. It’s what we do with the life and time we have that matters.

In terms of storytelling, story structure reflects this natural cycle very closely. Stories rise towards a climax and turning point and then fall again, sometimes rapidly to a close. I think that’s why we like stories so much; they reflect the shape of our lives, but, as writers, we have some control over the outcome of stories which is not always possible in life.

Emma was born and grew up in the far south of New Zealand. She lives in Cornwall. Her publications are the short story collections Three Roads (Red Squirrel Press, 2022), Over the Dam (Red Squirrel Press, 2015) and The Lost of Syros (Cultured Llama Press, 2015). Her novella Travelling in the Dark (Fairlight Books, 2018) is part of their series of Fairlight Moderns. She is co-editor of Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing (The History Press, 2018). Emma’s writing has won awards including the Hall and Woodhouse DLF Writing Prize 2019 and the Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2011. Her work has been published in literary journals in England, New Zealand and Australia.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Helen Cullen on fictional islands, fictional Irelands and ‘The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Helen Cullen on the research process behind her novel The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually (Penguin, 2020).

You’ve spoken elsewhere about how The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually originated from your ideas around the ‘stoic Irish father’ archetype. For me that goes hand-in-hand with one of the other core themes of the novel, that of ‘perfect motherhood’ and its associated psychological pressures. I wondered how your ideas around fatherhood and motherhood fed into the novel as you wrote. Did you speak with or read about parents and their experiences? Did you draw on things you’ve seen and felt first-hand?

Even with works of fiction it is inevitable that an author will draw upon their experiences in the world to inform their work, at least to some degree, but I don’t see my novels as a platform through which I should air ideas I may want to communicate – for me that is the work of non-fiction and journalism. Nonetheless, of course, my representations of motherhood and fatherhood were inspired by what I have witnessed, experienced and encountered – even if all of those different impressions formed are fused together in unrecognisable ways in the fiction from the source materials. I am really interested in the iconisation of the mother in Irish society and so that definitely shaped the lens through which I looked at the mothers I was writing into being. I’m not sure how a writer could attempt to capture Irish society in their work and not interrogate the cultural meaning of the Irish Mammy to some degree, and yet, Irish mothers as protagonists, as subjects with agency and autonomy rather than a symbolic role, have historically been so absent from our literature. I really wanted Maeve in The Truth to be a complex woman for whom her motherhood was just one part of her identity.

Naturally the archetypes of the ‘stoic Irish father’ and the ‘perfect mother’ are tied throughout the novel to ideas of ‘Irishness’ and Irish family culture. As an Irish writer now living in the UK, I’m curious to know if your view of Ireland changed at all as you wrote The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually. Irish history and culture is signposted throughout the temporal structure of the novel, culminating of course in the Marriage Equality Act of 2015, and I feel those cultural allusions give us a sense of mixed feelings, a landscape of contradictions. How do you feel about that?

I don’t plan my novels in advance but rather just follow a narrative thread with the story unravelling as I write, so I didn’t know at the outset what major moments in Irish society would end up featuring in the timeline. Having said that I was burning to write about Ireland and bear witness to the societal changes we’ve experienced in recent years through the lens of one family. As an Irish woman I feel that for a long time I loved my country, but it didn’t really love me back. I have LGBT friends who felt the same, but by the time I finished writing The Truth, I definitely felt like I was in healthier relationship with my homeland.

Staying with ideas of Ireland for the moment, I feel like there are two contrasting environments in The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually – the urban spheres of Dublin and other cities, and the remoteness of Inis Óg. I think its implicit in the characterisation of the islanders why Inis Óg had to be a fiction, but I hoped you could tell us more about how you handled that very real contrast between urban and rural. Did you find, when researching for the novel, that there is a tension between urban Ireland and the Aran Islands? If so, how did you harness and explore that tension?

The fictional island of Inis Óg was hugely inspired by Inis Oírr, the smallest of the Aran Islands, which is a very special place to me. When I first visualised the opening scene of the novel, I just immediately knew that the family lived on an island, but I didn’t want the anxiety of trying to recreate Inis Oírr from my unreliable memory. I felt that would stall the writing and so I gave myself the freedom of creating an alternative setting where my imagination could roam freely. Placing a novel on an island is a great gift a writer can give themselves because of the inherent metaphorical power that exists. I felt it offered another dimension to the questions of othering that are raised in the novel, and how many people feel disconnected from the mainstream/mainland. The Dublin/London/Galway urban scenes offered a different texture, a contrasting space, where we could see the characters interact with those other environments in what are hopefully illuminating ways. I’m really interested in how our physical environments informs our sense of personal place and I think we see this particularly starkly with Maeve – but also in how the children’s relationship with the island changes over time. If there is a tension I harnessed to do with location, it is more the tension that comes with having a complicated relationship with the idea of home.

Whilst there are several allusions to creative activity throughout the novel, I was drawn to Murtagh’s description of pottery’s ‘capacity to allow the obsessions of the interior world become manifest’. I wonder to what extent you feel that capacity in literature, when the act of writing is so much more obviously linked to conscious design. I know part of your process is not to write to a strict blueprint, but did you feel, as you wrote, that you found your interior world becoming manifest?

I think it’s less my personal interior world becoming manifest but rather the workings of the imagination becoming so.

Perhaps the most persistent intertextual force in the novel is that of Keats, whose poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ appears in an abridged form at the centre of the novel. What is it about Keats that resonated with your narrative ideas for The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually? What is it about Keats that speaks to you today, 200 years after his death?

It was the character of Maeve that led me to Keats – a huge part of the process of developing characters for me is discovering what art they look to in order to help them understand their world and to articulate their experiences – what music they love, what literature they read, what philosophers stir something for them. It just became clear to me as I understood Maeve better that Keats would be one of the voices that would resonate with her in a meaningful way. I understand, of course, that the resonance must originate with me first but so much of what we do is just following instincts that later are harder to retrospectively deconstruct. It feels to me that Maeve led me to Keats, even though I know it must be the other way around!

Aside from Keats, the novel is filled with intertextual references to both to literature and to pop culture in general. Actually, I feel as though the intertextual references ground us to the wider movements of Irish and international culture as the characters develop within their emotional worlds. To close, I’d like to ask as plainly as possible – does Christy Moore know he has a fictional donkey named after him?

Ha! I doubt it but if he does, I hope he takes it as a compliment!

Helen Cullen is an Irish writer living in London. Her debut novel The Lost Letters of William Woolf was published by Penguin in July 2018 in the UK, Ireland, Australia and South Africa and published in America by Harper Collins in June 2019. The novel is also available in translation in numerous foreign markets including Italy, Germany, Russia, Greece and Israel where it hit the bestseller charts. The Lost Letters of William Woolf has also been optioned for television by Mainstreet Pictures. The novel also garnered Helen a Best Newcomer nomination in the An Post Irish Book Awards 2018. Her second novel The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually was published in Ireland and the UK and as The Dazzling Truth in the USA and Canada in August 2020. You can find Helen on Twitter, instagram and Facebook as @wordsofhelen

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Janet H Swinney on authenticity, orthography and ‘The House with Two Letter-Boxes’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Janet H Swinney on the research process behind her collection The House with Two Letter-Boxes (Fly on the Wall Press, 2021).

One of the real joys of The House with Two Letter-Boxes is how you immerse your readers in the thoughts, feelings and experiences of ‘ordinary’ people in the North East. I say ‘ordinary’ because though these are stories about families who struggle under the domestic pressures of life, they are frequently, consistently, extraordinary. How important is representing the ‘ordinary’ people of the North East to you, if at all? Do you feel you are writing into an area of historical underrepresentation?

Let’s take the issue of class first. Naturally, I write about the place that I come from, and the class I originated in. But the people and experiences I’m writing about are extraordinary only inasmuch as our education system dispossesses many of us of our own past, and therefore we’re not familiar with it. It’s important to continually address that severely limited version of history.

The truth is that people living just above or just below the poverty line have their own ways of surviving. Their circumstances compel them to look out for each other; to be inventive and resourceful; to find ways round the system. That’s probably true everywhere, not just in the North East. You only have to read about some of the touching acts of generosity, of solidarity, that took place within and between mining communities during the 1984 Miners’ Strike, to appreciate this.

Thanks to numerous TV dramatisations, Catherine Cookson is probably still the North East’s best-known writer of fiction, one who consistently tackles issues of class, power and poverty, but what I’ve noticed about her work is that it lacks any humour. And one thing the North East seems to major in is dry wit. Plus, an awful seam of tragicomedy is never far from the surface in everyday life and I’m not aware of any prose writer who does justice to that. There’s Pat Barker, of course, a major figure in contemporary English literature, but I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read enough of her work to be able to comment on it.

I think it’s TV drama that tends to put regions on the map. I have huge admiration for Jimmy McGovern and Alan Bleasdale, and Phil Redmond in the early days of Brookside who have done a huge amount to bring the lives of working-class Liverpudlians into the public consciousness. But despite Peter Flannery’s compelling TV series Our Friends in the North, the North East doesn’t seem to have gained the same sort of traction. I’m going to ponder this point more now that you’ve prompted me think about it.

Building on the idea of place, I’m curious to know how you approached recreating authentic North Eastern speech patterns in your dialogue. In the title story in particular, your use of dialect immerses in the reader in what feels like an authentic and direct experience of the culture. I’d like to know what challenges you might have faced in translating that voice to the page?

Good question. This is a matter I’ve tussled with for a long time. Since childhood, I’ve been conscious of the fact that different generations in the same community speak differently from each other. The education system, the media and parents who want their children to be upwardly mobile are all forces that work towards increasing standardisation in the use of spoken English.

I still hear the voices of the earlier generations clearly in my head, so the challenge is how to transcribe them. What I aim to achieve is the character’s voice lifting off the page and becoming live sound in the reader’s head. So that’s the thing: to try and arrive at a form of orthography that isn’t so arcane that it places an obstacle between the reader and the character, and yet does justice to the accent or dialect.

In fact, there’s no perfect answer to this question. Local vocabulary, idioms and sentence constructions are fairly straightforward to represent. It’s common words that are the problem: things like pronouns, possessives and the contractions of verbs. We don’t go in for diphthongs much in the North East, so even the first person possessive adjective, conventionally written ‘my’ is a nightmare. The Standard English version would be represented as /mai/, whereas for Wearside, this would be closer to /mi/. I was mightily relieved to find the actor Hannah Wood to record the audio version of the book, because I felt the listener wouldn’t be questioning her pronunciation all the time. But even then, Hannah is a Teessider, so her pronunciation of this troublesome word is different again: /ma/. In the end, this was an alternative I decided I had to accept because everything else about her work was so good.

Another issue is the word conventionally written ‘who’. The Wearsider’s version would be /wi/. But ‘wi’ would look peculiar, and you can’t write it as ‘we’ or it then becomes confused with the first person plural pronoun. In the end, I settled for the Scots convention ‘whae’, which I’m not entirely satisfied with. (Incidentally, I recommend watching the comedian Kevin Bridges describing a meltdown he has during his school exams when he has to write the word ‘who’.  Watch here).

Once you’ve decided on the spellings you’re going to use then, of course, you have to be consistent about their use. That can be a nightmare when it comes to editing.

Over the years, it’s been very interesting to see how various writers have tried to capture ‘the vernacular’ in their work. Of those based in these islands, I’d rate James Kelman and Roddy Doyle as probably the most successful. And I’m totally awe of Amitav Ghosh who in his book ‘Sea of Poppies’, set in India in the nineteenth century, created a range of entirely convincing varieties of English to typify the country’s social, religious and ethnic communities.

I’d like to roll with that broader theme of the relationship between authenticity and research for a moment, if I may. I’m keen to know how research, particularly research into stories that might have fallen out of your immediate sphere of observation, fed into The House with Two Letter-Boxes. Which of these stories, would you say, leant the most on formal research practices?

Some stories involve huge amounts of research, others none at all. Actually, I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to authenticity. For example, I could remember the kind of invalid carriage that would have been used by Norman in ‘Tenterhooks’, but I couldn’t rest until I’d tracked down the make and model, just to be sure it wasn’t a figment of my imagination. Then there was the matter of the knitting machine. I wanted to be certain of the model and the number of needles in the bed. You can be sure if you get these things wrong, some other nerd will point it out.

Of all the stories, ‘Black Boy Winning’ probably involved the most research, but it was done over years. In fact, research triggered the story. One day, the penny dropped with me that the aristocracy owned not just everything above ground but everything below it as well (Jeremy Paxman makes much of the ludicrousness of this situation in his book Black Gold). From then on, I wanted to know what this meant in reality for those who lived in mining communities and worked underground. (As school children, we were given only the crudest information about the operation of a coal mine.) It ended up with me consulting mining maps in Durham County library to see where the coal seams ran, and reading many accounts of mining disasters. I also wanted to be certain what the cloud from a pit explosion would look like: it was difficult to get to the bottom of that one. Along the way, I discovered that my own village had moved in location according to the opening and closing various mines. Not much of the research actually appears in the finished story, but it’s important to do it so that you write with confidence.

‘Black Boy Winning’ was filmed with the actors Susan Jameson and James Bolam as the narrators to mark the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Durham Miners’ Gala. You can find it here.

Continuing with real-world research, throughout the collection I found a tangible tension between the various structures of power that have traditionally separated men and women. This is explored in many ways, from financial autonomy to domestic violence, but I’m particularly keen to ask how you feel the case of Ruth Ellis – the last woman hanged in the UK (after murdering her male lover) – might have helped you contextualise your thoughts on gender inequality. How did you come across Ruth Ellis’ story, and when did you realise you wanted to integrate it into your short story ‘Slipping the Cable’? And following that, what can the case of Ruth Ellis teach us today?

I was vaguely aware of the Ruth Ellis case as I was growing up. It was one of these scandalous cases that newspapers like The People and The News of the World ‘exhume’ periodically to titillate their readers. As The People was the reading material available in our house on Sundays, that’s probably where I came across it, without any real understanding of its significance. It had no bearing on my views about gender equality. These were already well formed by the time I came to finalise this story.

Not long after the brutal murder of Sarah Everard, I was in discussion with my publisher, Isabelle Kenyon at Fly on the Wall Press, about the collection she planned to publish. It suddenly occurred to us that gender-based violence was a significant theme in the book. I realised that I had other stories that dealt with this theme. I took out ‘Slipping the Cable’ and looked at it with fresh eyes. I had a rather leaden courtroom scene in it that I decided had to go. I thought, ‘Surely there must have been an actual case happening at the time of this episode that would provide a much better counterpoint?’ And, lo and behold, there was! This led to a complete overhaul of the story, with several thousands of words being jettisoned, and the two strands, the private and public domains, being woven together. We added this and one more story to the collection.

A very interesting post presented itself on my Facebook page the other day. Someone asked, ‘If men were absent from the world for twenty-four hours, what would you do?’ Nearly all the women who answered wrote about longing to be free to roam the natural world, especially at night-time, without fear of being attacked. That’s what men need to understand: that they curtail the nature of women’s very existence because of the power they have assumed and the culture they perpetuate. But we are co-inhabitants of this planet and have the same moral right to enjoy what it has to offer.

Women’s concerns and fears are often not listened to or taken seriously and there’s a long way to go in terms of sorting this out. But one thing we have learned in the UK from the Ruth Ellis case is that you can’t treat murder as a straightforward act when it’s the outcome of sustained domestic abuse. Ruth Ellis had been brutalised and insulted for some time before she set out to murder her lover, David Blakely. She’d recently miscarried and she was traumatised at the time of the trial. Although she freely confessed to having killed Blakely, there were extenuating circumstances. Criminal procedure would recognise that now.

I think we’ve touched on aspects of this already, but I’m keen to get your thoughts on how memory feeds into your work. Many of these stories (set largely in the past) achieve their verisimilitude through the feeling of authenticity – of lived experience, perhaps – that your written style encourages. There is an openness here, a fragility as well, and I wonder how closely you rely on personal memories for your narrative design. Is there a tension there between memory and imagination, and if so might this open a writer up to vulnerability?

The answer to this question is different for each story. Some do, to greater or lesser extent, reflect my lived experience or the lived experience of others; others are entirely imagined. Does that make me vulnerable? I have no strong feelings about the matter. I grew up in an environment and an era where children were not encouraged to be forthcoming. So I wasn’t. To this day, writing remains my preferred modus operandi when there’s something significant to be said.

Finally, I’d like to touch one of the central recurring images of the collection – knitting. Aside from the fact that motifs like this might work their way unconsciously into a writer’s work (perhaps you just like knitting), it does strike me as a pertinent metaphor for how the various themes of your work are threaded together. Sometimes it feels as though your characters could almost be neighbours, with their lives interweaving in delicate and invisible ways. I wonder if this rings true for you, both in terms of characterisation and the wider imagined world of the North East that you knit together.

I think the analogy is misplaced, to be honest. Yes, the characters could be neighbours, and I hope I’ll be inventing more neighbours for them in the future.

But I think what you’re touching on is a rather different point. What I’m really interested in is the precision crafts that many working-class people were highly proficient in and whose value is now often overlooked. These stories feature hand-knitting, machine-knitting and crochet. Unfortunately, in ‘Mr. Singer’s Empire’ Sheena’s Mam buggers up her efforts with the sewing machine, but in several of the other stories, the craft skills of the protagonists turn out to be weapons against oppression and poverty.

I read that in Ireland, the lace-encrusted garments of Roman Catholic priests were interred in the ground with them after death. On the one hand that’s an amazing testimony of faith, on the other it’s a waste of work produced by highly skilled women. I wanted to do something to exhume those buried artefacts and to make the effort involved in creating them visible. That’s the analogy.

Janet H Swinney’s stories have appeared in print anthologies and online journals across the UK, India and the USA, including Fabula and The Bombay Review. Her story ‘The Map of Bihar’ was nominated for the Eric Hoffer prize for prose in 2012 and she was a runner-up for the London Short Story Prize in 2014. She has had listings in many competitions including two longlistings for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and several shortlistings in the Fish International and Ilkley Literature Festival competitions. Her story ‘Foxtrot in Fulham was a finalist in the USA’s ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story competition in 2021 and ‘Oculus’ was a semi-finalist in 2018.

Janet’s second collection of short fiction, The House with Two Letter-Boxes, was published in December 2021 by Fly on the Wall Press. Her first collection, The Map of Bihar and Other Stories, was published in 2019 by Circaidy Gregory Press.

www.janethswinney.com

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

INTERVIEW: Harry Gallon on rurality, landlords and ‘Small Rivers’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Harry Gallon on the research process behind his novel Small Rivers (Dead Ink Books, 2021).

It feels to me as though aspects of Small Rivers complement the recent wave of anti-pastoral landscape writing – a kind of rural menace we also find in Benjamin Myers, Benjamin Wood and others. In Small Rivers, rural England is presented as rotten, tired and culturally-stagnant, motifs which are echoed in your descriptions of the natural landscape. Obviously this has a direct link with your depiction of the historical setting (Brexit-era Britain) but I wonder to what extent you’ve drawn from wider literature that examines the menace of rural England. What writers have fed into that for you, if any, and do any contemporary novels spring to mind?

Generally, the answer to this feels as though it should include everything that has influenced, and continues to influence, my relationship with Britain and the British landscape throughout my life. It’s harder to pinpoint certain specific literary works on the subject when the most poignant thing has been a general feeling—something that I have felt exists within me, in various forms, since I was a child. Back then, I was all about Biggles and watching war films with my dad. We always lived in the countryside, moving around between various rental properties, so the landscape has very much been a character, and since I was fascinated with history, I would do a lot of reading about old battlefields. The British Isles has a violent history, long before empire, and so it felt important to communicate the inconsistencies in the idea of the green and pleasant land, which is, after all, no more than a tool of nationalist propaganda. This was definitely a running theme in Ben Myer’s The Gallows Pole and Under the Rock, which both influenced how I decided to approach this subject in Small Rivers. But I was also reading academic and historical books on British farming, railways, airfields and general infrastructure that has all but vanished from the rural communities they once served. I say vanished, but deliberately removed is correct, as a kind of disenfranchisement that successive governments have inflicted on those communities since the end of World War Two. When it came to writing specifically about agriculture, John Connell’s The Cow Book and 2016’s The Levelling, directed by Hope Dickson Leach, were excellent—The Cow Book for its wonderful comparisons of contemporary family-run farming (in Ireland, rather than Britain, but those processes are largely the same), and the history of agriculture, animal husbandry and humanity’s relationship with the land they live on. Meanwhile, The Levelling included the kind of gritty, cold, harsh reality of trying to maintain a small farm, its protagonist reluctantly returning to take the reins in much the same way as my own (this, too, happens in The Cow Book). That was important, because so much of farming has been passed down generationally, but in the face of corporate agriculture, poor pay and a plethora of different lifestyle and career paths, younger people are not as keen anymore. As for looking at the countryside through the lens of the Brexit era, 2017’s God’s Own Country, directed by Francis Lee, feels painfully accurate, its beauty and tenderness at odds with the racism that foreign farm labourers receive from British people who rely on their labour for sustenance.

That’s fascinating. I’m particularly curious to know how those personal experiences of rural England you mention might have shaped the plot design of Small Rivers. When I spoke with the author Ruth Gilligan on her research for The Butchers, I was fascinated to hear that she’d spent extended periods of time studying practices and conditions on Irish borderland farms. Did you do any specific naturalistic or agricultural research to help achieve the anti-pastoral tone of the novel? And if so, did your perception of the environment change as you researched?

Well, as previously mentioned, I grew up in the countryside. Most of the homes my family lived in were rented from a single, wealthy landowner, who also owned a lot of farmland. It was an open farming estate, basically, with through roads and some other properties he didn’t own, but he was our landlord for years, and though he didn’t farm himself, he employed a farm manager and other workers who did. So, I grew up playing on these farms—trespassing in the woods, building dams in the small streams, dens in the bushes, sneaking between farm buildings, breaking occasional windows. My family were not farmers, but we had chickens at various times, and my dad, brother and I would shoot the occasional rabbit for dinner. I knew what a landlord was, but I had no concept of how intangible our existence was. We moved around this farming estate, and the land itself, the byways, tracks and fields, became the only real constant in mine and my brother’s lives. I did a lot of looking back while writing Small Rivers, to this time, and to just how strange it was to have such a close relationship with the landscape, the dirt, the puddles, the need for it, but effectively being tenants. That’s all the public are, these days—tenants, renting a space on an island they’ve been conned into fighting for and defending for centuries, which, now more than ever, is owned by just a few obscenely rich people.

It wasn’t until my mum got together with a farmer, married and moved onto his farm, that that lifestyle held a bigger place in my life. My stepfather employed me for a couple of years before I went to university, and then London, so mucking out barns, herding cattle, driving tractors, crashing tractors, ploughing fields and putting up barbed wire fences, was something I did most days. It was enjoyable work, for the most part, and felt very natural, and though I haven’t done it for years, most of those processes haven’t changed (at least on my mum’s farm), which was one of the main reasons Small Rivers is set on a farm, too. Buildings sag and equipment rusts, as the farm languishes, slipping further into redundancy and outdatedness, while livelihoods evolve to meet the needs, and desires, of modern life. I didn’t do any field research for Small Rivers, because I had already done it, and actual farm work is not the point of the book; it’s not a manual for how to corn cart or hitch a trailer. Knowing how a small, family-run farm works (and doesn’t) was just the flavour.

Yes, I think there’s definitely a sense of ‘lived experience’ in the novel, certainly in terms of the use of setting as a frame for your characters. With that in mind, I was struck by your use of traditional rural archetypes – the struggling farmer, the city-slicker, the disgruntled labourer and others. This latter archetype, typified by the violently-xenophobic Damien, is one I’m particularly keen to explore. I’m curious as to how you built his character, and why you chose to build it with (arguably) no redeeming characteristics. Is this a fair summation? And, in a more critical sense, do you feel there is an aspect of demonisation in play here, reflected even down to the character’s name?

I had very mixed feelings about whether or not to redeem Damien. I think redemption is possible for everyone, in some form at least, and did not want to simply punish him for his beliefs. However, Damien was designed to represent everything that is wrong with the modern British psyche—self-entitled, self-interested, self-pitying, sexist, racist. These are not good qualities, and I made sure not to tar every peripheral character, i.e. rural villagers, with the same brush. Likewise, I made sure not to make Toby or Angelica, the young city dwellers, these bastions of progressive thought and change. They are flawed, too. They are also kind of douchebags, living in their own bubbles and wondering why other people don’t agree with them without looking at whether or not the issues that form the basis of their disagreements are part of a wider problem (late-stage capitalism).

Though set at the end of 2016, not specifically mentioning the EU Referendum was important because the deliberate campaign of misinformation and cheating that won it for Vote Leave had been ongoing for years and years. I think it’s fair to say that Damien is representative of how much people were tricked by the powers that be; how much they’re used by a system that does not care about their actual wellbeing, but whilst those people are not all ‘bad’ (read as xenophobic, racist etc…) I felt the story needed there to be that objectively bad character (and it had to be a male one, as this is predominantly a white masculine issue), because the country is so divided between right and wrong. That’s not black and white, though, because each side thinks they are right. I have my own stance and opinions, and of course things like nationalism and xenophobia are bad, and I definitely wrote that into Small Rivers, but I also thought it unfair to demonise Damien, and what he represents, completely. Of course, it’s not stated which side he would take, how he would have voted in 2016 or with which party he would align. Rather, I’d say he abstained, and what’s bad about him can be quantified by his acts of crime: stealing, arson and attempting to poison a water source are objectively wrong. However, these are directed at Frank, another Englishman, rather than Irena and Jerzy, the Polish couple Frank hires to replace him, so it’s more likely Damien was trying to fight back against a system, such as landownership, which considers him disposable. The problem is, however, that Damien’s actions are clouded by his entitlement, so whilst Frank may be representative of that system, Damien’s clearly in the wrong, and is also targeting the wrong person, just like each side of the divided public, who bicker with and threaten each other (sometimes worse, obviously) rather than unifying against who is actually responsible, and to blame, for why the country’s in such a terrible state.

Sidestepping the obvious political implications present there, I’m keen to circle back to something you mentioned earlier around your childhood experiences. Something that really jumped out at me while reading is the link between English rural life and childhood, a link which is found across the generations though may be quickly disappearing. To an extent, Small Rivers turns the classic bucolic-childhood view of rurality on its head by returning Toby and Angelica to a neglected environment, robbing them of the romantic vision of the countryside that English culture often seems to associate with childhood. Do you think this link between rurality and childhood is still present in our culture, and how do you feel Small Rivers speaks to that theme?

For those born and raised in towns and cities, often in poorer communities, the countryside is probably something that feels very distant and inaccessible. The link between childhood and countryside is real, but perhaps reserved for people from more privileged backgrounds, who grew up in the countryside and then moved to large cities for work or university. I consider myself very lucky to have grown up, whilst by no means financially stable, definitely middle class. When I left home at the age of 19, and then moved to London at 23, I was very keen to put that link behind me, associating my childhood in the countryside with negative family experiences, such as a messy divorce and the toing and froing, emotional manipulation and mental health issues that define the years that followed. I think generally it’s natural for young adults to want to put space between their childhood and their present, regardless of what that past represents, or if it contains trauma, when they leave home for the first time, because it’s necessary for the formation of individuality and adulthood. The world of Small Rivers very much exists in that link, which is like a liminal space; a no-man’s land that connects us to past and place.

For me, and for the characters in Small Rivers, place is four things: the countryside and the city, the past and the present. By moving to a place so concrete, I was letting go of that link in a very clear way, and rarely went back to the places I’d grown up, even to visit family. It wasn’t for many years that I began to feel a need for reconciliation. Feeling good about going back to those places was only made available to me after much personal change and growth, and it was with that in mind that I wrote the link between the countryside and childhood; the idea of escape, return and reconciliation, into Small Rivers. Of course, Toby and Angelica did not leave the farm for the same reason. The death of their mother had only hastened their departure, leaving Frank, their father, to stay the course and try to keep the past, and the memory of his wife, alive. Of course, what Frank doesn’t realise is that his children keep that link with them wherever they go. It’s always present, and Angelica specifically returning from Berlin (Germany being picked deliberately because of Britain’s tedious obsession with the war), Small Rivers turns the idea of reconciliation on a personal, family level, to a national one. The return to the farm is also a return to Britain, but a new one, hopefully; one not ensnared by nostalgia, riddled with amnesia and strangled by the disease of nationalism.

I’m glad you’ve touched on the idea of looking forward because I’m curious to know what you feel the future of the English countryside might look like. Amid the cultural and environmental changes spreading outwards from our increasingly-swollen cities, and amid the continuing crisis of British farming, is there room for hope in our vision of rural England?

Where to begin? Hope is always there, I suppose, but since 2019 I have found it increasingly difficult to remain optimistic about a lot of things, including the environment. British farming and the countryside are intrinsically linked to the climate crisis, obviously, which the current government seem hell bent on accelerating. Sewage dumped into every waterway. New coal mines. The abominably pointless HS2. London centricism. Fracking. Blood sports. These people are violent, self-interested criminals, and they would clearly rather line their pockets than do anything that would benefit us, or the environment. The farming community was tricked into voting for Brexit, despite the fact that so many farmers were receiving massive subsidies from the EU. Same for fishing. That referendum was an endeavour not towards any sort of liberation for the people, but to allow the few people in power the freedom to keep exploiting everything the land and its people have to offer. This isn’t a comment on whether or not the European Union is problematic and needs reforming—the book isn’t about that—but it is a comment on internationalism, and the relationship between capitalism and the environment. In reality, and in Small Rivers, cash-strapped farmers are selling off their land to developers and energy companies, or turning their fields into paddocks and renting out stables to rich horse owners who drive Range Rovers everywhere. Natural, ancient forests are being torn down and replaced with non-native evergreens for logging. Biodiversity is at an all time low. It’s pretty bleak, but I suppose one good thing to take away is that members of the public are more conscious than ever of the need to protect the countryside, to subvert class and economic structures and make it accessible, and to make farming practices sustainable. The pandemic has certainly heightened this awareness, with successive lockdowns make people crave wide, open space. Bark. Moss. Petrichor. There’s hope in people, then, which seems ironic since people, after years of being worn down, disenfranchised, scapegoated, manipulated and murdered, are also very easily tricked into voting for villains.

Harry Gallon is a London-based author and ghostwriter, represented by Imogen Pelham at Marjacq Scripts. He has an MA in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of Winchester, reads for The Bridport Prize first novel award, Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prize, Jericho Writers and The Literary Consultancy, and is a contributing editor for Minor Lit[s]. His work features in numerous publications, including Forward Poetry, Open Pen and The London Magazine, while his debut novel, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, was published by Dead Ink Books in 2015, its follow-up, Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, in 2017. His third novel, Small Rivers, was published in May 2021.

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.