Over the moon to announce my debut A BAD DECADE FOR GOOD PEOPLE has been picked up by the wonderful Parthian Books! Details via The Bookseller article below:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Richard Smyth on the research process behind his novel The Woodcock (Fairlight Books, 2021).
The Woodcock feels as though it is, in some ways, about Englishness and our idea of England. It centres around what is commonly thought of as our ‘third’ landscape environment – the coast (following from urban and rural) – and I wonder to what extent you feel that our idea of England or Englishness is tied to the natural and social life of the coast. On top of that, is there an extent to which this life, like the foundations at Gravely, has been eroded over time?
What I find especially interesting about the northern English coast is that it has this dual identity: as a resort, as a place you go for a fortnight in the summer, a non-place, in some ways, defined by what it’s not (it’s not home, it’s not work, it’s not routine), and then for the people who live there year-round a very hard place, a place of little work, often a bitter climate, precarious livings – and a hard place to get away from, too. For various reasons I’m wary of ‘Englishness’ narratives but in the novel I tried to get across both of these ideas – how on one hand a non-local, Jon, finds in the coast a place where certain ‘fixed’ values are found to be frayed, where the centre, so to speak, cannot hold, while, on the other hand, the community itself is – through lessons hard-learned – cautious, commonsense, and conservative.
Erosion is a constant presence in the book, but I think (for me, and my view isn’t the be-all and end-all) it relates to something more fundamental than the values of our shrinking islands. One of the two epigraphs in the book comes from Moby-Dick: ‘In her murderous hold this frigate earth is ballasted with bones of millions of the drowned.’ I think of erosion and I think of those old Suffolk churchyards chewed open by the North Sea, and all the bones exposed. There’s a darkness within everything. The underpinning worldview of The Woodcock is pretty stark (one friend, after reading it, called me ‘an apocalyptic little so-and-so’; another told a mutual friend he was ‘impressed by the bleakness of my vision’). If you don’t like it, as Groucho Marx said, I have others.
Of course, although I think I can see why you chose to thread the novel’s worldview and setting together in such a way, particularly as someone who has holidayed regularly in Skegness… On a serious note, I was also interested in how you support your use of setting with first person narration from both Jon and his wife Harriet. I’m keen to know how you approached researching and building an authentic narrative voice, particularly in regards to the rhythm of 1920s speech and sentence structure. Was it a challenge to capture that voice, and to what extent did literature of the time feed into that?
This is a really interesting question. Was it a challenge? No – but then, I wasn’t attempting a note-perfect recreation of 1920s speech (or north-east-Yorkshire speech, come to that). Making these things work is a delicate and hard-to-describe business, and, like spin bowling or fly-fishing, it has a lot to do with touch, with intuitive judgment. It’s about the feel of language, and that sense of ‘rightness’ that we often, sometimes correctly, call authenticity. I think there are human rhythms in the English language – and presumably other languages, I’m afraid I wouldn’t know – that (up to a point) transcend period: nail those, and that’s half the battle. Beyond that, I find – as with so much in creative writing – it’s a matter of trusting myself. I haven’t exactly steeped myself in the literature of the period but I’ve read a decent amount and I felt that I could, in a manner of speaking, do the voice – that is, capture the fundaments of the language, without having all the characters talk like Tuppy Glossop.
On top of all this, there are always layers within historical fiction, tricky onion-skins of irony, imitation, postmodernism, pastiche, and so on. There’s a lot going on whether we like it or not. I think The Woodcock, while being a relatively ‘straight’ novel in terms of its form, does to a degree subvert the genre (actually this is something critics have picked up on more than I ever intended): in its language, yes, and also its unsteady morality, the attitudes to sex, the sex itself, the politics, the constant interpositions of history, ancient and modern – I think all of these things, while (for what it’s worth) ‘authentic’ in the novel, are in a quite complicated interplay with the present.
That’s true, and again perhaps that speaks to what your friend referred to as the ‘apocalyptic’ in your prose. That said, I feel as though The Woodcock also looks backwards, and much further backwards than contemporaneous literature. One key intertextual source for the novel is the Bible – not just in the numerous quotations taken from it but in the archetypal relationship of Jonathan and David. Recently I asked the author Carys Bray what she felt it meant to use the Bible as source material, and whether her relationship with the text changed as she wrote her novel When the Lights Go Out. I’m keen to get your perspective on this in relation to The Woodcock, and more generally on whether you feel Biblical stories are fit for repurposing in the modern age.
A funny one for me, this, as a staunch lifelong atheist. I really have no feelings at all about the Bible other than literary ones. It’s an inexhaustible source of rich, evocative language and imagery – often very dark imagery, and very complicated imagery – sometimes it’s like hearing snatches of confusing old songs, and it goes right up your backbone. So I use it like I use history (I feel like a trickster, or like some cynical sensation-monger, when I talk like this about writing, about ‘using’ material, but it’s the reality of the process – my process, anyway). Throw it in, see what it makes. More complexity, that’s what I want. I do mean ‘complexity’, by the way (my wife, who is much cleverer than me and works in, among other things, complexity science, rightly pulls me up if I say ‘complex’ when I mean ‘complicated’). Complexity is where a lot of things come together and, however much information you have, it isn’t possible to say what’s going to come out. ‘Complicated’ is different. ‘Complicated’ is where the spaghetti is tangled up. But you can always unravel the spaghetti.
To close with something potentially ‘complex’ (or perhaps just tangled), one of the central but perhaps more oblique themes of The Woodcock is masculinity, typified by two crucial sporting scenes. The first is the cricket match, which evokes all kinds of perspectives on English masculinity, and the other is the distinctly non-English fairground boxing match. I’m curious to know how you feel about masculinity, ‘toxic’ or otherwise, and (circling back to where we started) whether your feelings are tied to ideas of England and what it is to be (or not to be) an Englishman?
There are certain concepts in corny old ‘traditional’ masculinity that still do appeal to me and probably always will (a filthy secret for a left-wing progressive to confess). Resilience, restraint, quiet courage, grace under fire, all that. Parts of the novel are about how men are suckers for heroes (it’s supposed to be girls that get seduced, says Harriet, but the reality is it’s men who fall quickest and hardest – so they swallow con artists’ lies and follow fools to war). Jon reverently mentions Scott and Mallory: old-fashioned heroes who acted out a sort of practice colonialism, who enacted conquests, in Antarctica, on Everest, where there was no-one to conquer – almost abstractions of ‘English’ heroism (Englishness doesn’t actually enter into it for me, except superficially).
Throughout the novel Harriet offers a sort of running commentary, and this is absolutely crucial to what the novel has to say about men and women – because I think it’s pretty clear that, while the men grandstand about Events, and shout and make speeches and have grand feelings, Harriet sees more sharply and thinks more clearly than anyone else. I was pushed a little, when I was editing, to get Harriet to do more, but I was resistant to that, because men have for so long, so successfully, so systematically monopolised doing, and I wanted to make a little comment on that. But I also think there’s validity to both versions of events. I’m not really laughing at the silly little pompous men and their inflated ideas about life and love (I’m obsessed with love, as a theme). But at the same time a lot of the book is about how men are fucking idiots.
Richard Smyth is a writer and critic. His historical novel The Woodcock was published by Fairlight Books in July 2021. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The New Statesman and The Times Literary Supplement, and he is the author of five books of non-fiction. In between books he compiles crosswords and writes questions for television quizzes. He lives in Bradford, West Yorkshire, with his family.
As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Cynan Jones on the research process behind his collection Stillicide (Granta, 2019).
[Editor’s note: Readers of Writers on Research will be familiar with the Q&A format that structures most of our discussions. In a departure from that, I’d like to open with a short, practice-focused introduction from Cynan which aptly contextualises the discussion that follows. Many thanks to Cynan for providing this introduction, and for reflecting in it some of the tensions between ‘research’ and ‘practice’ that various authors have expressed privately throughout the series:]
I should start by being honest. The academic and theoretic aspects of what I write very much follow the dramatic things I hold at the forefront when I sit down to work. I’ve always tried to keep the focus on the human / physical / process parts of the story and, though, of course, there are times in the writing I get hijacked, my aim is to be instinctive, intuitive, and not let conceptual aspects get the upper hand over the action / emotion. The research I did do on Stillicide – given the way I had to write it – was mainly physical. Three examples:
Delivery date meant I wasn’t able to find a Scarce Chaser [dragonfly] cast skin so I asked someone at the British Dragonfly Society to send me one. In another scenario, the act of me trying to find the skin would be my way of ‘researching’, mainly waiting for that specific feeling when (if) I spotted one… But as things were, I just wanted to hold one in my hand. Study it. Even opening the parcel that came in the mail gave me the discreet thrill I needed to know it was the right dragonfly.
To make sure it could be done, I wrapped a fish in a foil emergency blanket and cooked it. I needed to know it worked, even if, in the story, the fish is then put into a doesn’t-really-exist-I-made-it-up device. This was done, however, after the story was written and submitted. (And yes, it worked.)
Also after the story was submitted, I needed to know my intuition about being at the top of a very high city building was right. I needed to know I was right about how sounds would ‘feel’; temperature; the sense of the wind; scale and so on. I was very grateful to be let up to the top of the tallest building in Stratford, London, (overlooking the Olympic Stadium). There was even a hospital within eyeline… (coincidence?) That piece of physical research confirmed I’d been on target with the sensational elements in the story. Around the place, though, on waste / construction ground (coincidence?) I recognised the flora I’d detailed the story with was completely wrong. I took a lot of photographs. Looked up anything I wasn’t sure of. Changed the text accordingly.
I suppose what this says is that in terms of research, I’m more concerned with the material aspects of what I write. Things I can get right, or utilise, because they are actual. The more abstract stuff has to follow that.
Moving on to our interview proper. I hoped we could start by having a look at a quote that jumped out at me from ‘Chaffinch’, perhaps one of the most overtly reflexive stories in Stillicide: ‘Dystopia is as ridiculous a concept as Utopia. Ultimately, we’re animals. And animals find ways.’ I wondered if you could elucidate your feelings on dystopian literature in relation to Stillicide – in particular I’m keen to know what you feel are the limitations of the genre, and how these limitations can be handled or surpassed by writers keen to build more complex, more human speculations on the future?
I have a fairly dismissive relationship with genre. Once a piece of writing is strong enough it almost invariably leapfrogs the tags. 1984 bears no resemblance to Kavan’s Ice, but they should be grouped into a genre together? I don’t think so. The limitation is in the tag. A writer that determinedly chooses to use genre as a means of identifying their narrative might spend more energy making sure it conforms to it, rather than creating something original.
Another quote that jumped out at me comes from ‘Dragonfly’, in which a biologist is characterised not by his ‘need to understand’ but by his search ‘for surprise.’ For me, this draws to mind that tension within your work between nature as something that is there to be studied, categorised, understood, and nature as the great field of nonhuman experience. In that sense, I wanted to explore your attitudes to nature writing, the influence of which I feel pervading Stillicide. To what extent do you feel nature writing shares this tension between those two approaches to the natural world – the ‘scientific’ and the ineffable?
I guess my above response predicts what I’m going to say here. I’m not really sure what ‘nature writing’ is. Again, if a writer does something exceptional then I can really engage with that book. It’s narrative/prose first, category second. But once I feel a piece is category first, that it’s piggybacking on a fad and isn’t in itself strong enough, it often just dies in my hands. So, I don’t think nature writing influences Stillicide at all. Or any of my work. Living where I do, having grown up in the landscape, influences it, but nature writing (whatever that is) doesn’t.
To speak more explicitly about your process of research, I’m keen to know how your research into the future of water resources influenced your narrative design. In Stillicide, water is characterised as a natural resource, a commodity and a human necessity, and I also wonder to what extent your research for the collection changed your attitudes to water in everyday life. How did your understanding of the use, value and future of water change as you wrote, if at all?
In an ideal situation, I do a lot of research. But much of that is to get my head where it needs to be to build the story authentically. Stillicide was a commission. I had the broad idea, and the narrative concept (of stories ‘dropping’ together to pool into a deeper narrative) and twelve weeks (more or less) to come up with a dozen drafts. With only 3 clear days a week to write in, I just sat down, picked a part of the Stillicide world, and cracked into a story that would show it. Frankly, in the early stages – which was about determining the strongest set of twelve – I didn’t have time for research. I just intuited what things might look like in the future.
I did no dedicated research into water resources at all. It all seems fairly obvious to me that’s a crisis waiting to happen. I guess I had some understanding (assumption, perhaps) of it on board before I began the story. In fact, it’s probably why the story was in my head in the first place. It’s not so much about water as about give and take.
Cities, I guess, rather than water resources, are at the centre here. Until cities start taking more responsibility for themselves we’re in trouble. They require a vast amount but return very little of any fundamental value, other than providing a space to stack people in. The balance of give and take is way out of whack. Now we’re a modally urban species it’s only a matter of time before something gives. That’s very much at the centre of Stillicide. That said, as with my other work, the narrative focus remains on individuals, people, love, care, challenge.
Stylistically, I think one of the central motifs of Stillicide, the iceberg, provides a neat if incidental mirror of Hemingway’s theory of prose: that nine-tenths of the story should be hidden from the reader. The overarching style of Stillicide, sparse and evocative as it is, seems to reflect this also, and I wondered to what extent you feel that the theory of omission was integral to the successful delivery of the collection’s themes. I know it received a certain circumscription from its composition as serialised radio performance, but how do you feel stripping the style to its bare bones fed into your characters and narrative?
There was very little room. Each story had to fit a fifteen-minute radio slot. That’s around (but usually under, given the space I wanted in the pieces) 2,000 words. With that restriction (which was very much a positive contributory influence as I generated the stories) there was a need to prompt the reader to make connections, assumptions, guess at processes or fill in spaces (i.e. to avoid the ‘sci-fi’ trap of putting all the details of a make-believe world down on the page) while at the same time making things clear enough to understand on one hearing. A listener can’t turn back a page. The characters therefore had to have an immediacy, and so had to do things, rather than think about doing things. But that’s how I generally write anyway.
I’d like to finish by asking a simple if wide-reaching question that we have perhaps touched on already. Do you feel there is a central question to Stillicide, something that it explores about the world (perhaps in its imaginary of the future) or about literature? To what extent, if at all, are novels and short story collections pieces of research in and of themselves?
I think there are many aside questions in Stillicide but the main question is: what is your place? Each character. Hopefully there’s enough in the text to make the reader ask that of themselves. Where / what are you? And integral to that, there is the question of relevance to others. In that it’s a love story, really. Or several love stories.
Novels, stories, are – or usually should be – products of provocation. Something has to spark them. If that spark is properly packaged in the fiction, which can include the research around it, it becomes secured. But a story itself is an object in its own right, and the great stories are those which have evolved into an artefact to be researched, rather than remain simply a by-product of research themselves.
Cynan Jones is the author of five short novels: The Long Dry, Everything I Found on the Beach, Bird, Blood, Snow, The Dig, and Cove. He has been longlisted and shortlisted for numerous prizes and won a Society of Authors Betty Trask Award 2007, a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, the Wales Book of the Year Fiction Prize 2015 and the BBC National Short Story Award 2017. His work has been published in more than twenty countries, and short stories have appeared on BBC Radio 4 and in a number of anthologies and publications including Granta Magazine and The New Yorker. He also wrote the screenplay for an episode of the BAFTA-winning crime series Hinterland, and Three Tales, a collection of stories for children.
As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Gregory Norminton on the research process behind his collection The Ghost Who Bled (Comma Press, 2017).
I’d like to start off with a general question about the relationship between short fiction and research. For novelists, it feels as though research is often taken for granted as a necessary step towards composition, but for short story writers there appears to be more ambiguity. As someone who has worked in both forms, how do you think the relationship between research and short fiction might differ from that between research and longer fiction? Why are the research processes behind short fiction (it seems to me) less strongly emphasised as a part of the craft?
In this instance, my hunch is that the only difference is one of scale. The short story tends to have a narrower scope than the novel, so the range of research you do will be smaller. Of course, everything depends on the specifics. Many short stories tend to work as vignettes, moments of heightened drama or revelation in the life of one or a few characters, and in such instances, especially if the setting is contemporary and already familiar to the writer, there is little, if any, research to do. My stories usually require more contextual ambition than this. Many are set abroad, in another period in history, or in the near-future, and my research forms an intrinsic part of my discovering the conditions in which the premise is to be realised. By this, I mean that much of what ends up integral to my writing emerges from the process of reading and thinking about the material. For me, research is a matter not simply of avoiding factual errors, but of creative discovery. The only difference with the research that I have done for novels is that, when it comes to amassing material for a short story, I actively avoid digression. I want, say, to know about the condition of Orthodox monks on Mount Athos in the C14th, but I don’t need to get to grips, as I might in a novel set in late Byzantium, with every aspect of Mediterranean politics, culture, warfare and ecology. Indeed, it would be to my disadvantage to do too much research, as it could blur my focus, tempting me to encumber my story with digressions and details that are inessential to it.
Yes, again that feels like a question of scope and circumscription, though as a collection The Ghost Who Bled feels extremely wide in scope. I wonder if this range of physical and temporal settings, as well as themes and styles, is something that came from your wider reading, perhaps from international fiction or non-fiction, or whether your research supported narrative motifs that came first from your imagination. Is there an interplay there between input and output?
History has always fascinated me, and I nearly studied the subject at university, so it’s not surprising that my fiction tends to wander about in space and time. Facts and documents limit the historian, but the fiction writer can indulge in guesswork and surmise, all while plundering the hard work of academics and archaeologists. I also used to travel more than I do now that parenthood and Covid and climate considerations have grounded me. Some of the stories in The Ghost Who Bled were inspired by my experiences in the American Midwest, in Cambodia and Malaysia (where I did conservation work), but others take place in countries I have visited only in books (Japan, Mount Athos, Iraq and the Caucasus). I never aim for exoticism: the narrative conceit dictates the location of the story, not the other way around. So, my storytelling antennae twitched when I read about Saddam Hussein’s body doubles, and about kamikaze pilots whose planes failed to take off, leaving them alive yet officially dead. The cultural specificity of these premises dictated the content of the stories. Generally, however, a human predicament interests me, and I look for the best fit. If I can’t find it a contextual setting in my own time and place, I permit myself to look elsewhere, even if that means inventing a country, as I do for the poet protagonist of my story ‘Writer’s Retreat’.
If we could explore that a little further, I feel as though whilst international history obviously supports the process of looking back that underlies many of the various temporal locations in the collection, there are moments when the prose leaps forwards into an imagined future. I wonder if you could share your perspective on researching possible futures, and how that might differ from researching and sketching imaginaries of the past.
The practice of world-building in fiction doesn’t vary as much across the genres as one might imagine. Whether you’re writing historical or science fiction, contemporary naturalism, or high fantasy, you need to root your narrative in topographical and ecological and cultural conditions. Everything must feel grounded and subject to laws that, though they may vary from those that govern our existence, must nonetheless be consistently worked out and applied. When you read the best high fantasy, you find that the rules of those worlds have been precisely constructed, usually with reference to human cultures that, through reading or experience, are familiar to the author. Tolkien turned to Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic culture, obsessively creating societies via their languages. Mervyn Peake dreamt up a variation on late imperial China, where he spent his childhood, to create Gormenghast. George R. R. Martin makes no secret of his use of medieval history – notably the War of the Roses and the Mongol invasions – to conjure up Westeros and Essos. And Le Guin, whose Earthsea books I consider superior to those of all the men I’ve just mentioned, travels from the Middle East to the Pacific islands to invent a non-Eurocentric fantasy universe. It’s no surprise that Le Guin was the daughter of antropologists. She brings that discipline to her fantasies, culminating in her anthropological collection of texts from a future Californian civilisation, Always Coming Home.
I use these examples because I find them exemplary. Now I don’t write high fantasy, but I do stray into speculative fiction, where the same rules apply. You must build that world and tether its characters to its physical and socio-political laws. If you’re working with documented history, you have, of course, a body of literature to consult. If you’re anticipating the near or distant future, the best thing you can do is turn to history and current affairs. The odds are that something akin to the contexts you’re inventing have existed, or are taking place currently, somewhere on Earth. In my novel The Devil’s Highway (4th Estate, 2018), I try to conjure a Surrey of the future, one profoundly altered by climate change, and to do so convincingly, I turned to Stalin’s gulags and to the conflict in Darfur. My short story, ‘The Modification of Eugene Berenger’, is set in a dystopian future San Francisco, in an order of body modifying monks, but the science of what might be possible was brought to me by a scientist, Dr Nihal Engin Vrana, who works in the field of medical prostheses. He told me what could or might be done, and I, the story guy, imagined cultural responses to these new technological possibilities. Finally, the story ‘Bottleneck’, about a composer heavily pregnant at a time of ecological breakdown, developed from my own trepidation about the birth of my daughter and the state of the world into which we were bringing her. By researching human experience that is cognate to what you are inventing, you have a better chance of creating something complex and, as it were, imaginatively viable. Speculative fiction extrapolates from the known. At its best – some of the episodes of Black Mirror, for instance – it creates a deep feeling of unease, because we recognise our world, and ourselves, in the fiction, just a few steps beyond where we currently stand.
We’ve spoken a lot about setting, but I think it would be remiss not to emphasise how character-driven these stories are. Each of the constructed narratives of The Ghost Who Bled finds a foundation in the behaviours of people as authentic responses to the action, not simply as functionaries of the story. In that sense I was intrigued when I re-read the first line: ‘This is a story my neighbours told me.’ I wondered to what extent (even through the often wildly-imagined scenarios) real people worked their way into the characters. To what extent does the collection lean on your observations of human behaviour?
I don’t think it’s possible to write fiction without leaning on your observations. It would be like expecting a composer to write music without reference to any known chords. We write out of what we have seen and experienced, which in turn informs what we can imagine. Fiction writing is extrapolative: someone you meet, or something that happens to you, plants a seed of an idea. You cultivate it in your mind, on the page, and what you end up with may be at a great remove from its origins, so much so that sometimes you forget its origins.
Most of my characters are invented, but many have antecedents, named or anonymous, in history or current events. Saddam really did have body doubles; suicide pilots really did fail to take off in their aircraft in the final days of the war. The specifics of my characters in these predicaments are my invention, but the predicaments are not. At the same time, some of the stories evolved from my life experiences. ‘In Refugium’ grew from my time in a writers’ colony in the American Midwest; I share a childhood landscape with the protagonist in ‘The Time Traveller’s Breakdown’; the leeches in ‘The Poison Tree’ fed on me in the Malaysian jungle.
There is, in The Ghost Who Bled, one story inspired by a real person. My aunt, who lives in France, is Cambodian, and survived the horrors of the Killing Fields. I have heard her speak about her experiences, but I only dared to approach them obliquely, by keeping the, to me, almost unimaginable experience of survival, physical and psychological, at a distance from the narration. I’m a western man; I didn’t want to appropriate a Cambodian woman’s story. So ‘Zero + 30’ (the story takes place thirty years after Pol Pot’s murderous ‘Year Zero’) is told from the point of view of the survivor’s American husband. He is hopelessly out of his depth, but he is trying – which is all that any of us can do – to accompany his loved one in her suffering.
Finally I’d like to ask your thoughts, both as a writer and Creative Writing educator, on the idea of writing fiction as a form of research in and of itself. Do you feel that The Ghost Who Bled functions as a form of research into our world, or perhaps into the possibilities of literary form? Is there a question at the centre of the collection, whether that question be answered or open? Is there a thread tying these stories to an ambiguity within the world?
Ramming my university lecturer hat on – yes, absolutely, fiction is a form of research. But I prefer to think of it as a zone of conjecture, a space in which reader and writer meet and agree to play a game of Imagine.
I don’t set out to experiment for experimentation’s sake. The form should be dictated by the content, rather than the other way around. Dennis Potter didn’t have characters lip-synching to cheap songs because he wanted to expand the form of television drama; he did it because it was the most effective way of telling the story he wanted to tell.
You ask if there’s a question at the centre of my collection. I really don’t know, unless it’s the questions that are latent in all fiction: whose story is this, can we enter it, and what effect does it have on us? Is there a thread tying these stories? There may have been, but I lost it long ago.
Gregory Norminton is the author of five novels, including Serious Things (Sceptre, 2008) and The Devil’s Highway (4th Estate, 2018), and two collections of short stories, most recently The Ghost Who Bled (Comma Press, 2017). He has been the recipient of writing awards from both the Arts Council of England and Creative Scotland. He teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and lives in Sheffield.
As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Sammy Wright on the research process behind his novel Fit (And Other Stories, 2021).
I feel as though your experiences as a schoolteacher must have been key in aiming for the quality of verisimilitude that Fit achieves. I’m curious to know how those experiences fed into your narrative, and how you handled your understanding of children and young people in relation to both your creative process and its supporting ethical considerations.
I’m going to answer the last part of the question first, as it’s so important. As a working teacher, there cannot be any sense in which you’re exploiting or representing the young people in your care without their consent – and my feeling is that I am a teacher first and a writer second. But, having said that, there’s no doubt that I have mined my experience pretty heavily. In earlier attempts at writing about young people, I sometimes got this wrong, I think. I was teaching in London at the time and my writing was very obviously set in the place that I worked. It meant that I started to become afraid of the reader a little – afraid that I’d misrepresent. In addition, by the time I wrote Fit, I was not only teaching but in quite a public leadership role, and later, in a semi-political role too with the Social Mobility Commission. So I made a very conscious decision that I would create a fictional place that was absolutely not recognisable as Sunderland, where I work. It freed me up to concentrate on the characters, rather than on their surface, and to be certain that I could detach my general observations about kids from the actual kids I knew.
Having said all this, there are roots for the strands of the story and the characters that lie in specific things I have encountered. The levels of neglect that you see in schools are at times truly horrific, and I have seen on several occasions situations like those in the novel. I’d go so far as to say I’ve toned it down – I don’t like misery porn, and I think you have to treat your characters with dignity, rather than peering into the darkest corners of all the things that might have happened to them. For example, it was important to me that I knew in my mind exactly what had happened to Rose and Aaron, but that it wasn’t just plonked into the story for the sake of it. I’m not interested in the traumatic events themselves – I can’t bear it, really. I’m interested in how the child responds and develops in the wake of something like that.
Cycling back to the theme of versimilitude for just a moment, I’d like to hone in a little on your approach to dialogue. In my recent conversation with author Jonathan Taylor, we discussed the process of creating authentic dialogue for younger characters. Naturally, your experience as a teacher will feed into this, but I’m curious to know what challenges you found in recreating authentic speech. How did you use dialogue to characterise your younger characters effectively, without allowing stereotypes or quasi-adult syntax to creep in?
Dialogue is really tricky. I’ve always had an ear for how people speak, but that in itself isn’t always helpful. Dialogue isn’t about recreating speech – in fact, when I have recreated speech accurately, my editors and other assorted readers have often picked up on it and complained about a phrase repeated too much, or rambling discussions that don’t really go anywhere. At first I’d insist that yes, kids do swear like that, and that it’s perfectly realistic for them to say OK fifteen times in a row. But that misses the point. If I can go a bit highbrow, it’s about Aristotelian mimesis – not blindly copying reality, but creating an imitation of reality that focuses on the salient parts.
One of the choices I made in this book was to avoid any kind of signals of dialect. This was for several reasons, including the need to anonymise the setting, but primarily it was about reflecting how kids think they speak, and showing their language from the inside, as it were. The reader can’t be given any kind of block between them and the character – too much slang, or too many apostrophes and phonetic spellings, only serves to distance the reader and make the characters like specimens to be watched and examined. You need to feel like it could be you speaking.
The other key choice was about showing the tricks of thought that come to light in the language we use. This wasn’t just in dialogue, by the way – sometimes it is in the language that characters use in a passage of close third writing – but wherever it happens it can be very powerful. An example that I had to defend in the editing process was a cigarette butt being ‘flicked perfectly’. My editor asked in what way the flicking was perfect, and I said that the whole point was that it reflected Dillon’s general sense that everything about the act was perfect – the imprecision of the language reflected the imprecision of his childish view of the world. You see this a lot in Rose and Jack, with phrases like ‘do you think they’re all rich?’.
I should add as well that a really straightforward thing in the text is that these particular teenagers are not overly verbal. I didn’t want to write yet another version of the hyper-articulate teen. None of them can articulate much about themselves – which is exactly my memory of being that age – and so there is very little explicit meaning carried in anything they say. 90% of it is subtext and inference out of very flat statements.
Yes, I feel like that flatness is, counter-intuitively perhaps, part of the key to the novel’s feeling of authenticity. For me, one of the most immanent themes of Fit is the impact of social media on young people, something we’re still coming to terms with as a society. The narrative scrutinises the influence of Instagram on social life, and touches on the pervasive danger of image-based abuse. I wonder if you feel literature can play a part in helping us understanding and manage these phenomena. Do we have, or are we need of, a new set of narratives to help us deal with this societal changes?
I’m a teacher of literature, and as such I’m both overly aware of the history of how literature has influenced culture, and very cynical about the impact it has on actual kids now. One of my dearest wishes about this book is that kids would read it. Someone asked me my ideal reader, and I said ‘Rose’ – or at least her real life counterpart. While that is pretty unlikely, to be honest, I do love the idea that someone might choose to teach it in school, perhaps, and as such that might be a way of introducing discussion of the value and use of images.
Tied in with that perhaps, and certainly another theme that feels especially pertinent, is your treatment of how young boys develop violent behaviours. From a creative perspective, I wonder if you feel that the representation of boys and men in both literature and the wider arts might contribute to how boys see themselves as they grow up. Again, are we in need of new narratives?
Absolutely. As a parent of two boys as well as a teacher, I find it shocking how narrow the depiction of men can be in mainstream culture. I think the issue I worried about in this book is about the archetypal roles men are shown in, rather than the specific diversities of sexuality and ethnicity. Why are men not rescued? Why are they not broody? Why are they not insecure about their weight and body shape in ways that are not simply mined for laughs?
The thing is, this is one of those instances where representation really matters. If you watch kids on the playground, they are like a little moving collage of everything they’ve seen and taken in – a phrase here, an action there. Some of this is from parents, but a lot is from culture. We’ve just had the Ofsted report on sexual harassment in schools, and there’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the press about the shock of it. But we shouldn’t be surprised. Anyone who remembers their teenage years with any clarity will remember a time when romance was a pretty blunt instrument – and that comes from young people seeing films and stories and quite reasonably inferring that this is OK.
While we’re skirting around issues of intertextuality, I’d like to close by examining what is one of the key – in fact one of the only – explicit intertextual forces in Fit. The novel is replete with references to fairytales, most pertinently to Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, as well as to analogous themes of image, transformation and consequence. I’d like to ask in a broad sense why fairytales still hold such a dominant hold over the literary imagination, and why they might still be a useful intertextual tool for contemporary writers. Might there be a key, within that sphere of imagination, to understanding and managing some of the themes we’ve been discussing?
Before I answer that it’s important to say that in this book I wanted to write something that was readable, story-based, and direct. It wasn’t intended as a literary game. But the architecture of it is designed around both fairytale archetypes in general, and three specific fairy tales in particular – Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, and Beauty and the Beast. I’m interested in narrative theory, and I thought that one way of avoiding the inevitability of the arc of a particular story type was by colliding it with another contrasting story and letting the roles blur and switch. Is Rose Gretel or Cinderella – and does that make Titch the Fairy Godmother or the wicked witch. In that way, by leaning into the pull that story archetypes have on us, you can break free.
In terms of the use of the fairytale narrative for the particular characters I had, and the story I wanted to tell, there were several other key elements. The original prompt for the book was that I read Philip Pullman’s retelling of Grimm at the same time as I was dealing with a very difficult case where some young people had experienced such serious neglect that they stole from bins, and it seemed to me that the sheer brutality of a world that could produce that was a very good fit for a fairytale. And as I wrote, it came together with the language I wanted to use, whereby the young people in the story expressed themselves in this blunt, flat way, because the world they saw was one stripped back to its basics. And as the characters came into focus, I kept thinking about the way in which one sees oneself in very absolute terms at that age – as a hero, as put-upon, as struggling to make your way – and that at the same time, because everything is so new, you accept it all with the flatness of the hero of a fairytale who, when he sees a gingerbread house, rather than considering how unstable the building materials are and how difficult it might be to get a mortgage, just thinks “yum”.
And when we think in particular about notions of masculinity and femininity, it seems to me like fairytales are still just about the most influential stories we have. If anything, they have only grown in importance in the age of Disney. I include superhero films in that, by the way – while not strictly fairytales, they are certainly fables. And even when we have the twists and meta-textual winks we have come to expect from Marvel and Pixar, they never subvert that far – or at least not in a way that truly challenges the archetypal roles. One of the most depressing things to me is that the only Marvel film where female heroes are allowed to escape a narrow vision of “sexiness” is Black Panther – so that all the while you cheer the positivity of the representation, you also have a queasy feeling that this might be because Black women are not allowed to be “sexy” in the same way as Black Widow.
Sorry. I digress. But fairytales are the basis of all other stories, so whether they are acknowledged or not, they remain a key tool for writers.
Sammy Wright is a teacher. He was brought up in Edinburgh, worked in London for twelve years, and now lives in Newcastle. He has served on the Social Mobility Commission and is currently vice principal of a large secondary school in Sunderland. His short stories have been published in a variety of anthologies and his novel Fit, which won the 2020 Northern Book Prize, is his first book-length publication.