INTERVIEW: Cynan Jones on dystopia, dragonflies and ‘Stillicide’

Photo credit: Bernadine Jones

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.

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

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