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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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