Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Chatting with Stevie Davies, author of The Eyrie.

steviefrontpagephoto2.jpgPerhaps you could start by talking about The Eyrie. War seems very important in the novel – from the Spanish Civil War to the most recent Iraq War.

I think perhaps The Eyrie is the child of the Iraq War: that bitter day when we woke to find we’d invaded Iraq – again – in March 2003, the year of lies. I’d been on the Million March and realised that the antiwar movement would be ignored. That we’d entered with the millennium into an age of total cynicism. As the war progressed, I began to meditate on the passing of the 20th century age of ideologies, to wonder what remained to the Left in Britain. From this were born Dora Urquhart and Eirlys Harries – and from heroic ageing women I’d met or glimpsed.

The novel centres on ‘Red Dora’, 92 year old socialist veteran of the Spanish Civil War and Paris barricades. Still raging in her twilight, never-say-die Dora opposes an unnamed Prime Minister, ‘the Butcher of Baghdad’, and devotes her declining energy to learning to hack into US military websites. My editor insisted that I should not name Tony Blair, as she did not want the book to be penalised as slanderous. She allowed me to call the Unnamed One a ‘warmonger’, though not a war criminal. He is a war criminal.

How interesting that ‘warmonger’ was allowed but ‘war criminal’ was not. I kept smiling every time Dora mentioned ‘Him’ or talked of ‘He’ with such fury. Right, I always hate it when people ask me this question but what the heck: how would you summarise the novel?

So I was asking in the novel: What is left to those of us who have in some sense outlived our lives? In the little world of party walls, a honeycomb of solidarities is built by the women of my novel – especially middle-aged Eirlys, veteran of Welsh language militancy, and Hannah, 20-something survivor of a commune upbringing and a stale marriage. What happens is that politics turns inwards, to the micro-community – towards our neighbour through the party wall – the politics of the heart, if you like. Is that reactionary? I don’t think so. It’s not always the easiest thing in the world, loving our neighbour, accepting her or his difference to ourselves. Dora, Scot and Trot, has come out on the bitter plateau of old age where the left wing seems to have failed. She’s the eagle in its last nest. Loving our next of kin is not always easy either: Dora learns to love the daughter she failed half a lifetime ago – Rosa, named after Rosa Luxemburg, with whom she’d quarrelled. The novel leads to unearthing of buried memories and the grave of Rosa.

So the novel is to do with history and memory: those are its deepest preoccupations. But rather the past experienced in solution with the present than the heroic past. Whereas in The Element of Water (2001), I took the reader back to Nazi Germany, The Eyrie is a lower-key reflection on the Spanish Civil War, important solely in its importance to Dora. And similarly Welsh language militancy as it affected Eirlys. I took inspiration for Dora from Republican women Nan Green, Margarita Nelken, Patience Darton. But she is close to home – I felt that, eerily, I grew to know her as a real person, though all the while I was inventing her. I do believe we get second chances in life – all of us – if we can just take them. It doesn’t matter if you are 92 or 29: growth is possible and even growth triggered by illusion (Dora mistakes Hannah for Rosa) is still growth, and valuable.

The novel is packed with the memories of its central characters. Old letters, old newspapers and old photographs appear and shake up the characters. It seemed there was real power in these artefacts from the past and I found that fascinating.

My novel retrieves memory for its people. And of course I am down in there with my characters – after all, they are all my children, their need forged out of mine, their histories my history. I’m completely obsessed with history. Wherever we look, history surprises us. So I planned that in – the books on Dora’s walls in which she’s thrust old letters like an external memory. We keep secrets even from ourselves. The garden of rest at All Saints, Oystermouth, where my parents’ ashes lie (with no monument – but I know) – is where I placed the remains of Rosa in the novel. The pouf Dora and Hannah tear open is full of old newspapers, which they read. Public records – censuses & certificates & reports published on the internet preserve history. The novel subverts MI5’s spying on the Left in the 50s, by letting Dora find her records – a sort of diary kept for Dora by the powers that be. I liked the irony of that.

I thought that moment with the old newspapers was incredibly moving. And Dora using the internet to track down her MI5 file was wonderful. All of these everyday moments, which M15 had helpfully catalogued and remembered. It was ironic and yet also quite beautiful. Right, so tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been writing and how did you get into writing?

I’ve been writing since I could hold the pen and always wanted to be a writer. I don’t know why – perhaps because of my childish passion for books. It was just what I did. My parents fostered my intellectual interests always, at a time when girls of our class (my father was a sergeant in the RAF) were not usually interested in their daughters’ education – or not as interested as in their sons’. I was an impossibly naughty child – and it says a lot for my parents’ patience that they stuck with me while I found out my own quietly rebellious path in life. Yes, I am a feminist: have always been one, for as long as I can remember.

Me too. So, you write and you’re also the Director of Creative Writing at Swansea University – how do you find the experience of teaching creative writing?

I have been teaching creative writing at Swansea for four years now: it is a beautiful thing to be able to share students’ writing with them and to be able to offer what fruits I have gleaned from experience and to be open to the special gift every one has. I learn a lot.

The Eyrie is set near Swansea and has a very Welsh flavour. Kith and Kin was the same. How important is place in your work?

Place is central to my work – as a nomadic RAF child, I lived in many places without putting down roots – Egypt, two trips to Germany, Scotland, as well as some years in Cornwall. In retrospect, I realise that each one of these places (in some of which I was very unhappy and out of place – two brutal Forces boarding schools in Germany, for instance) has given me the setting for a book. We see so vividly as children – colour is cardinal and the lights and shades so highly defined, our feelings are unmediated and we paint them on to scenes. Later we modify our judgements, of course – but the glowing or wincing responses are always there, exultation and despair. All emotion is valuable to a writer, both happy and painful response: it is an instrument of perception, a form of knowledge. The root and source of empathy. When I came to live in my hometown six years ago, I came home – where I shall remain.

Finally, could you share some thoughts on the book industry at the moment? Is it a good time to publish a novel, do you think? (I’m particularly interested in this as someone who’s just beginning to dip her toe in the book industry and finding it quite chilly…)

I think it’s difficult and can be painful – so many non-literary factors seem to be involved. To be young, beautiful and remarkable, or odd in some glamorous way, is perhaps a help. My advice though would be: just write – write your heart out and then worry about the industry part of it. Truth to self, terrific stories and inventiveness or beauty of language do seem to make their way through the grid, in the end.

(Stevie Davies’ website is at www.steviedavies.com and you can read a review of The Eyrie here.)

14 comments on “Chatting with Stevie Davies, author of The Eyrie.

  1. rosyb
    December 2, 2007

    Very interesting interview, Stevie and Lisa.

    I am particularly interested in what you say about an era of ideology – presumably both potentially a good thing and a bad thing? – and how that has now gone. Also, the fact that you are clear you are a Feminist and that the main character is a bold political woman. This seems such an unusual character and not at all typical in the stories we tell ourselves and I am very drawn to this idea.

    I also call myself a Feminist and am surprised to find a lot of women my age and younger do not at all like the term and do not identify themselves as such. Do you find this has an effect the way people view you as a writer, Stevie?

  2. Leena
    December 2, 2007

    What a fascinating interview – thank you both, Stevie and Lisa. Made me all the more eager to read ‘The Eyrie’!

    “I also call myself a Feminist and am surprised to find a lot of women my age and younger do not at all like the term and do not identify themselves as such.”

    I’m surprised by it, too. It almost seems to me that declaring oneself a feminist has become an anti-feminist thing to do: an admission of weakness. I suppose it applies to the post-ideology world in general. In a collection of essays I’ve been reading (‘Nobody’s Home’ by Dubravka Ugresic), part of a quote from Slavoj Zizek struck me: ‘the horizon of social imagination no longer allows us to entertain the idea of an eventual demise of capitalism’. It continues: ‘The price paid for this depoliticisation of economy is that the domain of politics itself is in a way depoliticised. Political struggle proper is transformed into the cultural struggle for the recognition of marginal identities and the tolerance of differences.’

    I thought it was quite fitting here, whether we’re speaking of socialism or feminism or any other ideology – the very need of an ideology seems to have become unthinkable.

  3. marygm
    December 2, 2007

    Yes, thank you for a fascinating interview, it sounds great to have a novel motivated by political anger translated into individual lives. I like the sound of it.

    As for being a feminist, I might be one of those women who doesn’t particularly see herself as a feminist although I have very strongly held ideologies (how I would love to see the demise of capitalism or even just to see its grip loosened). It’s just that my ‘injustice antennae’ are not tuned to pick up on injustice against woman particularly over injustice against men or children or other demographic, social or racial groups. Is it possible to be a humanist?

  4. Emma
    December 3, 2007

    This was a fascinating interview, thank you Stevie, and Lisa.

    “just write – write your heart out and then worry about the industry part of it. Truth to self, terrific stories and inventiveness or beauty of language do seem to make their way through the grid, in the end.”

    I think this is very true, though you wouldn’t think it if you only listened to the endless grumbling and huffing and puffing about the End of The Good Writing World as We Know It, in the press, and also among frustrated aspiring writers.

    And, yes, I call myself a feminist, and hope that doing so chips away at people’s reductive image of it. But it’s true, it’s surprising how many people are surprised, if you see what I mean.

    “the past experienced in solution with the present than the heroic past.”

    This is such a revelatory way of putting it: it’s my project too, only I’ve never managed to express it so well. Of all the reviews of my novel The Mathematics of Love, Stevie, yours in The Independent really ‘got’ the immensely important strand all about photography, in a way that many missed. There’s no greater joy for a writer than to have been ‘heard’ at that level…

  5. Trilby
    December 3, 2007

    Great interview.

  6. Jackie
    December 3, 2007

    The mix of realism & idealism that Ms. Davies evinces makes her a wonderful interview subject. Her intelligence & love of history shines through & I like the way she explains the characters & their place in time. The use of news articles & historical photos as devices in the book sounds clever & if her writing style is anything like her speaking style, she must be riveting to read. I’m going to search her books out, as this interview has really piqued my interest.

  7. Stevie Davies
    December 5, 2007

    What a brilliant responses – thank you, everyone, so much. I’m thrilled with this website – and thanks to Lisa for taking so much trouble to bring me here. You’ve really made me think.

    I’m not sure whether my feminism makes people view me in a particular way: I suppose readers judge a book by whether they can sink down into it and become lost in it; after that by what your stated opinions are. My feminism tends these days against the ‘Men are from Mars, Women from Venus’ platitude (or any kind of ‘Men are this, women are that’): it’s a focused kind of humanism that wants people to have the largest latitude to express who they are and can be, and doesn’t pre-judge. Perhaps I always just wanted to be free myself and it’s more interesting to think of people as potentially open. Dora in ‘The Eyrie’ is an ideologue of a sort I’ve never been – I have always found party-membership impossible – and she’s another generation, of course. I was more her daughter Rosa’s generation. For that reason (her difference) Dora interests and moves me so much. Character is only interesting when it not only challenges you but challenges itself – by its inconsistencies and contradictions.

    I’ve just remembered the specifics of the argument with my editor about Blair the War Criminal: she was objecting to my character Dora having this thought ascribed to her – ‘she’ did not even say the words ‘aloud’. Since Dora is not real but a fiction, it seems more than bizarre that this fictional being should suffer censorship. I wonder how often this happens in publishing nowadays – fear, I suppose, of litigation.

    Thank you for your comment, Emma – I read The Mathematics of Love again after that review – and was knocked out even more the second time. I had not been able to get the coming-into-being of the haunting photographs out of my head – the ordinary magic of that. Your mentioning now ‘the past in solution’ makes that process make me think of mind-chemistry in an even more substantial way.

  8. Leena
    December 6, 2007

    Many thanks for the kind words, Stevie, and for taking the time to answer the comments!

    “Since Dora is not real but a fiction, it seems more than bizarre that this fictional being should suffer censorship.”

    I find this more than bizarre, indeed – rather unsettling. It seems that image and illusion are so important that fact and fiction get mixed up in the process, and the opinions of fictional characters are given equal weight with those of their authors. But it’s unsettling in a different way, too… a refusal to read fiction as fiction, as it were. Literal-minded and confused at the same time!

  9. Idetrorce
    December 15, 2007

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

  10. Davy
    February 6, 2008

    Cool interview.

    I’m really interested in alot of things discussed here, not least the fact that the publisher did not want to slander a war criminal. Or even make the accusation. No offence to Stevie, coz its her publisher that is responsible, but that is lame. I’m sure Stevie would prefer it the other way, I know I would. It’s difficult, but slander is just the first line of defence for these people – war criminals, liars, hypocrites. Remember Archer and Hislop? That man (Hislop) is a true British hero, takin many punches from the establishment, but he learnt from one of the best – Peter Cook – and I think this country has to maintain that kind of outlook or be damned, and to touch on the feminism aspect, perhaps it needs the feminine voice of these fair isles to step up – a la the fantastic Miss Smith.

    Also the discussion on feminism really gets me juices flowin; I think there’s alot to be said but am very interested in people like Joan Smith, and now Stevie, and their view on it.

    I have a lot to say on these things. Maybe this isn’t the place to say it, but I think this book sounds great and shall check it out.

    Davy
    xXx

  11. Nik
    February 6, 2008

    Brilliantly interesting interview.

    Nik.

  12. JJ
    February 29, 2008

    That was a fascinating read. Thank you very much.

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This entry was posted on December 2, 2007 by in Entries by Lisa, Interviews: authors and tagged , , , , .

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