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.
Sam Ruddock: First up, can you tell us a bit about After the Fire, A Still Small Voice?
Evie Wyld: It’s my first novel, and it’s set on the east coast of Australia. It follows two men in different times and I think it looks at the trickle down effect war has on a person’s children. And masculinity, there’s a bit of that too.
SR: I think one of the things that most appealed to me about this book was that it felt as though you had taken risks in writing it. That is rare, particularly for a debut novelist. Are the characters here as separate from who you are and what you know as it seems?
EW: They’re separate, but also the same – I suppose they think very like I do, in the way they worry about stuff. I have an Australian uncle who fought in Vietnam and I’ve always been interested in his relationship with his son. But then at the same time it is not my uncle who appears as a character in a book – it’s a mixture of me and him and everyone else I’ve met. It’s like if you sit down to do a drawing of a person who isn’t there, it’s very hard not to put a lot of yourself into it, because that’s the face you know best.
SR: These are characters who deal with their troubles not by talking about them, but by running from them, or drowning them in alcohol, loneliness, or violence. Did that make their story easier, or harder to tell?
EW: I come from, on one side, a very tough Australian family, who don’t show pain physically or emotionally (apart from if a dog gets killed), and then on the other side, my English family who have a long relationship with alcohol and stoicism. It’s hard in some respects because these are difficult things to think about, they are hurtful sad things with a lot of personal history behind them, but then on the other hand they are things that I know and they are things that I feel. But to be honest I don’t think I’d be happy to find writing easy – I’m not sure I’d be doing anything that good if it felt too comfortable.
SR: You portray an extreme sort of maleness here, yet Frank and Leon are each treated with a humanity that makes them possible to identify with. Indeed, they are some of the best written men I think I have ever read. Were you aware of the dangers of slipping into misandry at all, and how did you avoid it?
EW: Thanks! Avoiding it was not a problem, I think because I don’t feel that way about the men in my book. Lots of people do – I’ve had conversations with people who find some of the things the men in my book do too awful to identify with them, but I felt very strongly that there shouldn’t be a moral overtone to the book. I wanted to acknowledge that in the idea of a woman who was abused in some way by her lover, returning to him. And that not being the end of the world or of her life. Which is a very difficult thing to write without sounding like I’m condoning domestic violence, but that is not the job, as I see it, of a fiction writer, a fiction writer’s job is just to tell a story.
SR: This next question comes from Leila Telford our Resources Manager who wonders why the female characters, particularly mothers, are notable by an absence, either through their emotional withdrawal, unexpected disappearance or in two cases the ultimate absence of suicide, that appears to haunt the male characters. She is interested in the depiction of the child Sal, who is described in ways that make her appear androgynous, and she seems to offer a route to redemption. How conscious was this description of genderlessness and was the work underpinned by particular concerns on gender roles?
EW: Not really all that conscious. I suppose Sal was the most obvious case of a concern about gender roles– I knew I wanted her to be worried about her gender, to feel somehow that her sister died of something that ‘eats women’ (the Bunyip), to sort of have an undertone of the question of growing up in rural Australia and whether it’s better to be a man or a woman out there. I wanted her to be interested in survival.
The absent women wasn’t something I particularly realised until it was pointed out to me. And I don’t feel like they’re all that absent – apart from the literal missing girl – the main characters are men, and so the men are the people I follow about most, but I was careful with the women. This is something that I get quite a lot and I do wonder if it comes from being a female writer writing about men – that people expect me to be more interested in women than I am in men? (sounds cranky? not meant to)
SR: At one point a character observes that “sometimes people aren’t all right and that’s just how it is.” I don’t think you romanticise it at all, but do you think that from a readers’ perspective there is something almost romantic about this sort of quiet suffering?
EW: I think it’s more about acceptance. In my experience people are eager to find something helpful to say, especially when you’ve been affected by death. There are all sorts of neat little sentences that we all have at our disposal and which keep the real sadness and horror of a situation at bay, things like ‘time will heal’, or just the very idea that everything can be solved if you just open up to someone about it. I think what I wanted to say in that moment was that sometimes no amount of talking or modern thinking can touch the problem and it’s a thing that must be lived with.
SR: The harsh, dry, deserted landscape of the Australian outback dominates the lives of your characters. It’s a landscape that has attracted scores of writers – indeed I recently abandoned a novel that began with an emotionally damaged man alone in the middle of an Australian desert. What do you think it is that attracts writers to this landscape?
EW: I can’t speak for other writers, but for me it’s to do with being alone, properly alone, and the way that people behave when there is no possibility of being watched. I think lonely places make you turn inward, bring out the extreme behaviour in a person.
SR: Vietnam, too, is a familiar trope in fiction and especially film. Did you feel under pressure to present a different perspective on the experience of this war (or wars in general)?
EW: I was worried about employing war to make my book taken seriously. It’s not my war, I didn’t live through it, I wasn’t affected by it in any way I’m aware of, and so I worried about writing about it. My uncle was conscripted at 21 and saw a lot of ‘action’. That was particularly difficult because I had someone I loved who would be hurt and upset if I got it wrong. Also the war in Vietnam is so popularised that it’s very hard to write about without falling into the groves already there – the psychedelia, the Jimi Hendrix, the rippling muscles and the cigars. Choppers, napalm all of that – I put blinkers on about it, wouldn’t watch any film that had the war in, wouldn’t read any fiction about it either. I stuck to first hand sources and they were the experiences of single Australian men in Vietnam, people who found it hard to articulate, not those with a desire and talent to turn their experiences into objects, but just simple diary entries, recordings of radio contacts, that sort of thing. I thought about what would my character would know of the history of the war, of the logistics, and the answer was not very much – he knew the things he saw and the things he did.
SR: The title, I was interested to discover, comes from a passage in the Bible, a story in which Elijah has fled to the desert. Having read some commentaries and explanations it seems that the still small voice is the mild and gentle temper that develops when Elijah’s zeal and terrible vengeance has burnt out. Yet later in his life, the old harshness recurs. This got me thinking that perhaps this book is about that unending battle between the ‘fire’ and the ‘small voice’, and that there is never really an ‘after’ to them. Apologies if I’m reading too much into this; what is your sense of what you were trying to say through this book?
EW: You’ve got it bang on – also that after the fire (which could be literal gun fire) the real hard stuff starts, the quiet, lonely, dealing with what has gone before.
SR: The Metro described you as “the voice of unspoken grief”. What do you make of such a statement? Does it come with its own set of responsibilities?
EW: Ha! It came accompanied by the most slapstick huge close up of my face grinning away– because of that, I find it hard not to laugh when that gets quoted. No, I’d say I’m a voice, not the voice. And I’ve never really got to grips with the term unspoken grief – isn’t all grief pretty much unspoken? A more accurate description would be ‘A writer writing about Sad Things’. With a tiny little picture of me looking serious. But you know, of course I’m incredibly touched to be given such an outlandish and wonderful title by the Metro.
SR: Looking through your website I was interested to note that you feature some password protected resources including family photos and deleted scenes that can only be accessed after a reader has read the book. What do you think these resources bring to the experience of reading this book?
EW: I’m not really sure. It was interesting in trying out all sorts of things. The reason you have to have read the book to look at them is I didn’t want the deleted scenes to impact on the book itself. One of the things that made me want to write as a young person was that feeling that the characters had a life beyond the page, and I suppose in some way I tried to give a bit of a sense of that. I’m not sure I’d do it for the next one, or that it brought anything really to the experience of reading the book.
SR: You work as a bookseller at Review, a small independent bookshop in Peckham. I too used to be a bookseller and loved working so closely with books. There’s something so intimate about handling the books on a daily basis. Do you think working as a bookseller influenced your writing in any way?
EW: It’s a very small shop and generally I have most of the afternoon to read and to work on my writing, so in that way it’s helped a lot. It’s certainly made me aware of the calibre and the sheer quantity of writing out there, and it’s made me realise that work has to be as good as you can make it, not as quick as you can do it. I think more than the actual writing, it’s influenced how I’ve promoted my book – going round to independent booksellers and giving them a copy to keep, that sort of thing. Supporting them and supporting local small literary events and libraries should be part of every writer’s job.
SR: Are you working on another book at the moment?
EW: I am, but there’s no fixed publication date at the moment. Will keep you posted.
SR: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
EW: As a young person I wanted to be a painter – I was no good at it, but I suppose it was that desire to be producing something. When I found I could write and that I enjoyed it, I never really thought that it was a career path I would be able to follow – it’s a bit too lovely.
SR: Which writers do you admire?
EW: Tim Winton, Stefan Merrill Block, Peter Temple, Kate Grenville, Steven Amsterdam and lots more.
SR: What are your favourite books?
EW: I love the Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville, and the book I go back to again and again when I feel like I can’t remember how to write is The Riders by Tim Winton
SR: Evie Wyld, thank you.
This interview was conducted on behalf of Writers’ Centre Norwich where After the Fire, A Still Small Voice is one of six books featuring in the community reading programme Summer Reads. For more information visit www.summerreads.org.uk
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Wednesday: Jackie tries to distil the experience of watching the strange TV series Legion which is not her usual fare.
Friday: Hilary has no idea why it has taken her nearly forty years to read a novel so alluring as Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop.