Magic and Loss: In Conversation with Carly Holmes

Magic and Loss: In Conversation with Carly Holmes

John Lavin: ‘Ghost Story’ is set around Aberarth and is strongly evocative of the landscape and atmosphere of West Wales. Do you find the area where you live to be a source of inspiration to you? Was it a particular influence on the genesis of ‘Ghost Story’?

Carly Holmes: Strangely, I rarely write about place. The majority of my fiction is preoccupied with a person’s internal landscape, their response to an unusual situation or interaction. ‘Ghost Story’ is one of the only stories I’ve ever written, long or short, which is firmly located in a fully realised, and named, place. And it’s one of the few stories I’ve ever written that came about as the direct result of living in a specific area.

I lived in Aberarth for a few years about a decade ago, in a little cottage by the beach, and I used to walk my dog through the woods, following the river deep into the valley. There comes a point, if you can push that far through the thorns and your own sense of isolation, where the valley opens out slightly and the scattered remains of cottages strew the ground. Above them, on the other side of the river, a huge mound that was once an ancient motte and bailey castle rears up, blocking any view of the sky. The cottages intrigued me, built as they were so far from the village, so I decided to find out more.

In Aberaeron library I found old books on local history and discovered that a witch had reputedly lived in one of the cottages over a century ago. She struck terror in the hearts of the good people of Aberarth and Pennant, as all proper witches should. I was delighted to have found her, and it certainly added an extra thrill to those long woodland walks.

I moved away from Aberarth and all but forgot about the witch, until last year. I wanted to write a traditional ghost story and so I created a narrative around her. I don’t remember if she ever had a child, and I don’t think she ever haunted anyone after her death, but the very fact that she had existed inspired me enough to want to write a story about her, and to set it firmly in Aberarth.

I’ve not been back to those woods for years, and now that I’ve written ‘Ghost Story’ I think I’d be too scared to. In my head, unfairly, the witch has become the evil ghost in my story, and she might want to extract revenge.

‘Ghost Story’, as its title suggests, is a classic gothic tale, albeit one written in a highly literary, contemporary style. Is this a medium that has always attracted you?  Do you find it a different discipline to write in compared to your other, less traditional pieces?

I’ve always loved reading classic ghost stories and gothic tales, but up until now I’d never tried to write one myself. There may have been a concern that, within the boundaries of the traditional, my writing wouldn’t have enough room to breathe, or maybe a reluctance to tread in the footsteps of the masters of that genre. A lot of what I write has tendencies towards the gothic, being preoccupied with those things more felt than seen, and so I guess it was always on the cards that I’d take the plunge one day and write a traditional ghost story.

There’s an established structure to classical stories that exerts an influence on the writing of them, and keeping within that structure’s a discipline in itself. I usually write as a response to an image or idea, but I never plan a story and rarely know how it’s going to end. With ‘Ghost Story’ I knew that I wanted to follow the arc of the traditional, starting with the telling of a ghost story, introducing a growing foreboding (particularly when the narrator finds the tin pig) and climaxing with the final tragedy. I couldn’t go off course to any great degree as I wanted the story to serve as homage to the genre, and so there were stylistic constraints, but I enjoyed having those parameters in place. It made a change from my usual mode of writing.

I’ve always been distrustful of being too emotionally affected by what I’ve written. I think there should be enough space between a writer and their work to allow them to have some perspective on it, but writing ‘Ghost Story’ scared the hell out of me. I’d have to stop when evening came, and turn all the lights on in the house and sit in the kitchen with the radio on, whimpering to myself, until my boyfriend came home and restored some sense of reality.

Like many of your works ‘Ghost Story’ is written in the first person. Is this a conscious, stylistic choice? Do you feel that it is the most immediate way to connect with the heart of your material?

I use first person narration a lot, though I’m not sure how conscious that is. I think it’s more instinct than anything else. I find it works to place me, directly and completely, behind a character’s eyes. The majority of my short fiction is either a very immediate first person or a very psychically distant third person (where the characters will just be ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘the boy’, ‘the girl’ or, in one instance, ‘the thing’).

Zadie Smith, in ‘That Crafty Feeling’ a wonderful essay she’s written about writing, says that, due to being an English writer and ‘enslaved to an ancient tradition’, while she may try to write in other narrative forms she always ends up writing in the third person, past tense. I’m the opposite of that. Though I may set out to write a more traditional third person narrative I usually end up returning to the first person, either past or present tense (or both), or even at times the second person, which is a tricky little bugger to get right.

Looking through my stories now, I see that a fair few of them have male narrators. I don’t think I’d be able to write from a male viewpoint using anything but the first person. The third person, for me, dilutes the relationship I have with my created characters and denies me that direct access to their inner world.

Your debut novel, The Scrapbook, is coming out through Parthian in May. It revolves around the intertwined lives of Fern, Iris and Ivy: daughter, mother, grandmother. What was the inspiration behind the book’s complex and unusual plot?

The Scrapbook was born primarily from my wish to explore the unreliable nature of memory, and the power of absence. The three women in the novel circle the void that is the missing Lawrence (Fern’s father and Iris’ lover), allowing his loss to set the template for their lives. It’s a form of quest narrative, uncovering secrets along the way that all three women have taken pains to hide from each other and even from themselves.

As with my short fiction, I responded to an image – in this case a woman cherishing a scrapbook of memories of her lover over his physical presence in her life – and began to write a story around it. I knew it would be novel length as I’d set myself that challenge, and I felt that the themes and central arc, as well as the complexities of the present day relationship between Fern and her mother, would allow me to take the writing of it further than my usual 1,000-3,000 word pieces.

My maternal great grandmother was reputed to be a practising witch on Jersey, the island of my birth, and though I only have vague memories of her she was the inspiration for the character of Granny Ivy. I also knew before I started writing it that I wanted to incorporate spells, letters, and different modes of narration into the novel, to give it a ‘scrapbook’ aspect.

Strangely, I initially wrote the main thrust of the story, Fern’s section, entirely in the second person, right through to the end of the book. Once I had the entire thing in front of me I could see it was too dense and alienating for the reader as it excluded them from the unfolding narrative (for Fern is talking to herself and not the reader), and so I went back to the beginning and rewrote it in the first person.

The Scrapbook is concerned with secrets and spells, with loss and the past. Thinking about some of the other stories of yours that I have read, like ‘The Crying Girl’ (published in Issue 6 of The Lampeter Review) and, of course, ‘Ghost Story’ (which shares some of the same spooked atmosphere that defines The Scrapbook), I tend to feel that a landscape characterised by magic and loss is where your artistic vision most directly lies. Would you agree?

Yes, I’d agree with that wholeheartedly. I’m a big reader and particularly love writers like Angela Carter and Daphne du Maurier, Michael Ondaatje and Jon McGregor. They all, to a greater or lesser degree, evoke a landscape that resonates with longing and loss. I love magic realism and any fiction that takes a skewed, strange look at the world around us and at our relationship to it, particularly fiction that animates the inanimate and thins the barriers between humans/society and the natural/supernatural world. ‘The Crying Girl’, as you mention, is about a young woman who wakes up one morning and starts crying inexplicably, and never stops. Another of mine, ‘Maria’s Silence’ [short-listed last year in the International Rubery Short Story Award], is about a girl who returns from the dead and haunts her old village by ignoring the inhabitants. It is her very silence that defines her haunting. I have another story called ‘The Glamour’, due to be published very soon in The Ghastling, which is about a woman who sees fairies and chooses to kill herself to be with them. The subtext of that one is whether she actually sees the fairies (of course she does!) or whether they are a hallucination brought about by a withdrawal of medication.

In The Scrapbook I pursued similar preoccupations but, instead of focusing on a moment in time or a fragment of reaction to an unusual situation, as I do in my short fiction, I gave each of the three women space to tell their stories in their own voices, so it spans generations.

Camus said that, ‘art is nothing but this slow trek to discover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence [your] heart first opened.’ Would you agree, and if so do you have ‘two or three’ such images yourself?

I’m not sure I do agree with Camus on this one. The theory seems a little restrictive for an act of creation (‘art’, and in my specific case, writing) that exists as the result of so many, and varied, reasons.

I have themes that I return to again and again in my writing, absolutely, and they could be seen as the images before which, in Camus’ words, my ‘heart first opened,’ but then what of my natural curiosity about the world around me? My personal beliefs, and all of those experiences, good and bad, that have shaped me as a person and as a writer?

I think art is formed by all of the components that make us human – the hunger for information, the need to make sense of the world we inhabit, the dread of death and loss, the yearning for love and acceptance… Basically all of those experiences unique to us as we move through our lives.

Am I right that The Scrapbook has its genesis in the PhD in Creative Writing that you took at University of Wales, Trinity Saint David? Do you think that creative writing courses are valuable experiences for aspiring authors? Did your doctorate influence the way that your novel turned out, for instance?

My Creative Writing PhD is in its death throes at the moment. I’m just putting the final touches to my dissertation ahead of next month’s deadline. Wish me luck.

I think that creative writing courses are a double-edged sword. I have an MA in CW as well as (very nearly) a PhD, and I was a practising writer before I pursued any formal academic qualifications in the field. My experience of both the MA and the PhD will be vastly different from someone else’s who may never have written creatively before. But for writers and aspiring writers alike, any course that nurtures and develops a love of writing, as well as teaching the techniques of the craft, has to be a good thing.

For me, the PhD has been a positive step in my writing career. Without the framework of the programme, which gave me both the space and the permission to write every day (I always felt guilty about doing something so ‘self-indulgent’), I don’t think I would ever have started, let alone finished, The Scrapbook. As a short story writer who had never written anything longer than 8,000 words (and with an average word count per story of 2,500 words) the prospect of writing something novel length was unbelievably daunting. It would have been far easier to keep writing the short pieces. So I enrolled on the PhD with the specific intention to write a novel and I’ve had the happiest of outcomes.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been real challenges to undertaking the PhD (the work of the novel aside). The change from writing for myself to writing for critical third parties was tough. To expose your words to the close attention of others is going to have an effect on how you write, and for a while I was so frozen with fear that I couldn’t even talk about the novel, let alone make a start on it. Once I’d broken through that, I guarded the unfolding novel a lot more jealously than I perhaps should have done, sharing it with as few people as possible.

I don’t think having the doctorate as a backdrop to my writing influenced the end result though. The Scrapbook exists because I undertook the PhD, but it wasn’t in any way formed by the experience.

You run the Cellar Bards open mic night in Cardigan. Is there a hot bed of up and coming talent on the West Coast that we should all be paying more attention to?

Absolutely. It’s easy to overlook writers on the west coast, so far from the capital and the bridge that links us to the rest of Britain, but I’m constantly delighted and thrilled by the quality of the talent here. I’ve been involved with the Cellar Bards for nearly two years now and the range of writing offered at the open mic nights ensures that nobody ever gets bored. The Cellar Bards are a great bunch of people as well, genuinely enthusiastic and supportive of each other’s efforts. I’m proud to be a member.

I could name individuals who I think are particularly talented and whose work certainly takes my breath away, but I won’t. Not here. I’ll be the first in the queue to get my signed copy of their book when the time comes though.

Do you find reading your work to an audience helps with your editing (and indeed your creative process)?

The short answer to this would be no. Maybe it’s different for performance poets, where the emphasis is on the performance and the reaction is immediate, but at open mic nights everyone is so supportive of everyone else’s contribution, be it prose or poetry or even creative non-fiction, that you could go home and think you’ve written a masterpiece when you haven’t. It’s really just learning to work hard, have self awareness and a willingness to hone and prune your words, that helps you edit your work more effectively, unfortunately. And the creative process, for me, takes place exclusively inside my head. Reading my stories to an audience is good for developing pace and other performance skills, but it doesn’t influence the actual creative process in any way.

Though, having said that, the response that new readers get from the audience seems to spur them on to further confidence and acts of creativity, which is a wonderful thing to see.

Finally, what next? Are there more short stories and novels on the way?

As well as my short story ‘The Glamour’ appearing in The Ghastling very soon, I have another called ‘The Black Night Long’ coming out with Bare Fiction Magazine in a couple of months, and a ghost story, ‘The View From Up Here,’ will be published in Honno’s ghostly anthology in the autumn. I’m over the moon to be included in all of these publications. I keep sending work out there, as you have to when you’re a writer, and some of it gets sent back but some of it finds a home, which is always wonderful and a cause for riotous celebration, usually involving wine.

I’m currently working on a collection of ghost stories that Parthian will be publishing next year. I’m very excited about this: both the writing and the publishing of this collection. There seems to have been a well-deserved revival of ghostly, gothic stories recently.

As to longer works, I have strong ideas for two novels and have started the planning of one of them. That one may well be the next novel I finish, or maybe in time I’ll decide it’s not going to work for me right now and so I’ll turn to the other.

But just to be writing, to be having my short fiction published, and to be launching my first novel, are reasons enough for me to feel very lucky indeed.

Illustration by Dean Lewis