There are few authors who can successfully turn their hand, and pen, to as many different genres as Gee Williams. As well as publishing three acclaimed collections of short stories, two novels and working as a poet and dramatist, she has won both The Rhys Davies and The Book Place Contemporary Short Story Awards and was short-listed for the Wales Book of the Year Award in 2009 and 2013. Here, Gee talks to Emma Schofield about how Dylan Thomas was a source of inspiration for her Wales Arts Review Story: Retold contribution, ‘Like’, her most recent novel, Desire Line, and the challenges of creating characters which evade preordained roles.
Thanks for agreeing to chat to me, Gee. I wanted to talk first about the short story you’ve written for Wales Arts Review’s Story: Retold series. The story, ‘Like’, evolved from Dylan Thomas’s short story ‘Just Like Little Dogs’, what drew you to that particular Thomas story?
Dylan Thomas has always been fascinating…the poetry of course. You grow up with it. The life, his history, both compelling. Then beyond the glamour you find a steely technique underpinning apparent ease- especially with the short story. I’m always stunned by his ability to use imagery and metaphor as a narrative vehicle. It’s a magician’s trick. You watch the hands and think what am I missing?
Would you say that Thomas was a figure who particularly influenced you as a writer then?
I wish! I would like to think so as a prose writer.
The plot of ‘Like’ moves beyond the confessions made by the brothers as they stand under the railway arch in Thomas’s story, to explore the realities of their confused and complex marriages. Interestingly, you’ve chosen to give voice to the women in the story, with ‘Like’ being narrated from Dorrie’s point of view. How did that decision come about? It is one of the features which makes the story so distinct from the quite male-orientated plot of Thomas’s story.
Thank-you. Well I knew the confessional note was what interested me, but of course Dylan Thomas leaves us ‘half-told’. Yet you do glimpse an intricate sexual dance being performed by these two couples – with Thomas it ends in exhaustion and retreat. But there’s a child. For the female partner that’s not an option. So then what? There’s a strong, not so much feminist, more-anthropological drive, as a writer, to step over the line and see where it takes you.
Was it difficult bringing the plot of ‘Just Like Little Dogs’ up to date? The setting you’ve chosen for ‘Like’ retains the tone of Thomas’s original, but positions the characters in a very contemporary setting.
Well it was an easy decision to try to do it. To duck out of the contemporary I need to be convinced of gain and (after all) the original story was a contemporary one. I’m happy with retro but quaint or even pastiche isn’t for me.
Can you tell us a bit about the background to your most recent novel Desire Line? I reviewed it recently for Wales Arts Review and was struck by how the topic seems very poignant to recent years, featuring a tidal surge striking the Welsh coastline…
It’s almost impossible for me to recapture what I thought when I began Desire Line because the first fragments of it were written years ago- but they would be notes to myself, in no way drafts. And it wasn’t until the book was virtually finished I recalled a peculiar fact: twice in my life I’ve nearly drowned off that coast – once when I was six years old and a massive wave came out of a calm sea and took me with it, and again when I was fifteen by just being over-ambitious. Both times I had to be fished out by others. Which says something about my own stupidity/ persistence as a swimmer and also about, as a writer, not letting useful experiences go to waste or lie unresolved.
Of course the North Wales coastline is a setting you have used before, with geographical detail a key feature of your writing; do you think it is important to be write about areas with which you are familiar?
I find it hard not to. And one of the positives about working on Desire Line was spending so much time in a town that was part of my own backstory, sifting and re-evaluating and making a fresh pattern out of it. But it’s not just about the visual clues that a landscape provides but the certainty that somewhere else is…always going to be somewhere else. Different stuff happens there. I quote Alfred Hitchcock’s maxim in the novel, a location is not a backdrop.
I was interested in your development of the character of Oxford-based writer Sara Meredith in the novel. In many ways Sara is very much an outsider, not being part of the local community in which her body is discovered, yet her role as a high profile writer and journalist makes her a familiar figure to many of the town’s citizens. Was that a conscious decision?
Yes, poor Sara – if only she’d had the sense to disappear in Oxford! I hope I gave the impression that dropping out of her time-line in Rhyl was held against her by some as bad taste. Fame is not something I’ve experienced, but being out of your depth (that wave again) is. I lived in Oxford for seven years and return regularly but I arrived there as a seventeen year old from a very unprivileged background to stay (illicitly) in my boyfriend’s rooms in college. I‘d been to London once and that was it- suddenly you’re on the set of Brideshead Revisited. Being an outsider – but also having a point of entry – was my experience and I flipped it for Sara’s usage.
In contrast to your first novel, Salvage, there is a particularly strong focus on family relationships in Desire Line, most notably the strained bond between mother and daughter, Sara and Eurwen. Were family relationships something you specifically wanted to focus on in this novel, or did it just evolve that way? I know you’ve spoken before about how, for you, short stories can be written with a pattern in place from the outset, whereas a novel develops as it is being written.
The novel began with a kernel: female flight from the preordained familial roles. A very young woman has stepped out of her secure zone into this alien place. She appears to have become easy male prey. Her mother has to let herself be hazed by Rhyl to get her back- or die trying. That’s just Story. It’s not difficult to see where the material comes from: even before Eurwen’s age, my life was in chaos- not my parents’ fault though they were part of it- so I guess I understood a Sara-type’s seduction by the safe path, protection, offers of help and her believing (mistakenly) that her daughter must operate in the same mode. So wrong. But what grew with the book was the idea of tangible positives created from bits of the chaos. Yori, the male observer of these women is caught by attraction to them both.
I guess I was working with the usual irreconcilable elements, love and violence, men and women, parents and children, asking do these opposites have to be tidied up or stored out of sight? Or diffused in a role-free, honest, good-faith, different way, so that the next generation and then a whole community can just decide to stop repeating history.
Now I sound like I’m about to change my name to Moon Science-Neuronic and found a cult. I’m not. I can just about manage to live with one other person. I’ll stop there.
I think a lot of people will probably be able to empathise with that sentiment! Going back to Desire Line, this is your second novel, but your short stories collections have received much acclaim in the past, is that a form that you are planning to return to anytime in the near future?
I’m always writing short stories. I never have to turn down a commission because there’ll be one I want to write. I began my writing life as a poet and find there are themes that can only be handled in the short form. Unlike many fiction readers, I read them all the time. Recently finished is Chekhov’s ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ (little dogs again) – a while ago it was Rebecca John’s Clown’s Shoes.
Finally, can you tell us something about what you’re working on at the moment?
Apart from the short fiction? I’m working on two unconnected pieces. One is a novella set where I live on the Cheshire/ Flintshire border. The area is my personal No-man’s-land, a national, ethnic, historical boundary with a virtually un-replicable accent (I’ve worked with actors trying!). I’m going with the idea that actual and invented are just two more hostile neighbours here.
The other is a literary thriller about immortality. Which may take some time.
You can read ‘Like’ by Gee Williams here.