This month our WAR Book Club members are reading the new Wales Book of the Year-winning novel, West by Carys Davies. Swift and powerful, West is the story of a man’s quest, fuelled only by hopes and hunches, over uncharted land in search of giant beasts. As he presses further and further into unforgiving terrain, his young daughter grows up without him, never doubting he’ll return with the prize he seeks. Voted for by book club members, West beat fellow WBOTY winner, Lightswitches are My Kryptonite by Crystal Jeans, to be crowned our July Book of the Month.
Carys Davies’s short stories have been widely published in magazines and journals, and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Her many prizes include the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, the Society of Authors’ Olive Cook Award, the Royal Society of Literature’s V S Pritchett Prize, the Northern Writers’ Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and of course the Wales Book of the Year Aberystwyth University Fiction Award for West.
‘All the stark power and immediacy of a folk tale or a legend…a writer of immense talent.’ – Colm Toibin
In this interview Carys Davies answers questions from book club members. She talks about the role of research in historical fiction, the question of what fuels your characters’ growth and progression through their narratives, and the nitty gritty process of turning an idea into a living, breathing novel.
How did the experience of writing a novel differ from that of your short stories?
It wasn’t as different as you might expect. Certainly when I was writing the first draft I don’t think I ever sat down and thought, ‘Now I’m writing a novel’. I was telling a story with words and sentences and paragraphs, always seeing it all unspool in my mind’s eye like a film, which is the only way I can ever tell a story. The biggest difference, I suppose, was that a novel can be made up of chapters, which was of course something new for me. I loved having chapters! I love the way they speak to each other; how they create echoes and resonances and ironies which have a profound effect on the way the reader experiences the story. I don’t think my writing style is any different in West than in my short stories. I like spare, precise writing and the power it can create between the lines.
How difficult was the writing process – did you start out with a lengthy draft that was later edited down, or did the book come together organically?
For a long time, several years, it was very organic. I wrote scenes and scraps and pages with no real sense of what the story might be – only that everything I was writing was somehow connected to the possibility of mammoths being alive somewhere in the west at the beginning of the 19thcentury. This was the little piece of gold I’d come across in an introduction to the Lewis & Clark journals which I’d been reading: that some people believed, at the time, that this might be the case. For a long while I wrote about real characters – President Thomas Jefferson, for example, and Captain Meriwether Lewis. But I felt constrained, somehow, by their historical reality. My imagination felt hemmed in. At some point, a Cy-like character emerged, and there was an old man who became his companion, but there was still no Old Woman From A Distance, no Bess, no Aunt Julie, no Elmer, no Devereux. Then some time in 2015, I think, the bones (no pun intended) of what would become the story finally took shape and, fairly quickly, in a matter of a few months, I wrote a short draft of the whole thing. It was a long short story, of about 10,000 words, and it didn’t work. There were too many big themes jostling for attention, too many characters all with their different perceptions of the world. So there was never a question after that in my mind that it wouldn’t be a novel. I was then lucky enough to spend a year as a Cullman Fellow at the New York Public Library which was where I did the lion’s share of my research and wrote the book.
Was there a worry about short novels (or novellas) not being as commercially viable as longer works of fiction?
If I’d ever been worried about commercial viability I wouldn’t have spent the last 25 years writing short stories! I honestly don’t think you should spend time thinking about what might and might not be commercially viable – that way lies madness for a writer. You have to write what you want to write. Publishing is, as my agent calls it, ‘a witchy industry’ – there’s no real logic or predictability about what will or won’t be commercially successful. Plenty of short novels have been very successful – look at Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Orwell’s Animal Farm, or Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall from my own publisher, Granta. and there are plenty of others. All that said, it is absolutely true that a lot of publishers are leery of very short novels and definitely of novellas. But West has sold in eleven territories and none of those publishers has ever suggested it was too short. I think all stories should be exactly as long or as short as they need to be, and for me the concentrated character of West– the coiled tension between the ‘home’ and ‘away’ parts of the story and the mirrored journeys of Cy and Old Woman – meant that this was always going to be a short novel. And I did want to subvert the western genre a little – I knew when people heard about a novel called West about an epic journey they would expect a fat book and definitely thought, ‘No. I am not going to give you that.’
The narrative makes reference to Lewis & Clark’s expedition of 1804/5 (which helps us locate the story in its own time) – did you feel the inclusion of historical markers would give a sense of validation to the narrative?
That’s a very interesting question. My approach to historical fiction is that you do lots of reading, lots of research – and then you throw it all away, or, rather, you let it settle, so that all the detail sifts through your mind until only what matters remains. Stories which are encumbered with too much historical detail never feel very real to me. The writer’s task is to make a world which feels real and true on its own terms, and to do that the writer has to make a kind of leap of faith – a leap of imagination and empathy – into the heads and hearts of characters who lived, in this case, two hundred years ago. The historical truth is that many highly educated scientists and thinkers believed, in the early 19th century, that mammoths weren’t extinct – that they had merely, to quote the novelist Oliver Goldsmith, ‘so far evaded our search’. But these men and their ideas had no place in my story, because West is about one relatively uneducated man’s curiosity and reckless hope, and his daughter’s stubborn belief in him. It’s important that Cy is unaware of the wider currents of intellectual thought and this feels very real to me – characters in historical fiction are, all too often, far too aware of the times they live in. It seemed very possible, on the other hand, that Cy would have heard about the Lewis & Clark expedition (even if Elmer hasn’t). Including references of their journey allowed me to place Cy’s story very precisely in time. It was also a very clear shorthand way of conveying the historical fact of the west’s ‘unknownness’ – when the fledgling United States acquired those vast spaces beyond the Mississippi River in 1803, its leaders knew almost nothing about what they might contain.
When you were conducting your research, were there many records of eager explorers like Cy, hunting for creatures we know much more of today?
None. There is plenty in the historical record about the trade in mammoth bones, mostly from Kentucky and New York state. Huge packing cases full of bones regularly made the trip to Washington and Pennsylvania and into the collections of scientists and showmen, as well as across the Atlantic, to London and Paris. Meanwhile, around the same time as the Lewis and Clark expedition, the skeleton of the famous ‘Adam’s mammoth’ was discovered in the Siberian ice. But I found no records of anyone heading out into the west like Cy to look for living creatures – the closest I came was President Jefferson quietly asking Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for them on their journey (‘quietly’ because although Jefferson himself fervently hoped the huge beasts weren’t extinct, he worried Congress wouldn’t fund an expedition it saw as nothing more than a glorified animal hunt).
Without giving too much away, the end to Cy’s story is sudden and achingly sad. Did you know from the very beginning that his journey would end this way?
I didn’t, no. When I began it, it was as if I climbed on Cy’s horse behind him, and the only thing I knew for sure was that he could never find what he was looking for. I certainly didn’t know that he would die, and I remember vividly writing the scene in the smoky pit – the last line where Old Woman is suddenly aware he’s alone. Until that moment, I hadn’t known that Cy would die.
The truth is I never know how my stories will end when I begin them. To be honest I’m always a little baffled when writers say they know how a story will end because for me the ending has to come out of the story, and it’s only through the writing that a story gathers to itself all its strands and layers of meaning and emotion. For me, the brief encounter between Bess and Old Woman has inside itself the whole of the rest of the story – all its loss and longing, all its stubborn faith and love.
We leave Bess at a crossroads: she is nearing the end of childhood and mindful of her own loss of innocence. Do you see yourself revisiting her story, perhaps after some distance from the events of West?
I love Bess, I really do, and I feel confident that, a few years after the end of West, she heads off somewhere by herself (compass retrieved from under her mattress), though not into the wilds like her father. I see her heading elsewhere, maybe to Boston or Washington, leaving Lewistown and Aunt Julie behind and making a life for herself, on her own terms. But I’m pretty certain I’ll never write that story. It’s as if I’m only allowed to have my characters once. Perhaps this is because I’ve spent so long writing short stories, and in a short story you have to create the illusion of the future continuing on beyond the last line, without actually taking the reader there.
What other projects are you currently working on, and what would you like to write about in future?
I’ve recently finished a new novel. It’s a love story which is set in a former British hill station in India, and is bound up with the rise of religious nationalism there. As for what will comes after that, I’m not sure. I always have a few different ideas on my mind at any one time and it’s a question of being patient, and seeing which one asserts itself over the others.
Thank you, Carys, for taking the time to answer our questions. We’ll keep our eyes out for the new novel.
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(photograph by Jonathan Bean)