I meet Rachel Trezise outside Cork’s English Market and we go upstairs to join many of the writers who have appeared over the course of the week for lunch. This is a daily tradition at the festival, a convivial affair that allows all of the authors the chance to bond over very good food and drink with festival director, Pat Cotter. It is the final day of five and Trezise is tired after a long week’s teaching. She is anxious about whether or not she has been of any help to the students in her workshop, some of whom already have MA’s or BA’s in Creative Writing. ‘I mean what I wouldn’t do for one of those qualifications,’ she says, and I think at first that she might be joking until I realise that she means it quite seriously. I tell her that funnily enough I had been speaking to one of her students at the Sean O’Faolain prize-giving ceremony the night before, and that he had more or less run out of superlatives when it came to extolling the illuminating quality of the classes that she had been delivering. Clearly pleased, the celebrated Welsh author sitting opposite me still looks somewhat incredulous and it occurs to me once again what an unassuming, refreshingly un-ego driven writer Trezise is.
Earlier in the week I had introduced her onstage in the beautiful setting of the Triskel Arts Centre and watched spellbound along with the rest of the audience as she delivered a perfectly poised, perfectly voiced version of ‘Hard as Nails’, one of the standout pieces from her second collection Cosmic Latte. ‘She’s the real deal. No doubt about that’, the Irish author Nuala Ní Chonchúir said to me later that evening as we walked out onto the dankly glinting streets. ‘Rachel was genuinely nervous beforehand but then she just goes on and nails it like that.’
It’s tempting to think that we take Trezise for granted in Wales. There’s no doubt that here in Cork, in what might arguably be called the home of the short story, she is treated very seriously indeed. That evening and the following morning everyone is still talking about ‘Hard as Nails’; a story which has all the hallmarks of classic Trezise; being, as it is, half funny and half overwhelmingly, half all-engulfingly melancholic. Ostensibly the story is a humorous one, being named, as it is, after an amusingly titled nail salon in the Welsh Valleys. But soon we are in very different territory, with the saloon’s violent, mentally unstable boss – the other ‘hard as nails’ of the title – murdering the new born baby of one of her teenage members of staff.
(The Hard as Nails salon stocks a new colour of nail polish entitled ‘cosmic latte’. Cosmic latte is also the name that scientists recently gave to the colour of the universe. This is a perfect example of the two-sides of Trezise’s aesthetic. On the one hand she clearly takes genuine delight in the trashy and the pop cultural but on the hand she is evidently a deeply poetic person, ultimately interested above all else, in human psychology. It is an aesthetic that is really quite Lou Reed: i.e. one half Tin Pan Alley, the other half Delmore Schwartz).
During the Q & A that followed Trezise’s reading (as part of a double bill with Estonian poet, Kristiina Ehin), I asked her how she manages to balance humour and tragedy with such a high degree of accomplishment in her work. ‘I think it’s a natural reaction to growing up where I grew up, and when I grew up,’ she replied. ‘During the miners’ strikes. People use humour everyday to get them through the bleakness of their realities. It’s a way of putting a brave face on things.’
I think this is a very accurate way of looking at Trezise’s stories, which always see the humour in things even as they are accepting of a certain bleakness and desperation. Which is not to say that these stories do not from time to time fizz with romance and glee. Rather, it is more like the statement Trezise made to me in an interview last year: ‘Life is multi-layered all the time; you need shadows and light to paint a complete portrait.’
Back at the English Market we take our leave to carry on the interview in quieter surroundings and find ourselves in an airport-style smoking room above a bar not far from the Triskel.
We’ve been discussing the similarities and differences between Welsh and Irish writing. One of the Irish students in Trezise’s class had told her that her stories weren’t that bleak, that they were actually ‘pretty light’, and we both laugh because we have just been talking about one of Trezise’s best and bleakest stories, ‘On the Strip’; a searing, empathetic work about a young prostitute who is brutally raped while working the Sunset Strip.
I suggest that while, as Trezise says, humour and sadness often go hand in hand in Welsh writing, in Irish fiction (and of course, this is a huge generalisation; Ulysses, after all, is in part a very funny book) deep sadness is very often the keystone. You think of McGahern, Enright, Banville, Toibin etc. and you don’t think funny. It’s interesting, I suggest, because the Irish have obviously had a lot of adversity to deal with but they don’t appear to use humour as a kind of shield to subdue adversity in the same way as you were suggesting the Welsh often do?
‘The humour in my work is definitely something to do with being Welsh,’ Trezise replies. ‘You know, people love telling stories in the Valleys. You get stories just at the bus stop. Just four sentences. And you know what it’s all about. Dialogue can convey so much.’
And perhaps that’s where the real similarity between Irish and Welsh literature really lies – in the use of language. In conveying meanings without necessarily having an expensive education at your disposal – in the way that English writers would have done traditionally. I tell Trezise about my Irish mother and how she is always coming out with these old Irish phrases that I think I must use for story titles. Phrases which are imbued with imagination, like, for instance ‘eating the pictures off the wall’ (something which is generally said in relation to someone who is overly religious in a hypocritical and sanctimonious way).
‘That’s brilliant!’ Trezise laughs. ‘And actually the new novel I’m working on which is set in the Yiddish world… you know, Yiddish seems to me to be the same. When you start to learn the words you look for the rude ones first the way a kid would. And it just comes across like Welsh. You know there are no swear words. Something like ‘go take a bath!’ just means you’re dirty, y’know? But there’s a sense of humour in the language. In a way Jewish humour is similar to Welsh humour because it’s a sort of gallows humour.’
Is that what attracted you to write the Cosmic Latte story ‘The Prayer for Eggs’ and the novel that you are currently working on about a Hasidic Jew?
When I was 23 on my first trip to New York, I was completely naïve and inexperienced, having grown up in the Rhondda. I’d only been to Ireland at the stage – and our countries are so similar really – and there I was on a tube train in New York staring across at this guy dressed all in black with ringlets, dressed like someone from Victorian times and I was like what the hell, y’know? I mean we weren’t far from Times’ Square and this huge capitalist… feast. And of course I only found out later that Hasidic Jews aren’t supposed to look at people from outside their faith, let alone women. And so in a way I was trying to flirt with this Hasidic Jew with my eyes, thinking that he was maybe shy! But honestly, you know, it was interesting to me that in New York of all places there was this group of people living these very restricted lives.
Was that where the germ for the novel came from?
Yes, kind of, I wrote a note on the plane home but I didn’t think about it until a lot later.
I was trying to write this story about a prostitute who had the most troubled background imaginable, but she really needed a confidant that could help her get through it. Someone very different to her. And then I was l looking through my old notebooks for short stories and I came across this and I thought, Oh my God! I’ve found someone who is the exact opposite!
But then when I started doing research into that world, I found that a lot of kids from that background often left as soon as they could and fell straight into the arms of prostitutes. They’re not even allowed to think about sex, so of course the first thing they think about as soon as they’ve got a little bit of freedom is sex. And I thought wow! This is amazing! This is going to work. Although it’s not working yet, of course, after six years!
The novel’s become a bit like a hobby really because I’ve been working on it on and off for six years now. It’s like the everlasting project that never goes away! I started writing it as soon as Sixteen Shades of Crazy was published.
It must be quite frustrating having to keep stop working on it for promotional reasons or because you are commissioned to write something else in a different mode? I mean I know that it’s not ideal to have to keep leaving a project. In a sense, I would have thought that when you’re working on something you need to be in that mind-set as much as possible until the piece is finished?
Yes, you need to be in a mind-set for a novel, which is from start to finish. You can’t stop for a year to write a play but then you can’t afford to turn down a commission, so when you come back to the novel after that, it’s almost like you have to re-write it to a certain extent.
We finish the interview by returning to the subject of the Cork Short Story Festival.
Is there anything you’ve particularly enjoyed about the festival?
One of the things I most like about the whole festival being dedicated to the short story is that you get to read for a lot longer. Most literature festivals you only get to read for five to ten minutes, whereas here I almost managed to read a whole short story.
Yes people often say don’t read a whole short story, don’t they? That the audience will get bored…
Yes, but here they seem to take it very seriously. Irish people are very happy to sit and listen to a whole short story. Whereas I don’t know if we would be so inclined to do that in the UK.
Yes, I agree. I think it’s partly not being used to it. It takes a while to get used to listening to something for that length of time.
Yes, it does. And the other night, I was looking up over my book as I was reading ‘Hard as Nails’ and thinking, ‘No, they’re still there! They’re not wandering off to the bar!’
I smile and laugh, remembering again the audience, comprised largely of international authors and literary figures, that Trezise had had hanging, spellbound on her every word the other night. Then I think again what a wonderfully unassuming writer Trezise is. And really, of course, that’s almost certainly part of what makes her such a great writer. Humility and uncertainty. But not just that: confidence too, and a restless interest in other people. A writer needs, in a sense, to mirror life. And life, like Trezise said before, ‘is multi-layered all of the time.’
original illustration by Dean Lewis