Holly McElroy interviews Cynan Jones about Stillicide, a collection of twelve short stories that aired on BBC Radio Four in the summer of 2019. Regarded as one of the most urgent stories of recent times, Stillicide is a fictional account of a not too distant future where phases of extreme weather have plunged Britain into alternating cycles of flood and drought.
Holly McElroy: Your fiction has always had a strong connection to the earth and the environment. There is often a brutal relationship between nature and humanity somewhere in your work. But your latest Stillicide is the first to be speculative. How did you come to the decision that this was to be the next story you wanted to tell?
Cynan Jones: The idea for Stillicide had been forming for a long time. From an early stage, I saw it as a set of individual stories that would pool together to create a wider story. However, I didn’t feel I was ready to write it. Frankly, the world of Stillicide was so huge in my imagination I hadn’t settled entirely on what aspect, exactly, should drive the narrative thread.
When Radio 4 asked me to pitch twelve inter-related stories it seemed a fit. Sometimes you just have to leap. I was on track with another novel at the time. Putting that to one side was a big call.
Did you think of Stillicide as a climate change novel when you were working on it?
No. I try to keep my eyes on the story itself when I work, not on categories that might– if too much attention is paid to them – infect what the story wants to be. Certainly, I knew the climate crisis was the fundamental matrix into which the story would be set, but ultimately Stillicide is a love story.
Stillicide was written originally for radio, as twelve interconnected short stories; but you’ve spoken about how the premise for the book was simmering away in you already. Would you have tackled it differently had it not required that specific structure?
As mentioned, it was the specific structure itself, discrete pieces that accumulated to tell a larger story, that in the end made me pitch this project for the commission.
However, the radio format made a lot of the decisions for me.
It determined the length of the stories – around 2,000 words to fit the fifteen-minute slot. The decision to air the stories on Sunday evening meant some harder content would not suit. And a few themes or sub-plots had to go. There was a thread that had the communication technology moguls guilty of a Tobacco-industry-esque scandal; a story about brothers engaged to clear derelict wind turbines from the hills. The BBC team were concerned these themes might throw a negative light on mobile technology and renewable energy. They weren’t comfortable with that.
The delivery pressure also determined how I tackled the commission. I had to generate a story a week for twelve weeks to hit the first draft deadline. Given that, the moment I felt a story wanted to be longer (or shorter) than it needed to be to fill the airtime, I moved on. Similarly, as soon as a story demanded content that was unsuitable for a Sunday evening listener, or would not be direct enough, I stopped and went on to the next idea.
The task in that early stage was to generate a strong dozen. In early drafts, that dozen combined to present the denouement of a wider story; but as the work developed, stories and themes fought for place until the collection became the beginning of a bigger story. I don’t think I’d have got to that without the structures the radio format imposed.
What was it that brought you to the subject of water resources to tell this story?
Initially, and honestly, the image of a massive, armoured train full of water hammering along a track.
The story grew from there, and water remained at its centre. Societies like ours take clean drinking water for granted, as a human right. What if that was challenged? What if water as a commodity was in the hands of the sort of people who have historically made their money from sugar, whale oil, petrochemicals?
Ultimately, on this island, it’s likely to be about the management and distribution of water, not the lack of it. What further pressure will be put on rural communities and landscapes to parent urban populations who can’t provide themselves with many of the basics? How will people in different places collect and store their own water? Questions like these swirled up in the train’s slipstream.
What do you think are the challenges for literature in the ways it might address the issues coming out of the climate crisis?
Across the board writers increasingly face the challenge of ‘having to write about issues’. Evidently, many of these issues are vital to address. But we should be careful not to lose quieter voices, and voices that acknowledge everyday life goes on under the media din.
Stories that deal subtly with a changing, or perhaps for some an unchanging world, and how ‘normal’ people cope with that, can address our situation just as effectively as ‘big’ stories.
The challenge for good literature remains the same. Loud or quiet. To write with integrity.
Your work is often concerned with an individual’s relationship with the natural environment, or “nature”; with this in mind do you sign up to the idea that all novels will soon inevitably become climate change novels?
I don’t sign up to those sorts of ideas very readily. They can get in the way of clear-minded writing.
Many effective novels are set against the predominant historical pressures of their time. But they work because they set authentic and recognisable ‘types’ of individuals, and the challenges they specifically face, against the universal pressure of a point in time. It follows that many novels will now be set against the climate crisis, but will that make them climate change novels?
Stillicide is not a “conventional” novel, both in its origins, but also in its style. Some argue that the future of the literary novel will have to be one of fluidity, and perhaps we’re entering the age of the post-novel. Do you see that?
No. I don’t even think about it. It’s my role to write a story as strongly as I can, and to be instinctive with the form that best tells it. I’ve never taken into account convention, but I’ve never deliberately broken it either. I’ve always gone with what I feel is best for the story I’m trying to tell.
Everything changes and develops and evolves. Stillicide was a collection of twelve inter-related stories for voice, but the US publishers have put ‘A Novel’ on the jacket. The Long Dry is ‘too short’ and I break narrative rules, but the book continues to find new readers. Cove gets shelved in the poetry section of some bookshops, because of the white space. Story is everything. As long as we don’t enter an age of post-story, we’ll be good.
Stillicide by Cynan Jones is available now from Granta Books.