Prior to her appearance at this year’s inaugural Rhys Davies Short Story conference, John Lavin of Wales Arts Review caught up with acclaimed novelist, short story writer and playwright, Rachel Trezise, to discuss the short story, her attitude towards the creative process and the influence of music and politics upon her work.
John Lavin: The Rhys Davies Short Story Conference feels like a very timely event both for the short story and for literary Wales. Do you think that the short story is beginning to receive the attention it deserves? Do you think that Welsh literature is?
Rachel Trezise: The respect in which the short story is held has certainly improved since I began writing them in the early 2000s. When I went to my publisher with the first six stories from what eventually became Fresh Apples, suggesting I put an entire collection together, my editor was so outraged he tried to lamp me with an empty champagne bottle. Now writers are being encouraged to tackle the short story form in order to win prizes. The Sunday Times Short Story award purse is enormous. An agent told me recently, with much aplomb, that she ‘actually likes short stories.’ As for Welsh literature, it’s kind of difficult to tell. I’m stuck in the belly of the beast, metaphysically and geographically so it’s hard to know how people outside the country receive our literary efforts. As far as I know the only incidence in which Welsh literature has recently been mentioned in the US media was when The New York Daily News quoted Julian Ruck’s absurd claim that there hasn’t been one single Welsh writer of any national or international note since the 1950’s.
How often do you write? Do you have a particular daily routine?
Other/paid work permitting, I sit down at my desk at 7.30 in the morning and stay there until 4.30 in the afternoon, Monday ‘til Saturday. I’m a night owl naturally but I keep my husband’s hours, otherwise there’s a TV blaring rugby in the background. Six o’clock in the evening is when I’m most fecund. I can actually feel it, a jolt in the small of my back telling me to get back to my desk. I keep my smartphone and notebook around to scribble stuff down.
You spoke of writing your second collection of short stories, Cosmic Latte, which came out earlier this year, as being ‘a labour of love.’ What is it about writing short stories that you particularly enjoy?
Simply their brevity. I’ve said before that a novel is like a bonfire; you have to drag a lot of wood around, but a short story is a firework; you get an idea and you light the wick. Glyn Jones said, ‘If you’ve been born a short story writer, one of the symptoms is that you find you have a trivial mind and a brooding heart.’ I think that’s true. I fall very passionately in love with things on a daily basis and out again a few days later. I’m not saying short stories are less difficult than novels; they’re certainly not, but the challenge of having to fit what potentially could be a novel into a few thousand words appeals to me, maybe because as a journalist I learned to work happily with word counts. But it also means you can cut a lot of the crap and get straight to what you’re trying to say. Some authors can write with a feather; gently tickle you with their story. I tend to write with a lump hammer, walloping my point across and of course that kind of forthrightness befits the short story form.
Could you speak a little bit about what it is you set out to achieve when you write a short story?
It depends on the individual story; if there’s a moral or an image that I’m particularly keen on projecting, but generally I know that I want my stories to be a literary equivalent of a pub raconteur’s yarn, a miniature pot-boiler that makes the reader forget, momentarily, where they are and what their name is. You’ve more chance of doing that with a short story than with any other form because short stories are read in one sitting. As Frank O’Connor had it, the short story is the province of ‘the little man’ who represents a ‘submerged population group’. There’s no room for heroes or epic depictions of the totality of life. It’s a place for instability, quirky characters; the debris and dilemmas that won’t fit easily into a novel. Something has to happen. Something has to change. It’s as simple, and as complex, as that.
Do you generally have a fully formed idea of the story you want to write before you write it, or is more of an ongoing process during the writing?
The narrative arc has to be in place in my head before I’ll put pen to paper, then the characters and imagery and sometimes the dialogue are the surprises along the way. Very rarely I start writing without a clear blueprint of the construction, maybe if I’m working to deadline on a commission and an idea simply won’t come. My mind is quite frivolous – if I don’t put those barriers in place I’ll veer off onto something completely extraneous, whatever I’m thinking about subconsciously, writing for the sake of writing. I suffered a few abortive beginnings to novels in the early days because I concentrated too hard on the prose than on the story I was trying to tell.
Are they any writers, or indeed musicians or artists who have particularly influenced your work?
I would choose the word ‘inspired’ rather than influenced. There’re a few select writers and artists who’ve changed my perspective on certain things, made me consider themes and characters I wouldn’t have otherwise, or just roused me to start writing, to try to be a better writer or a better person, but practically I find it impossible to be shaped by other artists. If they give me ideas those ideas always hit the world via the prism of my own fictional voice, which is unrelenting, even when I’d sometimes quite like it to rest: Annie Proulx, The Manic Street Preachers, Leonard Cohen, Maya Angelou, Bobbie Gentry, Bruce Springsteen, Flannery O’Connor, PJ Harvey, Cormac McCarthy, The Clash, Michael Chabon, Toni Morrison, Billy Connolly, Daniel Woodrell, John Lennon, Erskine Caldwell, Hubert Selby Jnr., Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel.
In my review of Cosmic Latte for Wales Arts Review, I suggested that ‘Czech Marionettes’ seemed to draw on some of the same atmosphere as the Manic Street Preacher’s song, ‘Yes’, where Richey Edwards talks about everything being ‘for sale’. I wondered if this was something you yourself felt, and if so, if it was a conscious or unconscious influence?
Actually that story was originally based on a Springsteen song, ‘Reno.’ I wrote it for a commission in 2005, just after Fresh Apples was published, and through the three or four subsequent drafts it took on a darker mood in order to encompass the emergent themes of displacement, war and death in the Cosmic Latte collection. Prostitution is something that interests me as a woman who understands well the path from sexual abuse to sexual desensitization and disassociation – the separation of the mind from the body. (More than 90% of prostitutes lost their virginity through sexual assault and one of the main character’s in the novel I’m working on is a sex worker.) But because ‘Czech Marionettes’ is written from a male point of view I can’t rule out ‘Yes’ having been an unconscious influence on the story. I listen to The Holy Bible at least once a fortnight. It’s my favourite Manic Street Preachers album. But there are much more conscious influences barely concealed in the prose. ‘You can’t put your arms around a memory,’ is the title of a Johnny Thunders song.
I partly bring this up because it appears to me that music is an important influence on your work. It also seems to me that music is much more of an influence on this current generation of British writers than on previous ones. As a teenager it was more often someone like Morrissey or Richey Edwards who would make me want to go off and write something, even at the same time as they were inspiring me to go off and read Shelagh Delaney or indeed ‘Plath and Pinter’. Were you, I wonder similarly influenced by bands, and indeed, are you still?
Well music came before literature for me. There weren’t any books in my house when I was growing up but there was lots of music, country from my mother and punk from my brother. The first thing I wrote, aside from stories and poetry in school, were song lyrics for two awful rock bands I used to sing and play in, closely followed by articles for my music fanzine, which at the time was just a way of promoting the band and other bands and musicians around me. I started writing properly, for myself, because the boys in the band wouldn’t let me write the kind of things I wanted to. But that first novel is crosshatched like a stick of rock with half-inched lyrics and music references. One of the first stories I wrote from Fresh Apples, ‘The Jones’, was heavily influenced by Belle & Sebastian’s ‘Tiger Milk’. I was aware of all those influences on the Manic Street Preachers, Plath and Orwell and Octave Mirbeau, and I read them, but I was more interested in gleaning narratives out of other people’s lyrics, in filling in their blanks. There was a kind of knitting pattern for a short story buried in the country songs my mother played and I was always trying to unpick it and source a suitable fibre to bring it into being.
You write very convincingly from the point of view of men in some of the stories in Cosmic Latte. Do you think it is important to write from the point of view of the opposite sex? And do you have an opinion on why so few men write from the point of view of a woman?
I’m not sure I think it’s particularly important to write from the point of view of the opposite sex, I’m not sure it should even be an issue. I started doing it early, in some of the stories in Fresh Apples, in order to disassociate myself from my autobiographical debut. They’ll know it’s not me this time because I’ll be writing from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old boy, sort of thing. It seemed to come quite naturally to me because, I think, aside from gender politics and cultural expectations, men and women aren’t all that different in terms of their frustrations and aspirations, what they generally want from life, and those are the facets of a person that you’re dealing with as a writer conjuring the soul of a character. Interestingly, the men I tend to read do a pretty good job of the female POV. Rhys Davies for instance was brilliant at women but to the detriment of his male characters. The women in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone are superb. For women writing men you couldn’t find better than Proulx.
You’ve spoken in the past about being conscious that your ‘voice, that of a Welsh working class woman, is rare in literary fiction and so needs to be utilised in order to help balance the largely male and middle class world of publishing.’ Is this a responsibility, which weighs heavily on you? Does it consciously influence the subject matter of your stories?
The only thing that weighs heavily on my choice of subject matter and characters is whether they please me or not as a reader. I’m prepossessed because I am working class and I tend to find working class characters more interesting than middle class characters when it comes to creating the conflict required for a good story. That’s not to say the middle classes don’t have their own grapples with life, I’m sure they do; maybe there’s a great chasm of neuroticism bubbling constantly at their feet, waiting to suck them under, but they’re so good at hiding it that when it does burst it’s a geyser. A person can lose their job and within a few days take fiercely to drink or get admitted to rehab; some massive crisis brought about after years of teeth clenching. By contrast the working classes wear their tensions like jewelry, their disquiet dripping out of their every orifice, because they’ve learned to deal with rejections and stigma on a daily basis and have to blow the steam off periodically. They’re generally more candid, more willing to divulge, either knowingly or unknowingly and are therefore more dramatic in their dialogue and actions. The difficulty is that the resolution in those people’s lives is always small, because they suffer from a crippling lack of confidence which is almost impossible to shake and so life is a matter of continuing to endure rather than having some glittering ship come in. It’s only when there’s a reaction to my work like ‘Why no happy ending? Why so much misery? Do I really need to know what the used sanitary towel smells like?’ that I’m reminded how rare the working class voice is in literary fiction.
One of my favourite stories in the collection is ‘The Milstein Kosher Liquorice Co.’ It intermingles Welsh history, Jewish history and Women’s history – three groups with a long history of persecution, displacement and subjugation. Do feel perhaps in this political climate more than ever, that it is important for writers and artists to be champions of the displaced?
The groups I decided to focus on in that story came about after I’d read In the Frame (Dai Smith’s alternative history of south Wales) and talked to him about the void in Welsh literature relating to the massive migration into the south Wales coalfield in the early 1900’s. It’s covered very lightly in the work of Rhys Davies and Gwyn Thomas but the immigrants are yet to arrive or have already assimilated. I wanted to concentrate on the point of view of someone arriving, fresh off the boat, as it were. The most interesting thing about the south Wales coalfield to me, even to this day, is that we’re a ‘melted’ pot of Jews, Eastern Europeans, Italians, Scots, Irish, English, Cornish and North and West Walian and I guess I wanted to remind people of that. I think writers and artists who are aware of any kind of political climate tend naturally to be champions of the displaced because they are themselves displaced. Art is considered an unnecessary extravagance in a world organized and managed by plutocrats.
One of the many wonderful things about ‘The Millstein Kosher Liquorice Co.’ is the mixture of the deeply serious with a sharp – but nonetheless warm – sense of humour (a hallmark of much of your writing). There is the moment when Abe mistakes the Pierhead Building for the Ellis Island and then at the same time that coruscating moment when Sasha’s mother secretly tells her she is ‘capable of meaningful and powerful things’ on her Bar Mitzvah. How do you make these two different aspects of your writing sit together with such ease?
Maybe comedy and solemnity sit well together in my writing because I do not consider them different aspects of a piece of prose. Life doesn’t come with a remote control – you can’t change your predicament into sitcom mode when things are getting a bit heavy. Life is multi-layered all the time; you need shadow and light to paint a complete portrait. If it’s too dark or too light it’ll fail to have an impact on the human eye. I didn’t realise that Abe mistaking the Pierhead building for the immigration station would be considered humorous. The idea for that story came from the obituary of novelist Bernice Reubens (Wales’ sole Booker-winner) that appeared in the Guardian. It said that her Lithuanian father, Eli, was swindled by a ticket tout in Hamburg and was thrown off the ship in Cardiff. He’d been in Wales for two weeks before he realized it wasn’t New York, which in 1900 wouldn’t have seemed all that ludicrous. I was just trying to imagine what Tiger Bay would have looked like at that time, what would have made it indistinguishable from the Port District of Manhattan.
Finally, your new play, the superbly titled Tonypandemonium, opens soon, could you tell us a little bit about that?
For a while I’ve been flirting with drama; I’ve written a radio play and a couple of small scale things, monologues and very short scripts, and acted as a kind of consultant on the Welsh and English language theatre adaptations of Fresh Apples. But Tonypandemonium is my own first full-length script for theatre, to be staged by National Theatre Wales from October 10th as part of their residency in the Park & Dare theatre in the Rhondda. The script began its life as a series of flash fictions, because that seemed like the easiest way to convey my ideas to John McGrath who was helping me develop the thing. He’d ask me a question about the story or about a character and I’d answer with a new scene. It’s an account of the life and death of an alcoholic mother and her erratic relationship with her teenage daughter. My mother died a year or so before the commission arrived and our own dysfunctional relationship was weighing heavily on my mind. The script was influenced by my own experiences but it’s a patchwork of memoir and fiction. It’s been manipulated and molded so thoroughly I’m not even sure anymore which bits are which. Director Mathilde Lopez has described it as ‘… an accelerated universe with no limits, no beginning and no end, just infinite burning love, rage, saturated Queens of the Stone Age guitars, corned beef pie crumbs and flying debris.’
Rachel Trezise has published two collections of short stories, Fresh Apples (2005) and Cosmic Latte (2013), as well as the novels, In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl (2002) and Sixteen Shades of Crazy (2010). Her new play, Tonypandemonium, runs from October 10th to 19th at Treorchy Park and Dare. http://nationaltheatrewales.org/tonypandemonium#
Banner illustration by Dean Lewis