Already an award-winning writer and playwright, Rachel Trezise has just released her new novel, Easy Meat, the first Brexit-themed novel to be published in Wales. Emma Schofield sat down to talk to Rachel on Zoom about her new novel, working class fiction in Wales and the challenges of writing a novel set on just one day.
Emma Schofield: Thanks for taking the time to chat to me, it’s a clearly a busy time for you at the moment with the publication of Easy Meat. Could you tell me a bit more about how the book came about? How did you decide to write about the Brexit referendum?
Rachel Trezise: Well it was partly a commission from Richard Davies at Parthian. I showed him something else I was working on and he suggested that I write something about the Rhondda, something political because it felt like it was a really political time. Trump and just come into office in America and it seemed to be a moment where there was a lot of division. To begin with I didn’t know if I wanted to write about Brexit because it is so divisive. I mean, where do you even start with something like that? Then I realised that it doesn’t have to be political, it can be art; a novel about politics can be observational. So we agreed that I would write a novel which would be set on the day of the Brexit referendum and that it would all take place on that one day.
At first I thought it might be a nightmare to write, but once the decision had been made to do that it was easier to get started because I had a clear goal. The first draft didn’t take very long and once I had that there seemed to be so much in place to work through.
Emma Schofield: Opting to set the novel on one day was quite a quite brave thing to do. Where did you start with that? It’s a completely different approach to your previous writing.
Rachel Trezise: Yeah it is… Well, Richard Davies at Parthian suggested that I read Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and have a go at writing a story which took place across just the one day. So I tried it a few times and the story kept falling out of those parameters, but the more it did that, the more it became a challenge and the more I was determined to get it right. At first I drafted the narrative by the day, then hour by hour; I thought I’ll write a scene for every hour of the day. As the drafts went on, that kind of fell away, because I’d achieved that and it was more about the characters and what I needed them to do.
Emma Schofield: Is that the point when you decided on Caleb as a main character?
Rachel Trezise: Kind of. I wanted to write a male perspective; I don’t know why. Perhaps because I just I love doing that anyway and maybe because I don’t want people to think it the story is about me. I also wanted to step away from Brexit as well because it is so controversial. Like everyone else, I have my thoughts on Brexit, but I wanted to try to make the novel separate from my views as much as possible and keep it unbiased. So I thought I’ll just choose somebody as far away from me as I can, which was male. And I think maybe 15 years younger than me!
Emma Schofield: You’ve used a male protagonist a few times in your writing more recently. Do you think that’s something you you’ll keep doing? I’m thinking about that desire you mention to create distance between yourself and the characters you create.
Rachel Trezise: Yeah, I love using a male voice, but then I can see that there’s so many women’s stories to be told as well. It’s great to use a completely different voice for short stories, because it’s just there for a moment, and then you can step out of it again. The novel I’m working on now has a central female narrator, so I’ll probably carry on writing with both. I’ve got a few male-centred short stories in the collection I’m working on at the moment. It’s just depends on, you know, the theme and what I’m writing about, and what suits that I guess.
Emma Schofield: I think that process of changing voices is important, isn’t it? I was interested in some of the other characters in this. As well as Caleb we’ve got his brother, Mason, and their parents, and they all kind of dip in and out of the novel, but they could almost have formed a story in their own right. I sort of wanted to know more about what was going on with them. Particularly the conspiracy theories; it felt like there was there was almost another book running kind of in tandem there that I could naturally get into and read.
Rachel Trezise: Yeah. Well, actually, I should have said when and where that character comes from, it’s based on a short story that hasn’t been published. In that story the narrative was told from a different perspective, from the point of view of a woman, but whenever I showed it to people, they wanted to know more about the mother, more about the boyfriend and the family. So I thought, that’s perfect. I’ll write it from the boyfriend’s perspective. In a way I suppose I mirrored the plot and then I could go into more detail than I had in a short story. The conspiracy theory went in on the very last draft. It was because I couldn’t differentiate very well between the brothers, they are very similar in age and from the same background, and I thought Mason needed something of his own.
Emma Schofield: When were you writing this then? Because it’s very relevant to now, isn’t it, with the whole notion of conspiracy theories and divisive opinions…
Rachel Trezise: So the first draft was in late 2018. There was a big break after that and I went to work on a different novel and the play Cotton Fingers, then lockdown happened. I don’t think I ever would have come back to it if it wasn’t for lockdown. I remember I thought if I don’t return to that now I never will. I had all that time and it gave me something to work on. It sort of struck me in a way how much of those kind of divisions and different opinions, and different ways of dealing with things, are just sort of the same thing that everybody has been going through again now.
Emma Schofield: Do you think you might go back to those characters again? Because it ends quite on an open ending and I know that when I finished it I still wanted to know more, I wanted to know if they get the business back and whether Mason brings the car back.
Rachel Trezise: Yeah, I know what you mean, I sorted of wanted to finish it as well. Part of me wanted something more dramatic but, because it was the end of the day and the story had to end at the end of the day, so I had to leave it there. I am going back to the short story, I think it is going to be in the next collection, although I am going to be rewriting that. When I go back to it, I’m going back with more knowledge about the family than I had the first time, but other than that once I finish something I’m never keen on going back to it. There’s always too many more things I want to write.
Emma Schofield: Obviously, Easy Meat has just been released and you said you’re working on another novel and a new short story collection as well, but I wondered how you felt about Fresh Apples. The collection has just been republished as part of Parthian’s new series, reprinting modern classics; how did you feel about taking a moment to look back at that collection?
Rachel Trezise: It’s just really nice to be considered in those terms, the modern classics idea is really special. I loved it when Penguin brought out all the classics with a silver cover because they’re so pretty. Now I’ve got my own version of that! It’s nice to look back now and again, because I never do that. I’m always straight on to the next thing. It’s nice to look back and see how well the stories have aged; I was really young when I when I wrote them, and I never think about them. I pass them off in my own mind as sort of just scribblings of an early 20 something, trying to learn, not as actual stories. I was quite surprised when I went back and looked at them and found they were still saying something about society.
Emma Schofield: Yes, I thought that looking back at them as well. I know you said you don’t you don’t keep looking back, but do you see yourself as part of that kind of 21st century canon of Welsh writing? Do you look back and see yourself as part of that? Or does it feel not really like that to you, because you’re always just kind of moving forward and looking ahead to what’s next.
Rachel Trezise: I think it’s just much more personal than that. When I when I think back to that time, I just think about the amazing events which were happening in places like Chapter, with people like Tristan (Hughes) and Lloyd (Robson) and all those other writers, and I think about the friendships from that time. I really only see it like that.
Emma Schofield: So I suppose this is the inevitable question, but I wanted to ask you how you think the last year or so was affected you. Obviously it’s brought much of the arts industry in Wales to a bit of a halt; you mentioned Chapter but we haven’t been able to have those kinds of gatherings and events for so long now and I wondered how you felt that had affected you.
Rachel Trezise: Well, I consider myself quite lucky because after Cotton Fingers I was going to write another play and I just feel really lucky to have had the book on and focus on. It’s just really bad for those people in theatre and also, it’s kind of a strange situation for me personally, because we’ve been building a house for six years. We’d just moved into a rental house while we got the new house sorted and all of our time and energy was on the house, so a lot of the Coronavirus pandemic just kind of went to one side in my head because I was just really determined to get some work done on the house.
Emma Schofield: You mentioned theatre there as well and obviously nobody knows what’s going to happen in the next few months, but do you think you’ll continue to work across different mediums and go back to drama when you can? Especially as Cotton Fingers had such a good reception.
Yeah, I will definitely. I’ve got a commission from before, so the seeds of that are already there. Then again I’m also into the short stories more now. There’s so much going on. You mention different mediums and it’s been it’s been great for me, it teaches you a lot. So when you go back to something else, you go back with new skills. It’s just so exciting.
Emma Schofield: So what do you hope people who are coming to your work, perhaps for the first time, through Easy Meat, take away from it?
I don’t know, I mean working class fiction is so rare, I have come to realize. When I was originally starting out, there seemed to be lots of working class fiction around, but it seems to be becoming more and more unusual. It’s weird, because social media should be flagging it up more, but it seems as if it’s less prevalent now. I just want people to consider real life. You know how Brexit was reported? The mainstream media making out like everyone in the valleys was racist and stupid and that wasn’t real, I wanted everyone to really see what people are thinking, to see that it’s not as simple as that and to move away from stereotypical characters.
As soon as the results come out, people from other parts of Wales were in touch with me straight away, saying ‘well, what was the problem? Like was the story?’. Well, I don’t know; I don’t know what the answer is, but what I can do is show you the environment that I’m living in and the kind of people I live amongst. I can’t give you the definitive answer though.
Emma Schofield: No, I suppose in a way no one can give answers because actually, what are we now, coming up to five years on from the referendum? And actually, we still don’t really know what the full impact will be.
Rachel Trezise: Yeah and we also don’t know if it is already affecting us because it’s hidden underneath Covid.
Emma Schofield: Do you think further down the line you might return to Covid as part of your work, because, of course, Easy Meat is the first Welsh book that’s really looked at Brexit. I think there’s a lot of excitement about the fact that this is the first time we’ve actually had a Brexit novel in Wales. I don’t know whether more are going to follow, but I suppose people do need time to look back at stuff and think about how it has affected them.
Rachel Trezise: Yes, it will take me a while to digest everything that’s happened with Covid, I suppose. I don’t know though… Also, it just strikes me as quite boring, because what can you do with the lockdown? You know, other than one of those stories where everyone’s stuck in a house together? I mean, it was interesting how quickly broadcasting reacted to it with things like Staged, that was quite interesting to watch. We’ll see though.
Easy Meat is available now, published by Parthian Books. A documentary about Rachel Trezise’s writing and the release of Easy Meat, will be broadcast online in June 2021.
Emma Schofield is a writer and critic and is a Senior Editor for Wales Arts Review.