Every two weeks we will be showcasing original fiction from an emerging writer, as part of our New Voices feature. The second in our series is ‘Something Close to Heaven’. Its author, Evie Wyld, speaks to Roy Robins.
RR: Where are you from?
EW: I grew up in Peckham Rye, South London, with frequent visits to Australia where my Mum’s family live. When I was a kid I used to tell people I was from Australia, to try and sound more interesting – but really that’s a lie. I have dual nationality but, however I try to spin it, I’m really from south-east London.
When did you start writing fiction? And why?
I always wanted to be a painter, but I wasn’t very good at painting. When I was at school I found I received the same satisfaction from writing a short story that I did doing awful self-portraits – only the results were much better. When I was a teenager I wrote terrible magical realist stuff about attractive young girls having love affairs with old men with twisted spines.
You did an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. How did this help you as a writer, or inform the way in which you write? Do you think creative writing degrees are a good idea?
A lot of people have funny ideas about writers, like they’re born with novels fully formed inside them or something. Just like everything else, writing takes practice, and I believe that the right creative writing degree can be hugely helpful. Some people seem to think that a writer goes and works out the formula to a great novel in a room somewhere and then regurgitates it in a soulless, dead way. If you are a good writer and you do a creative writing degree, you are given the time to write and you are able to talk to other writers. You read widely, and through your classmates’ mistakes you pick up your own more efficiently. But it’s only helpful if you go in with a certain amount of openness. There’ll always be students who consider their work perfect as it comes out – and perhaps there are a lucky few for whom that is true – but most of us need time and advice and criticism, and that is what the course at Goldsmiths is about.
‘Something Close to Heaven’ is set in Australia, although it isn’t specific to Australia. The story speaks of a broader sense of strangeness, lostness and alienation.
I read a lot of Australian writers, and I think often there is a sense of strangeness or lostness about Australia as a landscape. I suppose the landscape fits with the characters I like to write about, characters who can’t articulate some sort of great guilt or feeling of tragedy they might have.
I tend to write about where I am not, so whenever I’ve lived in Australia, I’ve written about England and when I’m in England, I write about Australia. I think the feeling of homesickness is what drives a lot of my writing, and so far I haven’t quite worked out which country is home.
This story is part of your novel-in-progress, After a Fire a Still Small Voice. And yet ‘Something Close to Heaven’ seems to me to be perfectly self-contained. How did you come to write this story?
The story is based on something that happened when my Australian mother brought my English father to New South Wales to meet her parents. The two of them went on a trip up to Lake Nash in the Northern Territories, which was a pretty desolate bit of Australia then. They arrived at a barbecue where my dad was taken off to ‘get the meat’. My dad wanted to stay with the women, but was told he couldn’t, he had to go with the men, and then they shot this poor cow with her calf looking on. They took a steak each and off they went. My poor dad who was (and still is) a man of gentle tastes, had to act as though this was all perfectly reasonable. I suppose it made me think about the kind of person you’d have to be to think that that sort of thing is all right.
You write extraordinarily vividly about desolation and desperation, about hunger for all kinds of things. One of the things that impressed me about this story is its empathy. The men with whom Leon, your protagonist, finds himself have rejected wider society and have attempted to create a society of their own – one devoid of women and children. They see their ‘town’ as being idyllic, but of course this unnatural environment has perverted the way they think and feel. Your story never caricatures these men or judges them.
In After a Fire a Still Small Voice, Leon has returned from Vietnam and is trying to cope with the after-effects. When I was researching the novel, I talked to my Australian uncle who was conscripted and fought in Vietnam. He was nineteen and he had to kill people. When he returned he found that nobody wanted to hear about it. My grandparents picked him up from the airport, thrilled he was alive, and they all went to the nearest pub to celebrate and because he was in uniform, they were chucked out. I tried to think about the strange silence you might feel having fought in a war and then being expected to get on with things with no help, and no talking about it, thank you very much. My grandmother’s sister married a man who fought in the Second World War and was a big hero in public, but in secret he used to beat his wife. Everyone knew but no one would talk about it. You couldn’t talk about the bad things that had happened, only the heroic things. I’m interested in the idea that it’s not the person who is the brute but that the things that happen are brutish.
Is the community of men in ‘Something Close to Heaven’ in any way a comment on a certain kind of masculinity, one prone to aggression, violence and fear or mistrust of those different from themselves?
After a Fire a Still Small Voice is about men and the things they can’t talk about. I can see why someone would want to live out on a farm with no one they find threatening – in this case no women or children, nothing to lose face over. It’s like the impulse to stay in bed and live in your imagination for the rest of your life.