Apparently, some of your “human” characters are related with a specific animal (a cow or a badger) and their stories are told as parallel lines. Is this true?
It’s more that I try to use elements of the natural world as allegories to speak about the human condition. In The Long Dry, for example, the cow puts her head down and simply proceeds, without paying attention to what is around her. Many of us behave this way in our work, our relationships, other aspects of life. We just go on. In The Dig, I wanted to write about how we try to build a safe space for ourselves and the things we care about, and how an external force can break into that space. The badger sett provided the perfect allegory for this.
The vet in The Long Dry does his job speechless, instinctively, while the animals accept him and don’t make questions. Do you see writing as a craft related with silence, instinct and/or isolation?
Very much so, yes. Although writing is, ultimately, about communication, much of the process of writing is silent, instinctive and – in my case, anyway – isolated. As is the process of reading.
The vet has a quiet way (and confidence and acceptance) with the animals he tends. Some writers have the same relationship with the craft of writing and the ‘animal’ of the story. It’s a two-way relationship, with the ultimate goal of doing the best thing for the ‘animal’.
In other interviews, you said that honesty, risk and authenticity are fundamental in your writing. Can you specify what would do you consider as a risk in today’s literature?
Writing itself is a risk. You risk investing time, emotion, mental energy in an act that you might fail in. Therefore, it is vital you commit that act because of a love of the act itself. If you truly love the act, then you will work at it. Everything hangs on technical ability. The more you invest in the craft, the fewer times you fail.
At a certain point in its development, a story itself makes demands. It demands to be a certain shape, length, tone. Sometimes those demands do not fit the popular model and you must make a choice. Listen to the story, and risk it being rejected because it is different or difficult. Or listen to the industry and betray the story. I have always listened to the story because I trust readers more than I trust the industry.
For example, The Long Dry is very short and its narrative structure is unconventional; Cove – a novel – is only 11,500 words. Stillicide is built of 12 interconnected short stories, yet the publisher in the United States determines it to be a ‘novel’. Ultimately, I think readers embrace experiment and risk in literature provided the writing is persuasive and honest and technically convincing.
Your topics seem very unrelated from fashionable sensitivities. You write about nature, farmers, life and death, marriage, the different mindsets between men and women. Did you feel any reluctance to your work because of it?
This question relates to the answer I’ve given above. When I first sat down with the serious intention of ‘writing a novel’ (I was 28 years old), I was sure no one would want a novel about West Wales, about farming communities, and about the things of getting through the sort of physical life many people here have. Therefore, I tried to write novels about glamourous complex intellectuals and artists, in nameless cities full of social intrigue and opportunity and threat. They were shit. Then (two years later, when I was 30) I wrote The Long Dry. Almost in a spell, in 10 days. There was the book. It proved beyond doubt I could write stories that grew from the landscape and community I came from.
However, even though I felt the book was strong, I was concerned it would only find an audience in the locality it spoke about. But many years later, after finding homes among other places in Egypt, France, Albania, Italy, the Netherlands – here it is in Chile!
In Chile, most of the books published outside the capitals end up being invisible. What is the situation in the UK?
It’s similar here, but better than it used to be. When I was first published (in 2006) it was extremely difficult for a publisher outside London to get their books noticed and sold. Now, it is still difficult, but the integrity of the smaller, independent publishers has resulted in some excellent writing finding its way through. Even so, the sales and exposure of literary fiction is still minute against the figures that unimaginative, mass-appeal books command.
It could be argued that barring a few (and sometimes artificially promoted) titles, literary books are pretty much invisible in the grand scheme anyway. Or perhaps only certain individuals have the gift of being able to see them…
We realized that you were conducting writing sessions. There are many people who want to become writers, but most of them quit after a few years or after their first book. Why some of them persevere and others don’t? Is there a pattern? (And why did you persevere?)
I don’t think there is any pattern. There is only work. People who want to be writers without the work won’t make it. Or will spend their time telling everyone they are a writer, rather than putting words on a page.
I persevere because I love the act of writing itself, and the act of ‘making something up.’ I persevere because I want to do something very difficult. I persevere because from the outset I promised it would only ever be about the writing, and not about being a writer or getting published. Writing is a magic spell, alchemy. Why would you not persevere at that!