INTERVIEW by Gwen DaviesNWR Issue 96
Gee Williams was born and brought up in Flintshire and now lives on the Welsh Border. A widely published poet, dramatist and fiction author, her work has appeared in places as diverse as New Welsh Review
, the Sunday Times
, anthologies such as Sing Sorrow Sorrow, Dark and Chilling Tales
and The Pan Book of Horror
, as well as being broadcast on BBC Radio Four. Her novel, Salvage
(Alcemi, 2007), was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. Her second short story collection, Blood Etc
(Parthian), was nominated for the Wales Book of the Year.
: Gee, first: a mundane question about length. This collection has three long stories of twenty pages and up, ‘A Crack’, ‘Barley Rogers’ and the title story, ‘A Girl’s Arm’. I can imagine it being bookended by the first and third of these. How do you decide when to stop short and when, occasionally, to give an idea full flight in a novel? Do you allot superior status in your mind to your longer stories?
: Stories present themselves as discrete worlds. I negotiate my way through them. The stopping point therefore isn’t always under my control. I guess much depends on the nature of that world – for instance in one of the shorter pieces, ‘A Christmas Birthday’, a vista opens in the course of a single evening that will probably snap shut once it’s over. With the title story, the more time I spent in it, the more seductive it became (for a writer, I mean, as the story’s a frightening place) but it was never novel material. A full-length treatment of that particular type of dysfunction isn’t what I’m about.
: Many of the stories are set in Wales, especially in your home patch of the north-east (and a couple in Ireland). Is setting the main influence on you and your publishers when deciding about story order, or may theme, class background, character age-profile, size of cast, optimistic ending or indeed story length be more important factors?
: My own background has to be the major influence, so setting is very important. Everything else about me I can redo or delete. I’m grateful that my publishers Salt gave me the freedom to range where and when and also in respect of the ordering. Although I’m a fan of the very tightly targeted collection (Alice Munroe’s The Beggar Maid
is the finest one I know, it comes to mind immediately when I think of this genre, and the Orkney writer George Mackay Brown is another – and Deborah Kay Davies isn’t too shabby either!), it wasn’t what I was doing here. As I said, I aim for a series of discrete worlds. I know the male narrator of A Girl’s Arm
is a (potentially?) disturbing character – I’ve had some responses that are more extreme than this – so he needed to be the last voice. To try to pick up another after his would feel wrong.
: Your novel Salvage
uses metafiction as a key to unlocking plot. A Girl’s Arm
explores how art and storytelling may fulfil characters’ need (perhaps one shared by the author) for orchestration and reinvention. Artforms such as film are evoked to convey self-consciousness, for example the Rhyl-adoring protagonist in ‘Eyeful’: ‘If I was directing I’d leave present-day Eryl here right now soaked to the skin and standing guard….’ Cardiff Child protection social worker Glenda in ‘That Story’ literally rewrites her case notes as stories in which ‘I don’t want it to end bad.’ For novelist Fay in ‘The Chameleon’, the message of the main story is ‘the importance of choosing early on just who your main character is. Don’t waste your effort along the sidelines. Stick with him – or her… watch for… her every move and however seductive the others, forget them. Cosset and coddle her until she does what you need.’ And in the title story, ‘A Girl’s Arm’, the protagonist steals younger relative Geraint’s abandoned passport and clues from his deranged poetry to try and escape his own compromised personality. Can story really be such a powerful tool for crafting personal identity? Is this a fair interpretation too of your story ‘A Crack’, in which a scientist and an artist are locked in mutual incomprehension?
: Well it’s one interpretation of ‘A Crack’, certainly. Saul and Julianne are like witnesses to the same crime who can’t agree on what they’ve seen. To go further, you could ask: without story, without the ongoing narrative in which the individual plays the lead, how could we experience consciousness? And on a grander scale, the power of all the great political movements, of religion even, well surely, that’s bolstered by the quality of their storylines and the offer of bit-parts – if you join up, at least. You mention ‘A Crack’, where I think – hope – I make a case for classical story unearthing images of the self too horrifying for daytime viewing. One of the characters locked in ‘mutual incomprehension’, as you call it, seems unlikely to progress because the language hasn’t been acquired. She’s in the grip of something that’s destroying her and yet can’t decode the signage to escape.
: I mentioned ‘optimistic endings’ earlier. The mood of this collection seems divided quite fairly between disillusion (eg ‘Eyeful’, where a boyhood Rhyl fairground ‘Fatima, Queen of the Nile’ sports a ketchup-spotted gold bikini and irrevocable wrinkles) and cases where prejudices are overturned, for example where Londoner Sam’s suspicious attitude to her new Irish neighbours proves unfounded on all counts in ‘Settled at Civeen’. How conscious are you of the impulse to avoid depressing your reader?
: To depress the reader is a sin (bad writing being a mortal one), and who would want to do it? Eryl in ‘Eyeful’ may be disillusioned but not debilitated, I believe – he has a future. In short fiction the form certainly allows you to flirt with the unspeakable, to acknowledge the dark at the top of the stairs and what lives there. You can’t always promise that by putting the light on it’ll get any nicer. In other instances, just returning the monster’s glare has to do. Either way as a writer you aim to put in enough work to make it worth the reader’s while. Everything is definitely not ‘for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. Then again, ‘character has series of bad breaks and burns the house down’ isn’t fiction – it’s a coroner’s report.
: Linked to the above, and also to my question about reinvention, A Girl’s Arm
explores polarised attitudes to personal memory. In ‘Barley Rogers’, for instance, our hero (a lovely, unassuming paternal figure) learnt, from violent involvement, about racism. For Barley, rather than being haunted by this traumatic incident as a teenager in Missouri, it forms the bedrock of his relationship with West Indian son-in-law, Eugene Rae. How often in this collection is memory (and its sidekicks, guilt and wisdom) friend or foe?
: It’s the quality of the memory isn’t it? And the way in which some experiences burrow in like worms and set up home. In both ‘Barley Rogers’ and the opening story, ‘The Knight’s Move’, memory is an infection with confusing symptoms. The novelist in ‘The Chameleon’ finds her unpalatable present will make a useful, fertile past. Another narrator has a ‘picture perfect memory’, he claims, – but as for guilt…? I suppose each individual reader will make their own calculations about what he’s learned and whether that makes him safe to be among us.
: Finally, to open things up, I wanted to ask about your rich treatment of animals in your fiction as a whole. In this collection we have Lotty the dog in ‘A Crack’, both a symbolic Cerberus of the underworld and a delightful sensual physical presence. In your previous one, Blood Etc
, the iconic horse of the title story plays a similar dual role. I wonder how, despite Wales’ mainly rural geography (which influences so many of our contemporary writers, even if they are writing in opposition to it), animals seem to play such a small role in contemporary Welsh fiction in English. They are such a source of sensuality and also comedy, yet these strands remain untapped by many authors. Are animals difficult to write about; does your reading shed any light on the subject and could you maybe provide our next classic in the line of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals
? Go on!
: Just as my background is the North Welsh border, so it’s rural/urban fringe – railway shunting yards on one side, sheep up to the drainage ditch on the other. But I wasn’t aware animals were an unusual inclusion in my work until I had it pointed out. I like your phrase ‘delightful sensual physical presence’ because I certainly try to report on a full sensory existence and our response to the natural world (animals included) has to be a part of that. I’m also fond of Lotty in ‘A Crack’ as a force of chaos but – don’t want to shock here, although I probably will – I’m fond of Ollie the poet in ‘False Banded’ in exactly the same way. His bedmate Bethan reacts to him very much as a ‘delightful sensual, etc’ – in fact as the combined art-and-sex object he is to her. Seriously, I think animals appear in my fiction because from the start of the Celtic literary tradition they’ve performed a key role in our attempts to sing this life. It would be perverse to ignore them even if I wanted to. As a five year old I wept for Gelert and still do. My own reading? Gerald Durrell I haven’t read. Jerry Coetzee now, he shows you how to do it – or in my dreams he does. I wake up and that particular magnificent ship’s gone over the horizon. I just try to keep swimming.
previous interview: Jim Perrin
next interview: Horatio Clare