What happens to a family when a young man's experience of
war is never spoken of? How does
the silence, the repressed violence, reverberate through the generations? Drawing on her Australian Uncle's time in the Vietnam War, these are the
questions explored by Evie Wyld in her stunning first novel, After The Fire, A
Still Small Voice.
The book has won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and is short-listed for more awards. A graduate of the Goldsmiths MA in Creative & Life Writing, she talks here about growing a novel from a short story, finding a way to write about Vietnam and how to get your first book noticed
PJ: In an article you wrote for The Guardian you gave an account of talking to your uncle Tim about his time in Vietnam as research for the book. Even so, embarking on a fiction that explores the inner worlds of two taciturn Australian men is quite a stretch for a woman in her twenties living in London. How did you imagine yourself into the shoes of Leon and Frank?
EW: Writing in a male voice comes pretty naturally to me, I'm not sure why. I suppose I've always been captivated by the men in my Australian family, and so I think I've always studied them, the way they walk and how they unhook a fish. While I was writing them, I'd try speaking their dialogue out loud, and I'd move around the flat like them - a little bit of acting I suppose - very poor acting, but as long as no one else was there to see it, it was helpful.
PJ: Evoking the landscape of Australia - particularly the place where Frank stays - the shack, the bush, the bay - feels like 'necessary writing' something you needed set down, to save. Can you say something about that?
EW: I think childhood memories are more sensory than adult ones, and I suppose this book was my attempt at getting back to that time, when Australia was the most amazing place to me. Even though my feelings towards it may have changed and matured, when I think back to the bird song and the smell of the sun heating up the sugar cane, I still get that small leap in my heart that it gave me when I was very small. It's a really good feeling. The spaces that I wrote about are owned by my family. My grandparents lived and died there. In a way, talking about the landscape and remembering the feeling of being so small and in love with the place, feels like a memorial to my grandparents.
PJ: How did the structure for the book emerge?
EW: Totally without me noticing! I'd been writing it for about two years before it fell into place. I just wrote and re-wrote and played with putting different scenes next to each other, and then the simple idea of alternate chapters emerged.
PJ: So, initially, you wrote in discrete scenes, out of order - did Leon or Frank come first?
EW: Frank came first. I began writing about this guy going round looking for his girlfriend. A flawed character - someone who's done something bad in a relationship - that's what interested me at first. But after about a year-and-half of writing, I had to know more about Frank's parents and his grandparents. That's when I began to write Leon and I thought about using the story of my Uncle Tim's experience in Vietnam. The Vietnam stuff came quite late.
PJ: The Vietnam scenes are vivid. How did you manage that, how much research?
EW: At first, I went to Australia to talk to my Uncle Tim. We sat on the beach, drank beer and he spoke into a Dictaphone. While he was in Vietnam fighting as a conscript in the Australian Army, my mum, his sister, was on peace marches in London. It had never been talked about in our family. He was very generous in telling me his stories. And, I did a lot of reading. I realised I couldn't make that experience my own - I hadn't been there. You're only ever reaching for stuff like that you can't quite get it. I wanted to make the war scenes like the rest of the book - showing a man on his own. What would he have known out there in the jungle? The Australians behaved differently to the Americans; their experience was different to the American experience that we've seen through popular culture - Apocalypse Now. I tried to avoid using words like chopper and napalm.
PJ: When you were on the course at Goldsmiths I encountered you as a writer of short stories - had you begun the novel during the MA?
EW: No, I was all about short stories when we met. I had a short story on the Goldfish on line journal and an agent contacted me through that. She asked if I would write a novel and I said okay, not really thinking I'd be able to do it. But it felt important to concentrate on short stories while I was on the MA, so I didn't start the novel until the course was over. About a month after I'd left Goldsmiths, my agent rang up to ask how the novel was going. That gave me both the confidence and the fear to give it a go. I began to develop Frank from one of the stories I'd worked on at Goldsmiths. There were 3 or 4 points in the writing when I thought 'What am I doing?'
PJ: What kept you going - enough to start and finish a book - once the framework of support provided by the MA was gone? What new framework did you need to construct for your writing?
EW: I'm very lucky to have a partner who's opinion I trust and value. I think that must be quite rare, because it's a difficult thing to find the right person to give you criticism. The MA was terrific for getting you used to that way of reworking stuff, of not being offended but also not necessarily absorbing every little criticism from every person. My agent was also a really helpful reader. Whenever it looked like I was going to give up, I'd sit down and read a favourite book, just think - look, how has he done this? In the end, I wrote in a fairly solitary way, and the thing that's keeping me going with the next book, is knowing that at points it all looks terrible, but if you keep at it things will change.
PJ: Can you tell us about the favourite books you returned to - how did they nourish your writing?
EW: The Riders by Tim Winton. I'd pick up that when I got stuck. I'd re-read the first three chapters, noticing how slowly he lets the plot in. There's no rush to, all-in-one breath, say what the book's about. He lets stuff in gently. Also, The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan, for the atmosphere. It's one of the first books that got me excited about writing when I was younger. And, the climax is unexpected but not a cheap twist-in-the-tale. When I'm writing I like to read short stories - Miranda July, Lorrie Moore, and Alice Munro. These writers have a lightness, that's so important if you write about dark things, sad things. It's easy to weigh down the writing with the issues.
PJ: How did it feel to finally realise the project?
EW: Honestly, it hasn't yet sunk in. I don't know when that happens, it still feels like I'm talking about someone else. Having said that, I enjoy my life now so much - it's such a amazing thing to get paid for doing something you love.
PJ: What's your day job?
EW: I work two days a week in an independent bookshop in Peckham, called Review. It's ideal, really, for writing. it's quiet, and I get to see the finished product being sold. I'm lucky enough that, between my advance and winning the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, I've got enough, just about, to let me work part-time. In the early days it was very different, I worked in PC world, and in an art gallery, and all sorts of different strange jobs, just anything that didn't take too much thinking time away from the book.
PJ: Has getting published changed the way you see yourself as a writer?
EW: In the first six months after publication I've never felt less like a writer in my life! All the way through - getting on the MA course, having short stories published, getting an agent - I felt so much more confident in my standing as A Writer. Now, suddenly, there's this strange feeling of having pulled the wool over someone's eyes. Publicity meant that for a good stretch of time I was either out of the country or doing 'other things' and it was very scary settling back down to try and write another novel. So far though, touch wood, it all still seems to be working.
PJ: What surprised/delighted/shocked you about the process of getting published and getting the book to readers?
EW: Working in the bookshop, I was fairly aware of how much effort you have to put in as a writer if you want people to read your work. So I didn't sit back and expect publicity to take care of everything - I took copies of my book to around 25 independent bookshops in London and gave them a free copy. Where possible I talked with them about their shops, asked questions, that sort of thing. The wonderful thing is, I think I've done really well out of the independents. It was surprising how hard it was to get noticed in the chain bookshops. I think debut authors really need to take advantage of the smaller places where the person at the till makes the decisions about what goes in the window and what gets recommended. The most surprising thing has been how much word of mouth helps too.
PJ: You really involved yourself in marketing the book - can you say a bit more?
EW: I have a fantastic publicist who helped with whatever she could but there was no money, no publishing party. I put aside an amount of my advance to pay for publicity myself. You get one chance. I thought it was worth it. I paid to have 500 beer coolers and bookmarks made with the cover image. I was going to pay for the books I gave to bookshops, but the publisher was so pleased to see I was getting involved, they gave me the books. I threw 2 launch parties in bookshops - Peckham and Mayfair - and gave a beer cooler and a bookmark to people who bought a copy. I invited journalists. And, though I was a bit sniffy about Facebook and Twitter, they've been terribly useful. Twitter got word about my book out there.
PJ: What did it feel like to win a major prize? Has it had an effect on your writing?
EW: It felt wonderful, because immediately all worries about having to get another job to complete the next novel were lifted away. It's such an amazing memorial to John Llewellyn Rhys, that after his death he has helped so many young writers, exactly at the point that they need the most financial help. Since winning the prize I've been asked to write quite a few non-fiction articles, which is not something I've ever been comfortable with. But it's always a good thing to try and tackle things you don't feel confident about.
PJ: What is your writing routine?
EW: I've found I write best in the morning. Which was great when I was doing After The Fire, but since publication I've got non-fiction articles and blogs to write. I find these harder to do than fiction. Now, I do 3 hours of the non-fiction stuff in the morning. After that, as a treat, I work on my book. So it's about six hours on the three days I'm not working in the bookshop.
PJ: Where do you work? Longhand, keyboard?
EW: I work on the non-fiction stuff at home. Getting out of the house is important if I'm doing new stuff for the novel. I've found a few good cafes to work in. I love working the public areas at Royal Festival Hall. I work mainly on a laptop, but sometimes if I'm typing and get an idea for another scene I stop and hand write notes for that. Later on, when I'm working on structure, I need to print stuff out. Then I'm back at home, laying it out on the bedroom floor, cutting and pasting.
PJ: Can you tell us a bit about the new book you are working on? Does it have a title yet? And, are you still writing short stories?
EW: I had hoped to spend some time writing short stories after the first novel, but what I started working on has developed into the beginnings of a novel. It's about a woman from Australia, living in England. She's trying to learn a way of living with something very bad she did when she was young. It's about the nature of forgiveness, about where you go when you don't believe in a religion that re births you, and how you would form relationships when you don't want anyone to know about a life-shaping event. The working title, which might well change, is All the Birds, Singing.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
EW: I've just finished Broken Shore by Peter Temple, which is spectacular. It's categorised as a crime novel but it's much more than that. A beautifully written book. And, I've just picked up Fathers and Sons by Alexander Waugh. So far it's very good.
PJ: What would you say give to someone about to embark on a first novel?
EW: Don't think to much about it, just do it. Let yourself off the hook with deadlines - it takes as long as it takes. Don't get bitter, and don't panic.