Structo talks to Evie Wyld

“What I really wanted to write was a big action thriller, something with Arnold Schwarzenegger and machine guns and blood and explosions”

This interview first appeared in issue 10, published August 2013.

Back in 2011, Evie Wyld read at Structo’s very first event. She had just won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for her debut novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice and we were captivated by her work. Her new novel, All the Birds, Singing, was released earlier in the year and comes only a few months after she was included in the fourth Granta Best of Young British Novelists list. I caught up with her in the Review Bookshop in Peckham, which she runs. — Keir

Congratulations on the new book and for making the Granta list.

Thank you. Yes… a busy year.

Of course you read for us years ago, so we’ll claim all the credit. [Laughter] What do you think it means, now you are in the club with Rushdie and McEwan and Amis? Is it pressure?

It’s funny. It’s obviously really good, I don’t know how the pressure thing could change much; I mean, you just write what you write and you hope it does well. It’s not like it’s made me go right, I must sit down now and write a best-selling novel. It just doesn’t work like that. I wish it did. But, no, there’s no aggressive pressure from my publishers or anything like that. They’re pleased with my books, pleased for me; so we’re just carrying on at the same pace. There are a lot more articles, and time is difficult because I work here four days a week at the minute and I run it as well. When I was writing the first one I was just here two days a week and I wasn’t running it so I had a lot more time. It’s all got a bit mad now. [Laughs]

Did you put pressure on yourself?

I suppose yes, more than the Granta thing, just the pressure of writing the second novel. I mean, it’s a lovely pressure to have, that the first one did well, but it is frightening, the idea that you would write something that people don’t like after liking the first one. And it’s bound to happen, because you have two things and people will like one thing more than the other thing. But yes, it was quite nerve-wracking, but you just have to write what you are going to write, and do it as well as you can, and keep your fingers crossed. [Laughs]

Resist writing a twist!

[Laughs] Yeah.

In your new book, there are some similarities to your characters in After the Fire, in the sense that they isolate themselves and become a bit paranoid. Is that something you realised you always wanted to write about?

Yeah, I think I’m really interested in people on their own; how they relate to their landscape and how they interact with it. I think one of the reasons I wrote the first book, which I started in Australia, was that I was interested in the idea that you could be totally alone in a country like that. Over here, there are certain places you can get to where if you shout no one will hear you, but there is always the possibility that there’s someone around the corner. I’ve started to get interested in family settings and how you have a veneer of how you are with your family, and then there’s the real stuff that’s going on inside which is just as lonely and isolating as being in a landscape on your own. I think large empty landscapes—

Often brutal ones as well.

Yeah. In the second one, I like the melancholy of the English landscape and that kind of sad, pelted-with-rain feeling you get.

[Laughter] Yeah, pretty much everywhere here.

A lot of Australians come over here and can’t cope with the winters, because they’re so harsh, even though they’re harsh in a different way. They’re harsh in a way that makes you want to just go to bed for a month.

And the first book was quite heavily based on your family, on your uncle, am I right?

Well, it was not based on him, but I took points from my grandfather, my uncle and my cousin. Their lifetimes. The characters I wrote are nothing like my family, but some of the things they did were similar. Like my grandfather owned a pie shop and he fought in Korea, and then my uncle was drafted into Vietnam. My cousin—I’m quite close with him—is an interesting and intelligent man but there’s this kind of quite strong… I would say veneer, but it’s thicker than that… half of him is this masculine kind of roaring male, and half of him is this sensitive thing. If he hadn’t grown up with a father who had been brutalised on a farm in Australia, then I think he would be a very different person, maybe be a little bit artistic, although he would punch me in the eye for saying that. [Laughter]

Is it the same with the new book?

No, not really. I guess because Jake is female that there is more connection with me in it. I mean I didn’t [major plot point deleted], but there are parts of my experience in there, in her younger years and also the strange depressions. Although it’s far less exciting in my life, I drew on that to get her personality, I suppose. And the silence, and the enjoying not talking to people for months. It’s one of the reasons I work here, otherwise I’d go mad.

Here is my attempt at deconstruction: Jake has become defeminised, in the sense that everyone describes her as very masculine—she’s got big hands and broad shoulders—and I thought, as I was reading it, that it was because of all the things that had happened to her she’d had to ‘man-up’ to. And then afterwards when I was thinking about it, I thought well that is a very male opinion, it could have been she was defeminised by [some bad things that had happened]. So I was wondering, which it was? Or am I totally wrong?

The first book is in a male voice. I didn’t think I was doing anything particularly strange by writing in a male voice, it was the voice that came out. It seems to be something that people pick up on, saying that’s really strange, a woman writing as a man, that’s really weird, and for me it’s totally natural and for me it’s also totally natural that a young woman would be unfeminine because she’s just a person; she has grown up with three brothers, she has grown up on a farm, and yes, she has a burgeoning sexuality, but she doesn’t quite know what to do with it, because she’s not sexually mature like her peers, the bullying ones, the people who mature sexually earlier than she does. I think that’s a very strange place to be in, it’s like a lanky or broad girl, it’s that feeling of I want to show off to this guy, but I’m not quite sure how or why, so I might just do a terrible cartwheel or slap him in the face or something. And I certainly recognise that as a problem. [Laughter] She’s always not been the ideal of feminine grace and I think that there is something really interesting about people who are the ideal of feminine grace, because there must be so much weird shit going on inside. But I suppose she is just much more oblivious to how to do that stuff. Being oblivious to sexual maturity is something that I was interested in for that part of the book, and then making her way in a very sexual lifestyle after that and how to fake it, really.

And there are two threads of the story, one in Jake’s present going forward and her remembering her past, going backwards. And each chapter of Jake in the present seemed to relate to the Jake of the past, was that intentional?

No, that came quite late in the writing of it. I didn’t write one strand and then write the other one or anything like that, I just sort of wrote around the subject for a long time and then just sort of squashed it all together. But one of the things I really like about having two different strands is how they create this other space in-between them when you put them next to each other. It wasn’t like I started out thinking I’m going to write this quite complicated structure; it just seemed to me, at the point where I had written about three-quarters of it, that actually the best way of telling this story was this kind of patchwork of memory of how a person remembers back to a large event in their life. I started in the middle and then worked outward and… It was fairly hectic.

If I’d had to do it, it would just be a big mess. [Laughter]

Well at points it did sort of turn into a weird mathematical equation and I had charts everywhere, and for some reason it was very difficult to get my head around. I think I’m very bad at maths, I’m sure that has something to do with it.

Changing tack slightly now. What is a Chicken Crimpie?

[Laughs] It’s a ridged cross between a crisp and a biscuit. They just make me laugh, because it’s such a specific name.

I imagined it as a Findus Crispy Pancake.

[In mock disgust] Oh no, they’re not heated. I guess they’re a bit like a Ritz cracker, but chicken flavoured. They’re pretty disgusting. It’s what I used to eat with my cousin; we used to go shooting kangaroos, and he would bring a spliff and a packet of Chicken Crimpies.

Let’s talk about your book shop a little bit. How is running a bookshop and writing books that go in bookshops? Do you ever find yourself thinking, ‘well these things sell quite well, perhaps I should write something like those’?

I wish I could do that, but I only write what I can write. I mean, I don’t know how you would set out to do that, other than pinching other people’s story lines which is fairly obvious. I dunno. I suppose there was probably a time when I should have thought, put Tiger in the title. [Laughs]. But, no not really, I think it’s quite nice to work here and see debut work come in. And if something is slightly disappearing you kind of want to big it up and make an extra effort with it. From where I’ve come from, I maybe approach books slightly differently in the bookshop.

There’s no temptation to put a big ‘New Book by Evie’ sign in the window?

Well, a slight temptation. I had a party with the last book and I’ll probably have another one. Because the local people—I make it sound like we’re in a village in the middle of nowhere!—they’re excited and proud. And I get a load of waves walking down the street.

A local celebrity!

Yeah, very local, literally just this street. [Laughter]

Your front covers are really beautiful. Do you have any input?

Yes, I have a lot, because I’m lucky enough that one of my best friends is a graphic designer, and he used to be the head of Faber & Faber design. We met at university and we had this long-running joke, because I was studying writing and he was studying design, that I would write a book and he would do the front cover. So I get to trawl around bookshops with him and look at what we like.

So there’s actually a lot of control in that process?

Yeah. Well, I trust him and I know that he reads my book and that he takes elements from it and he knows what I like. But it’s very much a process between me and my publicist and editor and Darren [the graphic designer]. Because it’s no good if the sales team don’t like it, if they don’t think it will sell…

They don’t push you to have a big knife with blood dripping off it on the front?

No, with the hardback you can have a lot more artistic licence than with the paperback. The paperback of the first one is still nice; it’s actually [a photo of] Staffan Gnosspelius, who is an illustrator who works in Brixton, on my grandparents’ sugar cane farm. So it is quite specific. I take lots of pictures when I can and that one happened to fit quite well. I have had an unusual amount of input, and I do remember the first time I approached my editor about the cover, and her face dropped. You get a lot of authors going, I’ll just knock up my own in Photoshop. Ultimately I go with what my sales team would want, because they’re the people who have to sell it.

I listened to an interesting interview with you where you had talked about what you had read when you were growing up. You mentioned Point Horror, then you moved onto Stephen King and then you mentioned Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers particularly. All quite dark reads.

I did set out to try and write something a bit frightening. It’s not as frightening as I wanted it to be. Before I wrote the first book, when I was studying at Goldsmiths, I got really frustrated because what I really wanted to write was a big action thriller, something with Arnold Schwarzenegger and machine guns and blood and explosions. And I remember talking to my tutor and saying, I’m trying really hard to write this amazing Arnold Schwarzenegger book and I just can’t, I just keep writing really quiet little paragraphs about Dads. [Laughs] And he just pointed out, If you could write what you chose then everyone would write bestsellers and we’d all be rich and happy and it would be amazing. But actually you write what you can write. I really like dark stuff and I think that’s perhaps because of the reading that I have always done, that’s the stuff that’s really thrilling to me. Like Tim Winton’s In the Winter Dark, where there’s a something and you don’t really find out what the something is, but it kills stuff… I love that. I love not explaining stuff. I hate it when… like in [Stephen King’s] IT, when it’s incredibly frightening and it’s the most horrifying thing ever, and then it turns into a big spider that you have to tip over and it loses everything and it just all goes down the drain…

Literally down the drain in the case of IT. [Laughter]

Yeah, exactly. I much prefer it to go like it is in real life, if something terrifying happens, you don’t get some sort of amazing closure on it, to go, oh actually the clown was a spider…

From outer space.

Yeah! And you don’t have to grapple with the why would they bother? If they’re a clown from outer space, why do they care about some kids… oh he feeds off fear… Oh does he! I much prefer the idea that you’ve got no idea why this malevolent thing is happening and you’re probably mad and it’s probably your own fault. That’s what I like. [Laughter]

You mentioned your MA, and I was going to ask about it. Occasionally people ask us whether they’re of any use, and we have no idea because we’ve never done one.

I think it’s different for lots of people. For me it was great. I also did my BA at Bath Spa, which was modular with creative writing in there. And for me it was the perfect thing, not because they teach you how to write, but because you get the time to take your work seriously. I think there are very different ways of approaching it. I think the American ones are perhaps a bit more specific, you’re shown a type of voice that’s considered to be good; from what I hear there’s a lot more direction about what tone your work should take. Whereas my experience of the Goldsmiths course was an eclectic and broad and interesting reading list that I would never have approached—I would have just carried on with the horror—and a year to take yourself very seriously and to put your writing above other things and a chance to discuss it with people. I think there is a real idea that it takes some of the creativity out of it or something—and there were a lot of people on the course who I know didn’t get anything out of it and said well I could have just done that at home—but I don’t think they would have done it at home.

You also do the Peckham Literary Festival.

Yes, it will be the seventh one this year. We’ve been going for a long time, well it feels like a long time. There’ll be one in November. We haven’t got the dates sorted out yet, or… anybody booked. [Laughs]

Headliner: Evie Wyld!

Yeah, absolutely. [Laughs] Supporter: Evie Wyld! But yeah it’s quite nice. It’s got to the stage now where I’ve got a lot of friends who have written books that I can call on and we have been doing quite a lot of talks with slideshows which are quite interesting. Trying to find ways of making readings less boring, because they can be quite… everyone switches off when you have six on the trot. The idea is to try and have people in conversation; a well-known author with a lesser-known author so the crowd are introduced to new work.

At this point Wyld receives a text message and has to quickly nip up the road. Foolishly, she leaves me in charge of the shop. If I’d had the foresight to bring a van, all those lovely books would have been gone in no time. While she’s away a mysterious man comes in, who turns out to be collaborating with Wyld on a graphic novel. Wyld herself returns a moment later.

It’s a bit of a memoir about growing up with a shark phobia and my childhood in Australia.

Sharks crop up in both of your books.

Yeah, I like a shark. I had a really embarrassing interview for Granta on a stage where I, for some reason, said I would never write a book without a shark in it and it turned into a kind of what’s your shark kind of horrible embarrassing thing… people were like cupcakes!

Oh I see, like a bad motivational thing.


[To the mysterious man, whose name turns out to be Joe] Are you illustrating or writing or…

[Joe] It’s sort of adapted. It wasn’t written as a graphic novel, it was kind of a short story. I’m just drawing the pictures.

[Wyld again] It’s a bit of work that I did a while ago. We’re just getting a first draft together.

You cut out a lot of sharks from All the Birds, Singing didn’t you?


Stuck them in this? Just bung that together! Sell that!

[Laughs] Yeah. I always cut out a lot of sharks. They always feel more important than they end up being. It’s a shame. I have to tell myself that I will write a book entirely about a shark attack at some point.