scores of foreshortened figures,
crossing the square this way or that,
making an infinity of patterns,
each one unique.
It seems worthwhile to stay for a time,
leaning on the parapet, watching,
in case a friend long gone
passes down there, looks up, waves,
goes on walking away.
Not Drowning but Waving
Stevie Davies interviewed by Claire Powell
Stevie Davies is a prize-winning novelist, respected literary
critic and distinguished scholar. She is a Fellow of the
Royal Society of Literature, a Fellow of the Academi Gymreig
and is Director of Creative Writing at the University of
Wales Swansea. Her ninth and latest novel, Kith and Kin
(2004, reviewed in Planet 165), was longlisted for this
year's Orange Prize. Her previous novel, The Element of
Water (2001), won the 2002 Arts Council of Wales Book of
the Year Prize and was longlisted for both the 2001 Booker
Prize and the 2002 Orange Prize. Dramatisations of Unbridled
Spirits, The Element of Water and The Web of Belonging,
adapted by Stevie from her own novels, have been broadcast
on BBC Radio 4. Belonging, a television play of the latter
novel, starring Brenda Blethyn and Kevin Whately, was shown
on ITV's primetime Sunday night slot in September. Stevie's
academic publications range from critical studies of Donne,
Milton, Virginia Woolf and Henry Vaughan to a ground-breaking
reassessment of the radical women of the English Revolution.
She lives in Swansea.
There is a sense in which, geographically
at least, you have come full circle, after a notably peripatetic
childhood during which I understand you attended no less
than sixteen different schools, including three boarding
schools, in countries as diverse as Scotland, Egypt and
Germany, later settling in the Manchester area. But now
you have come "home" to your birthplace, Swansea.
The idea of "home" can be a complex one in your
novels but the importance of roots and a sense of belonging
is a recurrent theme. What does "home" mean to
It means different things at different
times. When I'm not in Wales, it means Wales. When I'm sitting
in my little flat or walking round Oystermouth, it means
just there, those places, that wall that was there when
I was a child, the castle just there, the sense of bearings.
It means walking up Queen's Road in Mumbles and looking
at my grandmother's house and thinking how strange it is
that someone else is there now. And at other times it just
means, as Milton said: "one's native land is where
it is well with one." So that will often be, because
of this rootlessness that you mentioned, with just one or
two people with whom you feel completely at ease, that somehow
understand you and your foibles and the way you are, your
family. When I'm with ardent nationalists I think, "there's
something bigger than this"; there's a sisterhood or
a brotherhood of people that goes far, far beyond Wales
and its borders, its petty concerns. Nobody will like reading
that but it is true to me. But just in place terms, I'm
so relieved to be home. That's a feeling of breathing out,
of relief. What really is special are the simple and humdrum
things, like going into the shops and people saying "hello"
and "how are you". That very banal but actually
quite blessed sense of belonging in a little place where
you feel at your ease. I've noticed when I'm not here, I
do feel out of place now.
Your writing encompasses an impressive
range of genres, from fiction and history to literary biography
and poetry criticism, and this has resulted in some very
creative cross-fertilisations, particularly between fictional
and historical perspectives. Likewise there seems to be
a similarly fruitful interrelationship between your fiction
and appreciation of poetry. You've written on Emily Brontë's
poetry, for example; you've written on Henry Vaughan's poetry.
Do you think that sensitivity to the poetic possibilities
of language informs your prose style?
Almost certainly. But did you know that
I was a failed poet?
I'm a failed poet, really, in the sense
that I wanted to be a poet and I wrote poetry until I was
in my late twenties, and that was what I thought I'd do.
When I started to write fiction, I thought I'd lost my poetry,
but that isn't so: it went into my prose. But I'd love to
do it again. Sometimes I try and I just sit there and I
write a line and it's bollocks. But I love language. You
mentioned Vaughan and Emily Brontë, but Milton and
Shakespeare are also so important to me. You find that you're
a bit ill at ease when people say, "Who are your influences?"
and you say "Milton and Shakespeare". You sound
like a complete git, don't you! But what you get is that
they teach you the wonderful suppleness and the copiousness
of words, the many possible words, the wonderful synonyms
in our lexis. The reason that I mention Milton and Shakespeare
is that I feel that in knowing language in its fullest compass
possible and knowing other languages, imperfectly, you gain
a sense of how there isn't just an ordinary word for an
emotion, say, or a thought. There is a wonderful choice
and I really do think that if you don't use the words you
lose them, like brain cells, and I think we can see this
shrinkage happening in language. So it's really important
to me to be a kind of rearguard and just keep those words
that George Eliot used, for instance (I really admire her),
in circulation. Readers of my novels often say to me, "I
had to look up a lot of words", and I usually say,
"Well good, good".
I had to look up a couple of words!
Well good! At the same time, one can be
too wordy. If you've been in the academic world you have
to guard against this snooty thing of "Aha, I will
use this word that they won't understand." It has to
be a word garnered in this thinking way, so style is to
me a very great matter. When I look back on my early work,
I blush, quite literally, because there were occasions when
I was quite baroque. I believe that the linguistic world
that you inhabit must have something to do with this table,
this book, this dirty old cup here, and the way people have
to live in the street. But I don't despair about that. I
don't despair that you can use a complex, lovely language
whilst also using this pith, this ordinary spoken idiomatic
pith of language.
Though there is this what you might
call poetic quality, at the same time your style is very
pithy, isn't it? It's quite raw and frank and spare, and
that's why it is so powerful.
Let me explain what I think that's all
about. I wouldn't have known this years ago, but I just
think I write from the heart. Obviously I don't leave my
mind out of things, but I write from the heart and I lead
from the heart, in my life, and I think there's a value
That's probably what people respond
to in your writing.
Or recoil against. Because some people
prefer a more distanced style, although I think I've learned
techniques that help achieve a distance - ironic techniques.
Yes, although I did notice that
you tend to use ironic techniques relatively infrequently
compared with some other contemporary writers. We're living
in an age of postmodernist narratives and these other kinds
of devices, and yet you often seem quite close to the narrative,
without any obvious ironic distance, which is comparatively
Well, I'm not really interested in postmodernist
devices. It isn't me. It's not what I'm here for. There
is always a sense of vocation in writing, and mine is to
feel how other people feel, and postmodernist devices are
no use to me there because I'm doing something very old-fashioned.
I tend to accept what literature offers in the way of a
narrative, and because my ideal is a sort of empathic awareness,
I look back to the confessional narrative and to the conversion
narrative and to John Bunyan: "I spake what I felt,
what I smartingly did feel", and the plain language
that he presented as the language of the heart. And Jane
Eyre really. That tradition of believing that you can tell
it as it is, even if you can't. Now, in my experience, and
this is something I tell my students and I don't know whether
they believe it yet, the writer is not good because of his
writing, but because of his listening. Just to hear how
another person phrases. Just a few words that will somehow
give you, if you like, a DNA. Because it's hard to get out
of here [cups hands around eyes to indicate blinkered vision],
isn't it? It's hard not to go around like that. To get even
a glimpse in, you've got to listen, really carefully, and
in the right spirit. I think some of the students think
it means being sent out to take notes on what they hear
at the next table, but basically it's just to hear what
people say and close the distance a certain amount. So with
The Web of Belonging, for example, there I was hearing that,
in my generation, this happens to women. That they get to
a certain age and they find themselves discarded, and some
find themselves discarded with human burdens. And for women
that has been seen as an honourable life, a way to be good.
But I saw people who became very bitter under burdens like
that. I suppose there's always that challenge of just getting
into a consciousness and inhabiting it. At the same time,
in that book, I felt very confined by that one head; in
fact, it felt horrible being in it. For me that was very
hard, but quite good for me, as a writer, to get a sense
of other people with discrepant views and worlds. It's a
recognition of the manifoldness of one person's life, and
the many people that are in you.
In some ways The Web of Belonging
could be described as the tamest of your novels, because
although it deals with a depressingly familiar situation,
some of the other novels describe truly horrific circumstances.
In Kith and Kin there is physical and sexual abuse, rape
and psychological abuse as well, and in The Element of Water
you're dealing with the Holocaust - really quite difficult
issues. How do you go about preparing yourself? It must
be a huge emotional and draining effort.
It's an odd thing really because you're
talking here about the first draft. That's where all the
emotion comes; I hadn't really said that, had I. A lot of
writing a novel is sheer hard work. So for The Element of
Water I'd got a pile of research that high, and I'd re-learned
my German, completely, and brought it up to a reasonable
state at the Goethe Institut, where they grilled me in subjunctives
relentlessly. So an awful lot of writing is sheer plod.
Certainly for The Element of Water that was the case, and
to a lesser extent Kith and Kin, because although I remember
the Sixties, I had to focus it back through the four generations
in that novel. So with Kith and Kin, the "kin"
was always the staple. It was the Welsh family, very tight
and close, "rhy dynn a dyrr"; too close, "too
tight breaks". And in the Sixties I think it's more
"kith". There was this experiment, amongst all
the other experiments, with a new kind of relationship and
a new kind of family.
But in a sense they are simply
trying to replicate those earlier versions of family, aren't
they, and community.
Yes, but what happens is that it becomes
a patriarchy. I think that actually is very true to the
Sixties. We had the dream then that feminism would liberate
women, and it did sort of, but it took another generation
before there was a focus on how open to manipulation women
were. At the same time, it's a weird thing for me because
the novel does not reflect how I personally think about
the Sixties. It was fantastic, and the peace movement, CND,
and civil rights movements were a great thing to be a part
of. I gained so much and so many friends and I have a much
more positive view of it, but the novel has its own inescapable
logic. You lay down a certain set of givens and the narrative
then must play itself out. There's a pivot which comes when
they're playing on the Cleveland, when it's washed up at
Llangennith, and there's just that moment when Mara's dad
might have stopped the whole of the rest of the book from
happening. He's at that point where he offers to take in
the needy child, Frankie, and then he steps back from it.
One sees in hindsight that in that one small moment Frankie's
whole future is decided, because she can't have the loving
parents that, in the end, is all we need for a decent life.
It's interesting that you bring
up that specific moment, that pivotal moment on the wreck
of the destroyer, because one thing that I particularly
noticed is your use of water imagery. So many of the scenes
are set on beaches or shorelines, which is perhaps unsurprising
since you're from Swansea originally. But water is so often
geographically and thematically central to your novels.
In The Element of Water, for example, the lake itself is
the key image, isn't it. The beach in Kith and Kin is similarly
a margin between two worlds, between the earth-bound world
and the subterranean world. It's all about liminal spaces
and borders and thresholds. Does that seem particularly
significant to your experience?
Totally. I couldn't really explain it,
but yes it does. Now you're saying it, I realise how many
seas I crossed. It's like the amniotic waters, where we
come from, which is our home, in our mother, and therefore
it's the oceanic feeling, Freud's oceanic feeling of bliss,
and I really feel that. I swim a lot and I always have.
Isolde is a keen swimmer too.
She says, "water was home"; these ideas of home
and water and the sea all seem to be interlinked. But of
course it's ambivalent: water is life-giving, it's sustaining,
but at the same time it's threatening, you can drown. It's
also a place of death and concealment. It's all very symbolic.
It is. I feel for it so strongly too.
When my father died, it was the worst thing in my life.
This was a long time ago but I still get it slightly; when
I go swimming now, or for a long time afterwards and now
I experience the memory of it, I have what I used to call
a Lorelei feeling. When I'd get out to a certain depth,
I'd feel a pull out. My father was a really powerful swimmer
and he would just go the whole length of the bay and back,
and for a long time after he died, I would just swim out
and it would be the most powerful pull: just go out, just
end it, just die, finish it. And I still can feel that.
To me that would be the best of deaths really, the Shelley
death, the Keatsian death by sea. I don't feel that now,
obviously, but I think that death tipped the balance in
my life totally and the bad things that happened were because
my rock wasn't there any more. But it's a long time ago
and I think it's important to learn to live with your ghosts.
So many of the novels are about
But trust your ghosts as well, love your
ghosts, because it was from love that they came.
One particularly effective technique,
for me, is the way that, at the same time as suggesting
that certain physical places are peopled with ghosts, you
use linguistic echoes to suggest the omnipresence of the
past. Your choice of names particularly interested me because
so often they seem to have certain resonances. There are
a number of biblical names, for example, which seems significant.
And in Kith and Kin there are also some fairly unusual names:
you've got the Thomases, the Evanses and then the Menelauses.
That's right. They were the Williamses
at first. But then I thought: have something that sounds
a bit different, because we don't all go around with the
same set of names in Wales. And Menelaus had been the name
of the guy who owned my flat before me. I never met him
and he died there. But for some time after I took over the
flat these letters would come from the police, saying: "Dear
Mr Menelaus, you have not renewed your gun licence"!
And I kept these letters. I wondered if a policeman might
arrive one day. So that is the kind of nonsensical serendipity,
and yet something obviously caused me to choose it. But
then I also probably thought it chimed with Menna.
There are all these internal connections
which maybe aren't always consciously made?
I think sometimes they are and sometimes
they're not. They're probably in that twilight zone. There
are some things you are not answerable for, because they
come out of your unconscious mind. Another time you might
just happen to wake up with a cold and you're fed up so
you decided to kill your character. So many things in writing
are wholly arbitrary. So there's an element that no reader
is going to pick up, ever. That's why criticism cannot,
in the end, predominate over the creative act, because it
takes place in a weird, strange, volatile inner space where
everything whirls and nothing is complete. It's fluid. It's
all very watery really!
Yes. There's this persistent elusiveness.
Is there a limit to what you can teach on a creative writing
course, then? Because you're talking about something that
perhaps is impossible to quantify.
I would have thought so, until I did it.
And I still have doubts about creative writing, I always
will. But there are certain techniques that you can teach.
If you can get your students to read widely and carefully,
that's a start. You can teach plotting and you can teach
techniques that will help to open questions at the beginning,
to achieve suspense, to open possibilities. So I'm quite
surprised at how much you can teach and quite disappointed
at how little people will read. Because reading is the soul
of writing. I'm desperate to read, aren't you? I go to bed
every night, I read for an hour or however long, and I get
the feeling of, just, swimming. That's kind of joyous. It's
exploration really, isn't it?