The Western Mail - Saturday April 4th 2004

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Interview by Anna Morrell

STEVIE DAVIES is happy to admit she's going nowhere.

Her acclaimed new novel, Kith and Kin, might be making impressive tracks across the literary world but Davies is staying put.

For the first time in her life she's where she feels she belongs and she's digging her heels in.

"Nothing is going to get me out of Oystermouth now!" she laughs, "I feel very settled and I'm happy to bed down here and just be."

She's settled at her job too. She's director of the creative writing course at the University of Wales, Swansea and is bursting with pride about the new MA she's just set up in the subject. She could be forgiven for including her own work on the course. Davies has twice been long-listed for the Booker Prize, most recently for The Element of Water (2001), a novel which won the 2002 Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year Prize and was long-listed for the 2002 Orange Prize.

Another of her novels, Web of Belonging, is currently being televised starring Anna Massey, Kevin Whately and Brenda Blethyn. Impassioned Clay, meanwhile, has been turned into a radio drama called Unbridled Spirits. Kith and Kin is her ninth novel and it has been long-listed for the Orange Prize.

Having roots, being rooted, is central to Davies's happiness. It's a feeling she's not used to - her father worked for the RAF and was posted around the world while she, an only child, was growing up.

Astoundingly, she attended 16 different schools before she was 18, including two boarding schools in
Germany. It had a huge and negative impact on her.

"I had a massive sense of having been uprooted. There was a rhythm of coming home and going away in my family. Not having roots really hurt and being an only child, I had no-one to share the experience with. It was hard always being the new girl in school and never staying there very long.

"My grandparents lived in Oystermouth and so did my parents for a while. So I had a sense that Wales, and this little corner of Wales, was my home. That feeling was very healing for a little, sensitive, arrogant girl, who did not find it easy moving around."

Kith and Kin is rooted in Swansea and the Gower, too, but it's a story of people trying to break their roots and to a certain extent, being strangled by them.

The front cover immediately appeals. It's the sort of homely picture most of us have in our photo albums from summer holidays - two young girls in swimming costumes crouching at the shoreline exploring shells and seaweed. It powerfully captures the innocence of childhood.

Kith and Kin is the story of those girls, Frankie and Mara, who are cousins and best friends born into a tight-knit community in Swansea in the '50s and coming of age in the all-too swinging '60s.

The story is narrated by one of them, Mara, who is looking back years later and trying to make sense of a relationship in which love, hate and jealousy intermingled. A relationship which was so tight it broke, as the Welsh subtitle hints, "Rhy dynn a dyrr" - "Too tight breaks".

This is not a tale for the faint-hearted. It probes deeply into family relationships, peer pressure and the multi-faceted sides of emotion. Its complicated threads uncover incest, abuse, rape, sexual experimentation and social revolution.

Yet, at the end of it all, the tone of the innocence of the girls set by the front cover persists.

The story is superbly told and cleverly crafted. Davies drops intricately detailed snapshots of the girls' lives between accounts of Mara's present-day life. The story floats between the past, the present and the future, in a way which is utterly captivating.

She has taken an era which changed society and shown the implications those changes had on one family. Frankie and to a less destructive extent, Mara, rebel against their stifling, value-bound family, in favour of a totally free and value-less lifestyle with their contemporaries which proves to be more dangerously stifling.

Davies skilfully shows the contradictions in her finely-painted characters and displays a powerful awareness of human nature.

It's this knowledge of human character which provides much of the novel's wit and humour. There's a delightfully awkward scene where all the contrary characters - the conservative, traditional parents and their wayward, drug- addicted children - are brought together around the crib of the illegitimate next
generation in a maternity unit. Frankie is doing her best to shock her elders by swearing but her Aunt Hen lovingly puts her in her place.

"I don't mind fruity swear words once in a while. Not all the time. Spoils the effect. But your great-gran, she could swear beautiful."

What marks Davies out as a writer, however, is her use of language. There is muscle in her every word, such as Mara's description of Frankie's community of "beautiful people" in her grandmother's old house.

"Even so, Breuddwyd pulled you... It was a soft mouth sucking at me, a tongue lapping, a kiss out of control."

Davies admits she is a perfectionist. She rewrote Kith and Kin eight times before she was happy with it.

"I try to create a style that has some beauty," she says. "I am a poet at heart! I aim to write words that make you feel the sensation, like breath on the hairs of your arm." She certainly succeeds.

Perhaps occasionally she is too poetic. There is too much symbolism and symmetry for comfort in the first chapter which sets the scene of Mara and her other cousin Aaron literally tugging over Frankie's ashes. Similarly Mara's work, researching phantom pain felt by people who've had amputations, is too obvious a
parallel with her own pain on losing a part of herself, Frankie.

A teenager herself in the '60s, Stevie knows all I about the tumultuous world the protagonists of Kith and Kin grew up in. She joined CND and protested for peace but didn't get into the drug scene which ultimately led to her character Frankie's downfall.

"For me the '60s and '70s was a wonderful era, very empowering and exciting. I was very politically radical but not a hippy. I was more like Mara, a left-wing intellectual."

She is very much aware that emotions such as love and hate are not straight forward and she finds inspiration within their layers.

"I tend to write tragi-comic fiction. I have a sense that everything is dappled and complex rather than black and white. If a book moves you, good on it! We need to cry. If a book offers not just hurt but love, it is good."

I point out that Frankie's life is just a little too tragic - is it realistic that so much can go wrong for one person? Davies accuses me of having had a very sheltered life and she's probably right.

"Life can be cruel. The character of Frankie made me think Thomas Hardy was right. If one major thing goes wrong in your life, it is hard to balance it."

Davies's writing career started at a very young age.

"I have always wanted to write. As soon as I could hold a pen, I was writing stories. I still have one I wrote when I was six. It is a story about Germans shooting each other. I'd illustrated it too, but it's appalling!

"Writing has been my life, even when I was in boarding school my energy went into writing letters home. It was my release.

"My inner voice speaks to me in a local Welsh accent, which is a bit strange because I don't have that accent when I speak!

"She started writing as a career while at home as a single parent in Manchester, looking after her daughter, Emily, and four-year-old twins, Grace and Robin, fitting in chapters between bathtime and naps.

"I had done some teaching and reviewing but I really wanted to write. So I decided to take the plunge and devote my time to it. I had to be very disciplined and use whatever time I had - even if it was in the middle of the night.

"I just love writing and it has been a brilliant career for me. I am so privileged in loving the work I do."

As well as writing novels, Davies is also a literary critic, historian and biographer.

She is fascinated by and has written about social history, particularly of women in the 17th century. Her research for her book, Unbridled Spirits: Women of the English Revolution, formed the basis of her novel, Impassioned Clay.

As well as being settled in Swansea, she's enjoying the literary environment she's now found.

"I've had an amazing sense of welcome from the Welsh artistic community. It's very elite in London but
here in Wales people are very encouraging.

"Reading and writing groups are flourishing in Swansea, there are little pockets of people who read and write passionately."

Reaching people outside the university and connecting with her readers is important to Davies.

"I don't see the point in just doing our own, clever things here and staying in a sort of ivory tower. We have to remember to keep our feet on the ground. That's the most important part of our ethos."

 


       
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