Interview by Geraint Thomas
If you want to get to know Swansea novelist
Stevie Davies - read her books.
The quietly spoken award winning writer,
who is also the director of creative writing at Swansea
University, can be found littered across the pages of her
You will not find the complete person however
but aspects of her appear in most of the characters that
help make her one of the top story tellers in the business
Sitting in her office, surrounded by shelves
of books and her students' work, Stevie reflects on a question
and answers: "When people ask me if I'm the character
in this book or that book I have to say, 'I can feel those
characters and yes I've used my life experiences to inform
"In a sense you are all your characters
in your novels, bad or good, the ones that hurt and the
others who hurt them. I feel really strongly about this,
the novelist has to study not just the good things in themselves
but also the harsh things because we all have a streak of
cruelty or violence in ourselves if we are honest about
Stevie's previous novel, The Element of
Water, dealt with a young woman coming to terms with her
life set against the back drop of Nazi-Germany. It was entered
for the Booker and Orange Prizes cementing her place as
a writer of great sensitivity and feeling.
"The book dealt with these Nazi German
characters implicated in varying degrees and compromised
in lots of ways in this great sea of evil that came over
Europe and the world. Part of my understanding of how to
do that, apart from a mountain of research, was to listen
to the statements of the perpetrators and obviously the
victims," explains Stevie.
"Part of your research is listening
to that reverberation you get inside yourself when you recognise
why people behave badly. That's how you know as a writer
where the person on the other side is coming from. The novelist's
greatest gift is empathy and listening to people."
There is a little girl in the novel who
is bullied in a boarding school which was once the German
HQ while the allies invaded.
"I was actually a little girl in that
school, very much like the character Rachel. It was my first
experience of cruelty.
"I survived because I can write, it
focuses you and can give meaning to your experiences.
"I only discovered five years ago
that it was the place where they named Adolf Hitler's successor."
Listening to Stevie talk about her life
and work it is difficult to imagine that she was ever unhappy,
but she says: "I lived in Egypt and Germany and Scotland
and Cornwall, I went to 16 different schools, which is not
good. My whole family was from Swansea and I was born in
Morriston but my dad. Harry Davies, was in the air force
and we left when I was three.
"I look back now and see I've drawn
from my experiences, it was not a happy childhood from the
point of view I was a nomad, continuously on the move. To
go away was not what I wanted as a little girl. Wherever
I was in the world, when I thought about home, it was always
"You experience, as a child, a great
deal that you don't understand and you can't communicate
it, but when you are grown you can see it as a tiny part
of the much bigger picture of pain and cruelty and suffering
that human beings are capable of inflicting."
After teaching in Manchester and bringing
up three children, 40-something Stevie returned to the place
she considers home two and a half years ago.
She says: "I now live 200 yards from
where my parents first lived in Norton, Mumbles. It's beautiful
to be back and my life has really turned full circle. When
you have a childhood like mine you can lose all bearings,
I always felt Swansea was my home but it's a question of
where you can get work and where life leads you."
Like many of her characters, Stevie's father
played a central role in her life.
"My father worked in the university
as a laboratory technician after the air force, he loved
it. For me to come back and work here, it's like following
in his footsteps, it's a lovely
experience for me," she said.
"When you have this life moving from
place to place your immediate family becomes everything,
my father was my rock through all these schools and the
way he died from cancer was very painful for me. When I
came back I thought I would encounter that pain again but
I didn't. I just found an enormous peacefulness."
Her father also played a role in developing
Stevie's love of literature.
The divorced mother said: "My father
was not a well read man having left school at the age of
14 but when I was little he would recite Dylan Thomas for
us and it was amazing. He was almost unlettered but he knew
a lot of Dylan by heart, you only had to say the word and
he was off."
And like Dylan Stevie likes nothing better
than to write about her home.
"What could be a more beautiful and
interesting place to set a novel than Swansea and the Gower?
"I have a feeling that you have to
go away in order to get a different angle on things. That
certainly happened to Dylan, he became a sort of voluntary
exile but then came back to write. The same happened to
Home to Stevie also means family, a realisation
dealt with in her latest novel, Kith and Kin.
"Home is a place but it's also people.
Home was very much my grandma, and aunty and cousins, with
whom I'm still in touch, and that wider extended family
which is part and parcel of South Wales life."
Again the fiction mirrors reality.
"In Kith and Kin, Mara comes back
to Swansea and the ghosts of her childhood are all activated
and aroused. She is forced to go back in her mind to her
very closely bonded childhood and the love hate relationship
with her cousin.
"It's really a story of the '60s generation
and how they pursued ideals of freedom but within those
ideals was a great deal of destruction and self-destruction
that's played out against the local poetry of Swansea and
In the book the children climb all over
a wreck on Gower.
Stevie says: "There is a historical
pointer at the centre of the novel which is the moment in
1957 when the destroyer Cleveland, which was being taken
to Llanelli to be broken up, ran aground at Llangennith.
My cousin Margaret and I climbed all over it to the great
wrath of our parents."
Now she is back the chances are Stevie
will be around for quite some time.
She says of her job: "It's a huge
privilege, I have to say you learn a lot it's a two way
"Some of those writers are already
brilliant and writing wonderful original things.
"I've been a full time novelist and
I know how tough it is. Almost nobody can live by writing
alone. I'm almost sure that as long as people will have
me I'll be teaching."