South Wales Evening Post - Saturday Feb 28th 2004


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 novels.

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 today.

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 them.'

"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 it."

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 here.

"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 me."

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 this world."

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 process.

"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."


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