Planet : The Welsh Internationalist No.168.
Not Drowning but Waving. An Interview by Claire Powell


Claire Powell works as a researcher in the Department of Humanities at the Swansea Institute.

Moment by moment,
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 you?

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 in that.


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 unusual.

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 exorcising ghosts.

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?


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