Interview by Anna Morrell
STEVIE DAVIES is happy to admit she's going
Her acclaimed new novel, Kith and Kin, might be making
impressive tracks across the literary world but Davies is
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
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
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
"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
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,
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
"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
"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 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."