Evie Wyld talks “All the Birds, Singing”

Evie Wyld won the 2014 Miles Franklin award for her second novel Evie Wyld was the winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin award for her second novel, All the Birds, Singing. Wyld was born in London and moved to Australia, where she grew up in New South Wales. Her novel focuses on notions of place, navigating between the harsh Australian landscape and the UK with gothic flavour.

All the Birds, Singing seems strongly influenced by themes of ‘place’, or lack thereof. Given the fact that you have dual citizenship in the UK, how tied to a sense of place do you think a writer is?

I guess it depends on the writer, but for me personally, my writing all starts with a sense of place. It’s more about imagining the place before the character, and the character is kind of a construct of their environment. Jake, in particular, is a bit wild, she’s a bit grotty, she suits the muck and the cold but she also suits the sweat and the heat of Australia. For me, the landscape and the place is just another character. It’s totally essential in what I’m interested in – how a person on their own behaves in a landscape. So they become the same thing to me, I enjoy Australia as a country because in the remote landscapes you don’t have human eyes watching you and I think people behave differently when they feel totally alone, they move differently. That was a real consideration with my first book – that I wanted people to interact with the landscape and not with people so much.

As well as experimenting with notions of place, you also use time in an interesting way, as the scenes in Australia unfold from present to past. How did you come up with this idea?

I’d had a vague idea of how I wanted to write the story and what happened generally, and then structure for me is the really playful part. You can have a lot of fun and sort of work out the best way of telling the story, which is not always linear. This story in particular works with a sense of suspense and holding things back – it’s all about memory, really – it’s about holding things back and leaving things out.

It came to me quite late; I’d tried a few other things. The parts set in the UK in the present are written in past tense and the bits in the past are in the present tense. I suppose it was in playing with what makes the most sense in the story. I wasn’t trying to be tricky; I don’t think I’d do it with another story – partly because it became very complicated towards the end. If you’re going to use a funny structure you have to stick to your rules, which meant taking out a lot of writing that I’d done because it didn’t fit within the confines of the structure. Every time I write something there’s a point where I think what shape this has to be to fully exist.
How did people respond to experimenting with past and present?

Some people find it really exciting, some people find it incredibly frustrating and confusing. I didn’t do it to be tricky but at the same time I enjoy disorientating myself, as much as readers. Writing a novel you get lost in it and making a storyline is how you find your way back. I wanted that sense that, I trust readers that they come to a book and they want to trust that I’m telling them a story and if they enjoy getting there, then it’s not a problem. I don’t think you necessarily need to be completely aware of what’s going on at all times. Like in life, some things are open ended. Your own imagination works more if you’re a little bit confused, you bring a lot to the novel as a reader.

The protagonist in the novel’s name, “Jake” is very unique and androgynous, and the male character “Clare” – how important do you think the process of naming a character in a novel is?

You can’t just dole out any old name – I think there’s a tendency to want to make your character seem very serious by giving them a name with gravitas, something like “Raven” [laughs] I think Jack is a very common name for a strong, lead action character. So it is really important, and important enough that you have to be aware of all of the connotations of a name. You wouldn’t be able to have an Adolf or an Obama without thinking about what that means. Clare is a man really struggling with his masculinity and how he sees himself to be perceived by others. I knew I wanted Jake to have a one syllable name, something you can shout, something gruff, something that implies she hasn’t had an easy life. She’s a big person, she’s quite gruff, she’s got this grunty name – she’s not an Isabella with pigtails, not one of the popular kids. That can really inform stuff. Quite often when I’m writing short stories, I don’t give characters a name at all. I think the names are so – readers have connotations of names. If your mother-in-law is called Barbara, that’s who you picture, and you have to work hard to break that interpretation. I spend a lot of time thinking about names. Lloyd started off as Roderick, and my husband hated it so much – after 2 years he finally wore me down and I changed it. Roderick reminded him of Roderick from Life of Brian.

There is a mix of light and dark in the novel, there’s bleakness but there’s humour and moments of kindness and empathy. Is it important to keep a balance? (There seems to be a current conception in modern media that bleak stories are more ‘deep’ and meaningful)

My mum is quite emotional and doesn’t enjoy sad stories and won’t watch murders on telly – I told her it was quite odd she enjoys my books, but she said “but they’re so funny!” She reads them as comedies! For me, it’s like you can’t have one without the other and comedies tend to be incredibly dark, comedians are some of the most depressed people I know. I also think when things are dark the whole way through it just gets really boring. You don’t get that contrast. People have said my books are depressing, but I don’t think they are. Far worse stuff happens in the real world, to people. People talk about the relentlessness of the stuff that happens to Jake and I thought well, people have much harder lives than that – and find the time to laugh about it.
There’s a lot of ambiguity in the novel, which relies on the reader’s imagination. How do you think this informs the reader’s impression of the story?

Everyone who reads Wuthering Heights has a different image of Cathy and of the moors, the weather – that’s what’s amazing and that’s why people get pent up about books. I was in a restaurant last night and people were having a proper row about a book, and it’s because they both have different ideas of what it is, and they’re both totally right and that’s what’s great about it. I probably go to a greater degree than some people in leaving things up to the reader – I like to leave quite open endings. I feel like life is an open ending, and you finish a book and all the ends are tied up neatly and you kind of go “alright, that’s sorted out…” and you close the book. On the other hand, if you problematise that, it’s something you might think about for a while. You might send the author an angry email!

Has that happened to you?

Oh yeah. This book, more than anything else I’ve written. People are like “look, I invested the time reading this, I demand to know what the thing at the end is.” I think that’s so funny, that they think that I would know more than is in that book.

You have also written several short stories. How different is the experience of writing a short story to a novel?

It’s totally different. Short story writing is so precise. I started off writing short stories and now writing my third novel – it’s made me look back at my short stories and really think “wow, they’re not good enough.” They were fantastic in getting me where I am as an author but when I look at people who are fantastic at short stories – such as John McGregor – I’m worried I’ve written myself out of writing novels. I still try, but the process of writing is so different. You cant have a novel worked out in your head, you have to navigate yourself or you’ll get lost. With a short story, you have it in front of you and you have to do the best you can with that information, there’s nowhere to hide.

Who are your favourite Australian authors?

I started reading Tim Winton when I was about 13. Richard Flanagan, Kate Grenville, a lot of Miles Franklin winners. Fiona McFarlane – I love her books. I run a bookshop back home with an Australian and we both have a beady eye out for Australian authors.

Originally posted at Sydney Uni Life