The theme of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival is ‘how to live’, and this question came up in an unexpected way in Evie Wyld’s conversation with Clementine Ford about All the Birds, Singing (my review here), winner of the 2014 Miles Franklin Award. It is the story of Jake, who lives on an island off the coast of the UK. Jake has a herd of sheep and something (or someone), some monster, is eviscerating her flock. It’s a powerful book, and I admired the craft Wyld displays throughout, from the opening scene of another dead sheep right through to the gripping and wonderful final pages.
The structure of the novel is a split narrative, with one arc of chapters moving forward while the other arc moves backward to a cataclysmic event in Jake’s childhood. Wyld was asked how she devised this structure. She said she works in a ‘messy way’, and didn’t plan the structure from the start. Rather, she wrote about 60,000 words, looked at what she had, and, in an organic process, rearranged things as the idea for the structure took hold. It was the best form to tell the story she had. In this way, form meets and matches the needs of the story.
For her, writing is about what you decide to leave out, (which has been on my mind after my recent reading of Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes), and also what the reader brings to the table. She likes writing ‘echoes’ that the reader doesn’t pick up right away. She said she receives some rather pointed emails from readers asking for exact clarification of the ending of the novel, but even with these emails, which she quite welcomes, she is of a mind to trust the reader to complete the story in their own mind. As for her, there are some days she thinks ‘X’ happens at the end, while other days she sees something else. For her, the best monster or ghost stories are the ones in which you don’t find out the absolute full story about the monster. Not surprisingly, she is a ‘big fan of open endings’, preferring a story to trail after you when you’ve finished it, leaving you with that after-taste you can’t shake.
Ford raised the topic of the misogyny in the book, with the ‘suffocation of being a woman’ captured well. Wyld said she is quite angry about the objectification of young girls, their sexualisation, and the ‘apologetic’ female experience. However, the cruel men in the story were not born monsters, they were damaged at some point and became monsters. Of course, sometimes this damage is self-inflicted, and as one audience member noted, the story for her was about Jake’s guilt, a point I agreed with.
The gender discussion delved further into the sort of pressure and resistance female authors have when writing male characters as opposed to when male authors write female characters, and also about the average male response to finding Wyld’s book in her London bookstore: ‘I’ll buy it for my wife/girlfriend’, rather than ‘I’ll buy it for myself’. I don’t doubt all these problems, but as a male reader who bought the book for myself, I felt a bit lost. But I guess that (hopefully) makes be, um, not average? (Sadly, by the standards set by the men in this story and with violence against women such a problem in society generally, it seems this isn’t too difficult.)
Interestingly, when Ford said it was a ‘lingering’ book, and wanted to know whether it lingered for Wyld herself, Wyld said ‘I absolutely hated it when I finished. I was embarrassed by it.’ She said you ‘feel a disappointment when you finish a book’ because you wanted it to be X and it turned out to be Y. She thought it was so bad she had trouble giving it to her editor to read, and thought it wouldn’t amount to anything(!).
One audience member asked her how to go about writing strong female characters, and she made the point that you wouldn’t set out to write strong male characters, you would just write a male character, a real person. That in essence is what a writer should do when creating a female character, ‘simply’ create a person, write them as neither good nor evil, strong or weak, but merely human.
Wyld said she is a huge fan of Tim Winton and, like him, found it easier to write about Australia when overseas (she lives in London). Australia, a place she spent many years in as a child, is a place of nostalgia for her, something that clearly comes through in her writing.
Right at the end of the session, Wyld said she started the story after reading about the infamous Parker-Hulme murder in New Zealand, committed in 1954 by two girls aged 15 and 16, which the movie Heavenly Creatures is based on. Because they were so young, when found guilty the girls ‘went to juvi’, basically a slap on the wrist, and then moved separately to the UK. One lives on an island with some cattle, and has become religious. The other also moved to the UK, changed her name and is now a very successful novelist(!) and is also now very religious. The question came to Wyld: what happens if you’re an atheist and do something unforgivable? Who can forgive you? Can you forgive yourself? How do you live? This was perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the talk, as the question of where authors get the germ of an idea for a book always interests me. And it very aptly dovetailed with the theme of this year’s festival.
On that note, bring on the rest of the festival!