Lucy Wood’s first novel Weathering was published earlier this month and is a story of mothers, daughters and ghosts, set in a cold, isolated Devon river valley. Her previous book, Diving Belles, a collection of short stories based on Cornish folklore, was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize and received a Somerset Maugham Award. Her story ‘Notes from the House Spirits’ was runner-up in the BBC National Short Story Award 2013. This week, The Clearing editor Ben Smith asks her about the role of landscape and place in her work.
Both of your books are very place specific. What was it that attracted you to writing about these particular landscapes?
My collection of short stories is set in Cornwall, which is where I grew up. I think I had probably always taken the landscape around me for granted, but when I came to write my MA dissertation (which became three of the stories in Diving Belles) I realized that all my ideas for stories were linked to the landscape that I knew best. I seemed to have a store of images and ideas that I hadn’t really known about before. I’d been reading a lot of poetry about landscape and place, poets such as Alice Oswald and Jen Hadfield, and they inspired me to think about bringing in more magical, uncanny elements into my fiction – which quickly led me to the idea of basing the collection on Cornish folklore. The folklore is intricately connected to the landscape – stories about giants come directly from shapes in the granite, and mermaids from treacherous stretches of the coastline where people drowned – so I became interested in exploring how the stories emerged from the place.
For my novel, it was almost chance that I ended up in the landscape that inspired it. I was moving around quite a lot, renting in different places and generally being unsettled, and I ended up in a wooded river valley near Dartmoor. I found the landscape interesting because it was so different to the coastlines I had written about before – the woods changed so much with each season, and the river changed all the time depending on the weather, the light, or whatever suddenly washed down it. I thought the river valley would be an interesting place to set a novel, and I also wanted to challenge myself to write about a place that I didn’t know quite so well.
We tend to think about place as something stable and grounded and yet water seems to be fundamental to your writing. Could you say a little about the relationship between water and place in your work?
I tend to feel landlocked if I am not living near a wide stretch of water, so I guess that I find water an essential part of feeling inspired and at home in a place. I think the tension you’ve asked about, between what is stable and what is constantly in flux, is the very reason why water features so much in my fiction – it’s that conflict between stability and change that drives narratives and creates characters. I’m interested in the ways that people often resist change but how we slowly, incrementally change anyway, without really noticing it. Water is a good symbol for these kinds of ideas – and both the river and the sea offer up really interesting contrasts. The river is a constant feature of the landscape but it is also changing moment by moment: small changes such as flipping over small stones and flashing in the light, and big changes, like biting away at the bank and changing its own shape. I am also fascinated by the way the sea can wash things up out of nowhere and then cover them over again.
When you started writing Weathering, did you have the idea for the story first, and then fit that into the setting, or did the landscape influence the story?
I think I have a set of overall ideas that I will probably always come back to in my writing – ideas about home and belonging and family – but the actual story itself pretty much came out of the landscape. The river valley offered a lot in the way of dramatic tension; it is a beautiful place, with fascinating birds and plants, but it’s also isolated, very cold and damp in winter, and it’s difficult to get around. The contrast between the different aspects of the place and the landscape gave me the idea of writing from three different perspectives – playing around with the conflicting versions and experiences there are of a place. It was easy to imagine someone who loved living there, someone else who was forced to live there and desperate to get out, and someone else who had become stuck there and let the years pass by before they really knew it. These became the outlines for the three interconnected narratives that made up the novel.
Can you say a bit more about how you used these three different narratives to explore the landscape?
Each chapter in the novel follows the story from one of the three main characters’ point of view. All of their concerns and perspectives collide and contrast, but also sometimes overlap and mirror each other. They all have very different perspectives on the place they have found themselves in, based on their past and present experiences of it. But equally, their perspectives tend to colour or distort how they view the place too – so because Ada, one of the main characters, doesn’t want to be there, she notices grey skies and gloomy weather and the constant thump of the river, whereas Pepper, her young daughter, who is fascinated by the place, notices the colour of mushrooms and the flash of a kingfisher. Each of the characters can’t help but bring their own baggage along, which influences how they view the landscape.
Both your books draw on particular places, but there aren’t any specific place names or locations mentioned. Why did you make this decision?
I decided when I first started to write Diving Belles, that although I was writing about a specific place, ie. Cornwall, I didn’t want to use specific place names, or real towns or anything like that. Partly it is to do with the fact that, as soon as you say, ‘this story is set here’ then there is a chance you will have got it wrong in some way, some minor detail will inevitably not be quite plausible in your story (at least, I imagine that would be what would happen in my stories!). Also, everyone’s perceptions of place are different, and I wanted to draw on this and try to create a sort of patchwork effect, an overall impression of a place, which people can then situate as they want. I hope it allows the reader to draw more on their own imaginations and perceptions. Places are a combination of detail, imagination, and personal experience, and I draw more on that idea in my writing I think.
How different was it trying to evoke a sense of place in a novel compared to short stories?
It was quite a different experience. In the short stories I think I used broader bush strokes in lots of ways, because the place had to be captured quickly to get each story going. I probably conjured up a more general and less specific landscape than the one I created in my novel. Partly this is to do with the sheer amount of time and space spent in the one small setting of the novel, and maybe partly to do with having more experience this time around.
However, writing about a place in the novel presented difficulties, because there are certain things you categorically have to talk about, and you can’t gloss over and use sleight of hand in the same way as you can in short stories. For example, in the novel, I suddenly had to think about things like, ‘where is the nearest petrol pump?’ ‘Does it actually make sense that this particular bird would be around at this exact time of year?’ ‘I need there to be bright colour in the landscape for the main character to notice and wonder at, but apart from maroon bracken what else is there in early winter?’ (Lots of things, including spindle fruits and gorse!) In lots of ways the narrative forced me to create a more detailed picture.
You have described your writing as magical realist; is this style/technique particularly useful for evoking landscape and place?
Magical realism can offer a different perspective on a place and a landscape. By slightly skewing our perceptions of the everyday, it can more strongly evoke the beauty, the wonder and the strangeness that is already inherently there. In Cornish folklore for example, the buccas, or wind-spirits, draw our attention to the ferocity and temperament of the Cornish weather. Mermaids evoke the beauty and danger of the sea. In stories of mermaids luring men out to sea, there is the whole history of drownings in a community lurking under the surface.
I find ghosts a particularly interesting way of exploring landscape and place. In my novel, one of the three main characters is a ghost who is stuck in the river because her ashes have been scattered there. I hoped that the ghost would add another layer to the evocation of the place. She is suddenly a part of the river, and a part of the landscape; she experiences the tiny details of the landscape, but also gains a sense of its vast scale. Magical realism highlights the richness of the places we find ourselves in, and encourages us to wonder at things – the magic is already there.
You mentioned before about being inspired by poetry, how exactly does this kind of writing feed into your fiction?
I definitely read more poetry than fiction while I am in the depths of a project. I find it useful to read from different genres to the ones that I’m working in. I enjoy poetry that is very rich in images and description and which uses unexpected, startling language. As I mentioned earlier, I found that magical elements in poetry such as Alice Oswald’s Dart and the strange, uncanny glimpses in John Burnside’s poetry, helped inspire me to bring these elements into my fiction. I think reading poetry also encourages me to make sure I’m always searching for the best word to use when describing something, and not to just go for the easy option.
Do you see yourself continuing to write about the South West in the future?
I hope so! Partly it depends on practicalities, such as where I will find myself living. But I am keen to go back to writing about the sea and the coastline next. I think that a river worked well in the novel because it twined right through its length, whereas the sea has made me think again about a short story collection – the small things that are washed up and taken away, the ebb and flow of the tides suggest small surges of stories. I would like to be more specific place-wise with these short stories, and set them in North Cornwall perhaps, which is near where I grew up. And I would like to carry on exploring the idea of ghosts – I am really interested in the idea of haunted landscapes.