Evie Wyld: Into the Outback
We steal some time from Evie Wyld's cultural expedition of Vietnam to ask her about her new novel, All the Birds, Singing, the enduring Australian landscape, and what animal she would most like to be
When I'm told my interview with Evie Wyld will have to be conducted via email as she is in Vietnam, and not in London (where she lives and runs the bookshop Review, in Peckham), I register almost no surprise. Partly because I have just reread her debut novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, in which one of the two central characters is conscripted to fight in the Vietnam war; but also because of the lush, exotic descriptions of flora and fauna that litter both her first and soon-to-be-published second book, All the Birds, Singing. It seems to me entirely apposite that she should be gearing up for the inevitable waves of press and events in a country known for its abnormally high levels of biodiversity.
"I'm out here with the British Council," she informs me. "I've had a week in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, talking on panels and meeting publishers. Perhaps I have been asked to come because there is a bit of Vietnam in the first book, but the overall drive from the audiences has been more to do with an interest in contemporary British fiction, an explanation of what the Granta [Best of Young British Novelists] list means, and the process of writing fiction – that sort of thing." (For those to whom the Granta list is unfamiliar, it's the publisher's once-a-decade lowdown on the 20 best British novelists under the age of 40 – and the 2013 roll call features Wyld. It's a big honour, and one her writing fully merits.)
Like many novelists, Wyld started off writing short stories. Now, as a crafter of both short and long form works, she is unsure which brings her greater satisfaction. "I never thought I had the ability to write a novel – keeping such a large amount of information in my head all at once seemed like a tragic overestimation of my abilities. So I have been amazed when I've finished both of the novels. Short stories are so fantastically satisfying because you can know the length and breadth of them – with a novel, I find it hard to remember exactly which scenes I cut, so for me there is a lot more information flying about than goes into the final draft. Short stories give me more control. But then the lack of control I feel writing a novel can be pretty great too. I don't know – it's a draw."
Her short work is often very short; snapshots of a life or feeling are teased out enough to infect the reader's brain, finishing suddenly, leaving much to ponder. After the Fire, on the other hand, while not a huge book, feels rangy and epic in its tragic portrait of two men's lives intersecting across the expanses of Australia. Her new book, All the Birds, Singing, is markedly different, but does continue many of the themes, settings (Wyld grew up in New South Wales) and structures that defined her debut.
"Once the final draft was in, it was a mixture of terror and relief," she says of the overriding emotions so close to the release of All the Birds. "But now a few people, friends mostly, have read it and didn't hate it, so that's the worst over. My mother read it – her comment was 'there's a lot of bottom wiping' which has me a bit stumped, but she's an enigmatic human being. I find the prospect of friends reading it far worse than potential bad reviews. Bad reviews you can take on the chin pretty well, because you're allowed to feel like they just didn't get it – if someone you know you're on the same wavelength with doesn't get it, that can be horrible."
One of the most notable things about Wyld's two novels is how they avoid the use of a straightforward linear narrative. "The non-linear thing has happened quite organically," she says. "After the first book, I thought, Right, this time I'm going to keep it simple, but there just came a point in writing it when it became clear that reversing the chronology of Jake's past just told the story in a better way." Jake is the (female) protagonist of All the Birds, Singing. One half of the novel charts, in reverse, her adolescent to young-adult life, beginning with her time at an otherwise all-male sheep farm in rural Australia. In the opening chapter she is using an outdoor shower, enclosed by a wooden frame, when an eyeball appears through a knothole. The eye informs her that it knows a terrible secret from her past and threatens to make it public among the other workers. Thus begins an unravelling of how Jake found herself on the farm, and the past she has been trying to escape.
The other half of the novel is told in alternating chapters set in rural England, with Jake trying to manage her own sheep farm, the incursion of an unexpected lodger and a possibly otherworldly presence butchering her flock. Whereas After the Fire was a remarkable insight into the workings of masculine identity and male relationships, All the Birds, Singing keeps the reader inside Jake's mind at all times; the experiences that shape and define her identity are reflected through voices that morph with her changing age.
"Writing in first person, you initially feel like you've got a voice, you've got a character and you're ready to go – the trouble comes later when you want to get expansive," Wyld notes. "This is my first novel in first person, and I suppose I was experimenting – the barriers that this point of view throw up are hard for me to work within, but I think tightening your pallet means you look for new ways to solve problems, which seems to me always in the interest of bettering your writing." And on the decision to see what are, as in her first novel, largely male-dominated worlds from a female perspective, she admits that "writing as a woman was less comfortable for me than the male third person voices of the first book – I find it harder, the closer the character feels to a version of me."
All the Birds, Singing is a rich and full evocation of the vast Australian wilderness. Wyld's work has been compared to that of Cormac McCarthy for the mythic qualities they share, but it is in the continuity of peoples, places and customs that the two are bound together tightest. When asked if Australia will always be a part of her work, she responds: "It's one of the most vivid landscapes of my childhood, and I think because of that it will always be the first place I go to – I love the space, I love the fact that a character can be totally alone in it, can get lost. Having said that, my initial pokes at the third book are English. I think there's a lot of magic and horror in the melancholic beauty of England, which is what I like about it as a landscape."
Following on from queries about the strange and exotic animals that populate her books, I ask Wyld – though the question has something of the generic job interview about it – if she had to live the rest of her life as one of these animals, which would she pick and why? But I'm convinced I know the answer before I send my email. In both novels, one animal in particular seems to intercede at important points, jolting the characters with reminders of their mortality, or allowing them to gain insight into previously murky events. There may also be something symbolic and even personal to her in this animal, which is constantly moving and for whom transition is a default state, as it seems to be in Wyld's work: the men and women of her books shift between familiar and alien landscapes; her experimentation with the female first-person is a move from the more detached narratives of her first book, and her Australian-English identity is in constant negotiation within her writing.
Sure enough, when I receive my reply, she tells me: "I would be a shark, I would be a massive fat shark, and it would be brilliant. How amazing to swim in the Pacific knowing nothing bad was going to happen to you" – quickly adding, "if we ignore the 100 million sharks killed each year for their fins." A shark! I knew it. How amazing indeed.