Lara Williams: Tales from the Aftermath
In her debut short story collection, Treats, Lara Williams finds beauty and poetry among the debris of relationships. The Skinny's literary discovery of 2016 so far, it may well remain so by year's end. Williams discusses her conversion to the short form
"I'd always thought that I wanted to write but perhaps hadn't decided what I wanted to write. So I started to do little bits of journalism – you know, all very self-righteous and feminist, but the biggest leap, really, was doing the creative writing MA at MMU, which I did part-time around work." Lara Williams reflects on her first tentative steps into fiction as we meet up over coffee on a predictably icy Manchester morning. A hugely accomplished debut, her short story collection Treats is slim at just over 200 pages, but its scope and ambition are vast. She had the natural attraction of the long form to swerve first, however.
"I was writing this absolutely truly dreadful novel," Williams recalls, "and I was persevering with it and thought I would finish that off while I was doing the MA, and suddenly I just went back to reading short fiction. I was in my final year a couple of years ago, which coincided with a break-up, leaving PINS [Williams drummed with the band through their initial releases and early, electrifying live shows], switching jobs, moving out of a flat with some friends to moving in on my own. It was a strange upheaval and at the same time I was reading all this short fiction: Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, Grace Paley. So I was discovering these female short fiction writers and suddenly I felt like I understood the form. I realised then that that's what I wanted to write. I wrote most of it in about 12 months."
Complex relationships: understanding Treats
Williams references the best but, even by those standards, Treats is remarkable. A raw dissection of the maddening complexities of human relationships (romantic, parental, professional), it unpicks its subject via a series of trim, understated narratives. Written in the first person, the third and, in It Begins (among others), an alarmingly vivid second person ('At some point it occurs to you: you will divorce'), its characters navigate a bewildering and merciless world. In This Small Written Thing, the breathless flush of romance withers and dies ('She hadn’t yet realised that in a relationship, honesty was just one of many options') in horrifying fast-forward.
A Single Lady's Manual for Parent/Teacher Evening is a hallucinatory and chilling picture of a mother-son relationship. In Sundaes at the Tipping Yard, the narrator manages the dual disappointments of a self-proclaimed film buff live-in landlord whose favourite film is Finding Nemo, and being dumped by her dimwit boyfriend. But, as throughout, it's the muted aftermath that resonates: 'You sit and notice the air.' Williams conjures elegant poetics with a sure-footed command of language. She makes sentences spark and flare; at times, her word play is breathtaking.
Allied to that advanced technique is a deep gift for character creation. The characters who inhabit Treats are painstakingly realised and violently alive. (Their various small-scale agonies become, at times, almost too difficult to share, but note: their stories resonate always with a deep-seated humanism. Treats will – be warned – find you out, and if it starts to feel too close to home, alongside that recognition, you'll find consolation.) It's tempting to look for them in later stories, catch them tip-toeing across the borders of their own small, defined worlds. "Well, actually, I did initially think about doing that whole inter-textuality thing," says Williams, "that Bret Easton Ellis thing of pulling characters in from different places. No, they do all exist in the same world. I feel like they all could live in the same town and even though I didn’t expressly set it in Manchester, and I don’t particularly refer to it, that's where the book takes place."
Treats, refreshingly, dares to confront the often discomfiting physicality of human relationships, depicting those interactions as a distinctly animal act. It is also very, very funny. In A Selfie as Big as the Ritz, Samuel's flailing attempts to re-awaken his girlfriend's ardour with a trip to Paris crumble mid-air: 'On the flight she listened to country music – a clear indication of melancholy.' Kitty, the friend of the nameless narrator of One of Those Life Things, provides no-nonsense support at an abortion clinic: 'She's here for her rhinoplasty,' she tells the receptionist. Dotted throughout the book are a multitude of wry observations that demand highlighting, quoting even. "Yeah, it was intentional to have the humour, that sort of humour," says Williams, "because I often found myself wanting to take the characters down a miserabilist path." But Treats is never mean. There's a grounding compassion for the characters. "Well, yes, I do like to show compassion. I like compassionate fiction. I certainly like fiction that has a warmth towards its characters. Sometimes I find myself writing a character who I don’t really like at the beginning but the more I flesh them out, the more I like them."
We touch upon where the stories have come from. The Getting of the Cat first appeared online a couple of years ago. The response on Twitter – that it seemed very autobiographical – had frustrated Williams. "I feel like that is something that female writers get asked about more: whether something is based on real life," she says. "I don’t know. Take confessional journalism – female confessional journalism. I don’t think it's a particularly female thing but I feel like maybe it gets commissioned more than confessional male journalism. I think maybe there's a presumption that women are writing from a place of direct experience rather than fictionalising events. I think you can write an event that is based entirely on your life but it can still be fictional."
Lara Williams on letting things happen
Alongside the clear-sighted de-romanticising of boy-meets-girl – such as in the hilarious and absurd Penguins, where an initial encounter ('She lifts his head and turns it round like the prop skull from Hamlet, kissing him with a straightforward matter-of-factness while he pushes his hand up her skirt') provides no clue as to the unique preferences of the protagonist's new lover – there's a distinct pattern of characters having life happen to them. Rather than dictate events, they often draw around them the various inconveniences and horrors they find themselves saddled with. Williams nods: "Have you read any Mary Gaitskill? One of the things she writes about is submissive relationships and this feeling of letting things happen to you. 'I'm going to let you do this to me, you piece of shit, because that's what your love means to me – it means shit to me.' I feel like there is this sort of passive-aggression and it's very extreme. I wanted to write about the idea of letting things happen to you."
On that theme, in the longest story in the collection, Here's to You, dancer Aahna returns home, post-breakup, to live with her mother, and almost immediately sleepwalks into an unplanned evening at an unremarkable old school-friend's house ('…she realised, with a sort of unbiased anthropological curiosity, that the evening was a date'). "That story had quite a few iterations. Originally, I wasn't going to put it in the collection – it just wasn't working. But then I re-wrote it, mostly from scratch, over two days and I just liked it. It's probably the longest story in the collection. It felt like I'd sort of evolved – a lot of my early stories were quite abstract. They were written about quite abstract feelings with no real narrative or plot." You can’t help but wonder how it pans out, though. Surely she doesn't just end up with him? "Yeah, I don't know how I feel about that. I don’t know if they do. With that story, I wanted to write something that had a bit more kindness and, perhaps, sincerity. I think that was just her life, this sad acceptance. I wanted to write about the conflict within this person who wants to live this artistic, creative type of life, but has to deal with the negotiations that life demands."
In Tributaries, the book's final story, Melody chooses to swim rather than sink. The closing passage, where she alights from a tram in the Manchester snow, is a stirring and life-affirming coda. It's a sharp reversal of much of what has come before. "Yes, I think so, too," says Williams. "I did want to end the book on a more positive note. I didn’t want to leave it with an unhappy ending. That story just felt like the last full stop. I felt like it had summarised a lot of what I had wanted to do. It's a good place to end."
Lara Williams appears at the Glasgow book festival Aye Write! on 13 Mar.
The Treats book launch takes place at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, 24 Mar, 6pm, with readings, music and more.
Treats is out 3 Mar, published by Freight Books, RRP £8.99