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Felt Not Known


August 1, 2014

The novelist on mythic creatures, horror stories, and sensory maladies.

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Image by Roelof Bakker

Evie Wyld didn’t mean to write about sheep. “I’ve got no interest in them, really,” says the British-Australian author. But a glance at the headlines about her latest novel, All the Birds, Singing, might suggest otherwise: “A Sheep Killer is On the Loose,” says NPR. “The most gripping mystery you’ll read all year is about sheep,” writes Salon. Indeed, sheep play an array of parts for Jake Whyte, the flinty female protagonist of Wyld’s second book—they’re her livelihood, her companions, and the victims of a disturbing series of murders that set in motion the haunting course of All The Birds, Singing.

Jake lives alone and rears sheep on a rugged island off the coast of England, modeled on the Isle of Wight, where Wyld spent time as a child. But any pretense of idyll is struck down by the book’s opening line: “Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding.” Something, or someone, is killing Jake’s sheep, and as the cloistered life Jake has built for herself is threatened, the dark horrors of a past from which she’s escaped begin to unspool.

The chapters of the novel alternate between two narratives: Jake’s life on the island, which moves forward in time, and her past life in Australia, which runs backward. It’s a structure that disorients effectively, with enough crumbs to keep the reader assured, while also amplifying the book’s underlying sense of doom. On the island, we learn of Jake’s nightmares and strained family phone calls, the awful scars that ripple across her back, and the peculiar, often damaged characters who bring unexpected light into her bleak existence. In the regressing narrative, we find Jake as a sheep shearer on an industrial Australian farm, Jake trapped in a relationship with a crooked sheep farmer, and eventually, Jake as a teenager in her dusty hometown, where the mounting mysteries of the story come into startling, heart-wrenching clarity.

Wyld is at once skilled in swift pacing and richly evocative language—as critic Annalisa Quinn writes, “Reading this book is a struggle—half of you wants to race through to find out what happens, half wants to pause over the dark, clotted sentences.” Since its US release in April of 2014 (Pantheon Books), All the Birds, Singing has garnered considerable acclaim, notably the Encore Award, which celebrates second novels, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, for emerging British writers, and most recently, the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s highest literary honor.

Wyld’s first book, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (2009), was a critical success as well, winning the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Betty Trask Award, and landing Wyld a spot on Granta’s once-in-a-decade Best of Young British Novelists list.

I met Wyld at a café in Brooklyn during her spring book tour. It was early in the morning, but she had no trouble launching right into stories of crime and murder—subject matter she delights in both on the page and in her own media diet. But while her interests may tend toward the dark, she speaks with vivid candor. As we discussed horror stories, extreme senses, and the pleasures of writing about animals, her warm British lilt floated above the clang of cutlery.

—Meara Sharma for Guernica

Guernica: Do you have a sense of when this story started to take shape?

Evie Wyld: I got very interested in the Parker-Hulme murder, which is a murder that happened in the 1950s in New Zealand—a film was later made out of it called Heavenly Creatures, with Kate Winslet. There were these two teenage girls who had a very intense friendship with one another. To their parents it looked a bit dodgy from the outside, and they were worried that they were having an affair. One family was moving away, and so they were going to be split up. In response to that, the girls got together and murdered one of their mothers with a brick. It was really, really horrendous and premeditated. The girls left a little bit of crockery on a path and took the mother out for a walk. They knew that the mother would see the crockery and bend down to pick it up, and when she did they hit her with a brick in a stocking. It took something like thirty swipes to get her. It was a bloody, awful thing, but very much born out of naïveté, out of this strange childhood love for each other. They were too young to have any real prosecution. I think they had five years in prison.

What’s so interesting to me is that they both moved to Scotland, separately. One of them—the one whose mother they killed—lives on a small island with a herd of cows, and she’s found her own strange religion and she’s really deep in that and on her own. The other one became a novelist. Her Wikipedia page says she’s a convicted murderer, as a sort of selling point [laughs]. But they’ve both found a kind of religion and it just started me off thinking about how quite often that’s how it works. If there’s a serial killer or someone who’s done something really dreadful, they find a way to forgive themselves, often through God, or a member of the family who can forgive them. And I thought, What about the rest of us who are say, atheists, and can’t manage to believe in something that would forgive us, and don’t have a family member to forgive us? What would you do?

I assume you would try to wad it down, the bad thing. You would try and distance yourself from it and feel like it’s something that is very separate from you and happened in another lifetime to another person. So that’s sort of how the structure of the book, working backward toward Jake’s early memories, started. The idea of her wadding her past down and trying really hard to get away from the memories that are in the back of her mind, threatening to jump out at her. She kind of wraps up the memory in everything else first.

A lot of the time with female protagonists, they are there to be fallen in love with or to fall in love with someone. I really wanted to steer away from that.

Guernica: Was Jake a difficult character to write?

Evie Wyld: She was. I usually find the voice is something that comes fairly immediately, but actually with Jake it was much, much harder. My first book, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, was the voices of three Australian men. So I felt nicely distanced from it. It’s an easier task to imagine someone’s interior world when you feel quite distanced from them. In the same way that I find writing about Australia easier than writing about the UK because I don’t have the reality of it in front of me to get me bogged down in trying to be exact. With Jake, she thinks in quite a similar way to how I do. So it was really tricky maneuvering around that voice. I didn’t want to put words in her mouth.

And a lot of the time with female protagonists, they are there to be fallen in love with or to fall in love with someone. I really wanted to steer away from that and just have her as a solid person rather than a victim—someone who’s been victimized and is all broken from that, or the other cliché, which is someone who’s been made stronger. You know, you get it in all the pop songs. “Thanks so much for smashing my face in, I’m much stronger now,” that sort of thing.

Guernica: Tell me a bit more about the structure of the book, with the dual narratives about Jake’s life—one taking place on the island in the UK and moving forward, and the other set in Australia and moving backward. How did you arrive at that?

Evie Wyld: I’d written about sixty thousand words—sort of a first draft without the arc of the story but getting to know the places and Jake as a person. I liked her and I liked where I had set it, but it felt so flat to me. I write incredibly messily. I start in the middle and then I add building blocks. Here’s this character, but what was her mum like? And what was her sister like? What was her school like? It ends up being almost like a spidergram. Just this big mess of writing. I feel you can’t take a person as is and decide that’s who they are—everyone is their pasts. So to get to know my characters I always sort of flip back between their pasts and presents.

The running backward—starting at Jake’s most recent point in Australia, back to her childhood—came around because I was thinking, How does memory work? What are you doing if you’re trying to ignore something in your past? You work up to it, in a way. So it seemed like a natural structure. Even though to write it like that became a sort of math problem toward the end. I had to write out a whole chart, and it was pulling teeth for a bit. I also had to delete a lot of work that just didn’t fit anymore into the frame, stuff that I was really happy with and that I think gave a lot to the book. But once you decide on a structure you have to be bold enough to commit to it.

I think disorientating a reader a bit can be really nice.

I love putting two things next to each other that don’t necessarily belong, because then there’s sort of a third atmosphere, a third space that is created depending on who the reader is. Some people will immediately make the links between who’s in each section and see exactly what’s going on and some people won’t. And I don’t think that matters at all. In my first book, which is about three generations of Australian men, the story runs in two narratives in alternate chapters. It’s the son who’s in the Now, and then his father. It’s never explicitly stated that this is what’s happening, though to me, it’s fairly obvious. But my father-in-law didn’t get that until the last page. That didn’t bother me in the slightest. Reading and writing isn’t about solving puzzles—it’s about a story. As long as the reader is enjoying the story and the writing, it doesn’t concern me if people don’t understand why it’s running backward or if it’s running backward. I think disorientating a reader a bit can be really nice. Making them work and bringing their own past to play in the novel.

Another thing I enjoy is leaving sort of crumb trails, echoes of things. It doesn’t matter if they aren’t picked up on, but if you’re looking out for them, it’s like a little treasure trail. For example, in the first book, the two characters were never in the same scene together, but I had them leaning up against a wall in the same way, or leaning in the same doorway in the same way. For the most part these will only be things that I know about, but I think it creates an overall feeling—the son echoes the father’s movements, even if they don’t know each other.

Guernica: The places in the book—the island, the various sheep farms, the Australian landscape—are vividly rendered, and deeply inform the story. You have some personal connections to these places, right?

Evie Wyld: I do. My mother’s Australian and half my family lives out there. So I spent a lot of my childhood there. And then the island is made up, but it’s based on the countryside right in the middle of the Isle of Wight, which is the little diamond-shaped island at the bottom of England, where I’ve also spent a lot of time. When I was a child my father bought a little bit of wasteland that you can’t build on because it’s an “area of outstanding natural beauty.” It’s got a little ruin on it and an ancient wood and it was just sort of going to rot. He bought that for very little money and since I was a child we’d go there and sleep in a caravan in the woods.

Probably the most direct link to the book came from my time on the Isle of Wight as a child: there was supposedly an escaped puma on the island, and there was a field of sheep next to us, and something was killing the sheep. As a kid I’d go down and poke a sheep carcass with a stick in the morning and wonder what had done that. Probably a fox, but there was this rumor of the escaped puma. Being a slightly odd child who liked being alone a lot, I dressed as a puma for about four years [laughs]. And about four years longer than any normal child would. I couldn’t wear it to school, but whenever I was on the Isle of Wight I was wearing my puma tail and ears. I got very very angry if people said I was a cat. No, it’s very specific. I’m a puma [laughs].

Guernica: That’s amazing. In the book, there are so many readings of what the creature killing the sheep could be, and while the mystery remains open-ended, all possibilities feel very real and terrifying.

Evie Wyld: I have a number of readers, friends who find fiction quite difficult. They would tell me, “We’ve worked it out. Jake is killing the sheep herself and it’s all a sort of psychodream and she’s mad.” I love that, and that’s great, but they are so convinced that that’s the only answer. There’s this perception that I have the secret of what actually happened. But all I have to say is in the book. So it could be any number of things. It could be an actual large, weird hairy monster killing sheep. It’s lovely to me that people find their own ways through it.

We’re a generation that needs to have problems solved for us in fiction. I’m much more interested in leaving the reader wondering what’s happened.

Guernica: I appreciated how even after we’ve sort of “figured out” Jake’s past in the book, there are still so many lingering mysteries, places for the imagination to wander.

Evie Wyld: I think there’s over-telling sometimes, in fiction. For instance, I’m a big fan of horror movies, but I could always lose the last third of them. There’s the brilliant exciting scary thing that’s going on, and then they have to show you the monster, and the monster turns out to be a giant spider from space and then you push it over and it’s dead. It becomes mortal and it has human needs and it always sort of feels like a shame. Maybe because of all the cop shows and such, we’re a generation that needs to have problems solved for us in fiction. I read a thriller recently which was great and terrifying, and then it turned out the killer was skinning a woman because she was a hermaphrodite. As if that equals that. Apart from being hugely offensive, it’s just such a limp excuse for something that isn’t excusable. There’s a desire to simplify everything so that you can lace it up, pack it away in a box, and never think about it again. I’m much more interested in leaving the reader wondering what’s happened, and wondering what’s going on now.

Guernica: You mentioned your relationship with the mythic puma as a kid. In your writing, animals are wonderfully realized—kangaroos, dogs. What appeals to you about writing about animals?

Evie Wyld: I think animals can work as great punctuation. They can give space to dialogue. When I was researching the first book, which is partly set during the Vietnam War, I remember speaking with my Australian uncle who had fought in Vietnam. It was obviously a very difficult and uncomfortable subject, one that he historically never talked about. While he was telling me these stories as we sat by the sea, there was a seagull which worked as an amazing sort of pause button. My uncle would say something very difficult, the seagull would go overhead and cry out and we’d watch it, and there was this understanding that while it was doing its loop we were in comfortable silence, and it would leave enough time to formulate a next thought.

They’re also just a lot of fun. Dogs have very good comedy value. I had to take out a lot of basic slapstick comedy scenes with Dog [Jake’s dog], because my editor was just like, “I’m enjoying these, but you’re just having too much fun with the dog.”

I spent a fortnight on the Isle of Wight in a caravan, just me and the dogs in the woods, with the sheep nearby. It was where I drew on a lot of the parts where Jake feels unsettled when she’s on her own. Stuff does happen when you’re on your own. You hear things. My dogs are absolutely pathetic. You kind of think you’ll be fine because you’ve got these two hounds, and all they did was at about 2 o’clock in the morning they stood up and started shaking and then got into bed with me. And then you suddenly feel not only afraid for yourself but feel you have to protect these two pathetic creatures [laughs].

Guernica: You also did quite a lot of observation of sheep rearing, right?

Evie Wyld: I stayed on a farm in Wales for a little while. I never actually sheared a sheep myself, though. I was offered one, but I felt it wasn’t worth the pain and fear I might cause the sheep by doing it clumsily just to have that kind of factual integrity for the novel. I watched loads of sheep shearing. It’s a really lonely job. A lot of the farmers, their wives have left them or they’ve gone a bit crazy. There was one guy I visited who was quite a young, good-looking farmer who had done very well for himself and had a wife and two daughters and it seemed when I met them that their life was quite idyllic, quite lovely. But a fortnight after I visited, his wife threw acid in his face.

You know, there’s a history in sheep farming of mental illness. The sheep dip farmers used to use was a huge depressant, and a lot of the farmers committed suicide, potentially because they came into too much contact with it. And they’re isolated, and Wales is typically gray, or black, and rainy and icy cold. There’s a real darkness there, despite the beauty of the countryside. I don’t know if you’ve read Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill. It’s about a set of twins who grow up in the Black Mountains and they’re sheep farmers. It just follows their life from birth to death, and they just farm sheep and never leave this little stone path. I read it like a horror story. It’s so dark and frightening, although nothing ever actually happens. I really get the sense that the job can be quite oppressive.

Guernica: Were people skeptical of you coming in and asking questions, as a writer?

Evie Wyld: They were really great, actually. They couldn’t understand why on earth I was interested. And all they wanted to show me was endless lamb births, while what I wanted to know was what time do you set your alarm clock to get up, what do you eat for breakfast, what is the actual stuff you feed the sheep, you know, the really boring stuff that’s difficult to find out. More than anything it was interesting just to meet these people who are kind of carved out of the stone of Wales.

I didn’t visit any sheep farms in Australia, but I am aware of how it works. It’s so different from the UK. They farm carpet sheep—sheep used to make carpets—because they’re a bit daggier, a bit rougher. They farm them in huge quantities in huge spaces, and they herd them with helicopters. It’s just totally different. But the main thing I found is that sheep will do anything to kill themselves. There are diseases and mink and foxes and things like that that’ll kill them, and then they get stuck in brambles, get thorns in their faces. If they eat too much and they sit down on a slope, they’ll turn on their backs like turtles and won’t be able to get up. And their bellies expand and then burst. They’re idiots. You’ve reared them since they were lambs and still they give you this blank stare. I think the only thing stupider than a sheep is possibly a kangaroo.

Guernica: The scene when Jake is driving and hits a kangaroo—it’s horrifying.

Evie Wyld: Kangaroos are everywhere in Australia, they’re like rabbits. They have to be culled—it’s a constant fight for the grass between them and the cattle. They move in huge herds across the country and if you drive down the highway they’re mashed on the road everywhere. A lot of people die running into them. I’ve hit one before and it’s really unpleasant—it’s almost exactly what happened in the book except I didn’t then go and finish it off with a shovel like any good Australian would, just because they’re so massive and they can tear you open with their kicks. But my grandparents reared a joey. His mother had been hit and was on the side of the road, and they found him in his mother’s pocket. They brought him up as one of the dogs. But even though he felt very much like a dog, he couldn’t quite have that relationship with people. He was still this scratchy little pain-in-the-neck thing. Though it was quite good fun having a pet kangaroo.

When you take out the humor and the satisfaction in desolate, dark, terrible scenes, you lose the connection with people.

Guernica: Your book is on the one hand incredibly dark, but I got the sense that you took pleasure in writing some of the terrible sex scenes, for example.

Evie Wyld: Yes. I have quite a close relationship with violence and horror. They are enjoyable and terrible. The nasty sex scenes are difficult to write and they come from quite deep and uncomfortable parts of my life, but there’s something really cathartic about them and through them I hoped to give Jake some autonomy. When she breaks Clare’s jaw, I thought, How likely is it that she could do that? And then I thought, Bugger it, she deserves to break someone’s jaw. I try and offset the horror with a sense of satisfaction or humor. You can’t write a book that is entirely dark without having little spots that hopefully make you laugh out loud. My father died while I was writing this book, and that was a horrendous, drawn-out death, but, you know, we’re English, so there were definitely points where we all sat around his deathbed, chuckling. That is important. That’s human. When you take out the humor and the satisfaction in desolate, dark, terrible scenes, you lose the connection with people.

Guernica: The book is full of memorable sensory details—a muscle bulging “like a new potato,” arms feeling as though “they’re full of warm oil,” vapors rising from a dead sheep “like a steamed pudding.” Do you have a preference for any particular sense?

Evie Wyld: Smell might be the strongest one for me. There’s a gum tree in a park in the UK where I sometimes walk the dogs. And every time I walk past it I tear a leaf off and close my eyes and I’m immediately back in Australia. It’s an amazing sensation.

But I also get this thing called “migraine with aura.” Normally when you’re having a migraine you’re so into the headache that all other senses are blotted out, but I don’t get the headache—I get this really strange sensory thing instead. It’s like time is speeded up but you’re very slow, like you’re moving in treacle. You get a prickly face, you go blind in one eye—it’s really odd. And you get a sort of weird aphasia, so you can’t pick out the right words. You can’t think in a line, you can’t read. And it does something very odd to your sense of touch. A smooth plate would feel very rough on your fingertips. I’ve tried to write down what it feels like, and the closest I can get is it’s as if you get a big lump of Play-Doh, and roll it around until it makes your hands go hot, and you get some strands of hair and roll it all up together and then break it apart and there are those little strands in between the dough. It makes no sense at all, but that is what it feels like [laughs].

That creepy uncanny sense of touch, I find really interesting. And I do pay a lot of attention to how things feel underneath my feet. It’s a way of transporting yourself somewhere that you’re trying to write about—closing your eyes and imagining what it feels like to literally be in that space. Maybe because of this weird aura thing I find it a bit easier to put my body in an imaginary space.

Guernica: What do you do while you have it, the migraine with aura?

Evie Wyld: Lay in bed. My brother and I used to get it a lot as children. And we didn’t know what it was—I only had it diagnosed about ten years ago. My mum used to get it as well, and she just said, “Oh, it’s this special thing that we get.” Like we had a sixth sense. She loved it. But my brother used to get it a lot worse than me, and he used to get quite frightened by it. One of the ways to ground yourself is to have someone talk to you. So he’d come into my bedroom and just ask me to tell him stories. And then he’d go off to school and sometimes get it there and just wander out of school and call my mum, and wouldn’t be able to speak. She’d have to drive around and try to find him, hoping that he was at the same phone booth. As I’ve gotten older I only get them if I’m overtired, or if I’ve eaten the wrong things or drunk too much. You get rundown and then get this sparkly eye thing and think you’re going mad. You just have to hope that you’re not then going on television.

Guernica: Speaking of odd conditions, I heard you had encephalitis as a child.

Evie Wyld: I was two when it happened so I have the briefest flash of memory about it. But I was in a coma for a while and then as it went through my brain, different senses were closed down. One day I wouldn’t be able to sleep, one day I wouldn’t be able to move, one day I couldn’t stop drinking water. It was really strange—I’d go deaf, or blind. More than anything it affected my parents. On the way to the hospital they thought I’d died, because I went all limp. So they were quite anxious about me while I was growing up. I was on this medication for a long time that kept me quite a slow child. I didn’t get on at school at all. I was very isolated and couldn’t pay attention to anything—I just glazed over. As a result I basically missed the whole of everything in primary school, and had no basis for secondary school. So the whole thing was a bit of a washout. It wasn’t until I came off the medication that things improved a bit and I became a bit more social. But I do think there’s definitely something that is left over from that.

Guernica: Do you feel that had anything to do with why you became a writer?

Evie Wyld: I’ve talked to a few writers who have had childhood illnesses. The sense of convalescence—the feeling that you’re waiting to become a real person—is quite an interesting thing. You’re seeing all of your friends doing amazing things and you’re just there, in a void, feeling a bit stupid. I wouldn’t be able to say what I’d have been like without it, but maybe I’d be incredibly high-powered and successful [laughs].

It also forced me to spend most of my time in my imagination. I just played alone, played imaginary games, dressed as a puma… And I do remember having a thought when I was about thirteen or fourteen that life seemed a little bit too frightening and difficult, and it would be much easier to just disappear into my brain, become hugely fat in bed, and be on a drip. That seemed like quite a good way to go [laughs].

Guernica: I wanted to ask you about your life in London a little bit. You run a bookshop?

Evie Wyld: I run it and part-own it. It’s called Review, and it’s in southeast London in a place called Peckham, which is where I grew up. We specialize in contemporary literary fiction. It’s a really beautiful little shop, and it’s so nice to be able to curate the stock. I feel like I have some connection with every book in there because if I haven’t read it I’ve read reviews or been recommended it by someone I really trust.

I want to tell a story. I want someone to listen to me. And I love that, but I don’t think I deserve the moon on a stick.

Guernica: Does running the bookshop balance well with writing?

Evie Wyld: It’s really hard, actually. I wrote most of the first book there because I was working part time and wasn’t running the shop, so I was able to concentrate, and it was a lot quieter in those days. Now, running a bookshop involves my whole brain when I’m there, and to be honest, most of my brain when I’m not there. It can’t die on my watch, basically.

But I think writing should be a bit of a struggle. We’re not writing things that are going to change the world in big ways. We’re writing things that might make people think about people a little bit, but we’re not that important. I think a lot of writers think we are incredibly important. I don’t feel like that about my fiction. I feel like it’s quite a selfish thing at heart. I want to tell a story. I want someone to listen to me. And I love that, but I don’t think I deserve the moon on a stick because I do that.

Guernica: That being said, you recently won the Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s highest literary honor. Do you feel the award will change your work or writing practice?

Evie Wyld: It’s a bit unreal. The Miles Franklin is a prize I’ve followed since I was very young. My favorite writer, Tim Winton, has won it many times, and so they’ve always seemed like people who knew good books. The shortlist this year was so strong, I was absolutely comfortable with not winning.

It’ll change my work in that it gives me the time to write my next book. That is all you can take from prizes, the money—it’s so important, it moves things along so much quicker. I don’t know any prize-winning author who is not just as anxious and self-doubting after winning a prize than they were before.

Guernica: If you could, would you turn to writing full time?

Evie Wyld: Absolutely. I’d love to write full time. But it’s not something that is due to me because I’m a writer. Times are very hard for doing the thing you love, but the payoff for not having much money is that you love your job. A balance would be good. But yes, given infinite funds, or a guaranteed regular income of some kind, I’d happily shut myself away and write stories for the rest of what I’ve got in me.

Guernica: Nearly every review of All The Birds, Singing begins with a mention of sheep. But I think I’ve heard you say you didn’t necessarily mean for the sheep to come in.

Evie Wyld: I did try quite hard to keep them out. I’ve got no interest in them, really. It’s just that there’s this boring thing that happens in writing—you get fascinated by the character, and the place she’s in, and then you’re like, “Goddammit she has to have a job.” Well what could she do that means she doesn’t have to see other people? And then it just dawned on me—and it happened quite late—that all the places Jake had been in were full of sheep, and she’s this large person who’s completely capable of carrying a sheep. So how could she not be involved with sheep? Often the most obvious bits of writing for me come quite late. In my first book the Vietnam War came really late, and it’s kind of the linchpin for everything. It’s a funny thing—you just follow the characters and sometimes the most important thing takes two years to figure out. But you think, well, it was kind of always there, because that’s what these people were reacting against. But you didn’t know what it was. And in this case it was sheep.

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