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Into the Valley

Rachel Trezise interviewed by Kerry Ryan.

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Around eight years ago I was in my woefully under-funded local library despairing of finding a book I could relate to, when I happened on Rachel Trezise’s In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl. Trezise’s tale of the myriad ways that life can boot you in the arse when you’ve got no job, no safety net and rapidly dwindling hope is set in the Rhondda Valley and not the Clyde Valley, yet it depicts that same post-industrial nightmare I encountered every time I set foot outside my front door.

Here was life. How life really was (and still is). For some. For me. For all of those forced to live in the moment because the past and the future are too depressing to even consider. Written with a fury borne out of terrible experience, this semi-autobiographical novel – like all of Trezise’s work- contains shrewd character depictions and some truly brilliant prose laced with the blackest humour.

After winning the Orange Futures Award for In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl, Trezise’s follow-up was short story collection Fresh Apples, which won the inaugural EDS Dylan Thomas Prize. In 2007, she published a non-fiction work about local rock band, Midasuno, titled Dial M for Merthyr; and in 2009, Harper Collins imprint Blue Door, released Sixteen Shades of Crazy, about three party-loving women and the hell that breaks loose when a drug-dealing philanderer bowls through their tiny Welsh village.

3:AM: In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl was published when you were twenty-two. How did the novel develop?

RT: It was from both a sense of anger about life in the valleys and a sense of anger about my own life. I started writing the book in 1996, aged 17 and bursting with teenage angst. It was the year before New Labour won their first election and the valleys had been ravaged by Thatcherism. Unemployment was standard. Community spirit had gone out of the window, replaced by suspicion, distrust and the worst kind of rivalry.

I was worried about the future of the valleys, and particularly worried about the way young working class people from the provinces were being condemned in the media as useless at worst and lazy at best, without any attempt to explain what kind of hardships those people were facing, either financially or personally.

3:AM: Was it daunting writing about people whose lives remain comparatively unwritten?

RT: Not at all. The south Wales valley novel was an established tradition. Writers like Gwyn Thomas, Ron Berry and Alun Richards had been doing a great job of portraying life in this economically depressed corner of Wales for decades, but I had no idea that those people existed, mainly because I wasn’t told about them at school. We studied Shakespeare and George Eliot so there was no leading work of fiction to live up to as there would have been had I grown up in Dublin or London, so I just went ahead and told it how I saw it, without ever considering the consequences.

3:AM: Yet, I imagine your depictions of the contemporary lives of working class Welsh women were eye opening for some. What was the reaction like when In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl was published?

RT: What I remember most about the reaction to In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl is a huge sense of relief. There’d been a gap of around a decade where no literature was coming out of the valleys so people seemed pleased that a voice had emerged to document the changes in the 80s, and people seemed pleased that I was a woman and was writing about women too.

There was a slightly more sour reaction to my second book. Because it won the Dylan Thomas Prize and was getting a lot of publicity, some people seemed scared suddenly that these depictions of contemporary life in the valleys were getting read around the world. A journalist at the local newspaper for instance, tried to deny that life in the valleys was anything like my fiction, which seemed crazy since the newspaper reported the kinds of things I was writing about week on week. I suppose nostalgia will always be the natural enemy of contemporary fiction.

3:AM: You describe In and Out of Goldfish Bowl as ‘semi-autobiographical’. Was the book always destined to be fiction rather than memoir?

RT: Actually it was destined to be memoir. I hadn’t read that many books as a child or a teenager, and the book which really inspired me to write it, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, was an autobiography, so the only way I really knew how to start was by telling it from my own mouth. I knew nothing about plot or point-of-view writing. It changed to fiction when the publishers took it on. They had to sit me down and explain to me that if they published it as a memoir there’d be legal implications.

Sometimes I wish that I’d waited until I was much older to write the book. I could have written it as a novel instead of what it is – something which is not quite memoir and not quite fiction either. But then of course it would have lost a lot of the anger and rawness that made it what it is.

3:AM: What it was like winning the Dylan Thomas Prize for Fresh Apples at such an early point in your career?

RT: I think most literary prizes are both a blessing and a curse. Of course, it means publicity and extra sales which is the kind of thing young writers dream about. But that doesn’t come without a great amount of pressure to prove yourself worthy of the prize, along with a certain amount of envy and doubt from your contemporaries.

The money funded my wedding and a lengthy trip across the States, plus it paid a decent wage while I worked on my last novel, but money has a tendency to run out. Five years on, everything is back to the way it was before the prize. I have to work part time to fund my writing career and the bad reviews still hurt.

3:AM: Do you still write short stories?

RT: I love writing short stories. I’m pretty tied up with a novel at the moment but as a treat to myself I break off now and then to work on a short story. They’re actually much more difficult than novels because they have to do everything a novel does, but in only five or six pages.

The biggest difference in technique is drawing character. In a novel, you have a lot of time to do it but in a short story, you have to nail a character in a couple of sentences. I’ve said before that a novel is like a bonfire. You have to drag a lot of wood around. But a short story is a firework. You get an idea and you just have to light the wick.

3:AM: Which contemporary Welsh authors would you recommend and why?

RT: I try not to read too much Welsh fiction, only because Wales is a really small country and the subjects that some Welsh authors are concerned with will inevitably overlap. But Wales does seem to be a fertile area for writers at the moment. Joe Dunthorne‘s Submarine is a miniature masterclass in voice-writing à la The Catcher in the Rye. Luggage from Elsewhere by Anuerin Gareth Tomas is a dazzling account of a bittersweet Swansea adolescence and Catrin Dafydd‘s first English language novel, Random Deaths and Custard is simply heartwarming.

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3:AM: After Fresh Apples, you wrote Dial M for Merthyr, a rockumentary where you followed Midasuno, a band from the valleys, and their quest for fame. What was it like moving from fiction to creative non-fiction? Hunter S. Thompson said ‘Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.’ Do you agree?

RT: I’ve always been a huge Hunter S. Thompson fan so I couldn’t wait to have a go at some creative non-fiction. I thought it would be easy because fiction is often a way of editing the truth, as it was for me in In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl. I thought I just had to make the truth look pretty. But Thompson is right, absolute truth is rare and dangerous because actually it’s boring and nobody wants to read it. There is no sense and no plot to the truth. The truth is all about people washing, eating, going to the toilet and sleeping, with very little emotion and drama in-between. Fiction is the opposite of that. So quite a lot of the sentiment in Dial M for Merthyr had to come from me, and it felt like I was going over a lot of old ground with another memoir so it’ll be a long time before I write non-fiction again. But I won’t say never.

3:AM: What was the band’s reaction to the finished book?

RT: The band’s reaction was mixed. A couple of them didn’t seem to care either way. One of them was really excited. If any of them hated it, they were kind enough to hide it. In fact their reactions told me more about them as individuals than my time on the road with them did. That’s another thing about non-fiction: the narrative is continuous and it’s hard to know when to stop.

3:AM: Your novel, Sixteen Shades of Crazy, is about the party-loving wives and girlfriends of punk band, The Boobs. Did your time with Midasuno provide insight into the lives of would-be rock stars’ girlfriends and wives?

RT: The idea for the three women in Sixteen Shades of Crazy came partly from being on tour with Midasuno. I didn’t spend a great amount of time with the band’s girlfriends but I often overheard snippets of phone conversations on the tour bus. The average age of the band was 21, so at 26 I was considerably older, and I wondered what kind of girl would settle for that kind lifestyle, and how they amused themselves when the boys were away. I used the situation to develop the basic structure of the novel but really the characters were based on people I knew already, girls from the valleys who settled for second best because they didn’t realise there was a first best.

3:AM: What was it like writing your first piece of full-length fiction?

RT: It took me five years to write Sixteen Shades of Crazy from start to finish. I was two years into it when the commission for Dial M for Merthyr came through so I took a year to write that and then a further two years back on the novel. In that time, the plot and characters changed quite a few times. Compared to the stories in Fresh Apples it was murder. It took a lot of energy to keep focused on the subject and patient with the same three characters. I was still writing about bands and rock journalism and the valleys but I was getting itchy to explore new locations and themes so I had to break off to write short stories too. It was a learning curve like everything else and now that it’s finished and published it feels like a great weight off my shoulders.

3:AM: Who were you reading when you wrote Sixteen Shades? Who was influential?

RT: I’d read a novel called Love by Toni Morrison at an early stage, which is a story about a dead hotel owner told entirely by the women who knew him. I liked the idea that the main character had no voice at all and that filtered into Sixteen Shades. The three women tell the story and the man they’re all in love with can only speak through them. More than anything, it was inspired by my aversion to a Welsh novel called How Green Was My Valley, a horrible, sentimental, rose-tinted depiction of a mining family in the Victorian era. I deliberately wrote about everything Richard Llewellyn didn’t, and the only reference to mining is an old statue in the village square, around which all the girls drink, take drugs, scheme and generally behave very badly.

3:AM: I read that Fresh Apples is being dramatised by the National Theatre this year. How is that going to work? Will there be a series of plays based on the short stories? Are you involved in the adaptation?

RT: I’m only involved as a script editor. It’s a labour of love for Cardiff-based actress Julie Barclay who loved Fresh Apples so much she went on a crusade to adapt it, winning some funding from the National Theatre but also from other sources. She’s adapting the stories and writing for the very first time, as well as co-directing the production. She’s interwoven four stories into two half-hour plays: ‘Fresh Apples’, ‘The Joneses’, ‘But Not Really’ and ‘A Little Boy’. For the moment, they’re only tasters. Hopefully, she’ll go onto develop it further and tour a whole production in 2012.

I steered away from adapting the stories myself, as I do most adaptation offers because I have trouble going back to things I consider complete. I always prefer to move onto new writing.

3:AM: The National Theatre of Wales has commissioned you to write a play. How have you found the experience of writing drama after so many years of writing fiction?

RT: We’re only at the seed stage at the moment. There’s no guarantee that the theatre will offer me a full commission but they’ve funded me to do some initial development work. I have done some drama in the past; I wrote some monologues for a multi-media production called I Sing of a Maiden, about teenage pregnancy in the south Wales valleys. Also I wrote an afternoon play for Radio 4 in 2008 called Lemon Meringue Pie.

Writing drama, especially for the National Theatre, is a lovely way of being able to keep writing about Wales while I move away from the area in my fiction. Initially I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it but theatre is the least constricting of all writing genres because what your characters have, and what they cannot have on a page, is breath.

3:AM: You mentioned that when you were writing Sixteen Shades you were ‘getting itchy to explore new locations and themes’. The novel you’re working on now is set in America. In what other ways does it depart from your previous fiction?

RT: In some ways the themes are the same. One of the main characters is a prostitute who’s sold into the sex trade by her alcoholic mother at the age of thirteen so I’m going over some old ground with sexual exploitation, poverty and alcohol dependence, but the other main character is a twenty-year-old Jewish boy brought up in an ultra-orthodox enclave in Brooklyn. The character is trapped, not by unemployment and the provinces, but by religion and the Yiddish language.

I’ve had to do a lot of research for this novel which has made it feel like real work. Being working class it feels wrong to earn money doing something you enjoy, so this book has eased that burden a little. Also, it’s a love story and I’ve never written about love before. Lots of sex, but no love.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Kerry Ryan is a short story writer, novelist and 3:AM Co-Editor.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 15th, 2011.