Australian Memories — in conversation with Evie Wyld

Australian Memories — in conversation with Evie Wyld

By Emily Woodthorpe

Edited by Katharine Yacovone

This interview was conducted and written by Emily Woodthorpe, an MA graduate from the University of Nottingham’s creative writing programme, while she was studying here. We’re publishing it now, on the far side of a global pandemic, with Emily’s permission.

‘I didn’t decide to be a writer. I still haven’t really decided to be a writer.’

It’s a cloudy December 2019 afternoon in a quiet corner of Peckham, before COVID-19 was headline news. Around us, the oblivious bustle of café Petitou would in mere months be a thing of the past.

Across the table, Evie Wyld reminisces about the ‘long process of crap jobs’ that lead up to a Creative Writing MA at Goldsmiths’, where she found joy in manipulating syntax to create stories. One online short story later, an agent contacted her. Since then, Wyld has gone on to write numerous novels, including All the Birds, Singing (2013) and her graphic memoir, Everything is Teeth (2015).

‘It’s about the artistic endeavour behind it. You never really feel like a writer unless you’re in the process of writing, in which case you feel like you’re failing at writing, and that confusion is part of the process. It’s an uncomfortable thing to just say ‘I’m a novelist.’’

Though she doesn’t consider herself a writer by profession, she won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for her debut novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, and in 2013 she was named as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

As an Anglo-Australian writer, Wyld’s books all heavily feature Australia. Her fascination for the faraway country stems from her heritage, her Australian mother’s homesickness, and its familiarity as a place to visit family on holiday.

‘There was that exoticism of ‘the other place’ where you’re left to your own devices as a kid. You can just wander off into the woods and caves. In theory, there aren’t nasty people lurking round the corner; it’s just wildlife.’

It’s this wilderness that Wyld has managed to reflect in the British landscape. All the Birds, Singing is set in both Australia and the pseudo-fictional Isle of Wight. Both places feature a tourist-destination coastline while the middle remains wild and empty. It’s this harsher side, that the novel focuses on: the blistering desert wastelands of Australia and the ugly gloom of the Isle of Wight. The unnamed British island is heavily inspired by her 2013 contribution to The Letters Page, ‘We All Needed a Place to Hide’, in which her writer’s retreat to the Isle of Wight is ruined by storms.

Both wild settings feature plotlines that run concurrently and, while main character Jake’s past in Australia is resolved, her present-day situation is not. Wyld confesses that this is a result of her own dissatisfaction with novels that end by ‘tying it up in a neat bow.’

‘It doesn’t seem to reflect life,’ she elaborates. ‘You can be really enjoying a novel and then suddenly, in a way that life doesn’t, it comes to this neat conclusion. When you read a book where it’s all wrapped up, though you might have enjoyed it, you stop thinking about it. The books that stay with me are the ones that don’t give you all the answers.’

Wyld also created the platonic relationship between Jake and drifter Lloyd as a response to her frustration that female protagonists so often revolve around romance.

‘They’re either there to fall in love or be fallen in love with,’ she vents. ‘As a female writer, you’re continually telling friends of your parents that you’re not a romantic.’

Jake’s break in feminine stereotypes is something Wyld would like to see happen in real life. Despite being a massive market, what is known broadly as ‘women’s writing’ — that is to say, women who write for women — carries an undeserved reputation for lacking in quality, a notion that Wyld laments: ‘Women read the most, buy the most books and it’s mainly men that get published.’

This is corroborated by the 2011 Guardian article ‘Research shows male writers still dominate books world,’ which includes statistics from Granta magazine and The New York Times Best Sellers, both of which feature primarily male writers. Meanwhile, a 2018 study led by Queens College-CUNY suggested books written by women were priced, on average, 45% lower than those by male authors. This is primarily a result of women dominating the romance genre, which tends to cost less. The same can be said for chick-lit, which Wyld says is attached to a stigma of being disposable and subpar.

‘And yet,’ she goes on, ‘we have Marian Keyes, who’s an incredible writer.’

And it’s not just women’s writing. According to Wyld, ‘There is a lot of snobbery in publishing about genre stuff.’

What she means is there seems to be an opinion that literary fiction is more high-brow and prestigious, despite genre fiction’s massive commercial success. Wyld expresses her admiration of genre writers, who must adhere to the rules of their genre and still create a ‘wicked story.’

Though many would classify Wyld as a literary fiction author, she struggles to define her writing and tends to avoid labelling herself as such.

Wyld, who didn’t start writing until she was fifteen, was first interested in reading horror, including Stephen King — something that troubled her mother greatly. She remembers her mother taking her to a bookshop and asking the assistant to find something more suitable for the then-ten-year-old.

‘She said, ‘my daughter’s reading all this crap, can you advise something else that she’d like with a big series?’ And [the assistant] recommended Virginia Andrews.’

Flowers in the Attic, namely, which features rape, incest, and paedophilia.

‘I have to say,’ Wyld adds with an awkward chuckle, ‘I learnt a lot from that.’

Her unusual reading list was perhaps inspired by her childhood obsession with sharks, which both enamoured and terrified her. From the age of six, she engrossed herself in gory accounts of vicious shark attacks. It’s this morbid fascination that her graphic memoir centres on — the result of a self-made promise.

‘I promised I’d have a shark in every book I write. There were a lot more sharks in All the Birds and I promised myself that if I took them out, I’d be able to write a book about sharks.’

She created Everything is Teeth in collaboration with her best friend, illustrator Joe Sumner, to explore her childhood obsession. The pair created the book in a slightly unorthodox way. The standard graphic novel process includes scripting dialogue and art directions for the illustrator to follow, but Wyld never wrote such a script.

‘Basically, I’d give him some text, he’d do some illustrations.’ She gestures in circular motions. ‘And then I’d do some more text responding to those illustrations and then he’d illustrate responding to my changed text.’

However, upon the death of her father, her graphic memoir became about him. Wyld found the graphic memoir form even more effective due to a picture’s ability to depict something in a way that words cannot.

‘Particularly death,’ she says with a thoughtful nod. ‘They do death very well because it’s something that we can’t put into meaningful words. Yet there’s something about a singular image that can do that. You get an understanding of people when they die that you can’t have while they’re living.’

She goes on to parallel her memoir’s account of her pale, ‘incredibly English’ father, who wasn’t built for the extreme conditions of the Australian outback. The graphic memoir recounts how, despite the heat, he would cover every inch of his skin to avoid sunburn and mosquitos, pulling up his collar and stuffing his trousers into his socks; hence why Wyld grew up in Peckham instead of sunny Australia. The memoir, while focusing on Wyld’s shark obsession, recounts her and her father’s shared sense of alienation; his as the frail Englishman of the family and her own as the smallest, youngest child terrified by sharks.

Nowadays, Wyld isn’t quite as obsessed with sharks. She expends most of her energy reading PhD’s for the University of Kent and running her independent bookshop, Review. Despite still not considering herself a proper writer, her latest book, The Bass Rock, was released in March of 2020.

As for sharks, the great white is a beast she believes to be supremely majestic — but she wouldn’t swim with one. She would rather a wobbegong, a gentler, bottom-dwelling shark with lacey ‘whiskers’.

‘But it’ll still bite you!’ she adds with a laugh.

Evie Wyld’s piece, ‘We All Needed a Place to Hide,’ can be found in The Letters Page’s archive. To stay up to date on The Letters Page newsletter publication, subscribe here.