This interview was conducted via email by Gwen Davies for a Dylan Thomas Centre festival 2011 event in which the editor was in conversation with Tessa Hadley about The London Train.
Deborah Kay Davies started writing as a mature student of creative writing at Cardiff University. Her debut poetry collection, Things You Think I Don’t Know, was published by Parthian in 2006, and the same press brought out her debut short fiction collection, Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful, which was the Wales Book of the Year 2009. She was selected for the Culture Show’s pick of twelve best new novelists in 2011 for her novella, True Things About Me, which was published by Canongate in 2010.
NWR: There are some themes and plotlines shared between True Things… and The London Train, for example a major female character in a submissive sexual role, inconvenient pregnancies and the abdication of responsibility. Your book is much shorter, however, at novella length; its message is cynical, and if it shares any of Tessa’s territory of the psychological novel, it is as one stripped bare. Your first books were poetry and short fiction. True Things… is stamped with a distinctive staccato style, and you use a mannered though engaging dialogue; menace to rule pace and grotesque motifs (such as Gran morphing into a chicken). To what extent have the folk tale (specifically) and your sense of short fiction forms (generally) enabled your distinctive style to develop?
DKD: I have no idea how the folk tale has any connection with my style, so I can’t answer that question helpfully. I am strongly motivated to condense everything I write, although I am not consciously muttering ‘keep it snappy’. It’s just how I do it. On a simple level this has a connection with short fiction maybe. Question: Is the book’s message cynical? As far as I’m aware it has no message. It’s merely my exploration of a well-recognised way of behaving. The woman in the book could just as easily have been a man, hopelessly fixated on an exploitative woman.
NWR: I loved your understatement of expression in this book, which naysays action that moves from menace to full-blown violence. Your headings are a good example of this: ‘I misuse bread’ for a chapter in which the protagonist hits her friend’s kids with a baguette, or ‘I serve myself unusual nibbles’ as a reference to her contemplating a whole bowl of sleeping tablets. In the main narrative you write, ‘He patted my cheek firmly three times, not very hard, and I lost my balance and fell over, hitting my head on the coffee table’, which could have come straight from Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. How self-conscious is your use of humour as a means to take dark content further? Have you literary models for this technique?
DKD: I always want to inject a shot of humour into everything I write. It acts both as an aerating device and an intensifier of darkness and poignancy. Hopefully. Think Nabokov and Lolita.
NWR: Your protagonist is a masochist who experiences rough sex then seems unable to escape an increasingly abusive relationship. She is so passive that she always blames others for her predicament and yet feels judged by bodies animate and otherwise (the dentist, her house). She eventually reverts to an infantile state, helplessly calling her mother ‘Mummy’. She is also detached and narcissistic, with little to no sense of ‘the other’ aside from her mirror image, with whom she endlessly converses (and a touching relationship with best friend Alison). You underline this sense of a fallible narrator with sly references to ‘one of those films where the viewer knows things long before the people in the film do’. What is your attitude to the notion that empathy drives suspense? Must an author who is exploring narrative fallibility necessarily sacrifice empathy? Is it fair to suggest that your extraordinary style and compelling voice make up for areas such as plot and empathy as a tool of suspense?
DKD: I would disagree with your interpretation of the narrator as ‘passive’ and ‘detached’, although you are free to interpret the book in any way you see fit. I wanted to create a character, often self-deluded, who wilfully pursues the object of her desire, and is determined to experience anything that this unwise relationship throws at her. I didn’t for one moment see her as a victim. She embraces the violence and fear. She offers herself to him. It makes her feel alive. Empathy and suspense? I don’t know. For the reader there has to be some sort of connection with a character and their predicament. Otherwise one would hurl the book over the back of the sofa, as I’m sure we’ve all done. What creates that empathy is different for each reader. I don’t think it’s my task to worry about it. I’m motivated by my desire to tell a good story, in the way that seems natural and right to me.
NWR: The London Train and True Things… are at polar opposites in terms of their treatment of domesticity. In the former, Cora is ‘doing up’ her Cardiff house, while the Monnow Valley house seems idyllic. True Things…, when it evokes the spirit of Delia above the casserole, contains the best pastiche of lifestyle-fantasy-anxiety I’ve read: ‘[“]We don’t want them to frigging steam, after all. This is all about caramelisation.[”] La, la, and thrice la, she sang.’ And the protagonist’s house (ever the harsh critic) is punished by being stripped bare of all possessions save the bed. Compared to The London Train, which is a reunion romance, True Things… is a cynical anti-Romance. What is your attitude to the reported 10% fall off in sales of women’s fiction, and would you ever be tempted to dabble in this genre? Is horror or crime writing a more likely direction for your fiction to take?
DKD: My protagonist is all too aware of what makes a good home. At times she stage-manages tableaux that will look warm, loving and content to an observer. Her parents live in happy domesticity. Her patron saint is Delia. She wants to assimilate her lover into this fantasy, imagining him in a pinny, overseeing the barbecue, whilst knowing it will never happen. She’s not attracted to him for those reasons. She loves that he is part of another world. I don’t countenance the term ‘women’s fiction’. It always sounds belittling. However, I know what you refer to. These things are cyclical. The publishing world is teeming with greedy sheep. And I don’t know about my direction, thank God. I go on writing to find that out.
NWR: What’s your current/next writing project?
I am deep into a new thing. Will I sound like a complete poseur if I say I don’t want to talk about it? Yes? So be it then.
NWR gets new writers noticed, and gets published writers new readers. Support writers by subscribing!
Interview with Tessa Hadley available shortly.