Shelagh is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Cardiff University and the author of Up Close and her more recent novel, Washing the Dead. Shelagh also won a 2008 Cinnamon Press Writing Award for her short story ‘Mint Sauce’. We spoke to Shelagh about her influences, interests, and teaching creative writing at degree level.
Your most recent novel Washing the Dead is written as a series of interconnected short stories. Is the short story the form in which you mostly work?
My first novel grew out of an unwieldy short story that somehow kept expanding. Before writing Up Close, although I read both novels and stories, I was more interested in moments of change or offering glimpses of characters and situations. It’s also true that I didn’t have the time or stamina for longer projects; I had three children and, at one point, five jobs. My writing was snatched at, a series of desperate ventures. But even when the stories didn’t work, I liked the way that each one allowed you the chance to experiment, make mistakes, immerse yourself, for a brief time, in a tightly constructed fictive world.
Washing the Dead spans from the past to the present. Are you interested in historical fiction?
I’m intrigued by what lies just out of reach but leaves traces, the hauntings of place and people. The stimulus for the stories in Washing the Dead often came from my own family, from the things not talked about, and from gaps and dislocation. I think it’s easy to do what I do – steal my family’s lives or give them new ones – and hard to be scholarly and imaginative, to research and not let the material become insistent, asserting its own truth. I admire writers like Penelope FitzGerald and Alice Munro who use their historical research deftly and lightly.
Would you say that you explore certain themes in your work or does each piece stand independently?
I’m sure that any writer has themes or things that they keep taking up, circling and re-examining, even when they’re not aware of it. When I had to articulate thematic focus for my PhD (a collection of stories) I was able to suggest coherent and deliberate intention. But the reality was, and is, far more haphazard and random. Preoccupations, problems, questions, ideas, and our reading, operate on us, sometimes obliquely, and sometimes in a cogent way. Occasionally a startling image, situation or character will insist itself and this may become a new story. Even if it has a familiar theme, its focus or centre will probably need to shift; it’s important to find things out as you go along. In the novel, with its (at the moment) clearly structured plot, I nevertheless hope that I’ll be surprised by the writing journey.
You are a lecturer in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. Is it difficult to find the time to write whilst being a member of the faculty?
Unfortunately, yes. But I’m at fault. It’s often easier, or lazier, to put others first. Perhaps women, or rather mothers, are at a disadvantage, since they so often practise this tactic in the family: compromising, keeping the peace, prioritising others. However, I am (we are) also good at squeezing out drops of time: scribbling at the kitchen table, reading on buses. And I enjoy my work, like my students and have lovely colleagues. What also prevents the writing is that you need time and space to adopt a wandering, freer and more flexible mind-set. It’s physically painful to be swapping between the efficient, brisk, organised, diary-watching self and the dreamy, careless and subversive other.
You must give your students advice and tips on writing. What would you say to someone trying to make it as a writer?
Trying to ‘make it’ suggests being successful and published. However, if you really want to be a writer, you may have to reconcile yourself to not being successful and doing it because you can’t not do it. So I’d suggest read widely – in fact, devour words and ideas – think intelligently about what you’ve read, keep your notebooks live, write, make mistakes, share your work so that you get a sense of audience, self-reflect, edit and re-draft. This will make you a better writer!
Are you working on your next book at the moment or involved with any projects?
I’m currently working on a novel and also some stories. The novel is at an early stage and I’ve collected a jumble of episodes in my notebook, some themes, characters and an opening point of view. I know the beginning and end and I’m still excited by its fictional world, so the novel might get written. I’m hoping that I’ll turn to the stories when the larger work falters – and vice versa. I haven’t worked this way before, but others tell me it’s quite liberating. I have family and war-time stories that I want to explore; my childhood in Bristol was one of bomb-sites and photographs on the side-board: sons who’d never come home. At the time, all of that had nothing to do with me, and even seemed mawkish. Now, I think about it.
What inspires you and when are you at your most creative?
I’m at my most creative when I’m free of work pressure and of family worry or obligation. Travel is good, in this country or abroad. Drifting is good for anyone – in the garden, in the city, walking a different way home, having plans disrupted. Sometimes, to be creative, it’s a case of blocking out the world and other times, you need to throw yourself into it. When I’m reading a brilliant writer, watching a complex and compelling film, or in an art gallery, then these things elevate and excite; they give a sense of a larger world that I want to write myself into.
What’s would you really love to achieve through writing?
To be a better writer! To have more flexibility and range, to catch character and situation more deftly and truthfully.
Who would you say are current or up-and-coming local writers to look out for at the moment?
I’m a bit biased: I’m excited by the trajectory of many of our promising Cardiff MA and PhD students: Joanne Meek who was just shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Prize; Rhian Edwards, Wales Book of the Year Award, 2013 (Clueless Dogs); Sian Preece who won the Rhys Davies Short Story Award (and now adapts and abridges for the BBC); Nia Wynne (Blue Sky July) Christina Thatcher, freelance writer, educator, and researcher; Romy Wood (Word on the Street); Dan Anthony, script writer and children’s writer (Steve’s Dreams); Susmita Bhattacharya, (The Normal State of Mind); Joao Morais’s (The Anatomy of a Beating), showcased in New Welsh Review and out soon; Holly Howitt (The Schoolboy); James Smythe (Testimony) published by Harper Collins; Clare Potter (Spilling Histories), who won the John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry, a fantastic poet and script writer, due to bring out new collections in Welsh and English – and there’s so many more talented and successful Cardiff students, including this year’s cohort!
And any book recommendations from further afield?
I’m reading Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster (I thought that Brooklyn was excellent), Mavis Gallant’s short stories and Isaac Babel’s (I’d also recommend Chekhov, John McGahern and Alice Munro); I’m looking forward to Tessa Hadley’s new novel, due in September. I’ve just read Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford: a profound and surreal book.
Thank you for talking to us, Shelagh.