[Issue 10 / August 2014]

FINDING MAGIC IN THE MUNDANE, JUXTAPOSITION OF OPPOSITES IN HUMAN INTERACTIONS AND BEHAVIOURS, AND WRITERS’ DISCIPLINE: AN INTERVIEW WITH REBECCA LLOYD

By Fehmida Zakeer

Rebecca LloydRebecca Lloyd is an award winning short story writer and novelist, writing tutor and editor based in Bristol, UK.  Two short story collections from Rebecca, The View from Endless Street (WiDo Publishing) and Mercy and Other Stories (Tartarus Press), published almost back to back recently, have stories that strain at the boundaries of fantasy and reality laying bare uncomfortable truths with flair. This interview was conducted over e mail.

Fehmida Zakeer: You describe your stories as weird and strange. Do you plan them that way or is that how the stories present themselves? There is a strong supernatural element in many of your stories, do you believe in phenomena outside human understanding?

Rebecca Lloyd: It’s publishers and reviewers who describe my stories as weird, rather than myself. But while I don’t find them strange at all, having never consciously written within a genre, I never-the-less accept the categories to which my writing’s been assigned as it helps to market and sell the books. But it’s only by reading reviews of my books that I get any clues about their strangeness at all.

FZ: In your stories, what come across are the minute details of human behaviour that stands testimony to your keen observational skills. Do you go back to your notes to jog your memory while writing a story or do you get ideas for stories while going back and reading your notes?

RL: Both, is the answer. Sometimes I look through my old writing notebooks for inspiration, [the notebooks being the ‘muses’], at other times I have a character in mind for a story and I know that somewhere in my notes I wrote something that would be useful to give to him or her as part of their psychological clothing.

FZ: In the title story of The View from Endless Street, the characters watch the shape of clouds, something all of us would have done as children. Your ability to successfully intertwine ordinary behaviours with complex ones makes your stories special. Do you plan your stories in detail before writing them?

RL: I still watch the clouds regularly to find what is mirrored in them, [stuff from our subconscious I always like to think!] and I used the idea in ‘Endless Street’ to show that Lily May Dobson was able to teach Ronnie Barratt how to recognise magic in ordinary life. I’ve been asked a lot of really good, but difficult to answer questions about how I write lately because of the publication of my two short story collections, and the only truly honest answer is that there probably isn’t one answer to any question. I have planned some stories in more detail than others over the years, but in fact I’ve gone from literally putting my pen on the page with no more than the vaguest idea in my head to having a step by step outline of a story that I follow carefully. In the case of ‘Endless Street’ because most of the story is set in the hop fields of Kent in the 1930’s and the characters were London Cockneys, I had to research the material properly. I found one book that gave me a real feeling about those times and so writing Endless became happy, delicious work for me.

FZ: You don’t romanticise, you give the readers the good and the bad and leave it to them to reach their own conclusions. Is this deliberate?

RL: Yes, it is deliberate. I’m interested in the juxtaposition of opposites in human interactions and behaviours…so the ugly and the beautiful, or the graceful and the spiteful all tangled up together fascinate me. And as writer I remain neutral with no personal opinions about what my characters say or think, and that means nothing is out of bounds, so Gary is a man who loves young boys in The Meat Freezer, and my job is to try to ‘live’ in him, so I can write him convincingly. Writers are in the end, actors.

FZ: In the story, Willard’s Curios, the mother is a shadowy figure who is hardly seen, yet the story is so much about her than the other visible characters. What was your inspiration for this story?

RL: The family down the bottom of my street who run a junk shop just as I describe it are the inspiration. The setting and the characters are mirrors of the real people, but the story itself about the ghost boy, is invention, although oddly as it turns out, that family did have a child death some years back.

FZ: Even when telling stories with subjects that have been tackled before, your approach lends a very different perspective, shaking the reader out of complacence. Meat Freezer, Time Stolen—powerful, atmospheric stories that stay with you for days. How many times do you go through your stories and edit before you decide they are ready to go out?

RL: It’s different each time; some of my stories have had many edits and others hardly any at all. I suspect that’s because during the time I’m writing a particular story lots of different and usually unpredictable elements come into play and ‘real’ life often starts to poke me hard in the ribs, and somehow all of these things have an effect on the progress of the story.

FZ: The title story in Mercy, which starts out on an even tone quickly turns sinister. How did this story come about?

RL: Yes, the other story collection Mercy, published by Tartarus Press as a hardback is a beautiful book and I’m really pleased that Tartarus like my work. The story called Mercy is based on the life and fame of Carl Van Cosel, a radiologist who lived with… I shan’t say more! Gruesome eh? And only too real, but as are a few of my stories, it’s a comment on the nature of relationships between men and women, as is the story ‘The Lover’ also in the Mercy collection.

FZ: Talking about relationships, you explore sibling relationships in a couple of your stories, about empathetic siblings rather than jealous ones with angst towards one another. Please tell us a little about your interest in writing these kind of stories.

RL: The same story told through the perspectives of different characters would make that story appear to be a completely different one, because in fiction writing, the perspective is the whole thing, it’s what can make a story fascinating or dull. So choosing who will tell the story is a crucial decision before you even begin to write.  There are two sisters in Dust [ in Mercy by Tartarus Press] and two in Shuck, [in The View from Endless Street by WiDo Publishing], and both stories deal with delusion, madness and the supernatural. I’m interested in ‘madness’ because it can destroy some people and make other people – dictators come to mind – highly successful. One of the ideas I was exploring in both stories was to blur the theme of madness and the supernatural together, so that it wasn’t clear if one of the characters was insane or if the things they saw were real. I leave that up to the reader to decide in both cases. But I used sisters because the two characters needed to be equal and also intimate with each other so that the tension could be escalated in the dialogue very easily. If you had two strangers telling either of these stories they wouldn’t have the same depth or mood or dramatic tension.

FZ: You are able to effortlessly weave stories from the male point of view. Usage of the male POV, is this conscious or does it just happen? Any tips to new writers how they can tell a story from the point of view of the opposite gender.

RL: Writers are only in the end, actors, so the ‘duty’ if you like is to act out the characters both female, male and child. The way to get easy with telling a story from the POV of the opposite gender, is to observe them whenever you can… their habits, behaviours, attitudes, everything about them… gaze upon them in every context where it’s not rude to do so, and if you’re really caught up in a boring social situation, keep nodding and smiling, and even talking, but be watching and learning, absorb them almost and they’ll come out okay on paper later on. Trust yourself.

FZ: You have worked as a medical parasitologist, but barring one (correct me if I’m wrong) there is no other story in these two collections drawing from your work.

RL: The one being ‘The Pool.’ Although that story is based in a medical laboratory, it’s more about differences in cultural expectations and is an exploration of societal norms and inner identity and how often those two elements clash. Johnson’s brother Innocent, [whose name was deliberately chosen], explains that in Africa any type of forged certificate can be bought, so he asks why Johnson is so bothered about passing his exam in parasitology. That was a feeling and an attitude I did come across with students from time to time when I was teaching medical parasitology. It’s not exactly deliberate that I don’t draw on that time in my life much, but a lot of my work as a parasitologist in Africa involved really tragic deaths and I guess I’m disinclined to write about those things in too much detail because it feels dishonourable to use my memory of dying children to make something as light weight as a story from.

FZ: What, in your opinion, are the habits a writer needs to have?

RL: I think there’s a lot of danger living as a writer because the occupation is obsessive, compulsive, done alone and very sedentary. Of all people, writers can very quickly become overweight if they don’t watch out. So I think a writer should have enough discipline to write at the same time every day, to know when to stop, [and the brain gets tired after about four hours, so that’s enough each day], to make sure that some part of each day is spent walking, swimming, cycling, whatever is the best and most pleasing exercise, and apart from all of that, it’s a good thing to try and mix with people in social contexts, so you can remember that other people exist outside your writer’s world of fictional characters!

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Fehmida Zakeer is a freelance journalist and writer based at Chennai, India.

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