Where new writing finds its voice
The Interview

Interview with Evie Wyld

Anna Goodall


Evie Wyld’s debut novel, After the Fire a Still Small Voice, was published last year to widespread acclaim; since publication, Wyld has been nominated for the 2010 Orange New Writers Prize, won the 2009 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and received a Betty Trask Award.

The novel, set on the wild and eerily beautiful east coast of Australia, charts the history of a family scarred and emotionally silenced by its involvement in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and is told through three generations of fathers and sons: Roman, Leon and Frank.

Evie spoke to Pen Pusher about her writing, literary influences and plans for the future.


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Pen Pusher: When did you first have the idea for the novel? The telling of the story of three generations affected by war is beautifully handled, but must have been challenging to write. Did it take you a while to decide how you wanted to tell it?

Evie Wyld: It did take a while, but most of the time the decisions were made by writing. The idea for the novel came through writing it, really, my starting point was just a man on his own in a landscape, and I worked backwards from that point – how did he come to be there? What was he escaping from, how was he affected by his family? Hence the three generations. Once I started writing about Frank I realised how much a product of our upbringing we are, and it just didn’t seem possible to write about Frank without having written about his father Leon and then, in turn, his father Roman. Really I could have kept going in that vein.


PP: How much research did you do and where did you go for that knowledge? The passages about Vietnam are especially vivid.

EW: Vietnam was tricky because we have so many pop culture references for it. It would have been easy to sink back into those, even though I know the Australian experience to be very different to the American. So I steered away from fictional accounts of the war. I read transcripts of real people’s accounts, people who were not putting their experiences down as art, who were not particularly eloquent or interested in ‘making something’ out of their experiences, but who wanted their experiences recorded. Also, my uncle was conscripted when he was twenty, and I talked to him and his wife about it. I was conscious also that I didn’t want the Vietnam bits to stand out as different from the rest of the book. I am not a historian, the thing that mattered to me was the experience of one man in the jungle, how he would have felt, what he would have seen. Those are the truths that interest me.


PP: The landscape of Australia is a key character in the book. Harsh and menacing, it hangs over Frank’s story like his own depression and sense of being constricted by the past; it influences everything and gives it meaning. How do you know the landscape so well and have you always wanted to write about it?

EW: I’ve always written about Australia, it’s where I did a lot of my growing up. Although I lived in London for my childhood, my memories, the momentous occasions are largely there, on my grandparents’ sugar cane farm. There was a freedom there that a nine-year-old couldn’t have in Peckham, I could go off into the sugarcane barefoot and alone and no one would worry. I could be out after dark by the river and provided I wasn’t being bitten by mosquitoes there was no problem. I always enjoyed being on my own as a kid, I enjoyed playing imaginary games and, I guess, acting out stories.


PP: The biblical title with its message of hope is perfect for the novel, but was there a special reason why you chose it, and when did you get to know this quote?

EW: I found the quote on an ink drawing by George Richmond. I was working in an art gallery at the time, and it just seemed to speak to the quietness I wanted in my book, the haunting element. I’m not in the slightest bit religious, but I think it’s a beautiful line.


PP: The New Yorker wrote that the novel charts the ‘beauty and ugliness of inherited pain’. When Lucy asks Frank if he has been abused or hit by his father, it’s her way of trying to understand what the problem is. Why do you think it’s so hard to explain to others, and even oneself, what a family trauma is?

EW: I think we have an idea that talking fixes all things. That if a person can put into words what the matter is, then they are taking the first steps to some sort of recovery. But words are buggers and there are so many ways to hide behind them. If you watch chat shows you see people with terrible problems putting up a shield of some old cliché about love, something pinched from Hollywood. I think it’s in our nature to make patterns and stories of things, to find a reason, symmetry and meaning to something bad that has happened to us. Sometimes I don’t think there is any symmetry, the universe is indifferent, and if we can’t make a shape out of it, it’s very difficult to understand.


PP: Is the family trauma in the novel a microcosm of the nation’s?

EW: Australia is an open wound in lots of ways. But I write about what I can write about, the problems are so complicated and it would take a far more intelligent and educated person than me to actually be of any use.


PP: What is a Bunyip and how does it function within the novel?

EW: A Bunyip is a creature from Aboriginal mythology. It haunts watering holes and it eats women. The point of it in my novel was initially to alienate Frank and Leon, to give them something they can’t put into words that makes the hair on the back of their necks stand up. I enjoy writing about creepy stuff – it’s a lot of fun.


PP: Your prose is easy to read, yet dense and packed with sensory perception. Did you do a lot of writing and rewriting of each sentence to get it just right, or did the prose just flow?

EW: A bit of both. I read most of it out loud to see what it felt like. 


PP: Who are your literary influences?

EW: Tim Winton, Gordon Burn, all sorts of graphic memoir. Lots of other stuff, but I suppose Tim Winton made me start writing.


PP: Is it strange that suddenly all people want to do is talk to you about your writing? How do you find it?

EW: It’s very flattering, and yes, very strange. Often I find that people want me to have more answers about my work than are available to me – almost like ‘What are the characters doing now?’ It’s strange because I have put as eloquently as I know how, what I mean and what I wanted to do into the novel, but somehow it makes people think the novel carries on in my head. It can make it hard to start on the next thing, I finished After the Fire nearly two years ago and I still have to think quite hard about it.


PP: Are you working on anything at the moment?

EW: Yes, another novel set between Australia and the UK.


PP: If you had to recommend just one book to someone, what would it be?

EW: Cloudstreet by Tim Winton.