On writing ‘Alter’

Carly Holmes

After my novel was published and my PhD finished I found myself suddenly anchorless, panicked, and quite depressed. I missed the process of writing The Scrapbook desperately, that total immersion, but the more time that separated me from it the harder it became to write anything at all. Of course, the thing I should have done was throw myself immediately into another big writing project and face front, instead of casting looks behind me and mourning what felt like a personal loss. I’ll be more prepared for those feelings next time.

As a professional worrier (I’m available for functions, for a small fee) I weaved my own net of self-doubt and fear, cast it and caught myself, until I was so tangled in it I couldn’t see the horizon. I loved writing, I missed writing, but the act of writing terrified me. And it was so easy to put it off; I was busy earning a living and busy promoting the book. My time was being squeezed from all sides and I made sure it stayed that way.

A long while later I dragged myself to my desk and began to write a short story. I finished it and wrote another. I side-stepped into poetry briefly but it didn’t give me that same intense contentment as prose writing. Stories have been my way of making sense of the world since I was a small child, both in the reading and the writing of them.

‘Alter’, and a few of the other stories that came out of that period, reflect my sense of being trapped by my life and situation; my need to break out. The narrator, the male partner of the girl who turns into a badger, watches helplessly as she withdraws from him and their domestic space more and more. On the surface level she’s had a breakdown and is losing herself in delusion and a longing for something other than the life she currently lives. The subtext is a lot more fantastical and desperate: the individual’s need to reconnect with nature and the wild within us all, to become less human in order to live more fully.

I could have written ‘Alter’ from the point of view of the were-badger (I love saying were-badger!) but I wanted the story to be a reflection of the girl’s change rather than a personal, internalised account of it, and that could only be achieved through external descriptions and reactions. As is my wont, I went for first person narration, which comes most naturally to me.

Largely unsympathetic as a character (though I do feel a bit sorry for the pompous, unimaginative sod) the narrator allows the reader, and allowed me as the writer, to show the true drama of the story through the lens he holds up. The girl morphs through the story (both physically and in essence) from human being to wild creature, until she is all animal, and free. With her transformation he achieves his own transformation, of sorts: he decides to stop trying to control her and instead let her go. So each character represents, for me, a part of my own struggles. The narrator embodies a fear of change and the girl embodies a fear of being trapped in a situation that stifles natural instinct and life-joy. Polar opposites duking it out until the dominant urge emerges as the victor.

For me, in my real life, fear of change is always going to win, but in my stories the characters can become badgers and run away to the wild.

Carly Holmes lives and writes on the west coast of Wales. Her debut novel, The Scrapbook, was published in 2014 and shortlisted for the International Rubery Book Award in June 2015. Her short fiction can be found in numerous anthologies and journals. Carly is an Associate Editor with Parthian Books and co-editor of The Lampeter Review. She also runs and hosts The Cellar Bards, a monthly spoken word event in Cardigan.

You can read ‘Alter’ in the new Winter issue of The Lonely Crowd which can be bought here. You can also hear Carly read the story at Mozart’s in Swansea this Wednesday from 730pm, as part of our Winter Readings event.

Copyright: Carly Holmes. Image: copyright Jo Mazelis.