‘Leave The Light On For Me’ is one of twenty-three stories that comprise a short fiction collection entitled The South Westerlies that I submitted for my PhD thesis in 2017. The collection is an attempt to know my place of Gower. All the stories are set here where I live, work and write, in the UK’s first area of outstanding natural beauty; but they are also infused with the tone of the dank, prevalent, salt-laden wind that blows constantly across the peninsula. The stories aim to convey what life is really like beneath Gower’s pasteurised façade and its highly marketed tourism product.
My stories are of course not real, but rooted in the reality of personal experience – what the acclaimed American fiction writer Lorrie Moore terms a “parallel reality”. ‘Leave The Light On For Me’ initially sprang from my personal experience of my own back yard through pyschogeographic moochings ‘on the hoof’. Therefore it grew organically out of Gower’s real DNA and landscape, but was later re-cast in the imagination to make fiction.
I would argue that the story serves as an exemplar of my fiction-making process in the collection as a whole. It illustrates that walking the peninsula, and psychogeographic methodology, have been the crux of me being able to create stories. When I walk for the purpose of psychogeography, I walk alone. This solitary experience is often one of introspection in the lonely-feeling space of Gower. Though I have never thought of myself as ‘lonely’ or consciously felt ‘loss’, when I sit at my desk to write, I venture once again into that very intense and lonely mental space that walking the landscape evokes for me. In this state of mind, I create characters who seem to carry an inner loneliness, loss or longing – a consistent theme in the collection – such as Colin, the central character in ‘Leave a Light on For Me’, a young man who feels a range of conflicting emotions as the eldest son on the family farm with all that entails.
However, in terms of the fiction-making process, my first draft of the story was in retrospect a naïve attempt to show how Gower shapes its people.
The original draft opened with the following extract:
Just after dawn, the sun makes a feeble attempt to creep up the face of Rhossili Down, its saddle already shrouded in sea mist. The start of yet another day at Sluxton. Colin Rees kicks open the door to the sheds in the farmyard: there’s a certain pleasure in putting the boot in – the swing of the thigh, the thud of the steel toe-cap against the old timbers.
From where I was sitting as I wrote this story, I could see Sluxton Farm in real life. Yet this extract reveals that I did not know the detailed realities of the life that was lived on that farm: the farm I had chosen as a habitat for Colin to question his role in life on the day of his father’s funeral.
In order to address this, I turned to one of the writers I valued most, the acclaimed Irish short story and novella writer, Claire Keegan, who has been a key influence in my fiction-making process. As a reader, I admired Keegan’s writing about place in her short story collection, Walk the Blue Fields and her novella, Foster. Born and raised on a farm in County Wicklow, she writes about a rural Ireland that seems timeless and on the far edge of Europe, a troubled place which produces characters with flaws. Her way of story-telling spoke to me very quietly, yet realistically, in wonderfully crafted prose, and although her writing spoke specifically of human experience in Ireland, it certainly had resonance for me as I considered and wrote Gower as a fictional landscape.
I sought her out as a teacher too at one of her fiction clinics where it soon became apparent that there was a lack of real knowledge in my draft on many counts. Firstly, farmers in Gower, as in Ireland, would probably not kick the shed door with the toe (because of precious footwear) but rather the sole. Secondly, the shed door would most likely be steel not timber these days. Later in the draft, there was “diesel souring the air” and Colin “ploughing the waterlogged pastures at the higher levels of Rhossili Down”. As a writer it became evident I was not fully conversant with the Gower context within which my character operated. It was a question of knowledge. It was also a question of perspective. I had to apply both. As a writer I had to breathe life into Colin, and become him. To do that I had to stand in his shoes and make it my business to know the life he lived. I learned that the diesel would not smell sour to Colin: he was familiar with it. It would smell sour only to an ill-informed writer. Likewise, Colin would not be ploughing waterlogged soil in December and neither would the upper pastures be waterlogged as the water would run into the valley floor.
By paying close attention to my own text, and the texts of others, Keegan taught me the value of knowing. She also taught me to consider perspective more deeply, in terms of voice, and style. Even though the extract was written in the third person, I needed to employ a limited third person voice to get closer to Colin; in terms of what he did, what he said, and the way he said it. I therefore radically altered the register of the original from a lofty, authorial, almost poetic syntax and lexis, to a simpler structure and vocabulary. I learned that I needed to consider my writing not simply in terms of editing and redrafting, but in the true meaning of revision. Re-vision. Seeing again and seeing anew.
Keegan’s stories often explore the consequences and perils of leaving and staying in a place. Like Keegan, I have explored staying and leaving in this, and many of the stories in the collection. Perhaps more apt would be being trapped and escaping.
Anchored to the land and pulled by the invisible magnetism of his landscape and the threads of history, fictional Colin has, what Lawrence Durrell termed, a rapport of “identity with the ground”. In my final draft of the story, Colin is ‘trapped’ by the expectation of him carrying on farming traditions as illustrated here:
Staggering off the bar stool, he sways to the door, loses himself behind the faded blue velvet curtain and is out into what’s left of the night. He looks up towards Sluxton there somewhere in the distance, high on the down above the village, but can see no gleam. It’s all in darkness. There’s not a car on the road at this hour; just the stars and a full moon buttering the sky. Yet the ripe moon is so brilliantly yellow-white, orbed in a frosty halo, that the surface of the road home is lit up like a golden thread.
Drunk after a long night in the village pub following his father’s wake, Colin’s gaze turns towards his farm where there had been the expectation of a light. The ending is one of darkness and inevitability of life as a farmer. His feet seem to navigate the land by rote, independent of intellectual reasoning and so he lets his feet to guide him ‘home’. Perhaps sub-consciously he is keeping alive his struggling farm, to safe-guard the erosion of cultural traditions as well as Gower and Welsh identity
Perhaps my Colin and my other Gower-rooted characters are representative of the rootedness attributed to many characters in Welsh literature as a whole: tied by family, religion and community. The question of those who do leave but seem not to break ties or psychologically sever themselves was one discussed at the NAASWCH conference I attended at Harvard in 2016 both by the Welsh community in exile in America and in many of the papers delivered. “Ties and Restraints of the Literature of Wales” a paper given by Catriona Coutts, Prifysgol Bangor, was particularly resonant. Coutts – with reference to Kate Roberts writing in the 1930s, Raymond Williams writing in the 1960s and Tristan Hughes writing in the 2000s – linked the inability of characters in Welsh literature to ‘sever’ themselves from home, symbolically with Wales as a stateless nation. If characters leave, en masse, she suggested, then the nation might cease to exist. She believed that the notion of trapped characters in Welsh fiction is central to Welsh national discourse. She maintained that as writers we cannot be indifferent to the issue as it is essential to the survival of the nation; and so as authors we perpetuate it.
The idea of trapped characters was a fascinating assertion for me as many of the characters I have created in my fiction have a certain degree of rootedness. Even those who have gone away by choice, struggle with the severance.
In the fiction clinics I attended with Claire Keegan, it emerged that the reason was down to feet! Feet, she posited, are instrumental to character development and action. Feet, according to Keegan, are the messengers of desire. They take us to, or from, place, and the object(s) of our desire. And Keegan maintained that all stories are about desire (and I considered whether implicit in this was that all stories might be about feet): without desire there is nothing at stake, no story. Keegan suggested that if the desire is strong enough, our feet will take us towards it, consciously or otherwise.
I believe there is much in this proposition: performative rather than hypothetical, walking the walk, rather than talking the talk. Walking is instrumental to the methodology of pyschogeography I have used in my research and my fiction-writing process, and to the ‘movement’ of many of my stories in the collection.
My experience of Gower has shown me many Colins: boys who become men, stuck on the farm or behind the bars at the local pubs, all exuding a certain forlornness. I have often heard of Gower being referred to anecdotally as the ‘deathbed of ambition’ and it often proves to be right, especially for some males who seem often to be what Durrell terms “functions of place”, left behind while others move out of place; physically, emotionally and intellectually. This is what I have tried to translate in fiction in ‘Leave The Light On For Me’.
Jane Fraser lives and works in Llangennith, Gower. By day she is co-director of NB:Design and when she’s not doing that, she’s writing short and long fiction, and memoir. She has an MA (distinction) and PhD in Creative Writing from Swansea University. In 2017 she was a finalist in the Manchester Fiction Prize and this year, 2018, was placed 2nd in the Fish Memoir Prize and selected as one of the Hay Writers at Work. She is delighted that SALT, independent UK publisher of literary fiction is to publish her first collection of short fiction, The South Westerlies in early 2019. She has also completed a second collection entitled Connective Tissue and has an historical novel (yet to be titled!) in progress. She is thrilled to be recently represented by Gaia Banks at Sheil Land Literary Agency, London. Twitter @jfraserwriter
© Jo Mazelis, 2018. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.