Christopher Meredith is the award-winning author of four novels and three collections of poetry, and also translates Welsh to English. His collection of short stories Brief Lives was published by Seren this summer.
Glyn Edwards: How long did it take you to assemble the stories that comprise Brief Lives?
Christopher Meredith: The final process of writing the last pieces and putting the whole together took eighteen months and what evolved was a need to keep all the stories as tight as they could be. ‘The Cavalry’ and ‘The Enthusiast’ are the newest. The earliest story in the book was ‘Opening Time’ written many years ago. It was included in my poetry collection Snaring Heaven. But it felt inevitable it would be included here.
GE: ‘Opening Time’ is quite perfect as the final story; it gives a devastating closure to the collection. On BBC Wales’ The Review Show, the critic Jafar Iqbal said, ‘strands of the other stories were visible in that final story. As though all the past lives were coming together into one snapshot.’
CM: Yes, several people have commented how the stories seem to sing to one another, making people question: Was that character in an earlier story? Did that happen earlier? Is that theme an echo of the earlier one? Of course, it’s not necessary for a reader to feel that; in a piece of music, you don’t need to recognise the refrain each time in order to sense its effect. Some people will notice it and others won’t. In my writing, I try to find the balance of revealing just enough.
GE: The first story, ‘Averted Vision’, has stayed with me long after reading it. Do you have a personal family history attached to either of the locations mentioned within in it: the South China Seas or Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong’s WWII prison camp? The concept of averted version, of looking away from a thing in order to refocus on it with greater clarity, is a fascinating one. Is this story itself an intended ‘looking back’ or reflection on a particularly harrowing incident of the war.
CM: My father fought in Burma in WWII – he was never captured – and that’s informed a little of my work. The bare facts and the central event in this story are true. In Hong Kong after the war the Allies held Japanese prisoners in the huge camp at Sham Shui Po where the Japanese had held 11,000 Allied prisoners. My father was a guard there and sailed on a Canadian coal ship used to repatriate the Japanese. That informs the story, but it’s I hope intense and reduced, just eight or nine pages, taking place entirely in the space of an hour or less on board ship in the middle of the night. We move in and out of the minds of two soldiers, and a terrible, mean crime is committed. The story takes a brief episode as an aperture to look into vastnesses, not just of whole lives and the war with its moral messiness, but further, as the inexperienced English soldier Lovat tries to find ways to see the strange night sky from the shifting deck. Ultimately, and tragically, he’s unable to see what’s closest to him clearly.
GE: The second story ‘Progress’ is also about themes of choice and an awareness of fate. Is it cowardice to simply ‘not choose’ – to ‘avert vision’ in a way, or a bravery to sustain ‘the same story’ as the narrator does?
CM: I don’t know – that’s what’s interesting in the situation, its complicatedness and ambiguity. A young man in about 1950 in south Wales makes a choice that affects his and his family’s future in a manner that’s both visceral and intellectual, and it leads him into telling a lifelong lie. How white is a white lie? He turns away from a certain path, and to him, it’s constructed as progress. It could certainly be seen as tendentious – him making an argument to suit himself.
I offered this story for translation into Arabic while I was in Cairo at a conference on translation. The title was the first problem, I was told, as there’s no straightforward way to render ’Progress’ with all it was being asked to denote and connote in Arabic. (I think the same would be true in Welsh, and the story may soon appear in a Welsh version.) We discussed how the man in the story sees human purpose as being to improve a situation and a student then proposed the title ‘A Step Forward’. It was simple and brilliant. A problem to a translator can lead to a solution which illuminates a story’s meaning.
GE: Finding the time to write can be as important as finding the motivation to write or the idea to write about. Although this is your first collection of short stories, your catalogue seems evenly split between fiction and poetry. Do you sit down to write with a clear knowledge that you will be working that day with prose or with verse? Are your short stories an opportunity to blend these two modes?
CM: I know every time what form I will write – I’m led by what the idea tells me it wants to be. One difference between the forms, for me anyway, is in the level of personal attachment. I think my fiction has tended to be impersonal, but my poetry is sometimes about personal experience. If I put a capital ‘I’ in a poem, it may be me, but I’ve never done that in fiction. Some of these stories are closer to the personal than in my other prose fiction.
I don’t think creative prose and poetry are really so distinct. They both involve echoes of sounds, images and rhythms. An exercise I’ve used for students in the past is to take the last paragraph of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and tell them it’s a poem with the line breaks removed. I ask them to locate where the line breaks should be reinstalled, then I ask them if they’d like to change any words. That story works well even if you take away the right-hand margin and that’s one of the hardest things about creative prose – you have to flood the page. Poetry gives a writer other ways to invest meaning with space but the piece of prose is a rigid form where there’s only paragraphing to help you from flooding the page. In a sense, creative prose is a very demanding form of poetry to write.
GE: ‘The Enthusiast’ mentions to the finite number of friends different people can have: how some people can have none, while others have three or twenty. How many ‘emotional arms’ do you have and was one of them ever held by a man like the narrator’s friend, Paul Fuller?
CM: I haven’t got great valency there, I’m afraid. I should think I’m a three or four arm person, though that now sounds absurd! Rob, the narrator of ‘The Enthusiast’, is even less strong – perhaps he has none. Ideas are sometimes reworked and I’ve considered how ‘The Enthusiast’ reworks and plays variations on aspects of my novel The Book of Idiots. Rob, the narrator of ‘Enthusiast’ is a shade closer to my own sensibility than Dean in Idiots.In Brief Lives the ways people can and can’t connect, ‘valency’ as Rob calls it, emerges as a sort of motif, and it’s there in Idiots too.
GE: Your narrator intrudes at one moment of ‘The Enthusiast’ to reveal that ‘in a story, something dark would happen at this point. But it didn’t.’ Do you often try to challenge a reader’s expectancy of perceived threat?
CM: At that point in the story, there are a group of boys going to a shed – but that’s all. It’s not Lord of the Flies. They’re just little boys playing with matches. It’s a longish story that loops back and forth in the narrator’s memory across forty years, and it partly came to be about the apparent arbitrariness of memory, when inconclusive fragments and moments swim up and recur. They can seem like non sequiturs and cul-de-sacs, but they are in large part what we’re made of. Cumulatively the pieces, I hope, echo and interconnect into an unwitting self-portrait while Rob tries to recover a picture in his mind’s eye of an old friend.
GE: Simon Armitage believes you must study three poets with a desire to become intensely familiar with their voices and, from that, you begin to hear and sharpen your own voice.
CM: I never been drawn to individual poets in that permanent way. Coleridge is great for half a dozen poems. Wilfred Owen was important to me at one point, as he probably is to all poets at one point. Of living poets, Robert Minhinnick is fantastic and he would stay with me. Recently, I’ve been looking at Wallace Stevens. But I’ve also been struck by the coldness of some poets, Stevens included. I read all of Robert Frost and, excuse the pun, I was left with a sense of coldness there. Derek Mahon’s translations of Phillipe Jaccottet, the minimalist Swiss poet, are compelling. Sylvia Townsend Warner is a wonderful, uneven, flinty and neglected poet. I’ve got a lot more reading to do.
GE: I found ‘The Enthusiast’, the longest story of the collection, reminded me of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, whose short novel is an anecdote to the significance a single moment can have in a whole life. What pivotal moments have shaped you as a writer and what pivotal books shaped you as a person?
CM: Pivotal moments; lots of fragments of memory that mostly wouldn’t seem relevant or make sense without constructing a kind of novel out of them. Writers: Shakespeare, Dickens, for Great Expectations, Joyce, Orwell’s essays. James Leo Herlihy, Gwyn Williams’s The Burning Tree.I came very late to Dorothy Edwards, who died in 1934, aged only 30, and her books Rhapsodyand Winter Sonata. I’m proud of my contribution to getting Rhapsody into the Library of Wales, doing the intro and managing to squeeze in her few uncollected stories too.
GE: In Wales Arts Review’s search for the Greatest Welsh Novel, Shifts was runner-up to Caradog Pritchard’s Un Nos Ola Leaud. What do you regard to be the best Welsh novel?
CM: Had it been for a short story collection, I’d have chosen Dorothy Edwards’ Rhapsody. It’s a masterpiece. As for novels, I have a great warmth for T. Rowland Hughes’ O Law i Law. It and Emyr Humphreys’ Outside the House Baal could have been on the shortlist. But my choice would be one that wasn’t shortlisted either, and one which I came to quite late: Glyn Jones’ The Island of Apples. It’s a magnificent, daring piece of work, a magic realist novel before we started using the term. It takes the places, milieu, and language of Glyn Jones’ childhood and makes them vivid and utterly strange in a disorientating, rich and very complete narrative. It’s one of the best unreliable narrator stories I know, and a great novel in its dealing with childhood. The darkened twentieth-century account of childhood in novels like A High Wind in Jamaicaand Lord of the Flies is handled with more nuance, flair and ambiguity in Jones’ book. It really is sustained, unique and brilliant.
GE: Sometimes, I stopped reading just to look at the cover of Brief Lives and try to work out whether the artwork is the sea or the sky, or query whether it’s from someone searching down or staring up. At other times, I’d pick up the book and not get past its supple feel or saffron endpapers. Do you believe the aesthetics of a book can complement its character?
CM: I’m pleased you read that ambiguity into the cover, which was much what I hoped for. I’m interested in book design. I used to say that when I buy a bottle of milk, I’m interested in the milk not the bottle but it’s not true with books. I chose the font after I clocked it on a pamphlet – a 1930s one called Ehrhardt, and requested the coloured endpapers – the publisher chose the colour itself, and they opted for the soft touch cover. There was lots of compromise between various voices when putting the design together and we looked at lots of covers. Much book design is poor or obviously market-driven or occasionally too gorgeous for its own good but the publisher and their designer, Jamie Hill, have struck the balance beautifully with this little hardback.
GE: Your poem ‘The train north’ was written while you were in a Wales Literature Exchange residency in Finland. In ‘Aaltitude’, one of the blog dispatches for the Wales Literature Exchange, written while you were there, you mention a particular poem had decided to set itself in Spain when you needed something ‘nipped and northerly’ to suit the snow. Do you find you are able to immerse yourself enough in a place at the time of visiting it to write about it there and then, or that there is often through distance that we best consider new locations and cultures?
CM: When I stayed in Central Finland, I saw miles-long trains of felled timber being transported south for building and burning and this fantasy of travelling north grew out of it. I wrote six poems during the residency as well as a series of blog posts, but this poem grew out of a conversation with a friend when I was back in Wales. He said that I should have taken a train and travelled as far north as it was possible to go. I began to realise that he was right and this poem became my imagined exploration.
This interview originally appeared in Issue Ten of The Lonely Crowd. ‘The train north’ also appears in Issue Ten, which may be purchased here.
© Glyn Edwards, 2018.