HORLA INTERVIEW (August 2018)
EXCLUSIVE HORLA INTERVIEW
We talk to the author about her writing, her life, her future projects and her new collection Figurehead.
Carly Holmes was born on the Channel Island of Jersey and lives on the west coast of Wales. She has a PhD in creative writing and has occupied various editing and university-based roles. She has also worked as a waitress, a barmaid, a cleaner, a support worker, an events organiser and as the manager of a family centre. Her publishing breakthrough came with her novel The Scrapbook in 2014. She describes her writing as ‘literary strange’. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of journals (including here at Horla). A major collection of her work – Figurehead – appears in a new volume by Tartarus Press, which we review (see links at the end of our interview).
How would you describe your writing in terms of genre?
My writing has never tended to fit easily into any defined genre and the shorter fiction particularly can range widely across genres, from horror to magical realism to contemporary literary, so when I came across the term ‘Literary Strange’ a light went on for me. That’s the closest definition I’ve heard for the stories I write.
Where do the ideas for your stories come from?
They can come from anywhere and anything, though an idea will generally spark to life as a response to something that is particularly preoccupying me, and which I’ll then feel an urge to explore through the writing process. For example, ‘The Glamour’ was written as a creative response to the way any thinking or mindset that is outside what is considered ‘normal’ is assumed to be delusional, and subsequently ‘treated’ with medication.
I used to work supporting tenants who had mental health issues and I went on a lot of training, covering a lot of illnesses and disorders. Shyness and grief were considered by some professionals to be clinical illnesses or disorders as opposed to natural reactions to life or natural characteristics of a person. The narrator in ‘The Glamour’ sees fairies and ultimately chooses to stop being human so that she can become one of them. But does she really see fairies or is she mentally unwell? There are references to the ‘bridled thought’ contained in the tablets she has stopped taking.
‘Rootless’ was written during a period when I had toothache and was really anxious about the possibility of a wisdom tooth extraction. I started to ponder those deep roots, buried in our very bones and with us (hopefully!) through life, and think they must surely contain some trace of us, our conscious being and sense of self, our inner histories.
You’ve been a writer for how long? How easy / difficult was it to achieve recognition for your work?
I’ve always written, even as a small child. I undertook my MA in Creative Writing in the late 90s, straight after my BA in English Lit, but then stopped writing creatively for over a decade. Work, bills, the grind of life, all got in the way.
In 2008, for a number of reasons, I broke down and in the aftermath realised I could no longer continue with my career in the social work field. I wasn’t resilient enough anymore to keep supporting people professionally.
I started writing short stories again and then in 2010 I started a PhD in Creative Writing with the sole intention to see if I could write a novel. Those years were hard as I attended group writing sessions at the university with other post-grads and my writing, which for the two years previously I’d kept private and safe, was exposed to a lot of criticism, mainly for being too ‘whimsical’, too ‘fantastical’ and not concrete and realistic enough. I stuck to my guns though, and refused to write what I knew. Despite the lack of confidence I finished my novel, The Scrapbook, and sent it to Parthian Books who published it in 2014.
That, for me, was the moment when I felt validated as a writer. Over the past few years I’ve had a lot of stories published in numerous journals and anthologies, though the rejections still sting as much as they ever did.
Did you grow up in a ‘bookish’ home? Is there any history of writing in your family? How and why did you begin?
Though there were books on the shelves in my home I was always the main reader in the family, and as far as I’m aware there’s never been another writer on any branch of the family tree. There wasn’t much culture in my childhood; my brother and I were the first in the family to continue our education beyond school. Being in love with books from early childhood definitely contributed to my becoming a writer, as well as being a painfully introverted child and one who prized the imagination highly. I lived mainly inside my own head, and still do a lot of the time.
Who were the writers that influenced you in terms of wanting to write and the kind of writing that you chose to pursue? Can you explain why they made their impact (on you)?
My writing influences, in terms of wanting to write, would be those authors whose books were my childhood and adolescent companions: so, fairy tales; Kenneth Grahame; CS Lewis; Beatrix Potter; Georgette Heyer; the Bronte sisters; Dorothy L Sayers; Thomas Hardy; Stephen King; Daphne du Maurier… I’ve never consciously chosen a type of writing to pursue so I can’t really judge how they’ve influenced me though. I think the first function of writing should be to give pleasure and stimulation, which is at the heart of all the best story-telling and it’s what these books did for me, be they thriller, horror, adventure or romance.
Did any single short story prove particularly influential? Same question for a novel.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ had a big impact on me when I was in my late teens, and ‘Don’t Look Now’ by Daphne du Maurier (which is technically a novella?), as well as her other short stories. As to novels, Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things blew me away when I read it. So much depth, and so quietly told.
Do you follow a set process when it comes to your writing? If so, can you summarise it? What’s the hardest part?
I don’t tend to follow a process at all when I write. I barely plan, even for longer pieces, and only research enough to cover my arse and not make factual mistakes. I edit as I go so when I’ve finished writing the story that tends to be it, no further drafts. I haven’t written much at all recently, the editing work has been busy for months now so my time is very squeezed.
The hardest part of writing for me is starting, always. I’m so conflicted about it, it’s such a comfort and when I’m doing it I occupy a place of intense serenity, but I need lots of emotional space and time to write, I can’t just snatch a half hour here or there or concentrate on writing if I have things worrying me. I also tend to resist the act and fill the space before writing with fear and anxiety, both of which hobble me.
Who are the contemporary fiction writers whose work you most admire / enjoy, and why?
I’ve discovered John Irving only recently and I love his quirky, baggy, rambling family sagas. It’s such escapism, and clever too. He reminds me a little of Stephen King, whose writing I also admire and enjoy. I could never write like that, I prefer a much smaller cast of characters whose minds I can inhabit and whose lives I can manage. Sarah Hall and Sarah Waters are both writers whose books I admire, both elegant prose writers with great story-telling skills. And Jon McGregor, Julian Barnes, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Enright and Peter Carey are all writers with lovely prose styles and a fearlessness when it comes to telling their stories.
The fiction in your newly-published collection Figurehead ranges from settings that are recognisably contemporary to others that might loosely be called ‘period’ but in times and lands that are perhaps not easily pinned down. Some writers seem to fix on a particular landscape for their literature, but you seem to wander more freely. Why is this?
I’ve always resisted writing about place in a concrete way or setting a story in a specific area, I really think it would limit me as a writer and it just doesn’t interest me. My novel was set on a fictionalised version of Jersey which suited me as I could mine my memory for landscape and scene but without committing to making it a book ‘set on Jersey’, which would have entailed a lot more research and I really feel would have compromised the point of it. It was a book about memory and loss and dysfunctional family ties, and those things are universal.
The things I write about in Figurehead: longing for the thing we can’t have, fear of losing a loved one, fear of abandonment, are archetypal and the landscape in the stories reflects those themes, working with the characters and the narrative to hopefully enrich the whole. In stories like ‘The Demon L’ or ‘Heartwood’ the wider landscape and the period is hazy and ungraspable (for me as the writer at least) and this introduces a timelessness that reflects the stories themselves.
Your collection includes stories that span a few pages and others that have the length of novelettes. What tells you, as the writer, that something is best kept as a very short story or fragment, whereas another idea warrants a ‘fuller’ treatment?
I rarely know when I set out to write a story how long it will be, though the more intense and poetic the writing the shorter it will be, generally. I think the impact of ‘Wich’ would have been considerably diluted if it had been a 5,000 word story, bringing in the other villagers and more detail of Wich’s past and inner world. ‘Three for a Girl’, which I knew was going to be a more contemporary ghost story, needed the room I gave it over 17,000 words, to let me really get inside both Marie and Georgie’s heads and also to keep layering the themes of mirroring and dualism: the pregnancy and the abortion; the empty rooms and the empty womb; the ghost girl from the past representing the promise of hope and a future for Marie while signifying the end of both for her sister; Marie, the unreliable narrator, as puppet maker/master and Georgie as puppet; Marie’s love for Georgie warring with her love to be her…
Vivid description seems a stand-out feature of your writing, together with a refusal to adopt ‘obvious’ words. How hard for you is the business of writing a story (till you have that feeling that it is ‘right’)? How many times, for example, might you ‘work over’ a passage?
Sometimes the writing comes easily and sometimes it doesn’t. A lot of it depends on whether I’ve got a clear sense of what it is I want to achieve from the outset. If I’m not that sure where I’m going with a story then that will bog me down so I need to step away from it until I get some clarity on why it is I’m writing it at all. Because I edit as I go, and because I’m always pushing myself to write as poetically and vividly as possible, I can tinker with a paragraph or even a sentence for ages before I feel it’s right, then look at it again the next day and decide to ditch it anyway. ‘Little Matrons’, for example, started out with just an image of Russian Dolls rotting on a sill in an empty house and I started writing it before I’d fully understood why they were there and what happened to them up to that point, so I had to back away from pursuing it until I’d fully grasped what I wanted the subtext to be.
You’ve had editing and university-based roles. Large numbers of younger people – including students – seem disengaged from reading. At one time the short story was encountered in newspapers, magazines, on radio and TV. Many profess to love short stories, yet the form seems marginalised (particularly from the kind of mainstream reader who might have read Hemingway or du Maurier at the time they were writing). Do you agree? If so, what can be done?
I’m hopeful that reading is on the rise these days, particularly among children and young adults. There certainly seems to be an upsurge in YA novels being published. I agree that short stories aren’t widely read in Britain though. In Ireland and America short fiction is a lot more respected as an art form in its own right but I think there’s the idea over here that it’s the novel’s poor relation, easier to write and less pleasurable to read, and that’s just not true. Having said that, there are a lot more outlets for contemporary literary short fiction now than there were in the 90s when I was first trying to get published, but I do wonder whether that’s simply because there’s more people writing stories and those people are the ones who also read them and support the journals that publish them. I’m a member of a book group and out of a dozen people only three say that they’d choose to read anything shorter than a novella. A couple refuse to ever read short stories, stating that they don’t like them.
Beyond writing, are you ‘artistic’ in any other sense? Do you paint, play an instrument, sculpt, sing or have an inclination or hobby that people might not know about?
I wish I could sing, or play an instrument, or paint, but sadly I’m not creative in those ways at all. I have recently acquired a ukulele with the vague and hopeful notion to learn some basic songs to serenade my cats but I haven’t, as yet, taken it out of its case. God help the world when I do.
What do you do to relax / let off steam?
I’m not very good at relaxing but the one guaranteed way to get me to sit down and do nothing for a while is to put a cat on my lap. I also read avidly, spend time in my garden, go for long walks, bird watch, and stare at walls while over-thinking. I do that a lot.
What can readers expect next from Carly Holmes?
I’ve started a few longer projects over the last couple of years alongside writing short stories, and I really hope I can get at least one of them past the 15-20,000 word point, which I always see as the landmark past which the characters and story gain an impetus of their own and the work takes off for a longer piece.
I’m really fond of novellas so I might focus on getting something to that length –25-40,000 words is a nice amount. Over the last year I’ve been reading a lot about the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris where Charcot, in the nineteenth century, treated and experimented on ‘hysterical’ women, often to audiences of titillated Parisians. It’s a fascinating subject, and that might well find its way into a future writing project.