Monday, December 1, 2008

[Interview] Rachel Trezise

Rachel Trezise was born in the Rhondda Valley in south Wales in 1978.

She studied Journalism and English at Glamorgan University, and, Geography and History at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

Her books have won two major awards and have been translated into Italian and Danish. Her autobigraphical novel, In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl (Parthian, 2000) won a place on the Orange Futures List in 2002. And her collection of short stories, Fresh Apples (Parthian Books, 2006) won the 2006 EDS Dylan Thomas Prize.

Trezise is also the author of a documentary about Welsh rock music, Dial M for Merthyr (Parthian, 2007), and a second novel, Sixteen Shades of Crazy, which is due out from HarperCollins in 2010.

In this interview, Rachel Trezise talks about her writing:

When did you start writing?

I started writing at the age of sixteen. I thought I wanted to be a music journalist so I started a fanzine called Smack Rupunzel, interviewing and writing about local bands. Soon afterwards, I started writing what became my first novel, In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl, an autobiographical account of a girl growing up poverty stricken and sexually abused in the south Wales valleys.

One day a friend of mine gave me an advertisement he’d found in a local paper from an independent publisher looking for submissions for a Welsh short story anthology. By then I was studying journalism and doing creative writing as a minor so I had a short story set in Wales. It was accepted and I met the publishing editor at the launch of the book. He asked me if I’d written anything else and I sent him the novel, not expecting much because it had already been rejected by most of the major London publishing houses. A week later he told me he wanted to publish it. It came out a few months before I graduated from university.

How would you describe your writing?

It’s what’s generally called ‘literary fiction.’ I like to call it life with the names changed. That’s how people who don’t read literary fiction understand it, but there’s more to it than that obviously.

Who is your target audience?

I’ve never had a target audience. I always write for myself, and if at the end of a piece of work, I enjoy it, I just hope others will too. I’ve never tried to write for a specific age or class and I suspect that puts a lot of pressure on writers.

Actually, I did write an Afternoon Play recently for [BBC] Radio 4. It was about teenage pregnancy and I found writing dialogue a huge challenge because I wasn’t allowed to use ‘bad language.’ But teenagers do use ‘bad language,’ and it seemed unrealistic to leave it out. I worked my way around it eventually but it took up a lot of time.

Which authors influenced you most?

My favourite authors are Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, two African American women. I studied both for English Literature, A-Level, a time when I was seriously considering writing myself, and discovering the magic of other people’s literature. Some of my own experiences were similar to that of their characters and I identified with the themes of repression in their work.

More recently I’ve discovered Annie Proulx, another American woman who writes about rural areas and the lonely, downtrodden people who inhabit them, and her themes are also very close to the themes I explore.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

My first novel was autobiographical so my personal experiences influenced that book in a very obvious way.

My second book, a collection of short stories, is set in the Rhondda Valley where I grew up and still live, and the characters are amalgamations of the people I grew up with and the everyday struggles they faced -- unemployment, drugs, poverty, the social issues of the day. The stories were fiction though; scenarios I’d heard about second hand or read about in newspapers.

To write about something well, you have to care about the subject, and usually you care about it because it’s happened to you or someone very close to you.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main objective as a writer is to tell a social commentary.

I think people and place are tantamount to one another, and my concern is to tell a truth. Not necessarily a true story but a true human condition, to explain what being a human being is about. If you can do that well, then I think your work transcends nationality, like that of Toni Morrison or Annie Proulx.

I think a lot of social issues are brushed under the carpet by the media, and it’s important to document them as an artist.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenge I have at the moment is writing a completely fictional novel.

Those short stories I just mentioned were my fictional baby steps, as it were. For the first time ever, I’ve had to plot a fictional story over 200 pages. I’ve been working on it on and off for five years and am nearing the end now. I had to plan it in a very detailed way, making sure I left no room to lose my way.

It’s also a technically difficult piece of work because it’s told by three women who are very similar in age and background. It’s set in the south Wales valleys though, an area I’m very familiar with and my next challenge will be to set a novel in another country. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in America and I’m going to set my next book there which will be a terrific change.

Do you write everyday?

I write Monday to Friday and over the weekend if there’s a deadline approaching or I’m nearing the end of a project.

I start by re-reading and editing the previous day's work. After that I’m ready to proceed. I work to a strict word length, a 1,000 words a day and push to always hit it, even if what I’m writing isn’t of any quality. I can edit it later.

What is your latest book about?

The book I’m working on, and which I described briefly earlier, is about an English stranger who moves into a very small, close-knit south Wales village. He’s a drug-dealer who seduces three of the local women.

The story is about obsessive love, poverty and provincial attitudes to nationality, race and modern life. The three female characters have been effected at some time or another by different forms of abuse and so the story is also about how experiences of traumatic childhoods make people vulnerable in some ways but stronger in others.

For the first time, I’ve chosen a big London publisher. There are pros and cons to both independent and large publishing companies and my decision for going with a larger one this time is the marketing and distribution power a large house has. I want to reach as large and varied an audience as possible.

What will your next book be about?

I’ve got two new projects in mind. The first is a novel about a girl who’s sold into prostitution by her poverty stricken mother and who suffers throughout her twenties and thirties but eventually becomes a high class call girl and then in the autumn of her life finds love with an Orthodox Jewish man who leaves his religious fold to marry her. A rags to riches story set in West Virginia and Brooklyn, New York.

The other project is also loosely based around the theme of prostitution, a collection of short stories that’s half written at the moment. I’m not sure which’ll be first.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

In my relatively short time as a published writer -- it’s coming up to the 10 year anniversary, I’ve been lucky enough to win two literary prizes, The Orange Futures Prize for In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl and the Dylan Thomas Prize for Fresh Apples.

The second came with a £60,000 cheque and that’s enabled me to be able to write for the past two years without any financial worries, a rare situation for an author, so obviously that’s been a significant achievement and a great reward for all the time and energy I put into my work beforehand but I’m always thrilled when I see a manuscript turn into a book with a proper cover and blurb, perhaps even more so when it happens to be in a different language.

My first hard back book came out in Denmark last year, Ned i akvariet og op igen, a translation of In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl, and Fresh Apples comes out in Italy next year.

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