Evie Wyld: ‘It certainly wasn’t the book I was hoping to write’

The writer’s second novel, about a female sheep shearer in Australia, reinforces that she is a distinctive and important new voice

Tue, Aug 6, 2013, 01:00

‘When I finish a book, I have no idea what it’s about until I talk to people, and do interviews. Slowly, I start to realise what it is I was saying when people tell me what they got from my book. A novel is such an unwieldy thing while you’re writing it.”

I first met Evie Wyld when she was in the middle of writing that “unwieldy” book, All the Birds Singing, as she tried to make sense of the world she was creating. The finished book is the successor to her much-lauded debut, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice (a biblical quote).

That book established her as a writer of exceptional talent, and as debuts go, was near flawless. It won several awards and certainly contributed to Wyld finding herself on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list earlier this year. The story focused on different generations whose lives had been changed by the Korean and Vietnamese wars. Fathers and sons, military life, and the stories of two men, it was distinctly – and surprisingly – male.

All the Birds Singing strikes out in the opposite direction, introducing us to Jake, a woman who abandons life on a sheep-shearing outpost in Australia to live a solitary life on the Isle of Wight.

Step away from her debut
From the dual story to a singular life; from male to female; and from third to first person, it seems like a concerted step away from her debut. “I was afraid of writing the same book, so I was aware that I was trying to do something different here. There is autobiography in everything, so people often make assumptions when you write in the first person as a woman.”

We meet Jake as rain and sheep dung pound her during a storm on her remote farm. Something lurks in the forest and the reader is left wondering whether a creature is killing her sheep, or something from her past is hunting her down.

“I wanted to write a character who was not too much a man or a woman – someone who is not dragged around by their sexuality. Jake is independent and lives on her own, so the locals they think she’s a witch or lesbian. Female characters are labelled one of two things: dangerously thin, or curvaceous, so I wanted Jake to be neither a beauty nor a hunchback: just a person.”

Setting the book on opposing sides of the globe makes sense because of Wyld’s background. She grew up in Peckham with an English father and an Australian mother. As a child, the family regularly returned to her grandparents’ sugar-cane farm, and many of her experiences and memories from there have crept into her work: from the uncle who fought in Vietnam to the arid stench of the outback.

“My grandfather had a pet kangaroo and rode a tractor in his underwear. There was a feeling of being completely self-sufficient – fishing, growing your own food – that was alien to me. I was very homesick for Australia as a kid but any time I’ve tried to live there, I miss England. I think writers often write about the places they’re not in.”

As Jake wilts in the Australian heat in the past section of the book, her present-day self battles the rain and wind on the Isle of Wight. Wyld’s family also owned a patch of land there, spending summers camping in the forest. In All the Birds Singing, it is initially a place of escape for Jake, but becomes one of malevolence, and not, as Wyld says, the “twee, flowery place people see on postcards”.

Difficult second novel
We talk about how novelists are accused of plundering their own lives for their debut, and of how a second novel pressures a writer to prove that they are not a fluke.

All the Birds Singing reinforces that she is a distinctive and important new voice, but she says: “I’m proud of it but it certainly wasn’t the book I was hoping to write.”

How so? She pauses. “Starting a book, you have such hopes for it, and this book was not what I intended it to be, but maybe you need to be surprised as a writer by what comes out.”

She works in a fragmentary way, reading her work in sections, and never as a novel. Her method is to follow her characters and their reactions in order to work out the story.

Wyld studied creative writing at Goldsmiths University after years of “demonstrating printers in PC World and handing out yoghurt drink samples at train stations”. The MA allowed her the space to see if she could be a writer.

“I told a teacher there that I wanted to write big action books full of blood and machine guns, but these sad, little vignettes about fathers and sons kept coming out.”

Jake’s former life in Australia involves being the only woman on an all-male sheep farm. Through her skill at shearing and a sublimation of her femininity, the men accept her. Did Wyld do much research, or sheep-wrestling? She has been to Australian cattle farms, stayed at a sheep estate on the Welsh border and bought copies of sheep shearer’s diaries.

The trouble with research
Ebay and the internet have been hugely useful, but she admits that too much research can stop her from writing. “I get distracted and look up weird combinations of specific stuff, or Youtube clips of sharks. If I have a hangover, I watch people who think they’ve seen ghosts.”

Wyld is working on a third novel, and still manages The Review Bookshop in Peckham, where she writes when it is quiet. As her reputation increases, Wyld is modest and appalled at comparisons to people such as Ross Raisin or Tim Winton.

“Oh God, Tim Winton is my hero, so a bit of sick rises up in me when people say that. I don’t feel anywhere near those people. I’m not rubbish, but sometimes I think there’s something in the water and I’ve tricked everyone.”

All the Birds Singing by is published by Jonathan Cape