October 24, 2020

Meet the writers – UK edition

In the lead-up to the publication of Influenced: Stories from the Lockdown, we’re sitting down to chat with all the contributors to the anthology, and give readers a bit of an introduction to everyone. In this next installment of interviews, we had a Zoom chat with John Paul Davies of Ireland (by way of Liverpool), Will Russell of Ireland, and Drew Taylor of Scotland. The transcript of the interview appears below.

Chris Armstrong (CA): Thank you so much Will, Drew and John for the discussion of your stories in Influenced. Welcome to the Zoom chat. First, I’d like you to introduce yourselves, tell me how long you’ve been writing for, and when you wrote your story and how that came about. So let’s start in alphabetical order, which would be…John.

John Paul Davies (JPD): Yeah, I’ve probably been writing since I was at university, so back about 20 years now. I started to take it a bit more seriously about 10 years ago, actually finishing things and re-drafting stories and actually sending stuff out the last 10 years – I had a little bit of success there. I’d written a story at the start of lockdown, pretty much, and then just toyed with it. I don’t know where the idea came from. It had nothing to do with the lockdown in particular. When the anthology came around, it just seemed a good market to send it off to, have a little stab at that. 

CA: And you live in Navan, Ireland?

JPD: Oh yeah, Nah-van. I haven’t quite got the accent yet. I moved over from Liverpool about seven years ago now.

CA: Yes, it’s interesting to me to hear Irish, Scottish and Liverpudlian accents. I don’t know if this has ever happened to me before.

JPD: Yeah you’ve got all the British Isles.

CA: Thank you John. So Will, same question, how long have you been writing for and how did you write this story in particular?

Will Russell (WR): I work as a journalist, so I write that way. But in the manner of fiction, I haven’t been writing long. Then with the lockdown, I decided to write, because I cover albums and gigs and stuff like that – and that was all gone. So I decided to write a story a week. And I’d actually written this story – “The Transcendentalist” – before I’d seen the Muskeg Press contest. But it has a Boccaccio ambience to it, so that’s why I submitted that story to you.

CA: Excellent, yes, it certainly does. And lastly, Drew.

Drew Taylor (DT): I’m in Edinburgh, in Scotland. I started writing before my teens, but never really seriously. I did it on and off, and then I did a master’s a few years ago, and that’s where this story sort of originally came from. And the idea itself – I was finding it hard to write, then I was told, “write badly. Have the confidence to write really really badly.” So I just went with what came up in my head, and then forgot about it, just put it aside. And then my girlfriend recommended that I go back to it right around the time that I saw this – and she was the one who pointed out your call [for submissions] as well. And I felt it just fitted with what you were looking for.

CA: It did definitely fit. I’m going to stay with you, Drew, for the next question. We’re going to get into your stories now. Drew, your story is called “Cuddlefish.” First of all, it’s spelled differently than the actual animal – cuttlefish. Can you tell us a little bit about the animal and your story as well?

DT: Cuttlefish are related to squids and octopi or octopuses – whichever one is correct. But they’re very smart, they’re intelligent. They can be quite sneaky. I can’t remember where I learnt about them, I think just from David Attenborough shows. They’re masters of disguise. I can’t remember how I got them into the story, but essentially my story is about forbidden love. I’m quite sure everyone will agree on what the forbidden love is in it, and you might be able to guess from the “Cuddlefish” title. For me, it’s about when you just have that passionate feeling, you believe something, you just go with it. You know it yourself, and you’re just going along that roller-coaster ride, essentially. That’s how I’d describe it without getting into the specifics.

CA: Well you did a really good job there, and it’s hilarious. Thank you so much for submitting it, it was really funny. Will, let’s go back to you. Your story was likewise pretty funny, doesn’t feature any animals. Your story, “The Transcendentalist,” you kind of use Galway as the main character. You have the main character, Skin, who is fantastic. But I’ll let you speak a bit more on your story.

WR: Yeah, I’m back in Galway after a long time away from it. It’s changed so much. This year was supposed to be European City of Culture. I lived here back in the early- to mid-1990s, and people kind of drifted from all over Europe and the UK and were living in Galway. The character Skin, I suppose, is a conglomeration of a lot of guys I knew back then. They ran scenes, they ran music scenes. And they were the type of guys who could have been anything, I suppose, and they were never, ever going to conform. Indeed, if they did like the character Skin did, instead of the road leading to fortune and power, it would just lead, to them, to kind of a misery. It was that kind of medieval tragedy aspect of it that I thought was a character out of Boccaccio. He possesses a talent that all the citizenry believe is really excellent, and they all want a bit of it. But he learns not to see the power and the importance of it and just wants to get away from everybody.

CA: Interesting that you bring up “medieval,” because I think that John’s story, “Puck Fair” – you go through the first few paragraphs and you think you’re in this medieval town. And then you realize, actually it’s more near to modern-day as well. Where did this tractor come from? John, can you tell us a little bit about “Puck Fair?”

JPD: I’ll try, yeah. It’s a bit of a strange one. It’s based on an actual festival that takes place in County Kerry. I’m not sure if Will’s been to it – a little town called Killorglin. I don’t think this version would go with the tourist board around there. It’s from the point of view of a goat herder. I’m not sure where the voice came from. Ignatius is the main character and it’s told from his point of view. And he’s pretty much in charge of getting the goats together from which they choose the king that’s going to reign for this year – the King Puck Goat. We drove through the village and there’s a statue of a goat on the bridge. It wasn’t the time of the year for the festival, but I think it just planted something in my mind. And going back to Drew’s forbidden love, it mentions bestiality on the first page. But it’s not really about that – it’s a love story. He’s a heartbroken man and he’s in the employ of Hanrahan who pretty much controls the town. He owns the big house. He’s heartbroken and he’s trying to get back to his estranged son who may or may not be a half-goat chimera. Just your basic love triangle, really. Classic.

CA: Classic, yes, since the days of old we’ve had stories like that. I think when we were talking about your story before, John, you mentioned one of the themes was that you saw these small towns, and you see modernity sort of crushing in on them. And maybe the town is sort of resisting. Am I on the right track there?

JPD: There’s definitely pockets of rural Ireland that are really hidden away. Like lanes beyond lanes. Especially around here, County Meath, you come across a different road every time. Apart from the sports and the local pub, it seems it hasn’t changed for centuries. You’re still called a blow-in around here if your family’s been here for hundreds of years. Yeah, there’s definitely a resistance to modern ways in some parts.

CA: What about you, Will, does your story explore that as well? The differences in time and the differences in modern attitudes?

WR: Yeah, John’s right. So many parts of Ireland haven’t changed. Galway’s probably the only part of the whole of Connaught – which is the whole western province of Ireland – that has changed. And it’s kind of the heart that keeps a lot of Connaught alive. But there was a lot of resistance to the changes that came into Galway. Nowadays there are people from all around the world. And that makes it a really exciting, brilliant place. But there was a resistance with old conservative values. In the story, “The Transcendentalist,” it is that kind of transcendentalist theme that society and institutions corrupt the purity of the individual. And the individual is better being self-aligned and independent. It kind of goes into that a little bit, that perhaps this main character isn’t too content when corporate bodies come in and they want him to work for them because of his skill set. Certainly, Ireland is unrecognizable city-wise: Dublin, Galway, they’re unrecognizable to what they were 20 years ago. But a lot of the rest of the country hasn’t changed at all. And there’s a good and bad to both, I suppose.

CA: And Drew, if we can work along that theme, is there – your story doesn’t really explore the sense of place, it’s more zoological. Is there any kind of transformation? Will and John speak of transformative in terms of place, is there a transformative aspect as far as humanity goes with your story?

DT: I always think that when we look at relationships with animals – I don’t think it’s one-way, I think it’s two ways. People do have pets, but when you start thinking about it, as much as you enjoy spending time with your pet, sometimes it enjoys spending much more time with you. They very much have personalities. They can be very, very different. My parents have three cats, and they’re all completely different in terms of who they are and what they do. So I don’t look at them as one-dimensional sort of things. Obviously I don’t look at them the way my story looks at them. But I think that, hopefully within that coming across, you can see that it’s more than just a thing. I’ve very much always enjoyed animals. In terms of my character, I’m not entirely sure. I think she definitely goes through a very big journey, which is a bit of a downer ending for her. Without giving everything away, you sort of see it’s not necessarily just her that has this as well, so hopefully we can see this with other people.

CA: One thing that I’ve noticed that has united the UK contingent in this anthology is your stories are very playful. They’re very witty. There’s some dark stories that appear in the anthology, and some that are very straight-ahead, but yours are very playful. Is there something in the soil there that’s bringing this out?

WR: In Galway’s sense, it’s kind of gallow’s humour. You’re kind of so used to being doomed. People have just learned to laugh from it. They put up with it, and they’re trying to put their best face forward.

CA: So Ireland’s been doomed for how long now, Will?

WR: That’s what the citizenry will lead you to believe. We’re still going on about a post-famine consciousness, and we’re the only colonialized country in Europe, etc. etc. It’s always that kind of sense in Ireland, that we’re the underdog. We’ve always had to migrate, we’ve always had to emigrate. The generation pre-Celtic Tiger in 1995: everyone left. When you finished high school, nobody stuck around. There was Irish all over the world. So there was always that kind of underdog attitude, we’re doomed. A lot of the literature that has that Wildean sense of “we’re all in the gutter but some of us look at the stars” – Irish people, whether right or wrong, they really stress that. There’s always a humour in the way people look at life, which is a good thing.

CA: John, Drew, do you want to add to that? Why do you think you guys ended up with the funniest and quirkiest stories in this collection?

JPD: I definitely agree with Will. We just take the piss out of each other, really, no matter what you’ve been up to. I think it’s just a natural instinct to take the piss out of each other. Particularly Liverpool and parts of Ireleand, I just found an identical sense of humour. It wasn’t like I was moving to Australia or to America, my little move across the Irish Sea. But yeah, definitely black humour, gallow’s humour is well said. As I’ve written a bit more over the years, I just find that I like to be a bit more playful with it as well, just amusing myself. You’re listening to yourself: you’re half the reader and half the writer. If you’re boring yourself while you’re writing it, you might as well give up. The story’s not going anywhere if you lose interest yourself while you’re writing it. Definitely the playful sense of humour comes into it.

CA: Drew, anything you want to add to that?

DT: Yeah, I would just echo what they’ve both said. I think, not only just taking the piss out of each other, but taking the piss out of ourselves as well is something we seem to be quite good at doing. I’ve got a book of some very old Scottish tales, and just about all of them are really dark. Also very funny as well. “Oh, you know, she just killed him, and she took his place, and then someone else came and killed her, and then this happened, and this family’s feet were buried out in the woods.” It’s all quite dark, but you’re going along – this is just kind of what it was like, and you’ve just got to be able to deal with it. Have a laugh, otherwise, what else?

CA: Any final thoughts you want to give to the readers of this anthology?

JPD: It’s an interesting project, isn’t it? Tales to distract you from all the shite that’s going on now. It’s definitely worth delving into. I think they’re all quite contrasting tales, they’re not just all on the same subject. Looking forward to reading it myself.

DT: I’m also looking forward to seeing what it will all be like, because I think it’s a very interesting concept, and how mine fits in amongst everyone else’s. From what I’ve heard from Will and John, they sound very interesting and I’m very curious to see what theirs are like, and also the other ones as well. It’s been fun and it’s been nice to be involved in it.

CA: And we’ll give the last word to County Galway.

WR: It’s just great to be a part of something in the middle of the pandemic in the lockdown. I can’t wait to see what the other writers have contributed.  


Influenced: Tales from the Lockdown will be available for worldwide distribution on Saturday, November 21.

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