A re­lease of ten­sion

Dys­func­tional char­ac­ters fill his fiction, but there’s more to art than just suf­fer­ing, Ger­ard Wood­ward tells Les­ley McDow­ell

The Herald - Arts - - Books -

Ger­ard Wood­ward had been a strug­gling poet for 10 years when his big break came. And what gave him his break­through was a no-holds-barred novel about a dys­func­tional fam­ily – based al­most en­tirely on his own prob­lem­atic, dis­turb­ing, fam­ily up­bring­ing. Au­gust came out in 2001 and was short-listed for a slew of prizes, be­fore win­ning the cov­eted Whit­bread First Novel Award. And it was just the be­gin­ning – of the rev­e­la­tions, and of the prizes.

To­day, seven years and three nov­els later, Wood­ward can re­lax and tell me, in his gen­tle, con­sid­ered tone, that “no­body came out of (the nov­els) look­ing bad.” Most of the main char­ac­ters in the novel tril­ogy – which com­prises Au­gust, I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (short­listed for the 2004 Booker prize) and A Curious Earth – are not alive any more, but he in­sists his brothers and sis­ters are all very good about it and have mostly been pos­i­tive.

Was reve­la­tion a cathar­sis for him? “It was cathar­tic, in a way,” Wood­ward says. “The rea­son I started was re­ally be­cause the mem­o­ries were go­ing around in my mind and get­ting me down – un­til I started writ­ing it all, un­til it had been pro­cessed. Now it’s not ping­ing round my mind any more.”

Were the mem­o­ries dis­turb­ing? “Not dis­turb­ing, ex­actly; they were just there all the time, more as an ob­ject of in­ter­est. They weren’t trau­matic, they were just hard work.”

What would his par­ents, if they were alive now, think of the tril­ogy? “I think they’d have been very proud of its suc­cess. My fa­ther died a week be­fore my first vol­ume of po­ems was pub­lished. He knew they were com­ing out, he just didn’t live to see them, and he was very proud. I think they’d have been amused by the pic­tures of them­selves in my books.” Wood­ward was born in Lon­don in 1961 and stud­ied art and an­thro­pol­ogy at univer­sity (the roots of th­ese sub­jects can be seen in his new col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, Car­a­van Thieves, pub­lished by Chatto and Win­dus this month). His first col­lec­tion of po­etry, House­holder, was pub­lished in 1991 and was fol­lowed by three more col­lec­tions: A fter the Deaf­en­ing in 1994, Is­land to Is­land in 1999 and We were Pedes­tri­ans in 2005. Po­etry gen­er­ally doesn’t pay the bills, though, and Wood­ward eked out a liv­ing partly from a few small prizes and grants, partly from “fairly mun­dane jobs” like work­ing in snack bars, fill­ing vend­ing ma­chines and serv­ing in mo­tor­way petrol sta­tions. “They were jobs you could put be­hind you,” he says. “You could rid your­self of them af­ter­wards, which left me free to write. That wouldn’t have been the case with a men­tally de­mand­ing job.” It all changed though when Au­gust ap­peared. The story of the Jones fam­ily – or­di­nary in many re­spects ex­cept that mother Co­lette has a sol­vent abuse prob­lem and son Janus is a hugely tal­ented pi­anist who can’t han­dle his own abil­ity and suc­cumbs to al­co­holism – made an in­stant im­pact. Wood­ward’s di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence with what he was writ­ing about gave his novel the kind of au­then­tic­ity and author­ity that had crit­ics and prize com­mit­tees swoon­ing.

Was it only pos­si­ble, though, to write about his fam­ily once his par­ents were no longer around? “One of the frus­tra­tions about writ­ing ear­lier in my life was that I couldn’t write about all this while my fa­ther was alive,” he replies, “so I set off in other di­rec­tions. I didn’t want to bring it all out into the open while he was alive. It would have been very hard to show him most of Au­gust. Peo­ple who knew our fam­ily were al­ways say­ing to me that I should write about them, but I couldn’t. I didn’t think I wanted to, I didn’t think I was ca­pa­ble of it. It was such a big sub­ject, there were so many char­ac­ters and dif­fi­cult is­sues. I had to wait till I was a good enough writer.”

What Wood­ward had to wait for was emo­tional dis­tance, as well as hon­ing the craft of nar­ra­tive, some­thing he teaches creative writ­ing stu­dents at Bath Spa Univer­sity. The short sto­ries, he says, were a “great re­lief” to do as he could fi­nally stop writ­ing about the same peo­ple he’d spent that last 10 years craft­ing nar­ra­tives around.

Yet even though the “free­dom to make ev­ery­thing up … was very ex­cit­ing”, there are still au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal hints. One of the sto­ries, Milk, con­cerns a failed artist who de­cides to jack in the art and open up a milk­shake cafe in­stead. I ask if this fail­ure at art has echoes in his rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Al­dous, the fa­ther-fig­ure of the novel tril­ogy, and the char­ac­ter based on his own fa­ther, who was a tal­ented painter­turned-art teacher?

“My fa­ther’s ca­reer as an artist was sac­ri­ficed to a steady job as a teacher,” he says, “and I’ve of­ten thought how eas­ily th­ese things are com­pro­mised for the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple. But my fa­ther man­aged it very well, he never seemed bit­ter about it, even though there must have been dis­ap­point­ment. I’m very much against the idea though that you have to make sac­ri­fices to achieve artis­tic ful­fil­ment. The idea that you have to live on your own, work on your own, you have to forgo re­la­tion­ships, all that kind of thing. There is a bal­ance.” But many of the short sto­ries deal with peo­ple who haven’t achieved that kind of bal­ance. Does he re­ally be­lieve it’s pos­si­ble? “Well, the sto­ries deal with ten­sions be­tween peo­ple and their as­pi­ra­tions. But you can’t re­ally write about con­tent­ment and sat­is­fac­tion. Peo­ple are at their most in­ter­est­ing when they’re strug­gling, when emo­tion is at the sur­face. I usu­ally start with a char­ac­ter then make them do some­thing that in­volves giv­ing them an ob­sta­cle and see what they do with it.”

Now he sound like a creative writ­ing teacher. What does he think of his new pro­fes­sion? “Things have changed such a lot over the last few years,” he says. “If you think back to Ruth Padel’s an­thol­ogy of po­etry which came out about a decade ago and you look at the list of con­trib­u­tors, they all had dif­fer­ent jobs. But look at any re­cent an­thol­ogy and they’ve all got jobs teach­ing.

“I can’t feel that it’s a bad thing, but nat­u­rally there’s an amount of scep­ti­cism about the creative writ­ing in­dus­try. I’m very much in favour of creative writ­ing cour­ses as a way of de­vel­op­ing skills. There’s a great deal that can be taught. You can’t make a bad writer into a great writer, but you can help the good ones get bet­ter.”

It’s trite to as­sume that hav­ing a hard life, or hav­ing suf­fered trauma or loss, should au­to­mat­i­cally give a writer some­thing more im­por­tant to write about and thus make a suc­cess of his or her life. How writ­ers use the per­sonal in their writ­ing is what mat­ters, not what the per­sonal ma­te­rial is, and Wood­ward’s ap­peal is surely that he took a pared-down approach – his writ­ing is free of flam­boy­ant metaphors or post­mod­ern tricksi­ness.

“Peo­ple,” he says of his stu­dents, “have just switched on to the idea that be­ing a writer is a nice life. It’s an ide­alised

Af­ter 10 years as a strug­gling poet, Ger­ard Wood­ward found suc­cess – and re­lease – through his fam­ily’s colour­ful his­tory

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