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