Something nasty under the counter: All The Birds, Singing, By Evie Wyld

The award-winning novelist Evie Wyld talks to Max Liu about the ugly side of boredom and the inner lives of sheep

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The Independent Culture

On a hot June evening, the smell of fish, vegetables, and fried meat hangs in the air outside Peckham Rye station. Around the corner, chatter spills from trendy bars, hairdressers cool off under fans, and commuters head home. Evie Wyld is yet to knock off but she doesn’t mind: “I love working here,” she says, across the counter at Review Bookshop, when I ask how she balances writing with her day job. “When my first novel was published, people said: ‘Why are you still here?’ How much money do they think authors earn? If you’re lucky, you get enough to help you survive while you write your next book.”

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This has already been a big year for Wyld, who was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in April, but she isn’t getting carried away. “I sometimes feel arrogant for thinking: ‘I shall write and people shall read it’,” she says. Readers of her 2009 debut, After The Fire, A Still Small Voice, which won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, know that her modesty belies her ambition. Her second novel, All The Birds, Singing, keeps the reader hanging on for revelation and redemption, all the way to the final full stop. What was it like, following a celebrated debut? “Terrifying. The title of this novel was carried over from my first book but I wanted to write something different. Even after I found the narrator’s voice it was complicated.”

Estranged from her Australian family, and wary of the English island community around her, Jake Whyte speaks in a strange, guarded voice. She spends her days rearing and shearing sheep, an occupation which Wyld researched in Herefordshire. “The farmers I stayed with loved their work but it’s lonely,” she says. Her first novel was also populated by isolated figures, so what draws her to describing solitude? “It’s partly because I’m not brave enough to pursue it in my own life. When I’m alone in remote places, I can’t shed my fear of the things my imagination conjures from the shadows.”

Something is killing Jake’s sheep but she’s stalked by psychological beasts too. “The fears we can’t express become manifested in the paranormal. I like examining what monsters represent,” says Wyld. Jake’s story, which involves violence and prostitution, is told backwards and this is a compelling way to read about a protagonist who wants to escape her past. For the writer, however, it posed tricky problems: “I tried to control my characters but they insisted on doing their own things. In both my books, I’ve used dual narratives because I enjoy the curious effect that’s created when I put stories next to each other.”

Wyld grew up in south London – “On that road,” she says, pointing out of the window – but holidays on her grandparents’ New South Wales sugar cane farm proved formative. “The imaginative part of my childhood happened in Australia,” she says. “A sense of homesickness can spur writing and I’m interested in the danger that people encounter in sparsely-populated places.” Jake meets frightening men in a small mining town, so what’s the source of their depravity? “It’s boredom, the frustration that comes when there’s nothing to do and thoughts turn to sex. I’ve witnessed disregard for women and my anger about that comes out in the writing.” Was it disturbing to imagine such grim scenarios? “They’re sometimes the most enjoyable to write,” she says, grinning. “Something occurs to me and I think: ‘That’s awful, let’s write it down.’”

At seven o’clock, the shop shutters descend and we cross the road to the pub. Would Wyld usually go home to write now? “How romantic,” she says, so I ask if she’d also like to demystify the landscape of Jake’s youth. She thinks carefully before saying: “For many white Australians, what I’ve heard referred to as ‘the aboriginal problem’ is ancient history. But my family’s farm is built on sacred land and trauma is there. In the local town, aboriginals live in shanties.”

Her uncle shared his experiences of fighting in Vietnam while she was writing her first novel’s indelible war scenes but several visceral moments in All The Birds, Singing concern the difficulties of communication. Wyld, who admits that she’s prone to one way conversations with her dogs, says: “The farmers I met believed sheep have inner lives and they knew the horrible feeling of not being able to explain to an animal why you’re hurting it.”

Wyld identifies “something of the saucy aunty” in her author photo but, at 33, she has both the memory and the detachment to write vividly of youth. The combination of boy’s name and big build makes Jake an awkward adolescent which has lasting consequences. “I enjoyed my teens,” says Wyld, “but I remember looking forward to a time when I’d feel like a valid human being.” Did inclusion on the Granta list feel like literary validation? “It felt strange. There are writers on it, such as Adam Foulds and Sarah Hall, whose work I love but, when I saw that Jon McGregor was missing, I felt a bit of a prat for being there. I read him when I was a creative writing student and thought: ‘Wow, quietness and darkness in so few words.’”

The sun has set when we leave the pub and the islands, jungles and deserts of Wyld’s fiction are far away. She’s getting married next month and, as well as collaborating with a friend on a graphic novel, she’s considering writing about her English grandparents’ mysterious lives. Will she tackle contemporary London one day? “I’d love to, I’m invested in this area but I can’t get my imagination working here yet.”

Eventually, she intends to write fiction full-time but, for now, she edits her manuscripts under the shop counter and she’s putting half her first novel’s earnings towards promoting the new one. Are patience and sacrifice essential in a young British novelist in 2013? “Yes and, for me, there’s no Plan B.”

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“Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of  her away with him as a souvenir …”