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In Conversation: Rowan Hisayo Buchanan and Eley Williams

It felt like everyone had been talking about Eley Williams. Her slim book, Attrib. and other stories, bounced across Twitter and Instagram. I’ve seen it posed artfully on oh-so-many bedsheets. For some reason, when I first heard of Attrib. I thought it was poetry. Later, when I read it, I wasn’t sure I’d been wrong. These are short stories that dabble in line breaks. It is a book that contains the declaration, ‘I am strobe-hearted.’

 

I read Attrib., in bed, on a sick day with the sound of kids going to school blurring past my window. It is a strange collection and deeply intimate. It left me curious about the mind that created it.

 

The author photo is of the top of Eley Williams’s head. On top of that head is an owl. Neither Eley nor the owl look at the camera.

 

So when my editor at The White Review suggested that we have a conversation, I said yes. I was intrigued. This, despite the fact that I wasn’t quite certain of the distinction between an interview and a conversation. A conversation seemed to involve admitting that I too was a writer. A novelist, even. My editor thought we might have interesting things to say to each other about craft. I hoped so. But mostly, I wanted to meet this mind.

 

We agreed to meet in a small London cafe. The year had not yet turned cold and sullen. We sat outside at a small metal table that rocked slightly on the uneven ground. A fig tree spread dark green hands against the sky. What follows is a pruned version of the natter that managed to make it into the recording device left upon that table.

 

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— I thought we’d start by talking a little about craft. Your collection has such a strong voice. Most of your stories are told in the first person present tense, but then you have this story, ‘Spines’ — the one about the hedgehogs — which is in the third person. How do you decide what voice to put a story in?

A

Eley Williams

—  The Hedgehog piece is probably the one out of all of them where I set out to write a short story. I went in knowing that it had to have an arc or have a certain tonal shift at a certain number of words. I find it interesting in retrospect that this story is the one where the ‘I’ voice is absent and characters are given their own isolated psychologies, rather than one which is unspooling and narrated by the person directly experiencing the action.

 

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— In many of your stories, the characters are consumed by inner thoughts. ‘Spines’ feels like the exception. The characters seem to deliberately not think. That felt connected to the third person voice, but I couldn’t put my finger on how.

A

Eley Williams

— I hadn’t thought of that. You are right that the lyric ‘I’ voice is over-think, or narrators get snagged in networks of over-association and disassociation. And often I’m not hot on plot — the characters will be looking at something and overthinking it and then the story ends. I suppose in ‘Spines’, the characters are looking but not crediting any of that with feeling in the same way. So maybe it’s showing the vehicle rather than the wheels turning.

 

I also feel quite dispassionate towards the characters in that story because they feel more arranged than orchestrated. That was wittingly done, I hope. They feel rounded, hopefully, but not complex.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— In a lot of your stories, there is a pervading sense of love; either for an individual or for the world. Compared to your other stories, ‘Spines’ is a cold shower.

A

Eley Williams

— I hadn’t thought of that. I think you are right that in a lot of the stories, if not love, then care is central and difficult and pondered. And in ‘Spines’, characters seem — not frustrated by a lack of care, but it is populated by characters who encounter each other rather than speak, and people trying to work out why a reaction might seem a certain way rather than actually communicate in any sympathetic or empathetic way. I suppose that’s also the only story that has a sort of conventional family unit in it as well which is very damning. My poor parents must be reading this thinking well in reality that summer holiday was lovely, I don’t know what you mean. ‘Spines’ features something horrible happening to small animals, which seems to be a running theme in the stories, which maybe shows some psychopathy on my part. Well, lots of small animals and then one big whale.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— It doesn’t seem like psychopathy. Almost the opposite, as if there is a tenderness for the things that can’t defend themselves in the stories.

A

Eley Williams

— But writing them in there so you can’t defend them seems like an act of cruelty. Again, I didn’t intend that but reading it through, I was like well here we have little ortolan, little hedgehog, a bee caught under a glass — it gets released, though. My sister is a vet and she will occasionally text me horrible pictures of things going wrong with animals, but also she is very interested in how animals communicate pain or are unable to communicate it. I think sometimes this inks in a little. If the human characters are unable to communicate clearly or parse their own thoughts well, how can one intuit pain or suffering or tenderness or emotional resonance in a way that isn’t sprawling, that isn’t reliant on trying to understand what a stolen glance means — that can be misunderstood in thousands of ways. I guess some of the narrators in the stories are always misunderstanding as they’re never confident in their ability to know what’s worth saying or what’s valued. That was a sprawling answer enacting all of that. When you write stream of consciousness pieces, the problem is often in how to end it — how to make the thought complete — without it being a ricochet of constant energies. I think because I am concerned that I don’t plot things well, I am worried about abruptness in short stories. I’m often trying to get the architecture or shape of it to feel satisfying. I am aware this is something I have to concentrate on a lot.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— Do you tackle structure in editing then?

A

Eley Williams

— Yes. I tend to write in some kind of burst, starting from an image or line that feels right, and then go through three nit-combing processes before it is combed into the right state. How do you write?

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— I wish I was one of those people who wrote a beautiful clean draft, but I don’t. I edit.

A

Eley Williams

— I don’t trust those people.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— I edit for so long. And the sad thing is I have no methodology of editing. I have tricks —reading a story aloud, or changing the font, or highlighting in different colours. But they’re more to force my brain to see the story in a new light. But I’d love a method.

A

Eley Williams

— Right, as then there would be something that’s applicable over and over again — this is how I write and this is what I need to do to it — rather than this endless Tetris of reformulating or just picking it up and shaking it to see what comes through and what sticks. Yes, I am very jealous of people who are able to just say this is the story, this is the character, this is the dialogue they have finished.

 

I feel terribly disingenuous saying all of this, and my students also know this, but the way creative writing is marked as a course at university, which is the most bloodless part of the process, requires that in the editing feedback. I might say, there doesnt seem to be a beginning, middle and end here. I don’t demand that for my own work, so why on earth would I say a story is correct and markable and could be worked on, in these terms? And yet, I think it’s because of the idea that there is a formula to writing short fiction, or something that can be cracked in the process and final form that will work with a capital W. But then again, I think if I was 18 and being told you just have to go on instinct, it would be a very frustrating and a horrible process and some confidence would seep away in a not-useful sense.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— A certain bird we both know maybe mentioned to me you were thinking of writing a novel. Is that true?

A

Eley Williams

— Those thoughts are there and they are accompanied with dread and anguish. Those are the overweening emotional states at the moment. For the PhD I did about 60,000 words of something shuffled into a novel state, but because endings have a certain loaded horror for me — and this isn’t too much of a spoiler as things will change — I couldn’t think of a way to end that piece, so the central building in the novel just explodes for very little reason whatsoever, as that seemed final or the beginning of another story.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— When I was a kid, my brother used to demand I tell him stories all the time. He was easily bored and we didn’t have a television and he would also hit me when he was bored. So, I would tell the stories but I was never in them, so everyone would die in either a meteor or a flood, or sometimes a cliff would fall down and they all die. Everyone would die, it was the only way I could figure out to end the story. And every time I’d promise they’d survive and they all always died.

A

Eley Williams

— Did he ever take the reins then and say Ill tell you how the story can end without there being plagues of meteors?

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— No, he would just be like, ‘Why? Why did you do that? You promised.’ I think dinosaurs, the death of the dinosaurs, had a powerful sway over my mental-scape as a child. I’ve been in passionate conversations with adults about what their favourite dinosaur is.

A

Eley Williams

— I feel I should ask.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— My favourite dinosaur was not a dinosaur, which really says everything you need to know about me as a human. It was an ichthyosaur. I loved their eyes, their big, circular, terrifying dolphin eyes.

A

Eley Williams

— That’s one of those details where a book about dinosaurs would use a ‘the size of their eyes was the same as’ simile and there would be some evocative, specific unit like a dinner plate or a trestle table outside in an Islington cafe. I was reading an article recently about octopuses, octopi, octopis, all three of them, and it mentioned that they can squeeze through anything that allows their eye to get through it. So then I was like I need to find an octopus, as that cant be true, and feed it through a keyhole. But it made me think that maybe an octopus sees the world in units of eyes: could I squeeze through that? And what do I use for that — my hands? No, I can’t squeeze through something I can put my hand through. And I wonder what units dinosaurs use?

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— Maybe what they can fit in their mouths.

A

Eley Williams

— You worked it out. Someone was telling me that there is a stereotype that poets can’t drive. And I thought that’s just not true but I asked all my poet friends and none of them can drive.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— I can’t drive either but I’m not a poet so… (A short interlude in which Rowan and Eley discuss whether poets, novelists, or short story writers are better at parties). I feel like sometimes people name a short story collection after the story which is most important to them, or the story whose title is the best, so I was just curious why Attrib.?

A

Eley Williams

—  So, the genesis of the book was that the publishers asked whether I had a collection of short stories. I didn’t want to say NO because I thought then they might take the opportunity of that away, so I said Yes, and they said whats it going to be called? And I said (maintaining eye contact) Attrib. and other stories and they said thats great, and the short story ‘Attrib.’ was the last one I wrote a week before the final deadline in order to justify having that title.

 

When you read short story collections, do you start with the shortest ones? Do you start chronologically first? Or the title story? I guess I go for the title story first as that seems to have been given privilege.

 

And if I read the stories again I think I would probably enjoy reading that one the most purely because it is the freshest one. And also because it talks a lot about being baffled and about something to do with losing faith in abilities but also wanting to make your mark on the world. I think a lot of the characters in my short stories are trying to do that, and I think it is summed up in that story in a useful, brief way.

 

I guess that’s the reason for the title and I get to quote Samuel Johnson in the beginning so that’s … always a thrill. (Eley begins the collection by quoting both Samuel Johnson’s definition of attribute and his definition of Trolydames (n.).) He collected orange peel – Samuel Johnson.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— I guess oranges were rarer then.

A

Eley Williams

— I guess so, and maybe it was for potpourri or – that would be more functionally useful than him just seeing it around and thinking Ill have that. But no, you’re right, it would have been a lot rarer.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— Weren’t they a sign of wealth?

A

Eley Williams

—  Right – and actually probably very few things were bright orange in eighteenth-century London. I don’t know if that’s true. I guess saffron… the sun… candles. We may be here a while.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— Henry VIII.

A

Eley Williams

— Yes. He. A very ginger man. I like the idea of Henry VIII – all these portraits – everyone’s just like: ‘Very orange.’ Favourite colour? That’s a very personal question. You don’t have to answer it.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— Probably indigo. I used to tell people I didn’t have a favourite colour, I had a favourite colour palette.

A

Eley Williams

— Oh, that’s a good answer. Which then frustrated people.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— They just looked at me like no you’re the worst person I have ever met! What’s your favourite colour?

A

Eley Williams

— Well, it changed from yellow to purple which is quite an abrupt change. I don’t know what happened.

 

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— Quite the jump across the colour wheel! I feel like we’re interviewing for, like, a sort of teenage interest magazine. So is purple going to be the colour of your novel?

A

Eley Williams

— I was talking to someone about the cover of the short story collection and I wasn’t given a choice. When I first saw it, I thought, Why? This looks like a Latin textbook, and now I’m quite fond of it, as it gets across some of that sense of being lost and threads being followed but not necessarily making a discrete shape.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— I apologise but my copy is a bit smirched.

A

Eley Williams

—  No. In my head I’m like, Well done: me and smirched; the two go together. I also don’t know what colour it is. I tried to describe it – maybe it’s Cosmic Latte, I don’t know. It’s not peach, it’s not pink, it’s not brown.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— Maybe pale peach?

A

Eley Williams

— Anaemic apricot. Swirly and anaemic apricot.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— I feel like Anaemic Apricot is like an emo band.

A

Eley Williams

— Yeah. They sound great. With their first album Smirchment. Or that would be the name of their lead singer? Apricot: another orange thing that lots of eighteenth-century people wouldn’t see.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— I don’t know. When did apricots come to England?

A

Eley Williams

— I wish I had the answer for that.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— People go on about pineapples and oranges but apricots snuck in.

A

Eley Williams

— Someone once told me that when the first pineapple was brought here, someone gave it a saucer of milk as no one knew what to do with it.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— People kept them on their tables as a sign of hospitality, so they rotted because they were too expensive to eat.

A

Eley Williams

— I feel like the Elizabethans probably had quite a strong mélange of scent around them at all times. Maybe they were like, ‘Oh, this spiny, pulpy thing is adding to the mélange of smells.’ Maybe Henry VIII wasn’t red-haired, he just had lots of red gunk accrued in his hair…I often worry about Tudor people’s teeth. Often.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— My understanding of the past is about 70 per cent The Horrible Histories, which I realise maybe contained historical inaccuracies. They told me that Queen Elizabeth ate an entire marzipan chess set.

A

Eley Williams

— Was it a case of ‘I take your pawn and now I consume it?’ Some royal household – and again I think this is from a Horrible History book – had Oliver Cromwell’s jawbone as a salt cellar. Was it Oliver Cromwell? It may have been Watt Tyler.

 

The writer Nell Stevens mentioned that in research for her next book she was reading some archive material that featured Elizabeth Gaskell and two of her daughters visiting an inn and ordering twenty to thirty jacket potatoes, which I think’s a marvellous fact. Apparently, I’m really into the idea of Victorian women eating in excessive ways, which is something I didn’t know about my character, but now it’s my favourite thing.  I would read a whole book of just peculiar things eaten by Victorian women or just women. Or even some men I suppose.

 

A man called William Buckland made an index of all these things he ate – some of which were dull, some of which were very interesting – and he really wanted to eat a human heart and he somehow contrived to – I think it was a king’s heart – I suspect he got it through nefarious means. And I think he must have a book written about him. The idea of obsessively writing down not only things that you eat but also you would want to consume and to be so specific as a king’s heart.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— Early Instagram. A friend of a friend wanted to be cremated and then have their cremation scattered into a soup and have their most beloved people eat the soup, so they could be part of their most beloveds.

A

Eley Williams

— My main thought was would it taste weird, which I realised was the least important of all of the possible thoughts you could have. I’ve only ever been to one cremation and for some reason, I thought it would be more ceremonial. As if in my head I had this Viking funeral pyre rite that was going to happen. But actually it was just very slow – winching into a machine and the sound of basically the gas turning on, and I was underwhelmed, which is not a good feeling to walk away from the ceremony of a close relative with. So it put me off cremation, kind of. I would probably want someone to intone something like And now we consign them to the fire, rather than just, Now we will play this CD thing. Maybe I just went to a really crap cremation. Maybe I should stop talking about cremation.

 

Would you ever want to be cryogenically frozen?

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— Nope.

A

Eley Williams

— I thought I’d ask just in case it ever comes up.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— Although I do not wish to die by a meteor today, I feel that narratively, my life would make no sense if it just kept going. So I quite like the idea that at some point it’s going to end.

A

Eley Williams

— Yeah. The narrative needs tension. Needs to reach its apogee, then resulting action or falling action can occur.

Q

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

— So, given that we’ve been talking about living forever, I was talking to someone recently who was saying she wants to write seven books, which is a decent number of books, and then she will be finished. In your head is there a precise number of how many books?
A

Eley Williams

— Not at all. It’s not like I have a sense of ‘No. Ill never run out of tales to tell’ but I wouldn’t feel like I’d ever written the last one. I think also that would put incredible pressure on any last one. And if I had come up with a number seven, then that last would be a short chapbook or something where I would say, ‘Oh yes but I said book’ so it would become ‘Oh, this is just a – really this is just a libretto but written down in this kind of form,’ and I would find excuses for that book not being the final one.
 

At this point the conversation swerved into a discussion of fairytales, dinosaurs, Julie Andrews, and other absurdities, until Eley had to hustle to Hammersmith. I was left in the cafe with that wide branching tree, and the sense that I could have asked several more hours of questions. Talking to Eley Williams was rather like reading Eley Williams — an avalanche of facts, of zigzagging observation, and strange unexpected humour.

 

 

 

 


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Eley Williams lives and work in Ealing. She is co-editor of fiction at 3:AM magazine and assists the independent publishers Copy Press. Her prose has appeared in the journals AmbitNight & Day, The Dial and Structo; in 2005, she was awarded the Christopher Tower Poetry Prize and her work has been shortlisted twice in The White Review's Short Story Prize. She teaches both creative writing and children's literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she was recently awarded her doctorate.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is the author of the novel Harmless Like You (Sceptre, 2016), winner of The Authors’ Club First Novel Award and a Betty Trask AwardHer short work has appeared in GrantaGuernica, The Guardian, The Atlanticand NPR's Selected Shorts

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