The Contemporary Small Press speaks to Avril Joy about her novel, Sometimes a River Song released today, as well as her influences and experiences of working with small presses.
Tell us about your upcoming novel, Sometimes a River Song, what inspired these characters and plots in such a vivid landscape so far from your home?
I think it goes back a few years ago when I watched a fascinating documentary by chance about a river community like this one – a fast vanishing river community. I was taken with it and I don’t quite know why, but I think somewhere in the back of my head I parked the idea of writing about such a place. I’ve been asking myself why it’s so resonant for me. I’ve always been attracted to water, nearly all my books have some kind of watery element. I actually grew up on a tidal creek. It’s quite different from Arkansas as this was in Somerset on the levels, but water would appear and disappear as if by magic, so I was always fascinated by getting over onto the riverbank and seeing what it would be like. I think that’s probably why it appealed to me so much.
What made you decide to turn this story into a novel?
I wrote two short stories and this helped me to get into the mindset of this community and the way they lived. Then one day I woke up and had this crazy voice in your head thing, which said “Silas keeps the book.” And that must’ve been the first time I heard her (Aiyana’s) voice and I remember thinking I don’t know what this is but there’s something here.
As you know the language is quite strange and I thought ‘this is so different from anything I’ve ever done before, am I going a bit mad?’ but I entered that (short) story for the Manchester Prize for Fiction and I was the only woman short listed, I didn’t win but I met the judges and they were very complimentary. One judge who had championed the story, Claire Dean, said that the voice had really leapt off the page for her late one night when she was reading her way through the entries. That gave me the confidence and I knew I wasn’t really done with it.
You mention on your website how the ‘floating photographers’ inspired your upcoming novel, what was it that inspired you most about these photographs?
They came in a bit later, I was already writing the story. There’s a journalist, blogger and author called Chris Engholm who I mention in the acknowledgements, I used to look at his sites a lot because of his photographs of the White River. There’s also a great book called The Last River by Turner Browne who took black and white photographs of the White River and that was fabulous – in fact grandmas boat is definitely in there – and that’s where I came across the floating photographic studio.
In my mind I was thinking (like any reader will) how is Aiyana really going to escape, and then when I saw the picture of the floating photographic studio I just thought that’s how. Suddenly it wove itself into the story and I knew it would be the end of the novel.
How did it feel to take Aiyana through that journey of trying to escape such a closed community?
I can’t read the ending without crying, I don’t know if it was just the sheer effort of getting her there because there were so many obstacles on the way or whether it has a deeper resonance for me. On a personal level, leaving the place where I grew up and loved was in many ways my salvation. I was one of those grammar school girls of the ’60s who got to go to University, but wouldn’t have been able to if there hadn’t been free education. We were the first real generation of any size of women going onto further education and it changed my life so enormously, so I guess deep down there’s some kind of internal resonance for me. Anyway I’m just glad she’s out of it!
How do you decide which characters are the crucial ones?
Often the name will tell me, if the name really rings for me I know they’re going to be something of importance. I’m not the sort of writer who has a plan, I let it grow organically and I honestly think that’s the best way to write. See what the pen says, as it can be very surprising. For example, I had no intention of telling Silas’ story but then you have to somehow for some reason as it makes sense to do that.
At first he was a monster, then I realised we’ve already got Floyd and no-one wants two monsters in a novel. He would’ve been quite stereotypical and I wanted him to be more complex, he couldn’t just ill-treat her. In reality people probably do go from one awful abusive relationship to the next, but that’s not how I wanted it to be. In fact, I found his story when I re-read The Grapes of Wrath. I had to be really careful actually and in the last edits I started looking at some of the names in Silas’ story to check – I haven’t taken those names from The Grapes Of Wrath have I? But really what better thing to read that chronicles the story of that huge migration, so his story just fell onto the page, probably easiest of all.
So how did you change him from being the same monster as Floyd, as in the book, Silas sort of became a silent monster instead?
That was one of the benefits of having an editor, as Lynn [Michell] said to me that she felt there wasn’t that difference between him and Floyd. We decided on silence together, as soon as Lynn said it, I agreed with her. In the first draft he was doing the physical things her father did, so we reshaped him and both thought silence was the thing. I have some experience of that growing up, of that being used as a weapon and it’s not easy to deal with, it gradually eats away at your sense of self and confidence.
And of course that fits with the experiences of the women in prison, who I’ve worked with for so many years. They don’t have a voice often, certainly not in the community and often not in prison either.
Your work is so viscerally raw and seems to evoke a landscape of women, women’s connections and community, even when it’s a community stitched together with pain. How has working in a women’s prison affected your approach to this?
When I first went there, there was this tiny unit for women because in those days, before heroine and crack, there were very few women in prison, who were mainly prostitutes, shoplifters and the occasional domestic violence murder. Nobody wanted to work with them, the other teachers disapproved of them so strongly and so did the world. There was this kind of almost fear of them. I moved up north from London, so I had slightly different views with the right to choose marches we went on and the growth of feminism. I came up here and found County Durham was about a decade or two behind in all of that! I remember my boss saying could you go over to the female wing and I said “yeah, great!” And it was an extraordinary place to be, eventually it became rerolled as a women’s prison entirely as the prison population exploded, so I became the education manager and a sort of governor.
Everyone used to come to my door whether they were in my class or not, saying “hi miss, you got any paper?” I used to give out paper and pens freely, a bit like contraband. Later, they’d come back saying “this is my story miss would you like to read it?” For them, this was a huge time of crisis and difficulty, but for the first time in ages they had time to think, and a lot of what they’d think about is ‘how has this happened? Where has my life gone so wrong?’ They’d want to write their life stories down and I saw what writing meant to them. They loved education, the women loved getting English qualifications because a lot of them had missed out on school. I’ve met lots of women who couldn’t read and like Aiyana, they’ve learnt to read really quickly. That’s such a fantastic thing! I’ve had the experience of teaching people to read and there’s not much better thing you can do.
How did you come to be published by Linen Press, and what has your experience of Small Press Publishing been like over the years?
In my years of writing I’ve had two agents and two close calls with big publishers and it brought me to my knees. It was not a happy experience, so I nearly stopped writing. Then I just decided to go indie and go do whatever I wanted to do. I had a good experience with Iron Press, so I’d already made up my mind to try and find a small press for this book and Linen Press was on my list. I sent the submission and a few days later I got a fantastic email from Lynn saying just how much she liked it. It’s been wonderful because they really do like what’s arising and I’ve never really had that before, that enthusiasm, help and support. Small presses are really good with helping you. I think it’s a great connection for me as they’re interested in women’s writing as well and so I’d like to think we’re a perfect match, I love them and they’ve been great and really supportive!
Many thanks to Avril for giving us such a wonderful insight into her work.
Interview by Isabelle Coy-Dibley
Isabelle Coy-Dibley is a PhD student at the University of Westminster, where her research predominantly considers inscriptions of the female body within women’s experimental writing.