Feature Author Interview | Lydia Trethewey

2015 was a big year for NiTH, we moved from monthly to weekly competitions and even experimented with weekend contests. All these extra competitions meant that there was a lot more opportunity for new authors to make a splash. And that’s pretty much what happened.

Hailing from Western Australia, Lydia Trethewey combines literary panache with forward moving narratives and a seemingly unlimited creativity and experimentation. Humour, lyricism and metaphor are all there, underpinned by an almost preternatural understanding of the form and an artistic flourish that as seen her rise to the to of NiTH’s esteemed leaderboard.

This month, we celebrate NiTH’s current reigning champ as our featured author. We sat down with Lydia to talk about what makes a writer tick, as well as what it’s like to be a multi skilled artist. We’re also lucky enough to feature some of Lydia’s beautiful artwork throughout the interview, so let’s get started.

Lydia Trethewey, thanks for joining us! My first question is something that has been on my mind for a while now. How do you do it, what is your writing process?

In my research I’ve recently formulated a concept called ‘imago.’ Imago is the Latin root of the word image, and it has a plethora of meanings: idea, image, ghost, echo, shadow, imitation. I use the concept of imago to foreground the things that occur in creative process before any physical or material engagements, and to emphasise the plurality of impulses in creative practice. This rather tangential concept hopefully sheds some light on the vague and often intuitive beginnings for my stories: sometimes it’s a string of words that seems promising and a story grows around them, sometimes I see or experience something, or hear of other people’s experiences. In any case I’ve taken to carrying a notebook around with me to record things as they come. Daydreaming can be a method for letting ideas evolve seemingly beyond my control.

Title: Passing the Invisible l Source: Lydia Tethewey Website
Title: Passing the invisible l Source: Lydia Tethewey Website

When it comes to actually writing, my process has changed drastically since beginning to write for NiTH. Previously, I’d write for the sake of writing, because I liked to form images through words. I think of words as conjurers rather than signifiers. Now I’ve added a new step to my writing process, which is to draft out a plan of the story rather than charge in pens blazing. I sit with the story and let it germinate as long as it needs to, leaving it in the back of my mind. Previously I’ve always struggled with finishing stories. I focused on the textures of words and the flow of sentences, very dense descriptions, forgetting of course that there needed to be a plot in there somewhere. Finding flash fiction and NITH has been abundantly helpful in learning economy of language and having to finish a story in under 1000 words.

Yes, there’s a lot of pressure in flash fiction to get the plot moving, when it comes to writing, What Are Your Favourite Themes or Topics to Write About?

I like to look for consonances in everyday life. Things that tie in, that enfold, something like coincidence only not contrived. Phenomena that are parenthetically related, bracketing off a particular occurrence. In She’s Funny That Way I tried to achieve this through the parallels of 1939 and 2008. In Yuki Iwama’s 2N5E there is a consonance between molten earth and God. In Abi Hynes The Gulls there is a slippage between men and birds. Perhaps I’m interested in the visuality of writing, the way a word conjures multiple images at once.

Title: Sleepwashed | Source: Lydia Trethewey Website
Title: Sleepwashed l Source: Lydia Tethewey Website

More generally, I like to write both speculative fiction and explorations of ordinary life. Writing that speaks to the subtleties and nuances of everyday experience is something I aspire to, though I also enjoy shifting the ordinary into the unusual in magic realism. I like to think that my stories have a point to make, though I’m cautious of losing a story into a message. Currently I’m putting together a few stories in a cyberpunk world, tentatively titled Bones of the Ear and We Substantiate Your Claims. Bones of the Ear follows Yuri, a political prisoner, through a new torture in which the bones of her ear are surgically altered so that she feels constantly unbalanced. In We Substantiate Your Claims graphic designer and addict Jaike navigates the world of advertising. I like to tackle current topics in a near-future setting.

Do you have any specific writerly ambitions?

As someone from a different field who has come to creative writing I find it difficult to pin down clear aims. That’s not to say I don’t take my writing seriously, but that as an artist I recognise how hard it is to be successful in creative practice. To become successful in two different creative fields simultaneously, as a visual artist and writer, seems beyond the realm of the possible (or, more optimistically, the probable). Perhaps I also have uncertainties because it irks me greatly when people look at art and say ‘I could do that!’ as if it’s the easiest thing in the world. So the thought ‘I could be a writer!’ sits uncomfortably in my head; I don’t want to be that person who doesn’t understand what is involved in making it.

Title: Bridge l Source: Lydia Tethewey Website
Title: Bridge l Source: Lydia Tethewey Website

All of which sounds like a massive downer. So to actually answer the question, my ambition would be to publish something (fiction) in print (specific right?). My debut on NITH marks my graduation from writing stories I will never finished that nobody will ever read to actually having a go and taking the first tentative steps into the writing world (steps which I can report have become emboldened). I have a few short stories and a few ideas of how they might fit together into a book. I have the notion of writing serially, of writing a lot, of chipping away one day at a time until something publishable exists. Really, right now, my goal is just to improve my writing.

I have my own take, that many artists who explore diverse creative fields tend to be known for a particular field regardless. David Lynch is widely known as a director of surrealist film and television, but he is also an established visual artist and musician. What’s my question here? Do you think of yourself as ‘primarily a visual artist’ should artists consider themselves in that way, or is ‘artist’ enough.

I find that the word ‘artist’ itself can be a contentious one, a tricky thing to navigate. You get a broad spectrum of hobbyists and professionals using the term, and in some cases it refers to a particular career (‘artist is what I put on my tax return’) and in some cases it’s used as a descriptor of identity or personality. I think mostly the two bleed together. I guess when I describe myself as a primarily visual artist, it’s in the sense that at the moment the majority of my time is spent making visual art, writing about visual art, it’s my primary source of income, and I’m much more established in that field. Perhaps ‘established’ is the key word; my visual art CV is much longer than my writing one. Personally, I value my writing as much as my visual work. I just feel like much more of a beginner in writing, that there’s an unevenness between my two creative outputs. Maybe in the future I’ll grow more comfortable with thinking of myself as a writer, and the word ‘artist’ will be enough.

Untitled | l Source: Lydia Tethewey Website
Untitled | l Source: Lydia Tethewey Website

Whether or not people should think of themselves as ‘artists’ or as musicians, actors, writers, I think is up to the individual, to decide what is right for them, what best suits their practice, and what is practical in navigating each field or breaking down the boundaries between them.

What about reading habits. Favourite authors, genres?

I read widely, perhaps erratically. No specific genre, but there’s a particular texture of writing that I always come back to and wouldn’t know how to describe. It’s a sort of peripheral quality that appears in authors as diverse as Orhan Pamuk, Murakami Haruki and William Gibson. I find that the stories cease to make sense when I look at them directly, but seep into my brain when I’m not trying to understand them. Years ago I considered the marker of a good book to be that it made me want to keep reading. Now I think that I good book makes me stop, unable to continue. I read My Name is Red by Pamuk and it’s impossible to untangle, it pierces me so that when I finish I just have to sit and wait for the feeling to ebb away before I can pick up another book.

Untitled l Source: Lydia Tethewey Website
Untitled l Source: Lydia Tethewey Website

Recently I read Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd and Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians, which had similar effects. So sparse, alive, raw, quiet, balanced precariously between something intense and something unshakably empty. It’s almost unnerving. These books force me to stillness. In another way Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World made me stop, so beautifully written, so disturbingly macabre, all without explanation. Perhaps what I seek the most from books is something unexpected.

Have you read The Peripheral by William Gibson? What did you think of it?

I’ve not yet! It’s on my Christmas list…Currently I’m reading Pattern Recognition. A few years ago I found Spook Country for two pound in second-hand bookshop in London, and I read it without realising that it was the second book in a loosely related trilogy. So now I’m going backwards to book one. A lot of my reading seems to be influenced by happening across books at random, rather than seeking them out.

What did you think of Pattern Recognition? I found it to be quite a departure from the Gibson I Was familiar with.

I loved it…Gibson just has this way of packing every sentence with amazing imagery…like you can get out of breath reading it…
I think it’s interesting that from the 80s Gibson has been imagining futures, and now some of those futures have come to pass, so he’s writing novels set in a Gibson-esque world which is more or less the real one. Themes of branding/advertising saturation and the power of big corporations I think have always been present in his work, and in Pattern Recognition they’re highlighted. I can sort of see how the Bridge trilogy fits in between the Blue Ant books and his early work- it’s a bridge, if you’ll allow me the terrible pun…

Untitled | l Source: Lydia Tethewey Website
Untitled | l Source: Lydia Tethewey Website

Let’s talk about one of your stories, Pterodactyl In My Pocket. It’s a title that doesn’t give too much away, at least not until the very end. Was there any particular inspiration for this story?

I started trying to formulate a character who had trouble connecting with people, who was maybe socially inept or shy. At the time I was planning a trip to Europe, booking flights and such. I had a little stuffed toy on my bed, and I got to thinking, what if I took it with me, and then I ended up thinking about the potential embarrassment being caught out in airport security. I know of people who carry small toys with them as a sort of talisman or some such. I also wanted to write a story in which the main character was sympathetic.

Another Lydia Tretheway special is Slippery Vengeance, essentially a horror short about a violently sentient block of soap. It must have been fun writing this one?

Very much. At the time I didn’t think about it as being horror, because for me it was too absurd to be taken seriously. I started trying to think about how an inanimate object would feel being brought to life, and figured that most objects we use day to day would be pretty unhappy about their mute subservience. When I was pinpointing which object would have the most quarrels with its human oppressors, the image came into my mind of a bar of soap with a single pube stuck in it. Oh the horror! Then I also figured that this soap would be a bit naive and not a little fanatic. Fun times.

Portrait courtesy of Caroline McGrath

 Read all of Lydia’s stories here!