Today, I am delighted to be talking to award-winning novelist and short fiction writer, Rhiannon Lewis. Her new collection, I Am the Mask Maker, comprises eleven of her compelling short stories, and will be published by Victorina Press on 30th October.
A collection of award-winning short stories which transport us from plague-ridden Renaissance Venice to a failing antiquarian bookshop in inner-city London, from a struggling family farm in 1960s West Wales to a soon to be discontinued Heaven where the angels are packing up to leave. Vividly-drawn, with wit and subtlety, Lewis’s characters are determined not to be pawns in worlds where the odds are stacked against them; to survive they often come up with solutions which are unconventional and unexpected. Includes the William Faulkner Literary Contest winner, ‘Piano Solo’.
Congratulations on this brilliant collection. Many of the stories have won awards or been shortlisted for writing competitions. You must have been particularly thrilled to win the William Faulkner contest last year?
Thank you. Yes, I was thrilled, particularly as I was the first UK winner since the competition was established in 1997. I still can’t get over the fact that my story meant something to a judge from as far away as New Albany, Mississippi. The competition is held annually in William Faulkner’s hometown. Under normal circumstances the prize would have been awarded at a dinner for over a hundred guests. Because of Covid-19 I wasn’t able to travel there to accept the prize. One day, when things are safer, I’d love to go there to see William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak, and his hometown of New Albany.
Who are your favourite short story writers and have they had an influence on your writing style?
I don’t have a favourite as such. I think you can learn something from every writer and there are so many good writers to choose from. I would have to mention Raymond Carver. His stories seem so banal on the face of it, but utterly striking – the way they get under your skin. 'The Fox' by D H Lawrence is one of my favourite short stories of all time. I go back to it time and time again. I love the way he creates a feeling of impending disaster right from the start. Lately, I’ve been reading the work of Jean Rhys. She breaks ‘the rules’ all the time, which I love. Though you shouldn’t read Jean Rhys if you’re feeling in the least bit depressed.
Your stories are set in many different countries and locations – how important is a sense of place in your work?
When you write a short story or a novel, it is necessary for you to want to be in that place for a while. I’ve started many stories and then thought, oh, I really don’t want to spend too long in this place – it’s not interesting enough or it’s too close to something I know too well and can’t be objective about. Often, taking a story and transposing it to a different place altogether, perhaps even somewhere you have to make an effort to research, can give a story a new lease of life and a better perspective. A sense of place is very important but so is imagination. Writers are told all the time to write about what you know. But don’t forget your imagination! That’s the most useful thing of all.
Who is your favourite character in your stories and what do you love about him or her?
I love all my characters! Saying that, I would rather be stuck on a desert island with some rather than others. One or two would know exactly how to build a tree house and find something to eat. Others would just curl up under a palm and be of no use whatsoever unless they had a piano with them, which would be unlikely on a desert island. Of all the characters I’ve written about, Aeronwy in 'The Significance of Swans' is the one I admire most. She manages to stay sane in a situation which would defeat most of us, including myself. Davy, the lead character in My Beautiful Imperial is the one I would want to have with me on a desert island, however. He’d know how to build a boat and how get us home in one piece, no matter what the conditions. And he’d probably make me laugh quite a bit on the way.
You write novels as well as short fiction. What are the different challenges you face when crafting these alternative forms?
I think of a short story as a sprint and a novel more like a marathon. Or to use another analogy, when you’re embarking on a novel, it is a bit like boarding a ship that’s bound for another continent. You have to be prepared to be there for a long time. You know there will be hardships and challenges, as well as adventures and excitement. You have to have faith that you’ll get there in the end. Some short stories come to you fully formed. Others start with a single line and you go from there. With a longer work, I don’t like to plan too much. I’m not one of these writers who outlines everything on a pin-board and knows exactly what they’re going to be writing in each single chapter. What would be the fun in that? I will have a vague idea of where the book is going – especially if I’m writing historical fiction and I’m trying to stay faithful to the facts – but on the whole I like to start off not knowing too much about what’s ahead. That way, the story and the characters can grow through the story. Writing a short story or a novel should feel like an adventure not a chore.
Your debut novel, My Beautiful Imperial, was based on the experiences of your great-great uncle who inadvertently became involved in the Chilean civil War of 1891. It must have been fascinating to dig deep into your family history? Was his story something you had been wanting to write about and explore for some time, or did you learn about it more recently?
I spent over twenty years researching the story of the steamship Imperial and my great-great uncle’s involvement in the Chilean civil war. At the time, I was working full-time so there was no possibility of writing a novel. And in any case, the research was something I was doing for my own interest. Gradually, it became clear to me that the whole story would be completely forgotten if no one wrote about it. At around 4am on 11 April 2011 I scribbled the date on the top of a school exercise book and began writing, thinking that I wouldn’t stop until I’d told the whole story. It took me three years of writing in my spare time but now it’s there for everyone to read.
Your publishers, Victorina Press, believe very strongly in the principles of bibliodiversity. What does this mean to you personally and was it a factor in your decision to submit your work to them?
I’d never heard of the principle of bibliodiversity before I met the founder of Victorina Press, Consuelo Rivera-Fuentes, but it means a great deal to me. When you start writing, people are desperate to put you into a particular box or category. I was a woman, writing about a man who had taken part in a civil war on the other side of the world. I was also Welsh, but writing in English. Neither I, nor my work, seemed to fit into any convenient box. Consuelo was prepared to look beyond these things and to read my work on its own merits. I was so pleased that My Beautiful Imperial was recommended by the Walter Scott Prize Academy soon after it was published because it was the best way to repay Consuelo’s faith in my story. I love the fact that Victorina Press is publishing books by such a diverse and ever-expanding group of voices.
What can we hope to see from you next? More short stories, a new novel, or something else?
This autumn, I really want to get my teeth into another longer piece of work. I’m researching a few different ideas at the moment. There’s nothing like the feeling of being immersed to the point where the work and the characters sometimes feel more real than what’s around you, day to day. But we’ll see. The short stories have way of butting in when you least expect them!
Thank you for talking to me today, Rhiannon. Good luck with I Am the Mask Maker – I hope it flies off the shelves!
You can pre-order I Am the Mask Maker here.