Author Q&A: Evie Wyld

The Bass Rock
(Jonathan Cape, £16.99) 

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In the early 1700s Sarah is accused of witchcraft and forced to flee for her life. In the aftermath of the Second World War Ruth navigates her new life in a strange place. In the modern day Viv visits the house to catalogue Ruth’s life. Throughout the centuries the Bass Rock juts out of the ocean watching over the lives that pass under its shadow on the Scottish mainland. 

Your first two novels, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice and All The Birds, Singing, were heavily influenced by Australia, where you grew up. What inspired you to set The Bass Rock in Scotland, and was it a challenge? 
I’m half Australian, but also half English, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before I wrote something situated entirely in the UK. North Berwick is a place that I visited a lot as a child – I had a very grand great-aunt who lived in a huge house (the house in which the book is set), which had a clear view of the Bass Rock. It was a place also that my British father used to go for holidays when he was a kid. I have photographs of him in a woollen swimming costume, on what is clearly a freezing cold beach, “having a lovely time”. It was a popular holiday destination for British people because of the golf. What I find compelling about that stretch of coastline is how wild it is, despite the golf courses, and the very British insistence that this is a good place for picnics and seaside holidays. The North Berwick I recall from my childhood has knots of tar on the beach, and dead oily gannets, top sand that rips the skin off your shins and biting flies. In my mind, it’s a place of yellow dogs rolling in dead seals, cowrie shells, pikelets eaten hot out of a paper bag and stinking seaweed, and I think because it is sensorially so strong, specific and nostalgic, the landscape was not too hard to get hold of. It’s also got a dark history. In 1590 a number of people were accused of witchcraft, in St Andrews Auld Kirk, the porch of which still stands, next to the seabird centre. It’s a place of interesting contrasts and contradictions.

Is writing remote landscapes a reaction to living in a city like London? 
Perhaps. But actually one of the things I love about London is how you can disappear into it and become invisible. In a remote landscape, if you pass someone on the same footpath you feel duty bound to engage in some way with them. I think London is good for a shy person like me because you don’t have to think too hard about social interaction, which frees up a lot of headspace. Being from two places – Australia and the UK – I’m familiar with always feeling a little homesick for the place I’m not in, so as I live in London, I think often about the woods, but when I’m in the woods I think about the city. The only real problem I find is trying to write about a landscape while I’m in it, which feels impossible – there’s so much to get wrong when reality is right in front of you.

The Bass Rock follows three women across four centuries. What unites their experiences apart from location?  
Each woman is in some way a rebel – all three of them pay attention to their instincts to some degree, which is something women are taught categorically to ignore and suppress from childhood. This “witchiness” is the thing that unites them. In the face of toxic masculinity and societal misogyny, they are still turning things over. The line “An isolated incident with no further threat to the public”, which is used to pacify after a domestic killing, holds the same tone of justification as witch hunting: an acceptable death, nothing to worry about. Women who step outside of the boundaries set by the patriarchy will still be punished. This is how we are linked to all the women that came before us.

Why did you choose to tell Sarah’s story from Joseph’s perspective? 
Because this all affects men too. I wanted to look at the moment a boy becomes a man and what that means – what parts of himself he has to shut away, what damage this does to him, where are the opportunities for him to escape?

What does the rock itself symbolise in this novel? 
I’m not big on imposing symbols on to things. In a way it’s not for me to say – the rock just is. It’s there, dark and broody, throughout all these stories, unchanging. It will be there in the future after us. When I look at it in the background of my grandmother’s photographs, it feels like time travel.

You run an indie bookshop and also lecture in creative writing. Does immersion in all aspects of fiction publishing inform your writing, or is it simply necessary for novelists today to diversify to earn a living?
It’s a wonderful thing to be able to be part of a small bookshop, and it has proved great fun teaching creative writing. For me writing is something else though, and while I try to be as helpful as possible as a lecturer, I often feel disingenuous, as the way that I write has little to do with the way I teach. The way I write doesn’t really translate to 12 two-hour seminars. It’s more like four years of scratching away and failing at something. I think for me there is probably something, besides earning a living that is important about working, and it’s to do with my natural instinct to not talk to people. Both jobs force me to be open, which I’m sure is good for me. You can lose the knack of listening and speaking quite quickly if you don’t practice it.

You recently said #MeToo helped you draw the themes of the book together. How do you feel now Harvey Weinstein has been sentenced to 23 years?
I feel very happy about the 23 years. But I also feel the collective exhaustion that it took dozens of high profile women to put away one rapist.

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