Interview - Lucy Wood

Landscape and memory are dominant themes running through Lucy Wood’s fiction. The ancient Cornish coastline was the dramatic backdrop to her debut short story collection, Diving Belles, published in 2012 when she was just 26. Her first novel,Weathering, is set in a rural Devon valley beside the River Teign.

We meet in Fingle Woods, a picturesque spot close to the Devonshire village where Wood lives with her partner Ben Smith, a poet and academic at Exeter University. The woods and surrounding area inspired Weathering and, despite the cold and overcast sky, it’s a stunning setting.

Wood, now 29, is slight with a warm smile and dark, soulful eyes. There is a lightness about her that is reflected in her work. Growing up in Cornwall, Wood remembers writing as a child, and illustrating her stories. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Exeter University, where her tutors included Andy Brown, Philip Hensher, and Sam North. Wood is full of praise for them: “I don’t think I would have written Diving Belles without being on the course. I had to do a lot of theoretical writing and research for the modules and that really helped when I came to research the Cornish folklore that I based the short stories on. Writing essays about why I wanted to write about folklore really helped me get my head around it and exactly what I wanted to do with the stories. More than that, it’s having the time and the space and invaluable tutors to guide you through it.”

Favourite authors include Lorrie Moore and Annie Proulx – “every word and every sentence is surprising”. Wood loves work that focuses on a particular landscape or place and also reads a lot of poetry. Alice Oswald’s poem “Dart” (about the course of the Devon river and the community that lives alongside it) was the main inspiration behind Weathering.

Writing the follow up to an acclaimed debut is inevitably a challenge, especially when you have been likened to Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood, and were runner-up in the BBC National Short Story Award. Wood admits that she found writing a novel “daunting”. Weathering took two-and-a-half years to complete. “I didn’t expect it to be such a different process. I’d written 12 short stories and you get a sense of closure with each one. There are 12 different ideas and, with each story, you can hold the whole thing in your mind at once, you can see the shape of it. With my novel I got my ideas through the writing process rather than knowing what they would be before.”

She describes Weathering as “a magic realist ghost story”. It is narrated from the perspective of three generations of one family. Pearl, the grandmother, speaks from beyond the grave. Her daughter Ada has returned to her childhood home with six-year-old Pepper to scatter her mother’s ashes in the river and renovate Pearl’s dilapidated old house in order to sell it. Pearl haunts the house and her beloved river and quickly befriends Pepper, the grandchild she never met. Wood enjoyed using alternate chapters for her three narrators. “I wanted different perspectives on the same place, to give a more textured view.” The multi-layered narrative is one of the novel’s strengths and together with Wood’s imagery and rhythmic repetition, we build up a vivid sense of the rural setting; its sounds and smells.

Ada finds restoring the house an uphill struggle – it has weathered badly and is damp and cold. Paint is peeling off the walls and there are leaks everywhere. Rain lashes the windows in autumn and snow cuts them off in winter. She can’t wait to leave. Pepper however is fascinated by the house, the river, and woods and shares her grandmother’s passion for photography and bird watching. Gradually Pearl’s past is revealed – she had never expected to end up in such a remote place, but forced to make it her home she finally finds a sense of belonging.

“I wanted to write about women in a rural setting,” Wood says, “and it seemed natural for it to be about mothers and daughters.” They all end up living in the same house. “It influences and changes them and they change the house.” Focusing on three generations lends itself to writing about inheritance, Wood explains, “but I wanted to show the small things we hand down.” These are largely to do with the family’s shared characteristics. “I think it’s an interesting relationship to explore because in the novel Ada thinks she knows Pearl very well. Obviously there’s a huge chunk of Pearl’s life that Ada could never know and a chunk of Ada’s life that Pepper doesn’t know.”

It was while she was living by a river that Wood had the idea forWeathering. She had been moving around a lot and wanted to explore notions of belonging and being unsettled, of having to get to know somewhere and deciding at what point it becomes home. The house is a silent presence in the novel; almost a character. At one point the river invades the house which Wood describes as “the coming together of the domestic and the wild.” This is beautifully reflected in Pepper’s transformation. Her wilfulness is tamed by the wild landscape. By the end, Ada and Pearl also find some sort of redemption.

Wood interweaves the ordinary and surreal to terrific effect. But why choose a ghost as one of the three central characters? “A ghost gives an interesting perspective. I wanted to play with voice and language and the idea that Pearl is part-river.” Wood has never had a ghostly experience herself but is fascinated by the psychological aspects of ghosts. “If you see something what does it mean? Ada sees Pearl but she could be part of her psyche. Pearl is haunting the house because Ada is packing up her clothes and her mother is still lingering in the house literally, as well as in a ghostly sense – I like those parallels.”

A rural lifestyle evidently provides Wood with plenty of creative inspiration. She writes in the morning and walks every day. “Walking is a good way to relax and to think up ideas,” she says. “I don’t think I could write as well if I left the country for the city. I feel my imagination is very much tied up with the countryside. It’s where my imagination resides. I see images all the time. I see stories. I’m not sure I would feel the same in the city.” She is already working on another ghostly story collection set in north Cornwall.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday