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Interview with Gee Williams 2007

Image: Gee WilliamsBy Chris High

The old adage is “write what you know”. However, this begs the question: “in what form should I write?” Well, for the most talented there are few restrictions and Wirral based poet, play-write and, now, novelist, Gee Williams, certainly proves the point.

Gee has recently released her debut novel, Salvage (Alcemi), following on from her previous successes with two prize-winning short story collections, acclaimed poetry and plays broadcast by BBC Radio. ‘Poetry, short stories and plays were and are all satisfying in their own way, but they were also what I did when I worked as a lecturer,’ Gee explained. ‘The difference in writing a novel lies in the degree of concentration and focus especially when that novel is structurally complex. Salvage took nearly three years to write and that meant doing nothing else – in fact there were times when I couldn’t think of anything else.’

In Salvage, a short break in a shoreline cottage is an ideal place to struggle with your demons. For Elly and Martin it is the chance to forget their hasty exit from Paradise following a classroom scandal. But Elly makes a life-changing find on the tide-line; a huge pink diamond ring, finger bones still attached. Scroll back a few months and at Martin’s new place of work - a Chester hospital - we meet new nurse Hayley. Twenty-five; gorgeous, even by her own admission; she is, after all, a player, and totally turned off by the ward surgeon Richard Congreve. Until, that is, she catches a whiff of something expensive in his Jag and is ensnared by a gift so desirable it may prove fatal.

Salvage is told from the points of view of five individuals all with their own story – a skill that might prove difficult for some writers, but not Gee. ‘I didn’t find it difficult getting into the character’s heads … at least not for the major traits. It’s the small things you worry about. You ask yourself so what would this sort of person do when they were bored or tired? What would they want on a sandwich?’

Set in Wales, The Wirral and Chester, Salvage is a tale of lust, self-discovery and – to an extent – greed, with an unusual take on each element. ‘In one sense I had the image at the heart of the book – the woman’s ring lying at the water’s edge – for thirty years plus; I got engaged when I was seventeen and promptly lost the ring. I began to see the strange possibilities for the story very quickly once I sat down to write the opening scenes with Elly and Martin on the beach and realised that if you’re writing about betrayal – a destructive act – the prize for it has got to be worth having. If Hayley was going to cause havoc in several lives then both male and female readers have got to believe that she could. She grew in the process because, I hope, I’d explored the gaps in Richard’s life before she came along to fill them.’

And the setting? ‘I’ve lived in a few places so there were several I could have described with the same sort of confidence. Each location has to be right for a piece of drama, with the Welsh scenes needing a very specific geography for them to work at all. In the case of Richard, say, I found I couldn’t think of him in anything but a Chester setting – there’s something so tight and formal about this small city yet, at night, it has a dangerous seething heart. As for the Wirral, well the characters visit Wales and believe they’ll get home unscathed. The Wirral’s a return to safety – they think.’
Blood etc. comes out as a collection of short stories in September. Does Gee think there are different skills required to write shorts to full-length novels? ‘I do. I find short stories so much closer to writing poetry. For both I have a pattern in my head to refer to. Even when it’s not working there’s at least that: a point I’m making for. I don’t always get there, can abandon them and still do, but a novel is more frightening in that you can find yourself stranded without a map.’

An accomplished poet, it comes as a surprise to find that she is somewhat reluctant to pursue her craft in this way. ‘I’m not sure I enjoy it. Most poems I remember coming along like something in the eye. In the end whatever you’re doing you have to stop and attend to it. As to inspiration, all the usual suspects apply; love, loss, rage. Quite a lot of rage. I stopped publishing poetry about five years ago just as I was getting my first serious collection together – and so I didn’t. I have started to write again but – I just don’t know. A particular grief drove it out for a while. Now it looks as though novel writing might be going to keep it at bay and I don’t know what to wish for. If I was to give advice to aspiring poets, I would say read everybody new, whether you enjoy them or not, because they’re doing the spadework for you so take advantage of it. Give time a say in the process since it takes six months to a year for what you thought was a universal truth to reveal itself as cheesy acquiescence. Also, be aware that there’s a market and that means you can write the finest elegy ever to a beloved cat and The Guardian still won’t want it.’

Alcemi is a new imprint and Gee was introduced to them almost by accident. However, her publishers are not the only ones to offer advice or give input into her work. ‘I met a very good fiction editor, Gwen Davies, and when she moved to take up the job of launching a new imprint she asked to see the first draft of something I’d only mentioned to her. She liked it and it became one of the first two books they decided to go with. My husband sees everything first. He’s a scientist and won’t stand for any artiness for its own sake. Then I’m lucky enough to have two female friends who are also successful writers. They will look at things if I need it and tell me the truth. Then of course there’s the editor … the meaner the better although it can hurt. I have writing days – two or three a week – and that means I’ll try to do as many hours at the PC as my spine will allow. On other days I’ll still maybe sit down just to revise something and get up half an hour or half a day later. Industry and the ability to endure your own company are the keys. I’m getting better, but laziness is still a huge problem and I’ve just started a blog on this second problem – anything to get out of writing,’ Gee laughed.

So, what’s next? ‘There’s another novel just getting going and, of course, the new collection of short stories out in September. I’ve also noticed half a dozen short stories standing in line, waiting to be written which I’m sure will keep me busy for a while to come.’

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Parts of this interview have, or will, appear in other publications and in other formats.

If you would like to comment on this interview with Gee Williams, please feel free to contact me - GUESTBOOK

“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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