Tuesday, 27 April 2010


Today I am interviewing Grace Wells whose first poetry collection has just been published by Dedalus. Grace was born in London in 1968. Formerly an independent television producer, she moved to Ireland in 1991. Her first book, Gyrfalcon (2002), a novel for children, won the Eilis Dillon Best Newcomer Bisto Award, and was an International White Ravens' Choice. Other publications for children include Ice-Dreams (2008) and One World, Our World (2009). Her short stories and poetry have been published widely and broadcast. She reviews Irish poetry for Contrary, the University of Chicago's online literary journal, is a freelance arts administrator, and teaches creative writing.

Welcome to my blog, Grace, I'm delighted to have you here to talk about your début poetry collection When God Has Been Called Away To Greater Things which appears from Dedalus on the 1st May. The title is a quote from within one of the poems. Tell us why you chose it as the book's title.

I suppose there's no short answer to that. The phrase says a lot to me. I should start by saying that as a rabid feminist I have trouble with both the word and the notion of "God". But swiftly clambering over that rather massive boulder, and moving on to answer your question, I think the collection is very much about the terrible things that people do to one another when "God" is far off dealing with politics and wars and so forth.

I'm not one of those lucky people who have the sense "God" is right in their pocket. For me there is more of a constant quest to find a spiritual presence in a rather bewildering material world.
And yet, even though "God" is far off, and we're doing terrible things to one another, somewhere right within the worst of it all, is an intricate lattice of spiritual movement. It's often invisible, usually incomprehensible, mostly frightening and yet, in glimpses, utterly beautiful.
I suppose the tension of the whole book is about witnessing that beauty and terror at the same time. For me the title is saying that despite all, the presence of a spiritual order in the midst of human chaos, is perceivable.”

The poetry in this collection is full of secret places, cubby holes, skins that the narrators hide in; the book reads as a personal journey from dark to light and love. When you go to write a poem, do you find you mostly write from a personal place? Do you enjoy trying on other voices when you write?

Yes, the book is shockingly autobiographical. It's all me, me, me. Even when I step into another voice, I'm often just articulating another part of myself. Disgraceful behaviour really.
What tempers my own intolerance of such copious self-indulgence, is that I believe the writing has some merit, some craft, that I'm not just whining, or moaning or feeling sorry for myself, but through the words I'm making a genuine effort to transform my own "stuff" whilst also being creative with it.
I admire writers who get into voices that represent the marginalised or the unvoiced, and I'd like to do that too, but really for the most part I've found myself and my life enough of a challenge. At least up to now. I do feel that "When God Has Been Called Away To Greater Things" puts a lot to rest, and frees me up for a new phase. I see a delicious, blank, white sheet ahead, and I feel future work may be quite different.

Some of the poems are very tense and raw, dealing as they do with violence against women. Are these poems difficult to write and to put out there?

Mostly they've been utterly necessary to write, and again transformative. But putting them out there, yes, there's huge doubt as to the wisdom or folly of that. I'm writing about sexually abusive behaviour, and that's one of the last taboos. The abusive relationship I'm dealing with is the one my children were born into, so it's all very close, very central. I won't know for some time if this is the right thing to do.

Basically, the story is one of suffering and emergence from that. People suffer for many different reasons and I think my poems can resonate with anyone in pain. One of Buddhism's five noble truths is that, 'Life is Suffering'. I rebel against that, I'd like to retranslate it as 'Life is Challenging'. I think that's also somewhere in my title: how are we going to rise to the challenges we've been given, 'When God Has Been Called Away to Greater Things'?
Even though I flounder around in my own doubt about exposing my story, I believe in the power of poetry to change lives, and my strength in that belief outweighs any insecurity. I feel a great responsibility for women who are still stuck in abusive relationships. I think my book is like a blueprint, a map for a way out. It shows it's possible to move on and make the kind of life you had once intended to live.

Flowers and trees are like safety nets throughout these poems. Are nature and gardening hugely important to you, as a woman and as a writer?
Please share a quote from a favourite poem featuring plant life, by another poet.

One quote? That's not fair. Instantly I think of Paula Meehan's wonderful line, "Not alone the rue in my herb garden". She follows with a gorgeous description of the garden (of the life) she is abandoning, "The weeds grow lush and lovely/at midsummer, honeysuckle roving/through the hawthorn: my garden/at Eslin ferociously passing judgement". I also love her poem 'Laburnum', where heartache and rejection are earthed and made entirely memorable by the plant's blossom, "say/mid May, say the time of laburnum." I can't see laburnum without seeing Meehan's words. She has wonderful plant references in her latest collection, Painting Rain, especially in the poem 'Death of a field', ”with its bewitching, "I'll walk out once/Barefoot under the moon to know the field/Through the soles of my feet to hear/The myriad leaf lives green and singing".

Kerry Hardie's work is also very important to me. She writes of walls that "would be whitethorn, porous and birded" and I envy her those lines. I love her casual communication between the human and plant realms, "We came round the bent road in the drowned light/of a Spring evening/and I saw you, in your dark coat,/your hair dark, your face white, your hands full of lilac.”//You might have been a bride".

Hardie is firmly rooted in a landscape similar to the one I live in, small fields, hedgerows and Irish mountains. Because I am so familiar with the plants here, they are not just names on a page. I'm immersed in their behaviour and culture, yet I am no scientist - photosynthesis, what's that?

I'm not sure that it's because I'm a woman that nature is so important to me. It seems fairly fundamental that it should be important to everyone: the natural world is all we've got. The human/nature balance is out of sync. With world population due to rise from 6 billion to 9 billion in the next forty years, there's a good chance we're going to eat ourselves out of house and home.
My worst nightmare is the Star Wars city planet, Coruscant, which is entirely covered by urban sprawl. Right now in England, the Labour Party is selling off the Green Belts. It's not so difficult to predict where all this is going. As a political statement I've grown my own food for the last two decades. Even if I'm wrong about Climate Change, Peak Oil, water shortage, our famine landscape, and all the other things we're facing into, living close to nature is an endlessly fulfilling way to live.

You have lived in Ireland for nearly 20 years. Do you consider yourself an Irish writer? Or does that kind of labelling matter to you at all?

Oh Nuala! What a provocative thing to be asked! The roots of that question go right down deep into ancient Irish/English dynamics! I would love to consider myself an Irish writer, but the truth is I don't suppose I will ever be allowed to be one. If you're from outside the parish here, you're from outside the parish forever. While that's hard, it also allows for levels of freedom that indigenous writers may not have, both internally and externally. The trouble is, I may not ever be considered an English writer either. I'm something of a Hiberno-English hybrid, but that mix has been producing wonderful literature for hundreds of years, so I'm in good company.
Wounds from labeling only ever scratch the skin—after all they have no impact on the main thing, which is me and a pen in a room, working. I would say however that my writing is enmeshed in Ireland. My writing voice, just like my speaking voice have been moulded by my years here, by Irish forces which have rounded off a few sharp London edges, given me a softer burr, and allowed for all sorts of images and resonances to spring up—€”qualities I'd never have developed had I stayed in England.

You are a published children's fiction author. Do you write adult fiction? Any plans to publish a short fiction collection or novel?

There are always big plans. I long to write adult fiction in a serious way. I forever feel there are unwritten novels writhing in my entrails, sulkily banging doors to rooms deep in my subconscious, causing me endless discomfort because they can't get out. My life doesn't presently allow for the kind of internal silence a novel requires. I write short stories which go out in magazines from time to time, but I'm a very slow writer. A collection will come, but it's far off somewhere in the unreadable future.

Who are your favourite female writers? And why?

C.S.Lewis said we read to know we are not alone; I'm definitely of that school. For me reading and writing are really about sharing an understanding of human experience. That requires immense honesty, no tricks. I've already mentioned Paula Meehan. Her poetry has been essential to my life and my work. The Canadian poet Annie Cameron was very important early on, she's very frank about being a woman in patriarchal world. And I really like Anne Michaels, who is more lyrical and romantic.
I've always read a lot, but haven't necessarily had the money to read what's hot now, so I often fall back on women of the last century, who are often in libraries and second hand shops and were in the house where I grew up. As a teenager I loved Agatha Christie, I still think she's great, she can really tell stories. And Nancy Mitford is a favourite, she's so sharp and funny, and knows the British upper class so well. Daphne du Maurier is wonderful. Rumer Godden, Mary Renault, Vita Sackville West, Mary Lavin, Jennifer Johnson and Elizabeth Bowen are all on my bookshelves and won't be parted with. I'm a very 20th century person in a lot of ways.
These days I tend to get my hands on new writers about five years after all the fuss has been made. I've huge respect for Sarah Waters and Annie Proulx. It seems I love poetry that's honest and a little raw, and prose that's quite wordy, lyrical and deeply enmeshed in traditional story-telling values, so there's tension, drama, and that great gift of escape, of entering entirely into another world.

And, finally, what is your great, big ambition as a writer?

I'd really like to feel I'd written what I meant to write. That I'd honoured all the writerly forces that slosh around in me, and had succeeded in channelling them into something worthwhile. To an extent I feel that I have done that with this book, but there's so much more to be said about other things besides myself.
As a writer you can get fixed on publishing and awards and reviews and all that, but that's just surface stuff, the sense of deeper creative fulfillment is really the most important aspect of it all at the end of the day. I'm told that when you get to the pearly gates they ask, "well, did you make the most of the gifts we gave you?" I don't want to hesitate in that moment. I want to say yes.

Thanks, Grace, for being my guest here at Women Rule Writer - it's been a pleasure! You can all buy the book here.


Anonymous said...

This a really terrific interview. While not familiar with Grace's work, I found her answers fascinating and touching and will seek out her poetry.

Group 8 said...

Great Alison - and she is your namesake too! Her poetry is wonderful and I loved hearing all her thoughts about writing etc. too.

Unknown said...

Very frank and refreshing for that; thanks to both of you for the interview - I'll be buying too!

Afric McGlinchey said...

Loved this interview - really insightful questions and thoughtful answers. Will definitely look out for Grace's collection.

Anna May said...

I'm a Grace convert! What a thoughtful Q&A. I loved the C S Lewis comment. Thanks to you both.
Anna May X

Group 8 said...

Thanks Anna May - she's a real writer and a real woman.

Rachel Fenton said...

Love the boulder analogy. Must hand out crampons when I discuss "Him".

Really thoughtful and very absorbing and intriguing Qs and As.
Thanks to both of you for this and I'll look forward to reading Grace's work.

Group 8 said...

Thanks everyone.

A.S. King said...

I loved this interview. I've had the pleasure of reading Grace's books and am a huge fan.

Thanks for such a great interview!

Anonymous said...

Grace traces nature onto a page, utilising the healing of Mother Nature. I stand in awe of her splendour and wish her well with this collection.

Maura Barrett