Saturday 10 June 2023

Interview with Lisa Blower

Lisa Blower is an award-winning writer, academic and workshop facilitator. Hailed by Kit De Waal as the "natural heir to Arnold Bennett," Lisa is a champion of working-class literature and regional voices, often paying homage to The Potteries where she grew up. She's the author of two novels, Sitting Ducks (Fair Acre Press, 2016) - shortlisted for the Arnold Bennett Prize, the Rubery Award, and longlisted for the Guardian's Not the Booker - and Pondweed (Myriad Editions, 2020). Her critically acclaimed short story collection, It's Gone Dark over Bill's Mother's (Myriad Editions, 2019) won The Arnold Bennett Prize (2020), and was longlisted for The Edge Hill Short Story Prize (2020). 

She is currently working on her third novel, The Mongrels, and a follow-up short story collection, Renovations. Lisa’s academic work is focused upon her interest in working-class fictions, the short form, regional voices and autogeographical selves. 

Interviewed by Kathy Hoyle

KH: Hi Lisa. Your beautiful novel Pondweed charts the journey of two pensioners, Ginny and Selwyn, who tow a "stolen" caravan from the midlands to Wales. On the surface, it’s wonderfully quirky and funny but along the way both characters delve into their past, and come to terms with complex familial relationships, trauma and the importance of their own relationship. Tell us about where this idea came from, and did you feel you were taking a risk having two pensioners as main characters?

LB: So, there’s a story to this: my great granny Gladys was standing at the bus stop in Wem and gets chatting to an elderly gentleman. As they talk, they suddenly realise who the other is. Turns out that they were each other’s childhood sweethearts and she had thought Charlie lost to WW1. Gladys had married. So had he. Both were widowed. She was 84. He was 85. 

Charlie was of ill health and told Gladys that he was looking for some help around the house. She agreed to be his housekeeper having grown up in servitude and had pretty much cleaned ever since. He suggested she move in with him so that it would be more convenient and for companionship, but because they "didn’t want folk talking," they got married.   

I have always loved this story. There’s a sense of fate to it, happenstance, all those things we talk about when we talk about love (to quote Carver) and so I decided to reimagine it. Largely because I think there’s a lack of love stories in later life, but also because I wanted to write a story about "what if things were otherwise?" and that always means revisiting a past to understand a present. 

I was also, at the time of writing, commuting from Shrewsbury to Bangor University where I worked as a Lecturer, so was travelling the A5, A543, A55, and always following caravans. I’d occasionally see an exhibition caravan, all branded up, off to an event, and that got me thinking. What if they stole one and set off on this very journey, a road less travelled, their destination themselves rather than a place? I started thinking about Death of a Salesman and was also teaching The Great Gatsby at the time because it’s a profound study of class all tied up with the American Dream – characters travelling between places but never satisfied within them and always wanting and waiting for something else – and I started to think about Selwyn as a salesman but a salesman of "something" that exists on the margins; that we wouldn’t necessarily think about, but there was a driver behind why he did it. The product was cemented when I was in a garden centre with my daughter – she was only five at the time and she loved going to this one garden centre to look at the fish. That’s where I overheard someone selling a garden pond to a couple and I was fascinated. Pondweed was born.  

KH: Your short story collection It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s is a wonderful homage to working-class life in the Midlands. The stories are eclectic and yet somehow seem linked  simply because of this authentic sense of place and narrative voice. Have you always written in this way, or did it take you a while to feel comfortable and confident about writing with an authentic regional "voice"?

LB: The first thing to say is that I never set out to be a regional or working-class writer. I just wrote the stories I wanted to tell because I felt like I wasn’t reading them, and because I felt that I could give a voice to those stories that wouldn’t otherwise get told. I grew up with what I call a chattering of matriarchs – gossiping on doorsteps, up at Bingo, at the school gates – always telling stories but never about themselves. Alan Bennett says that he wrote Talking Heads to reflect the lives that were generally happening elsewhere, and I suppose that’s what I’ve always been interested in. Mainly because I know them: I heard them, I watched them, I was immersed within them. And for a long time, I heard my stories in a Potteries accent. Those chattering matriarchs and always mid-conversation. What I love about the short form is that you can do that with a story – you can start it mid-way through a conversation – you don’t have to reveal what happened before and you certainly don’t need to give it resolution and because these chattering matriarchs never finished a story, never gave themselves up to matters of self-enquiry, it felt all the more authentic to "walk away" at the end, and leave readers thinking about the story that wasn’t said but was there all the same; like they felt their story wasn’t worth the telling.  

KH: And following on from that, there’s such an authentic and vivid feel to the dialogue in your work. Have publishers always been accepting of the colloquial dialect you use, and is this something you consciously strive to include?

LB: It’s back to the fact that I hear the voices before anything else. It’s not always in regional dialect. Sometimes it absolutely is and is absolutely necessary, but not always. What I didn’t want to do was write every story with that same regional tone because that wouldn’t authentically reflect a place. There are multiple voices to any place because people move in and out and bring their voices with them. As for publishers, some have been exceptionally positive, others less so. Sometimes, the industry strives to seek out more regional voices to represent inclusivity and diversity and marginalisation, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we should be and especially not when it comes to the various English dialects. It’s rather homogenised. Irish and Scottish dialects have always been part of the publishing fabric, but northern accents, in particular, come with a preconceived criteria and that’s what I’m always trying to chip away at: just because there’s an accent does not mean the character must be shameless, a shyster, a sponger off the state, the lowest of the low. Yes, my upbringing was very working-class, and yes I had a Potteries accent that was ridiculed when we relocated to Shropshire, and yes, because I have had the opportunity of education and employment that has made me socially transcend my roots (in a way), I have rather lost my accent – unless drunk or angry or talking with that side of my family and then it’s right there again and I’m awful proud of it. What I try and do when writing dialogue is write a complete scene of it and then I add narrative and then I edit it down to the key exchanges so what is said says more.  

KH: You’re an advocate for working-class writing and a champion of working-class writers. Could you tell us why this is so important to you? Is it more than just a call for a levelling up on the publishing playing field?

LB: Absolutely. As I say, I never consciously set out to be a working-class writing or to write working-class fiction, however you might wish to label it. I just wrote what I wanted to and lots of my stories started semi-autobiographically so I could draw from that sense of authenticity and rawness that exists within an experience. It was only when my stories won national competitions that I started to get asked questions like, "So, you’re a working-class writer then?" and I remember thinking: what does that even mean? I did revisit the canon – mainly because I was interested to know where their voices ended and mine began – and then I did start to wonder where those other voices were in publishing now. I don’t mind admitting that it was a bit of a shock when publishers rejected my work with the words that they did – Sitting Ducks had an arduous journey because of the voice and its class subject and the word "pummelled" was used a lot. Then I met Kit de Waal and Kerry Hudson and we were all trying to do the same thing, were all frustrated with what wasn’t happening, and then Kit put out the call for Common People and all these other writers appeared on my radar. It’s been wonderful. But we need to do more. A lot more. Because what is happening is not enough, just tokens and gestures. 

KH: How would you, personally, define working-class writing? 

LB: I wouldn’t. It’s all writing.

But I do get that some writers are actively trying to reclaim the "label" as some writers will think it does the writing a disservice when it immediately confines the point of view. Granted, Sitting Ducks came from a place of defiance and belligerence because I was slightly fed up in being pigeonholed, so wrote about everything that infuriated me about the deindustrialisation of Stoke-On-Trent whilst watching other cities get rewired with major investment. And granted, academics - like myself - can provide a checklist of what working-class writing features – in terms of narrative characteristics – and talk endlessly about its perspective(s) and vantage point(s) and how this influences voice – as publishers will perhaps offer up a different criteria in order to "sell" books. But what we write about ultimately is people because of place.  

KH: You write both novels and short fiction. Do you work on both simultaneously, and do you have a preference?  What are you working on at the moment?

LB: I have just turned in my third novel The Mongrels which is a bit of a departure from my other works in that I’ve "gone rural." I’m now working on a DYCP-funded project of personal essays entitled Class Half Full, which is me working through some of these very questions(!) – a dialogue with the self maybe - as a way  to understand why my early Potteries childhood has gone onto to inform my writing in the way that it has and whether it is a matter of reclaiming the label (and especially when the UK has undergone such duress and division) or explaining why it should have no label. I’m also keen to reignite the humour and to show that being working-class was not all dank and drab and poverty-stricken. I’ve not really dabbled in non-fiction before, and I’m being mentored through it by Niall Griffiths who has always claimed that he had duty to write in the voice he was born with. If anything, it’s a pause in my writing to reflect upon what I’ve done and why I did it. And obviously, short stories because that’s the beating heart of my writing self. 

KH: What advice would you give to working-class writers who may be reluctant or unsure about writing in their own "authentic" narrative voice? 

LB: Just do it. Join us. The water is tepid, but we need more of us to raise the temperature!

KH: Finally, which other working-class writers do you admire or draw inspiration from?

LB: Alan Sillitoe and Nell Dunn. I adore them both. I based Totty Minton in Sitting Ducks on Arthur Seaton and read Up the Junction every time I need to rethink the cacophony of voice I’m trying to get across. Barry Hines turned my world upside down in secondary school and for all the right reasons. Kit de Waal is a highly competent writer and activist, and her support has meant the world; her flash fiction is dynamite. Kerry Hudson is wonderfully provocative and authentic and masterful with dialogue, and the extremely underrated James Kelman. Why Ken Loach has never adapted his books I will never know! 

About the interviewer
Kathy Hoyle is a working-class writer of short fiction. Her stories have appeared in various literary magazines including Northern Gravy, Lunate, Ellipsiszine, Fictive Dream and The ForgeShe is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. She lives in a sleepy Warwickshire village and when she's not writing, she enjoys singing Dolly Parton songs to her long-suffering labradoodle, Eddie. 

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