Carys Bray’s debut collection Sweet Home won the Scott prize and selected stories were broadcast on BBC Radio Four Extra. Her first novel A Song for Issy Bradley was serialised on BBC Radio Four’s Book at Bedtime and was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards, the Association of Mormon Letters Awards, the Waverton Good Read Award, the 15 Bytes Book Awards and the Desmond Elliott Prize. It won the Utah Book Award and the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and was selected for the 2015 Richard and Judy Summer Book Club. Her second novel The Museum of You was published in June 2016.
Carys has a BA in Literature from The Open University and an MA and PhD in Creative Writing from Edge Hill University. She is working on a third novel.
Tell us a little about your background (where you grew up etc.) and your earliest experience/engagement with literature.
I grew up in a very devout Mormon family in Southport, a seaside town in the north of England. I was lucky enough to live in a house that was full of books. Mormons believe that it’s important to keep a journal – my mother has kept a daily journal for more than forty years – so we did a lot of writing. The Mormonism didn’t stick, but the reading and writing did.
When and how did you realise that you wanted to be a writer and which author/s inspired you to pursue a literary career?
Growing up, I loved writing stories – mainly Famous Five fan fiction (it was terrible!). English was always my favourite subject at school, but I didn’t imagine that people like me could actually become writers. I didn’t know any writers in real life and I had this idea that in order to be a writer you had to have a really exciting, cosmopolitan sort of life.
I finally started writing in my thirties. I wrote short stories initially and was inspired by writers like Ali Smith, Helen Simpson, Adam Marek, Robert Shearman and Alice Munro. I loved the elasticity of the form – stories in the same collection might be surprising, contemplative, horrifying, magical, speculative, experimental, and so on. I loved the way short stories could capture a moment or, in Munro’s case particularly, hold the essence of a whole life.
Read our interview with Adam Marek here…
Describe your early writing habits and how you sustained the motivation to write. Have you noticed any differences/changes over the years?
I used to write during the day when my children were at school/nursery. In the evenings I’d keep my laptop open while I cooked or helped with homework and I’d edit things or make notes as I had new ideas. I still do most of my writing during the day when the house is quiet, but I also work at other times too, just as anyone who works from home might. I’m sure I experience the same disruptions/distractions as other home workers: junk phone calls, delivery drivers asking me to look after parcels for neighbours, and so on. I occasionally go away for a few days to do some writing which is helpful.
In your acknowledgments you thank Michael Glenday and Rob Mimpriss for helping you to realise it wasn’t too late? Could you elaborate on your life prior to this point?
In my early thirties I did a BA with the Open University. Mike and Rob were my 3rd year tutors; they taught me a lot and were very encouraging. I half thought that I may have left it too late to return to studying, but it turned out that I hadn’t and after I finished my BA I went on to do an MA and a PhD.
How do you relax? (Do you take long walks, or watch television or read books or enjoy spending with your family) and do these activities help you gather material for your writing? Is it possible for you to switch off from your creative inclinations?
I love reading. I also like to cook. We watch a lot of cookery programs including The Great British Bake Off and Come Dine With Me. Every summer we do a family Come Dine With Me competition. Each member of the family prepares and cooks a three course meal and provides some sort of entertainment. The winner is presented with a £5 note on a silver (foil) tray. This year, for the first time, my husband won (I was robbed!).
I like to occasionally switch off, or to let the writing move to the back of my mind. It can be helpful to let ideas stew for a while, and lived experience is always useful because it informs writing.
Colm Toibin said, “Novelists make things up, but the things, or the feelings surrounding them, come from the world; they have a shape like the world’s shape, or the shape, indeed, of experience, including the writer’s experience or the writer’s pressing concerns.”
Which writers inspired you to pursue a career in writing and who might you indentify as having had an influence/impact on your writing? How did they influence your writing style and what specifically did you learn?
I was hugely inspired by Carol Shields. I discovered her novels and short stories in the final year of my BA. I was heartened to learn that she had five children and her first novel was published in 1976 when she had just turned forty. It was Shields’ writing that made me see that there is beauty and interest in ordinary lives. I read ab
out Shields and was fascinated by what she said about including domestic detail in her writing:
“I had been puzzled by the fact that people in novels rarely sat down to read a book. Or to tell each other stories. Nor did they seem to have friends. Or birthdays. Or any semblance of a domestic life, no beds, brooms, wallpaper, cereal bowls, cousins, buses, local elections, newspapers, head colds, cramps, or moments when their heads were empty, at ease, happy even. Why had domesticity, that shaggy beast that eats up ninety percent of our lives, been shoved aside by fiction writers?”
Aside from literature, are there any other art forms you explore in order to seek inspiration? Do you explore artistic expression in any other form?
I would love to learn to knit or quilt. I’d like one of the characters in my new novel to make quilts so I’m planning to take some classes in order to get a feel for it and to get the terminology right. I play the piano and violin and I do a bit of cake decorating – I did my sister’s wedding cake(s), but I’m self-taught and have serious limitations!
Your debut anthology ‘Sweet Home’is a compelling read and all of us at STORGY firmly believe it is one of the best anthologies by an English writer to have been published in the last few years – where did you draw inspiration for the stories in this collection?
Oh, thank you so much – that’s a lovely thing to say. I wrote the stories while I was doing my MA. I was thinking about parental ambivalence and the way families work (and don’t work!). I was inspired by all sorts of things: snippets of conversation, real life events, one of my favourite poems – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, fairy tales, and even a poster I used to walk past at university which posed the question ‘How High Should Boys Sing?’ – loads of stuff! I was also inspired by some of the strange and magical stories in Adam Marek’s Instruction Manual for Swallowing and Robert Shearman’s Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical.
Is it true that ‘Sweet Home’ has been previously published and released? If so what was the reason to re-release / re-brand and how was the anthology originally received? Are there any differences between these books?
Yes, it was originally published by Salt. Then, following the publication of my first novel and the acquisition of my second novel, my present publisher decided to re-issue the collection, which was lovely. The only difference between the books is the cover.
You have written novels and short stories but is there a particular form you prefer to work in, if so, which one and why? What are the differences of each, beyond mere length, and how does this affect your writing methods?
I tend to prefer whatever it is that I am presently doing. At the moment, I’m supposed to be writing a novel. I think there is quite a difference between the forms. It’s very important that every word earns its place in a short story, whereas I suspect that novels can withstand a few digressions and readers may perhaps a little more forgiving of ‘baggy’ bits (although it’s best not to have any, obviously!). For me, the main difference is in the planning.
I need to think carefully about the characters’ development and progress when I’m writing a novel, whereas short stories are often (but not always) about capturing a character in amber and showing exactly how they are in a given moment.
The collection is hard to pigeonhole or position in a specific genre; was it your aim to write or publish a collection of such varied style and content? How did you select the stories for this collection and how difficult was the decision making process?
I picked stories that were about family – I think that’s the unifying theme. Some of the stories have their roots in fairy tales, others are macabre, and others are realist stories. I tried to pick my best work, but I also tried to think about whether the stories belonged together. I think the hardest part was ordering the stories. After Sweet Home was published, a poet friend asked if I had thought about how the closing image of each story interacted with the opening image of the next. I hadn’t, and I suddenly wished I had. But then I noticed that the collection opens and closes with the same image, a mother on her knees – I’d like to pretend I did that on purpose, but I didn’t.
The opening short story of ‘Sweet Home’; ‘Everything A Parent Needs To Know’, is beautifully paced with juxtaposing paradoxical quotes and narratives (using parent book advice etc) – where did this idea come from?
I have four children and I went through a phase of reading parenting books. The advice was often contradictory and confusing. I finally stopped reading them when one book advised that the cure for morning lateness was to allow children to wear their school uniform to bed.
‘Just in Case’ has a wonderful flow to it and a somewhat troubling and eerie conclusion – everything we like in a good short story – but where did the premise for this story come from? Did you consciously set out to stun the reader following such an emotional narrative?
I saw a blog post about a man who had been clearing out his mother’s attic and had discovered the skeleton of a baby in a suitcase (presumably his sibling). I kept thinking about it and eventually I wrote ‘Just in Case’ which isn’t quite that story, but does include a suitcase and a baby.
‘Dancing in the Kitchen’ was a lovely compact story which had us thinking about our own families and parenting, how would you describe your parenting style, is there much of your parenting style in this collection?
I think there are a lot of my parenting anxieties in the collection! It’s almost seven years since I started working on the stories – my children are quite a bit older now (in fact, one of them is an adult) so I have different worries and concerns. I think I’m probably a lot more relaxed about parenting than I was back in 2008/9. I’ve definitely done some dancing in the kitchen, though. In fact, my daughter and I still occasionally perform a very bad cha-cha.
‘The Baby Aisle’ was one of many enjoyable reads, delivered masterfully in a science fiction vibe reminiscent of a Philip K Dick / Isaac Asimov – could you explain your inspiration behind the story? Did the style/genre of the story develop naturally or did you decide prior to completion?
When my third son was a toddler he used to run ahead of me at the supermarket and look for an empty space on a bottom shelf. If he found one, he would squeeze into it and wait for me, calling, ‘Buy me, buy me!’ as I passed.I would ask him how much he was and then I would pretend to consider whether he was a good purchase. That’s where the idea came from.
‘Love: Terms and Conditions’ is one of our favourite storieswithin the anthology and we were particularly enthralled by the following dialogue:-
‘”If they saw you more often…” I appologised, as I proffered my lips. “It’s such a long way to drive.” My mother said as she closed the front door, consigning the distance she and my father drive during their transatlantic holidays to an entirely separate category of travel.’
– this could have been recorded in many a parents house! Was this inspired by a real conversation, or one not too dissimilar, and if so, what is your process of extrapolating the real to create such stories?
It wasn’t inspired by a real conversation, but I was thinking about what we expect from our parents and what they expect from us (and what they expect from our children). That’s something that interests me. I got married and had children when I was quite young and I sometimes think about what I’ll do once the children leave home and have their own lives. I’m envisaging a long road trip, but I wonder whether they will expect me to stick around and help with childcare etc. as so many grandparents do nowadays.
‘Sweet Home’ contains stories which could sit within a wide range of genres, is there one which gives you more pleasure to work within, and if so, why?
I love the flexibility of short stories. When you’re writing a story I don’t think you necessarily need to think about where it fits genre-wise – certainly not in the way that you may need to when thinking about a novel, and I like that.
Which of these short stories was the most enjoyable to write and why? Conversely, which was the most difficult (subject matter and/or style)?
Oh gosh, I’m not sure that I can remember! I think I enjoyed writing ‘Sweet Home,’ the title story, because I had always felt sorry for the witch in Hansel and Gretel – she’d made this amazing gingerbread house and then these cheeky children came along and ate it!Perhaps ‘Scaling Never’ was the most difficult. I knew that it might be an important chapter of a potential first novel and that made the writing of it a slightly intimidating prospect (it did end up being a chapter of A Song for Issy Bradley).
When writing stories for a collection that appears (assumption) to have some personal elements in it how do your family and/or friends feel about featuring in your work, either as a form of inspiration or within scenes or characters themselves? Or are all the stories entirely fictional?
The stories themselves are fictional, but many of them contain borrowed ideas or phrases. Margaret Atwood said that writers are like jackdaws: ‘We steal the shiny bits and build them into structures of our own.’
What is your favourite book?
At the moment it’s All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Towes.
What is the one piece of advice you would give aspiring writers?
Read. Read lots and think about what works and why. Why do you love the novels and poetry and short stories that you love? What is it about them that appeals to you?
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
Probably to read (as above!). The best thing about my MA was being taught be writers who were much better read than me and were able to look at my work and then give me a bespoke reading list: ‘I can see what you’re trying to do here, why don’t you read x and y and have a think about your approach,’ and so on. It was tremendously helpful.
We here at STORGY are lovers of the short story. Can we expect another collection from you in the future?
I do hope so – we’ll see!
What are you currently working on/writing? Short story or Novel?
I’m working on a novel. But 2016 has been a really difficult year – my brother died which was and is a terrible shock, and there have been other difficulties, so I’m behind schedule. I’m hoping to really get stuck into it during November.
What are you presently reading and what books would you recommend?
I have just read Versions of Us by Laura Barnett and a proof of a new novel called See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. I enjoyed both very much.
Were there any short stories that didn’t make it into your final collection? If so, what were they and why? Can our readers discover more of your work, specifically short stories, somewhere else?*
There was a story called ‘The Beast’ and I think there were a couple of others, but I couldn’t find them when I just checked my Short Story folder –oops!
I had a story called ‘Treasures of Heaven’ in Unthology 4 and another called ‘The Chocolate Club’was published in Stylist magazine. I have a new story, ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ in Dangerous Asylums, and another called ‘Codas’ in an anthology about love, How Much the Heart Can Hold that will be published in November 2016.
For those who may not have read your novels ‘A Song for Issy Bradley’ and ‘The Museum of You’ could you just offer them a brief summary of each, and what they can expect from the novelist Carys Bray?
A Song for Issy Bradley is a novel about a very religious family coping with the death of one of their children. It’s a sad story, but I hope it’s also a funny and warm exploration of doubt and faith, and miracles.
The Museum of You is the story of twelve year old Clover Quinn who decides to spend her summer vacation sorting through her absent mother’s belongings in order to curate an exhibit. The exhibit is supposed to be a lovely surprise for Clover’s dad, Darren, but as you might imagine, Clover doesn’t know the whole story of her mother’s life.
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STORGY Interview with critically acclaimed author Oisin Fagan.
Available online from 4th December 2016.
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Sweet Home by Carys Bray
Fates of the Animals by Padrika Tarrant
The Trees by Ali Shaw
Dodge and Burn by Seraphina Madsen
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