by Carys Davies
author of The Redemption of Galen Pike
A journalist asked me, why are your short stories so often set in such remote and lonely places? Well, because the stakes tend to be so high in those kinds of places; because the clutter and stuff of 'living' fall away and we are left with something harsher, more primal and elemental; with matters of life and death.
One of my favourite scenes in any movie, ever, is the one in Cast Away where Wilson, the white volleyball which has become Tom Hanks’s only companion on his desert island, is lost at sea. Hanks jumps off his ramshackle raft into the water to try and rescue him but he can’t. Wilson, with the red face Hanks has painted on – Wilson with his goofy eyes, his hesitant, clumsily-drawn smile, his tuft of grassy hair – slowly bobs out of reach. Hanks weeps, and so do I, every time.
I thought of this the other day when a journalist asked me, why are your short stories so often set in such remote and lonely places?
Well, because the stakes tend to be so high in those kinds of places; because the possibilities, the choices we face, feel at once limitless and terrifyingly narrow; because the clutter and stuff of ‘living’ fall away and we are left with something harsher, more primal and elemental; with matters of life and death.
No surprise then, perhaps, that another of my favourite films (though I ‘watched’ quite a lot of it peeping out from behind my hands) is Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours: cut off your own arm, or die. No surprise that my favourite books include the diaries of Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton’s account of his crew’s survival in unimaginably hideous conditions after their ship The Endurance is crushed in the polar pack-ice – that unforgettable moment when Shackleton and his men, in their tiny, patched boat, make a desperate last-ditch attempt to reach land. They glimpse, on the horizon, what appears to be the dawn breaking but isn’t: it’s a wave the width of the world, heading straight for them. It takes my breath away, and it’s the same with my favourite short stories – dramas that unfold miles from anywhere, far apart from what might be called ‘the world’: Sara Maitland’s shocking arctic tale of sexual rivalry in True North; Eudora Welty’s almost unbearably poignant story, Death of a Traveling Salesman, set in ‘desolate hill country’; Sarah Hall’s terrifying cliffhanger Vuotjärvi which takes place on a lake deep in the Finnish woods.
In my own imagination, I love travelling to such places, and what the narrator of my story The Travellers says in the first few lines isn’t a bad metaphor for how things go, a lot of the time, when I sit down to write:
‘The last time it happened, I packed my bags and left. I got on a train at Birmingham New Street and then on another and another and another and I didn’t get off until I reached Siberia. I liked Siberia. I liked the snow. The quiet.’
True, I don’t always travel so far – there are stories in this new collection where lives unravel or re-shape themselves in more familiar settings – a small-town pub in Wales and an Edwardian garden; the office of a London publisher and a suburban New York house; a city church. But I do love to head out there, into the wild – to Siberia and the Australian outback, to the Colorado mountains and the emptiness of the Cumbrian fells. I love to see what happens when things start to go wrong, when a young English woman – say – finds herself in an isolated homestead while her husband has gone off to buy supplies; when she finds herself alone with an untellable secret and no one, not even a priest, to confide in; when she finds herself surrounded
‘by rocks and gum trees and small coarse bushes and the biggest sky she had ever seen’
and only herself, it seems, to rely on . . .