#ScottPrize Shortlist in Profile: Carys Bray
Learning to read is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me; it may also be the reason for my extreme short-sightedness. As a child, I spent night after night squinting my way through Enid Blyton books, their pages lit by the ribbon of light that ran across the bottom of my bedroom door. I’ve spent huge chunks of my life with my nose in a book, in fact, if it was at all possible, I’d probably insert my whole self between the pages like Woody Allen’s character, Sidney Kugelmass. I have always wanted to write but at some point during a sleep-deprived, toddler-filled decade I forgot, or I lost my nerve – I’m not quite sure, it’s all a bit of a fog. Now, writing is a part of my daily routine. I write standing up in the kitchen, at the dining room table, sitting on the sofa and occasionally at my new desk which still seems almost too nice to clutter. I won the MA component of the Edge Hill Prize in 2010 and since then I’ve had stories published in various journals and magazines including Mslexia, Black Market Review, The View From Here, PoemMemoirStory and Dialogue.
So where did the book begin for you, how did the book come to be written?
I think the book began several times. It began when I was about nine and spent hours writing Famous Five inspired adventures starring myself and other members of Mr Gibb’s Year 5 class. It almost began when my older children were toddlers and I bought a notepad which I optimistically took it with me when I worked night shifts in a children’s home. But it began in earnest when I started my MA in Creative Writing at Edge Hill. Some of the stories began as coursework assignments, some as competition entries and I wrote others purely because it gave me pleasure to write them. After my MA I continued writing until I had enough material to edit and organise into a collection.
What was going on in your life while you were writing it?
It was the best of times and the worst of times, to purloin Dickens. One of my four children was struggling with a pervasive developmental delay, we were trying to renovate our elderly and decrepit house and, having recently left the strict Mormon faith of my childhood, I was coming to terms with the loss of the community and friends I’d grown up with. But wonderful things were also happening; I was finally managing to organise my life to include time to write, I was beginning to feel happy with what I was writing, and it was incredibly exciting to be part of a writing community and to make new friends with shared interests. I started blogging about writing and at the end of 2010 I began to help co-ordinate the Edge Hill Prize.
What do you think were the real driving elements within the book — the things that moved it all forward for you?
I suppose that the driving element of the book is a preoccupation with family, and with the things that go wrong, and right, when people live together. I remember during my childhood there was a sign in the hallway of my parents’ house which said, ‘No Other Success Can Compensate for Failure in the Home.’ It took me a long time to realise that every home is full of failures and successes, and that failure is not always bad; it’s a just a side-effect of trying. While my collection explores a variety of dark familial ‘failures,’ I hope it is also funny and ultimately optimistic.
How long did it take to bring it all together?
It took me about eighteen months to write the stories. Then I spent a few months editing and ordering – that was the fun part; I wrote the names of the stories on post-it notes and lined them along the kitchen work top. I made alterations over the course of a couple of weeks until I found an order that worked.
Who was important to you in developing your writing life?
When I was doing my BA with the Open University, one of my tutors introduced me to the short fiction of Carol Shields. Within a couple of weeks I’d read every one of her stories. I found her writing funny, dark and intriguing; Shields deliberately included items like, ‘wallpaper… cereal bowls, cupboards, cousins, buses, local elections, head colds, cramps, newspapers,’ in her fiction and as I read her work, I knew that I wanted my stories to be similarly bursting with real life. During my MA I began to realise how wonderfully versatile the short story can be. I read brilliant collections by writers such as Helen Simpson, Margaret Atwood, Adam Marek and Robert Shearman, and I allowed myself to experiment; I had tremendous fun as I stocked the shelves of a surreal supermarket, invented fictional parenting books and imagined an alternative to IVF that was steeped in Nordic mythology. My tutors, Ailsa Cox, Robert Sheppard and Daniele Pantano, encouraged me to submit stories to journals and magazines, something I’d never done before; and people seemed to like them, which was lovely. Most importantly, my children supported their newly distracted and consequently disorganised mother; they forgave me for crimes against progeny, such as forgetting mufti days and hogging the computer, and they cheered my successes. My husband made extra time for me to write by doing the ironing and cleaning the bathroom; he sometimes cooked – until we all decided that it was better if he didn’t – and he read all of my stories, even though he prefers non-fiction.
Where do you think you’ll go to next in your writing — what are you working on now?
I’m working on a PhD and a novel at the moment. I feel quite shy about the novel; when people ask me what it’s about, I’m still at the stage where I want to reply, ‘Oh, it’s about a hundred thousand words.’ One of the short stories from Sweet Home has expanded into an important chapter of the novel which, to provide a slightly more helpful answer, is about family; it’s also about doubt, faith, grief and an absent miracle.
The Countdown (extract)
Mum must have been twenty-five when he began to count himself calm. One night he’d been chased out of sleep by a dream of a masked man in a dark cloak. He found his way to mum’s bed, but it was empty and there was something about the sound and feel of the air that told him he was alone in the house. He hid underneath mum’s duvet. His hot breath puffed into its thickness, dewing his face. Eventually he heard the soft click of the front door. When mum climbed into bed she said she’d only been downstairs but he didn’t believe her; he was seven, not stupid.
The following night Mum came up to check on him at about nine o’clock. She smelt of perfume and he realised that she was going out again.
‘I can’t get to sleep,’ he said.
‘Try counting,’ she’d replied. ‘When I was little and I couldn’t sleep Nanna used to tell me to count sheep.’
A while later he heard the soft click of the front door. His ears hummed with the clank of pipes, the settling of floorboards, his own heart beat and other sounds that he was perhaps imagining, although he couldn’t be sure: the slither of a giant python as it wriggled up the stairs, the fury pitter-patter of eight enormous spider legs, the breezy blow of a ghost’s robe. He began to count. He hurled numbers at his out-of-order imagination until the front door clicked again. It was the first time he’d counted past ten thousand.
He learned his times tables up to twelve before everyone else in his class and he was the only child to learn them up to fifty. He knew that it was sixty-three steps from the Year Two classroom to the school hall and twenty-four steps to the boys’ toilets. He made his mum move the wardrobe so that it was exactly in the middle of the back wall of his bedroom which meant, he sensed, that monsters would not be able to climb out of it during the night. Mum joked that he was obsessed with numbers. She was wrong. Numbers weren’t the problem; they were, in fact, the antidote to his increasingly unmanageable imagination.