Tyler Keevil was raised in Vancouver and lives in Wales. One of Parthian Book’s Bright Young Things, his debut novel Fireball is currently short-listed for the Guardian‘s Not The Booker Prize.
He is interested both in literary and slipstream fiction, and has been published in New Welsh Review, Planet, Transmission, Dream Catcher, Black Static, and On Spec, among others.
Interviewed by Susie Wild
You’ve been nominated for Not The Booker Prize, and have recently won the Wales Book of the Year People’s Prize for your debut novel Fireball. How does it feel? Outside of these, do you take much notice of literary awards?
It feels good. It’s been great to get some recognition. The Wales Book of the Year People’s Prize, in particular, was a big boost for me – partly because it was so unexpected. There were some well-known names on that long-list, and I assumed the larger publishers would dominate the voting. But readers rallied around Fireball. I’ve always been grateful for the support my work has received in Wales, and this was another example of that.
The Not-The-Booker competition has been a different experience, and a bit bewildering at times. Until a few days before the voting deadline, I didn’t even know that Fireball was on the long-list, and hardly anybody else did, either. But word got around, and enough people cast their votes to put the book on the short-list, which was tremendous. The resulting review was a bit disappointing – not terrible, but not all that great, either. But until now I’ve had a good run of fairly complimentary reviews, from Planet to New Welsh Review, and inevitably you’re going to come up against somebody who doesn’t understand or appreciate your work. That’s just part of putting it out there. The resulting online discussion has been interesting, at least.
For the Not The Booker Award readers and fans had to write short reviews of Fireball. Which was your favourite comment amongst these reviews?
That’s been the nicest aspect of the Not-The-Booker for me: reading the reviews posted by my readers. I was incredibly grateful for the show of support. Obviously, since the reviews are written by fans of the book, they’re all favourable. But as I mentioned on the Guardian forum, I also found some of them incredibly in-depth, honest, and moving. One review that came in late, and didn’t count towards the vote total, really struck me. It said something like: ‘I took particular pleasure in distilling the familiar from Keevil’s composite construction.’I thought that was very perceptive, and intriguing. That reviewer, who must be somebody from back home, seemed to understand the particular blend of imagination and manipulated experience that goes into creating fiction.
The Man Booker Prize short-list has just been announced. Have you read the books? Who would you choose?
No – I have to admit I haven’t read them, but it looks like they chose an interesting mix this year. There’s even a thriller on there. Contests are a funny thing. Large or small, so much depends on chance, and who happens to be the judge that particular year. Some years the Man Booker seems to dud out. Other years they get it spot-on. There was a three-year sequence of winners that went Disgrace, The Blind Assassin, and The True History of the Kelly Gang. That’s a potent run of literature, in my opinion.
That’s a big question. Fireball sort of rose up out of another, abandoned novel I’d been working on. As I mentioned in an article I did for the Western Mail, it was meant to be an existential thriller set in Prague, full of criminals and Russian gangsters. It had it’s moments but it also had a false heart. While I worked on it, I found myself jotting down notes about old memories, anecdotes, and urban legends I remembered from growing up. As the Prague novel fell apart, Fireballstarted coming together. Since I was approaching it from a short fiction background, I found myself writing in brief vignettes. At first I almost thought of it as an interlinking collection of stories, but I was reading a couple of books at the time that made me realise novels don’t have to be as artificially plotted as they used to be. Joyce Carol Oates often breaks up her narratives and plays with time. Her booksRape and Foxfire were both stylistic influences, as was Spanish/Mexican cinema and literature – guys like Pedro Almodovar, Ray Loriga, and the director who shot Amores Perros and 21 Grams, whose name I can never remember…González Iñárritu. Basically, they showed me that I could adopt a more post-modern approach, keeping the book fragmented and non-linear. In the end I think that became one of its strengths.
How difficult did you find it to write?
Once I got going, the first draft of Fireball came quite quickly. Attempting the other, dead novel had taught me a lot. Writing shouldn’t be a chore. It shouldn’t be easy, either, but it should at least be exciting – a process of discovery. Writing in Razor’s voice allowed me to tell the story in a natural way. As one ofthe Guardian voters noted, if you’re ready to listen, Razor will ‘tell you how it all went down.’ It was also fascinating to write about a character like Chris, simply because he is so dynamic, kinetic, and unpredictable. Razor complains about the press calling Chris volatile, but he clearly is. I think people respond to that, too. As a reader, you’re never quite sure how you feel about Chris – who he is or what he’ll do.
The story is a coming-of-age tale set during one hot summer in Vancouver, where you grew up. How much of the book relates to your own teenage experiences? Chris and Razor get into a fair few scrapes, but you always come across as such a good humble man? Did you have a misspent youth?
It helped to have some connection to the material. Like you said, I did grow up in Vancouver, where the book is set. However, it’s not meant to be taken as true or autobiographical in any way. I’d be a poser if I claimed to have had a misspent youth. Razor calls himself ‘the biggest wimp you’ll ever meet’ and that’s just about how it was with me. I kept my head down, did well at school, tried to be nice to everybody – and was pretty much the same guy you know in Wales. Some of my friends were a little more rebellious. I think in all groups, and especially among teenage boys, you have somebody like Chris – somebody who is a natural leader, with a strong personality, who other people are drawn to. In the same group, you’ll often find a kid like Razor – the one who’s more sensitive, and has a heightened sense of empathy. InStand By Me, which was another influence on Fireball, you see it in the character of Gordie. He grows up to become an author, and is narrating the whole tale to the viewer in retrospect. In the old days, that type of person might have been the bard of the clan, or the shaman – the one who observes and relates and interprets events for the rest of the tribe, or the audience. Razor isn’t meant to be me, but as an author and storyteller I can obviously relate to that aspect of him.
You left Canada in 1999, but partly Fireball is a love song to your past home. Do you still feel a homesickness, or are you settling in Wales now? I seem to know quite a few artistic types with connections/ heritage shared between Canada and Wales. Both bilingual lands. Do you think there is a natural connection between the two, or have I made this up?
A large part of the urge to write it came from that, actually – that sense of homesickness and loneliness. Razor is a very lonely character, who doesn’t belong anywhere. Obviously it wasn’t that bad for me, and I’m far more settled in Wales now, but I still miss Vancouver, especially my friends and family. I do think you’re right about the cultural parallels between Wales and Canada – both bilingual countries, positioned next to a larger imperial neighbour. I wrote an article about that, for Dafydd Prys’s now defunct Blue Tattoo magazine. Welsh people, at least in Mid Wales, are down to earth, humble, unpretentious. You guys have your rugby, and we’ve got our ice hockey. You’ve got welsh cakes, we’ve got Canadian pancakes. So no, I don’t think you’ve made up the natural connection between the two places.
You write well about the young, the lost and the harassed. What are your thoughts on the recent UK riots?
Good question. There’s an obvious parallel, because of the party-riot sequence in Fireball. There’s also an obvious parallel with my home city, since a few weeks before the London riots there was a riot in Vancouver during the Stanley Cup finals. My immediate answer is that I didn’t know what to make of either situation. Vancouver’s was on a smaller scale, and not totally unexpected since the same thing happened in ’94. Both times it was mostly a spontaneous event involving drunk teenagers and young men. The UK riots, at least as portrayed by the media, seemed to have darker undertones. They were more deliberate and organised, and geared towards looting. Both situations made me think a lot aboutFireball. In the novel, that kind of violence is glamorised, because it’s seen through the eyes of a teenage boy. Razor idolises Chris, and when Chris fights or riots or beats up a cop, Razor is always at his side, cheering him on. So there’s that morally ambiguous aspect. At the same time, like Razor says, Chris’s fights are never ‘planned out ahead of time, like a date.’ In all cases, he is reacting to something: the police invading the house party, Bates trying to arrest him, the antagonism of other youths. That doesn’t excuse or exonerate it, but I’d say those situations are somewhat different than the premeditated violence involved in the riots.
At what age did you start writing, and at what point did you regard yourself as a writer?
I always enjoyed reading, and used to write stories and draw comics when I was a kid. I had an abundance of creative energy, I guess. Good teachers help, and I had some very inspiring teachers in high school. I was soaking up storytelling from my lit teacher, Dawn Sandberg, and our drama teacher, Suzanne Cook. Mrs. Cook just died recently, of cancer, which was a real tragedy. She inspired countless students, including me, my brother and our friends. In our teen years, several of us turned to film-making. We were always running around with a camera, making movies. My brother is still in the industry, actually. He worked on, and wrote the soundtrack for, the indie film Bellflower, which was a huge hit at Sundance this year. These days I focus more on my writing, but I still keep tabs on the industry.
Can you remember your first published piece?
When I started out, I was hugely inspired by the theatre company my wife Naomi worked for at the time,Theatr Powys. They’ve recently had their funding cut by the Arts Council, which was a huge blow to us personally, and also to the kids and communities of Mid Wales. We’re all a little lost without them, to be honest. It was the members of TP who taught me what it meant to be an artist – their level of dedication was beyond belief. I had nothing else to do while Naomi was devising scripts and touring community shows, so I wrote.
Looking back, that was when I really learned the craft. I received a big break through a short story contest, the Frome Festival International Story Competition, with a story called ‘Mangleface.’ At the same time, I was placing a few stories in small press magazines. But my first professional publication was through Francesca Rhydderch, then editor of New Welsh Review. I’ll always remember that. Those are the debts that can’t be repaid. It wasn’t just about the recognition, though that was great, obviously. It also gave me a kind of confidence that I never had before. I felt that if I’d done it once, I could do it again – and other publications followed.
Now that Booktrack.com has been set up to make soundtracks for books, I wondered (a) how you feel about the concept of immersive fiction, and (b) what sound effects and songs, if any, you’d like people to listen to when reading Fireball?
I’m not so sure about the notion of soundtracks while reading books, but I like the idea of music related to and inspired by particular texts. Right now there seems to be a lit-music crossover trend, triggered by multi-talented artists like Willy Vlautin (both a writer and musician) and Murakami – who’s a self-proclaimed jazz music obsessive. In terms of Fireball, my editor Lucy Llewellyn and I once discussed the kind of soundtrack the book might have, if it were ever adapted into a film. She thought of ‘Jesus Don’t Want Me For A Sunbeam,’ from Nirvana Unplugged, which would be perfect. In my mind, the book is also thematically linked with the Hayden song, When This Is Over. It’s referenced directly in Fireball, when Razor mentions the song about the woman who drove her car into a lake, killing her children. Mostly Lucy and I picked tracks with a grimy sound and an authentic feeling. I’d want to include my brother’s tunes, too. The soundtrack to Bellflower is incredible. He’s got that gritty, heartbroken, acoustic style going for him.
Are you worried about writing the difficult second novel, or do you keep a number of pre-written books in drawers like fellow Bright Young Thing James (JP Smythe)?
Ah – that’s the real question, isn’t it? I’m definitely not like James. I think he’s got about three books coming out in the next year or so. The man is a shamanic writing machine. But being published alongside him really helped motivate me. The fact that he had a major book deal, and all these other projects, made me hungry when otherwise I might have been resting on my laurels. So since Fireball, I’ve been working on something new. Bizarrely, I ended up doing the failed book thing again. I pursued one project for about a year, and it fell apart on me. Then this other book burst out of the ashes and took off like a Dodge Neon at 160 kilometres an hour. It’s been exciting to work on, so hopefully that’s a good sign.
You teach creative writing, one of the major lessons I remember from my course is the stress on reading, reading, reading, in order to be a better writer. Do you believe this is a true essential to the writer and, if so, who do you tell your students to read?
Reading is critical, obviously. I always encourage my students to read, and read consistently myself. However, I also think you can go too far the other way, and scramble-read without absorbing anything. There are so many books out there, and so few years in our lives. But I tell myself I’ll never read them all. Instead I try to take my time, absorb a text, and learn from it. I go back to my favourites, too. I’ll never get tired of re-reading The Outsider. It’s influence on Fireball is obvious. I remember being so grateful when I first discovered it – in Mrs. Sandberg’s class, actually – because I had that flash of recognition you get when you find an author who perceives the world like you. That lazy appreciation of life. That sense of going with the flow, and letting things happen. The sun, the water. For Meursault it ends badly but I like the first half of the novel the most, where he’s just drifting and existing.
Have you been converted to e-readers?
I recently bought a Kindle. I was really excited. I wanted to fight my old-school tendencies, and become a modern guy. I turned the thing on and downloaded a few e-books, then realised I would never rather read it than an actual book. Now it just sits on my shelf. But at least it’s made me appreciate a good quality book: nice hardbacks, properly made paperbacks. I have a great copy of The Odyssey with all these hand-drawn maps of ancient Greece, and thick pages that feel like proper parchment. How can the Kindle or the iPad compete with that?
You have also written numerous short stories, how does the process differ for you writing long and short form fiction?
For me, short stories can almost come in a burst of inspiration. You get the idea, you see the whole thing in your head, and if you have a few spare days or a week you can complete a decent draft. It’s nice because you get a kind of creative gratification, instantly. Novel writing is nothing like that. Even when a novel is going well, you can’t ride a single burst of inspiration. Instead, it’s like going on a long trek. You need to keep yourself in good shape, mentally and physically. You need your map, and your gear. You need some good companion authors to keep you company on the way. When you get where you’re going, it’s not going to be where you expected. The whole process can be daunting. You can become lost, confused, disheartened, distracted. You can get blindsided by something you didn’t see coming – some other aspect of your life that crashes headlong into the creative process and messes it all up. You need to work hard, and get lucky, to stay on track and see it through.
Parthian plans to publish a collection of my stories in the new year. We still haven’t settled on a publication date, or which stories will make up the collection. Some will have been previously published, some will be new. I’d like the selection to be fairly varied. That’s the one advantage a story collection has over a novel – it can be more fluid and versatile, incorporating a variety of styles, settings, and points of view. I’m looking forward to putting it out there.
What else are you working on?
As I mentioned, I’ve also got a new novel in the hopper. We’ll see. I’m not great at talking about a work in progress. I’m superstitious and always afraid I’ll kill it. It won’t be the next Ulysses, but it’s the best I can do with the skills I have. One of the things that fascinates me as a writer is the point where you feel yourself coming up against your own limitations: your own talent level, your own mental capacity, your own abilities. As writers, and people, we have no control over those things. We can’t even really control what comes out of us when we write. We can only control whether we do it or not. I do it, and hope for the best.
Fireball is available from Parthian Books. You can read an extract on the Bright Young Things website.