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Arnold Jansen op de Haar interviews David Ayres

July 11, 2013

By Holland Park Press

 My name is Arnold Jansen op de Haar and I’m a Dutch writer, poet and columnist. I also work for Holland Park Press.

I would like to introduce David Ayres, one of the Holland Park Press authors. The first time I read some of his work was when he submitted the manuscript of his short story collection Top of the Sixties. My sister and publisher, Bernadette, asked me to read it. The stories are set in a time I can’t quite remember and yet much in it seemed familiar. Especially the voice and the particular way of looking at things. I read the manuscript in one go and called my sister.  ‘Publish it!’ was my advice. Sometime later David and I met and got on like a house on fire and not just because we both smoke cigars and are ‘over fifties’. Well only just in my case.

David Ayres was born in Birmingham UK and attended Aldridge Grammar School near Walsall in the West Midlands. It was at this early stage in his life that he began writing poetry and short stories, winning an award for English Literature at school at the age of just seventeen. He already knew this was what he really wanted to do.

He obtained an honours degree in languages at Leeds University and a postgraduate qualification in teaching at the University of London. At that time, in the late Sixties, David was already having poetry published in various magazines.

He taught languages for a good few years and ventured into the fast lane by training as a private pilot in 1979.

Today, I will talk to David about his short story collection Top of the Sixties and his new novel A Painted Ocean.

First of all, I’m a fan of your blog on the Holland Park Press website. Most recently there was a marvellous account of Essex girls in Spain.

Much of the marina area was crammed with British girls like tangerines on stilts, pasted thick with fake tan, walking like drunken giraffes on huge platform shoes and shrieking ‘Alright babe?’ (alright pronounced like white) to everyone they passed along the flashy quayside. With false nails like talons coated with glitter, they sported large handbags that probably cost the same as the Ferraris that prowled slowly among the strollers, and showed more cleavage than you could shake a stick at.

Your blogs are funny, even though you’re sometimes a grumpy old man. A man with strong opinions. Yet your short stories are full of empathy and you show a lot of sympathy for the human race. So who is the real Dave? Or are they just two faces of the same Dave, one full of empathy, and the other keen on criticism?

My starting point is always a feeling of kinship with the human race, the idea that we are ‘all in it together’. We all share the same needs and fears whatever our station in life. But at the same time what can be more exasperating than a bunch of people motivated unfailingly by fads? People never question what we accept as unshakable truths. It is that lack of original thinking, that inability or unwillingness to probe and to question that I find most galling. I see many of my characters as hapless victims of the cruelty of fate but not in the same way that Thomas Hardy set his characters up to fall. My own characters are to be loved and their weaknesses accepted as a penalty of being human.

A: The story ‘Awakening’ starts with a poem. Can you read it to us?

Does the sun shine through the leaves,
Nettles nodding in the breeze?
Does the rutted field smell warm,
Children wandering without harm?
Endless days to while away,
Nothing much to do or say,
Running wild down tracks and lanes,
Life will never seem the same.

A; That’s wonderful. David, is this one of your own poems? If so, are you still writing poems?

D: It is my own and I offer no apologies for the reek of nostalgia coming from it. I’ve written many poems, most of which are now in print. I’ve never tried to put them all together in a collection.

A: I will read a few lines from that story: Awakening.

Long into the golden afternoon they sat, as the world rolled slowly into dusk. Graham had taken his shirt off and had spread it under him. When at length he stood up on tiptoe, trying to see above the ocean of corn, Col watched him appraisingly. He took in the square, knobbly shoulders and straight, white back. He realised he was lost for words, so he said nothing. When Graham sat down again, Col patted him on the shoulder and then withdrew his hand as if burnt, finding his friend’s skin was surprisingly warm, although the afternoon had grown cooler. Read on

Actually you can read Awakening in two ways, I think: from a heterosexual or a gay point of view, is this deliberate?

D: The short story Awakening is in the genre that Hollywood would call ‘rites of passage’. The two little boys in the story, Col and Graham, are at the pubescent stage when another dimension is opening up before them, the dimension of sexual awareness. The boys are not destined to become gay and their innocent horseplay is part of that gauche behaviour that goes with adolescence. My point of view in creating them was one of warmth and sympathy with an underlying anxiety that they would both find their way in the end.

A: Can you tell us what’s the essence of the stories in Top of the Sixties?

D: Just as in Awakening, the other stories in Top of the Sixties examines the confusion experienced by a young person passing from childhood to adulthood. The children of the 1960’s were not sexually aware in the sense that modern children are, consequently a lot of the adult conversation that children heard, or overheard, was a mystery to them. It was incomprehensible why grown-ups laughed at the expression ‘something for the weekend’, which is the title of one of the short stories. So, while trying to look cool and self-assured, they in fact lurched from one misunderstanding to the next. Characters such as the fruit and veg man, Mr Davies, have their own agenda of which his young assistant, Keith Golder, is unaware. Mr Davies leaves the van for an hour every week to cavort with the local farmer’s wife, leaving Keith in charge. Keith has no understanding of what Mr Davies is up to nor why he emerges red-faced and sweating at the end of his hour, the lady waving to him from the doorstep of the farmhouse. It is that gap between what the reader knows and what Keith knows that makes us feel almost like a surrogate parent. The 1960’s were a decade which is now long gone and the children of that time now draw the state pension. For that reason it is worth setting out in detail how it was.

A: Can you read the opening of the first story, A Sack of Spuds?

The winter of 1961 was cold and snowy, although no one could have known how much worse the next one would be. There had been snow since early January. On the pavements dirty snow was piled up and the roads looked dark and slick. It felt as if it had been cold for ever, there had never been any summer. Darkness came earlier than usual, so that the snowy front lawns were lit orange by the street lamps.
At fourteen years of age Keith Golder looked ridiculous smoking a cigarette, yet he felt like a pop star with his upturned collar and Elvis Presley hair. He scooted his bicycle down the side entrance of the newly built semi into which his family had recently moved. He flicked his cigarette casually away, just as he’d seen them do in the movies, except that he fumbled it slightly and had to make an emergency stop to retrieve the glowing embers from his jeans turn-up. No swearing followed, because Keith was fully occupied shaking his burnt fingers in the icy darkness. Read on

A: The stories often end on a sorrowful note. Take the story about Freddie, a successful businessman who sacrificed his music career. Is he happy with his life or is he not? Or Uncle Joe, the man whose marriage seems to be set in stone until he actually elopes with a young woman from the church choir. Can you tell us a bit about this?

D: Both Freddie and Uncle Joe end up happy with their lot, although it is a very different outcome from the one they originally expected. Freddie becomes successful although not as a rock star and Uncle Joe finds happiness, though not in the arms of his wife of many years. It is a question of how the characters make choices and are responsible for the consequences of those choices. My intention was that the two stories Fret and Uncle Joe should have a feel of optimism at the end. The two men are different inasmuch as Freddie follows what he believes is his duty, whilst Uncle Joe follows his personal desires.

I don’t know how long it took for me to realise that the man was Uncle Joe and the woman was Miss Watts. I was spellbound as I watched them walking along. Miss Watts was much shorter than Uncle Joe and craned her neck to look up at him. The look of adoration on her face, even though seen only in profile, struck me vividly. I’d never seen a look like that before, except in the movies. Not only were they hand in hand, but their arms were somehow entwined and they were leaning against each other as they walked. Uncle Joe stood much taller and looked to me something like a Wild West hero. Twice he turned to look down at Miss Watts and I saw a man I barely recognised.

A: Books about the 1960s often concentrate on the hippy aspect, they’re about drugs & rock ‘n roll. But in Top of the Sixties the changes seem to be confined to the teenagers. The stories almost exude a kind of longing for a time when everything was still straightforward. In other words; they are about the things that never change: human relationships. What do you think?

D: I agree. The stories are about the hard work and trial and error that goes into forming effective and fulfilling friendships. It is the mistakes and misunderstandings by my characters that give them a certain vulnerability, one that belongs to the 60’s. These days children have more of a streetwise nouse which disqualifies them from evoking the sort of feelings in us that my characters evoke.

A: It’s remarkable how the stories interlink together. For example, Keith, the boy in the opening story returns in two of the other stories. Was this a conscious decision or did it just happen? And just for the record, is Keith modelled on you?

D: Yes, Keith is a part of me and so is Glyn in The Latin Girl and Fret in the story of the same name. As a teenager I worked on a fruit and vegetable van and later played in a rock band, so I did perceive that era from the point of view of the stories. It’s difficult to imagine how a fictional character could be created without that character bearing some of the DNA of its creator. In the story Wetton Mill the character John is very much me and the story itself actually happened.

A: How do you start a new a story? Is it triggered by something you remember from the past? Something you’ve come across? Or does it start with a first sentence?

D: A story comes into my head in several different ways. Sometimes I think of the title first and the story follows, sometimes a single phrase suggests a story, sometimes an image of something or someone. Occasionally I think of an ending and then the story! For me, the process of creation is never systematic and never ever the result of thorough planning.

A: You wrote in your blog The Liar, the Voyeur: A writer of fiction creates people, places and events that don’t actually exist. The writer of fiction is a stylised liar. He writes ‘the things that are not’. That’s what the horse people in Gulliver’s Travels call lying. People have always been spellbound by a good yarn, ever since they sat round the fire to listen to the sagas of old, as told by a skilled story-teller. What makes a good story?

D: For me a story comes about when a character changes. It’s not just a question of a chain of events – first this happened then that happened. I try to create a variety of characters that are easily recognised by the reader. I try to bring them to life by their mannerisms, their mode of speech and their little tics. The characters then interact with each other and this creates the action. I don’t belong to the school that puts actions first and then creates the characters to bring the actions about. At the end of a story the reader should feel that he or she has been on a worthwhile journey and may even have changed, however little, just like the characters.

A: David, you have a very sharp view, but do you consider yourself primarily a participant or spectator of everyday life?

D: A spectator! If you think of life as a football match, it’s almost impossible to enjoy watching the match if you are a player. You have to be on the side-lines. So it is in life. My aim as a writer is to lift up the top of my head like the lid of a teapot and invite people to look inside. Then I say to them, “There, that’s how I see life, that’s how it looks from my point of view.”

A: Can you read us a passage from The Latin Girl?

The girl was quite small with very dark hair cut in a bob and flicked forward at the sides, very Cilla Black. In spite of her school uniform, Glyn beheld a goddess. She walked with a sway and a self-awareness which made him feel quite short of breath. He had watched her from the common-room window, inspecting her face, which was delicate, like a doll’s, yet with just a hint of make-up, Glyn felt sure. She carried her books in a little brown briefcase, almost like a little picnic case with a handle and reinforced corners. He watched her leave at half past four each time, with a sway and a twitch, tossing her head back and letting the wind blow her hair around, her grey felt hat dangling from her tiny hand. Glyn thought, I have got to meet that girl.

A: As I see it Top of the Sixties is about life of teenagers in the 1960s. It’s about hope and shattered dreams. About growing up and getting on with things. Have your dreams come true? Or are you still chasing your dreams?

D: Many of my dreams have come true – being in a rock band, flying aeroplanes, experimenting with business ideas and driving flashy cars. But you can never fulfil enough dreams, otherwise you might as well be dead. I think it was Bon Jovi who sang, “I’ll live while I’m alive and sleep when I’m dead”. Or if you prefer, think of the song Happy Talk – “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”

A: You sometimes refer to yourself as ‘an old man’. Yet, you seem to find it very easily to write about young people. Has this something to do with your teaching career?

D: Yes, it does. Teenagers were a part of my life for forty years and I found them an inspiration. The funny thing about children is that they can make you feel old and young at the same time. Sometimes it’s when they are at their most infuriating that you realise how fond you are of them.

A: I read somewhere that you feel strongly about the use of dialogue to push a story forwards. I admire your dialogues. Would you like to read one from Alistair’s Triumph?

‘My car won’t start and the battery’s going flat. I don’t suppose you have any jump leads?’
Alastair’s heart sank. What sort of a smoothie was he without even a pair of jump leads? It only worked in his imagination, whereas this was real.
For a moment he was flummoxed, but he knew he had to be masterful, cool and confident.
‘Why don’t you lock it up and leave it here and I’ll take you home. I don’t have any jump leads but I’ll buy a pair on the way and I’ll call for you in the morning and drive you to work.’
There! That sounded quite good. Alastair was pleased with that. He walked with her, as she went to retrieve her handbag and lock her car. He was gratified to note that he was much taller than her and drew in his breath to make himself even taller.
‘Thank you so much, Mr Humphreys.’
‘Please call me Alastair.’ Then he cursed himself, suddenly aware that Al might sound better. No one had ever called him Al in his life but it sounded quite American, like a man who carried a gun and smoked cigars.
Alastair realised he had one evening in which to learn how to use jump leads. This had to be done. Tomorrow morning there would be colleagues milling around the car park and even pupils. He could not afford to look like a nincompoop, thrashing about amid a shower of sparks and being electrocuted in front of Daphne Lionel.

A: How does an author ensure that dialogue sounds natural?

D: You should speak dialogue aloud while you’re writing it. Ask yourself, does this sound natural, is it the way people really speak or will it read like a manual from Ikea? The technique of dialogue is very different from the technique of narrative. Ask yourself about the character who’s talking – what is their social class, what is their age, do they have a dialect? Characters may be given mannerisms and strange habits to mark them out. Dialogue can do far more in the creation of character than description.

A: The stories in Top of the Sixties are written from different points of view. Most are written from the point of view of an omnipresent narrator. But there are also stories written in the first person: The Drama Queen, The Farm Stop, Something for the Weekend and Uncle Joe. Do you prefer a particular point of view and how does it affect your writing?

D: I use the first person for vividness and shock effect. In The Drama Queen the main character disgusts us simply by talking to us, far more effective than simply telling the reader how horrible she is. The omnipresent narrator is a useful tool, because it gives the creator an entire overview. We can look into everyone’s living room and even into people’s heads.

A: According to your biography on the Holland Park Press website, you received your first writing award in secondary school. Is that how it all started?

D: No! When I was thirteen I misbehaved in class at grammar school and my English teacher, the excellent and inspirational Mr White, gave me what we called ‘an imposition’ another word for a punishment. I had to write an essay of at least three sides of A4 paper on any subject for the following morning. In fact I enjoyed writing it so much that I produced thirteen pages. I wrote about the sinking of a corvette during the Second World War in the North Atlantic. The story looked at the lives of each of the men in the water and stayed with them until they died. Needless to say, I’d been reading The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monserrat. Mr White was bowled over and asked me to write a regular feature for the school magazine.

A: Have you always been combining your career as a language teacher with your writing?

D: Yes, I have. All work and no play is bad for the soul.

A: You’ve now written a novel: A Painted Ocean.

It opens with a scene about a hit and run driver, Ian, who knocks down and kills a boy. Can you read a short passage?

It was just before the bends as you come into Llangynog. Suddenly there was this boy on a bicycle, a newspaper delivery bag slung over his left shoulder, pedalling furiously, entering the bridge. He saw him turn his head to spit over the low wall, just before he wobbled out towards the middle of the road. It was one of those stupid bicycles with no rear mudguard and the Viva struck the rear tyre hard. The young lad shot up into the air and looked as if he’d landed on his head in the road.

A: Grumpy old Dave would love to write something sharp about cyclists in one of his blogs but instead it has become the inspiration for a novel. It almost starts like a thriller. Is it actually a thriller?

D: It’s not like a traditional thriller, although it does feature a murder, a suicide and two fatal road accidents. However the story is not driven by action, so it’s not a conventional thriller. It’s about guilt and how different people deal with guilt. Having said that, the dénouement should surprise every reader. There are three parts the first in a fictional village near Oxford, the second aboard a cruise liner in the Caribbean and finally a concluding section which reveals the murderer.

A: What inspired you to write the opening passage?

D: I really have no idea! I thought of it at a pavement café in Tenerife and I started the novel that evening. There was little planning and the characters rapidly took over.

A: I’m intrigued about the title, why did you choose it and how does it capture the essence of the book?

D: The title is taken from a line in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The novel has a water theme together with the idea of the cleansing power of water to wash away guilt. At the same time, although the surface of the sea may be calm, there can be turmoil beneath. The ocean in the novel represents the surface appearance of things which may be plastered on with a brush.

A: Some writers plan their plots meticulously with a chart on the wall, Hilary Mantel springs to mind, other writers are completely baffled about what their characters are up to. Where do you stand?

D: In the latter camp. I have an in-built horror of meticulous planning. If the characters are good, they will carry the action. The important things for me are atmospheric effects such as light and weather. I love to use light to emphasise mood and enhance characterisation.

A: What do you consider the difference between writing short stories and a novel?

D: In a novel the author can be more self-indulgent and set out his ideas at leisure. It is possible to lay on a really thick atmosphere, to use light and maybe sound. A short story, on the other hand, needs a strong ‘kick’ or twist to make it memorable. The use of language needs to be economic and there is no place for rambling dialogue. Characters must be rapidly drawn and clearly defined in a few lines. A short story is brief therapy. A novel is a year in rehab.

A: That sounds intriguing but as we have run out of time, we’ll have to leave this for another meeting. I’m very much looking forward to our next discussion.