By Katie Harling-Challis
On June 15th 2016, The Many was published by Salt Publishing. Though short, this is a challenging and thought-provoking debut novel from Wyl Menmuir, a Durham graduate. A month before the release date, I got the opportunity to talk with him about his novel and his thoughts on the writing process, as well as life after graduating.
Like Tim Fowler, the DJ Librarian who I interviewed back in February this year, Wyl is a follower of the portfolio career path. Holding various degrees from four different universities, Wyl has worked as a journalist and a teacher, before going freelance as a writer, editor, and literacy consultant. In the midst of his busy life of the freelancer, he has fulfilled his dream of writing and publishing a novel — a book which took him three years to write, working only in the evenings, after a full day of work and after his two kids had gone to bed, stealing time when he could. ‘Part of it is just that discipline of sitting down, writing, experimenting with writing,’ says Wyl, when considering his writing process and advice for other budding writers. ‘Lots of people talk about writing, but unless you’re actually writing, you’re not developing those skills as a writer’. Wyl’s advice is to put aside time every day to write. ‘This sounds like facile advice, but even if it’s 15 minutes, and even if you haven’t got the perfect story idea yet, everything you’re doing is practise for when you do get that brilliant idea, and I think you’re much more likely to get that stunning idea if you’re already writing.’
His daily target was 500 words. Sometimes this would take as little as 15 minutes to write, other times it took 2 hours. The important thing was to meet that target. Writing a novel ‘is more of a marathon than a sprint’, and you have to learn how to trick yourself to keep going. Walking also held an important role in his writing process. ‘There’s something about walking that means your mind starts turning the story over in the back of your head’. For Wyl, walking provided a contrast to simply sitting and writing, offering a time to think it over in a new environment, as well as helping with the context of his debut novel, The Many, set in a rural coastal town in Cornwall.
So what started him off writing The Many? Wyl has been writing short stories and poems ‘since forever. What kicked it off was that I took a short story along to an Arvon writers residential week’. He showed the writers leading the workshop his story, who said it was okay, but it certainly wasn’t going to set the world on fire. ‘They said to go and sit down in a room on your own and write the story that comes into your head, and I just did. I wrote a thousand words, and they were probably the most difficult thousand words I’ve ever written because they were raw and emotional and slightly based on things that had happened to me. And while I don’t want my writing to be autobiographical, I think I’d been pretending that my fiction had to be really really fictional, and it had to be nothing to do with anything that ever happened to me… Afterwards, there was a lot of shaping involved. But to begin with, the words just kind of happened.’
The Many is described as ‘slipstream literary fiction, dark, surreal’, and it certainly was an immersing and surreal reading experience. The atmosphere of gloom was particularly impressive, and is sustained throughout the novel. It is certainly not a book to read if you are looking for some light summer reading, but that’s not what Wyl was aiming for. ‘What I want it to be is a type of book that really makes people think. I think that there is a space for challenging literature, for books that really force you as a reader to think carefully as a reader about what’s going on.’ Life is complex and uncertain, it is about learning to live with complexity and uncertainty, with the fact that there aren’t any easy answers, and things are not resolved, and this is what Wyl tries and succeeds to put across in The Many.
Now of course, I had to ask, what book has really stuck with you? Wyl responded by listing off numerous titles, before settling on Fishboy by Mark Richard, a book which helped him when writing The Many. ‘It’s lyrical and adventurous, and just downright odd. I loved the way it challenged the reader.’ This one he recommends for anyone who wants a challenging read that’s going to open up new possibilities for their writing.
Any final pieces of advice for the budding writers of Durham University? ‘Read books that challenge your expectations of what a novel can do, and push yourself.’ When it comes to writing, ‘write the book that you would love to read, the book that you have to write, and don’t think about the end goal too much.’ And importantly, for all of us here at Durham, we need to make the most of the opportunities available to us. ‘Seek out interesting people, interesting books, interesting and out of the way places.’ You never know what you may find.
Wyl’s debut novel, The Many, published by Salt Publishing, is out now.