BUZZ CULTURE: RACHEL TREZISE | INTERVIEW FEATURE
Easy Meat, the new work by much-admired novelist Rachel Trezise, is another slice of Valleys life, set in the Brexit crunch time of June 2016. Billie Ingram Sofokleous devoured it, then spoke to Rachel about all manner of things as part of the Buzz Culture programme.
Rachel Trezise’s latest novel Easy Meat is a gritty narrative with a unique voice that embodies the sense of community in the author’s Rhondda Cynon Taf homestead. Its stark imagery and coarse language adds to the realism of its central relationship, between two brothers living deep in the Valleys.
The writer’s use of language stamps her own identity on everything she writes, and elevates the narrative of Easy Meat greatly. Particular favourites include “tits up in a ditch”, “pastin’”, “hoiked” and, less colloquially, some interesting means of measuring time which particularly fascinated me: “zeptosecond, picosecond, femtosecond, centisecond and attosecond”. One image – “the clutch of grey heron chicks in the tree behind the old garages brayed like a bunch of hungry donkeys” – stayed with me, and speaks volumes about Trezise’s observant nature. The name Fochriw, a mining village not far from Merthyr, is repurposed as a muttered expletive – I laughed out loud at this.
The title has a few connotations. Caleb, Easy Meat’s protagonist, is unhappily employed in a beef processing plant; the necessary lack of sentimentality towards the animal carcasses he dismantles smacks of foreshadowing. His boss Morris is a smugly toxic exploiter of their power relationship, abusing his status in the company to maintain his place in its hierarchy. The phrase crops up among the back-and-forth between Caleb and his younger brother Mason, who mock each other endlessly.
Part of a workforce made up of Eastern European migrants about his age, and older, often resentful local natives, Caleb is fiercely protective of the former when they’re faced with prejudice or mistreatment (with the story taking place on the day of 2016’s EU referendum vote, their very presence is a lightning rod for both sides); jealous, too, when he sees their cultural bond and acutely feels his own isolation.
The grim reality of his employment terms – agency work in Cameron’s Britain – juxtaposes the almost rose-tinted view Caleb holds about his new love, the would-be glamorous Savannah. She makes a move on him when they first meet, recognising him from his time on reality TV show Made In Wales (a thinly disguised version of an actual series): a part of Caleb’s life that set him apart from his community, and which precipitated a decline we see played out with desperate efforts to hold everything together.
So while wishing to avoid spoilers, I’d strongly encourage ordering Easy Meat from publisher Parthian (link at the bottom of this article). Rachel Trezise kindly sat down and answered some questions for me, helping us delve a little into her writing style and sense of self.
What was the spark that fired this story into existence?
It was actually a commission. My publisher asked me if I fancied writing a novella set over one day, a kind of One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich but set in Wales and featuring the EU referendum. It was such a bizarre and seemingly impossible proposition that I had to challenge myself to give it a go.
What is your planning or structure for your books like? Completely chaotic like me, or are you strict and controlled and always know the endgame?
I have to know the endgame which can be a bit boring, but if I don’t have a strict plan it’ll go haywire. Everything I’ve tried to write off the cuff turns into something rambling or into a different form, which can be great, but isn’t suitable for commissions.
Do your characters ever surprise you?
Not often but sometimes. The worst thing is when they disappoint you – when you intend for them to be decent people, but they end up doing something terrible and you have to go back and work out why. It helps to work out what they really want and what they’re really scared of before I start writing.
From your new book, who was your favourite character to write?
Mason, the main character’s little brother, who’s an argumentative conspiracy theorist. He only pops up a couple of times because of the nature of the work, set over one day. I would have liked to explore him a bit further.
What is the best piece of advice have you ever received and who gave it to you?
“Don’t read reviews.” It sounds so simple, but it never occurred to me until I went to visit the cast of a play I’d written just before they were due to go onstage for the night. I told them we’d had a bad review and one of them said, ‘Oh, don’t read reviews! What do reviewers know about what we’re trying to do here?’ My life’s been a lot easier since because good reviews don’t help much either.
What are you reading at the moment?
Hello Friend, We Missed You by Richard Owain Roberts which won the Not The Booker Prize last year. I’m a bit late to the party really.
Do you prefer physical books or reading on a screen?
Physical books. They’re a luxury now; I do so much on screen – research, my own writing and editing and editing for other people. I know I’m reading for pleasure when I have a real book in my hand.
What are you most excited to do when out of lockdown and the endless restrictions?
Have a gin fizz cocktail at my local bistro.
How has the pandemic changed the way that you approached writing?
Strangely, before the pandemic started, I was struggling with anxiety and finding it quite difficult to settle down to write. I was averaging about two hours a day and I didn’t think I’d ever finish the book. Lockdown helped because suddenly there was nothing else to do. It was the opposite for a few of my writer friends. It was the pandemic that made them anxious and slowed them down. I’m back into my old routine now, writing all day long.
Are you looking to write a narrative that looks at your experiences during lockdown?
No, I’m going back to some older work I was halfway through when the commission for Easy Meat came in: a short story collection and a novel set in the 2010s.
Have you taken up any new things during lockdown?
A bit of arts and crafts. For some reason I had a clear idea of these hair slides that I wanted but couldn’t find anywhere, spelling out a sweary instruction, so I made a pair. Of course, I put a photograph up on social media and got a load of orders from other people! Lots of drawing and design as well. My husband and I are building a house at the moment (I say ‘at the moment’ – it’s been a long seven-year project which we’re finally getting towards the end of) so we’ve both been doing a lot of room and garden design sketching.
What was the weirdest thing you did in research for your new book?
Talked to slaughterhouse workers about their jobs in so much detail. I really didn’t want to know what goes on in a slaughterhouse, but for the book to sound authentic I had to learn. I didn’t eat very much meat beforehand, now I don’t eat any at all.
Who is your biggest influence as a writer?
Overall, Maya Angelou. Reading A Caged Bird Sings when I was 17 is what made me want to give writing a go.
I had wonderful teachers all the way through my school and Uni life and I think it builds up your confidence, doesn’t it? Who encouraged you to write?
I had a couple of good English teachers at school. One was very encouraging about my frankly awful attempts to write poetry. He nicknamed me Shakespeare! And the other noticed that I loved reading and politics and recommended books to me that weren’t on our school curriculum. They were rare though. Most people laughed at me when I told them I wanted to be a writer.
words BILLIE INGRAM SOFOKLEOUS photos JON POUNTNEY