Lucie McKnight Hardy is a writer of novels and short stories. She has lived in Wales, Liverpool, Cardiff, Zurich and Bradford and is now based in Herefordshire with her family. McKnight Hardy spent her childhood in West Wales and is a Welsh Speaker. Rural Wales also formed the setting of her first novel Water Shall Refuse Them which was published in 2019 by Dead Ink. Set during the summer heatwave of 1976 Water Shall Refuse Them is about sixteen-year-old Nif and her family who move to a small village on the Welsh borders following the accidental drowning of her sister and, when things begin to unravel, Nif starts to develop her own form of witchcraft.
Dark rituals and rural settings are also to be found in McKnight Hardy’s new book Dead Relatives and other stories published in 2021 by Dead Ink which we talk to her about today.
Northern Short Story Festival: Because of the multiple nature of short story collections it’s difficult to ask you where the idea for this collection comes from because there isn’t just one! Lots of these short stories were written and published a while ago – before your first novel even – and some are more recent. So, I suppose my first question is twofold: to what extent was working on this collection a little bit like listening back to an old playlist in that it immediately transports you back to an old headspace, and then following on from that how much of your everyday life or fears or anxieties are channelled into these stories, without sounding too cliché. I suppose what I mean is if you ever read an old story back do you ever think ‘wow, I was really working through something there’?
Lucie McKnight Hardy: When I’m writing these short stories, I do tend to bring a lot of myself to them in that I think if you’re writing dark fiction of horror you need to plumb the depths of your own fears if you’re hoping to instil strong emotions in the reader. There’s no point writing about things that you don’t find scary or upsetting – I don’t think you’re going to do justice to the subject. But, having said that, a lot of the stories do cover things which I find deeply upsetting – like awful things happening to children for example – and I suppose that’s a case of my exploring my deepest fears. But I wouldn’t want to overthink this and say that it’s some sort of therapeutic catharsis – I’m conscious that I’m writing for a reader and not for myself. I don’t think they’re as introspective as a lot of other writers would be. In the case of putting together the collection it was really a case of me finishing the novel and really wanting to keep on writing (I’d been writing the novel as part of my MA) and also wanting a change of form. Short stories are a lot more immediate, obviously the payback comes a lot quicker. With a short story I tend to know whether it’s going to work within the first thousand words or so. With a novel – and I know this from my own personal experience – you can have the rug pulled from underneath your feet after maybe twenty thousand words. So, yes, short stories are much more immediately gratifying and I went to them after writing the novel – I just wanted to get them out there! I had a hit list of publishers I wanted to target and it was quite nice to have a challenge like that after the long slog of writing the novel.
So, then Water Shall Refuse Them was published in July 2019 and I quite liked this being published thing, I thought ‘I want to do it again!’. I had a look through my short stories, and I thought you know, there’s a definite theme in here. And there is a lot of darkness and death and decay so I came up with the title Dead Relatives which seemed to fit all the stories together under a theme because I think linked collections of short stories are much more affective. I pitched this idea to Dead Ink and they really liked it. Because I’d called the collection Dead Relatives and other stories I had to come up with the title story which I hadn’t written. Most of the other stories had already been written, and some published. I’d already had a bit of a hit and miss with a story that I’d previously called Dead Relatives. It wasn’t really going anywhere but I liked the title so much I wanted to call the collection that so I gave myself the task of thinking about what evokes the idea of dead relatives. I went down the path of the graveyard, but cemeteries are a bit cliché. There are letters but I’m not really one for epistolary stories. And then I thought about photographs, and that’s what informed the title story, the novella Dead Relatives. So it gave that story its title but it also served to pull the whole collection together.
NSSF: Dead Relatives is really the star of the show, and it does draw all of these themes together. What I got from the collection were anxieties around motherhood, and babies, and silence and things that are unsaid. What kind of themes do you find you are drawn to and what draws you to a theme in the first place?
LMKH: I think motherhood and the female body tend to crop up a lot in my stories and I think that that’s purely because, as a mother of three, that is something that concerns me on a daily basis. It’s all consuming really so it’s natural that it will make its way into my writing. The other themes that come out of the stories are this idea of not belonging, and peculiar communities and rituals. I think that possibly comes from growing up in a rural community myself, the daughter of Londoners who moved to Wales when I was two, so there is this idea of belonging but not quite belonging.
NSSF: I like this idea of ritual and I can see that as a theme in your other work. I know there is a lot of witchcraft and ritual in your novel and I like that as a kind of darker twin to domestic life because that’s also so filled with ritual and routine and I like that it’s subverted or mirrored. Certainly, in Dead Relatives the main character Iris develops her own dark rituals which offset the daily routines of the house. These are all dark stories and in many of them there is this domestic violence, which is sometimes quite viscerally, squirmily, playfully macabre. I can only describe the way I read The Pickling Jar as gleeful which sounds odd, but I just thought it was wonderfully gross. But sometimes the gore is connected to these really human emotions and serves to heighten the emotional impact of a story.
LMKH: Yes, there is a bit of body horror which comes into these stories. It’s not there that often but you mention in The Pickling Jar and Resting Bitch Face and Wretched there is a kind of grotesquery involved to do with the human body. You picked up on the point that it’s also tied to human emotions; I like to think that the characters experiencing these things are drawn well enough for the reader to feel some sort of empathy rather than it just being a display or gore.
NSSF: And what I think is wonderful about these stories, and Resting Bitch Face comes to mind as well as Badger Face and Chooks Don’t Have Teeth is that the body horror is almost less affecting than the everyday, mundane violence that is not shocking. In Resting Bitch Face the ‘horrific’ elements almost feel like a relief after the frustration and the anger and rage that you tap into at the beginning of the story.
LMKH: I much prefer to have, and I think it’s been much more effective in the reading I’ve done, stories which accumulate this sense of impending doom or unease or something about to unfold. I’m not really one who goes for jump scares – I think they can work in film but less so in fiction. I like leading the reader along a path that they know is going to end awfully but they don’t quite know what that awful ending will be.
NSSF: There is almost a logic to this violence in a way, almost a kind of traumatic logic – it makes sense and it’s not just gory and horrible for a shock factor for no reason – it ties into all these really deep psychological problems that are going on with your characters.
LMKH: There are motivations there, I hope, and so there is an inevitability to the nasty endings caused by the build up to them.
NSSF: And do you find that different people react to your stories in different ways, or some people react to different stories more than others?
LMKH: Yeah it’s been a real variety actually – some people say ‘Oh I absolutely love The Birds of Nagasaki’ or ‘The Pickling Jar did it for me’ and that’s been really interesting actually. You bring out a collection of short stories and in your head you kind of know which ones are the stronger stories, but my perception hasn’t necessarily chimed with other peoples. I think that’s fantastic as a writer. It’s a real privilege to have people telling you their reactions to different stories and those being different to what you’d anticipated.
NSSF: Yeah, I suppose that’s part of birthing a book and letting it go out into the world!
LMKH: Yes, it’s nerve wracking. You publish something and you are putting yourself out there for judgement. So, to have positive feedback is obviously very pleasing and quite a relief!
NSSF: Well, I was obsessed with it – and thank you so much for talking to me about it, it’s been an absolute pleasure.
Interview by Molly Magrath