Interviewed by Rachel Wild
Read Jude Whiley’s fiction piece, What the Women Do
Rachel: The story of Patrick and Tillie, and Sam and Ash takes us into the world of two different groups of young people in contemporary Britain. What gave you the inspiration to write it?
Jude: I guess there were a few different things influencing this story, some pretty concrete. Others are harder to pin down. I used to live in Brighton whilst studying English at Sussex Uni. Most weeks the bulk of my work consisted of reading books on the beach, which was a conductive creative environment – you never know what you’ll see on Brighton beach. Plus, cause I was reading all the time, my head was in that storytelling space. Constantly I was looking for stories and characters and tragedies, and I only had to spend five minutes near the pier to find one. The main inspiration for this piece is simple. One day I was on the beach reading Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. It was one of the hottest days of the year, and I’d gone down to the sea for a swim, and to read. I was sat there with my book when, suddenly, this brawl erupted between two groups of lads. Something about it was particularly horrific, not your standard pub fight. The violence seemed premeditated, urgent. The saddest thing about it, for me, was that stood around the fighters, screaming, were various women, mainly girlfriends, all yelling and crying for the guys to stop. Any outsider could recognise the pointlessness of the brawl, but the fighters themselves were blind to it. Once the first punch was thrown, suddenly every guy involved thought they had a motive—to defend themselves, their mate, their “honour”— but none of it was worth the trauma they were inflicting. They were all fools defending some silly idea relating to their masculinity.
Anyway, This scene lived rent free in my head for about a year. Every so often it’d come to me and I’d ask myself whether the fighters themselves ever remembered it, whether it was significant to them or just another tiff. Then one day, a story I’d sent to a friend received some damning critique. They said I’d written something “without any intellectual worth”. I was pretty down about that—my writing is important to me.
For about a day I kicked about, complaining. Then I realised, the only remedy to writing a bad story is to write a good one. I sat down at my desk and asked myself what “intellectual” meant. I didn’t think I knew how to write anything particularly intellectual, but I did think I could write something affecting. That’s when I remembered the fight on the beach. I thought, if it troubled me so much, maybe I could render it in fiction and trouble some other people. Once I decided that, the story poured from me. It’s one of the few things I’ve written where the first draft emerged in an afternoon. It felt more like daydreaming than writing. I basically clocked out and let my spirit do the work.
I like the candid approach to characterisation in this story; we have access to their thoughts, and their prejudices. How do you go about writing memorable characters like these.
Characterisation is probably one of the things I pay least attention to. It shouldn’t be, but I’m too lazy to sit constructing characters and fantasising about stuff that’ll never make it into the story. I’m not J.K Rowling or Sally Rooney. Generally I give myself a scenario—e.g, a hot, crowded day at the beach, a fight—and the characters present themselves. Sometimes I hear about people “constructing” characters, as if they were little robots thrown into a simulation. That’s not the case with me. My characters are alive when they’re being written. They live somewhere inside me and just fill whatever world I put them in. If I’m working on a story I don’t think is any good, it’s generally because the character doesn’t exist in me—I’m having to construct them rather than channel them.
The underlying commonality the two groups have is their acceptance that violence is a normal part of their lives. Why did you decide to focus on this?
I think violence characterises a lot of male lives. Not all men are violent – I was always taught to respect people, I’ve never fought anybody – but I do think that many men exist in environments where violence is seen as something noble or necessary. I don’t know how this has persisted. I think you can blame everything, from the destruction of the rainforests, to the war in Ukraine, on our inability to question, interrogate, and stop violent male impulses. I think the two groups accept violence in this story because, in real life, many people do. The story aims, I guess, to illustrate the endpoint of violent attitudes, paying attention to the fact that masculine violence does not restrict itself to men, and inevitably hurts women, children, everybody. If I wanted to change one thing in the future, I’d say it’s time to eradicate men. Just the other day I saw that fertility scientists had found a way to make an embryo without sperm, meaning women could reproduce without men. I say, go for it. I’m happy to bow out if it means these stupid little fights, like the one depicted in the story, stop.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m applying for a PhD. I’m also working on a short story collection based off my M.A dissertation. This week I’m writing a story about a guy who has scabies. The last two weeks I’ve had scabies and I can’t let the suffering go to waste. Channelling it into my art may somehow justify all the scratching. Maybe afterwards I’ll get a bedbug infestation and write about that.
Thanks so much Jude, and congratulations on your publication with The Forge!