Baby Harriet cries every night for hours; “a sound to make animals turn and run.” Her parents, Thomas and Ann Norton, try everything to make her stop, but nothing works. That is, until they discover Bleasdale, a remote forest whose trees have a mysterious soothing effect on Harriet. Sleep deprived and desperate, the Nortons buy up and convert an old barn in the forest and relocate in the hope of restoring their family life. Thomas anticipates an idyllic life closer to nature, although Ann is unnerved by the remoteness of the forest (“a stranded bruise of a place”), and its giant trees that block out the light.
The Norton’s closest neighbours live two miles away, on a farm at the edge of the forest. Raymond, a labourer there, is pleased to watch the Nortons’ transformation of the old barn. It is his idea of the perfect home. He also loves the peace and solitude of the forest, and would much rather live in his caravan on the farm than in the damp, neglected terraced house in Etherton which he inherited from his late mother. His neighbours in Etherton are especially loathsome: Keith, the father, is an impoverished, former con, prone to booze and domestic violence; his teenage daughters delight in badgering Raymond for being an ‘oddball’. Raymond is large – both physically and socially awkward (“a broken machine of a man”); yet through an unexpected series of events he strikes up an unlikely friendship with Thomas and the pair find comfort in each other’s presence.
Then one night an unexpected crime shatters the tranquillity of the forest and the stability of the Nortons’ family unit. They are left traumatised, especially Thomas, who fears he can no longer protect his family the way a father should. He simply can’t shake off the feeling that the worst will happen again and so devises elaborate ways of staving off the danger lurking in the trees. But his schemes send him reeling further into anxiety, drink and depression (“Everything good had been replaced by fear”). Sensing he must find a safer haven than the one he created at Bleasdale, Thomas runs away; an act of survival which threatens to uproot the family he holds most dear.
Williams’ hallmark style – understated, direct, disquieting – lends itself impeccably to this irresistible tale of a rural dream gone wrong. Into the Trees offers all the storytelling pleasures of a dark fairy tale, whilst being rooted in a sharply observed social realism that’s anything but fey. The first person voice of his earlier works is replaced by an ambitious third person narrative structure, but the tone and depth of insight, especially into the male characters’ motivations, remains typically vivid and humane.
As with Williams’ former fiction, the characters are outsiders seeking a place to call home – a space in which to feel safe, certainly, but also a way of belonging that transcends geography. When his characters do find solace it is in friendship not locale. In fact, what Into the Trees shows (in a way both thrilling and hugely affecting), is that human endeavour to conquer nature can seriously backfire. An idyll has the potential to be a prison, a haven become hell. Nature, as the Romantics knew so well, is often filtered by the rich inner emotional landscapes of human hope and fear.
Into The Trees is a novel hemmed in by darkness but shot through with light, as intriguing as the forest it describes. Enter expecting to be transfixed until the very last page.
Author Interview: Robert Williams
Robert, I’m delighted to have the opportunity to interview you following your recent book tour for Into The Trees. How was the tour? And what has been the response to the novel so far?
I recently returned from the North East, where I talked to readers about Into The Trees as part of the ‘Read Regional’ campaign, a celebration of new books from the North of England. Last year I did a tour of libraries in the North West, which was also part of a wider initiative called ‘Time to Read’ (the aim of which is to develop adult reading in NW England). Feedback from the talks about Into The Trees has been encouraging but I’m not sure if people would tell me they hated it to my face! People tend to be polite, particularly in libraries.
Am I correct in thinking your work has been especially well received in Germany?
My debut novel, Luke and Jon, received good coverage there after it was translated into German. Der Spiegel, the weekly news magazine, published a feature on the book which ran to a few pages and this led to other coverage. Whilst promoting the novel in Germany, I was invited to attend a school who had adapted the story for stage. They built a large model of the horse which features in the book. That was very moving. Unfortunately, as a non-German speaker, all I could say in gratitude was “wunderbar”!
Your departure point for Into The Trees is a screaming baby who can’t be calmed. I think most parents could identify with the bizarre lengths the Nortons go to for a peaceful night’s sleep. My personal favourite was when the parents put two trees beside Harriet’s cot. Did your draw on your own experiences of parenthood in writing the novel?
Since writing the book, I have had a son, but at the time I drew mainly on the parenting experiences of friends and family. You always hope you get it right when you write about family life but every family has different experiences so I followed my instinct. My son actually came on tour with me last year and people asked if I’d based Harriet on him. Thankfully his crying wasn’t quite so dramatic. And he didn’t once cry when he was supposed to during the reading.
The setting and atmosphere of Into The Trees feels like a modern day fairy tale – was this your intention?
I didn’t study fairy tales or anything but I wanted that universal feel they give you. I wanted a house in the woods, far from town and cities. I wanted the atmosphere fairy tales deliver, the way you buy into the story from the first line with a fairy tale or fable. You simply accept the story as it is laid out in front of you. I hoped to draw the reader in in that way.
The forest seemed a natural setting for the story. They are places where you can run and hide, but they are also quite frightening because you don’t know who’s in there, who’s watching you. When Thomas goes into the trees holding his baby daughter to his chest in the middle of the night, he is unaware he is being watched. When I sensed that someone else was there, watching, that’s when I knew I had a novel.
Places in the novel are fictional, but the landscapes (rural and urban) seem particular to NW England. For example, you mention ‘the three big cities’ – presumably Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds? Do you consider yourself to be a ‘Northern’ writer? What draws you to write about these landscapes?
I wouldn’t say ‘Northern’ so much as regional. I’m interested in the between places: the kinds of places where many people live, but are never talked about. I’m not a ‘city’ writer, I’m more interested in the fringes of places, unfashionable places, the outskirts. I grew up in a small, market town, quite pretty, and we were surrounded by lovely countryside but on the other side of the estate was a cement works and a chemical factory you could hear them rumbling into the night. So I’m interested in that contrast, the rural and industrial.
In your previous novels, your characters relocate after they experience a trauma. In Into the Trees, the crisis occurs after the Nortons have moved and start to feel established. Rarely do your characters seem settled and content in their environment. Is this pertinent to your characters’ situations, or does this uneasiness have wider relevance to the way we live now?
For a novel to work, you generally need conflict and desire. No matter how small those conflicts and desires are. You need characters that aspire to and want something. There has to be movement – sometimes that’s physical, as it is for the Nortons. But it can also be an emotional want: such as Thomas’ need to feel safe. He discovers he won’t be totally safe wherever he lives and he has to face up to that. My characters’ discontent with their environment perhaps reflects my own. I would like to live in the landscapes I write about, though I don’t currently. Maybe one day.
Male friendship is central to your fiction and often it’s between characters who are deemed ‘odd’ or ‘different’. Thomas, a banker, and Raymond, a farm labourer, form an unlikely friendship in Into the Trees. What do they have in common and why did you choose to write about men from such different backgrounds?
They are two fundamentally kind people and they recognise that in one another. Thomas and Raymond are both out of place. Thomas is trying to find a home. He loves the countryside but becomes aware that it’s not the haven he always thought it would be. In Raymond, he sees a strong adept countryman, the kind of person he wants to have around, partly to protect him after the traumatic event. Neither of the male characters like disorder. Thomas struggles to cope with the chaos, whereas Ann, his wife, is quite stoical.
Yes, Thomas and Ann react quite differently to the crime at the heart of the novel.
Ann’s reaction is how I’d like to think I would react when faced with a crisis. But Thomas’s reaction is probably closer to how I would actually behave…
Raymond’s characterisation is fascinating and complex. He is a timid giant, but because of the way the story is told, we feel a pervasive and lurking suspicion regarding his morality. Did you want readers to feel uncertain, and why?
I knew early on that Raymond was not a sinister character. But I did play on the fact that first-impressions can be deceiving. We all tend to judge people quickly, and often by appearance. Raymond appears scary, but is actually very honest and kind and decent. From Raymond’s point of view, Thomas is the disarming presence: he sees Thomas in the middle of the night, in the woods, holding a baby. So in that sense the tables are turned and we get to see how wrong first impressions can be.
You chart Thomas’s descent into paranoia and anxiety with great emotional precision. How did you go about putting yourself into his mind set?
I have experienced anxiety and depression. I don’t think I would have written Thomas whilst in the midst of depression, but I was far enough away at the time to look back on it with some clear headedness and with the ever present worry that it might return.
What are we to make of the way men withdraw into silence and drink in your novels?
I am conscious of dealing in stereotypes but there are times when men and women withdraw into silence and drink when things around them become too much. I wanted to reflect honestly how a man like Thomas might handle a traumatic event. Another man might have talked to his wife, sought treatment early on and dealt with things differently. But not Thomas.
I think that people who experience depression are often aware of becoming a burden to others, so they stop talking about it. Depression can last such a long time and often there is no cheery answer when people ask how you’re feeling. They want to hear, ‘I’m better, let’s go for a walk and a drink!’ and you can’t always provide that answer. And so it seems simpler to withdraw, as a way of not imposing yourself on others.
In all of your novels, children have to cope with parents who are either absent, neglectful or emotionally strained to the point they can’t fulfil their roles. As a mum, your books made me reconsider how much I expose my own children to a world of adult emotions. Do you feel a shift has occurred in the way children are parented?
I think as adults it’s easy to forget how frightening the world can be to children. Hearing your parents arguing, for example, is horrible. I remember I used to hate swimming lessons as a kid; I was scared of water and drowning. I used to cry in bed the night before. My mum only realised this when I was an adult, and then she asked me why I never told her. The simple truth is that children frighten easily.
I don’t condone the way the parents behave in my novels. Jake and Donald’s mothers are very much absent in How the Trouble Started; they are what makes the boys who they are; their very lack of concern means that the boys are free to roam about together.
Chekov said, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story.” Your fiction is very compact in this regard, and as a consequence highly compelling. What techniques did you use to ensure the reader stays in the story?
I love reading concise books but it takes me a while to get there myself. In an early draft my sentences are usually a lot longer, the chapters baggier, more digressions and back story included. Then when I understand the story I’m trying to tell, when I finally know all of it, I go back in and begin to strip the scaffolding away. I think it’s about finding the right shape for the book you’re writing. When you understand the shape of it it becomes a lot easier. That often evolves through the hard work of the redrafting process.
How The Trouble Started showed a virtuoso talent for controlling and withholding information from the reader. Having written that novel, did you find it easier to control the flow of dramatic tension in Into The Trees? That also has some very tense scenes.
Thank you! It took a while to get there. My agent told me I needed to be clear about Donald’s intentions when writing How the Trouble Started. At the beginning I wasn’t sure of his nature so I had to make a decision about that. In early drafts I was too playful with his intentions. I withheld too much information and at times, laid too many red herrings. Mainly because I wasn’t sure of his intentions myself.Getting the balance tight took a lot of fine tuning and it was a hard book to write. But I did learn from the process, yes. But with each book you only learn how to write that particular book by writing it. Into the Trees was easier to write, it seemed to fall into place earlier on, I understood its shape quite early on.
Into the Trees starts and ends with Harriet, and yet she is largely absent during the body of the story. Could you talk more about the novel’s framing device?
The start came from nowhere. I began writing and here was this screaming baby and fraught parents who were worried sick and exhausted. The story all evolved from Harriet’s screaming and whilst she doesn’t play a part in the telling of the story it seemed the thing to do to return to her at the end. I like the idea that the book begins with everyone desperate for Harriet to fall asleep and then 8 years later, after everything that has come from her lack of sleep, the book finishes with her sleeping.
Your prose style is elegantly understated, which is surprising given the dramatic/emotive subject matter of your fiction. To what extent is style a conscious decision?
It is conscious, yes. I aim for clear, precise prose. And I do think that works well for telling dramatic stories. If the prose is manic and the events are dramatic it can all become too fraught.
But I do think that I have occasionally gone too far, stripped too much away and then, if you’re not careful, it can become plain. I’m trying to find a balance.
Your stories capture families at moments of crisis. Did you ever consider using the novella or short story format, or were they always destined to be novels?
All three of my novels are quite short. I find that more pleasing as a writer and a reader but the novels were always intended to be novels.
I love reading short stories and novellas and have written both.
Can you tell us about any future projects?
I’m writing my fourth novel. I won’t say too much about it because I’m still working it out. There is a man in it. And a woman. I don’t think that will change.
To find out more about Robert and his work visit: www.robertwilliamsauthor.co.uk
Or find him on Twitter @redwardwilliams