It’s not the only annoying reaction. When she says she writes novels, people assume that because she’s female, they must be romances. Her award-winning first novel, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, where the narrators are men, was praised for its masculine writing: “I thought, why would nobody like to be told it’s feminine writing?”
And although she was very careful not to mention her pregnancy in the post-Miles Franklin interviews, when she let the news slip she got online comments along the lines of “Come on, stop complaining about being up the duff”.
She’s speaking on the phone from her home in London, with her dog whining in the background because it wants a walk. At some point she has to shut herself in the bathroom to escape the dog, but she remains good humoured and talks about herself and her work with cheerful and wry self-deprecation.
Although she was born in England, her mother was Australian and, when she and her brother were young, the family used to spend time every couple of years with her grandfather and uncle on their sugar cane farm near Yamba in NSW. “When I look back on my childhood, the important bits were in Australia,” she says.
The farm visits sound like a rough and ready idyll: grandfather driving around on a tractor in his underwear, a pet kangaroo that thought it was a dog. But that didn’t suit her father, a very English chap: “He was very, very white and he liked wine and women in Soho.”
At the age of six, Wyld heard a lot of stories from the shark catcher across the river and developed a shark phobia: “I thought all sharks were as big as a double-decker bus.” (She later turned this fear into a family memoir, Everything is Teeth, a graphic novel illustrated by Joe Summer.)
There’s a dead shark in The Bass Rock (“I managed to crowbar one in”) but the novel won’t be eligible for the Miles Franklin because it’s the first book of hers set entirely in Britain. The Bass Rock is real: an island in the Firth of Forth to the east of Scotland, home to the world’s largest gannet colony, which Sir David Attenborough declared one of the 12 wonders of the world. “It stinks if you get near it.”
In her book it’s a brooding presence visible from the beach at East Berwick, which Wyld says is “not a lively place”, full of elderly people and American golfers. But in the 1950s it was a seaside holiday town, where Ruth goes to live with her new husband Peter and his young boys from his first marriage.
Ruth is based on Wyld’s paternal grandmother: “She was alive until quite recently. My father didn’t really get along with her. I had this idea of her: she was a gin alcoholic and a chain smoker, like a British comedy character”. She puts on a posh accent – “Isn’t it ghastly, darling.”
But after going back to the family house and looking at the photo albums, Wyld’s idea of her grandmother shifted. She says it’s clear she was very intelligent, but was never given an opportunity to do anything with her brain.
“She met my grandfather after his first wife died, with two little boys who were traumatised and not speaking. And they married within a year. Did he want a mother for his children? So I started to write an alternative version of her life.”
These scenes were written when Wyld’s five-year old son, Joe, was a baby, during his nap times. “I’d think, I’ve got an hour and I need to write something. There wasn’t much thought, whatever was in my head at that moment.” Gradually she began to add in scenes from two other time frames: the present-day life of Viv, Ruth’s granddaughter, who is cataloguing items left in the house after Ruth’s death; and the story of the ghost, a girl from the 18th century who is helped to escape when she is condemned as a witch.
While the ghost is disturbing enough, the real terror in the book, which links the three narratives, is a consistent theme in Wyld’s work: men’s violence against women, and how it echoes down the generations.
While she was writing, she says, #MeToo happened. It all linked up, going back to the history of witch persecution: “I thought, oh, it’s exactly the same, it’s just changed shape.” She was influenced by two Australians: Emily Maguire and her book An Isolated Incident, about the effect of violence on victims; and Sherele Moody, who is creating an online femicide map of Australia, showing the sites and histories where women and girls were murdered.
The violent acts in Wyld’s novel range from horrific extremes to the subtly creepy and frightening. The story of a supposedly mad woman who is lobotomised comes from a real and uncomfortably recent case.
A bizarre picnic when Ruth and her female companions are attacked by the men in a ritual ‘‘bit of fun’’ goes back to an experience Wyld had with male friends when she was 14. “They suddenly got this odd thing, they were giggling, then they tied me up and tickled me. I was going ‘I really don’t like this’. They were nice boys, not terrible human beings, but just the thought that they could do that and it was fun…”
She wanted to show how scary such things could be – and yet women are made to feel stupid if they push back. “I wanted to express the disappointment that you feel as a woman,” she says. “It’s 2020 and all of those things my mother thought wouldn’t be an issue for me somehow feel more of an issue because so much change was expected. It’s basically about the moment of coming in from work and you don’t take off your shoes or your coat and you sit and stare at the wall thinking ‘what really is the point?’
“A lot of my friends who are very talented and intelligent women have that feeling of being unable to move for a time. It’s all to do with anger, but a woman can’t be angry.”
Is her writing an outlet for her anger? “That’s why I’ve written such a horrid book,” she jokes. “I’m lucky I have this valve. I can’t imagine not having a creative outlet for that anger.
“Also, one would like to be able to shout at someone as well as write a book and not worry all the time about being nice. Because a not-nice woman is something different to a not-nice man.”
After writing a “huge load” of scenes, the hard part began: fitting them together into a narrative, which took a year. “So many moving parts needed to be nested into each other and linked back to each other.” Luckily she had the help of her husband, an editor she met while they were both studying creative writing at Goldsmiths college.
Wyld has a busy life. She’s a business partner in a Peckham bookshop, Review, which she runs with fellow Australian Roz Simpson, and she lectures on creative writing at the University of Kent. “The aim is to write full-time, but there’s so little money in writing books. I guess I’ll be starting to write something new this spring.”
If her jobs don’t give her enough time for writing, “I’ll just have to start shedding something”. Pause. “Probably not my son.”
The Bass Rock is published by Vintage at $32.99.