An interview with Robert Williams
Words by Rob St. John
Into the Trees is Robert Williams’s third book. It tells the story of four people drawn to a forest on the fringes of country and city in North West England who find their lives intertwining amongst the trees. Williams grew up in Clitheroe, a rural Lancashire market town, before moving to Manchester. He released a set of fragile and creaking small-town laments on record as The Library Trust, before winning a Faber writing competition which began his publishing career.
Into the Trees has a sparkling grace and clarity of observation about it. There’s little romanticisation of the landscape in the book, nor much myth-making imposed upon it, despite the folkloric setting of the forest. Instead, Into the Trees is a keenly hewn tapestry of relationships between people and place; a story of how our immediate environment shapes our internal, emotional landscapes. There’s a incisiveness to Williams’s writing: a set of sharp observations and quiet revelations on the relationships formed in these spaces between.
In many ways, the book deals with the realities of the ‘hinterlands’ which drape much of Britain’s rural-urban divide far more astutely and sensitively than much of the current raft of often vague and unlived ‘edgeland’ writing. In lyrical and deceptively minimal prose, Williams creates a landscape that carries you in its wake so completely that it is difficult to disentangle the characters from reality for days after finishing the book.
I met Rob in a small coffee shop just off Clitheroe’s high street, as outside the early summer rain hung like heavy sheets onto bustling streams of Saturday morning shoppers.
Given that you grew up around here, how important is the landscape of East Lancashire – former mill towns, quiet villages, the expanse of the Trough of Bowland – to your writing?
Clitheroe is a lovely small market town, but I always aspired to leave to be a rock star and live in London or New York City. This couldn’t happen in Clitheroe so I spent my teenage years wanting to be somewhere else. And then I found that as soon as I left and got to Manchester that I missed it. There was a real pull about this area, though I didn’t like admitting it. I wanted to be the guy who lived in all these exotic places, and had all these stories. And to find that I’ve travelled an hour away and I’m a bit homesick, well, it’s a bit embarrassing.
But even being an hour away, where the environment in Manchester is so different, it makes it easier to write about Lancashire because there’s a longing to be there, to be in a valley with forests nearby, in a small town. These rural landscapes and small towns have become a bit more fashionable recently, and I think people are accepting that it’s possible to be creative and successful in these inbetween, overlooked places. Look at the success of the Fence Collective in Scotland. Whereas when I was growing up here, it seemed ridiculous to be able to do that. I thought as soon as I got a sniff of anything resembling success, I’d be in London or somewhere.
Why do you think that smaller and more out of the way places are becoming (perhaps they have always been) centres for creativity?
Maybe it’s happened out of necessity for some people. It’s expensive to live somewhere like London, but the creative instinct doesn’t leave you because you live in an out of the way place. If you’re a songwriter, you still want to write songs, painters want to paint, writers want to write, and you keep doing that wherever you are. Particularly with the internet it’s so much easier.
I suppose in the UK, nowhere is more than a decent train or car journey away, so you can live almost anywhere and still tour, exhibit, publish and so on. I went on tour in America earlier this year and I was amazed at the distances people would travel – two or three hours – just to play or see a show. I think geography makes it easier to live rurally in the UK and still keep in touch with the city.
That’s interesting, I listened a lot to Mercury Rev around the time of Deserter’s Songs, when they were tapping into the idea of small towns (in upstate New York), the rivers and the lakes. And also at the same time, you had The Flaming Lips and The Soft Bulletin [both albums were recorded in the same studio by the same producer in tandem] and they were very proud of being from Oklahoma and would write about it. And I didn’t know anything about Oklahoma, but they made it sound interesting.
These were seemingly normal people that you’d feel you might see over here down the pub on a Saturday night: they were the people who were making the most interesting music. And they weren’t making it in New York, they were making it in (and about) these out of the way places. And then over here there was Fence. But then, Bruce Springsteen can sing about the interstate convincingly and make it romantic and interesting, but maybe you can’t sing about the A59 and Skipton in the same way!
As far as landscape writing goes, I’m a big fan of an American writer called Kent Haruf, who sets his books in a fictional Midwestern town called Holt. He’s written three or four books based around that area, and that’s sort of what I wanted to do, to claim North East Lancashire in my books. If people think of the north, they think of Manchester, they might think of Blackpool, or the Yorkshire Dales. And above “world-famous” Manchester (that invented football and pop music, according to itself) people think of the Lake District. And we’re sort of inbetween. But it’s bypassed, because when you drive from Manchester to the Lake District, you don’t see it, you see signposts for Blackburn and Burnley instead. And I thought I wanted to claim this place as my own: to set stories in the towns and fields and hills here. And so many people people have written about the Lake District and Manchester. I thought, I’m having this area.
I’m always struck by how quickly you go from the town centre of somewhere like Burnley out onto the moors, with nothing for company but a few upland birds, in the space of ten minutes or so. I think you capture that in a very subtle and pervasive way in the book. The boundaries between the rural and the urban here are pretty sharp.
There’s real beauty here, but also towns where the bottom has fallen out, where streets are boarded up and you can buy a terraced house for next to nothing. There’s such a contrast. There’s pretty little market towns like Clitheroe where people aspire to live, and then over the hill towns are dying.
And that’s why I enjoyed writing Raymond so much. Raymond lives in one of these ex-mill towns, and he gets on his bike and rides ten miles to the top of a hill, to look at the landscape in front of him. I still get that when I drive over Longridge Fell: you can see Blackburn and Burnley, but you can also see the countryside of the Trough of Bowland, and it’s there and free for everybody. It’s a little miracle really. But it’s very hard to afford to live in these places. That’s why Raymond ends up living in a caravan in the back of a field.
[An early scene in the book sees a new parent, Thomas, driving slowly across the dark fells at night with a screaming baby in the back of the car, hoping that the quiet rhythms of the drive will lull her to sleep. Happening upon a forest, the baby quietens. At the edge of this forest is where Thomas and his wife Ann subsequently make their home, in a converted barn where their baby Harriet finds calm.
In the wood that night, Thomas is silently watched by Raymond, a worker from a nearby farm, who regularly takes night walks to settle his mind. Happening upon Thomas and the child in the woods, Raymond assumes the worst: that they are intending suicide. Relieved when the family smile at the sleeping child and drive silently away, Raymond remains hidden, but discovers that he’s not the only person who finds sanctuary in the forest.]
Raymond is a great character, but despite his physical strength he has a fragility about him, both in his mental state, largely relating to his dilapidated dwelling in the town, and in the uncertainty of his work on the farm. Was he easy to write?
I enjoyed writing him. In that scene, I sensed someone should be watching Thomas. When there’s people in the forest in the middle of the night, the instinct is for that person to be evil. And I thought, no, I wanted that person to be kind, and trying to do good. I’m interested in the idea of good in people in fiction. It’s not that I think there’s too much violence in literature, but I do think that most people are fundamentally kind and good in some way. Most people will show concern for other people if they fall over in the street. The easiest thing in fiction is to write the serial killer, the wicked, abusive man. And there are elements of that in Keith [a character in the book who turns to crime as a result of the slow build up of his inadequacies and hang ups]. But I don’t believe in those characters in books. So I try to write some goodness into my characters.
Coming from the area, it was interesting for me trying to orientate the geography of the book: you don’t use real place names, but everything seems familiar.
It’s a fictional version of Lancashire and the Forest of Bowland. There’s no huge forest in the Forest of Bowland, the ‘forest’ is an old name for hunting grounds. In my head I’m using bigger mill towns like Preston and Blackburn, and more remote villages like Downham and Chipping, but giving them my own names. If I was to use a specific place, like Preston, it would break the spell as a storyteller. But if I use a fictional name, like Maltham, then I can begin to believe it more.
I did a library talk the other day and a man there was quite annoyed with me – he’d read the book was set in the Trough of Bowland and he wanted the specific hills and roads and villages in there. I mean, they’re all in there in a way, but they’re all scuzzed up. I think if you write fiction then write fiction. I’m using the landscape and the towns of Lancashire, but shifted a few degrees to the left and the right and blurred over.
You do talk about the witch trials on a nearby hill. Are you referencing Pendle Hill?
Yeah, Pendle has been in all of my books, spelt in a variety of different ways! Because I grew up near the foot of the hill and its such an important part of local storytelling, Pendle has crept into everything I’ve written. As have quarries, because I grew up by the cement works in Citheroe.
Where I grew up, you had the beauty of the Ribble Valley on one side, and on the other you’d have trains going past at 3am loaded with cement, and then across from that was the chemical works, beeping away through the night. If the wind was blowing a certain way, in the morning the cars would be covered in cement dust from the works. Growing up in the countryside, surrounded by all this industrial work, that was a real contrast.
Did you spend a lot of time walking the area during writing, or was it mostly written from mental maps?
I mostly wrote the landscapes and places from memory as I know the area intimately. I grew up here, and I know what a dark day in a market town feels like [gesturing to the damp, grey street outside]. I did go into the trees at night, but I took my Dad with me, as I’m quite easily scared! We parked up and went for a walk in the forest. And it felt quite illicit, men at night going into the trees in the dark, you’re not going to be doing something good in there. That’s why I use this landscape: I know the places, and I can describe them without having to do months of research.
These implicit rules about you shouldn’t or shouldn’t do in the countryside are interesting to me: the routes you take; how you think you should behave, even dress; the notice boards and signposts that govern our interactions with nature. One of my favourite scenes in the book is where Raymond, through various stages of liberation, takes off on an aimless wander across the fields and hills, disregarding any of the waymarked paths.
It’s easy to forget that the landscape belongs to everyone. I mean, you worry about walking in the wrong field and that a farmer will shout at you. But the landscape, it’s for everyone. The Forest of Bowland was restricted for many years and you couldnt walk many parts of it because it’s owned by the Crown. You’d be trespassing. And though that has been lifted with the Right to Roam, I think people are still cautious. When you’re in the countryside you feel like you have to behave. You follow the track through the trees. Part of that is so you don’t get lost, part of it is that you don’t feel like you’re breaking the rules.
It’s easy to forget that these are quite wild places. I used to work in a pub in Chipping [a small rural village a few miles north of Clitheroe], and rather than driving straight home after work, I’d go across the fells and down little lanes, and that would be quite scary. And you don’t think about that, where we are in the world, but there’s a real wildness to the area. People do die up the fells, only a few miles away from the towns. It gives you a bit of respect for the place.
There’s very little romanticisation of the rural landscape in Into the Trees, and it seems to shape a lot of the relationships and emotional states in the book, both as a positive and negative force. Would you ever move out of the city back to the countryside?
I’d love to live in a small village in the country, but I know that if I moved somewhere remote and rural, there would be long hard days that can really sap your spirit, particularly in winter. As someone says in the book, ‘it’s not all leaping lambs and summer fairs’. It can be as grim and miserable as living in any city, it can be tough and depressing.
You can aspire to move somewhere, and think that it will solve your problems. But the thing is you can’t escape yourself. Wherever you are, you take your problems with you. In the book, Thomas is thinking ‘we will get there, and Harriet will sleep, and we will love it, and we will be happy’. And for a short while that happens. But of course, life doesn’t give you that prolonged happiness and calmness for any length of time, because it doesn’t work like that. And Ann is never satisfied. There’s already something gnawing away at Thomas’ happiness, and then when bad things happen, he deals with it very badly.
If the book is about anything, its that life is constantly shifting, and that everyone is looking for happiness. And you might find happiness for ten minutes on an afternoon in June, and think “I want this for ever”. But life doesn’t work like that. It’s about living when things aren’t perfect, which is pretty much living, isn’t it?
Pick up a copy of Into The Trees from Faber & Faber here