We’re celebrating the launch of Issue 19 by talking to our authors about what makes “Voyages” — and stories.
Lackington’s: Trains have a rich history in literature where they often appear romantic and deeply symbolic. In the real world, however, trains are also extremely ordinary features of everyday life. Do you consider the train in “That Damned Cat” to be romantic or ordinary, or a little of both? Why did you choose a train as your mode of transportation here?
BTW: With the facility of travel in the modern world of cheap flights, private cars and truck transport, we forget that the invention of the steam engine and the implementation of railways changed the face of the world perhaps more definitively than any other invention. 200 years ago, the transport of the future, these engines, brought change, altering perceptions and making the impossible possible. Trains revolutionized lives, connecting people and places, goods and services that were otherwise localized, cut off and isolated. I wanted to celebrate that in some small way.
Trains have inspired many writers that I have enjoyed, from the children’s books Thomas the Tank Engine, The Railway Children and J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts Express and, of course, for adults The Murder on the Orient Express, to name but a few.
Commutes aside, being the ordinary, the beauty of a train journey is the journey as much as the destination. There is the promise of being taken places in relative comfort, while enjoying glimpses of the passing countryside, even scenery of seediness. They are a sort of magic carpet in my eyes. The first form of mass transportation, taking ordinary people on holidays, previously unimaginable journeys, the magic of train travel continues to marvel me. It opens up opportunities for introducing people to other people in the intimacy of a carriage, seated in close proximity, for better or for worse. Isn’t that romantic?
I chose a train to be a character in the story as a symbol of transformation and change; a passageway into a different way of thinking, a different way of living, and as a device to allow the coming together of two souls who needed to meet at this junction of their lives.
Lackington’s: Most of us have our favourite types of books to read when travelling. The woman in your story is reading a collection of the poetry of the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi. What qualities do you think make for a good travelling book? What would you pack to read?
BTW: It was my habit, for the best part of my life, to be constantly reading. This is before I started writing. Even walking to and from school, I would have my nose in a book, navigating by instinct the familiar streets, while being immersed in another world. Having a book with me while travelling has always been essential. It meant that I could deal with the boredom of delays or harassment from un-welcome sources.
Travel by train is slightly different. For these journeys, I select a book to enhance rather than to distract from the experience. Both the changing landscape rushing past the windows and the atmosphere inside the carriage fascinate and relax me equally, allowing my mind to meander happily. I find myself becoming soporific so a book of poetry is perfect, or perhaps a collection of short stories.
Lackington’s: The cat in your story speaks in riddles, but it is far from the only talking cat in literature. There’s the Sphinx, the Cheshire Cat, the whole cast of characters from the musical Cats, and many more. What do you think it is about cats that makes writers want to imagine what they would say if they could talk to us? Do you have any favourite literary cats?
BTW: I have had cats in my life as companions since I was a child. I was always fascinated with watching them and their habits, staring into their unblinking eyes. I felt an affinity with them, feeling their eyes to be doorways into the spiritual, even before I understood the word. Of course, witches are associated with them and men are historically distrustful of them (both wise women and cats). The question is, are they mystical, magical or just playful or dull? Everyone has an opinion.
Cats are completely lacking in altruism; one can believe almost anything of them. One must choose to observe and be observed to enter this world. Their faces are both inscrutable and expressive; their voices both strident, insistent, and soothing to the nerves. Their speech could be almost telepathic.
My first caterific love in literature that I remember with delicious discomfort was The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. That the cat could create such forbidden havoc and creative fun at the same time, in the absence of Mum, made me shiver with delight. I was mesmerized by the Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, and in particular “The Cat That Walked by Himself.” All the animals at that time, including man, were wild but allowed themselves to be tamed by woman, all except the cat. The cat was the wildest of all wild animals. “He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him.” How marvellous. I loved the criminal mastermind of the cat from T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Macavity, who is beautifully, creatively intelligent. “His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed.” I do think he has the perfect name, rhyming as it does with gravity and suavity. “Whenever a crime is committed, Macavity’s not there.” Brilliant!
Lackington’s: Is there something about unconventional modes of storytelling that you find especially compelling? Why do we need to make space for stories that don’t always work the way that readers have come to expect?
BTW: In school, I was told to write essays and stories and I was taught the formulas in order to comply. There must be a beginning, a middle, an end. There must be a raison d’être; they must entertain or be didactic. There must be a timeline, a progression… Sorry, am I boring you? I could never do it. When I started reading short stories, I was caught up in the magic of some of them. Yes, some adhere to the formula and have an anecdote or story to recount. But others meandered and mystified and were masterfully concocted and delivered intriguing characters. I was hooked, in awe and totally humbled.
I believe it is important to make room for the unconventional in everything, otherwise we just repeat the same old patterns with slightly different twists. It’s not always comfortable but I want to be confused and amazed by the imaginations of other writers when they are unleashed from the bounds of the expected forms. Don’t we all wish to be surprised sometimes?
As a poet, I am starting tentatively to venture into the realm of short story. When I begin one, I don’t even know where I am going with the tale until the whole beast is revealed. If I start trying to create characters or plot before that, I’m lost. I’m an instinctive writer, putting to pen things just as they occur to me, and have faith they make sense afterwards.
Barbara Turney Wieland is a 50+ visual artist and poet who also dabbles in short story. She began writing at 49, unable to put it off any longer. She writes in cafés, in forests, in bed upon waking, on random park benches, and in unguarded moments. Her poems have been published in Narrow Road, Poetry Quarterly, Jazz Cigarette, Isacoustic, and Crannòg, to name a few. She is a member of the Geneva Writers Group. Born in England, she grew up mostly in Australia, but after that in France, then Singapore. Still not sure if the growing up part is finished, she currently lives and works in Switzerland with her family.