Interview with longlisted author Catrina Davies
Catrina Davies talks about her research into the housing crisis in Cornwall that inspired her writing her longlisted book Homesick: Why I Live in a Shed.
What does it feel like to be longlisted?
I’m blown away to be longlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize. Writing Homesick was a very long, lonely and difficult process. To watch it finding readers and support out in the world is truly magical.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
I love non-fiction and read a lot of it, so it’s hard to choose just one book, but if I absolutely had to choose, I’d probably go for a collection of essays by Annie Dillard called Teaching a Stone to Talk, first published in 1982. I love the way Dillard uses devastating precision as a way to grope for absolute, universal truth: ‘We are here on the planet only once and might as well get a feel for the place’.
She starts her essays with minute observations of the physical world, weaves these observations into stories about real people in real places, and then zooms out to deliver startling images of how these observations and stories fit into a much bigger and more mysterious whole. The effect is often funny: ‘Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?’ and sometimes transcendent: ‘What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us? What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?’
Annie Dillard is one of those authors who feels like a friend, and Teaching a Stone to Talk is probably the closest thing I have to a Bible. I like to have it in my back pocket whenever I’m doing something mildly terrifying, like sleeping out on the cliffs on my own, or cycling over mountain ranges. Not least because the essay Sojourner contains my all-time favourite sentence: ‘We are down here in time, where beauty grows.’
How did you research?
I was inspired to write this book by my own experience and the experience of people close to me, like my Mum. I could see that her chronic anxiety and depression was being made much worse by insecure and unaffordable housing, and I could also see that the lack of secure, affordable housing was not a simple problem of supply and demand, even though politicians liked to pretend it was. I live in Cornwall, where many houses are empty a lot of the time, yet more are constantly being built. Owning property is virtually the only way of making money, which has given rise to a glaring inequality. I began to perceive that the housing crisis was part of a bigger existential crisis, a symptom of the struggle between market forces and our freedom as individuals to be human. I became quite obsessed with trying to get to the bottom of this, to understand it for myself. I went to the British Library and read articles by the architects of Neoliberalism, like Hayek and Friedman, and legal texts about housing and human rights. I went to see my MP, who at the time was trying to get a private members bill on housing through parliament, and learned about the parliamentary arithmetic on second homes. I read books about land ownership, especially Marion Shoard’s classic This Land is Our Land. Probably the most important text for me, in terms of understanding the nuts and bolts of the UK housing crisis, which I used a lot, was Danny Dorling’s All That is Solid: The Great Housing Disaster. I went to the BFI and watched old films about slum clearance and public announcements about the introduction of hot water into people’s houses. The problem I had was how to fit all this research into one book. It felt like putting an octopus to bed, every time I tucked one leg in another one popped out. Luckily, I had all my research notes stolen when my shed was broken into, so I was liberated to tell my own story in a way that actually (I hope) makes sense.
How do you think this book will influence people’s perceptions of Cornwall?
It’s frustrating that we only ever talk about the north/south divide in the UK, as if Cornwall is somehow in the same category as London. In fact, Cornwall (along with west Wales) is one of the two poorest regions in northern Europe and has consistently benefited from EU funding designed to help regenerate seriously depressed economies. People think of Cornwall as a kind of idealised tourist destination, but it’s also a place that’s never recovered from the collapse of mining, and now fishing. One of the things that motivated me to write my book was a desire to challenge the fact that Cornwall only ever seems to appear in books as a pretty backdrop to a middle-class drama. I found these generic literary representations of Cornwall, a place I love fiercely in all it’s different (and often difficult) moods, increasingly offensive and alienating. I hope my book won’t just influence people’s perceptions of Cornwall, but help to highlight a deeper truth, which is that places aren’t backdrops but ecosystems, and people aren’t fungible commodities that can be picked up and put down again anywhere, but part of these delicate ecosystems, like trees with roots.
What are you working on next?
I’m quite far along with another non-fiction book, and mapping ideas for my first novel, which is both terrifying and exciting. I also have a record coming out soon, which includes the songs that appear in the pages of Homesick. I recorded it ages ago, in Wales, and it features sounds from the landscape, like owls and rivers and blackbirds.