Wyl Menmuir on Writing: ‘It’s the only real form of magic I know’

By Richy Campbell

Wyl Menmuir is a novelist, editor and literary consultant based in Cornwall. His first novel, The Many, was nominated for the Man-Booker Prize and was an Observer Best Fiction of the Year pick. His short fiction has appeared in Best British Short Stories, Elementum Journal, Pipeline and has been published by Nightjar Press and National Trust. Sideways poetry editor, Richy Campbell, interviews him about why he started writing, his advice to aspiring writers, and his take on the fiction-writing landscape.

Hi Wyl. I’m interested to know what compelled you to start writing?

I’m sure there’s a deep-seated psychological reason for it — something to do an essential fear that I am unable to communicate clearly and must try over and again to make myself heard — though I like to think it was more to do with being amazed at realising what good writing can do for a reader, even from a young age. I’ve always felt there was a sort of magic in being able to transport a reader from their living room or bedroom to another place and time, to give them an out-of-body experience almost. It’s the only real form of magic I know and it still amazes me now. I always wanted to be able to do that for other people.

What motivates you to write now?

These are deep questions to answer first thing in the morning. I have stories I want to tell and even when I think perhaps I’ll leave fiction alone for a while (especially then, perhaps), a story will occur to me and I’ll feel compelled to see if I can do it justice). I’m motivated be great writing, by the feedback I receive from readers, by the thought that my best writing is still to come.

Why did you choose to primarily write fiction?

I write journalism and essays too and there’s a slightly different joy to be had in each form, a different set of challenges and opportunities. I love playing with fiction forms though, and as a reader I find a particular pleasure in reading fiction, so perhaps my choice to write fiction is tied up with that.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers looking to improve their work?

I think it’s been said a million times before, but my advice would be to read. Voraciously. And be disciplined about what you read. Read work the brilliance of which scares you and inspires you to take risks and push boundaries. Read work the clarity of prose and thought of which make you want to give your all to the next thing you write.

What publishers do you currently enjoy?

I’m omnivorous when it comes to publishers, though I do keep my eye on smaller presses for interesting short stories and novellas in particular. Right now I’m a big fan of Peirene Press for bringing great new short fiction in translation to my shelves, Comma Press for the astounding quality of their fiction output, and Guillemot Press, who are local to me in Cornwall, and who put out some startlingly good pamphlets, short stories and poetry.

What are you reading at the moment?

I always have several books on the go. At the moment I’m reading a short story collection titled Once You Break a Knuckle, by D.W Wilson, I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith, Francis Spufford’s I May Be Some Time, a new short story by Xan Brooks, Savage Lovely Cornish Homes, which will be published next month, and Robin Roberson’s The Long Take. I’ve also got a to-be-read shelf that now reaches across the width of my house, which excites me and terrifies me in equal measure.

Are you working on any new projects this year?

Yes — I’m working on my third novel, for which I just got back from a research trip to the high Arctic, which was just phenomenal, a series of essays based on the experience, and I’m starting to have thoughts about a fourth novel, though I’m trying to work my way through novel three before I get too excited by that one.

What is your take on the current landscape of fiction writing?

Aside from the overwhelming feeling there’s just too much good writing out there for any one person to read — something that causes me pretty constant consternation — fiction is an exciting place to be. There is, perhaps, an over-emphasis on debut novels from publishers at the moment, which I’m hearing from many quarters, but in terms of what is being put out, I’m spoiled for choice most of the time, and that’s without looking at the backlist, which is something I try to do as well as reading current fiction.

Finally, what word are you currently enjoying?

My favourite word currently is ‘braw’, which is a Scots word to describe a fine day and one which I used a lot when I was sailing in the Arctic over the last few weeks. I found I liked it even more when the captain of the ship on which I was sailing, who is Norwegian, told me it comes from the Norwegian ‘bra’, meaning good.

Richy Campbell’s first poetry book, ‘Lovely Peripheries’ was published in 2020 by Live Canon. His work has appeared in Popshot, Ink, Sweat and Tears, Under the Radar amongst others. Richy lives in Manchester and co-edits Sideways poetry magazine. You can find him digitally on Twitter @richyacampbell