Evie Wyld knows a lot of ways a sheep can die. Having spent a few weeks on a sheep farm to research her new novel, All the Birds, Singing, she knows they can be picked off by foxes, domestic dogs, or even by crows picking out their eyes when they’ve gotten stuck in a fence. If they fall over in a dip in the land, they can’t right themselves and their bellies can blow up.
This is what the farmers she spent time with in Herefordshire, an English county on the Welsh border, were more interested in discussing than what she calls the “dull” details needed to shape a novel, like their daily rituals, or how shears work.
“They were really open, but because farming over there has carved up the hillside for so long, they don’t see their lives as anything other than ordinary,” says Wyld.
Wyld has made the ordinary extraordinary in All The Birds, Singing, and this fascination with sheep morbidity didn’t necessarily hurt her research. It’s a central plot point in the book, which follows a strong, mysterious young woman named Jake Whyte, an Austrailian who lives and works on a sheep farm on a remote British island. Something sinister—Jake isn’t sure what—is picking off her sheep one by one.
Jake mostly keeps to herself and seldom socializes. She takes her work on the farm seriously, as though the manual labor might save her from something dark in herself—or at least keep memories at bay. It’s not clear what she’s running away from, but what haunts Jake’s past may be worse than the strange predator threatening her livestock. Despite her secrets, she’s a strong, self-sufficient woman who works hard to sustain herself.
“I was just so sick of reading female protagonists whose job seems either to be fallen in love with, or to fall in love themselves,” she recalls. “A male protagonist is allowed to have a life apart from that and women are sidetracked by, ‘How will I have babies?’ I wanted to write a person who was neither particularly female nor male; she’s just a person who manages to do what she needs to do.”
One person Jake eventually grows somewhat close to is a drifter named Lloyd who arrives on her farm and begins to help with the chores, but a romance does not develop between the two. “I just wanted it to be this friendship between two damaged people seeking refuge and comfort in each other,” she says.
Jake’s past is doled out slowly to the reader through flashbacks, a conscious storytelling approach for Wyld that she didn’t come to right away. “I wasn’t trying to be tricky for the hell of it, nor was it my intention to complicate things,” she says. “That kind of confusion can be really useful in an imaginative way. I wanted to play with this character. I find her quite likeable. You’re really invested in her, you like her company. I wanted that investment before you discover the whole truth.”
While there was no one specific moment of inspiration for the book, Wyld was interested in exploring themes of guilt, redemption, forgiveness and whether it is possible to be reborn.
“We’re all the protagonists in our own lives and can see the reasons for us doing bad things,” she says, alluding to Jake’s history, which remains murky until the conclusion of the novel, when the reveal is delivered with a powerful punch, like something out of an Alice Munro story. ”We can understand why we’ve acted a certain way, even if we’re angry at ourselves for doing it. In some cases, though, there’s no getting away from the fact it was completely awful.”
All the Birds, Singing can be a cruel, savage story, at times as desolate as the craggy landscape it depicts. Wyld says it took her about four years to write, which was split by a one-year-period where she had to leave the novel in order to care for her ailing father, who eventually passed away. Wyld does not credit this experience with how she continued to shape the novel, but says she infused the character with more strength and functionality when she returned to writing. Jake wasn't as frightened as she was in earlier drafts.
Wyld grew up in the United Kingdom and Australia. Her family ran a sugar cane farm, which also gave her some ease in writing about farm life. She spent a lot of time as a child in the woods, and stumbled upon her fair share of dead sheep herself.
“It was sort of a menace that I was really excited about as a child,” she says with a laugh.
All the Birds, Singing has been long listed for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and short listed for the Costa Book Award (UK). It also made the long list for the Stella Prize (Australia). Wyld was included in Granta’s list of Best Young British Novelists in 2013. Her first novel, After the Fire, a Still Small Voice, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Betty Trask Award, and the author has received comparisons to literary heavyweights like Cormac McCarthy and the Austrailian writer Tim Winton (whom she admires).
Wyld runs Review, an independent bookstore in southeast London that specializes in contemporary fiction. Though she’s often asked about the effect working in a bookstore has on her writing, she says it’s just the opposite.
“I think there’s a feeling that being surrounded by books you’re absorbing them,” she says. “I wish that were true. If anything, my bookselling has changed. It makes me aware of the books that don’t get seen and are worth seeing.”
Courtney Allison is a former book publicist. She lives in Brooklyn.