The joy of reading story collections is that there is no single construction that can make them stick in your mind forever; some express their depth through the intimacy of a moment while others reach to the furthest lengths of the genre in the ways they take readers to a new time and uncharted worlds. Jo Lloyd’s debut collection Something Wonderful is able to do both, as each story displays an incredible breadth, variety, and singularity that has made her one of the most exciting names in short fiction in recent memory.
Lloyd was raised in South Wales, where she now currently lives. She won an O. Henry Prize in 2018 for her story “The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies” and the 2019 BBC National Short Story Award for “The Invisible,” which judge Cynan Jones described as “a timelessly relevant picture of how we obsess for access to worlds we cannot have.” Both stories are sweeping in their aim and alive with an energy that can only come from characters and settings caught in transition. There’s an urgency to Something Wonderful that strikes close to our present moment no matter what era Lloyd is writing about, as she writes about habitat loss in the days preceding World War I, economic exploitation and class division in a rural Welsh town, and the relentless, self-destructive pursuit for advancement in 1950s Great Britain. Her worlds sit on the edge of irrevocable change, but it often remains unclear whether progress or disaster is just beyond the horizon.
I spoke with Lloyd recently about Something Wonderful, her approach to research, how writing can unsettle the status quo, and the transformative potential of desire.
The Rumpus: I couldn’t help but notice that your stories often have a novelistic aspect to them in their expansive scope, sometimes spanning generations, multiple perspectives, or continents. What draws you to the short story form? Do you find yourself negotiating length when deciding how far a story can spread out?
Jo Lloyd: I don’t think of my stories as novelistic, but I suppose I’m also not wholly convinced by those definitions of short story as the art of the glimpse, or a polished fragment, or any of those other descriptions people use to differentiate it from the novel. I think of the short story as a huge thing contained in a small space—like a poem or a TARDIS or a neutron star.
But I didn’t set out deliberately to write stories with long timespans. “My Bonny,” the first story in the book, follows my long-forgotten ancestors through the nineteenth century. I found the bare facts of their lives in the census records. The remarkable Agnes kept appearing every ten years, getting older, losing people, changing address, getting older, losing more people, changing occupation, getting older. I wanted to tell her story, but it took me a while to find the form. Plodding through the century certainly didn’t work. When I started moving between the viewpoints of the various characters, it fell into place.
Rumpus: I love to hear how that story was born out of research, because this feels like such a thoroughly researched collection. The settings you create are alive with folklore, history, town gossip, and mythology, and your worlds offer so much lore for readers who are willing to explore the peripheries of the pages. How do you decide not only what to research, but also what can or can’t fit into the story?
Lloyd: I’m a follow-my-nose researcher—real historians would be horrified. (I know some, and they are.) But it’s fiction—you don’t have to offer a representative survey of the topic. There are no rules.
If you google me, you’ll very quickly come across a post where someone looks up one of my characters on Wikipedia and concludes, from that brief acquaintance, that I also did my research on Wikipedia. That’s a misunderstanding of both research and fiction. You certainly don’t want the reader to notice your sources—your lists, your bookmarks, your pictures and maps and articles and toppling piles of books—but practically every sentence of the story is affected by them. If you’ve done your job, the research is woven indivisibly into the fabric of the story. I can only hope I manage to achieve that sometimes.
Also, if people want to do their research on Wikipedia, that’s absolutely fine by me—THERE ARE NO RULES!
When I do research, I’m not thinking about what I could use in the story—I’m just about learning the setting. I want to be able to write about a seventeenth-century street with something like the confidence I could write about a twenty-first-century one. I read some history but I especially like to read material from the time—diaries, letters, tracts, manuals, guidebooks. I think they offer that shock of the strange that can be lost in academic studies.
Of course, in addition to research, there are all the things you’ve learnt throughout your life that seep out into your writing. The details people comment on are often just the weird stuff that was stored up in my brain.
Rumpus: “The Invisible,” which is about a poor, rural Welsh community that becomes fascinated by the mysterious existence of its invisible, wealthy neighbors, won the prestigious BBC National Short Story Award in 2019. How did receiving this honor affect your writing moving forward, including as you began returning to older stories for the collection?
Lloyd: I don’t know how winning the BBC was for Sarah Hall or David Constantine, but for me, it was a huge thrill and a significant turning point. It made a big difference to how my writing was perceived and the kind of opportunities that opened up.
Something like that—a prize, a publication in a dream journal—marks a change in your writing. Every time it happens, it resets the bar. You shift the boundaries, the work you measure yourself against, the challenges you set yourself. I think that’s a good process, and one that it’s helpful to be aware of right from the beginning. All writers start off small and most of us remember what that’s like. I love to see new writers on Twitter celebrating their first acceptance or long-listing. It’s a lot of work to get to that point, and everyone should be proud of those successes in small competitions and journals. But then you need to look for the next challenge. Your first story is probably not going to be put next to one by Sarah Hall. But at some point you want to get there—keep moving the boundaries until you are competing in the same arena as Sarah Hall; that’s my theory.
Rumpus: I’ve seen a number of critics describe your work, particularly “The Invisible,” as allegorical. Do you write toward allegory at all or is that something the reader brings into it themselves?
Lloyd: I probably tend to think of allegory in quite restrictive terms, Piers Plowman, say, or the fat cows and the thin cows, where every detail maps to a point on another plane of meaning.
When I’m writing, I think more in terms of the story mattering beyond itself. I always want the present moment of the story to feel very immediate and concrete—the characters, the things they see and touch. But I also want it to resonate beyond that. Perhaps that is a kind of allegory—I’m not sure.
Does all fiction have those layers? I think so, with some writers more interested in the immediate story world and some the resonance beyond. But you need both.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about “Deep Shelter,” which follows a young man who is tracking his estranged father at the 1951 Festival of Britain. The festival, which you note “showed us how to look forward and what we could find there,” perfectly mirrors the story’s direct focus on the compulsive desire for progress. I’d love to hear about the genesis of this story and how you landed on this time and place in history.
Lloyd: I had been thinking for some time about mid-century technology, the space race, the early days of computing, and how for a while everyone thought science would save us. All that sci-fi about settling new planets—as if we could just leave behind this world and start again. No one then could have dreamt that we would pour all that technical innovation into Candy Crush and cat videos. Whatever we’re imagining now will turn out different, too—whenever we look into the future, we get it wrong.
I was also interested in that generation that lived through the war, and how they thought back on that time. This story is set only six years after the war ended—it was barely over. We’ve all been through some weird times recently—how will that look six years from now? Will it look like a huge mountain in our lives, or will it flatten down into a little bump?
The Festival of Britain seemed an interesting place for exploring some of that. When I started looking into it, I quickly discovered all its wonderful 1950s graphics, which seemed to express that very hope and naivety I’d been wondering about. A corner of one of the official maps is labeled, “This way to outer space,” and later I kind of wished I’d used that as the story’s title!
Rumpus: It’s interesting that you talk about this compulsion to look forward and backward even though we often get it wrong, because your collection is also so attuned to the present moment and its challenges. But you’ve said in previous interviews that you don’t see yourself as a writer that is able to address political and cultural issues directly. With that in mind, I’d like to reframe the question of what issues are you addressing to what are the elements of our modern life that are most often on your mind when you write?
Lloyd: I don’t think the elements of the present moment that trouble my mind will come as any surprise—they’re probably the same as for everyone else: climate change, habitat loss, intolerance, inequality, injustice, hunger, hardship, war. Right now, at this very moment, the situation in Afghanistan.
I think a current that does flow from those big questions into my writing is a concern with how fixed, habitual thinking can replace perception, and how that can allow us and encourage us to just carry on in the exact same way. One of the contributions I think writers can make is to unsettle how the world thinks about itself, in order to make change possible.
The genius of A Christmas Carol, the lasting impact of it, isn’t the descriptions of the terrible living conditions of poor families—it’s that extraordinary and compelling idea of the ghosts of Christmas past and future, and waking up to the possibility of change.
Rumpus: You mention injustice as one of the elements that is on your mind when you write, and certainly economic injustice is at the forefront of many of your stories. One of your characters, Gareth, describes work as “like dope…Sometimes it makes you high, and sometimes it makes you sick. But mostly it just softens the edges, so you won’t wonder how to use your days, or notice that they’re passing.” That’s a haunting thought, and just one of many in a book filled with people who are just scraping by. What roles do privilege and wealth play when you’re constructing characters and their relationships to one another?
Lloyd: Mostly, I think I come at this from the opposite direction. I am attracted to those whose voices are not always heard—the restaurant staff in “Work,” the millhands in “My Bonny,” the community in “The Invisible.”
Those are all groups I have some connection with, through shared heritage or homeland or life experience. I am also very aware that there are many voices that don’t appear in my work. All writers have to think about the balance between representing diversity and appropriating other voices, and it’s hard to be sure if you’re getting that balance right. I do remember that I felt some tentativeness when first writing Vasili and Mirko in “Butterflies of the Balkans.” I didn’t want to presume what they felt about their historical and cultural identity, but I very much didn’t want them to be faceless and invisible. Although the focus of the story is Prue and Dottie, I hope Vasili and Mirko also come through as individual personalities.
I would add that to me, a key point about Gareth’s remark is that whatever we do, we should remember to notice our days. They’re all we have.
Rumpus: Your point about representing other voices in a respectful way is so important; I know I worry about this in my own work. What advice do you have for finding that balance in your writing?
Lloyd: Nikesh Shukla says that if we want diversity in books, writers—all writers—need to create diverse characters: people of different races, abilities, ages, sexualities, cultures. But as he also says, you don’t always need to be talking about your characters’ cultural heritage or telling stories that aren’t yours to tell. Let diverse characters be characters.
Coming from one of the smaller nations of the UK, I had some inkling of how to get it wrong. Before Russell T Davies, the only Welsh character you ever saw outside Wales was a blustery straight white guy who couldn’t speak for spitting leeks—a joke that hasn’t gotten any funnier since Shakespeare used it.
Mirko doesn’t have to be a spokesperson for religious or political views in the Balkans in 1904. He’s a man who likes to sing, sulks when it rains, and scolds his employer for slipping treats to the ponies.
Rumpus: Earlier you talked about how writers can unsettle how the world thinks about itself to create change and about these moments in history when we were so focused at looking ahead toward an imagined future, and it makes me think about how there’s so much desire in Something Wonderful—the desire for more, for enough to live, for escape from one’s current life. Do you view these desires as ultimately positive or harmful forces on your characters?
Lloyd: To answer in a roundabout fashion, you can see the film It’s a Wonderful Life as a joyful, life-affirming comedy—James Stewart returns to his senses and his family and realizes his life is wonderful (it is). Or you can see it as a tragedy—his whole life is a compromise, he gave up all his dreams to settle for something small and ordinary (he did).
Both those interpretations may be true, but the first tends to dominate. Is that because preserving the status quo requires most of us to give up our dreams and settle for whatever softens the edges? Is it because seeing the film that way helps us use it as an annual reminder to recognize the wonder in our lives?
I guess I do think of desire as a positive force. Life would be poorer and flatter without it. But it shouldn’t blind us to the small good thing.
Photograph of Jo Lloyd courtesy of Jo Lloyd.