Category Archives: Cwtch Corner
Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
Alis Hawkins has been on a month-long tour of independent bookshops in Wales to promote her latest novel In Two Minds. It’s the second in her
Teifi Valley Coroner series – the third Those Who Can – is due out in May 2020. I managed to catch up with her during a break from meeting local readers in Nickleby’s book shop in Llantwit Major.
Two very different deaths teach acting coroner, Harry Probert-Lloyd, that, while post mortem examinations can tell you the mechanics of death, you have to dig deep into personal relationships to understand its causes.
Q. This is the second in your Teifi Valley Coroner Series. Some authors think their second novel was harder to write than the first. Was that your experience?
“Yes and no. Whilst I didn’t have to do all the very basic historical research into the period that I’d had to do for None So Blind (I knew next to nothing about mid nineteenth century west Wales before beginning the series) I still had to research the specific background to the deaths which occur in In Two Minds. That meant familiarising myself with the nascent practice of autopsy in Britain, as well as getting to grips with Welsh emigration to the United States. And, though I love research, it takes time which can be an issue when you’re working to a deadline.
It was the same with the characters. While I now knew Harry and John to some extent, having spent a lot of time with them when writing None So Blind, they are both young men at the beginning of their careers and their opinions and actions are likely to change and be a bit unpredictable, so I couldn’t be confident that I knew how they’d react in the situations they would find themselves in. (Seeing how my characters react is one of the real joys of writing for me – I never know exactly what they’re going to do, say or think.)
And then there’s the particular kind of difficulty which comes with writing a series. Each book has to stand alone because bookshops tend to stock only the latest title in a series which makes it unlikely that people will have the luxury of reading them in the right order. (Kindle users are at a big advantage here as they can easily access books in sequence.) So you have to give readers who are new to the series enough of the background to allow them to understand where the characters are coming from, without boring people who’ve been with you from the beginning.
There was an added issue with In Two Minds as there’s a particular revelation in None So Blind that changes the way Harry sees many things and I didn’t want to give that away in In Two Minds lest it spoil the earlier book for people, so I’ve had to refer to it tangentially. And that proved a bit tricky!”
Q.There’s a risk when writing historical fiction that the narrative gets overloaded with historical information (many readers find this irritating). How do you try to get the right balance?
“I read a lot of historical fiction and I’m one of those readers who finds it irritating.
So, how do I avoid it?
I try to be light on detail and only put something in if it really earns its place. For the stuff of daily life – clothes, household stuff, food etc – I tend not to mention them unless flagging them up serves a purpose. If I wouldn’t mention something in a novel set in the present day, I don’t mention it in my books. So there are never gratuitous descriptions of what people are wearing, eating or using. (You’d never get Val McDermid going on about the material Karen Pirie’s clothes are made of, or where the buttons are.) But, if it serves to illustrate something about the character – eg how rich/poor/modest/vain they are, how greedy or abstemious, or some anomaly, then details earn their place. Details like that can tell you about the person being described, or about the person doing the describing – just why have they noticed that detail, what does it tell you about them?
For bigger, background stuff, I try to avoid exposition and just weave information in to the narrative for readers to pick up. I figure my readers are smart enough to aggregate these details into a whole without me painstakingly (or do I mean painfully?) laying it all out for them.
Then again, for some things – like the practice of autopsy in In Two Minds – it’s such a new thing that one character explaining stuff to another is entirely reasonable. But, even then, you’ve got to allow them do it in a way which adds to an understanding of their character rather than just putting a paragraph of explanation into their mouths and pretending it’s dialogue.”
Q.Have you ever written thousands of words for your novel or short story, only to throw most of them away?
“Yup. Thirty thousand words once. That’s half a book for some people. A bit less than a quarter of a normal length novel for me. I’d started the story in the wrong place and I couldn’t make it work. Ouch.
Mind you, that’s nothing compared to ditching half a book. When I was writing Testament, my first published novel, I had three goes at getting the contemporary strand in a split-time structure right.
But I’ve never had to do that for any of the Teifi Valley Coroner books.”
Q.Do you tend to give up on books or are you someone who feels that once you’ve started reading you should get to the end even if you’re not enjoying the book
“Life’s far too short (and I’m too slow a reader) to persevere with a book I’m not enjoying. I used to say that, if I’d happily machine gun everybody in the book by page 60, I’d stop but I’ve modified that, slightly, in recent times. Now it’s page 30.”
Q. Which authors have you changed your mind about over the years?
“That’s an interesting question. I’ve always read a lot of crime fiction but before I started writing it myself, I tended to read the more nitty-gritty, examine-the-bodies end – Patricia Cornwell, Karen Slaughter, Kathy Reichs. Now, however, I find those a bit light on character development and too plot- and forensic detail-heavy and I’ve come to appreciate a better balance between narrative and the relationships that drive a book. Consequently, I tend not to read many of those forensic pathology novels any more.“
Q. What book are you reading at the moment?
“I always have two books on the go – one on my Kindle to read in bed so I don’t disturb my other half with reading lights, and a physical book for downstairs reading over breakfast and lunch.
My current Kindle book is by fellow Crime Cymru author Chris Lloyd and is the latest in his Catalan mystery series: City of Drowned Souls. I’ve read all three of the books in the series so far back-to-back – I’ve become addicted to them and now want to go to Girona where they’re set!
And my paperback of the moment is The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. It’s a wonderful historical novel, full of fantastic characters and entirely lacking – thank God! – in the kind of ‘everybody’s dirty and miserable’ trope that you so often find in historical fiction. Her characters leap off the page as real people and she paints the world in which they live and all the social realities of the day with a brilliantly light touch. I’m loving it.”
Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley where her Harry Probert-Lloyd series is set). She trained as a speech and language therapist but spent three decades variously working in a burger restaurant, bringing up two sons, working with homeless people, providing support to children and young people on the autism spectrum.
None So Blind was published in 2017. In Two Minds was published by Dome Press in May 2019. She is now working on the third title in The Teifi Valley Coroner series, Those Who Can.
She is a founder member of Crime Cymru, a collective of crime writers in Wales.
You can learn more about her books at www.AlisHawkins.co.uk
She is also on Facebook at AlisHawkinsAuthor and on Twitter @Alis_Hawkins
My review of None So Blind is here
Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
The latest author to join me in Cwtch Corner is Vanessa Savage whose debut novel The Woman in the Dark was published earlier this year to considerable acclaim. It’s an intense psychological thriller about Patrick and his wife, Sarah (who is suffering from depression after her mother’s death) who buy a gothic seaside house whose previous occupants were brutally murdered.
I believe the line between the two genres can be quite finely drawn. A domestic noir is as much about relationships as a women’s fiction novel with a romantic thread – just darker! I like writing about relationships in character-driven stories and I felt my first idea for a novel fell more into the women’s fiction genre and joined the New Writer’s Scheme at the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA). But the longer I wrote, the clearer it became to me that, as a writer, what I wanted was to explore the darker side of relationships – where love tips over into obsession, what happens when the happy-ever-after goes wrong. I wanted my characters to kill rather than kiss each other!”
Q. What inspired you to write The Woman in the Dark?
“I knew I wanted to write a ‘behind closed doors’ psychological thriller about a family in crisis and their breakdown, but there was a missing element – the house. I became fascinated by the idea of house as character and the Murder House came from a series of what if questions after reading about a real-life murder house.
That house was destroyed, but it got me wondering… what if it wasn’t destroyed? What if it was actually your childhood home, a happy place before the terrible crimes? Could you move back into it and make it what it once was, or would it be forever haunted by its own history?
The idea that a house could hold memories, that it could be corrupted by horrible things happening within its walls really appealed to me as a writer. The creepy things that happen in the house – are they real, or the paranoid imaginings of my characters because they know the history of the house? As I developed the house as another character, the story came alive – it was the catalyst I needed.”
Q. For any author getting that first novel published can be a frustrating experience. How did you achieve it?
“Like many ‘debut’ writers, The Woman in the Dark is not the first book I’ve written, just the first to be published! I have a couple of unpublished books lurking in a bottom drawer, and prior to that, I wrote a lot of short fiction – short stories published in magazines and flash fiction which is published online and in anthologies.
I took the traditional route to publication – I researched literary agents who I thought would like my work, both using the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and online (agents love twitter so it’s a great place to find out what they’re looking for!). I was fortunate to sign with Juliet Mushens at Caskie Mushens, who is a fantastic agent. We went back and forth editing the book, and it went on submission to publishers in June 2017.
It went to auction in the UK, selling world English rights to Sphere in the UK and Grand Central in the US, went to auction in Germany and rights were also sold in Spain, France, Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic. It published in hardback and e-book in January 2019 in the UK and will be out in paperback in July.”
Q. In your acknowledgements you say you received help from a police officer. What form did that take ?
“I worked with Stuart Gibbon at GIB Consultancy, a former senior police detective who now runs a consultancy specialising in advising writers on police procedure. I wanted to ensure those elements were accurate in the book and having heard Stuart talk at a writer’s conference, knew he’d be able to help! For The Woman in the Dark, he was able to help by simply answering questions by email. For my second novel, which I’m currently editing, I send him a whole draft to read and he gave advice on all the criminal and police procedural elements. He has also written The Crime Writer’s Casebook, an invaluable resource for anyone writing crime novels.”
Q. What do you think are the elements of a first class thriller? Anyone in particular whose work you rate highly?
“It’s all about the tension and suspense in a psychological thriller – because it’s more internal rather than external action, we’re living with the character’s fears and paranoia, immersed in their every thought and invested in their journey. Every twist and turn raises the tension and (hopefully) the reader is desperate to turn the page to find out what happens next! I love this genre – an early favourite was Claire Mackintosh’s I Let You Go, which has the most amazing twist and a terrifying antagonist.”
Q. Readers can’t seem to get enough of psychological thrillers – why do you think they have such a strong appeal?
“With a straight action thriller, the reader enjoys an escapist adrenaline rush, with a police procedural, we watch the action once-removed, usually from the viewpoint of the investigating officer as we try to figure out whodunnit. They tend to be plot-driven rather than character-driven. With a psychological thriller, we’re living in the minds of the characters, experiencing their fears and paranoia. We live with them through the rising tension and suspense and experience the heart-pounding shock of every twist and turn. They can be scary, but it’s a safe way to be scared – unlike the characters whose minds we inhabit, we can close the book and walk away.”
Vanessa Savage trained as a graphic designer and illustrator. She lives in South Wales (I discovered only recently that she lives just along the coast from me). She has twice been awarded with a Writers’ Bursary by Literature Wales.
She won the Myriad Editions First Crimes competition and her work has been highly commended in the Yeovil International Fiction Prize, short-listed for the Harry Bowling Prize, and the Caledonia Fiction Prize.
Vanessa has also had short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, and her work was broadcasted on the radio as a highly commended winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition.
Vanessa is on Twitter: @VvSavage
My review of The Woman in the Dark is here
Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
Cwtch Corner was in Cardiff last month at the launch of Kate North’s collection of short stories Punch. Kate is a lecturer in creative writing and programme director for the MA in English Literature and Creative Writing pathways at Cardiff Metropolitan University. So naturally we talked about the value of creative writing courses. But first we chatted about her new book and the popularity of short stories.
Q. Short stories are hugely popular with readers – why do you think that’s the case?
“I think their size means that readers can get through a story in one sitting and feel like they’ve got something out of it in a short space of time. The ideal short story leaves the reader with something to think about or to continue in their own mind after reading. I think that’s also part of the appeal.
Q.Which writer of short stories has influenced you the most?
“That’s a hard question! There are so many good short story writers. But, if pushed to name one, I would pick Anna Kavan. I think she has been overlooked in past years but people are starting to notice how important she actually was in the mid 20th century. She wrote some very beautiful and uncanny things. The collection I would recommend isJulia and the Bazooka and Other Stories.
Q. Do you have a particular routine you like to follow when you are writing?
“There are consistent things I do when I write. Like I try to start as early as possible in the day. I am not so good at writing later in the day. I need to be in a quiet room on my own, I’m no good at writing in cafes or with music on like some people can do. And I tend to write in solid blasts for a period of days and weeks, then I take a bit of time to do something else before returning to things. But, that said, it does depend if I am writing to externally imposed deadline (like a commission) or not.
Q Your home is on fire… Which book from your overflowing shelves will you choose to save?
“To be honest, I would probably save my laptop before anything (other than my partner and kids of course). But, not to be a spoil sport, I’ll go with Six O’Clock Saints by Joan Windham. It’s a book written in the 1940s that I used to read around my grandparents’ house when I was little. It’s not very well written but I have an emotional attachment to it.”
Q. In a recent BBC Radio interview, Will Self made some highly critical comments about the value of creative writing courses. Do you think he has a valid point? Are creative writing courses worth doing?
>I think he makes a fair point and I don’t believe he suggests that creative writing (CW) courses aren’t worth doing. I would be suspicious of any course promoted as being able to help graduates ‘make a living from literary fiction’. I don’t think that is something anyone can guarantee. And as Self points out, CW courses offer the opportunity for students to develop themselves as writers. The possibilities that come from developing writing skills are hugely varied. I know of graduates from cw programmes who have gone into all sorts of jobs that need them to use their writing skills, such as computer game design, marketing, PR, editing, copywriting and teaching. So, yes, I would say that if you want to develop your writing skills, then courses are worth doing. You may find a career in literary fiction on the back of a course or you may not.
This perennial discussion always puzzles me. It doesn’t happen in other areas. For example, will a BA or MA in Music guarantee you will become a concert pianist? No, but if you would like to become a concert pianist it may be helpful to study on such a course. Will taking a sports science degree guarantee you will win the London marathon? No, but it may be helpful for you to study on such a programme if you are interested in winning marathons.
Q. As programme director for an MA creative writing programme you must meet scores of aspiring authors. What’s the number one piece of advice you give them?
Read, reflect, write and repeat. Good writers are good readers, read widely and critically. Also, find out how and what you need to write for yourself. To achieve this refer to the earlier instruction; read, reflect, write and repeat.
Kate North is a poet and short story writer. Her latest short story collection Punch was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2019. She also has a poetry collection The Way Out, published by Parthian in 2018.
If you’d like to learn more about Kate or discover how to buy her books, take a look at her website
She’s also on Twitter: @katetnorth
Cwtch Corner went transatlantic this month. I’d dearly have loved to visit Canada to talk in person with Cathy Ace but the tortuous journey home from New Zealand has made me less than enthusiastic for long haul flights. Maybe I’ll get a chance to meet her when she makes one of her frequent trips home to Wales to visit family or attend a crime fiction festival.
Cathy moved to Canada to teach at the University of British Columbia. It was a long way to go to meet and marry a ‘boy’ from her home town of Swansea! She lives in rural British Columbia where she gardens and writes. She has two series published: the Cait Morgan series features a Welsh-Canadian criminologist who specialises in profiling victims and the WISE Enquiries Agency series based on four women with a nose for mysteries. Her newest novel The Wrong Boy is a psychological suspense novel set on the Gower peninsular.
Q. Hi Cathy, The Wrong Boy was published in January this year. Can you describe it for us in just one sentence?
Thanks for having me along to your lovely Cwtch Corner today. I adore the word cwtch and everything it means – I even used it in the book, where there’s a place called The Rhosddraig Cwtch (a small café/restaurant in the village of Rhosddraig, where the book is set – which is really Rhossili, but I disguised it to protect the innocent). But, I digress (not unusual for me) so, back to your question.
Oh my goodness me, describe this book in one sentence? Any limit to the length of that sentence, or the amount of punctuation I can use within it to allow it to be just one sentence? No? Hmm, well, maybe I’m not up to it…so I’ll let multi-award-winning author Elly Griffiths do it for me:
“A wonderfully dark, atmospheric tale about the way that evil reverberates through generations.”
Q. You’ve written two successful series – do you tend to plan a series as a whole or does each book just flow from the last one?
“In the case of the Cait Morgan Mysteries I was given the opportunity to propose nine books to the publisher when I submitted the very first manuscript. Eight of those books were published with that publisher, so I was delighted to be able to follow the majority of the arc I’d planned for the two main characters – Cait Morgan and Bud Anderson – as well as “visit” the countries where I’d wanted Cait to discover each book’s titular corpse (eg: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue). Each was a country where I’d lived or worked for a period of time, and I very much wanted readers to get the chance to see a little of what I loved about each place. As for the ninth novel? That’s still in the pipeline.
For the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries I proposed two books to that publisher (a different one) at first, then another two, though in my mind I’d already planned five or six.
In both series the books follow a natural timeline in the lives of the main, recurring characters – though each novel truly stands alone, without any cliffhangers preventing readers from achieving full closure. That being said, I really think it helps to understand character development if a series of books is read in order – unless the characters experience very little true personal development (as in the case of Marple or Poirot, for example). As a reader I do dip into series, but usually find I want to go back to the beginning to find out where the characters ‘began’.”
“To be clear, I should say that I know different authors view different awards in different ways, so I can only speak for myself in this response.
To be shortlisted for an award, or to win one, provides an enormous boost to my confidence; I adore it when I meet, or hear from, readers who tell me how much they enjoy my work – but I still struggle with how to react…without gushing, or blushing, or stammering.
Being nominated or shortlisted for, or winning, an award is a time of pure joy – so the first thing I do is celebrate! There are so few moments when I’m not worrying about the book I’m trying to get folks to consider reading, or the one I’m plotting/outlining/writing, that it’s worth revelling in just one evening of indulgence…so I pop a cork, and sip with satisfaction – then the next day I get back to work.
In terms of sales? The effect can be immediate – there’s usually a bump in sales – but it has to be something you work at to make it a sustained advantage. What I will add is that I’ve found that being shortlisted for an award but not winning it (that’s happened to me three times, for different awards) can have exactly the same effect upon my psyche and my sales – so the effort to get out the news about about being shortlisted is equal to the effort I put into news about winning.”
Q. Though Welsh born, you’ve lived for many years across the other side of the Atlantic. How has that distance from home affected how you write about your native country
“I didn’t migrate to Canada until I was forty so I will always be truly Welsh, though I’m now also “becoming” Canadian (except for the accent!). My husband is also Welsh, and both my mother and sister – as well as my husband’s family – all still live in and around Swansea…so I still feel close to home (I talk to Mum for about an hour on the phone every day!).
That said, I now have the distance between me and the day-to-day realities of life in Wales to allow me to stand back and see my Homeland slightly differently than I did when I lived there.
I didn’t begin to write fiction until I moved to Canada, so I don’t know how I might have written about Wales before I left…but I think it’s important in all scene-setting in fiction to paint just enough of a picture to allow the reader to fill in the gaps – like a Pointillist or Impressionist painting, rather than a photograph. I think the distance helps me do that, because I can better focus on aspects of Wales and Welshness that are critical to the reader’s understanding, instead of trying to pile on the details that might confuse rather than illuminate. At least, that’s what I hope I manage to do.”
Q. Who do you think is the most interesting sleuth in crime fiction??
“Oh gosh, that’s a difficult question to answer because there are some truly engaging sleuths – of all types – around.
Millhone (Sue Grafton), Warshawski (Sara Paretsky) and Spenser (Robert B. Parker) all have rich personal lives without being out-and-out weird professional investigators; Poirot, Marple (Agatha Christie) and Holmes (Conan Doyle) are unchanging, yet interesting despite that; Rebus (Ian Rankin), Reacher (Lee Child) and Rumpole (John Mortimer) pursue justice in totally different ways, face life-changing situations, yet still come up trumps; Galloway (Elly Griffiths), Bryant and May (Christopher Fowler) and Stanhope (Ann Cleeves) are some of my favourites too, yet all are completely different. And I could go on. And on. See? It’s an impossible question to answer…sorry.“
Q. Your home is on fire… Which book will you choose to save??
Fire? My nightmare! We live half way up a little mountain in a rural area, where the nearest fire station is run by volunteers – so, around here (in the middle of a rain forest) most domestic fires lead to the complete loss of a home because none of us even have mains water – we all have wells. So you get out (hopefully) then have to watch everything burn, praying the fire doesn’t jump to the trees and become a major disaster, as you wait. Dreadful! *shivers*
But…OK, I’ll imagine a fire, just for you. Of course my beloved dog and husband get rescued first (wrong order?), then our photo albums (yes, we still have such things – and I must find the time to scan and save all those photos at some point). Then a book.
I look at it this way – a book is something that can be purchased again, whether as a new book or as a previously-loved copy of something that’s out of print. Books mean most when they’ve been given by someone, or are signed by someone who’s no longer around.
With that in mind, the one book I would save would have to be my copy of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens; it’s a copy that was given to my mother for Christmas in 1944 by her aunt. I cannot imagine how expensive it must have been to purchase, or how wonderful to receive – an illustrated hardcover book, printed and published in 1944 with all the war shortages at their height…what a treat! Mum and Dad gave it to me for Christmas in 1969, and Dad and I would sit and read it together. I am deeply attached to the illustrations (by Emil Weiss) which stoke my nostalgia almost more than the words. My father loved A Christmas Carol – the story, the lessons, the book, and every version of it on film (he most enjoyed the one with Alistair Sim as Scrooge). For me, it’s an irreplaceable book, and therefore worth saving.”
If you’d like to learn more about Cathy or discover how to buy her books, take a look at her website
She’s also on social media:
Cwtch Corner moved a few miles or so to Cardiff this month to meet up with Gareth Davies at the launch of his debut novel: humans, being.
The central character is Vic; a middle aged comedian at a turning point in his life. His wife has left him; audiences aren’t finding his jokes as funny as they once did. His attempts to get back into the social scene aren’t exactly going well.
It’s been described as the male equivalent of Bridget Jones’ Diary.
Q. Hi Gareth, my attempt to describe your new novel probably doesn’t do it justice. How would YOU describe it in one sentence ?
“It’s a a book about life, love and growing up – in your forties.”
Q. What made you decide to write humans, being?
“It started as a different idea. I wanted to write a novel called ‘12 Songs’, where the main protagonist unknowingly lived his life according to rules inspired by his 12 favourite songs from the 80s. It wasn’t working, I couldn’t work out the reveal (or the copyright issues for the songs,) but I liked the characters I was creating, Vic and Mia [his best friend]. So, I ran with them rather than the idea and created humans, being, because Vic and Mia were just two humans trying to exist in a confusing world.“
Q. You were raised in Wales and worked/lived in Prague for several years. But now you’re a storyteller performing stories from Wales and China. How have those experiences influenced your writing?
” When I lived in Prague many of my short stories were set in the Wales of my youth. It was as if my writing was keeping me attached to my heritage. Interestingly, now I am living in Cardiff, I am working on a novel set in eastern / central Europe. Maybe it’s a way of not letting go of an important part of my life.
The storytelling I see as a separate part of my creative life. Finding, learning and telling traditional stories that have a meaning and lessons for life is very rewarding, but I haven’t noticed that influencing my writing, yet.
Q. Some authors have a particular routine they follow when they’re writing. John Banville likes to use a fountain pen for his literary fiction and a ball point for his crime fiction. Do you have a routine you like to follow? Or maybe a favourite pen/notebook?
“I don’t really have a routine. I write whenever I get the ideas. I do like writing in various cafes around Cardiff. Much of the early parts of humans being was writing in the Little Man Coffee shop in the centre of Cardiff.
I used to always write straight onto a computer but these days, I’ve found that handwriting first and then typing up is quite useful. I don’t have a favourite pen, but I do like writing using a fountain pen, I feel it flows better on the page..”
Q. Which books have influenced you the most?
“The books that have had the greatest influence on me as a writer are probably those which have a similar style to mine. Things like The Rotter’s Club by Jonathon Coe, Tim Lott’s Rumours of a Hurricane and Matt Haig’s Humans. Humorous looks on life, love and society.”
Q. What book is on your bedside table right now??
“Punch by Kate North. We launched our books together. It’s a really interesting, quirky collection of short stories.“
Teacher, writer, storyteller. Gareth Davies has a varied career which has seen him live in Prague for almost twenty years, teach English as a foreign language and tell stories in countries as far afield as Japan, Croatia and Poland. He moved back to Cardiff in 2015 to do an MA in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. He’s had several short stories published in magazines and has self-published two novels. You can discover more about him via his website.
It’s time to welcome Rhiannon Lewis to Cwtch Corner. Her debut novel about a Welshman who plays a pivotal role in the Chilean civil war of 1891, was recommended by the Walter Scott Prize Academy in March 2018. They called it a novel with ” …a spark of adventure, with credible characters and a sure touch with the setting of an important Chilean port in the late 1800s.A cracker!”
Q. Hi Rhiannon, Chile is a long way from your home in Wales. What inspired you to write My Beautiful Imperial??
“In my spare time, I had been researching the history of my great uncle and his involvement in the Chilean civil war of 1891. Each new discovery drew me further and further into the story. The truth was so much more incredible than anything I could have concocted myself, and I realised, eventually, that I had an incredible story on my hands. It demanded to be told, and I really was the only person who could tell it.
The civil war in Chile had been a major event at the time, with Britain and America supporting opposing sides in the conflict. Chile’s new president, Balmaceda, was intent on investing Chile’s wealth in the country’s own infrastructure, but British investors were worried about the threat to their own incomes. When the entire navy rebelled in an audacious coup, Britain covertly supplied the rebels with guns and ammunition to support them against Balmaceda.
Left with an army of 40,000 troops but no ships with which to transport them along Chile’s coastline, Balmaceda turned his sights to the merchant ships. A Chilean company had just taken delivery of a brand new mailboat, theImperial. The ship was commandeered and the chief officer, David Jefferson Davies (Davy), was promoted to captain. With over 40 enemy ships hunting for the Imperial along the Pacific coastline, Davy’s captaincy made headlines in the UK with whole pages being devoted to events in popular magazines such as The Graphic.
For me, the appeal of the story was that it had everything I would look for in a novel: broad horizons, a new perspective on history, strong characters, adventure, love, loss and a real sense of place. I wanted to write a novel that would immerse the reader in another world. When the Walter Scott Prize Academy reader responded to the story by saying that they felt ‘bereft’ when they finished the book, it was exactly the response I had hoped for.“
Q. You said on your website that “twenty years of research” went into your novel. How did you decide the time was right to stop researching and start writing?
“I reached a stage when I was waking up at 4am with whole passages of dialogue and action mapped out in my head. The characters had moved on from being well researched but dusty historical figures to being living, breathing people who were virtually bullying themselves into existence. When the writing really flowed, it felt as if all I was doing was describing something that had already taken place in my head. I rarely sat at my desk wondering what would happen next. I often struggled with finding the best way to describe things well, but I never felt unsure of what I was trying to describe..”
Q. Do you have a favourite place to write?
“Without doubt, my favourite place to write in the whole world is the British Library. I’ve had a reader’s ticket for many years. I think it’s an amazing building and I love being surrounded by so many people who are researching and learning new things. It’s a fabulously egalitarian place where you get to cross paths with people of all races, backgrounds and beliefs. Every time I work there, I am struck by what an enormous tragedy it is for the UK that so many libraries are under threat, or being turned into dreadful things called hubs. It’s a depressing thought that learning for its own sake is so undervalued in our society, and that our towns and cities are providing so few places for people to work and learn in a serene and quiet environment. Every town and city should have the equivalent of a British Library.
Having said all that, I am not always writing at a desk. Some of my best stories have come about as I am doing other things. Sometimes, doing something very mundane like ironing or cleaning the kitchen can provide the mental space to work out a storyline or piece of dialogue. One tiny piece of advice I would give a new writer is not to sit at their desk if they are stuck with a piece of writing. I would say, get up, get out, do something else instead. Very often, miraculously, a scene will come together when you’re least expecting it. I’ve ‘written’ some of my best stories as I’m walking to the British Library.”
Q. Is there a book of which you’d say:” I wish I’d written that? “
“There are so many! Here I’m going to cheat a little by saying the entire series of books written by Patrick O’Brian, the most famous being Master & Commander. I started reading the first novel in the series, and didn’t stop until I’d finished the last, twenty books later. I was completely hooked.
The novels are set largely in the Napoleonic era, but it would be a mistake to discount them as dry naval historical novels. Writing in 2013, the author, Nicola Griffith, wrote, ‘In these books, every reader who loves fiction both intellectually and viscerally will find something to treasure – and every writer something to envy.’ She added, ‘This is Jane Austen on a ship of war, with the humanity, joy and pathos of Shakespeare.’ I completely agree.”
Q. Which 5 books have influenced you the most?
“The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. I cried when I finished reading this book at the age of 11. The world that Tolkien had created for me as a young reader felt so real, and in many ways, so much better than the world that existed around me at the time. Even though Tolkien’s world was full of terrifying adversaries, goodness and kindness triumphed in the end. I really did feel bereft when I finished reading it. Anyone who thinks Tolkien’s books are just about elves and dwarves is completely missing the point.
The Mabinogion. As a proud Welsh speaker, and someone who is named after one of the heroines of these magnificent tales, I would have to include these stories. All Welsh school children will be familiar with the adventures of Pwyll and Rhiannon, Branwen and Blodeuwedd. Full of myth and magic, the stories are much more than that. They are also part of a Welsh writer’s DNA.
The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank. We had a wonderful book club at school where we were able to buy paperbacks at a discounted price. I wonder if such schemes still exist? The Diary of a Young Girl is such an important book, now more than ever, and a book that every school child should be encouraged to read. Anne Frank still speaks to us, warning us about the perils of how a normal world can so easily turn bad when good people turn a blind eye.
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy. Having said that I enjoy uplifting books, I had to include this novel. It is fantastically dark and relentlessly depressing in many ways, but an utterly compelling read.
The Rattle Bag, edited by Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. Sometimes, only poetry will do. I’ve had my copy of this poetry collection since it was first published in 1982. It is one of those books that I keep by my bed, often dip in to, and would save from a house fire if I could.”
Q. Do you have a favourite author?
“It’s impossible to pick a single author. My choice would be different, depending on my mood and what I am reading at the time. At the moment I’m reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I thought it would be a difficult read – it’s certainly a challenge to handle because it’s such an enormous book! But it’s a gripping read, and I am reminded, not for the first time, that there’s a reason why some writers have stood the test of time.”
Rhiannon Lewis was raised on a small farm near the West Wales coast but now divides her time between London and a home in Abergavenny, South Wales. After university she worked as a teacher and lecturer before going on to roles in public relations, marketing and communications. She now concentrates on her writing full time. Find her on her website or at Twitter via @rhiannonlewis1.
Her novel My Beautiful Imperial was published in December 2017 by Victorina Press. @VictorinaPress
It’s time to welcome Thorne Moore to Cwtch Corner. I read Thorne’s debut novel A Time for Silence a few years ago. She’s gone on to publish five more books, including a collection of short stories. As she joined me in Cwtch Corner the subject naturally turned to her latest novel…..
Q. Thorne, imagine you’re in a lift with some potential readers. You have less than a minute to persuade them to read your latest book. What’s your pitch?
“Knowing me, I’d probably still be lost for words when the lift stopped, but assuming I do manage to talk fast…I’d say that Covenant is a prequel to my first novel, A Time For Silence, but it also stands alone. 1883, Thomas Owen is convinced God has given him the tiny farm of Cwmderwen and he impresses this belief on his children, but only his daughter Leah has the strength to hang onto it, until she realises that the price has always been too high. It’s about faith, family, possession – and women.”
Q. On your website you say that “Settings, especially houses, are a major inspiration for me”. What is it that attracts you to this kind of setting?
“Unless we’re really insensitive or unobservant, the places where we live do become a part of us, influencing how we see things, whether we want to stay put or flee. And place remains when we are gone, retaining the mark of when we were there, for good or ill.
Houses, particularly, retain something of everyone who’s lived in them, and everything that’s happened there, even if it’s hidden under seven layers of wallpaper. Houses that belonged to notorious murderers often get knocked down because somehow the murder is still there, haunting the community.
Though I write about crime, especially murder, I am primarily interested in all that led up to the deed, and the consequences long after. Houses embody that expanse of time. They have witnessed it all and they don’t forget.”
Q. How much of your own experience makes an appearance in your work?
“A lot, of course, but seldom in an overt and straightforward manner. I weave in bits and pieces. I have studied and taught genealogy and I milk that quite often (and I make good use of a host of family names).
The nearest to autobiographical I get is in The Unravelling, where, with a bit of tweaking and shuffling, I have used the estate where I grew up and my memories of childhood there in the 60s. But none of the people and events are real, just the games and childish worries and playground politics.”
Q. Which authors have you changed your mind about over the years?
“In my teens I was fanatical about Tolkien, especially The Lord of the Rings. I do still admire his mastery of perfect fantasy – which is perfect rather than pure because it’s grounded, interwoven with the everyday normality of our lives; dragons and elves mixed up with the need for pocket handkerchiefs and a good mushroom fry-up. But I don’t read him any more.
I began to find it all a bit distasteful, as I did with C.S Lewis’s Narnia books. Poor Susan, denied heaven because she grew up.
Q. Your home is on fire… Which book will you choose to save?
“This is one of those impossible questions. Seriously, I’d be far too busy calling 999, screaming at everyone to get out, helping my very elderly mother to safety, rescuing the cats, grabbing my laptop, disconnecting the gas tanks, to think about books. But supposing all that was done and I still had time, am I allowed to say my Kindle, or is that cheating? Other than that, the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I’d need something spiritually enchanting while I watched my home burn to the ground.”
Q. You lived much of your life outside of Wales. Has that ‘outsider’ experience shaped how you write about Wales?
I grew up in Luton but my mother was Welsh, which gave me a sense of exile from the start. Once I moved to Wales, the reverse happened. I became English in exile in Wales. I am perverse!
But I am deeply aware of differences. Not the difference between my home town of Luton and my mother’s, Cardiff, because a town is a town is a town. But I am very conscious of the contrast between the suburban home counties – with fast raucous towns where today is all that matters and a countryside that’s a playground for the cities and a home for the well-heeled – and the very ancient, very slow, very isolated, semi-wild woods and hills and valleys of West Wales, where even the language is different, and the past is ever-present. The countryside is littered with the human touch of millennia, from prehistoric hut circles to abandoned cottages and derelict mansions. I find it very easy to write a sense of mystery and history into my books set here.
Thorne Moore is originally from the Luton area, about 30 miles from London. She has a long connection with Wales dating from her time as a history student at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth. She now lives in a Victorian farmhouse in Pembrokeshire in west Wales where she divides her time between writing and her craft business. Thorne is a member of the Crime Writers Association and Crime Cymru, and is co-organiser of the Narberth Book Fair. She is published by Honno Press.
To kick off this new series, I’m joined by Alys Einion, the author of two books: Inshallah and the follow up, Ash. I had the pleasure of reading Ash earlier this year (my review is here) and then met up with Alys at an open reading event in Cardiff.
“Hi again Karen, thanks for talking to me. Books are one of my most favourite subjects to talk about.”
Q: Let’s begin by asking you to imagine you’ve just met some readers in a lift. You have only a few floors to persuade them to read your latest book, Ash. What’s your pitch?
“I’d say Ash is about the relentless toil of motherhood and the need for intimacy meet and clash with the first stirrings of womanhood and identity, as two tales of life and what it does to us coalesce in a journey of becoming.”
Q: What inspired you to write Inshallah and Ash?
“Oh, now you’re challenging me!
“Inshallah was born out of a conversation with an acquaintance, a friend really, though we’re not in touch any more. It was a conversation about someone who did something similar to what Amanda does – and it started a huge train of thought, mainly about faith, belief, and fatalism or submission.
“My first idea was to call it The Submission because a key feature is that Amanda (the protagonist) finds faith and decides that everything is happening to her because it is meant to happen, a
nd that she should submit to a higher power. Which then means she is meant to do what is in front of her – marry Muhammed because she is pregnant. In Arabic, the word or phrase Inshallah, means something like Submission to God or God Willing, so I was inspired by this idea.
“I was fascinated by the idea of faith, absolute faith, and also really keen to explore the experiences of a woman marrying, moving to an alien culture, and learning to fit in, including having to learn a new language.
“It required a lot of research. But some of it was based on my own experiences, as I did something similar when I was young – though I only went from South Wales to North Wales! I guess I understood the idea of feeling like a path was laid out for me, and I believed (and still do) in a higher power that was putting opportunities in front of me.
“Amanda’s choices are extreme, but the beauty of her story lies in her ability to survive, to endure. I also really wanted to write something that explores sexual violence. That was a tough choice, and not popular, and not easy to do. But violence and control in relationships is remarkably common. And I wanted to draw a distinction between the community of women, and the faith, that Amanda grew into, and the one single horrible man who threatened to destroy her life. I know many women who have escaped from terrible, abusive relationships and I wanted their stories to be partly present, I suppose. We have our own hero’s journey, one that is uniquely female.
“Ash followed on from that. I hadn’t intended to write a sequel, but reader responses and a discussion with my editor started a seed of thought, particularly about telling Ash’s story (Amanda’s daughter).
“A lot was inspired by my experiences as a mother, and also watching others’ experiences particularly as single parents, addressing adversity and keeping going. I was particularly struck by the people I saw around me – mothers, children, the occasional father – and all the ways in which they interacted. I am not really inspired by typical story arcs, and running two narratives on two different timelines was a bit of a challenge. But I wanted to tell Amanda’s ongoing story, and to not romanticise it, and to get up close and personal with the experience of girls becoming women. Ash is more controversial than Inshallah, but it came from the same source – uncompromising depiction of what womanhood can be like in our modern world.
“When I am writing, there’s something like a flash of sudden light, a realisation as the story takes root – a bit like conception, I suppose. There may be ideas, germs of ideas, vague thoughts and feelings, but something sparks the story to life and suddenly it takes on a life of its own. I was reading a news article about radicalisation as preparation for a teaching session – and boom! There it was.”
Q. What books would you say have shaped you most as a reader and as an author?
“Wow, that’s a big question, but luckily it’s something that I think about quite a lot.
“I read The Hobbit when I was seven, and it caught my imagination in a significant way. My mother was a big Tolkien fan. So when I was eleven years old, I read the Lord of the Rings for the first time. It was a challenge but I fell in love.
“I read that book every year, at least once. I always find something new and beautiful in it. And I cry, every time I read it, when Sam picks up Frodo and carries him up Mount Doom. It is the epitome of love.
“That book made me think about what constitutes a good story. I realised that I wanted to be moved by what I was reading, to connect in some way beyond simply enjoying a story. The use of language, in some places, is so profound, but you also learn that it is a bit of an anti-story. Lots of people criticise it, especially fellow feminists, but I find it moving and very inspiring, and it has some of my favourite quotes in it, almost like a philosophy for life.”
I was also powerfully affected by a book I got from the library when I was around 12 or 13. My mother was the branch librarian in our village, so I spent quite a lot of time in the library as a child and teenager, and read a wide variety of things.
“Requiem for a Princess by Ruth M Arthur – probably what would now be classed as YA fiction – was a favourite; so magical and so evocative. It was one of the first books other than Lord of the Rings that made me cry. In it, the main character has been ill, and is sent to Cornwall to convalesce, and during this time experiences vivid dreams of a ghostly Italian princess and a tragic love story.
“It’s a short book, but beautifully written, and I read it again and again. It was eventually returned to the library, but the story stayed with me, and about 20 years ago I logged on to a book finding site and put in a request to search for it. It took nine years, but a copy of the book surfaced and I bought it – and it’s a library edition, just like the one I first read. It’s hard to describe this, but so many books stay with me, like really old friends – and that is one of them.
“A few other books I’ll mention:
- Anne McCaffrey’s books: I have everything she ever wrote, and even wrote to her in my 20s for advice as a writer.
- Roxane Gay, whose book Difficult Women is mind-blowing
- Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most significant influences on my writing. I read it in my late teens, and again, I have re-read it several times.
- Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe. It’s about writing. It’s a novel, but really cleverly explores writing and structure etc.
- Stephen King’s On Writing is brilliant.
Q. Where do you like to write? Do you have a favourite place or chair?
“I have a lovely antique teachers’ desk in my living room, which is where I like to write when I am at home. It has a big, broad surface which suits my habit of covering it with papers and books. I like to write longhand, on yellow, lined paper, with a fountain pen. Then I type up and edit onto a laptop. The desk sits in the bay window. I love to write in windows, to be able to look out as I let my thoughts wander.
Most of Inshallah and Ash were written in cafes, including one just around the corner from me. It’s full of different characters and the staff are great. I find it easier to write in places like that, though I often get the urge in all kinds of places. Pubs, trains, anywhere really. I really like to people watch as well. It’s really fascinating and interesting. But there has to be plenty of tea available.
“Sometimes, I take my camper van down to the beach nearby, usually Oxwich, and park up and then spend the day writing. It’s almost perfect, and that works when I want to feel close to the wild and to get away from housework and emails and my day job. That can help me be more disciplined, as I don’t get distracted by mundane things.
Q. Do you tend to give up on books or are you someone who feels they need to finish everything?
“Hmm well that has changed over time.
“I used to be really stubborn and finish everything – even War and Peace! If I got past the first 10 pages, I was committed. What might turn me off at the beginning would be bad writing, or simply a style that I could not get on with. Some books I would read even if I didn’t like the style, because I wanted to have read them (eg some Dickens can be quite dense but I stuck with it, and don’t get me started on Chaucer).
“Some books have surprised me over the years. I found Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda much harder to read than Jane Austen, but I persevered because of the subject matter. But I read a lot of lighter fiction in between the more literary fiction, as it provides lovely light relief and is a great foil for my academic work. I am not a literary snob by any means. I will persevere with some books in order to broaden my horizons. If I find an author I like, I will basically buy everything they have ever written.
“Nowadays, I am incredibly busy all the time, and although I read constantly, it has to be fitted in around everything else. So I have to really be into the book to commit to it. Time is precious – I will put a book down if I can’t get on with it, but more often than not I will come back to it weeks, months or even years later and try it again. Sometimes I will finish it on the second go, sometimes not.
“I might buy books based on recommendations from other people, often online purchases which are handy when I am really busy. But nothing beats going to the library, or to a bookshop, and touching and opening books and trying out a few pages to see if this is something I should read. And I read fellow Honno author books, partly because they are really good books by women, partly out of solidarity – which has proved a real blessing as I have discovered new nuggets of story that shine well beyond the point when I shut the book at the end. I do try to make a point of reading books published by independent presses because I think good writing is good writing.
“I think, though, overall, when you know just what goes into a book – how much work it takes to produce that story, it makes you more inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt, and keep going. Usually it’s worth it. Some books are an acquired taste, like Marmite or olives. Still, if it’s sprouts, it’s sprouts, and then it’s a no from me.”
Q. Before you go, since this is meant to be a series about Welsh writers, I have to ask whether you think there is a characteristic spirit, theme or preoccupation in fiction from Wales; something that makes it uniquely Welsh?
“Ah, now that’s another good question.
“I think that people from Wales, perhaps even without knowing it, and particularly writers, are affected by our cultural heritage. I grew up with not a very good opinion of Welsh cultural heritage, mainly because my education and teachers was focused on England and English texts and English arts and culture. It was only as I grew older that I realised that the richness of Wales lay in its history and its literature and art and its working class bones, as it were. I learned to be fiercely proud of being Welsh.
“I think people who have lived in Wales develop a strong sense of hiraedd, and it infects our writing. I know that when I write, this country is the context of many of my thoughts. I think there is a character in this land, which we all share, of endurance and strength and beauty found in unexpected places.
“But I also think that this land holds anger and bitterness, the grief and loss of heritage, language, culture and prosperity, and the echoes of our subordination and occupation.
“Mostly I think that Welsh culture, and in particular, Welsh writing, incorporates a realistic appreciation of life, struggle, triumph, and community. And I think it is the romantic wild soul of the Welsh, and of this land, that mixes with that anger, and affects us all. “
Alys Einion has been a nurse and a midwife but now works as Associate Professor of Midwifery and Women’s Health at Swansea University in Wales. She gained a PhD in 2012, studying the intersection between women’s life writing, fiction and representations of sexual violence, which led to the publication of her first novel Inshallah. She also has aPhD in Creative Writing. She is published by Honno Press. She can be contacted via Twitter @AlysEinion.