Category Archives: Welsh authors
One thing guaranteed to turn me off a book is the presence of a ghost. I don’t understand the fascination with spectres, phantoms, wraiths or spirits or anything of a supernatural nature. Give me real flesh and blood any time.
Having made that disclosure you are probably now puzzled why my #20BooksofSummer reading list includes a book with one of my dreaded words in the title. Sounds contradictory doesn’t it, especially when you hear that Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin in fact makes multiple references to the supernatural world.
It draws on folklore, for example, particularly the fables found in the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as The Mabinogion. Lovekin’s novel also has one female character who is believed to have magical powers and another who is the spirit of a dead child.
Not my cup of tea by any stretch of the imagination.
And yet despite all of this I did enjoy reading this book.
Ghostbird is a tale set in rural Wales. This is where 14-year-old Cadi Hopkins lives with her mother Violet, a woman who has experienced tragedy in her life. Her eldest daughter drowned in a nearby lake while still a young child and her husband was killed soon after in a road accident. She has withdrawn emotionally from the world, including her surviving daughter.
In the neighbouring cottage lives her aunt (Violet’s sister in law), Lili Hopkins, a woman who according to the locals has magical powers just like all the Hopkins women down through the generations. Lili acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi but feels torn between her love for the girl and a promise she made to Violet many years earlier.
All three women have secrets. Secrets that Cadi is determined to unravel because her life is full of gaps and mysteries. Her mother never speaks of the past. There are no photographs of her father in the cottage. Her sister died before she was born so of course Cadi never got to know her. But she doesn’t even know whether her sister’s real name was Dora or Blodeuwedd, a character in The Mabinogion who was turned into an owl.
Cadi’s quest for knowledge coincides with the beginning of visitations from her dead sister. The girl is undergoing a metamorphosis into a bird, making her presence known through dead leaves and bird feathers. As her transformation progresses she draws Cadi closer to her and further away from Violet and Lili.
Initially I wasn’t keen on the scenes where we encounter Blodeuwedd’s presence. But by the end of the novel, it became evident they were integral to the novel, acting as a catalyst for the progress Cadi makes towards enlightenment and the start of a new relationship with her mother.
The real gem in the novel is how Carol Lovekin represents the women’s relationship with nature. Whether it’s the lake that magnetically draws Cadi to its edges in defiance of her mother’s command or the magical garden lovingly created over decades by the Hopkins women, there is a strong sense of place in this novel.
Unless you knew what you were looking for it wouldn’t be obvious you were in a witch woman’s garden. … In the lea of the wall, pots of herbs stood on a flat slab of oak: sage and coltsfoot, peppermint and lemon balm. … A mass of clematis, jasmine and honeysuckle tumbled over the walls. In the orders, flower upon flower, marigolds and lavender, cornflowers as blue as heaven.
Oh for a garden like that…..I’d even put up with a few strange rustlings in the trees or unexpected deposits of feathers in my bedroom.
Carol was born in Warwickshire and has worked in retail, nursing and as a freelance journalist and a counsellor. She is now a full-time writer living in Wales, a country she describes as her adopted home. Carol blogs at Making It Up As I Go Along
Ghostbird was her debut novel, published by Honno in 2016. It was a Guardian Readers’ Choice in 2016 and longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize (run by The Guardian) in 2016. She is now working on her fourth book.
Why I read Ghostbird
A number of independent presses in Wales had the inspired idea to open a pop up shop in Cardiff in December 2016. Of course I had to visit and of course I had to buy. Ghostbird was recommended by the team from Honno and it had a beautiful cover. It’s been sitting on my shelves since then although I did read Carol’s second novel Snow Sisters in 2017 (see my review here).
When I put together my list of books for #20booksofsummer I knew I wanted to start with a novel from Wales. What a perfect opportunity to read Ghostbird.
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
Time for another WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.
What are you currently reading?
The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey was named one of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time in 1990. It’s obviously stood the test of time since the Sunday Times culture magazine included it in a similar list just two weeks ago. Published in 1948 its about a Scotland Yard investigation of a mother and daughter accused of kidnapping a young girl. I’ve read only one other book by Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time – which was a fictionalised investigation into the deaths of The Princes in the Tower. A very different kind of novel but I liked her style of writing so snapped up a copy of The Franchise Affair when I spotted it in a second hand bookshop.
What did you recently finish reading?
The book club chose Kate Atkinson’s Transcription for our May meeting, Having disliked Life after Life to the point where I abandoned it part way through, I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the kind of books by Atkinson I used to love in the past. Transcription was definitely an improvement in the sense that I did make it to the last pages but otherwise this proved to be a seriously disappointing novel. The premise was promising – the past life of a woman who was recruited into the world of espionage, assigned to an obscure department of MI5 where she helped monitor the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathisers. But it never lived up to its promise.
I keep seeing this novel described as “a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy.” I don’t know who wrote that description (her publishers presumably) but it’s anything but a work of depth and power…. I’ll explain why when I write my review in a few days.
What do you think you’ll read next?
In theory my next read should be Evelina by Francis Burney since that was the result of the latest Classics Club spin. But having read a few pages I’ve decided I’m not in the mood for eighteenth century epistolary novel so have put Miss Burney on hold for another time.
I’m much more interested in the books I’ve listed for the 20 Books of Summer 2019 challenge. I’m aiming to read 15 between June 3 and September 3, all of them set in or written by authors from different countries.
I’ll be kicking off with a book written by Carol Lovekin, an author from Wales, that has been sitting in my bookcase for a few years. I do love the cover….
Ghostbird is set in a small Welsh village and the house called Ty Aderyn (the house of birds), home to generations of the Hopkins family. It’s a house of secrets, secrets that young Cadi Hopkins is determined to uncover.
Those are my plans – what’s on your reading horizon for the next few weeks?
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
The Woman in the Dark should be sold with a health warning emblazoned across its cover. Readers deserve to be cautioned that it’s such an addictive novel they will want to sacrifice domestic chores and forgo sleep until they reach the final pages.
As you’d expect with a thriller, it has a cracking pace and oodles of twists and turns. But Vanessa Savage has done something far more interesting than simply trotting out the standard elements of the genre. Within her chillingly dark tale of a family in crisis, she spins a disturbing narrative about the legacy of child abuse.
The Woman in the Dark begins on a day that seems just an ordinary one for a rather ordinary family. But the tensions become quickly apparent. Mum Sarah is suffering from a deep depression as a result of her mother’s death. She’s taken to drink to help dull the pain but her cocktail of alcohol and anti depressant tablets leave her feeling spaced out and unable to function. They need a fresh start according to her loving and caring husband Patrick.
So he persuades her to move home, to buy the Victorian beachfront house in which he grew up. It’s the ideal spot in which to raise their two teenage children Joe and Mia, he argues. Conveniently he overlooks the fact that this house is where a brutal double murder took place 15 years ago. The Murder House, as the locals call it, is now a dilapidated shell of its former self. Patrick is convinced they can make it as perfect a home as it was in his childhood. No-one else in the family shares his optimism for the peeling paint, rattling windowpanes and unexplained cold spots in some rooms. And that’s before they are even aware of the creepy messages on the cellar wall.
From these elements Vanessa Savage has created an intense and deeply disturbing novel about lies, secrets and buried tensions. No-one comes out of this intact. Certainly not Sarah who becomes obsessed by the murder and perturbed by what she discovers about Patrick’s past. Definitely not Patrick whose moods swing from concern for Sarah’s wellbeing to uncontrollable anger. Nor their children who suffer nightmares and physical trauma as their parents’ marriage disintegrates.
This is a novel in which nothing – and no-one – can be trusted. Is Sarah right to imagine the house is a malevolent force? Does she have good reason to suspect Patrick is a threat to her and her children? The only version of events we hear is Sarah’s and given her propensity to become confused and muddled, the problems could all be in her mind.
The Woman in the Dark is a remarkably strong debut. Vanessa Savage writes with such confidence that you quickly overcome doubts that any sane adult would want to live in a house whose previous occupants were slaughtered. It’s not a book to enjoy (unless you like to revel in other people’s misery) but it’s certainly one in which you can become engrossed.
About the book
The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage was published in January 2019 by Sphere in the UK and by Grand Central Publishing in the USA.
About the Author
Vanessa Savage trained as a graphic designer and illustrator. She lives with her family in South Wales (just down the road from me I just discovered 🙂 She has won the Myriad Editions First Crimes competition and was shortlisted for the Caledonia Fiction Prize.
Look out for an interview with Vanessa when she joins me in Cwtch Corner next month.
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
Drive to the far west of Wales and you’ll eventually get to the Teifi valley, officially designated as an area of “Outstanding Natural Beauty”.
In the nineteenth century, this place of rolling hills, sparkling streams and grazing sheep was anything but idyllic.
The middle of the century saw a period of rural unrest as tenant farmers – often dressed as women and with blackened faces – rose up in protest over rising rents for farmland at a time of falling prices for sheep and cattle.
They called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’, taking for inspiration a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them.’
The Rebecca rioters vented their anger against toll gates which they viewed as the manifestation of high taxes. They also enacted retribution against members of the community felt to have transgressed its expected standards of behaviour, using the tradition of the Ceffyl Pren (“wooden horse”) in which offenders would be paraded around their neighbourhood tied to a wooden frame.
The time of the Rebecca Riots provides a background for None so Blind, the first of the Harry Probert-Lloyd Mysteries, a historical mystery series by Aiis Hawkins.
It begins with an unnamed narrator who is a secret witness to an event, the consequences of which will not become apparent until seven years later when a set of bones are uncovered beneath a fallen tree.
Harry Probert-Lloyd, son of the local squire and county magistrate, believes they are the remains of a servant girl he loved and was forced to abandon. When an inquest delivers a verdict of accidental death, he determines to seek out the truth for himself. His quest brings him into conflict not only with his father but with people who were once Rebecca rioters.
Harry’s training as a lawyer helps him penetrate half truths and lies. He has one significant problem however: his sight is failing and he is slowly going blind. He enlists the services of a law clerk, John Davies, to be his “eyes”.
We’ve become accustomed in recent years to fictional ‘detective’ figures whose characters are flawed in some regard. Harry’s blindness is considerably more than a mere literary trick to give him more ‘character’. It changes how people react to him and how he has to conduct his investigation, making him far more acutely aware of nuances and gaps in what people tell him.
… I had not appreciated just how much of what we say is dictated by what we observe; a look of embarrassment causing a change of topic, a flush of enthusiasm and a bright eye egging one on … confusion prompting a clearer explanation…
It also becomes central to Harry’s relationship with John Davies. They begin as employer and hired servant but evolve into friends whose mutual desire for justice and the truth enable them to cross the divide between their respective status in society. As they warmed to each other (despite some misunderstandings at times) I found myself equally warming towards this pair.
The plot is well constructed and the feelings of guilt experienced by Probert-Jones that he didn’t do more to help his former girlfriend, give the novel some emotional depth. But the real strengths of None so Blind lie in its historical context of the Rebecca Riots. I knew of the riots through history lessons in school. They were always portrayed as a kind of working class hero campaigners, the poor man willing to stand up and say “no more” .
It was fascinating to learn through None so Blind that the rioters became a force feared by the very people they had set out to aid. As Harry’s father explains, farmers took to hiding in their crops to avoid being dragooned by the rioters into joining their cause. Whatever genuine grievance compelled the rioters to take up their weapons, was lost as the protest gained momentum. Even Harry recognises that:
… once people unaccustomed to power have felt its potency, they are apt to begin wielding it indiscriminately, with results that are usually far from quaint.
None so Blind has a lot to say about justice, responsibility and the treatment of the poor. It does so in a way that was entertaining and engaging. The dynamics between Harry and John work well and the use of an unidentified narrator adds a further level of mystery to a tale which contains many secrets. The historical background was also well managed – Alis Hawkins avoids the mistake (unforgivable in my eyes) of many a writer who, having done their research, feel compelled to include it within the text. Instead we get an introductory note about law and order, and the roles of police and coroners in nineteenth century west Wales, plus a lengthy explanation about the Rebecca Riots.
This weaving of history and fiction reminded me of two other series I’ve enjoyed in the past: the highly successful series by C. J Sansom set in Tudor England that features the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake and the series by Bernard Knight about a coroner in King Richard’s reign. Maybe the Harry Probert-Lloyd series will become another of my favourite series.
About the Author
Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley). 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.
Her first novel, Testament, was published in 2008 by Macmillan and was translated into several languages. It has recently been acquired for reissue, along with her medieval trilogy of psychological thrillers, by Sapere Books and will appear, with the first two in the trilogy, later in 2019.
About the Book
None So Blind, published in 2017, is the first in a series featuring Harry Probert-Lloyd. The second episode entitled In Two Minds is due out in May from The Dome Press.