My latest guest in the Meet A Welsh Author series is Elaine Canning whose recently published debut novel The Sandstone City has been described as “experimental and accessible literary fiction, that will appeal to readers who love Max Porter, Isabel Allende, David Mitchell and Carlos Ruin Zafon.
Originally from Belfast, Elaine now lives in Swansea, South Wales and is Executive Officer of the Dylan Thomas Prize.
Earliest Reading Memory
There was a strong tradition of oral storytelling in my family, with my maternal grandparents leading the way. Those are the stories I remember vividly from my very early childhood — I don’t recall having hardbacked picture books or anything like Peter Rabbit. My grandparents’ stories were populated with mermaids, snow queens and adventures at sea. From around the age of seven or eight, when my mum started taking me to the local library, it was Enid Blyton all the way — Mr Pink-Whistle, Famous Five, Secret Seven and Malory Towers.
The Author Who Changed My Life
I have two, both of whom influenced me in different ways. First came Gabriel García Márquez, who I regard as one of the finest storytellers. He introduced me to worlds where the magical and real co-existed, where imagination took flight like a flying carpet, where some family members could levitate and others were almost invincible. And all the while, the stories reeled me in, page after page, book after book, immersing me in fantastical and sometimes dreamlike narratives. One Hundred Years of Solitude is my all-time favourite novel.
Then along came Maggie O’Farrell with her beautifully crafted stories of duality, where transitions between time, place and character are so intricately yet subtly woven. It is Maggie’s craft which particularly intrigues and inspires me.
The Book I Keep Returning To
Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. It’s a gorgeous, heart wrenching novel about an erased family member which interweaves the lives, memories and voices of Iris and Esme. I return to this book again and again, fascinated by how the writing, so quietly powerful, never lets Esme slip away despite the vanishing act imposed on her years before.
An Unexpected Pleasure
James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s one of those works I always thought I should read, started, got a few pages in, and abandoned.
Then, at the beginning of this year, perhaps subconsciously prompted by the centenary anniversary of its first publication, I decided to give it another go. This time, I read one section each day over seven days and then took the rest at a steady pace over a few months. I still don’t understand everything, but isn’t that the point? It continues to fascinate me.
Most Recommended Book
I have a very long list of books I could recommend!
Anne Enright’s The Gathering is at the top of that list; it’s a dark, tender novel about family relations where the writing is at once sharp, subtle and lyrical. It also contains my favourite opening line of all the novels I’ve read.
My top reads for 2022 are Rebecca F. John’s Fannie, a beautiful, visceral re-imagining of Les Miserable’s Fantine where the female protagonist is quietly and powerfully placed centre-stage; and Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses, a novel set in Belfast in 1975 which captures the turmoil, unpredictability and desperation of the time and place with breath-taking urgency and authenticity.
You Won’t Find Me Reading …
… as much non-fiction as I should, particularly books about science or sport.
My Favourite Writing Place
A tiny little room at the back of my house, or my garden. The room in which I write overlooks my garden, so I always feel as if I’m close to, if not fully immersed in nature.
The Last Book I Bought
Two fabulous books by female Welsh writers: The Shadow Order by award-winning, Costa-nominated Rebecca F. John, for my nephew; and Connective Tissue by the Paul Torday Memorial Prize winner Jane Fraser, for my mum.
I Would Love To Have Dinner or Drink With …
Anne Enright and Isabel Allende: that would be the perfect fusion of storytellers and Irish and Hispanic culture for me. I can just imagine it, the sheer force of confidence and creativity flowing from them – brilliant!
I Wish I’d Written …
… anything by Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende. I can only dream of being able to fuse the real and fantastical so seamlessly and imaginatively within a story. To cite one each of their lesser-known works, I wish I’d written even a page of Márquez’s Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories or Allende’s The Japanese Lover.
The Author Behind The Name: Elaine Canning
Elaine Canning is a public engagement specialist and writer based in Swansea, South Wales. She holds an MA and PhD in Hispanic Studies from Queen’s University, Belfast and an MA in Creative Writing from Swansea University. She is currently Head of Special Projects at Swansea University, which include the Rhys Davies National Short Story Competition, as well as Executive Officer of the Dylan Thomas Prize.
Her short stories have appeared in Nation.Cymru and The Lonely Crowd. She is the editor of Take a Bite: The Rhys Davies Short Story Award Anthology (Parthian, 2021) and New World, New Beginnings: Resilience and Connectivity through Poetry (Parthian 2021), and a forthcoming book : Maggie O’Farrell: Contemporary Critical Perspectives (forthcoming from Bloomsbury.)
Her debut novel The Sandstone City was published by Aderyn Press in 2022. It’s available from the publisher’s website here, local bookshops and other retailers.
The Sandstone City: synopsis
The Sandstone City is set in Belfast in 2007. Eighty-eight year-old Michael Doherty lies in an open coffin, listening to those who have come to pay their respects. Despite his dead son Cormac’s protests, he’s not ready to pass over.
“I’m lying in the box waiting for them to open the lid. I know full well they’ve positioned me next to the bay window of our cramped front room. My Annie will have given the orders, though she’ll say they come from a ‘higher place’. Never met a woman like her for her faith.
“This isn’t a space I normally inhabit – nor is the box, of course. Annie always kept me away from the window; she said it was for the best, for prying eyes only gave rise to tittle tattle. I never understood whose eyes she was talking about: whether she was more concerned about me seeing, or being seen, but I knew better than to question her. God knows I knew better. I also knew better than to ask what she was doing hanging about in front of the window when it took her fancy, all those times over the years. From my chair by the hearth, I could always see out into the street painted black with marching mourners, or blazoned white with the day’s bride, or snuffed grey with bonfires or someone’s burnt out vehicle. It never mattered whether her slender frame was in the way or not. Sometimes it was better that my Annie didn’t know everything.”