It’s time to meet Rhiannon Lewis whose debut novel tells the story of a Welshman who plays a pivotal role in the Chilean civil war of 1891. It was recommended by the Walter Scott Prize Academy who called it “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’ve said 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. Is there a book of which you’d say:” I wish I’d written that? “
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.”
“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.
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. 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: The Lowdown
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