Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
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.
Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
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
Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.
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.
Anorexia, domestic abuse, female subjugation, religious extremism: Ash by Alys Einion contains an abundance of issues but they don’t get in the way of what is essentially a story about relationships.
Ash is the follow up to her debut novel Inshallah which traced the fateful decision of a woman to swap her native Wales for her husband’s home in Saudi Arabia. When her life is threatened and no-one believes her claims about her husband Muhammed’s abusive behaviour, Amanda flees the country with her children.
Ash finds her back in the UK, struggling to bring up the children, moving from one squalid home to another, always fearful that Muhammed will find them. The boys eventually find their own way to survive in a country and a way of life that feels alien. But Ash (Aisha) the only daughter, finds it impossible to adjust. Impossible to fit in. Impossible to relate to her mother.
Ash is a moving portrait of a troubled teenage girl and her alienation from her mother. It’s told in the voices of these two women whose experiences have given them a bleak outlook on life.
“Everything is fake, in the end,” says Ash.
All the people who say they love you, they don’t mean it. Those women, the ones my mother shacked up with, they said they loved her, they said they’d be there, and they’re gone. It’s a lie, all of it.
Amanda deals with these frequent disappointments in her life, the times when people let her down by losing herself in her painting. Ash takes a different approach, starving herself and exercising fanatically to lose weight and avoid cruel jibes at school.
The gulf between these two women is the strongest aspect of the novel. Initially I found it hard to believe that Amanda would be so engrossed in her painting she wouldn’t notice her daughter’s unhappiness. Forget to shop for groceries yes. Forget to eat, certainly. But fail to see her daughter isn’t eating and has no friends? Not really. As we learned more of Amanda’s background however, her often eccentric behaviour became easier to accept: art is her refuge, a way of forgetting the pain of the past.
Many of the chapters deal with these past events. They help provide the necessary context for the main characters’ current state of mind and explain the tension between mother and daughter. This means there is a certain degree of ‘telling’ in this novel but that wasn’t any barrier to my enjoyment of the book. I found the rewinds to Amanda’s life in Saudi Arabia and her first months back in the UK also helped fill in the background that I was lacking because I hadn’t read Inshallah. Every chapter is labelled with a colour which often reflects a key mood though this wasn’t always successful and many times I failed to see the significance of the selected colour.
Where the book worked better was in showing the pain and confusion experienced by the teenage Ash. Her response to the psychological warfare waged against her by her class mates — the willowy, slim hipped girls who call her fat — is to reduce her food intake to almost nothing. Control over her body gives her strength.
They all hate me, they despise me, but they can’t beat me because I am better than them, I can do this now and no-one can stop me. No one is stronger than I am …
If I eat this, they win, and that mens they’re right about it all, that I’m just a fat nothing.
Though Ash is a highly intelligent girl, her predicament makes her vulnerable to exploitation. I won’t go into details of that aspect of the plot because it would spoil the book for other readers, but it gives the novel a highly topical dimension and provides a cliff hanger ending. I suspect that means Alys Einion has a follow up novel in the offing.
There were times I thought the book was a little repetitive but the thrust of the narrative and the depth of the characterisation kept my interest throughout.
About this book: Ash was published in 2018 by Honno Press, independent women’s press in the UK.
About the author: Alys Einion has had a varied career. She 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
Why I read this book: I’ve been making a conscious effort in the last couple of years to read more books from authors and publishers based in Wales. I couldn’t resist this one when I saw it on the Honno website. Aly
Today in The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we get to visit my home country of Wales with the help of Caroline Oakley, Editor and Publisher at Honno, an independent co-operative press based in Aberystwyth, Wales.
Honno was established in 1986 to publish the best in Welsh women’s writing. Today it publishes novels, autobiographies, memoir and short story anthologies in English as well as classics in both Welsh and English. Over the years Honno and its titles have been awarded many awards. Registered as a community co-operative, any profits made by the company is invested in the publishing programme. Caroline has worked in general trade publishing for over thirty years and has edited a number of award winning and bestselling authors. When not working she likes to walk in the woods, make her own clothes, grow her own food and clear up after her housemates (all seven of whom have four legs).
Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by authors from Wales?
A good starting point would be www.gwales.com. You can browse fiction by review or the different categories. You have to dig a little deeper but the site also lists Welsh publishers, so it is worth browsing through them individually to see the broad range of titles published in Wales.
Q. In 2014 the Wales Arts Review magazine asked readers the question: “Which is the Greatest Welsh Novel?” They ended up with a shortlist of 23 novels (listed here). What do you think of this list – are there any surprises? Any names missing for you?
I’m not sure I agree with such a label — it would be different for every reader… I’d want to know which categories the books were being judged against before opting for one over another. Also, I haven’t read them all, so how could I judge? And out of the 23 only half a dozen were by women— is this because male authors are better or because they are traditionally more likely to be published? I’m sure there are many many great novels by women that aren’t on the list.
Q. Are there any particular trends or themes that you find often in novels by writers from Wales?
Reinterpretations of traditional Welsh mythology, the history of Welsh emigration, and the transition from rural to industrial ways of life are themes that often crop up, both amongst the classic novels we publish and the contemporary submissions we get.
Q. Apart from Dylan Thomas, few authors from Wales seem to have made a big impact on the world stage. Why isn’t literature from Wales as well known as say Irish literature or Scottish fiction?
I wish I knew! Wales’s writers have certainly been recognised — R.S. Thomas was nominated for a Nobel Prize for instance. A degree of lingering mistrust between England and Wales could be partly to blame — however, Ireland does much better than either Wales or Scotland pro rata for population size and they too have a troubled history. Maybe hitherto they’ve had bigger characters/personalities who’ve been known for behaviour outside of their writing – Dylan Thomas is perhaps the only Welsh writer who fits into this category…
Q. How important are prizes like the Wales Book of the Year award or the Dylan Thomas prize in giving more attention to Welsh authors?
They have proved to be useful in terms of wider recognition from publishing industry in rest of UK and the world, for rights sales in particular –which improves the lot of the author who may then get an offer from bigger international publisher although less good for Welsh publisher who takes risk on an author but can’t afford to retain them on their list once they’re successful.
Q.In an article in The Bookseller magazine in 2016, a number of Welsh publishers commented on how it was getting harder to persuade mainstream media to review books and to get booksellers to stock their titles which come from Wales even if they are not necessarily about Wales Is that something that you’re concerned about?
It definitely has been an issue for us, partly down to mainstream media paying less attention to smaller presses generally, partly that smaller presses just don’t have the budget to effectively promote their books with review copies, pre-pub events and networking and partly down to being unable to network effectively with London-based media when you are in Aberystwyth! I don’t know that being from Wales or about Wales is necessarily the issue here — it’s more that space for any book related material is increasingly limited particularly in the print media/newspapers so inevitably they are going to focus on the big names. Also lead times are getting longer, which works against publishers whose lead times are shorter, which is true of some independent presses like Honno… Contrarily space online for books is growing incrementally but is yet to be seen as creditable or reliable in the same way as the established broadsheets.
Q. When Honno was created, the intention was to increase the opportunity for Welsh women in publishing and to bring Welsh women’s literature to a wider public. Is that still a key focus for you – have you seen any changes in attitude from readers over the years?
Absolutely it’s still a key focus! What we’d like to do is to widen our demographic to younger women in Wales and beyond — a lot of our initial interest was from women who are now getting older and making sure that their descendants know about Honno and recognise its importance is vital. There are many more demands on young women’s time and attention than was true in the early eighties— hence our interest in media other than print as a way of engaging younger readers.
Q Do you have a personal favourite among the authors from Wales?
Of the Welsh Women’s Classics we publish, My Mother’s House by Lily Tobias is one I particularly enjoyed. Obviously it is too difficult to choose a favourite contemporary author from among the Honno stable (without also risking the others’ wrath!) but outside of that Cynan Jones is a favourite — now receiving wide recognition but no longer published in Wales (hence my point earlier about the downside of prizes).
Intrigued? Want to know more?
- You can find more infomation about Honno, their catalogue and authors at their website www.honno.co.uk or via Facebook (facebook.com/honnopress) and via Twitter @honno.
- To learn more about literature from Wales visit the dedicated Literature from Wales page on this blog to discover reviews of authors from Wales and lists of suggested books to read.
- You might also want to take a look at a View from Wales post I wrote in 2016