Ceri Shaw


 

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Category: Author Interviews

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Here we present two interviews with Welsh writer Bernard Knight.( Bernard Knight on the Wikipedia ) The first appeared on the AmeriCymru blog in March 2012 and the second on our Magazine site in April 2012 after we polled members on the AmeriCymru social site for questions they would like to put to Bernard Knight.

AmeriCymru Interview With Bernard Knight 4/17/12

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AmeriCymru Interview With Bernard Knight 3/12/12

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AmeriCymru: Hi, Bernard, and many thanks for agreeing to talk to AmeriCymru. In the course of a distinguished career as a forensic pathologist, medical doctor and barrister you have also found time to write more than 30 novels since 1963, in addition to radio and teleplays and non-fiction works. What was your main motivation when you began writing fiction? What inspired you?

Bernard: I suppose my literary career began when I was a medical student in Cardiff in 1949, which was after being first a farm worker in Gower and then a hospital lab tech. By default, I became editor of the student magazine, appropriately called ''The Leech'' - and as usual, being editor of any small publication meant you had to write most of it yourself. But novel writing started not from ''inspiration'', but boredom. When called up to the Royal Army Medical Corps for compulsory military service in 1956, I had not long been married and applied to stay in Britain – so with the usual military efficiency, they sent me to Malaya for three years! Here the bloody twelve-year ''Forgotten War'' against the communist terrorists was going on and I was posted to a small military hospital in North Malaya, a place a bit like MASH, complete with helicopters and a mad commanding officer!

My main recreation was reading books from the camp library – many were crime novels, but as the hospital pathologist, I found many of the forensic aspects so wildly inaccurate that I decided I could do better myself. I started writing one and when I came back to my first forensic job in London, I mentioned this to a court reporter, and was astonished to see my boast in the next day''s Daily Mirror!

The next day, I had a letter from a publisher asking to see my manuscript – I had only written a bit of it, so I dashed off the rest and he took it! It doesn''t happen like that these days!

After this first shot at crime fiction with ''The Lately Deceased'', I went on to write about half a dozen ''stand-alone'' novels, several based in South Wales. Following this, I also started writing scripts for radio plays for the BBC and then for television. I wrote the story-lines for a very popular BBC forensic series called The Expert, and did quite bit of TV work, even presenting some documentary stuff on forensic topics like skeletons. A few years ago, I was involved in two programmes where we examined the alleged bones of St David, kept in a chest behind the high altar at the cathedral in Pembrokeshire– unfortunately, we showed that they were six hundred years too recent to be our patron saint!

I did some Welsh Language programmes, too, though I''m not fluent, much to my sorrow. One was a series about spies at the missile range in West Wales and more recently I wrote the stories for Dim Clew, a forensic team game on S4C.

I even had a try at biography and came to New York to write the life story of Milton Helpern, the famous Chief Medical Examiner of NYC. The book, written as an autobiography, called Autopsy,was very successful, going into five editions and book clubs, though unfortunately my old friend Milton died just before publication.

As a full-time pathologist, working for the university and the Home Office, I had to do all my writing at night, sometimes until three in the morning – I once passed my resident mother-in-law, an early riser, on the stairs as I was going up and she was going down!

AmeriCymru: How do you choose your subjects and can you tell us a bit about your creative process?

Bernard: My abiding fascination with Welsh history tempted me to write my first historical novel Lion Rampant in 1972, the true tragic romance of Princess Nest and Owain ap Cadwgan. It''s still my favourite book, being so closely bound to real history. I followed this with another twelfth century yarn Madoc, Prince of America , about which more below. These two books really got me hooked on the twelfth century, which set the pattern for Crowner John.

The creative process is a bit of a myth in terms of ''inspiration'', in that once I get a general idea for a book, I first beaver away at the historical background, this research being the most interesting part of the job – in fact, I don''t really like the chore of writing, slogging away at a keyboard. It''s the research that grabs me, it took a year''s work to get the facts right for Lion Rampant.

The themes for the Crowner John books were very varied – the business of sanctuary, where criminals sought shelter in a church; tournaments ( the medieval equivalent of football, horse-racing and baseball); the harsh forest laws; witchcraft, piracy, tin-mining and of course, ever-present dominance of the Church.

I used to write a detailed synopsis of a book before I started, even if the finished product diverged considerably from it. I''ve got lazier now, but I still need to know where I''m going with a book, rather than the ''sit-down-and-hope-for-the-best'' approach that some writers seem to get away with.

I now start with a flow-diagram on a single sheet of paper, with characters called X,Y.Z, and build up a visual pattern with arrows for motives. Then I put names on the people and write a ''curriculum vita'' for each, so that I can establish continuity.

This is vital for a series like Crowner John, with fifteen books to handle. I have a large file which I call ''My Bible'', which has separate sections for the personal details of each character, then bits about costume, diet, locations, maps, etc, so that I can keep a grip on things. Even so, one makes slips and my many readers around the world are swift to let me know – for example John''s cook-maid was blonde in one book and brunette in another!

Anachronisms are another problem - I had an Email from somewhere in the world to tell me that I had screwed a booby trap to the lavatory wall, which was impossible because screws weren''t invented until the 14th century!

Even in dialogue, anachronisms are hard to avoid – can you say in a 1195 book that someone was a ''sadist'' – or a man was ''mesmerised'', when those eponymous words were still centuries in the future?

The hardest part of a book is the ending, which causes many otherwise good books to fall flat. In crime books, the old standby, the ''denoument'' beloved of Hercule Poirot, with the suspects gathered together in the drawing-room, is quite unrealistic in real life, but there is only a limited range of outcomes – the culprit is either arrested, shot, commits suicide or conveniently has a fatal accident. It''s ''not cricket'' to let him get away with it!

AmeriCymru: You are perhaps best known as the author of the Crowner John Mysteries. Care to explain for our readers what a Crowner was and did?

Bernard: As a forensic pathologist, my instructions – and payment – for an autopsy came from the coroner, an official always either a lawyer or a doctor, responsible for investigating deaths which cannot be certified by a physician as natural causes. It was with the idea of becoming a coroner that I also studied to be a barrister, as an insurance against not getting a senior medical post.

The word ''coroner'' comes from the Latin ''Custos placitorum coronae'', meaning ''keeper of the pleas of the crown''. The office originated in 1194, partly as a means to attract fines from the population to help pay for the ransom of Richard the Lionheart, captured in Austria on his way home from the Third Crusade.

Anything 12th century was of interest to me and after a bit of academic delving, I had the idea to write a one-off book about a fictional first coroner. I would have liked to have set it in Wales, but that was impossible as in 1194, we were still independent and had our own laws of Hwyel Dda – so I had to go to England and I chose Devonshire.

Most of the characters I used were real and actually held the jobs I portrayed, like Sir Richard de Revelle, the sheriff . There was no record of the early coroners, so I invented Sir John de Wolfe, a returning Crusader who was looking for a job.

The title ''crowner'' is a bit of cheat for 1194, as it was not used until the 14th century as a slightly derogatory nickname – Shakespeare uses it in that sense in Hamlet.

The coroner''s job was to hold inquests on all deaths that did not occur in the bosom of the family, including murders, suicides, accidents etc – and where possible, bring any culprits to justice. He had to attend hangings to seize the property of felons, take confessions from sanctuary-seekers, attend ordeals, examine assaults, rapes, robberies, fires, wrecks, catches of the royal fish (whale and sturgeon) and many other legal tasks, most designed to gather money into the royal exchequer, rather than let the local lords continue to use their own courts. Essentially, his job was to record every legal event and present them to the king''s judges when they circulated around the county towns to administer justice.

It seemed a good basis for an investigative story, as at least it really was the coroner''s job – not like the many old ladies, writers, aristocrats and priests that abound in detective fiction! I thought this was to be a single book, but it was so popular that the fifteenth will be published this coming August.

AmeriCymru: From the Wikipedia we learn that:- "Apart from John, most of the main characters actually existed in history and every care is taken with research and the creation of atmosphere, to offer an authentic picture of twelfth-century England. Most the places described in the stories can be visited by readers today, even the gatehouse of Rougemont Castle in Exeter, where John had his office." How difficult is it to weave a fictional narrative around the lives of real characters? What proportion of your time is spent on research?

Bernard: Amongst historical novelists, there is a divergence of opinion about whether you should use real characters in the books. Some say it is perverting history and also risks possibly blackening the name of nice folk. I don''t think this is valid, especially after 900 years, as everyone knows the books are meant as entertainment, not teaching - though many ''fans'' have told me that they enjoyed such a painless way of learning some history, especially about common folk. I always try to tell life as it really was - the squalor, the dirt and the poverty, as well as how people ate and dressed all those centuries ago.

My information comes from all sorts of sources – history textbooks, monographs, direct questioning of very helpful experts – and of course the Internet, though one has to be careful in accepting everything in Wikipedia, as you never know if some historical essay was actually written by some spotty kid in Idaho!

I am almost obsessional about authenticity and cannot use anything I know or suspect to be wrong. Some of my writer friends are not so fussy, saying that it''s only entertainment, but I go to considerable lengths to try to get it right, even though I still slip up some times.

For instance in one of the earlier books, The Grim Reaper, I had the bright idea of having my serial killer, a priest, leave a relevant Biblical quotation at the scene of each murder, such as ''The Gospel of Mark, Chapter Ten, Verse Six.'' However, before I had finished the book, doubts began to gnaw at me and after consulting some theological colleagues, discovered that I could not do this, as the Bible in 1194 was continuous! Chapters were invented by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century and verses came in far later as a printing convenience.

Everywhere I write about, I have visited. It''s important, I think, to ''walk the territory'' which gives you a far more realistic impression of the scene than looking at photos or reading descriptions. I have even been up on Dartmoor in the snow to visit the place where the Devon tin miners used to hold their parliament.

I also find it very satisfying to tread the same stones as my characters did, all those centuries ago, like the gatehouse of Exeter Castle, built by William the Conqueror as early as 1068.

AmeriCymru: Crowner John could be called an "ancestor" of the modern pathologist, in writing about the beginnings of your own field in the 12th century, was it challenging to translate your much more vast knowledge of pathology to John''s limited resources, the information or education he would have had and the circumstances he would have had to work under?

Bernard: I went out of my way to avoid using my forensic pathology expertise in the Crowner John books, though of course, my more recent Dr Richard Pryor series based in South Wales in the 1950''s depends entirely upon it. But writing all those Crowner John stories was really a form of escapism for me, and it would have been a ''busman''s holiday'' if they contained any significant pathology – as well as being a total anachronism!

I confine the post-mortem examinations of John and Gwyn to crudely testing rigor mortis to guess how long someone had been dead – they probably did as well in 1194 as we do now, as it''s a pretty useless test! As for wounds, both John and Gwyn consider themselves experts after a lifetime on the battlefield, but they go little farther than sticking a finger into a stab wound to see how deep it was!

AmeriCymru: You have also written seven novels under the pseudonym "Bernard Picton". Can you tell us a bit more about those?

Bernard: In former years in Britain, it was unethical for doctors to professionally advertise themselves in any way - even the first TV doctor used to sit with his back to the camera! When I started writing in 1960, I could not flaunt my forensic knowledge in my novels and scripts, so had to take a pseudonym. At the time I was living in an old pub near Cowbridge, which had been ''The General Picton'', so I took that as a pen-name. Later, Margaret Thatcher forced the professions to open up and there was then no reason not to use my real name.

After my first novel in 1962, I went on to write another six ''stand-alone'' detective stories, all with a forensic flavour, one of them a ''link book'' to go with a major BBC forensic series called The Expert. I wrote the plots and acted as technical adviser for it, which I have done for several such programs – not that the producers took much notice of what I advised, if it didn''t suit their preconceptions!

These early books used forensic ''hooks'' on which to hang the plot and were sited in a variety of locations, from Cardiff to Newcastle, from Cardigan to Leningrad – the last one based on a trip I made to the Moscow State Forensic Institute in 1965.

AmeriCymru: Lion Rampant tells the story of a Welsh princess, Nest aka ''Helen of Wales'', and Lord Owain ap Cadwgan, Prince of Powys. Care to tell our readers a little about the book and how Nest came by that pseudonym?

Bernard: After the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, England was rapidly conquered, but it took another 200 years for Wales to be completely subjugated, when Prince Llewelyn was killed in 1282 by Edward Ist – from whom, unfortunately, I am descended.

But in the flat lands of the south and west, the Normans swept in early and in 1093, Rhys ap Tewdwr, King of Deheubarth was slain by the conqueror of Brecon. His beautiful young daughter Princess Nest was taken prisoner and made a ward of King Henry 1st, who made her one of his many mistresses and by whom she had a child. Then he married her off to Gerald de Windsor, castellan of Pembroke Castle, by whom she had five children, starting a Fitzgerald dynasty that included a Bishop of St David''s and Maurice, a conqueror of Ireland, from whom John Fitzgerald Kennedy could trace his ancestry. Maurice took his father''s flag to Ireland, where it was called St Patrick''s Cross and is now part of the Union Jack.

One of Nest''s grandsons was the famous cleric and writer, Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald the Welshman) from whose pen we have such a great knowledge of Wales in medieval times – and her nephew was ''The Lord Rhys'', who held the first national eisteddfod in Cardigan Castle in 1176..

At Christmas 1109, Nest was abducted from Cilgerran Castle, high on a crag above the Teifi, which belonged to her husband. The hot-blooded rescuer was her second-cousin, Owain ap Cadwgan, Prince of Powys, who having heard of her beauty, broke into the castle with a small band of men and galloped away with Nest and her children, after setting fire to the keep. Gerald escaped ignominiously through the latrine shaft – and again Nest gave birth to a child, this time Owain''s.!

This started a full-scale war and for this, Nest was later known as the ''Helen of Wales'' after the classical lady of Troy whose beauty was supposed to launched a thousand ships. Years later, Gerald killed Owain in revenge and Nest went on to have more chilldren by another two Norman knights – quite a fertile lady!

I mentioned my other Welsh historical novel earlier, Madoc, Prince of America.This well-known legend of the prince of Gwynedd who was alleged to have reached Mobile, Alabama in 1170 and gave rise to the ''Welsh Indians'' always intrigued me. I wrote yet another novel about it, using all the available ''evidence''. It has now become a bit of an embarrassment to me, as some years ago I became President of the Madoc Research Association – actually a small group of folk who met monthly in a pub in Maesteg to drink beer and gossip about Welsh history.

Though the legend has been around since Tudor times, being originally plugged by them politically in order to contest the prior claims of the Spanish to parts of North America, it was brought to modern public attention by a book published in 1966 by Sunday Times editor Richard Deacon. He produced a great deal of convincing new evidence to support the story, but recent research has shown that he was a pathological liar who fabricated most of his supporting evidence.

I no longer believe in the story, other than accepting that there was a tradition in medieval Wales of a mariner who ventured out far into the Western Ocean - a far cry from a Welsh prince ( of whom there is no trace in any historical records) reaching the Gulf of Mexico and then fighting his way up to the Ohio River and then the Missouri to found the Mandan tribe.

As a legend, it''s fine, but so much nonsense has been added to the story that it now lies beyond any credibility. For a balanced view of the legend, read Professor Gwyn Alf William''s 1979 paperback called Madoc.

AmeriCymru: The third book in your Dr. Richard Pryor series, Grounds for Appeal came out last December.. The Dr. Richard Pryor novels are set in the Wye Valley in Wales and take place during the 1950s, how much of your own life and experiences went in to these stories?

Bernard: These books have had a long incubation period, as in the early ''nineties, I wrote a proposition for a television series about a Welsh forensic pathologist who went into private consultant practice. This was taken up by a Cardiff TV production company and we developed story-lines and sample scripts. However, when we hawked it up to London to the large network companies, they were not interested, a common phenomenon with anything Welsh taken to London!

As it was not financially viable without network contracts, it was abandoned, but a few years ago, wanting a change from the twelfth century, I altered the names and locations and turned it into a book, ''Where Death Delights''. (This is a translation of part of an ancient Latin aphorism that is displayed in the entry hall of the New York Medical Examiners Office)

I wanted to get away from the current beaurocracy of the British ''nanny state'', with all its stuffy restrictions about Health and Safety, Human Rights, Race Relations, Data Protection and write about the days when I started pathology in 1955, when detectives in long raincoats and trilby hats could stand gossiping in the autopsy room with a cigarette and a mug of tea!

It was sheer nostalgia, writing about those post-war days when life was still austere, but freer from endless controls and restrictions.

I invented Dr Richard Pryor, a former Army pathologist who after service in the Far East, had stayed on in Singapore until he got a golden handshake and came home to Wales. His old aunt had left him her house in the Wye Valley where together with a disillusioned government forensic scientist, he sets up a laboratory and takes on a variety of cases from South Wales and the West of England. In addition, I run a mild romance through it, as Dr Pryor not only has this glamorous scientist at his elbow, but also a demure secretary, a pretty laboratory technician and a visiting anthropologist who looks like Sophia Loren!

Like the first Crowner John, I meant it to be a ''one-off'', but it proved very popular and I was asked for another two, which have recently been published, called According to the Evidence and Grounds for Appeal. The cases are naturally fictional, but have strands of reality running through them taken from my forty-five years in the job and there is an element of both nostalgia and autobiography in them. I have to think hard to make the techniques consistent with half a century ago, but at least they are a bit more complex than Crowner John''s primitive methods.

AmeriCymru: A lifetime of experience in medicine generally and forensic pathology in particular would seem to give you a "head start" as a mystery writer, has that freed you in any way to concentrate more on plot and character than might a writer less knowledgeable? Has your real-life experience been plot-inspiring for you or have you found real life forensics experience useful in crafting fiction and have you based incidents in your fiction on real-life cases?

Bernard: As mentioned earlier, the Crowner John books were in no way related to my professional life, quite the reverse. But of course, the many other crime books, plays and a few documentaries depended heavily on my forensic knowledge, though I never lift real cases into my fiction writing. However, parts of old cases, made unidentifiable, certainly get grafted into the stories, especially in the Dr Pryor books, but in a fragmented way, picking bits from different cases so that overall, they are unrecognisable. For instance, in one Dr Pryor book, my murder was concealed by letting a tractor wheel fall on to the victim''s neck – this was an echo of a suicide method I saw many years ago.

One problem about being a forensic pathologist is that it makes it hard for me to enjoy other crime novels where the forensic aspects are so badly portrayed – and in the case of the endless ''forensic'' television programs, impossible for me to watch, as they raise my blood pressure to dangerous levels! The greatest offender is ''time of death'' where the ludicrously-accurate claims of the author''s pathologist are exasperating. I edit the only textbook devoted solely to estimating the time of death – it has 270 pages, costs up to £100 and basically says that it can''t be done except within a very wide margin of error!

AmeriCymru: You''re also a founding member of a group known as The Medieval Murderers which has, among other things, produced seven novels, can you tell us what that is and how it came about?

Bernard: Other than the ''big name'' authors, most crime-writers are in the ''mid-list'', meaning that though they are not Dan Brown or John Grisham, neither are they complete dumbos whose books soon end up in the charity shops. However, this usually means that the publishers will spend little or no money promoting our books, so about ten years ago, a few of us historical mystery writers decided to form a self-promotion group called The Medieval Murderers, to go around libraries, bookshops, clubs and literary events giving informal talks about our work, either in a full group or as ones and twos. The members were Michael Jecks, Susannah Gregory, Philip Gooden, Ian Morson and myself, later joined by C J Sansom and Karen Maitland. We even had T-shirts made with a bloody dagger on the front!

Then a year or so later, we decided to write a book between us, which was not just a collection of short stories, but a ''chain book'', where each member wrote a ''novella'' of about 20,000 words which carried forward a theme set out in a Prologue and then tied up in an Epilogue. Once again, this was intended to be a ''one-off'' but The Tainted Relic was so successful that we have done one a year since then, with the eighth out soon and two more in the pipeline.

The writing method was unusual, being organised entirely by Email, as we all live far apart – Ian Morson was in Cyprus for most of the time. In fact, he has made a collection of all the messages, which he claims is longer than one of the actual books!

We began by deciding on a theme – the first was about a chip of the True Cross cursed when it was stolen in Jerusalem during the First Crusade, which killed anyone taking it from its container. Then we each wrote a story about it, using the period and characters from our own series, the idea being to publicise these other books. As the oldest (historically and personally!) I wrote the first chapter, using Crowner John to deal with the relic arriving in Devon. Then I had to leave it somewhere at the end of my story where Ian Morson, next in line in the 13th century, could pick it up – and so on up the line, until the end where I brought the saga into modern times in an Epilogue.

None of us knew what the others were writing, all that mattered was that the object was handed on smoothly between us. Later books used a sword, an abbey, a book of Celtic prophesies and the alleged bones of King Arthur as themes for the stories.

AmeriCymru: Do you have a particularly favorite character of your own that you especially like or enjoyed writing? A particular book that you enjoyed writing or are most proud of having produced?

Bernard: I suppose Crowner John himself is my favourite, he was physically modelled on a well-known local barrister that I worked with, tall, dark and saturnine. I made him somewhat unimaginative and not endowed with a great sense of humour, but honest and faithful to his friends and his king. Every sleuth needs his Dr Watson, so I gave him Gwyn, a big, amiable Cornishman, together with a diametrically-opposite character in Thomas de Peyne, a little runt of a priest with a slight hunchback and a limp. Unfrocked for an alleged indecent assault, he is pitifully thin and poorly dressed and I have had literally scores of letters, Emails and personal comments from ladies who seem keen to mother him!

As I''ve said before, Lion Rampant is still my favourite book, perhaps because it was my ''first-born'' historical novel, but from sheer nostalgic pleasure, I think my Malayan novel Dead in the Dog, which comes out this March, is high on the list of my favourites.

I also like the post-apocalyptic book I wrote in 2003, called Brennan . I wanted a complete change from the Middle Ages and decided to write a parody of the historic Arthur story, by describing the leadership of a senior Army officer from a South Wales barracks, who is left to collect and protect the few survivors of a viral plague that kills almost all the world''s population.

It had good reviews, being compared with Stephen King''s The Stand.

AmeriCymru: Do you read fiction for pleasure and, if so, what writers are you reading?

Bernard: I am an obsessive reader, can''t sit down without a book, even in the toilet. I''ll read anything, even the phone book if I''m desperate. For many years I was a reviewer for the crime website Tangled Web, so regularly got boxes of books through the mail with no control over the titles. Then I was one of the Crime Writers Association judges for the Silver Dagger Awards for non-fiction crime - and the local public library sees me about twice a month for a re-load, so I''ve had a heavy literary diet for most of my life.

Hard to say who my favourite authors are, it depends on how I feel – Lawrence Block, Ed McBain, Michael Pearce, Leslie Thomas, Alan Firth, John Le Carre, Len Deighton, Somerset Maugham – the list is almost endless. I love spy books and some SF, as long as it''s not the current fad for gold-brassiered princesses from Planet Zog!

AmeriCymru: What''s next for Bernard Knight?

Bernard: I''m pushing eighty-one now and swore that the fourteenth Crowner John would be my last, but clamour from fans made me squeeze out another final one. I have another two Medieval Murderers projects ahead, but they are relatively short. I don''t fancy sitting down to hammer out books of well over a hundred -thousand words any more, but I''d like to do some short stories. Not much of a market for them these days, but maybe Kindle might be the way forward. A couple of years ago, I wrote a short story by invitation for a ''Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes'', called The Birdman of Tonypandy, about a pub landlord in the Rhondda who murders his wife. The editor put it last in the book, as he said that nothing could follow it!

I''ve also a yen to write something about the adventures of a Cardiff tramp steamer in the 1930''s, as I was born in Cardiff''s Grangetown and both my father and grandfather ''worked down the Docks''. I used to get rides during the war on ships between the lock gates and the berths which gave me a life-long affection for merchant ships.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?

Bernard: I know the US pretty well, having been there many times for medico-legal congresses, giving evidence in courts and visiting my many forensic friends, such as Dr Tom Noguchi, the colourful former coroner of LA . It''s a fantastic country, but I couldn''t live anywhere else but Wales, which is as much a part of me as my feet. To stand in the evening on a Pembrokeshire cliff or walk the lonely moors near the Teifi Pools is both peaceful and exhilarating. Everywhere you look, there is history, my history, your history. So all I can recommend is for readers to come back to Wales, for as long a time that you can manage.

Interview by Ceri Shaw ... Home ,,, Email



Works by Bernard Knight on Amazon

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An Interview With Lesley Coburn


By Ceri Shaw, 2015-05-14

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As a follow up to our recent announcement that Lesley Coburn will be contributing a story to Issue 2 of eto we are pleased today to present an interview with the author.

Lesley Coburn is a writer from the Rhondda in south Wales and ''Filling Space'' was originally self published in 2006.

Lesley Coburn is also the daughter of one of Wales most outstanding 20th century writers - Ron Berry

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AmeriCymru: Hi Lesley and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru. How long have you been writing? Did your fathers example influence you in any way?

Lesley: Hi, Ceri, I try to imagine you. For being interviewed by a machine disconcerts. I remind myself that of cyberspace was created by real people, and is used only by real people. I hope! Congratulations on your initiative to publish Welsh/American writers, and thanks for your interest in Filling Space. Phil was one of the first readers to give me any response!

I''ve been writing many years. I began with poetry, then stories and longer poems, and years of academic writing. The latter I developed an aversion to. Now I write only what interests me. Ron''s writing was a fact of our childhoods. We didn''t think about it. Of five children, only one sister and myself write. After he gave me the unedited version of his autobiography to read, I said, ''this could change lives, Ron.'' He just said, ''you''re biased, girl.'' Of course, we covertly read his books, Miller, Lawrence, Faukner etc. Ron rated Gwyn Thomas. I never met him but Ron was in correspondence for a while.

AmeriCymru: What were/are the upsides and downsides of being Ron''s daughter?

Lesley: Ron''s first published book was kept under the counter in Treherbert Library. Swear words scared the staff. So I suppose I never was going to censor myself. Aside from all the subtle influences, the over-riding maxim that I keep in mind was his advice to writers, ''say it true, but say it new.''. There is no downside to being the daughter of Ron Berry. As a family, we have been working on his manuscripts since he died. It is all archived in Swansea University now. One day we''ll publish the unedited version of History Is What You Live. There are no downsides because I have no ambition, and no-one , until now, has been interseted anyway! Ron''s despair at being ignored for most of his life was a real lesson. If people don''t ''get'' your work, that''s it. I realised my stuff was being sent back unread, although early long poems and short stories were published in small press collections. I stopped submitting when I started writing Filling Space.

Americymru: Did his relationship with Jim Lewis and Robert Thomas inspire their creativity?

Lesley: I call Ron, Jim and Bob, the'' band of brothers''. They spent their youths reading, revolting, wandering and wenching. Whar surprises is the huge talents of these three people from a small area of Rhondda. Alun Richards always told the story of his visits from Pontypridd to find this trio of ''outsiders''. Ron and Alun met regularly in Ron''s last years.

AmeriCymru: You are contributing a story to Issue Two of eto - ''Filling Space''. Care to introduce it for our readers?

Lesley: How to introduce Filling Space? Anything I say will be good for now, But maybe not for tomorrow , And so little a part of what I was doing while writing it. I was trying to address some questions : how to give a sense of openess, field, subjectivity, flow? how to clarify without simplification? how to illuminate both the sharp pains/pleasures of consciousness, and the mysterious intuitions that occasionally seep through? And, of course, it''s about writing. The experiencing woman and the writing woman are a kind of ploy to give the writer a bit of detatchement. I enjoyed writing it and I still like reading it.

AmeriCymru: What are you reading? Any recommendations?

Lesley: I couldn''t recommend any specific reading; anything with an existentialist feel; and to anyone who needs to remember how good life is really, go to Whitman. Keep him with you.

AmeriCymru: What''s next for Lesley Coburn? What are you working on at the moment?

Lesley: I''m working on a long piece. It''s mostly sloshing around in my head, but I''ve made a start. The story of a collector of stories. First person present narrative of a young woman who returns to the valley. People are attracted to her and tell her tales of transformation. She writes their lives and all is change. No-one knows she is writing. she doesn''t need to tell. Her words add what she is to them. It''s what we do, isn''t it? I can''t stop thinking about it. All I need is time, place, a life of my own.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for our readers?

Lesley: I have no message for your readers other than to quote Whitman, ''and why should I not speak to you''.

Hope this is of some interest. All the best, Lesley.



D avid Thorpe has twin careers in writing and environmentalism. He is a novelist, non-fiction author, journalist, scriptwriter and comics writer, and the winner of a HarperCollins contest to find a major new children’s writer with his novel for young adults, Hybrids (‘A stunningly clever novel’– The Times). He has written and been the commissioning editor of many comics and graphic novels for publishers such as Marvel, HarperCollins, Titan Books and Macdonald-Futura. He is a co-founder of the London Screenwriters Workshop and co-author of the Doc Chaos comics series and TV scripts. Find out more on www.davidthorpe.info. AmeriCymru spoke to David about his latest novel 'Stormteller'.

 


AmeriCymru: Care to describe your novel Stormteller for our readers?

David:   Sure. Stormteller is a fantasy adventure set 15 years into the future about two 15-year-old teenage boys and a girl the same age who live on the mid-Wales coast just north of Aberystwyth. It's a kind of romance and tragedy, it uses two Welsh myths or legends that are set in the location, and is deeply embedded in the local landscape, which I know very well, having lived there for nearly 20 years.

There are some detailed descriptions of the landscape, both the uplands and the coast itself, which come from my extensive walks and explorations. I love that area. I loved writing about a place I knew really well. It was the first time I had done this and was quite a revelation.

Although it's aimed primarily at young adults, many adults have read it and thoroughly enjoyed it, making it what the trade terms a 'crossover' novel in the same way that the Harry Potter stories were.

The two boys, Tomos and Bryn, are both in love with the girl, Eira. But unfortunately for Tomos she chooses Bryn. The young men are really contrasting characters although they look very similar.

Tomos' background is rich, privileged, having every modern device he could want in his home. His father is a successful professor in business studies.

Bryn was brought up in an eco-village, with a great appreciation of the natural environment and the need to not use fossil fuels. His mother taught him all about growing vegetables, keeping animals, recognising all the wild plants and how to survive by foraging.

Tomos' home is directly on the coast, in Borth, and is destroyed near the start of the novel by a storm surge, that gets attributed to climate change. (In my research I found that Borth was the most vulnerable part of coastal Wales to this kind of thing. It's since seen the benefit of some storm surge protection efforts, but I'm a bit sceptical about how effective they will be in the long term.)

In the story, these storms affect the whole coast of Britain, bringing power stations off-line and disrupting supply chains for shops. Very quickly the shops run out of food and normal law and order break down.

Hungry and in search of food, Tomos goes to Bryn's eco-village and joins the community, but not for long. The breakdown in law and order even reaches them, and he is forced to rely on Bryn's survival skills when they are chased over the Welsh mountains by marauders who wish to eliminate them as witnesses to murder. But things don't go exactly as hoped...

AmeriCymru: What role does Celtic myth play in the book?

David:   There are two Welsh legends associated with the area: Cantre'r Gwaelod describes the drowning of Cardigan Bay by the drunken antics of a jealous gatekeeper who was in love with a girl that the local Prince married instead. I took this as an analog for rising sea levels due to climate change.

The second story is the origin of Wales' most famous bard and shamanic figure, Taliesin, who, as a baby, is discovered by the same Prince, having floated down the river Dyfi.

So my whole narrative about Bryn and Tomos and Eira is bracketed and interspersed with scenes starring the characters in these two myths. They all get the chance, every few hundred years, to have people in real life relive their dramas in the hope they can benefit from a different ending.

So the drunken gatekeeper wants to get the girl, and Ceridwen, who made the potion that turned the servant boy Gwion into Taliesin by accident, wants her disabled son, for whom the potion was originally intended, to receive the benefit of it. And so does the son (whose name is Afagddu), who is totally jealous of Gwion.

You can hopefully see how the triangular relationship between Bryn and Tomos and Eira is kind of reflected in the rivalry between the legendary characters.

In this respect it's a bit like Alan Garner's The Owl Service, which uses the Mabinogion story of Blodeuwedd and is also set nearby, around Devil's Bridge east of Aberystwyth. That's a great novel that I loved as a child. When I moved to the area I re-read it. I love the way it is so tersely written.

I am endlessly grateful that I met my lovely and talented wife Helen Adam during the research for the myths because she was writing a musical for children about Taliesin. I'm attaching a picture of her playing at a launch event for Stormteller.

AmeriCymru: Care to tell us a little about your other fiction titles -  'Hybrids', 'Doc Chaos'?

David:   Doc Chaos came first. Initially scripts for a commissioned TV series, it evolved into a series of comic books and a novella. The novella purports to be the autobiography of this Dr. Frankenstein-like monstrous scientist who is the archetype of nuclear power. It's a romp, a crazy satire and a mad love story.

The novella was originally published by Hooligan Press but a new edition has recently come out as an e-book only, together with a new short story set 100 years or so in the future when climate change and nuclear power have virtually wiped out everyone. Stylistically, think William Burroughs meets comics writer Grant Morrison in his Invisibles stage.

Hybrids was a novel that won a national competition by HarperCollins 'to find the next JK Rowling'. Or that is how it was billed. Clearly I do not have her hair. It's about teenagers merging with frequently-used technology due to a virus for which there is no known cure.

Johnny Online is turning into a computer and Kestrella's hand is a mobile phone. Hybrids have to be registered. If they're not, they become outlaws to be hunted by the Gene Police and taken to the sinister Centre for Genetic Rehabilitation. It aimed exactly at the Hunger Games generation, but it came out first.

Currently there is interest in turning it into another television series.


..

AmeriCymru: In addition to your works of fiction you have also written on Energy Management. Can you tell us more about this work?

David:   Not only that, but books on solar technology, living sustainably on the land, and upgrading your house to save energy and carbon emissions. I've always had this twin career and passion for environmentalism.

I guess it started when, as an 11 year old, I won a national environmental essay-writing competition by lamenting how the fields next to my local playground were being covered with housing sprawl. Nowadays I'm also an environmental journalist and non-fiction book writer.

So Stormteller represents an attempt to combine my interests in environmentalism with my interest in writing Speculative Fiction for young people.

Since Stormteller appeared, it has been labelled by some critics as 'cli-fi', which stands for climate change fiction, and is apparently a hot new genre. That's fine by me. I've been invited to be on a panel at this year's Hay Festival discussing cli-fi.

AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about your work in the fields of carbon-free energy and sustainable development?

David: My most recent non-fiction book, published at the beginning of this year, is called  The One Planet Life . It is about living sustainably in the countryside: about zero carbon buildings, land management, growing your own food and keeping animals, low carbon transport, and renewable energy.

It is based on a unique and pioneering Welsh planning law which allows people to build homes on agricultural land provided that they fulfil certain criteria about feeding themselves, improving biodiversity and reducing their ecological footprint.

It's a world-beating policy and to write the book I went and interviewed a lot of people who are doing this. The book has an introduction by the former Welsh Environment Minister, Jane Davidson. Again, we are talking together at this year's Hay Festival about this.

As a result of this work I am a patron of  The One Planet Council .

Train stuck near Towyn in the winter of 2013/14 (Photo by Mark Kendell)

AmeriCymru: Where can one go to purchase Stormteller online?

David: It's available both as an e-book and in print from either  Amazon.com Amazon.co.uk or the publisher,  Cambria Books .

AmeriCymru: What's next for David Thorpe?

David:   I'm hard at work on a new novel, which I'm hoping will be the ultimate time travel story. It's set around the end of this century and in Nottingham, the city where I grew up. It's called The Moebius Trip.

I'm also researching a sequel to The One Planet Life, about living sustainably in the city. The crucial thing about this is measuring whether what is being done is actually sustainable.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?

David:   Stormteller tries to give a message of hope. Just as it's implied that the characters in the Welsh myths trying to change the endings of their stories have the possibility of doing so, I wanted to give readers, especially young readers, the feeling that climate change and its worst effects are not necessarily inevitable. I want to give them hope that it's possible to do something about it.

I'd hate to be young now with the feeling that the older generations have left me this terrible legacy of catastrophic devastation that may well occur during this century in many parts of the world as a result of their burning too many fossil fuels. I would be extremely angry and depressed.

Emotionally it's very difficult to deal with these feelings. Many people try to pretend it's not happening, they deny or ignore these feelings. They don't talk about them. They carry on living their lives because of course that's what we all really want to do. We resent it when people tell us that we should save energy, not drive so much, not fly everywhere, etc.

But people must be brave and need to realise that there are real benefits to living sustainably. Your quality of life can be so much better, and so may everyone's, not just the few. We can save money. We can stop species being made extinct. It's all very possible. You just need to wake up and join with others who are already doing it.

I believe that fiction provides a way to talk about these things without turning people off, without being preachy. I hope that Stormteller does this.


David Thorpe reading from 'Stormteller' at the book launch.




"A man with such a dramatic martyrdom and intense commitment which led to that martyrdom is worthy of becoming a legend,” says Dr. Samuel Hugh Moffett about Robert Jermain Thomas, missionary to China and Korea [1839-1866]. Thomas has become legendary in both North and South Korea: in the North he is considered enemy of empire—one who attempted to bring in American imperialism—to many in the South he is considered the first martyred Protestant missionary to Korea.

BUY 'CHOSEN FOR CHOSON' HERE


AmeriCymru: Hi Stella and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. What inspired you to write about Robert Jermain Thomas ? Care to introduce him for our readers?

Stella: Sometimes we can live so close to great history and yet not see or appreciate the many hidden places or individuals that could enrich our lives.

So it was when I first learned of Robert Jermain Thomas. I had previously lived a few miles down the road from Llanover, Monmouthshire, the home of the missionary, Robert Jermain Thomas and yet it was not until I moved thousands of miles from my homeland, teaching at Gordon College, Massachusetts, that I first learned of the significance of this man to the Korean peninsula.

Little was known of him in Wales, but he is a household name for many in Korea. Chosen for Choson, is the first book about Robert Jermain Thomas written in English. His family were Welsh speaking, and lived next door to the famous Lady Llanover who encouraged everything Welsh. Currently, Chosen for Choson is available in English and Chinese and next year it will be available in Korean. Wouldn’t it be lovely if someone could translate this into Welsh!

The one that inspired me most must be Dr.Samuel Hugh Moffett whom I met at Princeton Seminary, who, by the way, celebrates in 99th birthday this year. Sam told me that a man like Thomas was “worthy of growing into a legend” because he had such a “dramatic” and “intense” commitment to spread the Gospel of Christ which eventually led to his martyrdom in Korea. Sam’s father, Samuel Austin Moffett, had served in Korea from 1890, through Pyongyang’s Revival in 1907, and stayed during the Japanese annexation in 1910 until he was forced to leave in 1935.

AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about the  General Sherman Incident in which Robert Thomas became entangled?

Stella: Mystery surrounded the General Sherman, the boat on which Thomas traveled on his second missionary journey into Korea. Thomas even refused to tell his friend its name. Some believe it was a spy ship; others, a merchant ship, or even a raider of tombs. As they traveled up the coast, they received many official warnings to turn back. However, they adamantly and arrogantly continued their course, intruding a country which was hostile to the outside world.

It is not surprising then, that on September 3, 1866, the command to destroy The Sherman was issued. Despite the inequality between the strength of The Sherman and the local boats, the Koreans were victorious. They floated several burning boats (turtle boats or scows) loaded with brush sprinkled with sulfur toward the schooner, setting it into flame. The captain and crew plunged into the sea and waiting for them on the shore were their executioners. Sadly, there were no survivors.

It was exciting to hear Sam tell me that he knew of eye witnesses of the account. He says, ‘My father came to Pyongyang less than 24 years after the General Sherman disaster. One of his helpers, reverend Hansok-jin, met eye witnesses of the attack on the Sherman. They had seen a white man in the smoke on the burning deck, shouting “Jesus” and throwing books to the people lining the shore. Some of the crowd were brave enough to take the books, one pasting the bible on the walls of his home. Later, this home became a thriving church.

AmeriCymru: How is Thomas remembered in Korea today?

Stella: For thousands of Korean Christians, Thomas is remembered as one who brought Christianity to Korea. He is greatly revered. Recently a chapel built on the grounds of Wales Evangical School of Theology, Bridgend, has been named after him. At Sarang Church in Korea, you will see a Welsh church built in the center of their buildings. Koreans In their hundreds visit the historical places in Wales attached to the memory of Thomas. Recently I was able to help John Gower on S4C television with details of the journey of Thomas. The story of Thomas continues to intrigue us.

AmeriCymru: You currently live in Wales but you lived for many years in Canada and then Massachusetts. Care to tell us a little about your time in Canada and the US?

Stella: My husband and I left Wales with three children and lived in Nova Scotia for several years; later we moved to Masachusetts. My husband was a doctor in Yarmouth, NS, and in Hamilton and Essex, MA. I taught at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. All our children studied in the USA.

AmeriCymru: What's next for Stella Price?

Stella: My biographies, Chosen for Choson and God’s Collaborator have kept me busy for a while. I am currently writing a novel based on a story line that begins in Nova Scotia and ends in post WWII London, UK with many cross-cultural dilemmas. It’s going to take a while, however. Researching this era is fascinating.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?

Stella: My book, “Chosen for Choson,” introduces you to the lives of Robert Jermain Thomas and Caroline Godfrey, two young people who were adventurous and brave. Their lives ended tragically, yet their story still reverberates throughout Wales, China, and Korea. My second book, “God’s Collaborator,” tells the story of a man who was imprisoned in North Korea, yet lives to tell the story, and whose life did not end tragically, but who has now founded a university in Pyongyang, North Korea, on the very site where the Memorial Church, dedicated to the life of Thomas, was destroyed. Stories really never end. They simply continue throughout the generations. I hope you enjoy these books.



BUY 'TIMELESS' HERE

AmeriCymru: How would you describe your new book 'The Timeless Cavern'?

John: It is a historical, fantasy, time travel treat. A cave in Mid Wales where no time passes is the base for Marged Evans and her friends. She works out how to re-calibrate the time stones so that she can help people out who have been trapped in the cave, some of them for hundreds of years.

The idea is to get young people and others interested in historical events, local, national and international via fun, time travel, fantasy.

AmeriCymru: Do you plan a sequel and if so when can we expect publication?

John: The Timeless Cavern series will be on going. The second book Marged Evans and the Pebbles of MORE time is finished and will be out by the middle of this year. The third book is a third complete and should be finished by the end of the year. The fourth and fifth books are in the planning stages.

AmeriCymru: You currently live in Minnesota but you are from Mid Wales originally. Care to tell us a little about your Welsh background?

John: I was raised on a hill farm in Mid Wales and lived there until 1976 when I came to the US and attended University. While in Wales I was active in Young Farmers and Wildlife organisations.

AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about your one man show “John Dingley and the Biggest Pack of Lies You Ever heard”?

John: It is a collection of stories most of which are based in actual happenings that showed up in my life over the years. Many of them will show up in another book which will also be published soon. (See below)

AmeriCymru: What's next for John Dingley?

John: Another book coming out called "A visit Home" a collection of short stories and a few poems. Also another book which is finished, however still needs work. A non fiction. "Hard Work in Paradise  When all our food and lives were organic"

AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?

John: Keep supporting the world of Welsh Writers. We all need your support. Read voraciously and have fun.




Click the image above or here for Amazon listings.


 


AmeriCymru: Hi Stephen and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. What was the first thing you wrote and what attracted you to crime fiction writing?

Stephen: My first thing attempt at writing seriously was a general fiction novel. And my second novel was a political thriller based in London and Wales in the pre-devolution era. Luckily neither ever generated any interest from agents or publishers.

AmeriCymru: We recently featured  Brass In Pocket on the Welsh American Bookstore. What can you tell us about the book?

Stephen: The book is the first in a series of police procedural/crime/ mystery novels featuring Inspector Ian Drake of the Wales Police Service. It is set in north Wales and assumes that policing powers have been devolved to Cardiff and that the police forces of Wales have all been unified into one. The second Worse Than Dead and the third Against The Tide have also been published.

AmeriCymru: Care to introduce your character, Inspector Drake, to our readers?

Stephen: Ian Drake is a detective inspector in the police. He was born and brought up in north Wales [near Caernarfon]. He comes from a rural background – his father and grandfather both ran small holdings. He suffers from OCD, feels guilty about the time he spends away from his family and resents the demands on his time. His wife is a doctor and he has two daughters. Drake can be dour, rude and often a misery but he gets the job done.

AmeriCymru: Can you take a moment to tell us all about the first of your Inspector Drake novels, Brass in Pocket.

Stephen: Brass in Pocket is the first inspector Drake novel and is in the tradition of British detective writing. The book is written in the third person so there are multiple points of view the principal character is Ian Drake. He is a nuanced character, facing challenges in his personal and professional life from his OCD. After the murder of two police officers on an isolated mountain pass the killer starts sending Drake messages in the form of lyrics from famous rock songs. Drake has to face the challenges of a high-profile enquiry as well as the investigation touching his life personally.

AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about Inspector Marco?

Stephen: John Marco is from Aberdare. His father is from an Italian family and his mother is from Lucca, near Florence. He is single although he has a son from a past relationship. He has a rebellious streak but he has a sense of humour.

AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about  Speechless the first Inspector Marco novel?

Stephen: Speechless was inspired by reading a report about human trafficking to South Wales. And also it is about how the open borders of Europe have attracted thousands of people from Poland and other countries to work in the cities of the United Kingdom. John Marco comes from an interesting background himself which is threaded throughout the plot. It is written in the first person and is more fast-paced and grittier than the Inspector Drake novels.

AmeriCymru: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Stephen: Keep on writing- join a group and get your work critiqued. And don’t be afraid of someone telling you how to improve. Perhaps consider going on a short course and above all read and read in your genre.

AmeriCymru: Who are your favorite crime writers?

Stephen: Ian Rankin and Val McDermid must be near the top of the list. As well as Harlan Coben, Raymond Chandler and Karin Slaughter. But there are so many great crime/mystery writers. And then of course the Scandi Noir authors too – Mankell, Nesbo.

AmeriCymru: Favorite TV crime series?

Stephen: This could be another long list. There’s a series on BBC at the moment called The Missing where the acting is exceptional and the script profoundly good. Hinterland from Wales was superb too – on Netflix in the US soon I understand. But then The Sopranos and The Killing must be high on my favourite list.

AmeriCymru: Where can our members and readers find details of your books?

Stephen: I have a website – www.stephenpuleston.co.uk and all the novels are available as e-books on Amazon.

AmeriCymru: What's next for Stephen Puleston? When can we expect your next book?

Stephen: The second Marco novel – A Good Killing has a target publication date of 8th May and the third Somebody Told Me of the 8th September. After that I hope to get an extended Drake short story finished before a full novel by the end of 2015 beginning of 2016.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?

Stephen: There are so few Welsh crime writers I hope that in the future crime writing from Wales - Dragon Noir maybe? - can be as successful as Tartan Noir is in Scotland.



Chris Keil''s long awaited and widely acclaimed third novel ''Flirting At The Funeral'' was launched at Waterstone''s in Carmarthen on September 25th. AmeriCymru spoke to Chris about the novel and his future plans. Read our review of Flirting At The Funeral. Chris''s new novel is published by Cillian Press and is available from amazon.com. Buy it here:- Flirting At The Funeral



Chris Keil

AmeriCymru: Hi Chris and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru. You are celebrating the publication of your third novel ''Flirting At The Funeral''. How has the book been received?

Chris: Really well. I’ve been very lucky in having a brilliant new publisher - Mark Brady of Cillian Press - a new star in the publishing universe! We’ve got events lined up in UK, Ireland and Portugal in the near future, and many more in the pipeline. Best of all has been the amazing response from readers - enthusiastic, emotionally sophisticated, alert to language - exactly the kind of readers I write for. Readers have responded to the narrative, to the interplay between characters, but also to the aspects of language that engage me as a writer - to tone, rhythm, cadence, to repetition, half-rhyme, musicality. I can’t ask for more
than that.

AmeriCymru: ''Flirting at The Funeral'' has been described as "...urbane, serious but also seriously entertaining writing." How difficult is it to be serious and seriously entertaining at one and the same time?

Chris: Many thanks to Jon Gower for those generous words! Not an easy question to answer. Flirting deals with serious themes, but hopefully not in a heavy-handed way. Life is scary,funny, sexy, sad - often all at the same time - and one of the functions of art is to try to capture some of that texture.

AmeriCymru: The book betrays a profound pessimism about the current political and economic condition of Europe. To what extent is this a major determining factor in the actions of its characters? Would you describe ''Flirting At The Funeral'' as a political novel?

Chris: OK. I don’t feel that Flirting is simply a political novel, although it’s certainly about politics, among other things. It’s been called a philosophical novel, and it’s a novel of ideas, I suppose, but ultimately it’s a novel about people, about human beings and their complex, tragi-comic interactions with each other and with the world. I’m not sure that the book ‘betrays a profound pessimism…’ If there’s a single emotional theme, it’s probably more like rage, but the emotional tone is not unified - it’s disaggregated across the range of characters in the book: certainly the terrorist Dave Leaper is filled with venom, but among the central characters Morgan is detached and a little cynical, Matty is… I’ll come back to Matty; and the young film-makers are busy trying to take themselves seriously while having a seriously good time. But of course the melancholy span of history across the last forty years hangs over the book, like the suspension bridge across the Tagus in Lisbon. “The people, united, will never be defeated…” Oh really?

AmeriCymru: Two characters meet each other after years living separate lives; in the interim, they''ve each enjoyed success but seem to have each come to a point in their lives in which they have to compromise as they get older - how did you develop them and the choices they make and do you think we all come to that point in our own lives and have to make those same choices?

Chris: I suspect that this never sounds quite plausible, but I really find that when the process of writing fiction is going well, the characters develop themselves. What happens to them, and what choices they make, derives from who they are, from their individual autonomies. With each of my books, I’ve probably spent as much time not writing, as writing. When I finally get down to starting the book, I’ve spent so much time thinking about the characters that they hit the page fully-formed, if not running. They’ve existed for a year or two in a fluid, inchoate and unwritten state before hardening into flesh and bone and personality. By that time they make their own choices, or fail to choose, or choose unwisely.

AmeriCymru: Is youthful idealism always destined to fade? Is life nothing more than a series of grudging compromises with mere survival as the ultimate goal?

Chris: No it isn’t! That’s really depressing! Of course, the book suggests that life has the capacity to destroy you - before it kills you, that is - but a person is always implicated in their own psychic destruction, at least to some extent. If your life ends up as ‘a series of grudging compromises’ (good phrase, by the way!) it’s because you weren’t quite brave enough, or passionate, or crazy enough, above all not clear-headed enough, to resist the compromises that fear or insecurity offer. Matty says: “People make choices, don’t they? I choose what happens to me. Or maybe I have no choice. I suppose it comes to the same thing in the end.” For me, those words inscribe her epitaph, metaphorically. Incidentally, it’s been very reinforcing for me as a writer to see the range of readers’ reactions to Matty - who is after all the central character of the book - from fascination, to loathing: intensely positive or intensely negative, but always intense.

AmeriCymru: There are conversations in this book in which it seems as though the characters are speaking to each other at right angles. One character responds to questions and statements about his wife''s illness with completely inapposite topics; what is this dialogue telling us about these characters and about this story?

Chris: There’s a couple of points I’d want to make about dialogue in Flirting. Firstly, it reflects the way I hear people speak, although obviously in a heightened, theatricalised mode - for me, the effect of naturalism is achieved by pretty much the opposite: exaggeration, over- emphasis, over-articulation. What I wanted to capture was the way that I hear people talk: at each other, across, over, down to each other; they hear things that haven’t been said, answer questions that weren’t being asked and ignore the ones that were. And beyond that of course, many of the characters in the book are alienated, isolated from each other and from themselves, trapped in their own speech-bubbles, so to speak.

AmeriCymru: What''s next for Chris Keil? Are you already working on another project or have one in mind?

Chris: Yes I do. The next book is going to be a re-imagining of the life of the Roman poet Ovid, transposed into modern times. It’s a story full of possibilities I think. Ovid was the most talented and successful poet of his generation, writing glittering erotic satires, mixing with the elites of Roman society; he was a super-star. And then, unwittingly, he did something to offend the Emperor - people think he must have been complicit in a scandal involving the Emperor’s family - and was banished, forced to leave Rome and live in exile and virtual imprisonment in Tomis, on the Black Sea, in what is now Romania but was then the very edge of the Empire and the known world. “Beyond here,” he wrote, ‘lies nothing.” He spent what was left of his life writing the Tristia - the Lamentations - poems of terrible grief, of obsessive longing for the past. I’m going to set it in the present, and the current working title is “Vodka, Depression and Temazepam.” Only kidding; it’s going to be very pacy - more or less an out-and-out thriller… but with added metaphysics.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?

Chris: Yes, I have two. Firstly, Portland is a brilliant city, full of beautiful and talented people, and I aim to be back there in 2013. Secondly - this is for everybody - as soon as you’ve finished reading this interview, find the Amazon button on the AmeriCymru site and buy a copy of Flirting at the Funeral! Do it now!



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Star Supply Stores Garnant

AmeriCymru spoke to Steve Adams. Steve is a journalist currently researching the unsolved 1921 murder of shopkeeper Thomas Thomas at Star Stores in the Carmarthenshire village of Garnant.

Follow his progress on his blog:-

Murder At The Star

...



AmeriCymru: Hi Steve and diolch for agreeing to this interview. When did you first become interested in the murder of Thomas Thomas?

Steve: As chief reporter of the South Wales Guardian, the Ammanford-based weekly newspaper, I’m always on the look-out for stories with an Amman Valley link, particularly those which allow me to explore two of my other great interests – Welsh history and historic crime. So, when in the spring of 2013 I came across the essay A Long Time between Murders by the globally-renowned international affairs expert Owen Harries, my heart skipped a beat.

Mr Harries was born in the Amman valley in the early 1930s and his 2001 essay compared life in Washington DC – where he was then living and where a dozen murders in a weekend was not uncommon – to his childhood in rural Wales. In his home village of Garnant the unsolved 1921 murder of a shopkeeper remained the only major crime for more than 70 years until the owner of a local restaurant discovered his wife had taken a fancy to more than just the new chef’s fruity desserts. However, it was the murder of the half-deaf bible-quoting shopkeeper that kept returning to my mind, not least because although the case remained officially unsolved, the valley rumour mill had long since been pointing the finger.

The more I looked into the killing of Thomas Thomas at the Star Stores, the more engrossed I became. The more details I uncovered, the more the story read like an Agatha Christie novel – and by a strange quirk of fate, the murder at the Star was actually committed just 23 days after the UK release of Christie’s first book. The killing of Thomas Thomas had all the ingredients of a great Whodunnit?

A shopkeeper killed in a locked shop; three separate wounds all of which was enough to prove fatal; a lump of cheese used as a gag; Scotland Yard detectives; the takings stolen; and a host of characters and suspects lifted straight from the pages of a Dickens novel. And while the tale of the murder was in itself a great albeit unknown story, I could also see there was something far larger bubbling away in the background. It seemed to me that the murder at the Star also told the story of south Wales and its transformation from rural society to industrial boom, and then the inevitable, painful decline.

AmeriCymru: Care to describe the Amman valley for the benefit of our readers? What kind of community was it at the time the crime was committed?

Steve: One of the most intriguing aspects of the murder at Star Stores was how – to my mind at least - it symbolised the changing nature of south Wales from the middle of the 19th century to the years immediately after the Great War. In less than a single lifetime, the valley, which at the time Victoria came to the throne was known as Cwmaman and was nothing more than a scattering of farmsteads, exploded into life.

Commerce Place

Commerce Place Garnant



The discovery of coal saw the birth of a hamlet which in turn grew so quickly that it soon swelled and split into two separate villages, Garnant and Glanaman. Between them they boasted two train stations, numerous mines, factories, tin-plate works, and scores of shops, including national chains such as the Star. Glanaman had a dedicated sheet-music shop, while Garnant offered at least three hat shops. There were stationery shops, banks, hairdressers, pubs, greengrocers, cabinet makers and confectioners – all desperate to relieve the miners of their weekly wage.

In little more than 50 years, the area went from a population which barely reached three figures to being home to around 20,000 people. Such was the relentless growth of the villages that demand for lodgings far outstripped supply and Thomas Thomas rented not a room, nor even a bed, but a share of a bed. The war years were undoubtedly a boom time for mining communities as the thirst for coal to fuel the war effort became unquenchable and people came from far and wide to share the wealth.

The demand for workers grew and grew, but by the early 1920s things had begun to change. As the demand for coal begin to fall so the wealth that fed the boom of Garnant and Glanaman faltered and its disappearance marked the arrival of something new – crime. In the case of Thomas Thomas, it culminated in the worst of crimes – murder.

AmeriCymru: The murder went unsolved at the time but the locals had a theory concerning the identity of the culprit. Care to tell us more?

Steve: Within days of the crime being committed a number of names began circulating around the village – and further along the valley – as likely suspects, each with the means, the motive and the opportunity to kill.

Some thought the killer was Thomas Thomas’ landlord, asking why he had not raised the alarm when his lodger failed to return home that night; some believed it was the property developer who had built the store on land leased from Baron Dynevor, the local landowner – a costly 20-year legal dispute culminated in a High Court appearance and all but bankrupted the Garnant man who was left desperately short of cash and with bills to pay; others believed it was the local ne’er-do-well, a man who served time behind bars in his youth and who had lost his hand just six months prior to the murder in a suspicious explosion for which he offered police only the most bizarre of explanations.

There were also rumours of illicit love affairs, jealousy and vengeance. Local suspicion reached fever-pitch until the day of Thomas Thomas’ funeral when the dead man’s brother was approached by a mysterious stranger who put a name to the killer.

The informant has never been identified, but the name he gave remains in the village consciousness to this day as the man who killed Thomas Thomas. In fact, I was contacted by a lady in her 80s less than a month ago and told in no uncertain terms that the man named at the funeral was indeed the killer. The rumour and gossip has become more entrenched with each passing decade.

AmeriCymru: I know from our previous discussions that you have your own theory, indeed perhaps more than a theory about the perpetrators identity. Can you tell us more without giving too much away?

Star Stores safe Steve: I have been fortunate enough to get my hands on all the remaining paperwork compiled in relation to the case in the weeks following the murder. After examining the Scotland Yard files, the witness statements, photographs of the crime scene and pictures taken as part of the post-mortem, I absolutely sure of is I know who really killed Thomas Thomas on that February night in 1921 – and it was certainly not the man the lady who telephoned me at the beginning of March believed it was.

In many respects, the investigation into the murder at the Star became less a question of who the evidence pointed to and more who it eliminated as a suspect. Sherlock Holmes’ famous adage that “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth” became the basis for the entire investigation. In Holmes’ cases, the logic worked perfectly well because the great fictional detective never missed or misunderstood a clue. Sadly, real life is never so clear cut.

Vital evidence was misinterpreted during the days of the investigation at the Star, clouding the entire inquiry and causing the police to eliminate the real killer. Having been able to reassess the evidence and show what I have collected to modern-day experts in their field, I am confident I can prove that not only were the police wrong to remove one of the suspects from their inquiry when they did, but rather than eliminate him, the evidence proves he was only man in Garnant capable of committing the murder in the manner that he did.

AmeriCymru: You are publishing a book about the case soon. When will it be available for purchase online?

Steve: I am in the process of writing a book on the case and I am currently in discussions with a publisher to secure a book deal. I’d rather not go into the specifics just yet, but I’m optimistic we will be able to thrash out a deal in the coming weeks.

The book will of course be available from all the usual online outlets and as an e-book, although I am still some way away from completing the finished product. In the meantime I am continuing to write a blog on the case, which can be found on Americymru.net and at www.murderatthestar.wordpress.com where readers are able to follow the progress of the book in rough draft form. In fact, it is due to the numbers of people who have been reading the blog and contacting me through social media that I contacted the publishing company when I did.

What began as something of a pet project and a labour of love quickly gathered a substantial following and I have been overwhelmed by the interest – from Amman valley residents, those who were born in the area but have since moved away and readers simply interested in a cracking yarn.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?

Steve: I would just like to thank everyone on Americymru who has read the blog – either on the Americymru site or via the Murder at the Star blog. I never really imagined the murder at the Star would be of any interest to anyone apart from me – how wrong I was. It is only due to the support and encouragement of the readers that I continued digging away until I reached the point when I became confident enough to say I have solved the murder at the Star.



Wales Married To The Eye by R D Berner

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AmeriCymru spoke to R T Berner about his book Wales Married To The Eye a photographic record of a recent trip to Wales. The book is available from Amazon and blurb.com.

Wales Married To The Eye on Blurb

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AmeriCymru: Care to tell us a little about your book ''Wales Married To The Eye''?

“The photograph,” Dylan Thomas once wrote, “is married to the eye.” The Welsh poet could have said the same thing about his beautiful country. From Mount Snowdon in the north to Mumbles in the south, the landscape of Wales is a photographer’s dream—and my wife and I overdosed during a nine-day visit in 2010 that came 17 years after our first visit for a conference at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth in 1993.

I am fortunate to have family in Wales and they were very helpful as we mapped out our trip. …

Where did we go? Besides Aberystwyth and Cardiff, we spent a night in Snowdonia National Park (Llanberis), Hay-on-Wye (where a yarn shop caught Paulette’s eye), Swansea, St David’s and Machynlleth, the birthplace of my maternal grandfather, Thomas F. Williams, and where Paulette took this photograph of me with the Western Mail. We also stopped in Aberaeron, Harlech, Brecon, Laugharne, Mumbles and Llangennith, the birthplace of John Morgan, a friend of ours whom met in China in 1994 and who spent his adult life in Australia. (See Now and Then: The Memoirs of John Morgan, available at www.lulu.com and in the National Library in Aberystwyth. ) We visited the National Slate Museum, the National Wool Museum, the National Library of Wales, the National Museum in Cardiff and the National History Museum, also known as St Fagans. We stopped several times just to take in the view (and photograph it).

St David's Cathedral interior

St David''s Cathedral Interior ( Click for larger image )



Between us, we took nearly 3000 photographs.

In Swansea, we stayed in Dylan Thomas’ birthplace and slept in the room where he was born. In Laugharne, we visited the last place he lived and I was able, for a fee, to photograph inside the house and the shed where he wrote.

AmeriCymru: What photographic equipment did you use to take these breathtaking
shots?

My wife photographs with a Nikon D40 primarily to have something to aid her painting. I was using a Nikon D7000 at the time, which I had programmed to shoot multiple exposures that I could then process as high dynamic range photographs. The interior photograph of St. David’s Cathedral is an example of the detail one can achieve with multiple exposures.

Brecon canal

Brecon Canal ( Click for larger image ) 



AmeriCymru: What is your most abiding impression from your trip to Wales? Where in Wales would you most like to visit again?

We want to spend more time in the north.

AmeriCymru: Where can our members and readers purchase the book online?

The book is available at www.blurb.com and Amazon.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?

You must visit Wales at least once in your lifetime. We found it very easy to drive about. I would recommend nothing less than 7 days and probably 14 so you can take your time and hit all of the major sites. We would also recommend flying into Manchester, England, rather than dealing with Heathrow. It doesn’t take long to drive out of the Manchester airport and reach rural Wales.

Boats in Aberaeron, Wales

Aberaeron Boats ( Click for larger image )


Tales from Little Gam: Winter with White Success for Swansea author Marly Evans , a retired primary schoolteacher, came from a family influence. When she became a grandmother to twins Ava and Daniel, Marly looked forward to the day she would be able to read them stories that would spark their imagination. Now she’s written them herself. Tales from Little Gam, a series of rural Welsh stories, draws on the unspoilt Gower countryside and the mischievous charm of its animals, inspired through Marly ’s life with Jeff, a seventh generation Gower farmer. Marly began writing with the belief that Welsh stories have “an appeal that can reach well beyond our borders”. All the stories are true, and in many ways, quite unique.

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Marly Evans

AmeriCymru: Hi Marly and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru. When did you decide to take up writing childrens'' fiction?

Marly: I created stories for my own children, Catrin and Gareth Owain when they were at primary school age, but it was not until my twin grandchildren Ava and Daniel arrived six years ago, that I really began to take the whole thing seriously.

AmeriCymru: Care to tell us a little about the ''Little Gam'' series?

Marly: My inspiration for the Little Gam series came from life with my partner Jeff, who is a seventh generation Gower farmer. While developing the stories, we created a ''Little Gam Model Village'', pictured first in Spring and later in Winter. Three films were made, in English and Welsh, complete with narratives, now showing on Youtube. Each book has a seasonal theme and are centred around the village, its unspoilt countryside,colourful characters and mischievous animals.

AmeriCymru: The books are set in the Gower peninsula, south Wales. Care to describe the area for the benefit of our American readers? Is ''Little Gam'' based on any particular Gower village?

Marly: ''Little Gam'' is based loosely on the very quaint village of Murton, in Bishopston, in an area of outstanding beauty. It is a typical Gower village with a post office, inn, bakery, farm, church on the Green, smithy, and school.There have been some changes.

AmeriCymru: You are also a poet. Can you tell us a little about your poetry?

Marly: Writing poetry was my first passion, and this occured earlier in my life. I wrote many poems and some were published.I took my inspiration from life.

AmeriCymru: Where can people go online to buy your books?

Marly: My books can be bought via my book website:- www.talesfromlittlegam.wordpress.com

AmeriCymru: What''s next for Marly Evans? When can we expect to see the next in the ''Little Gam'' series?

Marly: The next book is entitled '' Summertime'' and will be on sale in a few months.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?

Marly: In my books, I have tried to create a world, which illustrates Welsh village life with all its humour and daily goings-on. All the stories are true and in many ways, quite unique.

 
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