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An Interview With Welsh Writer Brian John - Author of 'On Angel Mountain'

2011-10-12
By: AmeriCymru
Posted in: Author Interviews

Brian John, author of the Angel Mountain novels.

AmeriCymru: Hi Brian, and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru. You have been both a field scientist and a Geography lecturer in your time. What inspired you to write fiction?

Brian: It's a great pleasure to talk to you.  I always enjoy chatting about the writing process. You should really have asked "Who inspired you to write fiction?" and the short answer to that would be "My wife Inger." I've been writing books for many years, and now have about 80 to my name, but the majority of these relate to my research specialisms of landscape evolution and the Ice Age. I have a great affection for glaciers, having studied them in Antarctica, Greenland and other parts of the north polar regions. So in my days as a lecturer in Durham University it was natural that I should write textbooks about glaciers and landscape; my big text book on that subject, written with my good friend David Sugden, remained in print for 20 years as a key university text across the world. I also wrote books on the Ice Age for a non-specialist readership, for some of the big mainstream publishers in the US and UK.

On moving back to Wales in 1976, I started my own small publishing business called Greencroft Books, and since then I have written and published one or two books a year, aimed at the Welsh market in general and the Pembrokeshire tourist trade in particular -- with titles on folk tales, joke books, guide books, local history and traditions, walking trails and so forth. But no fiction. I thought that the writing of fiction was something for which I was not suited, given my "academic" background. My wife thought otherwise, and was convinced that I could and should write fiction. And then, in 1999, Mistress Martha Morgan walked into my life, and along came the Angel Mountain Saga. It's difficult enough to resist one strong woman, and quite impossible to resist two!

AmeriCymru: The Angel Mountain novels have been a major critical and commercial success. Care to tell our readers a little more about what inspired them?

Brian: The character of Mistress Martha Morgan (the heroine of all seven books) came out of nowhere, in a rather spooky episode. My wife and I were travelling to Gran Canaria for a short holiday when I suddenly started to feel ill, on the flight from Cardiff. By the time we landed at Las Palmas I was running a high temperature, and felt terrible. We got to the apartment safely enough, and off to bed I went -- to spend the night wide awake and trapped in a sort of delirium. In the darkness I "heard" a female voice talking to me, narrating a life story in considerable detail -- including places, characters, storyline, and even conversations in great detail. In the morning my temperature dropped and I started to feel better. I told my wife about this very strange experience, and she immediately said: "Well, you'd better start writing!" I had my lap-top with me, so I did just that. Intriguingly, the story remained fixed in my mind -- so what I had experienced was certainly not a dream. Whatever it was, I still look on it as some sort of gift.

The story -- and the inspiration -- continued over the writing of the first five novels. When "On Angel Mountain" was published ten years ago, there was such an incredible response from readers that I just had to keep going -- especially since I had only covered a year or so of her life in that first story, and the rest of it was still in my head! So I did not have to "invent" a storyline -- that was there already -- and was able to concentrate on the technicalities of storytelling to the best of my ability. So I wrote and published the other novels very quickly, at the rate of one per year for five years. Since then I have written two further books in the series, one called "Guardian Angel" and the other called "Sacrifice". Very soon sales for the whole series will hit 65,000 copies, so I have to be satisfied with that.

AmeriCymru: The novels are set on and around Carn Ingli. What role does the atmosphere of this unique Welsh landscape play in your creative process?

Brian: The sense of place is hugely important in all of the novels, as it is in most Welsh fiction. We do after all have this wonderful word "hiraeth" which encompasses both longing and belonging -- and ties Welsh people to both a place and a community. Carningli, the little mountain which stands sentinel above the town of Newport in Pembrokeshire, is so important in the stories that it becomes almost a character in its own right. Mistress Martha has a mystical relationship with it, feeling that the mountain is a part of her, and that she is a part of the mountain.

As a geographer by training, I suppose that I feel a sense of place very strongly indeed, and I think that the success of the novels is at least in part related to the fact that readers can also identify very strongly with the little details of the mountain, the cwm, and even the woodlands and streams that are prime locations in one story after another. So they share in Martha's own intimate knowledge of the landscape in which she and her family, friends and enemies live, and love, and die.

Carn Ingli

AmeriCymru: Iolo Morgannwg, who is something of a hero to many of our readers, makes an appearance in the most recent instalment of the Angel Mountain series ( 'Sacrifice' ). Without giving too much away , can you tell us what role he plays in the novel?

sacrifice by brian john, front cover detailBrian: I have a very soft spot for Iolo! He was a forger and liar, and was probably mad, with a brain scrambled through over-use of laudanum, but I did give him a cameo role in the novel, and tried to portray his character as accurately as possible, having read about him quite widely. I treated him rather sympathetically, as a man who was essentially harmless. I brought him in because of his extraordinary erudition on Welsh cultural matters, thereby creating a link between him and Mistress Martha, as one of the last speakers of the Dimetian Welsh dialect; because of his knowledge of Welsh agriculture (not many people know that for part of his life he was a farmer who wanted to be an agricultural surveyor); and because he might well have known some rather disreputable people during his time in London. In the story, Martha seeks his advice, and gets it, as the story spirals towards its tragic climax.

AmeriCymru: In 'Rebecca And The Angels' Martha becomes involved in the Rebecca Riots. Care to tell our readers a little about the historical background to this episode?

Brian: The Rebecca Riots were key events in the social history of Wales, particularly in the period 1839-1844. The riots arose out of a deep feeling of injustice, centred on the Turnpike Trusts and the manner in which they extracted tolls for all travellers who used the developing road network of west Wales and who had to pass through frequent tollgates. There were too many Turnpike Trusts, and too many tollgates -- and since these were controlled by the local gentry, the poor farmers and labourers who needed to use the highways were charged over and again even for short journeys, and saw most of their tolls going into the deep pockets of those whom they despised, rather than into genuine road-building programmes.

So the riots started with the destruction of a tollgate at Efailwen in Pembrokeshire, and then spread all over West Wales. But the riots were actually quite sophisticated, as riots go! The men who took part in them tried to avoid harm to human life, although they had no qualms about smashing up and burning tollgates and tollgate-keepers' houses. In all the riots they dressed in womens' clothes and blackened their faces, and prior to the destruction of each tollgate they enacted a little charade involving Rebecca and her daughters, based on the Biblical story. They used trumpets and drums, and there was a strong theatrical element in the riots, based upon the old "folk justice" traditions of the "Ceffyl Pren." The army was sent in to quell the riots, but because they were so dispersed, and because the rioters had such an effective underground communications network, the dragoons were made to look stupid and ineffectual. Thanks in part to the extensive coverage of the riots in the Times newspaper, the protestors were ultimately successful, and the Turnpike Trust laws were changed by Act of Parliament, addressing most of the grievances of the rioters.

This was such a colourful -- and important -- episode, involving spies, betrayals and secret meetings (not to mention summary justice) that it was inevitable that Mistress Martha would get sucked into the riots, given her propensity for getting involved in any good cause that might help her to make the world a better place!

AmeriCymru: Will we be hearing more from Martha Morgan? Is there any chance of a television adaptation?

Brian: You will certainly be hearing more from Martha Morgan. She hasn't finished sorting the world out just yet. There's another volume in the pipeline, which will hopefully be published in the spring of 2012. Many of my faithful readers from all over the world have said that there MUST be aTV series or films featuring the different phases of Martha's life and following her battles with a number of seriously unpleasant individuals who lust after her and her little estate on the side of the mountain. The books are action-packed, and I think they have very strong characters, and all of my readers refer to the strong "visual qualities" of the stories.

But as we all know, film and TV adaptations are hugely expensive, and in the field of historical fiction producers and directors are notoriously risk-averse. Sadly, they prefer to make yet another version of "Pride and Prejudice" or "Wuthering Heights" rather than to take a chance on something new. But I live in hope. Everybody to whom I have spoken within the TV and film industry says that there is a powerful "random" element in adaptations for the screen. All it needs is for one influential person from within the industry to fall in love with Mistress Martha as a character, to see the potential of the stories, and to act as an advocate for a film project in the offices of those who make the key decisions. So if anybody out there knows a Hollywood director, feel free to tell him or her that the film rights are still available!

AmeriCymru: You are also a writer of non-fiction. Care to tell us a little about The Bluestone Enigma ?

Brian: Sure. This book arose out of a long-standing interest in the mythology surrounding Stonehenge, and particularly the "mystical" link with the bluestones that have come from the Preseli area of North Pembrokeshire. Since 1921, the myth of long-distance human transport of the bluestones has been promoted by one generation of archaeologists after another, to the extent that it has become one of the favourite tales of the world! We all know and love the story, whether or not we have actually visited Stonehenge. It underpins the nation's tourist promotion work, and it adds huge value to Stonehenge as an iconic structure. The trouble is that there was no evidence to support the human transport myth in 1921, and there is still no evidence today.

In the book I take a hard look at where the evidence (rather than the mythology) leads us -- and this means looking at evidence in the fields of glaciology, geology and geomorphology. Inexorably the evidence leads us to the conclusion that the bluestones (which have come from maybe 30 different sources) are glacial erratics, carried from Pembrokeshire towards Salisbury Plain by a vast glacier known as the Irish sea glacier, maybe 450,000 years ago. i think that the stones were dumped by this glacier not far from Stonehenge, and that in due course they were found by Neolithic tribal groups and built into the Stonehenge monument. Maybe the location of the monument was determined above all else by the accessibility of these stones.

Needless to say, many senior archaeologists (who have based their reputations on variations on the "human transport" theme) are furious about this development. I think it's fair to say that they wish that the book would go away -- but it's been reprinted already, and it's good to know that it has sparked a good debate!

The bluestones at Stonehenge

AmeriCymru: What do you read for pleasure? Any recommendations?

Brian: I'm not a great reader of fiction -- my bed-time reading normally consists of background material for whatever I am currently writing. So just now I am scanning the pages of various books on the dress and customs of high society in the Regency Period. In the next novel Martha has to learn how to cope with a number of characters who are insufferably grand!

As for my favourite fiction, up there in my top ten would be Peter Carey's "True History of the Kelly Gang", "The Shipping News" by Annie Proulx, Wilkie Collins's "Woman in White" and "A Scots Quire" by Grassic Gibbons. (By the way, I am quite convinced that Dylan Thomas got his idea for "Under Milk Wood" from Grassic Gibbons........ but that's another story.) As far as Welsh fiction is concerned, my favourite is probably Bruce Chatwin's "On the Black Hill", which is dark, claustrophobic and wonderfully evocative. Then I would have to put in the novels of Alexander Cordell. They are not particularly subtle, but Cordell has a fantastic and unique "voice" -- his tales are told in a style that has guts and grime, bravado and anger, and I think he really gets into the soul of Wales.

AmeriCymru: What's next for Brian John?

Brian: I shall continue to write both fiction and non-fiction for as long as I am enjoying myself! When it ceases to be fun, I'll stop and spend more time in the garden. I'm still enjoying the creative process of publishing as well, and the marketing and distribution work that every small publisher has to take seriously. In some ways that's the least enjoyable part of my job as a publisher, but I do value the contacts with the book trade and the feedback from traders and members of the public. I'll continue to work on the sale of film and TV rights for the Angel Mountain tales. And I would love to see my novels take off in the United States and Canada, since i'm convinced that within the Welsh expatriate community there are many folks who have still not even heard of the books. But Mistress Martha is really Mother Wales, or so I am informed by my readers! So maybe that's a line I need to follow as I seek to reach wider markets.

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

Brian: First of all, thank you to Ceri and his colleagues for the warm welcome to the site! It's colourful, cheerful and friendly -- and as far as I can see it does a great job in explaining what "Welshness" means and in bringing together ex-pats and the descendents of Welsh settlers from across North America! So well done -- keep up the good work!

And for readers who look at the site, please don't forget your roots. It is a sense of belonging that makes us who we are -- and whether we belong to one community or several, we draw our strength and our individuality from the mutual support mechanisms sustained by those around us. It's that "spirit of belonging" which I have tried to capture in the stories of my very imperfect heroine Martha Morgan. She falls from grace over and again, but always her angels pick her up again and reestablish her at the centre of her little world. May the angels of Americymru continue to thrive!

Some links:

About Stonehenge and the bluestones: http://brian-mountainman.blogspot.com/

The Angel Mountain Saga: http://www.angel-mountain.info/

Interview by Ceri Shaw Home Email

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