AmeriCymru: Hi Rhys and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Care to introduce your recent book Cloud Farming in Wales for our readers?
Rhys: Thank you for the opportunity to answer questions about my book! Cloud Farming in Wales is a novel but not a typical kind of novel. It came together very easily and was completed within a month. Sometimes my writing flows and then it’s best to let it have its way, to let it keep going and not worry about the direction the story might be heading in, or what final form the book is going to take. That’s how I wrote this book, as if it really wanted to be written, as if the words couldn’t wait to appear on the page, as if the novel was writing itself, and the process was smooth and certainly enjoyable. I love it when that happens, because writing usually isn’t like that. More often it takes a lot of hard work and doubts and stress. My book is about Wales, life in Wales and the aspects of Wales that are unique to that country, that make it different and a little odd, although nowhere in the world is so unique that it defies all understanding to outsiders, because ultimately more things connect us deeply than separate us. The Wales of my book is a genuine place but it is presented here in mythic terms, or rather in terms that are whimsically fantastic. Yet I wanted the Wales of the book to feel the same as Wales really feels to me, on at least some level or levels, and that includes in humorous ways, satirical ways and wistful ways, so I wanted it to be like a fantasy realm in which strange things can occur, but only if they have a true Welsh resonance.
AmeriCymru: There is a connection, perhaps obvious from the title, with Trout Fishing in America. Care to elaborate?
Rhys: My book was absolutely inspired by Richard Brautigan and in fact I decided I wanted to try doing for Wales something similar to what he did for America in that amazing novel of his. I came to Brautigan late. I wish I had discovered him a lot sooner. I was aware of his name for a long time, but I didn’t really know anything about him. I had an idea he might be a little like Vonnegut, who is one of my favourite authors, and eventually I decided to try his work. The first Brautigan novel I picked up was Sombrero Fallout and I totally loved it! Yes, it was like Vonnegut in some ways but it was also highly distinctive and idiosyncratic. It is an absurdist farce that spirals out of control, but it tells two stories at the same time and one of those stories is a framing device in which the absurd things that occur are plausible. The other story that is framed by that one is a version of America in which the absurd things that occur are extreme, implausible and hilariously exaggerated, yet they make serious points about the country and also about human beings in general. The novel is deceptive because it seems simple, yet it has a structure that is really interesting. I immediately began seeking out other Brautigan books with the idea of reading them all. In Watermelon Sugar has the best opening of any novel I have read and A Confederate General from Big Sur has the best ending. I am currently reading The Tokyo-Montana Express, which is neither a novel nor a collection of short stories but something else, a series of observations on an impossible railway journey across the Pacific Ocean, and it resembles in many ways his most famous book, Trout Fishing in America, which has no plot, almost no characters and breaks all the rules of fiction from its very first page. After reading that book I knew that I wanted to write a book of my own that took impetus from it and that adapted some of its methods or outlooks and applied them to Wales. I mention all this in the book itself, because one of the book’s many themes is the circumstance of its own composition. I believe my book is unlike any other Welsh novel, yet I also believe it is very Welsh, that it is essentially Welsh, even though it came to be created because of the inspiring example of an American writer from the flower power era.
AmeriCymru: “I wanted to write a novel that was me saying stuff about things rather than having to invent believable characters and a plot with measured incidents and resolutions.” What stuff? What things?
Rhys: For many years, like most other writers, I have written stories the ordinary way, with characters whose actions serve to embody a plot that contains the ideas that make the fiction work. But I have also been interested in other ways of writing. For me it was a great pleasure and in fact a relief to be able to present the ideas in a more raw format, in an unconditioned state, to let the ideas be the real characters and to let the way they interact with each other generate the momentum of the story. So I didn’t outline a plot before starting work, and I didn’t have a set of protagonists in my mind to put in the story. I just began writing down ideas, thoughts, observations, and these started to work themselves into routines, and these routines connected themselves together over time into larger routines that became little chapters. There turned out to be quite a surprising unity of purpose and effect in the end result, I guess because all the time I was writing I was aware of Wales as a gravitational focus, so even the wildest flights of fancy are in orbit rather than flying off in different directions. One of the single most important motifs in the book that is used to create this focus is that of the falling rain, the endless rains of Wales, and the consequences of eternal rainfall are followed logically into comedic absurdity. Wales thus becomes an Atlantis that never sank but is just as damp. The truth is that it rains a lot in Wales, it rains so much that it does sometimes seem we are living underwater, that maybe Welsh people should evolve gills in order to breathe better. I know there are countries in the world with heavier rainfall, but Wales is certainly in the top ten. Richard Brautigan spent a lot of time in the rain when he lived in the northwest of the USA, tramping through dripping forests on interminable quests for nothing, and I really can identify with that. There comes a point when waiting for nice weather in order to go hiking and camping just proves to be too frustrating and one has to go out anyway and hang the moist consequences! I have been camping in heavy rain many times, sometimes with a tent full of holes and a few times without even a tent, just a tarpaulin that glowed bright green when the lightning flashes started. Hiking and camping in the rain is very Brautiganesque. It is also like being at sea in some ways. Very odd and very Welsh. Not just odd and not just Welsh, of course, but for sure it’s a situation conducive to creating thoughts and those thoughts will percolate and ferment in the mind, for months or years, and when they are written down they will flow out, pour out, cascade.
AmeriCymru: What inspired your masterful depiction of Welsh hell? Why does Dylan Thomas figure so prominently in it?
Rhys: The depiction of hell in my book is a specifically Welsh hell, but it’s one that can also be understood as hellish by people who aren’t Welsh. We know that hell is a place of torments but torments require a means to make them work, apparatus in other words, so a Welsh hell will need Welsh apparatus, and by this I mean things that are typical of the country but have been taken to an extreme, that are applied eternally, infinitely and hopelessly to the damned soul. Rain is always going to be a part of that, and the damp house interiors that are an inevitable result of high rainfall and poor insulation. A Welsh hell is going to be a series of mouldy rooms haunted by demons and ghosts that are never dry. Not even the wit of these entities will be dry. Dylan Thomas is the fallen angel who rules such a hell, because all of Welshness was compressed into him while he was alive, and now he is part of the underworld and his disembodied head floats drunkenly through the passages and rooms and terrifies the poor Welsh souls who have ended up there. I guess our ideas of hell comes from things in the world that we don’t like when we imagine those things magnified and multiplied in power and duration until they become unbearable.
AmeriCymru: You have said that you plan to write 1000 stories. When we interviewed you back in 2009 you had written 472. Does the goal still stand, and if so how close are you to achieving it. What will you do when you have?
Rhys: Yes, the goal still stands. I have been working on this story cycle far too long to give up on it. In the last ten years I have been very productive and now my total of stories stands at 889, so I feel I am approaching the final lap. I won’t be surprised, however, if I fall before reaching the finishing line, because it’s very Welsh to almost succeed in something grand but fail at the last moment. That’s one of the most typically Welsh outcomes in an endeavour. We are heroic failures! But it’s better to be heroic in any way than to be unheroic, so I’m not really dissatisfied. When I began my project to write exactly 1000 stories, I never actually expected to get anywhere near that total, to be honest, and I probably would have settled for half that number. But in the past decade I have worked very hard at writing and the ideas just kept coming to me and my output accelerated. I hope to reach a total of 900 by the end of this year. After that I will probably slow down as I will also be concentrating on writing non-fiction. This is also the answer to what I will do when I’ve finished my last story. I will switch to non-fiction and start writing essays and articles. In fact I began last year to take my non-fiction much more seriously and I am hoping that my first book of essays will be out in the next year or two. I am in negotiations with a publisher at the moment. The techniques of non-fiction have been creeping into my fiction in the past few years or so. In fact, a lot of Cloud Farming in Wales was written as if it was non-fiction, even though it’s about absurd and whimsical things.
AmeriCymru: Where can readers go to buy Cloud Farming in Wales online?
Rhys: It is available at Amazon and other online bookshops, but it can also be ordered from the publisher directly. Snuggly Books are a really interesting publisher and they have been putting out some great books. They tried to get my novel sold in City Lights, the bookshop in San Francisco that has a strong connection with Richard Brautigan but City Lights weren’t especially interested, which I think is a shame. But that’s the way the business is. One should never expect too much. http://www.snugglybooks.co.uk/cloud-farming-in-wales/
AmeriCymru: What’s next for Rhys Hughes? Any new publications in the pipeline?
Rhys: I am working on several new projects simultaneously, because that’s what I do, and I have already mentioned my first non-fiction book, which I want to be called Logic and the Monsters, but whether it will ever be published or not is impossible for me to say with any degree of certainty at this stage.I have a weird Western due out very soon, also by an American publisher, and it’s a book that I had a lot of fun writing. It is called The Honeymoon Gorillas and it’s not a normal Western at all, it’s not even a normal weird Western. When I started writing it I thought I was just writing one or two short stories but those stories turned into the chapters of a novel, so I just went with the flow. The day I finished writing it, I went into the main library in my city and there was a one-off exhibition about apes. It was a bizarre coincidence and I hope a good omen.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?
Rhys: Just that I am delighted by your interest in Wales, which I often feel is the forgotten one of the Celtic brood, maybe because it doesn’t end in the word ‘land’ like Ireland and Scotland do. It makes us sound less of a country and more like a sea creature. It is heartening to know there are so many people around the world, and especially in the USA, who have knowledge of Wales and Welsh culture. This is great in fact and I thank you for your time and your attention.
SHORT EXCERPT FROM CLOUD FARMING IN WALES - WELSH HELL
Hell is a basement flat with endless rooms, all mouldy, connected by dim and depressing corridors, also mouldy. Many of the light bulbs don’t work and have never worked; and those that do are of a very low wattage. The carpets are worn and filthy, the windows are grimy and nothing can ever be seen through them, the wallpaper is bubbling and peeling. This is Hell for Welsh people; the hells intended for people of other lands are possibly quite different. Sometimes a torrent of diabolical rainwater washes along these corridors and carries away any soul caught in it to distant regions of the infinite flat that are nearly identical. Just because the interior of this flat is covered with a ceiling doesn’t mean it doesn’t rain indoors. The clouds drift up and down the corridors just the same as the damned souls do. This is a Welsh Hell for sure. There are rooms full of nothing but damp coal; others bulging with rotten chips, pies green with decay, beer that tastes of socks. Occasionally a room may be bearable for a few hours or even days, but always something will come along to spoil the reprieve. Beds will suddenly explode like bombs, their mattress springs scattering like spores.
A few walls are adorned with framed pictures of grim scenes in other parts of the flat or photographs of dead sheep in the rain. There is also the occasional badly painted mural. These murals depict the same few themes over and over again. Muddy puddles reflecting dismal skies, drowned pit ponies, rotting school children, evicted tenants squatting in the rain, junkie muggers beating old women, hunched people shambling along in queues that are closed circles, cars deliberately driving through flooded potholes and splashing pedestrians on pavements.
Anyway . . . to return to the basement flat that is Hell for the Welsh, I should add that the murals sometimes detach themselves from the walls and float down the corridors, following rain or preceding it, the blurred face of Dylan opening and closing its mouth as it attempts to swallow the clouds in the hope they are the foamy heads of beers. Any souls in those corridors at the time will be gulped down too and excreted from the back of his head much later. He doesn’t care. Fiddly Buttons has just arrived in Hell together with his nemesis Doodah Zips.
They clutch each other for comfort, then push each other away, drawn and repelled in equal measure. Suddenly at the end of a warped corridor that turns a sharp right angle like a snapped arm, comes a head around the corner. It is a drifting mural of Dylan and these new arrivals are unlucky enough to encounter it during their first minutes of damnation. Fiddly and Doodah shriek and run, but they trip over each other and nearer looms the drunkard’s gaping mouth as they sprawl and try to get up. Mushrooms on the carpet snap off under their frantic fingers. The paint of the mural has run in the rain. Dylan’s curly hair is now so smeared that it resembles the helmet of a knight. How ironic! “Do not go gentle into that knight!” Fiddly and Doodah warn each other. Maybe now they are in Hell they will become friends; the truth is that they always had a love-hate relationship. The Welsh Hell is an appalling place. Every 100 years the landlord calls around to pick up the rent from every cursed soul trapped there.