Ceri Shaw



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An Interview With Rhys Hughes - Part 2

user image 2009-02-07
By: Ceri Shaw
Posted in: Author Interviews

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This is part 2 of an in depth interview with Rhys Hughes , the Welsh Wizard of the Absurd. Rhys was born in Porthcawl, South Wales in 1966 and plans to write exactly 1000 stories in his lifetime ( see his blog here:- The Spoons That Are My Ears ). When this interview was originally published he had completed 468. Currently his total stands at 600+. Rhys can also be found on the web at:- The Rime of The Post Modern Mariner and on his Facebook page.

AmeriCymru: You write like you''re writing, not as though you''re working to "be" anything in particular: have you ever created consciously with the objective of trying to be a particular type of writer or to try to convey any particular moral message or do you write just to write the story you''re writing?

Rhys: I don''t like preaching and I never try to convey specific moral messages in my writing, but I guess that an author''s own value judgments must unavoidably inform what he or she writes at some level, even if a conscious effort has been made to go against moral habits. And the subtext of a piece of fiction can be more revealing in this regard than the surface text. I''m sure that my own ethical beliefs saturate everything I write, even though I like to think they don''t, even though I try to present an ambiguous face. I feel strongly about the environment, about fair play, about liberty. Do any of these values overtly announce their presence in my fiction?

But when it comes to wanting to "be" a particular type of writer on a technical level, then yes, I have definitely attempted this numerous times. My most recent novel, "Engelbrecht Again!", was a fully conscious effort to write a sequel to the Maurice Richardson classic set of stories about a dwarf surrealist boxer called Engelbrecht. Richardson''s original stories were published in the 1940s and are utterly imbued with the flavour of a Britain that had just emerged from a devastating war. I did my best to write like Richardson on several levels, to capture his dated but still effective surrealism. British surrealism is different from other kinds, more theatrical and less psychosexual. Spike Milligan, J.B. Morton and W.E. Bowman were other masters of the style, but Richardson was the most inventive and original of the bunch.

However, my most deliberately organised attempt to "be" a particular writer came about three years ago. I wanted to prove that I could write straight realism as well as fantasy. It was something that had been on my mind for years, but reading Calvino''s book of linked short stories "Marcovaldo" really spurred me to try. In "Marcovaldo" nothing is false, everything is completely real but it''s also absurd and this relentless absurdity gives the developing story an aura of the fantastic without diminishing its poignancy. The result is a bittersweet epic, one of Calvino''s best books, the one that synthesises most perfectly his opposing urges towards fable and reality. I wanted to use that book as a model of the way the techniques of fantasy can deal with the situations of reality.

But of course my own book quickly went its own way. It became a sort of benign satire on myself! It contains the only autobiographical material I''ve ever written, semi-autobiographical I should say, as some events have been reinterpreted to catch more closely echoes of other events. The title of the book is "My Cholesterol Socks" and that''s a direct, if somewhat obscure, reference to Welsh literature. I wanted to be as painfully genuine as I could when writing it. The absurdity it contains is always possible, never impossible, and in most cases the absurd events really happened, if not to me then to people I knew.

I''m planning a pair sequels, "Your Saturated Stockings" and "Our Malignant Slippers", to close the loop. The overall title for the sequence will be "The Unfeasible Footwear Trilogy" and I''ve based its structure around inter-subjectivity. In other words, the first volume is narrated by a character who exaggerates his bad qualities and downplays his good. In the second volume the same events are told from the viewpoint of his girlfriend, who always exaggerates the good. The third volume will outline the perspective of a third character whose investment in events is hampered by the principles of fair play, neutrality and non-interference. But in fact his presentation of the facts isn''t the true one either. Each viewpoint forms the point of a triangle and the "truth" is located at the centre, available only at the reader''s discretion!

AmeriCymru: Dylan Thomas and "How Green Was My Valley" represent the sum total of many peoples knowledge of Anglo-Welsh literature. Does "Nowhere Near Milkwood" constitute a conscious attempt to challenge and subvert these stereotypes?

Rhys: Certainly. Absolutely. I know that Dylan Thomas was a great writer, many writers I admire cite him as an important influence, but I just don''t feel inspired by him. I find his work pretty but boring. Pretty boring. Having said that I have no problem with the fact he''s universally regarded as the greatest writer Wales has produced. My own candidate for that honour is Arthur Machen, but I never expect this to be more than a minority opinion... I can''t say that "Nowhere Near Milk Wood" is a direct assault on Dylan Thomas, but it''s definitely a challenge to the restrictive myth that has grown up around him that Welsh literature has to be sentimental if it''s not politically blatant.

I am periodically accused of being non-political, of having no social conscience. I once gave a reading to students and was interrupted by a professor who bellowed, "How dare you write like Umberto Eco! He is a traitor to the working class!" He went on to claim that social realism was the only acceptable form of fiction that a Welsh writer should ever produce and that anything ''clever'' was a knife in the hearts of poor people. I was astonished to be thought of as an imitator of Eco, whom I''ve never read, but not really surprised by the rest of his rant. The Welsh literary establishment has a fixed idea of what constitutes authentic Welsh literature. It must be a semi-Marxist warhead in a lush lyrical delivery system!

But I actually think the professor was more upset by the form of my story than the content, because its guiding principle probably seemed unbearably self-indulgent to him. I read a piece that parodied myself in the style of a reader. What I mean by this is that I''m often told by readers and critics what kind of writer I am and it''s often at odds with the kind of writer I think I am. So I decided to write a story in the style of a writer who really was how I was being defined! I''m sure it was this ''smug'' conceit, rather than the story itself, that prompted his indignation...

AmeriCymru: Jorge Luis Borges is listed amongst your key literary influences. "The New Universal History of Infamy" is one of your better known and more easily accessible works. What inspired you to write a work (loosely) based on the old Borges classic?

Rhys: I have always admired Borges for the way he expanded the function of the short story to include totally abstract themes. His most famous tales have no plot, no dialogue, no characterisation, no psychological interaction, yet they are utterly fascinating. It takes a special writer to do that successfully. Olaf Stapledon managed it, of course... But in the case of Borges I''m thinking of stories such as ''The Library of Babel'', ''Pierre Menard'', ''The Circular Ruins'', ''The Lottery in Babylon'', and a few others. Those texts break all the rules of narrative construction taught in Creative Writing classes. They posit mind-bending ideas, then take those ideas to a logical limit and beyond, and sometimes return them to the original state, as in ''The Congress'', my favourite Borges tale…

But my own tribute to Borges came about by accident. A publisher asked me to write a set of essays on odd people for a history book. I produced an essay on Baron Ungern-Sternberg, who ruled Mongolia in the 1920s, but the publisher went bust, so I was left with a piece that resembled one of the semi-fictions in Borges'' book "A Universal History of Infamy". It seemed natural to write more essays in the same style and collect them together, not as a pastiche of Borges but as a tribute, also as a challenge to myself. It was Harlan Ellison who once said that to imitate Borges is impossible, and because I respect Ellison I had to make the attempt! It was intended to be a low-key project, something that would be issued in the ''Album Zutique'' series, in other words as a tiny pocket book. I was surprised when it developed into a much grander volume and turned out to be my best-selling title!

I find it difficult to anticipate what will capture the public imagination and what won''t. The books I''m most satisfied with often sell poorly and the ones I care less about end up being successful. I don''t know what that says about my own judgment and taste! This doesn''t mean I''m not fond of my ''Infamy'' book, but I do regard it as unfinished. I''m slowly working on a unifying sequel called "A Brand Old Universal Futurology of Infamy" and the first essay from that, on Margaret Thatcher, is already written and available on the internet. Other essays will include non-person-centred topics such as ''Precision'' and ''Sequels''. The last essay will be called "An Exactly Contemporary Universal Presentology of Infamy" and I hope to make that one a parody of all the essays in both books, including itself. Quite how I''ll manage that, I don''t yet know!

AmeriCymru: Some of the action in "The Postmodern Mariner" is set in Porthcawl. You have said previously that Porthcawl is a very atypical Welsh town and that this was an advantage for your fiction. Can you explain for an American audience how Porthcawl differs from other towns in Wales with which they may be more familiar and how this difference benefited you?

Rhys: I''ve often said that Porthcawl didn''t feel very Welsh to me when I was growing up. I regarded it more as a micro-nation, a small independent country, and my friends seemed to feel the same way. Tourists who came to visit in the summer were divided into three categories. The ''English'' were the lowest caste; a little higher came the ''North Welsh''; and finally the ''South Welsh''. All were regarded as foreign. The fact that we lived in a Welsh town and were also Welsh just didn''t register… Although the English were at the bottom of our scale, we feared the North Welsh more, because we knew they lived in caves and were cannibals…

This attitude did have a beneficial effect on my writing, because it meant I never felt constrained by tradition. I was free to write whatever I chose, without reference to a discernable heritage, simply because I wasn''t aware that any specific heritage was mine. That''s a positive way of looking at it, but our attitude can equally be regarded as just another manifestation of a provincial, backwater distrust of anything beyond its own borders. I hope our mentality was more ironic than that, but it''s hard to be sure!

It has been a long time since I was last in Porthcawl and I wrote for many years without mentioning it in my fiction because I craved exotic locales instead. Then I finally realised that to other readers Porthcawl itself might seem exotic. Hence the stories in "The Postmodern Mariner"… I can''t say why it took me so long to become reconciled to the place. It''s a pleasant town, not remarkable for anything but tranquil enough, and I''m grateful I spent my formative years near the sea.

AmeriCymru: Your story ''Castor on Troubled waters'' from "The Postmodern Mariner" features a great strategy for getting out of buying your round at the pub. Have you ever tried this? If so… how did it go?

Rhys: No, I''ve never tried any tricks of that nature, not through lack of desire but because I don''t have the confidence or eloquence to carry them off. I try not to get into rounds in the first place! I don''t drink much beer these days anyway, nor any kind of alcohol. I can''t stand hangovers. When I was a student I imbibed vast quantities of spirits, wine and anything else I could get my hands on. Now such overindulgence just makes me feel ill. The last time I got very drunk was in Poland in 1999. I went to a bar in the Tatra Mountains and drank several mugs of something called ''Tea for Sad People'' that was actually vodka of some kind. All I really remember after that is dancing around a central fireplace with some Australians, head-butting a big iron cowbell on each circuit…

My character Castor Jenkins doesn''t really resemble anyone I know. He is something very rare, almost unique. An authentic Welsh stereotype! So he drinks beer and eats chips at every available opportunity and plays tricks to get out of paying for them. Writing the stories that feature him gave me another opportunity to indulge myself in a genre that I find very appealing, the ‘Tall Story’… I''ve written many of those kinds of tales, for example I have linked sixty together in a volume called "Tallest Stories" that isn''t published yet, but I''m especially pleased with the Castor Jenkins adventures. "The Postmodern Mariner" is perhaps my most accessible book and one that has a special magic for me, but I don''t regard Castor''s tricks as laudable or even workable!

AmeriCymru: You have said that you plan to write 1000 stories. So far you have 400 in print. Any projects that you are currently involved in that you care to share with our readers?

Rhys: I don''t know if I have 400 stories in print. I stopped keeping records a few years ago. It might be more than that number, probably less. I know I''ve written 472 stories but many haven''t even been submitted yet. But I set myself the target of exactly 1000 stories because it gives me a destination that is independent of how popular or unpopular my work becomes. I don''t want to fizzle out. The thousand-story target helps to prevent me becoming demoralised, which is a constant danger with an open-ended writing career. I don''t want to continue forever, I want there to be a time when I''ve finished, when everything is tied together, when the rest of my life has no relation to writing.

But I''m not even at the halfway stage and it has taken me twenty years to get this far! Estimated date of completion of my thousand is around the year 2030 but will probably take rather longer, if I manage to stay alive! I expect to slow down as I get older. At the moment I''m concentrating on reaching the 500 mark. I have several projects in progress right now. I''m writing two novels, "The Pilgrim''s Regress" and "Twisthorn Bellow", and preparing two new short story collections, "Salty Kiss Island" and "Mirrors in the Deluge", which is a neat Welsh reversal of the Merritt title I mentioned earlier. There will be others…. But my next published book should be "Mister Gum", a novel that is partly a satire on the teaching of creative writing. It''s very filthy and I only recommend it to readers with salacious and deviant minds!

Looking further ahead, of the many projects I have planned, I guess two are more relevant to American readers with an interest in Wales than the others. The first is "Gulliver in Gwalia", the shipwrecking of Jonathan Swift''s hero on the shores of Wales, which turns out to be a stranger land than Lilliput or Brobdingnag… And the second is a Welsh Western called "Fists of Fleece", about a man press-ganged in Cardiff Docks and taken to the USA who recovers consciousness believing he is still in Wales. That novel will require me to expand a map of Wales big enough to be superimposed on a map of the USA, as the character travels across forty states thinking they are regions in Wales. There will be an opportunity for a link to the Madoc legend, and I''m excited about the other possibilities it raises, but I need to visit America before I can write it, and I''m not sure when such a trip will be feasible…

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