Ceri Shaw



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An Interview With Chris Keil

user image 2009-04-02
By: Ceri Shaw
Posted in: Author Interviews

"Chris Keil, an accomplished linguist, ran an upland sheep farm for nearly twenty years. He has worked as a Brixton schoolteacher and a teacher of English as a foreign language. He has specialised in marketing Welsh lamb in Europe, and in collective memory and representations of the Holocaust. He lectures worldwide and has published on dissonant heritage and traumatic memory at Auschwitz. He lives in Carmarthenshire, west Wales, and currently lectures at Trinity College, Carmarthen. Liminal is his second novel." Alcemi Catalogue 2009

In this exclusive interview with Americymru, Chris answers questions about his life and work with particular reference to his second novel 'Liminal'. Read our review of "Liminal" here.


Americymru: We read in your biography that you ran an upland sheep farm for twenty years. This is perhaps an unusual background for a writer. At what point did you take up the pen? What impelled you to become a writer?

Chris: I've been impelled towards writing for as long as I can remember, something I got from my mother who, as a young woman, worked with Dylan Thomas on the Swansea Evening Post, and for whom literature was a part of life. As for sheep-farming, I thought of it as the day-job; it's an activity, though, that tends to be so all-consuming that it wasn't until yet another turn in the boom-bust farming cycle pushed me off the bus that I went into academic life and full-time writing. In fact, I think it's a good background for a writer: very few things engage you so closely with the physical world, and in a country where sheep outnumber people by three or four to one it's quite an appropriate place to come from.

Americymru: Who are you reading now? What authors have most inspired or "influenced" your own writing?

Chris: Always find this a difficult question. When I'm writing full-tilt, as I am now, I read almost nothing but what I strictly need for research. But writers I love... Giorgio Bassani, Joseph Heller, Robert Louis Stevenson, Freud, TS Eliot, Zola... There is no end to reading, fortunately.

Americymru: For those who are unfamiliar with it, would you care to tell us a bit about your first novel ( The French Thing )?

Chris: OK. It's a story about love defeated by conflicting moral and political visions. On one level it's a thriller/love story, in a rural setting, partly based on real events around issues of animal rights. But what I was also trying to do was to lay out a small, self-contained world, inhabited by groups of people who dont at all want to share that world with other groups, who feel that all of it belongs to them. So the social realities of this world are based on prejudice, hostility, misunderstanding. That make it sound grimmer than it is. Read it!

Americymru: I think many of our readers would be interested to learn more of the process involved in producing a major novel. What provided you with the inspiration to write "Liminal"?

Chris: Liminal germinated over a period of about four years before I started writing it, during which a number of separate ideas floated around without really connecting with each other. One of these ideas was for a book which I eventually abandoned, about a man who becomes obsessed by a painting. That book ended up being written by Janice (a character in 'Liminal'). I understand it's been very successful. I should have gone on with it. Some of the other elements that went into the book were just brief encounters - a girl in Greece talking to a group of students... images - a ruined house with a dead tree reaching up through the roof... I think I start with settings, backgrounds, visual images that move me in some way. Then characters, one or two at first, then others, gradually forming patterns of relationships which eventually determine the narrative. The plot arrives last, grows out of these other things. After that, it's about musicality, about trying to arrive at a level of meaning that floats free, that has a poetic relationship to language.

Americymru: Geraint expounds his concept of "liminality" at various points in the novel. Would you care to explain the significance of this notion for our readers?

Chris: Like Geraint, I've been interested for a long time in the idea of pilgrimage, the idea that life is not just a journey, but a journey with a purpose, which we have to discover for ourselves. The purpose of our journey isn't automatically revealed to us, and certainly isn't defined or circumscribed or given to us by other people. The concept of liminality works on a physical and external level, and also on an interior, psychic one. In the physical world, it's about moments in time, and especially places in space - doorways, bridges, places where the path in the wood divides - which mark significant stages in the journey. On the psychic level, it's about those moments when you get a flash of insight, when you understand something about the purpose of your journey.

Americymru: Your descriptions of place are vivid and evocative - did you travel to Greece during the process of creating this novel?

Chris: I've been to Greece a number of times, and one of the key moments in Liminal's development as a book was a visit to Corinth some years ago, which eventually provided the settings for the Greek section of the book. I was lucky enough to get an Arts Council grant to finish the book in 2006, and I used that to go back to the same area of the Peloponese because I realised that my physical memories had become attenuated. I needed to reconnect with the heat, the intensity of the light, the smell of resin. I think it helped the writing a lot, being back there.

Americymru: Geraint's friendship with Janice seems the closest, most expressive relationship he has with any of the female characters - did this develop as the story developed or was it always part of who the characters were from the beginning?

Chris: This will sound corny, but Janice really did create herself. I'd intended her to be quite a minor character, mainly there to provide some background detail in Geraint's work-place, but she took over the book I'd abandoned, and it was her idea to make a move on Geraint. My plans for Geraint's love life revolved around Lydia, but he ended up treating her pretty badly, thanks to Janice. What allowed this to happen was the fact that, although I knew what the main themes, and the main narrative elements were when I started writing, most of the detailed plotting wasn't even roughed out. I seem to work like that; it's risky and quite nerve-wracking sometimes, but it allows me to develop an intuitive relationship with the writing, which, when it works out, is really good fun. Tom Stoppard (who says he works the same way) said that writers should never feel clever when a book works out well; they should just feel lucky.

Americymru: How did you develop the story of Saint Brygga? Was her story based on any actual saints? What inspired her name?

Chris: Saint Brygga isn't based on any historical figure, although I read a lot of medieval accounts of saints' lives and, so to speak, cannibalised a lot of details of miraculously-preserved body parts etc. I truly cannot remember how I arrived at her name, athough the other day I noticed a signpost to a village called Brynbuga, which I must have passed many times without consciously taking it in, but which, I suppose, embedded itself.

Americymru: The notion of "pilgrimage" is explored at various points in the book. How important do you think this concept is in contemporary society?

Chris: Vital.

Americymru: By the end of the book most of the loose ends are tied up and life goes on. Would you describe this as a "happy ending"?

Chris: Not exactly. I didn't want to write a story about overwhelming tragedy because, somehow, that felt too easy. I wanted to write about the way life ambushes us sometimes, shoots a small dart of sorrow into us; about how change, even when it is necessary or inevitable, leaves a residue of sadness, an intimation of the end of the journey, I suppose.

Americymru: What in your view is the significance of the term Anglo-Welsh literature? Is there such a thing and if so might it be said to have any special message, theme or significance for contemporary readers?

Chris: I think there is such a thing, although it's not easy to define. I think it's a literature which is shaped by a number of factors: obviously history, topography, perhaps above all the social forms that are unique to this strange country. But also because, as "English,' it is haunted by its anomalous relationship to Wales, to Welshness, to the Welsh language. Think of RS Thomas...

Americymru: What are your future writing plans? Is there a third novel in the works?

Chris: There is. The process of writing it is just starting to pick up speed and gather momentum. It's fairly huge and ambitious, but I feel I'm beginning to get control of it, like a runaway train. It's set across a time span of thirty years in the lives of the characters, and another thirty before that in memory and evocation. The main themes are to do with revolution and rapid change, and how idealism is kept alive, or compromised. But it's also about our relationship to art, specifically to music and film. A number of the characters are singers, actors, film-makers, and I've become captivated by trying to understand how music and moving images work on us. I think it's going to be the best yet!

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