AmeriCymru: Hi Brian and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. What can you tell us about your fifth novel Saturdays are Black or White ?
Brian: My pleasure. I decided it was about time to write about twins. Being one myself, it's naturally a subject that I have an interest in, but I've avoided it in previous novels. I also wanted to bring together two very different worlds: central London, where I live, and farm life in rural Wales, where I was brought up and where my two oldest brothers farmed. I also had in mind Bruce Chatwin’s novel On the Black Hill, about twin farmers in the Welsh borders who can’t live apart. It set me thinking about what would happen if it were the opposite - twins who’d become strangers. So the novel begins when a former TV presenter, Arwyn, gets a phone message in his London flat:
‘Hullo. It’s me. I haven’t got long. Cancer. Thought you’d like to know.’
It’s a voice he hasn’t heard for thirty years, since their fiftieth birthday party. It’s his twin brother, Bren, who’d stayed on the family farm in the Black Mountains. Arwyn tries to figure out what triggered their estrangement. He goes back to Wales to find out. It’s not an easy return - not only does he have to confront his brother’s dying, but aspects of his early life which he’d long buried or forgotten.
AmeriCymru: What can you tell our readers about the area in Wales, the Eastern Black Mountains, where the novel is set?
Brian: I know the Abergavenny area fairly well, from my days as a reporter on the South Wales Argus. I lived in Abertillery, which is in the hills the other side of the Usk valley from the Black Mountains. We often drive through them if we’re coming from the South to Mid-Wales, and the area has always struck me as majestic and mysterious, if a little formidable. It’s the kind of place the makes you think how old the world is, and even more isolated than where I come from. As my mother would have said, ‘If those hills could talk!’
AmeriCymru: You have said, in an interview with the South Wales Argus, that you, "....wanted to explore the complex nature of being a twin....". Care to expand on this theme?
Brian: Yes - over the years I’ve come across some remarkable stories about twins, and I did some more research for this book. It ranges from the twin girls in West Wales who were never apart and spoke in unison, to the twins in the US who were separated at birth and find astounding similarities when they’re reunited in later life: similar jobs, names of their children, pets, right down to the cigarettes they smoke or the beer they drink. This all feeds into the nature v nurture debate - are we born fully-cooked or does our upbringing define who we are? Strangest of all, was a documentary called Three Identical Strangers. It’s about triplets who were adopted by very different families in the New York area - as a social experiment, it turned out - who found each other by chance when they were older and became something of a media sensation. And then of course, there were the horrific experiments conducted by Josef Mengele in the death camps. There are many twin myths in different cultures and civilisations around the world, right down to the explanation of creation itself.
AmeriCymru: To what extent is the novel a story, "...about how sibling rivalry can sometimes go wrong.”
Brian: That was part of the exploration of why Arwyn and Bren became strangers. They’d chosen very different paths in life but were ambitious and fairly successful in their respective fields. And while they got on well for many years, the mystery is why they stopped speaking. Was it a misunderstanding, or several, in that they both put different interpretations on certain things that had happened? With my own twin, we remember different things and we remember things differently, so it could be relatively easy to fall out over very minor issues. For the record, I get on very well with all my brothers, and while I and my twin are not really all that ‘twinny,’ we see each other often, and I’m very close to his children. In fact, we’re a very close family.
AmeriCymru: What are you working on at the moment? Any sneak previews of your sixth novel?
Brian: I’d like to set a novel in Paris, where we have a studio flat. It’s been percolating in my mind for a while now, but the plot isn’t working out as well as I’d like yet. A friend who read my first novel, The Missing Room, suggested I should call it The Missing Plot. But I’ll keep at it, and had some new ideas a couple of days ago. I’ve also set up a literary consultancy, helpmepublish.co.uk, with a former colleague, Annabel Hughes, who lives near Abergavenny and edits my books. It’s to help aspiring novelists. Since I started publishing my books, I’ve had quite a few enquiries from friends of friends or relatives of friends about how to start - it can be quite a daunting process. So I thought I might as well try to make a little business out of it.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Brian: Congratulations on your new President. Many of us in the UK watched the election in as assiduously as we watch our own. AmeriCymru is a great resource for bringing Welsh culture together in a forum. Particularly in these days of the Coronavirus pandemic when socialising has its challenges, it’s a good time to start exploring some of our heritage.