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Category: Author Interviews




the devil tree


book_cover.jpgAmeriCymru: Hi Delphine and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Care to introduce your latest novel 'The Truth About Eggs' for our readers?

Delphine: The Truth About Eggs is a kind of 'follow-up' to Blessed Are The Cracked, in that it features some of the same characters and is set in the same fictional Welsh village in a farming community. Having said that, the era is a few years prior to Tegwyn Prydderch's retirement, so a slight backward transition for readers. Unlike Blessed, The Truth About Eggs is a full length novel, although there are three very definite 'sections' in it. It is probably not necessary to read Blessed first, but it may help with understanding some of the characters.

AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about the Devil Tree which features in the book?

Delphine: The Devil Tree didn't actually feature at all in the first draft of the book although the story was otherwise identical in terms of where 'things' happen etc. I have my husband, Hedd, to thank for the Devil Tree! We were walking our dogs one evening as the sun was setting and he said 'I'm surprised you've never commented on that creepy looking tree over there. Looks like a Devil!'

Can you believe it? I'm supposed to be the one with the active imagination and I had never noticed it despite passing it on an almost daily basis!

An idea started to form and I took photos of it in different lights. From then on it seemed to be the one thing that tied the whole story together. Of course, there is no real Devil Tree (just a spooky looking oak on a nearby hedge) but a few readers have said that they tried to find it on Wikipedia! (I haven't enlightened them yet - please don't tell them!).

I gave my photos to Carolyn Michel (the artist/designer) and she turned it into this superb cover that I loved instantly.

AmeriCymru: I wanted to talk a little about the structure of the book. It feels like three closely intertwined short stories which come together on the night of the Young Farmers Club show. In that respect it somewhat resembles 'Blessed Are The Cracked'. How difficult is it, as a writer, to ensure continuity? Can you give us any insight in to your process?

Delphine: A lot of my favourite authors have a few key characters who become 'connected' in some way, so I suppose this method has rubbed off on me. (Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism etc!). Continuity was, frankly, a nightmare! You have no idea how many times these chapters changed positions. One chapter in particular had more moves than John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever!

Another headache was the tense - Anna and Natalie's chapters are written in the past tense while Manon (who is so wrapped up in her own little world) is written in the present tense. Though this was changed a few times until I had enough opinions from beta-readers to decide that it worked better the original way. (I'm sure Sophie Hannah, who uses mixed tenses in her Culver Valley series, doesn't dither as much!).

Keeping the individual characters' stories fresh and not giving away too much by linking them together too soon was also a challenge for me. Even now I think maybe i should have just changed this or that...... typical Libran!

AmeriCymru: Are Young Farmers events in West Wales really this rough? Care to share any real life experiences?

Delphine: Hmm, the polite answer is - YFC events are well run, enjoyable and educational ones. However, any event that combines young people, alcohol and a sense of competitiveness tends to produce some out-of-character behaviour patterns! Luckily I was helped by a young friend who is a YFC member. She provided me with a lot of factual information - for example, the Famous Five Challenge, Girlfriend Carrying Race and the Reverse Steer Quad Bike course have all happened for real!

I imagine that the officers policing the annual Royal Welsh Show could come up with dozens of entertaining tales that would equal some in this book if we were to ask them! I think any notable bad behaviour that happens in an otherwise quiet location becomes big news and is the one thing that everyone remembers, so I guess that every real life event such as this has a story that is repeated for decades!

AmeriCymru: Tegwyn Prydderch is an interesting character. His stoicism is an appealing characteristic. Any real life or literary models? At one point he opines that none of the events in the book would be happening if it was raining. Does crime in west Wales really come to a halt when it pours?

Delphine: Tegwyn is based on a number of real life characters (to say otherwise would be dangerous!!) in order make him an 'individual'. In many ways, he shares my character too (apart from the fact that he doesn't like dogs - which is a fact that will come back to haunt him when he has to look after someone's dog as part of the next book). I think I wanted him to be a bit of a 'jobsworth' and at times, you want to shake him! Although he is pivotal character, he is not the 'be all and end all' of these books, rather a means of gelling the different storylines together.

When Tegwyn calls rain 'the best policeman', he is repeating a very well used phrase. It is certainly one I and many colleagues have used over the years. Without a doubt, the more petty crimes or those that are 'outdoors based' and spontaneous are less likely to happen when it is pouring with rain - a simple result of people not wanting to go outside if they don't have to. Unfortunately, many serious crimes cannot be controlled or predicted by weather conditions.

AmeriCymru: We last spoke when your first title was released in 2013. How was 'Blessed Are The Cracked' received? 

Delphine: I was delighted with the way Blessed was received and the fact that it was in the Amazon Top 100 for several weeks (with a high point of Number 24 for some of those weeks). I was invited to speak on local radio and to various societies such as the WI and other organisations - which was a new experience for me. Just before The Truth About Eggs was launched, I was invited to a live interview on Radio Woking - I did wonder if an area so far away from mythical Llanefa would be interested, but it seemed to go well and there were some interesting questions posed by listeners. During that session, Blessed was also mentioned and that revived a little more public interest despite it having been released in 2013.

AmeriCymru: What are you working on at the moment? Are there any new publications in the pipeline?

Delphine: As I said earlier, I am a typical indecisive Libran! No surprise to hear that I am working on two new projects. The first one (which is about halfway complete) is a collection similar to Blessed (and set in Llanefa, of course). The working title, Never Point at a Rainbow, ( the title of one of the stories which is set in London when some Llanefa residents go away for the weekend) follows Tegwyn's memoirs when he is interviewed on a Radio Station.

The second one has only just been started and was a result of good feedback on The Truth About Eggs and persuaded me to get another full length work out there. The working title is The Donkey Shaped Stone and brings some more familiar characters back onto the page. Which one will I continue with first? Watch this space!

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

Delphine: A simple message - please keep reading! It is a delight to know that so many American readers are interested in Welsh fiction and even more pleasing to know that AmeriCymru is the go-to site to keep them informed.

Diolch i chi gyd!




Recorded at the book launch event at the Dylan Thomas Center, Swansea on March 13th 2014.

Back to Welsh Literature page >


Tracy Prince. Scholar in Residence at the Portland Center for Public Humanities

"The author of Portland''s Goose Hollow (2011) and Culture Wars in British Literature: Multiculturalism and National Identity (2012), Dr. Tracy Prince is also a featured speaker for Oregon Humanities in the Conversation Project program and travels throughout Oregon presenting "Uniquely Oregon: Native American Art of Oregon." Dr. Prince has spent her career teaching and writing about race, gender, and social equity issues. She uncovers forgotten or overlooked historical moments by digging through archives and interviewing folks who like to talk about the good ol'' days."

AmeriCymru spoke to Tracy about here recent book ''Culture Wars: Other Voices in British Literature" which provided the theme and title for our recent ( Oct 4th, 2013 ) panel discussion at the Portland Center for Public Humanities

 



Culture WarsAmeriCymru: Hi Tracy and many thanks for agreeing to talk to AmeriCymru. How would you characterize the theme or central thesis of your recent book ''Culture Wars''?

Tracy: Thanks! I’ve appreciated learning about the good work AmeriCymru does to promote Welsh writers in English. Good stuff!

In my book I argue that British literature is more than Anglo-English literature, despite depictions by London literary elite and anthologies. When teaching and researching 20th and 21st century British literature, I was frustrated to see that literary anthologies and public discussions about Britain’s literature and identity still often exclude ethnic- minority writers and often remain fixated on an Anglo-English version of Britishness. My book analyzes who is left out of the British literary canon and explores the culture wars surrounding the discussion of Britishness (highlighting how a white Anglo-English image of British identity has been promoted and assumed and its supposed demise grieved over).

Here’s the blurb my publisher put on the back of the book:

The past century''s culture wars that Britain has been consumed by, but that few North Americans seem aware of, have resulted in revised notions of Britishness and British literature. Yet literary anthologies remain anchored to an archaic Anglo-English interpretation of British literature. Conflicts have been played out over specific national vs. British identity (some residents prefer to describe themselves as being from Scotland, England, Wales, or Northern Ireland instead of Britain), in debates over immigration, race, ethnicity, class, and gender, and in arguments over British literature. These debates are strikingly detailed in such chapters as: "The Difficulty Defining ''Black British''," "British Jewish Writers" and "Xenophobia and the Booker Prize." Connections are also drawn between civil rights movements in the U.S. and UK. This generalist cultural study is a lively read and a fascinating glimpse into Britain''s changing identity as reflected in 20th and 21st century British literature.

AmeriCymru: What special difficulties do you see in defining British literature in the modern age?

Tracy: Consciously or unconsciously, presuppositions of Anglo-English centrality remain deeply imbedded in the teaching of British literature. A study of this issue reveals the underpinnings of the construction and maintenance of an Anglo-English definition of Britishness and the British literary canon. John Freeman, the editor of Granta (literary magazine published in England) claims: “American writers are constantly engaged with the question of being American.” He was implying that this is a uniquely American trait and that he doesn’t see British literature as having these qualities. Indeed, American literature is widely understood as central to the process of how American-ness is analyzed and defined. But I believe that British literature has been equally as important to the analyzing and defining of Britishness, even when critics and authors claim to focus strictly on literary aesthetics and would not think of themselves as engaging with issues surrounding British identity. British literature offers many cues to the reader about what Britishness means, about who is included, and about who is excluded.

So, my book is filled with quotes from a variety of writers in the UK who have expressed how they feel about Britishness (from the early 20th century to 21st century authors). I also cover the decline of the British Empire, immigration, race/ethnicity, and devolution debates and how writers have responded to those issues. And I cite studies that attempt to quantify how UK residents feel about being British. For example, in 2003, when polls were conducted in England asking whether residents would describe themselves as English or British, 38% said English and 48% said British. In Scotland the study revealed that 72% identified themselves as Scottish and 20% as British. In Wales the study revealed that 60% identified themselves as Welsh and 27% as British. When the BBC conducted an online survey asking people “What Makes You British?” a man from Scotland responded that he is Scottish and has never considered himself British. “[M]y views on what it means to be ‘British’ will be the same as many from Scotland, Wales and Ireland, that being ‘British’ equals being English.” He wonders “what there is to be proud of when British achievements tend to focus on English achievements.”

An example of presuppositions of Anglo-English centrality is that A.S. Byatt assembled an anthology in 1998, the Oxford Book of English Short Stories, in which she ethnically cleansed writers in England. Shockingly, she even explained her editorial criteria as selecting “writers with pure English national credentials.” Yet most literary critics didn’t notice her ethnic cleansing. Only a Black British and a British Jewish literary critic noticed. Byatt’s anthology, read widely throughout the world and republished by Oxford University Press in 2000, 2003, and 2009, serves to continue reifying and “marketing” Englishness as white Anglo-ness among students and teachers of literature around the world. It is not surprising then, when London-born, English writer Hanif Kureishi demands a different version of Englishness and of Britishness. He declares that it is time for “the white British” to deal with the idea that there is “a new way of being British after all this time.”

Professor Jane Aaron, who teaches in Wales, offers a Welsh perspective of British national identity tensions in Postcolonial Wales. Her view is that when many people throughout Britain hear someone referring to themselves as British, this is often understood as coming from someone who is English. “[I]n today’s Britain, the default position for those who identify, or are identified, as British only, with no qualifiers, remains an unexamined English cultural identity.” (15) In much of the North American academy and in many university settings around the world, British literature often continues to be taught (1) without addressing this “unexamined [Anglo] English cultural identity,” (2) with little discussion of contemporary multicultural and national identity debates in the United Kingdom, and (3) without including a cross- section of authors from throughout the four nations of the United Kingdom.

My goal was to present evidence from surveys, films, literature, television shows, children’s books, political debates, etc. to give a glimpse into how dramatically the sense of what it means to be British has changed in the last 100 years. I wrote the book with a non-academic audience in mind. So I write in a reader-friendly way that teaches the history of the issues and authors, and I hope it inspires people to make reading lists of the authors they’d like to read more of.

AmeriCymru: In Chapter 6 you state that:- "Britain''s culture wars are on explicit technicolor display in discussions about the Man Booker Prize" Can you tell us more?

Tracy: In 1994 the prize was awarded to Scottish author James Kelman for How Late It Was, How Late, written in a working class Scottish dialect. According to literary critic Merritt Moseley, the selection process was flawed by its eagerness to be “politically correct” and select multicultural rather than “English” entries. “The selection and award process for the U.K.’s Booker Prize for novels is cumbersome, biased against English entries.... The novels reflected a multi-cultural background that, while politically correct, did not include native, non-minority British authors.” This statement is a blatant effort to portray white writers from England as the downtrodden and to blast efforts at political correctness for the perceived displacement of Anglo-English writers from the center of the British literary realm.

Pat Barker, 1995’s Booker Prize winner for The Ghost Road, made provocative comments which revealed a lot about Britain’s culture wars over multiculturalism and national identity. She said: “I think that there is a certain amount of unacknowledged resentment among ... white native British writers, on the ground that the additional tinge of exoticism when it comes to the Booker Prize does a writer no harm at all.” Barker further pronounces that although it is difficult to say this in a way “that does not sound racist ... there’s a sort of resentment that the Booker judges are so obviously straining to be unparochial and exotic ... the homegrown English novel is really rather undervalued now.” I found it fascinating that Barker too seemed to be painting a picture of the Anglo-English as underdogs in the Booker Prize process. This idea would be found laughable among Welsh writers, who struggle to get on the radar of what is now called the Man Booker Prize (based upon its current sponsorship).

A.S. Byatt has expressed similar indignation over the “left-wing political correctness in this country” which she sees as unfairly privileging the “Empire Strikes Back” authors. Byatt calls “total rubbish” any notions that the English novel has become daring or more interesting with the addition of “these books by people from elsewhere.” She calls the “Empire Strikes Back” a “myth” that obscures writers like Muriel Spark, Lawrence Durrell, William Golding, Iris Murdoch, and Anthony Burgess: “All those people were in place, writing away, absolutely brilliant. They’re all English; they’re all white. It doesn’t seem to me that anything Rushdie does is anything more interesting technically than what they do—although it’s not less interesting.”

About the 2003 Booker Prize lineup, Fiachra Gibbons, writing for the Guardian, called attention to the prize’s excessive focus, not just on England, but on writers in the greater London area. (The M25 motorway surrounds Greater London. Although Oxford and Cambridge are outside the loop, they are within an hour’s train ride to London.) “It was as if Martyn Goff, the Booker Svengali ... had imposed an accent test so that [they] ... might not be threatened by barbarous tongues from beyond the moat of the M25.” Gibbons marveled at the incestuous nature of the London literary scene’s Booker Prize judges and longlisted authors, since the judges seemed to focus on their friends in and near London, with a few gratuitous outsiders thrown in. As the judges posted effusive comments about writers from north London and Oxford “and the odd exile to the sticks” on their online diaries, Gibbons said he couldn’t help but play the “old mental game, How Are They Related?” He mused: “I may have got this all horribly wrong, of course. No doubt the judges have concealed youths spent digging coal with teaspoons in the Welsh valleys or working the checkouts on the dawn shift at Grimethorpe Asda. But that is not what it looked and sounded like to me, or anyone else cringing at home who craved just the merest acknowledgement that someone outside the Woosterian Brahmin caste of literary London might read a book, or know good writing when they saw it.”

In The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins (2001) British academic Graham Huggan blames the media, the Booker Prize, and the postcolonial literary establishment for this focus on the “exotic.” He argues that postcolonial writers, academic critics, the Booker Prize, and publishers are at fault because they “market” “exotic” imperialist nostalgia. Of course, one look at the definition of the countries eligible for the Booker Prize refutes this premise. Since this prize is an award for Commonwealth and Irish writers, the percentage of British and more specifically Anglo-English writers represented on shortlists and longlists is embarrassingly high. (In 2013 the rules were changed to allow American writers to be eligible). In fact, 20th and 21st century novels about and by Anglo-England are being read in disproportionate numbers around the world, in places where Anglo-English experiences seem “exotic” to people who have few points of reference with this culture. The only way these Anglo-English novels are sold to people whose lives bear no resemblance to the lives in the novels is through marketing and especially through marketing of imperialist literary nostalgia. Thus, instead of arguing that the Booker is overly concerned with so-called “exotic” novels, the argument is easily made that there is a great big world of eligible writers who, over the life of the Booker Prize, have been ignored in favor of mostly Anglo-English writers.

The discussions that have occurred over the past few decades have often made it abundantly clear who is considered British, who is thought of as “exotic,” and who is though of as “homegrown.” Writers are always being given the advice to “write what you know.” Yet when writers outside of an Anglo-English London/Oxford/Cambridge moat write what they know, from their cultural perspectives, which are not Anglo-English perspectives, they are called “exotic” then blamed for pandering with their exoticness and “marketing” it. This excruciatingly obvious point seems to have escaped great swathes of the British literary establishment.

Consciously or unconsciously, many Anglo-English critics and authors have been disquieted over the decline of their literary empire, wondering why “homegrown” stories seem not as engaging as global ones, and fortifying themselves against what Pat Barker called the “exotic” people and, as A.S. Byatt said, the “people from elsewhere.”

AmeriCymru: In your opinion, how has the ''rapidly changing sense of national identity'' in Britain (both pre and post devolution) been reflected in the writings of Welsh authors?

Tracy: Black Welsh writer Charlotte Williams imagines a revised Britishness. She writes of her upbringing in Wales by a Welsh speaking white mother and a black Guyanese father in Sugar and Slate (2002). When she lived in Guyana for a few years she was thought of as British, though being Welsh calls to her most profoundly. Williams traces connections between Africa and Wales in an effort to write a history of Wales that includes her story within Welsh identity.

And white Welsh writer R.S. Thomas (1913–2000), the son of a sea captain, pointed out the English-centered ideas within Britain: “Britishness is a mask. Beneath it there is only one nation, England.” He declared: “Britain does not exist for me. It is an abstraction forced on the Welsh people.” While he chaffed at the domination of a British identity over a Welsh identity, he also chaffed at the Welsh people whom he saw as being lazy, indifferent, or snobbish when they chose to speak English instead of Welsh.

Born in Cardiff in 1923 Dannie Abse wrote about his Jewishness and Welshness in Goodbye, Twentieth Century: An Autobiography (2001). However, Abse lived much of his adult life in Golders Green, London, primarily a Jewish neighborhood, with many synagogues and Jewish owned restaurants, bakeries, and bookstores. A doctor as well as a novelist, playwright, and poet, his 1954 autobiographical novel Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve tells of growing up in Wales in the 1930s. In his poem “Case History” he writes about the double marginalization of being both Jewish and Welsh. He tells of an interaction with a patient:

‘Most Welshmen are worthless,

an inferior breed, doctor.’

He did not know I was Welsh.

Then he praised the architects

of the German death-camps—

did not know I was a Jew.

AmeriCymru: Care to tell us a little about any Anglo Welsh writer or writers who have captured your attention in recent years?

Tracy: Since I focus a lot on the Man Booker Prize, here are a few Welsh writers featured there: The Booker Prize winner in 1970 for The Elected Member and short-listed in 1978 for A Five-Year Sentence, Bernice Rubens (1928– 2004) was born in Wales to a father who had escaped anti-Semitism in Lithuania and a mother whose family had fled Poland. Timothy Mo (born in Hong Kong to a white Welsh-English mom and a Cantonese dad, moved to England at age 10) has had three short-listed novels: Sour Sweet, An Insular Possession, and The Redundancy of Courage. Chinese-Welsh writer Peter Ho Davies was raised in England but spent his summers in Wales. His The Welsh Girl was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 and deals with complex questions of belonging, loyalty, and identity. Sarah Waters was born in Neyland, Pembrokeshire. Her books Fingersmith (2002), The Night Watch (2006), and The Little Stranger were shortlisted (2009). Born in Cardiff, Trezza Azzopardi’s The Hiding Place (2000) was short-listed for the Booker Prize. This story of an immigrant Maltese family delves into the Cardiff underworld of the 1960s.

Another Welsh writer that I write about is Leonora Brito, who passed away in 2007. Brito lived in Cardiff her entire life and was called a “voice...from the long-established, but hitherto culturally under-represented, multi-ethnic communities of Cardiff ’s Docklands.” Tiger Bay (the Docklands), her neighborhood, was known for its migrant communities from over 40 different countries who, for more than a century, had been attracted by work at this busy harbor. In the last half of the twentieth century the area was filled with decrepit buildings because of the decline of the coal industry and the related decline of harbor traffic. So in 1999 in a re-development scheme, large areas were bulldozed and the bay was reconfigured and, in a controversial move, renamed Cardiff Bay. Brito’s Dat’s Love (1995) and Chequered Histories (2006) tells the stories of that neighborhood before it was bulldozed by exploring the life, love, pressures, and tensions of Black Welsh women.

AmeriCymru: Do you foresee a time when ''Welsh Writing In English'' is taught as a separate subject or discipline in American universities?

Tracy: Such a course would have strong appeal for Welsh ex-pats and people of Welsh ancestry, so I would think it wise for American universities to explore this option. However, I have taught literature in three countries (America, Canada, Turkey), and I can report that many universities do not have the funding or professors specializing in Welsh literature to add a course on Welsh Writing in English.

Since most universities offer British literature every semester, it seems important to at least make sure that Welsh writing in English is taught more robustly in British literature courses. Because of America''s strong link to the Mother Country, because of our continuing "special relationship" with Britain, the teaching of British history and literature will remain important in American universities. Thus it is important to have the teaching of British literature include all of Britain and not just London, Oxford, and Cambridge. My feeling is that it is bizarre and archaic to see the teaching of British literature and British literary anthologies continuing to focus mostly on dead, white, English writers. I feel that it is crucial to include the teaching of Welsh writing within the British literary tradition (while pointing out Welsh discomfort with the “British” label).

However, it would be great to think of ways to encourage universities to enhance their courses by offering Welsh Writing in English. It seems like the demand would be strong.

AmeriCymru: What''s next for Dr. Tracy J. Prince? Will you be exploring similar themes in future works?

Tracy: I’ll continue to do talks to teach folks about the political/cultural issues brought up in Culture Wars in British Literature. My upcoming schedule includes talks at the University of Washington Tacoma (12/2) and University of British Columbia in Canada (12/3). But I research in a wide array of historical areas. I researched Oregon history back to Indian and pioneer days in two pictorial history books (Portland''s Goose Hollow 2011 and the co-authored Portland’s Slabtown 2013) that allowed me to dig around in archives and talk to folks about the good ol’ days. The literary non-fiction book I''m currently writing, Might Oughta Keep Singin'', is taking me back to my roots--to the sharecroppin'' plantation where my dad grew up pickin’ cotton in the Arkansas delta region (across the Mississippi River from where Elvis grew up). It''s the story of four generations of southern women, breast cancer, and the music of the American south.

I have eclectic intellectual interests. For my author page on Facebook, I’m "encouraged,” every time I log in, to buy an ad to increase traffic to my page. I joked with my friends that the ad would need to read: "Are you interested in Oregon history, Native American art, 1930s-60s magazine illustrations, architectural preservation, British literature, the history of Southern music, cotton sharecropping in Arkansas, or Oklahoma half-breeds? Then I''m just the professor for you!" So, if you share any of those interests, let’s chat! https://www.facebook.com/TracyJPrincePhD?ref=hl

I also enjoy connecting with folks on Twitter @TracyJPrince and Goodreads. So, stop on by and say hello when you mosey that way.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for readers of the Welsh American Bookstore?

Tracy: Maureen Duffy, poet, playwright, and critic, muses on the state of angst over British and English identities in England: The Making of Myth from Stonehenge to Albert Square (2001). Her book deals with some popular English perceptions regarding the inclusion of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland within the concept of Britain, with the English feeling threatened, aggrieved, and abandoned—feeling that their identity is “under threat.” I think this quote from her is very revealing when discussing what a collective British identity means: “Scotland and Wales have no difficulty with their myths; they have several hundred years of opposition and reluctant integration in which to polish them. We, the English, on the other hand had always believed deep down that the union was indissoluble, that the Scots and Welsh didn’t really mean it in spite of the example of Ireland. Now devolution has actually happened and they have assemblies, flags, control over their own affairs. We feel aggrieved, abandoned, and find it hard to accept the outcome of what we have done. We argue over whether ‘they’ should have the right to sit in “our” parliament and vote on ‘our’ affairs. We have always regarded our confederates as children, as we did the rest of the empire, even though they are historically our predecessors.”

I find the most interesting parts of British literature are authors who are struggling with a sense of a cohesive British identity. With post-war immigration leading to a more multi-ethnic populace and with uncertainties brought about by devolution, it is important and fascinating when writers explore what it means to be British. I’d like to see more British literature courses teaching this conflicted sense of Britishness.

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Here we present two interviews with Welsh writer Bernard Knight.( Bernard Knight on the Wikipedia ) The first appeared on the AmeriCymru blog in March 2012 and the second on our Magazine site in April 2012 after we polled members on the AmeriCymru social site for questions they would like to put to Bernard Knight.

AmeriCymru Interview With Bernard Knight 4/17/12

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AmeriCymru Interview With Bernard Knight 3/12/12

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AmeriCymru: Hi, Bernard, and many thanks for agreeing to talk to AmeriCymru. In the course of a distinguished career as a forensic pathologist, medical doctor and barrister you have also found time to write more than 30 novels since 1963, in addition to radio and teleplays and non-fiction works. What was your main motivation when you began writing fiction? What inspired you?

Bernard: I suppose my literary career began when I was a medical student in Cardiff in 1949, which was after being first a farm worker in Gower and then a hospital lab tech. By default, I became editor of the student magazine, appropriately called ''The Leech'' - and as usual, being editor of any small publication meant you had to write most of it yourself. But novel writing started not from ''inspiration'', but boredom. When called up to the Royal Army Medical Corps for compulsory military service in 1956, I had not long been married and applied to stay in Britain – so with the usual military efficiency, they sent me to Malaya for three years! Here the bloody twelve-year ''Forgotten War'' against the communist terrorists was going on and I was posted to a small military hospital in North Malaya, a place a bit like MASH, complete with helicopters and a mad commanding officer!

My main recreation was reading books from the camp library – many were crime novels, but as the hospital pathologist, I found many of the forensic aspects so wildly inaccurate that I decided I could do better myself. I started writing one and when I came back to my first forensic job in London, I mentioned this to a court reporter, and was astonished to see my boast in the next day''s Daily Mirror!

The next day, I had a letter from a publisher asking to see my manuscript – I had only written a bit of it, so I dashed off the rest and he took it! It doesn''t happen like that these days!

After this first shot at crime fiction with ''The Lately Deceased'', I went on to write about half a dozen ''stand-alone'' novels, several based in South Wales. Following this, I also started writing scripts for radio plays for the BBC and then for television. I wrote the story-lines for a very popular BBC forensic series called The Expert, and did quite bit of TV work, even presenting some documentary stuff on forensic topics like skeletons. A few years ago, I was involved in two programmes where we examined the alleged bones of St David, kept in a chest behind the high altar at the cathedral in Pembrokeshire– unfortunately, we showed that they were six hundred years too recent to be our patron saint!

I did some Welsh Language programmes, too, though I''m not fluent, much to my sorrow. One was a series about spies at the missile range in West Wales and more recently I wrote the stories for Dim Clew, a forensic team game on S4C.

I even had a try at biography and came to New York to write the life story of Milton Helpern, the famous Chief Medical Examiner of NYC. The book, written as an autobiography, called Autopsy,was very successful, going into five editions and book clubs, though unfortunately my old friend Milton died just before publication.

As a full-time pathologist, working for the university and the Home Office, I had to do all my writing at night, sometimes until three in the morning – I once passed my resident mother-in-law, an early riser, on the stairs as I was going up and she was going down!

AmeriCymru: How do you choose your subjects and can you tell us a bit about your creative process?

Bernard: My abiding fascination with Welsh history tempted me to write my first historical novel Lion Rampant in 1972, the true tragic romance of Princess Nest and Owain ap Cadwgan. It''s still my favourite book, being so closely bound to real history. I followed this with another twelfth century yarn Madoc, Prince of America , about which more below. These two books really got me hooked on the twelfth century, which set the pattern for Crowner John.

The creative process is a bit of a myth in terms of ''inspiration'', in that once I get a general idea for a book, I first beaver away at the historical background, this research being the most interesting part of the job – in fact, I don''t really like the chore of writing, slogging away at a keyboard. It''s the research that grabs me, it took a year''s work to get the facts right for Lion Rampant.

The themes for the Crowner John books were very varied – the business of sanctuary, where criminals sought shelter in a church; tournaments ( the medieval equivalent of football, horse-racing and baseball); the harsh forest laws; witchcraft, piracy, tin-mining and of course, ever-present dominance of the Church.

I used to write a detailed synopsis of a book before I started, even if the finished product diverged considerably from it. I''ve got lazier now, but I still need to know where I''m going with a book, rather than the ''sit-down-and-hope-for-the-best'' approach that some writers seem to get away with.

I now start with a flow-diagram on a single sheet of paper, with characters called X,Y.Z, and build up a visual pattern with arrows for motives. Then I put names on the people and write a ''curriculum vita'' for each, so that I can establish continuity.

This is vital for a series like Crowner John, with fifteen books to handle. I have a large file which I call ''My Bible'', which has separate sections for the personal details of each character, then bits about costume, diet, locations, maps, etc, so that I can keep a grip on things. Even so, one makes slips and my many readers around the world are swift to let me know – for example John''s cook-maid was blonde in one book and brunette in another!

Anachronisms are another problem - I had an Email from somewhere in the world to tell me that I had screwed a booby trap to the lavatory wall, which was impossible because screws weren''t invented until the 14th century!

Even in dialogue, anachronisms are hard to avoid – can you say in a 1195 book that someone was a ''sadist'' – or a man was ''mesmerised'', when those eponymous words were still centuries in the future?

The hardest part of a book is the ending, which causes many otherwise good books to fall flat. In crime books, the old standby, the ''denoument'' beloved of Hercule Poirot, with the suspects gathered together in the drawing-room, is quite unrealistic in real life, but there is only a limited range of outcomes – the culprit is either arrested, shot, commits suicide or conveniently has a fatal accident. It''s ''not cricket'' to let him get away with it!

AmeriCymru: You are perhaps best known as the author of the Crowner John Mysteries. Care to explain for our readers what a Crowner was and did?

Bernard: As a forensic pathologist, my instructions – and payment – for an autopsy came from the coroner, an official always either a lawyer or a doctor, responsible for investigating deaths which cannot be certified by a physician as natural causes. It was with the idea of becoming a coroner that I also studied to be a barrister, as an insurance against not getting a senior medical post.

The word ''coroner'' comes from the Latin ''Custos placitorum coronae'', meaning ''keeper of the pleas of the crown''. The office originated in 1194, partly as a means to attract fines from the population to help pay for the ransom of Richard the Lionheart, captured in Austria on his way home from the Third Crusade.

Anything 12th century was of interest to me and after a bit of academic delving, I had the idea to write a one-off book about a fictional first coroner. I would have liked to have set it in Wales, but that was impossible as in 1194, we were still independent and had our own laws of Hwyel Dda – so I had to go to England and I chose Devonshire.

Most of the characters I used were real and actually held the jobs I portrayed, like Sir Richard de Revelle, the sheriff . There was no record of the early coroners, so I invented Sir John de Wolfe, a returning Crusader who was looking for a job.

The title ''crowner'' is a bit of cheat for 1194, as it was not used until the 14th century as a slightly derogatory nickname – Shakespeare uses it in that sense in Hamlet.

The coroner''s job was to hold inquests on all deaths that did not occur in the bosom of the family, including murders, suicides, accidents etc – and where possible, bring any culprits to justice. He had to attend hangings to seize the property of felons, take confessions from sanctuary-seekers, attend ordeals, examine assaults, rapes, robberies, fires, wrecks, catches of the royal fish (whale and sturgeon) and many other legal tasks, most designed to gather money into the royal exchequer, rather than let the local lords continue to use their own courts. Essentially, his job was to record every legal event and present them to the king''s judges when they circulated around the county towns to administer justice.

It seemed a good basis for an investigative story, as at least it really was the coroner''s job – not like the many old ladies, writers, aristocrats and priests that abound in detective fiction! I thought this was to be a single book, but it was so popular that the fifteenth will be published this coming August.

AmeriCymru: From the Wikipedia we learn that:- "Apart from John, most of the main characters actually existed in history and every care is taken with research and the creation of atmosphere, to offer an authentic picture of twelfth-century England. Most the places described in the stories can be visited by readers today, even the gatehouse of Rougemont Castle in Exeter, where John had his office." How difficult is it to weave a fictional narrative around the lives of real characters? What proportion of your time is spent on research?

Bernard: Amongst historical novelists, there is a divergence of opinion about whether you should use real characters in the books. Some say it is perverting history and also risks possibly blackening the name of nice folk. I don''t think this is valid, especially after 900 years, as everyone knows the books are meant as entertainment, not teaching - though many ''fans'' have told me that they enjoyed such a painless way of learning some history, especially about common folk. I always try to tell life as it really was - the squalor, the dirt and the poverty, as well as how people ate and dressed all those centuries ago.

My information comes from all sorts of sources – history textbooks, monographs, direct questioning of very helpful experts – and of course the Internet, though one has to be careful in accepting everything in Wikipedia, as you never know if some historical essay was actually written by some spotty kid in Idaho!

I am almost obsessional about authenticity and cannot use anything I know or suspect to be wrong. Some of my writer friends are not so fussy, saying that it''s only entertainment, but I go to considerable lengths to try to get it right, even though I still slip up some times.

For instance in one of the earlier books, The Grim Reaper, I had the bright idea of having my serial killer, a priest, leave a relevant Biblical quotation at the scene of each murder, such as ''The Gospel of Mark, Chapter Ten, Verse Six.'' However, before I had finished the book, doubts began to gnaw at me and after consulting some theological colleagues, discovered that I could not do this, as the Bible in 1194 was continuous! Chapters were invented by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century and verses came in far later as a printing convenience.

Everywhere I write about, I have visited. It''s important, I think, to ''walk the territory'' which gives you a far more realistic impression of the scene than looking at photos or reading descriptions. I have even been up on Dartmoor in the snow to visit the place where the Devon tin miners used to hold their parliament.

I also find it very satisfying to tread the same stones as my characters did, all those centuries ago, like the gatehouse of Exeter Castle, built by William the Conqueror as early as 1068.

AmeriCymru: Crowner John could be called an "ancestor" of the modern pathologist, in writing about the beginnings of your own field in the 12th century, was it challenging to translate your much more vast knowledge of pathology to John''s limited resources, the information or education he would have had and the circumstances he would have had to work under?

Bernard: I went out of my way to avoid using my forensic pathology expertise in the Crowner John books, though of course, my more recent Dr Richard Pryor series based in South Wales in the 1950''s depends entirely upon it. But writing all those Crowner John stories was really a form of escapism for me, and it would have been a ''busman''s holiday'' if they contained any significant pathology – as well as being a total anachronism!

I confine the post-mortem examinations of John and Gwyn to crudely testing rigor mortis to guess how long someone had been dead – they probably did as well in 1194 as we do now, as it''s a pretty useless test! As for wounds, both John and Gwyn consider themselves experts after a lifetime on the battlefield, but they go little farther than sticking a finger into a stab wound to see how deep it was!

AmeriCymru: You have also written seven novels under the pseudonym "Bernard Picton". Can you tell us a bit more about those?

Bernard: In former years in Britain, it was unethical for doctors to professionally advertise themselves in any way - even the first TV doctor used to sit with his back to the camera! When I started writing in 1960, I could not flaunt my forensic knowledge in my novels and scripts, so had to take a pseudonym. At the time I was living in an old pub near Cowbridge, which had been ''The General Picton'', so I took that as a pen-name. Later, Margaret Thatcher forced the professions to open up and there was then no reason not to use my real name.

After my first novel in 1962, I went on to write another six ''stand-alone'' detective stories, all with a forensic flavour, one of them a ''link book'' to go with a major BBC forensic series called The Expert. I wrote the plots and acted as technical adviser for it, which I have done for several such programs – not that the producers took much notice of what I advised, if it didn''t suit their preconceptions!

These early books used forensic ''hooks'' on which to hang the plot and were sited in a variety of locations, from Cardiff to Newcastle, from Cardigan to Leningrad – the last one based on a trip I made to the Moscow State Forensic Institute in 1965.

AmeriCymru: Lion Rampant tells the story of a Welsh princess, Nest aka ''Helen of Wales'', and Lord Owain ap Cadwgan, Prince of Powys. Care to tell our readers a little about the book and how Nest came by that pseudonym?

Bernard: After the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066, England was rapidly conquered, but it took another 200 years for Wales to be completely subjugated, when Prince Llewelyn was killed in 1282 by Edward Ist – from whom, unfortunately, I am descended.

But in the flat lands of the south and west, the Normans swept in early and in 1093, Rhys ap Tewdwr, King of Deheubarth was slain by the conqueror of Brecon. His beautiful young daughter Princess Nest was taken prisoner and made a ward of King Henry 1st, who made her one of his many mistresses and by whom she had a child. Then he married her off to Gerald de Windsor, castellan of Pembroke Castle, by whom she had five children, starting a Fitzgerald dynasty that included a Bishop of St David''s and Maurice, a conqueror of Ireland, from whom John Fitzgerald Kennedy could trace his ancestry. Maurice took his father''s flag to Ireland, where it was called St Patrick''s Cross and is now part of the Union Jack.

One of Nest''s grandsons was the famous cleric and writer, Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald the Welshman) from whose pen we have such a great knowledge of Wales in medieval times – and her nephew was ''The Lord Rhys'', who held the first national eisteddfod in Cardigan Castle in 1176..

At Christmas 1109, Nest was abducted from Cilgerran Castle, high on a crag above the Teifi, which belonged to her husband. The hot-blooded rescuer was her second-cousin, Owain ap Cadwgan, Prince of Powys, who having heard of her beauty, broke into the castle with a small band of men and galloped away with Nest and her children, after setting fire to the keep. Gerald escaped ignominiously through the latrine shaft – and again Nest gave birth to a child, this time Owain''s.!

This started a full-scale war and for this, Nest was later known as the ''Helen of Wales'' after the classical lady of Troy whose beauty was supposed to launched a thousand ships. Years later, Gerald killed Owain in revenge and Nest went on to have more chilldren by another two Norman knights – quite a fertile lady!

I mentioned my other Welsh historical novel earlier, Madoc, Prince of America.This well-known legend of the prince of Gwynedd who was alleged to have reached Mobile, Alabama in 1170 and gave rise to the ''Welsh Indians'' always intrigued me. I wrote yet another novel about it, using all the available ''evidence''. It has now become a bit of an embarrassment to me, as some years ago I became President of the Madoc Research Association – actually a small group of folk who met monthly in a pub in Maesteg to drink beer and gossip about Welsh history.

Though the legend has been around since Tudor times, being originally plugged by them politically in order to contest the prior claims of the Spanish to parts of North America, it was brought to modern public attention by a book published in 1966 by Sunday Times editor Richard Deacon. He produced a great deal of convincing new evidence to support the story, but recent research has shown that he was a pathological liar who fabricated most of his supporting evidence.

I no longer believe in the story, other than accepting that there was a tradition in medieval Wales of a mariner who ventured out far into the Western Ocean - a far cry from a Welsh prince ( of whom there is no trace in any historical records) reaching the Gulf of Mexico and then fighting his way up to the Ohio River and then the Missouri to found the Mandan tribe.

As a legend, it''s fine, but so much nonsense has been added to the story that it now lies beyond any credibility. For a balanced view of the legend, read Professor Gwyn Alf William''s 1979 paperback called Madoc.

AmeriCymru: The third book in your Dr. Richard Pryor series, Grounds for Appeal came out last December.. The Dr. Richard Pryor novels are set in the Wye Valley in Wales and take place during the 1950s, how much of your own life and experiences went in to these stories?

Bernard: These books have had a long incubation period, as in the early ''nineties, I wrote a proposition for a television series about a Welsh forensic pathologist who went into private consultant practice. This was taken up by a Cardiff TV production company and we developed story-lines and sample scripts. However, when we hawked it up to London to the large network companies, they were not interested, a common phenomenon with anything Welsh taken to London!

As it was not financially viable without network contracts, it was abandoned, but a few years ago, wanting a change from the twelfth century, I altered the names and locations and turned it into a book, ''Where Death Delights''. (This is a translation of part of an ancient Latin aphorism that is displayed in the entry hall of the New York Medical Examiners Office)

I wanted to get away from the current beaurocracy of the British ''nanny state'', with all its stuffy restrictions about Health and Safety, Human Rights, Race Relations, Data Protection and write about the days when I started pathology in 1955, when detectives in long raincoats and trilby hats could stand gossiping in the autopsy room with a cigarette and a mug of tea!

It was sheer nostalgia, writing about those post-war days when life was still austere, but freer from endless controls and restrictions.

I invented Dr Richard Pryor, a former Army pathologist who after service in the Far East, had stayed on in Singapore until he got a golden handshake and came home to Wales. His old aunt had left him her house in the Wye Valley where together with a disillusioned government forensic scientist, he sets up a laboratory and takes on a variety of cases from South Wales and the West of England. In addition, I run a mild romance through it, as Dr Pryor not only has this glamorous scientist at his elbow, but also a demure secretary, a pretty laboratory technician and a visiting anthropologist who looks like Sophia Loren!

Like the first Crowner John, I meant it to be a ''one-off'', but it proved very popular and I was asked for another two, which have recently been published, called According to the Evidence and Grounds for Appeal. The cases are naturally fictional, but have strands of reality running through them taken from my forty-five years in the job and there is an element of both nostalgia and autobiography in them. I have to think hard to make the techniques consistent with half a century ago, but at least they are a bit more complex than Crowner John''s primitive methods.

AmeriCymru: A lifetime of experience in medicine generally and forensic pathology in particular would seem to give you a "head start" as a mystery writer, has that freed you in any way to concentrate more on plot and character than might a writer less knowledgeable? Has your real-life experience been plot-inspiring for you or have you found real life forensics experience useful in crafting fiction and have you based incidents in your fiction on real-life cases?

Bernard: As mentioned earlier, the Crowner John books were in no way related to my professional life, quite the reverse. But of course, the many other crime books, plays and a few documentaries depended heavily on my forensic knowledge, though I never lift real cases into my fiction writing. However, parts of old cases, made unidentifiable, certainly get grafted into the stories, especially in the Dr Pryor books, but in a fragmented way, picking bits from different cases so that overall, they are unrecognisable. For instance, in one Dr Pryor book, my murder was concealed by letting a tractor wheel fall on to the victim''s neck – this was an echo of a suicide method I saw many years ago.

One problem about being a forensic pathologist is that it makes it hard for me to enjoy other crime novels where the forensic aspects are so badly portrayed – and in the case of the endless ''forensic'' television programs, impossible for me to watch, as they raise my blood pressure to dangerous levels! The greatest offender is ''time of death'' where the ludicrously-accurate claims of the author''s pathologist are exasperating. I edit the only textbook devoted solely to estimating the time of death – it has 270 pages, costs up to £100 and basically says that it can''t be done except within a very wide margin of error!

AmeriCymru: You''re also a founding member of a group known as The Medieval Murderers which has, among other things, produced seven novels, can you tell us what that is and how it came about?

Bernard: Other than the ''big name'' authors, most crime-writers are in the ''mid-list'', meaning that though they are not Dan Brown or John Grisham, neither are they complete dumbos whose books soon end up in the charity shops. However, this usually means that the publishers will spend little or no money promoting our books, so about ten years ago, a few of us historical mystery writers decided to form a self-promotion group called The Medieval Murderers, to go around libraries, bookshops, clubs and literary events giving informal talks about our work, either in a full group or as ones and twos. The members were Michael Jecks, Susannah Gregory, Philip Gooden, Ian Morson and myself, later joined by C J Sansom and Karen Maitland. We even had T-shirts made with a bloody dagger on the front!

Then a year or so later, we decided to write a book between us, which was not just a collection of short stories, but a ''chain book'', where each member wrote a ''novella'' of about 20,000 words which carried forward a theme set out in a Prologue and then tied up in an Epilogue. Once again, this was intended to be a ''one-off'' but The Tainted Relic was so successful that we have done one a year since then, with the eighth out soon and two more in the pipeline.

The writing method was unusual, being organised entirely by Email, as we all live far apart – Ian Morson was in Cyprus for most of the time. In fact, he has made a collection of all the messages, which he claims is longer than one of the actual books!

We began by deciding on a theme – the first was about a chip of the True Cross cursed when it was stolen in Jerusalem during the First Crusade, which killed anyone taking it from its container. Then we each wrote a story about it, using the period and characters from our own series, the idea being to publicise these other books. As the oldest (historically and personally!) I wrote the first chapter, using Crowner John to deal with the relic arriving in Devon. Then I had to leave it somewhere at the end of my story where Ian Morson, next in line in the 13th century, could pick it up – and so on up the line, until the end where I brought the saga into modern times in an Epilogue.

None of us knew what the others were writing, all that mattered was that the object was handed on smoothly between us. Later books used a sword, an abbey, a book of Celtic prophesies and the alleged bones of King Arthur as themes for the stories.

AmeriCymru: Do you have a particularly favorite character of your own that you especially like or enjoyed writing? A particular book that you enjoyed writing or are most proud of having produced?

Bernard: I suppose Crowner John himself is my favourite, he was physically modelled on a well-known local barrister that I worked with, tall, dark and saturnine. I made him somewhat unimaginative and not endowed with a great sense of humour, but honest and faithful to his friends and his king. Every sleuth needs his Dr Watson, so I gave him Gwyn, a big, amiable Cornishman, together with a diametrically-opposite character in Thomas de Peyne, a little runt of a priest with a slight hunchback and a limp. Unfrocked for an alleged indecent assault, he is pitifully thin and poorly dressed and I have had literally scores of letters, Emails and personal comments from ladies who seem keen to mother him!

As I''ve said before, Lion Rampant is still my favourite book, perhaps because it was my ''first-born'' historical novel, but from sheer nostalgic pleasure, I think my Malayan novel Dead in the Dog, which comes out this March, is high on the list of my favourites.

I also like the post-apocalyptic book I wrote in 2003, called Brennan. I wanted a complete change from the Middle Ages and decided to write a parody of the historic Arthur story, by describing the leadership of a senior Army officer from a South Wales barracks, who is left to collect and protect the few survivors of a viral plague that kills almost all the world''s population.

It had good reviews, being compared with Stephen King''s The Stand.

AmeriCymru: Do you read fiction for pleasure and, if so, what writers are you reading?

Bernard: I am an obsessive reader, can''t sit down without a book, even in the toilet. I''ll read anything, even the phone book if I''m desperate. For many years I was a reviewer for the crime website Tangled Web, so regularly got boxes of books through the mail with no control over the titles. Then I was one of the Crime Writers Association judges for the Silver Dagger Awards for non-fiction crime - and the local public library sees me about twice a month for a re-load, so I''ve had a heavy literary diet for most of my life.

Hard to say who my favourite authors are, it depends on how I feel – Lawrence Block, Ed McBain, Michael Pearce, Leslie Thomas, Alan Firth, John Le Carre, Len Deighton, Somerset Maugham – the list is almost endless. I love spy books and some SF, as long as it''s not the current fad for gold-brassiered princesses from Planet Zog!

AmeriCymru: What''s next for Bernard Knight?

Bernard: I''m pushing eighty-one now and swore that the fourteenth Crowner John would be my last, but clamour from fans made me squeeze out another final one. I have another two Medieval Murderers projects ahead, but they are relatively short. I don''t fancy sitting down to hammer out books of well over a hundred -thousand words any more, but I''d like to do some short stories. Not much of a market for them these days, but maybe Kindle might be the way forward. A couple of years ago, I wrote a short story by invitation for a ''Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes'', called The Birdman of Tonypandy, about a pub landlord in the Rhondda who murders his wife. The editor put it last in the book, as he said that nothing could follow it!

I''ve also a yen to write something about the adventures of a Cardiff tramp steamer in the 1930''s, as I was born in Cardiff''s Grangetown and both my father and grandfather ''worked down the Docks''. I used to get rides during the war on ships between the lock gates and the berths which gave me a life-long affection for merchant ships.

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

Bernard: I know the US pretty well, having been there many times for medico-legal congresses, giving evidence in courts and visiting my many forensic friends, such as Dr Tom Noguchi, the colourful former coroner of LA . It''s a fantastic country, but I couldn''t live anywhere else but Wales, which is as much a part of me as my feet. To stand in the evening on a Pembrokeshire cliff or walk the lonely moors near the Teifi Pools is both peaceful and exhilarating. Everywhere you look, there is history, my history, your history. So all I can recommend is for readers to come back to Wales, for as long a time that you can manage.

Interview by Ceri Shaw ...Home,,,Email



Works by Bernard Knight on Amazon

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An Interview With Lesley Coburn


By Ceri Shaw, 2015-05-14

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As a follow up to our recent announcement that Lesley Coburn will be contributing a story to Issue 2 of eto we are pleased today to present an interview with the author.

Lesley Coburn is a writer from the Rhondda in south Wales and ''Filling Space'' was originally self published in 2006.

Lesley Coburn is also the daughter of one of Wales most outstanding 20th century writers - Ron Berry

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AmeriCymru: Hi Lesley and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru. How long have you been writing? Did your fathers example influence you in any way?

Lesley: Hi, Ceri, I try to imagine you. For being interviewed by a machine disconcerts. I remind myself that of cyberspace was created by real people, and is used only by real people. I hope! Congratulations on your initiative to publish Welsh/American writers, and thanks for your interest in Filling Space. Phil was one of the first readers to give me any response!

I''ve been writing many years. I began with poetry, then stories and longer poems, and years of academic writing. The latter I developed an aversion to. Now I write only what interests me. Ron''s writing was a fact of our childhoods. We didn''t think about it. Of five children, only one sister and myself write. After he gave me the unedited version of his autobiography to read, I said, ''this could change lives, Ron.'' He just said, ''you''re biased, girl.'' Of course, we covertly read his books, Miller, Lawrence, Faukner etc. Ron rated Gwyn Thomas. I never met him but Ron was in correspondence for a while.

AmeriCymru: What were/are the upsides and downsides of being Ron''s daughter?

Lesley: Ron''s first published book was kept under the counter in Treherbert Library. Swear words scared the staff. So I suppose I never was going to censor myself. Aside from all the subtle influences, the over-riding maxim that I keep in mind was his advice to writers, ''say it true, but say it new.''. There is no downside to being the daughter of Ron Berry. As a family, we have been working on his manuscripts since he died. It is all archived in Swansea University now. One day we''ll publish the unedited version of History Is What You Live. There are no downsides because I have no ambition, and no-one , until now, has been interseted anyway! Ron''s despair at being ignored for most of his life was a real lesson. If people don''t ''get'' your work, that''s it. I realised my stuff was being sent back unread, although early long poems and short stories were published in small press collections. I stopped submitting when I started writing Filling Space.

Americymru: Did his relationship with Jim Lewis and Robert Thomas inspire their creativity?

Lesley: I call Ron, Jim and Bob, the'' band of brothers''. They spent their youths reading, revolting, wandering and wenching. Whar surprises is the huge talents of these three people from a small area of Rhondda. Alun Richards always told the story of his visits from Pontypridd to find this trio of ''outsiders''. Ron and Alun met regularly in Ron''s last years.

AmeriCymru: You are contributing a story to Issue Two of eto - ''Filling Space''. Care to introduce it for our readers?

Lesley: How to introduce Filling Space? Anything I say will be good for now, But maybe not for tomorrow, And so little a part of what I was doing while writing it. I was trying to address some questions : how to give a sense of openess, field, subjectivity, flow? how to clarify without simplification? how to illuminate both the sharp pains/pleasures of consciousness, and the mysterious intuitions that occasionally seep through? And, of course, it''s about writing. The experiencing woman and the writing woman are a kind of ploy to give the writer a bit of detatchement. I enjoyed writing it and I still like reading it.

AmeriCymru: What are you reading? Any recommendations?

Lesley: I couldn''t recommend any specific reading; anything with an existentialist feel; and to anyone who needs to remember how good life is really, go to Whitman. Keep him with you.

AmeriCymru: What''s next for Lesley Coburn? What are you working on at the moment?

Lesley: I''m working on a long piece. It''s mostly sloshing around in my head, but I''ve made a start. The story of a collector of stories. First person present narrative of a young woman who returns to the valley. People are attracted to her and tell her tales of transformation. She writes their lives and all is change. No-one knows she is writing. she doesn''t need to tell. Her words add what she is to them. It''s what we do, isn''t it? I can''t stop thinking about it. All I need is time, place, a life of my own.

AmeriCymru: Any final message for our readers?

Lesley: I have no message for your readers other than to quote Whitman, ''and why should I not speak to you''.

Hope this is of some interest. All the best, Lesley.


David Thorpe has twin careers in writing and environmentalism. He is a novelist, non-fiction author, journalist, scriptwriter and comics writer, and the winner of a HarperCollins contest to find a major new children’s writer with his novel for young adults, Hybrids (‘A stunningly clever novel’– The Times). He has written and been the commissioning editor of many comics and graphic novels for publishers such as Marvel, HarperCollins, Titan Books and Macdonald-Futura. He is a co-founder of the London Screenwriters Workshop and co-author of the Doc Chaos comics series and TV scripts. Find out more on www.davidthorpe.info. AmeriCymru spoke to David about his latest novel 'Stormteller'.

 


AmeriCymru: Care to describe your novel Stormteller for our readers?

David:  Sure. Stormteller is a fantasy adventure set 15 years into the future about two 15-year-old teenage boys and a girl the same age who live on the mid-Wales coast just north of Aberystwyth. It's a kind of romance and tragedy, it uses two Welsh myths or legends that are set in the location, and is deeply embedded in the local landscape, which I know very well, having lived there for nearly 20 years.

There are some detailed descriptions of the landscape, both the uplands and the coast itself, which come from my extensive walks and explorations. I love that area. I loved writing about a place I knew really well. It was the first time I had done this and was quite a revelation.

Although it's aimed primarily at young adults, many adults have read it and thoroughly enjoyed it, making it what the trade terms a 'crossover' novel in the same way that the Harry Potter stories were.

The two boys, Tomos and Bryn, are both in love with the girl, Eira. But unfortunately for Tomos she chooses Bryn. The young men are really contrasting characters although they look very similar.

Tomos' background is rich, privileged, having every modern device he could want in his home. His father is a successful professor in business studies.

Bryn was brought up in an eco-village, with a great appreciation of the natural environment and the need to not use fossil fuels. His mother taught him all about growing vegetables, keeping animals, recognising all the wild plants and how to survive by foraging.

Tomos' home is directly on the coast, in Borth, and is destroyed near the start of the novel by a storm surge, that gets attributed to climate change. (In my research I found that Borth was the most vulnerable part of coastal Wales to this kind of thing. It's since seen the benefit of some storm surge protection efforts, but I'm a bit sceptical about how effective they will be in the long term.)

In the story, these storms affect the whole coast of Britain, bringing power stations off-line and disrupting supply chains for shops. Very quickly the shops run out of food and normal law and order break down.

Hungry and in search of food, Tomos goes to Bryn's eco-village and joins the community, but not for long. The breakdown in law and order even reaches them, and he is forced to rely on Bryn's survival skills when they are chased over the Welsh mountains by marauders who wish to eliminate them as witnesses to murder. But things don't go exactly as hoped...

AmeriCymru: What role does Celtic myth play in the book?

David:  There are two Welsh legends associated with the area: Cantre'r Gwaelod describes the drowning of Cardigan Bay by the drunken antics of a jealous gatekeeper who was in love with a girl that the local Prince married instead. I took this as an analog for rising sea levels due to climate change.

The second story is the origin of Wales' most famous bard and shamanic figure, Taliesin, who, as a baby, is discovered by the same Prince, having floated down the river Dyfi.

So my whole narrative about Bryn and Tomos and Eira is bracketed and interspersed with scenes starring the characters in these two myths. They all get the chance, every few hundred years, to have people in real life relive their dramas in the hope they can benefit from a different ending.

So the drunken gatekeeper wants to get the girl, and Ceridwen, who made the potion that turned the servant boy Gwion into Taliesin by accident, wants her disabled son, for whom the potion was originally intended, to receive the benefit of it. And so does the son (whose name is Afagddu), who is totally jealous of Gwion.

You can hopefully see how the triangular relationship between Bryn and Tomos and Eira is kind of reflected in the rivalry between the legendary characters.

In this respect it's a bit like Alan Garner's The Owl Service, which uses the Mabinogion story of Blodeuwedd and is also set nearby, around Devil's Bridge east of Aberystwyth. That's a great novel that I loved as a child. When I moved to the area I re-read it. I love the way it is so tersely written.

I am endlessly grateful that I met my lovely and talented wife Helen Adam during the research for the myths because she was writing a musical for children about Taliesin. I'm attaching a picture of her playing at a launch event for Stormteller.

AmeriCymru: Care to tell us a little about your other fiction titles -  'Hybrids', 'Doc Chaos'?

David:  Doc Chaos came first. Initially scripts for a commissioned TV series, it evolved into a series of comic books and a novella. The novella purports to be the autobiography of this Dr. Frankenstein-like monstrous scientist who is the archetype of nuclear power. It's a romp, a crazy satire and a mad love story.

The novella was originally published by Hooligan Press but a new edition has recently come out as an e-book only, together with a new short story set 100 years or so in the future when climate change and nuclear power have virtually wiped out everyone. Stylistically, think William Burroughs meets comics writer Grant Morrison in his Invisibles stage.

Hybrids was a novel that won a national competition by HarperCollins 'to find the next JK Rowling'. Or that is how it was billed. Clearly I do not have her hair. It's about teenagers merging with frequently-used technology due to a virus for which there is no known cure.

Johnny Online is turning into a computer and Kestrella's hand is a mobile phone. Hybrids have to be registered. If they're not, they become outlaws to be hunted by the Gene Police and taken to the sinister Centre for Genetic Rehabilitation. It aimed exactly at the Hunger Games generation, but it came out first.

Currently there is interest in turning it into another television series.


..

AmeriCymru: In addition to your works of fiction you have also written on Energy Management. Can you tell us more about this work?

David:  Not only that, but books on solar technology, living sustainably on the land, and upgrading your house to save energy and carbon emissions. I've always had this twin career and passion for environmentalism.

I guess it started when, as an 11 year old, I won a national environmental essay-writing competition by lamenting how the fields next to my local playground were being covered with housing sprawl. Nowadays I'm also an environmental journalist and non-fiction book writer.

So Stormteller represents an attempt to combine my interests in environmentalism with my interest in writing Speculative Fiction for young people.

Since Stormteller appeared, it has been labelled by some critics as 'cli-fi', which stands for climate change fiction, and is apparently a hot new genre. That's fine by me. I've been invited to be on a panel at this year's Hay Festival discussing cli-fi.

AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about your work in the fields of carbon-free energy and sustainable development?

David: My most recent non-fiction book, published at the beginning of this year, is called The One Planet Life . It is about living sustainably in the countryside: about zero carbon buildings, land management, growing your own food and keeping animals, low carbon transport, and renewable energy.

It is based on a unique and pioneering Welsh planning law which allows people to build homes on agricultural land provided that they fulfil certain criteria about feeding themselves, improving biodiversity and reducing their ecological footprint.

It's a world-beating policy and to write the book I went and interviewed a lot of people who are doing this. The book has an introduction by the former Welsh Environment Minister, Jane Davidson. Again, we are talking together at this year's Hay Festival about this.

As a result of this work I am a patron of The One Planet Council .

Train stuck near Towyn in the winter of 2013/14 (Photo by Mark Kendell)

AmeriCymru: Where can one go to purchase Stormteller online?

David: It's available both as an e-book and in print from either Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk or the publisher, Cambria Books .

AmeriCymru: What's next for David Thorpe?

David:  I'm hard at work on a new novel, which I'm hoping will be the ultimate time travel story. It's set around the end of this century and in Nottingham, the city where I grew up. It's called The Moebius Trip.

I'm also researching a sequel to The One Planet Life, about living sustainably in the city. The crucial thing about this is measuring whether what is being done is actually sustainable.

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

David:  Stormteller tries to give a message of hope. Just as it's implied that the characters in the Welsh myths trying to change the endings of their stories have the possibility of doing so, I wanted to give readers, especially young readers, the feeling that climate change and its worst effects are not necessarily inevitable. I want to give them hope that it's possible to do something about it.

I'd hate to be young now with the feeling that the older generations have left me this terrible legacy of catastrophic devastation that may well occur during this century in many parts of the world as a result of their burning too many fossil fuels. I would be extremely angry and depressed.

Emotionally it's very difficult to deal with these feelings. Many people try to pretend it's not happening, they deny or ignore these feelings. They don't talk about them. They carry on living their lives because of course that's what we all really want to do. We resent it when people tell us that we should save energy, not drive so much, not fly everywhere, etc.

But people must be brave and need to realise that there are real benefits to living sustainably. Your quality of life can be so much better, and so may everyone's, not just the few. We can save money. We can stop species being made extinct. It's all very possible. You just need to wake up and join with others who are already doing it.

I believe that fiction provides a way to talk about these things without turning people off, without being preachy. I hope that Stormteller does this.


David Thorpe reading from 'Stormteller' at the book launch.




"A man with such a dramatic martyrdom and intense commitment which led to that martyrdom is worthy of becoming a legend,” says Dr. Samuel Hugh Moffett about Robert Jermain Thomas, missionary to China and Korea [1839-1866]. Thomas has become legendary in both North and South Korea: in the North he is considered enemy of empire—one who attempted to bring in American imperialism—to many in the South he is considered the first martyred Protestant missionary to Korea.

BUY 'CHOSEN FOR CHOSON' HERE


AmeriCymru: Hi Stella and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. What inspired you to write about Robert Jermain Thomas? Care to introduce him for our readers?

Stella: Sometimes we can live so close to great history and yet not see or appreciate the many hidden places or individuals that could enrich our lives.

So it was when I first learned of Robert Jermain Thomas. I had previously lived a few miles down the road from Llanover, Monmouthshire, the home of the missionary, Robert Jermain Thomas and yet it was not until I moved thousands of miles from my homeland, teaching at Gordon College, Massachusetts, that I first learned of the significance of this man to the Korean peninsula.

Little was known of him in Wales, but he is a household name for many in Korea. Chosen for Choson, is the first book about Robert Jermain Thomas written in English. His family were Welsh speaking, and lived next door to the famous Lady Llanover who encouraged everything Welsh. Currently, Chosen for Choson is available in English and Chinese and next year it will be available in Korean. Wouldn’t it be lovely if someone could translate this into Welsh!

The one that inspired me most must be Dr.Samuel Hugh Moffett whom I met at Princeton Seminary, who, by the way, celebrates in 99th birthday this year. Sam told me that a man like Thomas was “worthy of growing into a legend” because he had such a “dramatic” and “intense” commitment to spread the Gospel of Christ which eventually led to his martyrdom in Korea. Sam’s father, Samuel Austin Moffett, had served in Korea from 1890, through Pyongyang’s Revival in 1907, and stayed during the Japanese annexation in 1910 until he was forced to leave in 1935.

AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about the General Sherman Incident in which Robert Thomas became entangled?

Stella: Mystery surrounded the General Sherman, the boat on which Thomas traveled on his second missionary journey into Korea. Thomas even refused to tell his friend its name. Some believe it was a spy ship; others, a merchant ship, or even a raider of tombs. As they traveled up the coast, they received many official warnings to turn back. However, they adamantly and arrogantly continued their course, intruding a country which was hostile to the outside world.

It is not surprising then, that on September 3, 1866, the command to destroy The Sherman was issued. Despite the inequality between the strength of The Sherman and the local boats, the Koreans were victorious. They floated several burning boats (turtle boats or scows) loaded with brush sprinkled with sulfur toward the schooner, setting it into flame. The captain and crew plunged into the sea and waiting for them on the shore were their executioners. Sadly, there were no survivors.

It was exciting to hear Sam tell me that he knew of eye witnesses of the account. He says, ‘My father came to Pyongyang less than 24 years after the General Sherman disaster. One of his helpers, reverend Hansok-jin, met eye witnesses of the attack on the Sherman. They had seen a white man in the smoke on the burning deck, shouting “Jesus” and throwing books to the people lining the shore. Some of the crowd were brave enough to take the books, one pasting the bible on the walls of his home. Later, this home became a thriving church.

AmeriCymru: How is Thomas remembered in Korea today?

Stella: For thousands of Korean Christians, Thomas is remembered as one who brought Christianity to Korea. He is greatly revered. Recently a chapel built on the grounds of Wales Evangical School of Theology, Bridgend, has been named after him. At Sarang Church in Korea, you will see a Welsh church built in the center of their buildings. Koreans In their hundreds visit the historical places in Wales attached to the memory of Thomas. Recently I was able to help John Gower on S4C television with details of the journey of Thomas. The story of Thomas continues to intrigue us.

AmeriCymru: You currently live in Wales but you lived for many years in Canada and then Massachusetts. Care to tell us a little about your time in Canada and the US?

Stella: My husband and I left Wales with three children and lived in Nova Scotia for several years; later we moved to Masachusetts. My husband was a doctor in Yarmouth, NS, and in Hamilton and Essex, MA. I taught at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. All our children studied in the USA.

AmeriCymru: What's next for Stella Price?

Stella: My biographies, Chosen for Choson and God’s Collaborator have kept me busy for a while. I am currently writing a novel based on a story line that begins in Nova Scotia and ends in post WWII London, UK with many cross-cultural dilemmas. It’s going to take a while, however. Researching this era is fascinating.

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

Stella: My book, “Chosen for Choson,” introduces you to the lives of Robert Jermain Thomas and Caroline Godfrey, two young people who were adventurous and brave. Their lives ended tragically, yet their story still reverberates throughout Wales, China, and Korea. My second book, “God’s Collaborator,” tells the story of a man who was imprisoned in North Korea, yet lives to tell the story, and whose life did not end tragically, but who has now founded a university in Pyongyang, North Korea, on the very site where the Memorial Church, dedicated to the life of Thomas, was destroyed. Stories really never end. They simply continue throughout the generations. I hope you enjoy these books.



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AmeriCymru: How would you describe your new book 'The Timeless Cavern'?

John: It is a historical, fantasy, time travel treat. A cave in Mid Wales where no time passes is the base for Marged Evans and her friends. She works out how to re-calibrate the time stones so that she can help people out who have been trapped in the cave, some of them for hundreds of years.

The idea is to get young people and others interested in historical events, local, national and international via fun, time travel, fantasy.

AmeriCymru: Do you plan a sequel and if so when can we expect publication?

John: The Timeless Cavern series will be on going. The second book Marged Evans and the Pebbles of MORE time is finished and will be out by the middle of this year. The third book is a third complete and should be finished by the end of the year. The fourth and fifth books are in the planning stages.

AmeriCymru: You currently live in Minnesota but you are from Mid Wales originally. Care to tell us a little about your Welsh background?

John: I was raised on a hill farm in Mid Wales and lived there until 1976 when I came to the US and attended University. While in Wales I was active in Young Farmers and Wildlife organisations.

AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about your one man show “John Dingley and the Biggest Pack of Lies You Ever heard”?

John: It is a collection of stories most of which are based in actual happenings that showed up in my life over the years. Many of them will show up in another book which will also be published soon. (See below)

AmeriCymru: What's next for John Dingley?

John: Another book coming out called "A visit Home" a collection of short stories and a few poems. Also another book which is finished, however still needs work. A non fiction. "Hard Work in Paradise  When all our food and lives were organic"

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

John: Keep supporting the world of Welsh Writers. We all need your support. Read voraciously and have fun.



Click the image above or here for Amazon listings.


 


AmeriCymru: Hi Stephen and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. What was the first thing you wrote and what attracted you to crime fiction writing?

Stephen: My first thing attempt at writing seriously was a general fiction novel. And my second novel was a political thriller based in London and Wales in the pre-devolution era. Luckily neither ever generated any interest from agents or publishers.

AmeriCymru: We recently featured Brass In Pocket on the Welsh American Bookstore. What can you tell us about the book?

Stephen: The book is the first in a series of police procedural/crime/ mystery novels featuring Inspector Ian Drake of the Wales Police Service. It is set in north Wales and assumes that policing powers have been devolved to Cardiff and that the police forces of Wales have all been unified into one. The second Worse Than Dead and the third Against The Tide have also been published.

AmeriCymru: Care to introduce your character, Inspector Drake, to our readers?

Stephen: Ian Drake is a detective inspector in the police. He was born and brought up in north Wales [near Caernarfon]. He comes from a rural background – his father and grandfather both ran small holdings. He suffers from OCD, feels guilty about the time he spends away from his family and resents the demands on his time. His wife is a doctor and he has two daughters. Drake can be dour, rude and often a misery but he gets the job done.

AmeriCymru: Can you take a moment to tell us all about the first of your Inspector Drake novels, Brass in Pocket.

Stephen: Brass in Pocket is the first inspector Drake novel and is in the tradition of British detective writing. The book is written in the third person so there are multiple points of view the principal character is Ian Drake. He is a nuanced character, facing challenges in his personal and professional life from his OCD. After the murder of two police officers on an isolated mountain pass the killer starts sending Drake messages in the form of lyrics from famous rock songs. Drake has to face the challenges of a high-profile enquiry as well as the investigation touching his life personally.

AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about Inspector Marco?

Stephen: John Marco is from Aberdare. His father is from an Italian family and his mother is from Lucca, near Florence. He is single although he has a son from a past relationship. He has a rebellious streak but he has a sense of humour.

AmeriCymru: What can you tell us about Speechless the first Inspector Marco novel?

Stephen: Speechless was inspired by reading a report about human trafficking to South Wales. And also it is about how the open borders of Europe have attracted thousands of people from Poland and other countries to work in the cities of the United Kingdom. John Marco comes from an interesting background himself which is threaded throughout the plot. It is written in the first person and is more fast-paced and grittier than the Inspector Drake novels.

AmeriCymru: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Stephen: Keep on writing- join a group and get your work critiqued. And don’t be afraid of someone telling you how to improve. Perhaps consider going on a short course and above all read and read in your genre.

AmeriCymru: Who are your favorite crime writers?

Stephen: Ian Rankin and Val McDermid must be near the top of the list. As well as Harlan Coben, Raymond Chandler and Karin Slaughter. But there are so many great crime/mystery writers. And then of course the Scandi Noir authors too – Mankell, Nesbo.

AmeriCymru: Favorite TV crime series?

Stephen: This could be another long list. There’s a series on BBC at the moment called The Missing where the acting is exceptional and the script profoundly good. Hinterland from Wales was superb too – on Netflix in the US soon I understand. But then The Sopranos and The Killing must be high on my favourite list.

AmeriCymru: Where can our members and readers find details of your books?

Stephen: I have a website – www.stephenpuleston.co.uk and all the novels are available as e-books on Amazon.

AmeriCymru: What's next for Stephen Puleston? When can we expect your next book?

Stephen: The second Marco novel – A Good Killing has a target publication date of 8th May and the third Somebody Told Me of the 8th September. After that I hope to get an extended Drake short story finished before a full novel by the end of 2015 beginning of 2016.

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

Stephen: There are so few Welsh crime writers I hope that in the future crime writing from Wales - Dragon Noir maybe? - can be as successful as Tartan Noir is in Scotland.


Chris Keil''s long awaited and widely acclaimed third novel ''Flirting At The Funeral'' was launched at Waterstone''s in Carmarthen on September 25th. AmeriCymru spoke to Chris about the novel and his future plans. Read our review of Flirting At The Funeral. Chris''s new novel is published by Cillian Press and is available from amazon.com. Buy it here:- Flirting At The Funeral


Chris Keil

AmeriCymru: Hi Chris and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed by AmeriCymru. You are celebrating the publication of your third novel ''Flirting At The Funeral''. How has the book been received?

Chris: Really well. I’ve been very lucky in having a brilliant new publisher - Mark Brady of Cillian Press - a new star in the publishing universe! We’ve got events lined up in UK, Ireland and Portugal in the near future, and many more in the pipeline. Best of all has been the amazing response from readers - enthusiastic, emotionally sophisticated, alert to language - exactly the kind of readers I write for. Readers have responded to the narrative, to the interplay between characters, but also to the aspects of language that engage me as a writer - to tone, rhythm, cadence, to repetition, half-rhyme, musicality. I can’t ask for more
than that.

AmeriCymru: ''Flirting at The Funeral'' has been described as "...urbane, serious but also seriously entertaining writing." How difficult is it to be serious and seriously entertaining at one and the same time?

Chris: Many thanks to Jon Gower for those generous words! Not an easy question to answer. Flirting deals with serious themes, but hopefully not in a heavy-handed way. Life is scary,funny, sexy, sad - often all at the same time - and one of the functions of art is to try to capture some of that texture.

AmeriCymru: The book betrays a profound pessimism about the current political and economic condition of Europe. To what extent is this a major determining factor in the actions of its characters? Would you describe ''Flirting At The Funeral'' as a political novel?

Chris: OK. I don’t feel that Flirting is simply a political novel, although it’s certainly about politics, among other things. It’s been called a philosophical novel, and it’s a novel of ideas, I suppose, but ultimately it’s a novel about people, about human beings and their complex, tragi-comic interactions with each other and with the world. I’m not sure that the book ‘betrays a profound pessimism…’ If there’s a single emotional theme, it’s probably more like rage, but the emotional tone is not unified - it’s disaggregated across the range of characters in the book: certainly the terrorist Dave Leaper is filled with venom, but among the central characters Morgan is detached and a little cynical, Matty is… I’ll come back to Matty; and the young film-makers are busy trying to take themselves seriously while having a seriously good time. But of course the melancholy span of history across the last forty years hangs over the book, like the suspension bridge across the Tagus in Lisbon. “The people, united, will never be defeated…” Oh really?

AmeriCymru: Two characters meet each other after years living separate lives; in the interim, they''ve each enjoyed success but seem to have each come to a point in their lives in which they have to compromise as they get older - how did you develop them and the choices they make and do you think we all come to that point in our own lives and have to make those same choices?

Chris: I suspect that this never sounds quite plausible, but I really find that when the process of writing fiction is going well, the characters develop themselves. What happens to them, and what choices they make, derives from who they are, from their individual autonomies. With each of my books, I’ve probably spent as much time not writing, as writing. When I finally get down to starting the book, I’ve spent so much time thinking about the characters that they hit the page fully-formed, if not running. They’ve existed for a year or two in a fluid, inchoate and unwritten state before hardening into flesh and bone and personality. By that time they make their own choices, or fail to choose, or choose unwisely.

AmeriCymru: Is youthful idealism always destined to fade? Is life nothing more than a series of grudging compromises with mere survival as the ultimate goal?

Chris: No it isn’t! That’s really depressing! Of course, the book suggests that life has the capacity to destroy you - before it kills you, that is - but a person is always implicated in their own psychic destruction, at least to some extent. If your life ends up as ‘a series of grudging compromises’ (good phrase, by the way!) it’s because you weren’t quite brave enough, or passionate, or crazy enough, above all not clear-headed enough, to resist the compromises that fear or insecurity offer. Matty says: “People make choices, don’t they? I choose what happens to me. Or maybe I have no choice. I suppose it comes to the same thing in the end.” For me, those words inscribe her epitaph, metaphorically. Incidentally, it’s been very reinforcing for me as a writer to see the range of readers’ reactions to Matty - who is after all the central character of the book - from fascination, to loathing: intensely positive or intensely negative, but always intense.

AmeriCymru: There are conversations in this book in which it seems as though the characters are speaking to each other at right angles. One character responds to questions and statements about his wife''s illness with completely inapposite topics; what is this dialogue telling us about these characters and about this story?

Chris: There’s a couple of points I’d want to make about dialogue in Flirting. Firstly, it reflects the way I hear people speak, although obviously in a heightened, theatricalised mode - for me, the effect of naturalism is achieved by pretty much the opposite: exaggeration, over- emphasis, over-articulation. What I wanted to capture was the way that I hear people talk: at each other, across, over, down to each other; they hear things that haven’t been said, answer questions that weren’t being asked and ignore the ones that were. And beyond that of course, many of the characters in the book are alienated, isolated from each other and from themselves, trapped in their own speech-bubbles, so to speak.

AmeriCymru: What''s next for Chris Keil? Are you already working on another project or have one in mind?

Chris: Yes I do. The next book is going to be a re-imagining of the life of the Roman poet Ovid, transposed into modern times. It’s a story full of possibilities I think. Ovid was the most talented and successful poet of his generation, writing glittering erotic satires, mixing with the elites of Roman society; he was a super-star. And then, unwittingly, he did something to offend the Emperor - people think he must have been complicit in a scandal involving the Emperor’s family - and was banished, forced to leave Rome and live in exile and virtual imprisonment in Tomis, on the Black Sea, in what is now Romania but was then the very edge of the Empire and the known world. “Beyond here,” he wrote, ‘lies nothing.” He spent what was left of his life writing the Tristia - the Lamentations - poems of terrible grief, of obsessive longing for the past. I’m going to set it in the present, and the current working title is “Vodka, Depression and Temazepam.” Only kidding; it’s going to be very pacy - more or less an out-and-out thriller… but with added metaphysics.

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

Chris: Yes, I have two. Firstly, Portland is a brilliant city, full of beautiful and talented people, and I aim to be back there in 2013. Secondly - this is for everybody - as soon as you’ve finished reading this interview, find the Amazon button on the AmeriCymru site and buy a copy of Flirting at the Funeral! Do it now!



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