Friday, 9 December 2011

Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers, Mari Strachan. Review by Crystal Jeans

Mari Strachan’s second novel, Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers, is set in a quiet Welsh village just after the First World War. Davey has recently returned from the trenches. One morning his wife, Non, finds him crouched under the kitchen table holding an imaginary rifle in a waking dream. The same the next morning, and the next. Davey is not the husband Non married. He’s quiet, he doesn’t laugh anymore. He’s admitted that he was unfaithful while abroad and cannot be her husband as he once was. They sleep in the same bed, but separate. She wants her husband back.

Non also has to cope with a demanding, gossipy neighbour, an adopted son, Ossian, who does not speak and screams when touched, a dragon bitch mother-in-law from hell, and a heart condition that causes her to feel death is constantly at her shoulder. Did I mention she has a special gift which enables her to see people’s physical illnesses? That she’s a herb-gathering witch-healer and an ex-abortionist? She’s got a lot going on, has Non.

The story sees Non trying to find a way to help her husband recover his mind. She travels to London, visits pawn shops, clairvoyants, hospitals full of sick men. In doing so she inadvertently finds out some life changing truths about herself. These little revelations and the lead up to them are quite compelling, so much so that this book might have Mystery added on to the end of Family Drama/Historical Fiction/Romance/Supernatural.

Basically Non is on a journey. Half way through the story, she begins to express a tentative feminism. She grows a pair of (metaphorical) balls – they’re not very big ones, but they’ll do. This is the time of the suffragettes. Women are only allowed to vote once they reach the age of thirty. Any balls are good balls.

My main criticism of this novel is that sometimes the characters are just slightly two-dimensional. The baddies are pretty bad – the mother-in-law, Catherine, who is spectacularly foul in every scene, pervy Uncle Billy who likes to get young girls pregnant, and Teddy the traveller who’s just plain creepy. The nice characters – Davey, Non, nephew Gwydion, son Wil, neighbour Lizzie – are a little too wholesome for my tastes.

Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers is about doing the best you can for the ones you love. It’s about dealing with the disturbing things in life which are as yet unnamed – autism, shell-shock, statuary rape. Despite this, it’s a gentle read. Death, war and mental breakdown seen through chaste eyes. This is not my thing, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. My Nan will love it.

Crystal Jeans is an online and print contributor to New Welsh Review.

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Monday, 5 December 2011

Review of Lucy Caldwell's The Meeting Point, Dylan Thomas prizewinner

The winner of this year University of Wales Dylan Thomas prize, announced last month, is an old-fashioned book. This was my first impression of Lucy Caldwell’s The Meeting Point, which the novelty of it being my first novel on an e-reader (Sony) did nothing to dispel. The story of losing my e-book virginity is simple: it was an impulse buy for a journey; I also had to carry a heavy art book, and the device was borrowed. I am not a convert: I couldn’t get a handle on the novel’s length (it felt short) and I seemed to be turning pages too often. Also my initial excitement at the prospect of making electronic notes evaporated when I only managed to make squiggles on the page as though it were an expensive version of Etch-a-Sketch, rather than creating detailed observations ready to cut-and-paste into a review. So rather than replacing my main love, Sony will only be allowed on business trips, if he behaves himself.

There’s converts aplenty, though, in The Meeting Point, since its protagonist, Ruth, is the wife of a northern Irish evangelical Anglican vicar set on a mission to smuggle bibles and other weapons of mass conversion from Bahrain into Saudi Arabia. Troubled teenage Noor has been sent by her English mother to the island to stay with her born-again orthodox Muslim father, Dr al-Husayn. Noor, however, falls headlong under the influence of the golden Irish Christian couple who have moved for a few months into her ‘compound’, and despite the ways in which she, as a vulnerable minor, is exploited by Ruth, has become a born-again young woman by close of play. The (too numerous) bible quotations kick in by page 11 (on Sony Reader’s old lady large print setting), and we quickly realise that this is a novel about faith, especially when the setting shifts from rural Ulster to the Persian Gulf. But Caldwell confounds any readers’ assumptions that they may be in for a dose of Middle Eastern fundamentalism or critique of cultural mores. The Arab characters are either westernised (Ruth’s love interest Farid), rediscovering their faith (Dr al-Husayn) or ‘happy… and unembarrassed’ to be a second wife (Maryam).

Either Caldwell is a Christian herself (I noted Spitalfields Alpha course among the acknowledgements), or she has managed the feat of entering the mindset. Ruth opens the story with the revelation that her wedding was brought forward because she was pregnant. We start to wonder why she is complaining so much about the loss of a harvest wedding to an early spring one until we realise both parents feel a ‘quiet guilt… at not having waited until their wedding night… as they had ought to.’ Ruth’s reference to Bible readings, prayers and sermons to guide her behaviour displays an almost exotic mentality for liberal, secular readers. Having set her goals so high, she is very nearly hung for a sheep as she gets reckless once her prized virtue starts to slip.

The Epic of Gilgamesh and evidence associating the sacred island paradise or ‘Holy Dilmun’ with Bahrain as the source of the Garden of Eden story, greatly enriches The Meeting Point, widening its references beyond the notion of Ruth’s Christian fall from grace. The title itself is a reference to the confluence of rivers (including the Tigris and Euphrates) said to water the Garden. Deft use of imagery also unites the novel. Broad cultural symbolism surrounding stones is beautifully handled, as is the pencil-size roll of paper, variously used for love messages between strangers and to slip the gospel over the border. Once we get used to Ruth’s measured tones and bed in to Noor’s urgent voice and story, this is a fantastically structured page-turner with depths.

This is a version of Gwen Davies’ Western Mail Insider column published on Saturday 3 December 2011.

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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Review by Sophie Long of Michelle Paver's Dark Matter

Having never actually read a contemporary ghost story, I wondered whether people’s assertions that ‘books are scarier than films’ was in fact true. In a world where graphic, explicit scenes of violence in video games and films are commonplace, I thought perhaps it would be far more difficult for a book to elicit that same chill using only words.

I could not in fact, have been more wrong, although it would take me a while to discover it when reading Dark Matter. I found protagonist Jack’s neuroticism fairly irritating at the start. Other reviewers have supposed that his preoccupations with class and general tendency towards depression are important as the book moves on and becomes darker. In the beginning though, these traits are not particularly well explained, nor are they rooted in concrete relationships or events. In many ways, it seems as though Michelle Paver is merely trying to tick all of the ‘sad loner’ boxes – no family, no friends, dead end job, depressed....

As the narrative moves on from London into the North and eventually to Gruhuken, these niggling matters melt away as they do (much later) for Jack. Paver’s descriptions are just right, being only sentences here and there evoking shapes and colours as opposed to long-winded paragraphs. There is a definite monochrome palette running throughout the story, which makes phenomena such as the Northern Lights stand out, and the disappearance of the twilight is almost as unnerving for the reader as it is for Jack.

It is when the reader joins in his frequent swings between terror and rationality that Jack’s psychological profile comes into its own. Paver is able to make the slow, encroaching footsteps of the ghostly trapper echo in readers' minds as much as they do in Jack’s. The storyline of this ghostly presence is woven into the fabric of Jack’s everyday life: much as Jack does, the reader goes through periods of believing the ghost is real and then suddenly the real world will intrude in the form of Algie or Gus on the wireless, and for a time it appears that everything is alright.

By the end of the novel, with footsteps pounding around the hut, Jack’s terrified realisation that the ghost is able to enter the hut is as chilling for the reader as it must be for Jack. Another reviewer mentioned that at this point she became afraid to look out of the windows of her own house, and this particular feeling of jumpy paranoia also afflicted me as I read on to the end.

Given that the prickly, unsettled feeling this book gave me lingered for an entire weekend, I must say that this book is by far scarier than any film. I was not just a voyeur, instead I was forced into feeling and experiencing everything as Jack does, as my mind created a picture of Paver’s perpetually dark Arctic winter.

Perhaps I’m just a little bit wimpish, but I dare you to try it for yourself.

Sophie Long is an online contributor and until recently was an intern at New Welsh Review.

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Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Writing your way out – an interview with Matthew Francis by Paul Cooper

Matthew Francis’ long poem 'Things that Make the Heart Beat Faster' is in the winter issue of New Welsh Review, out now. The sequence is inspired by the writing of Shei Shōnagon, the medieval Japanese courtesan and recorder of The Pillow Book. Things that Make the Heart Beat Faster is the working title of Matthew’s next poetry collection.

Singing a Man to Death, your first collection of short stories, will be published by Cinnamon in April. It is an impressively eclectic collection that weaves together music, myth and history, with dozens of different voices and characters. How do you think a collection that incorporates an assassin in the Fatimid Caliphate, a first-millennium Pope, as well as a journalist floundering to encapsulate the experience of 1970s punk manages to feel so cohesive? Was this your intention?

The stories were written over a long period, so I’m glad you do find them cohesive. Over the last few years, I have become increasingly aware of recurring themes and patterns in my work; they developed without any conscious effort on my part, but it’s been intriguing watching their appearance. With regard to the variety of setting and subject, I have always found it difficult to write the kind of realistic, semi-autobiographical fiction that is a staple for many writers – when I do, I usually find myself getting very self-conscious. I am strongly drawn to historical, or even mythical, settings because I enjoy being taken away from the preoccupations of my everyday life. Of course, good writing always arises from your own concerns, but I hope by transposing them in place or time (or both) I gain some perspective on them that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Having said that, I must admit that some of the stories in the volume are more directly autobiographical. In the title story, the urban folktale of a song that kills the listener was such a far-fetched fantasy theme that it somehow freed me to include some quite personal reminiscences of my undergraduate days. ‘The Lovers’ has fantastic elements, but is set in a school very like the one I went to. ‘The Beehive’ and ‘Sleevenotes’ are about characters very different from me, but incorporate my memories of, respectively, office life and being a somewhat sceptical follower of punk rock in the 1970s.

Isidore Ducasse famously described the inherent beauty of juxtapositions such as ‘a chance encounter between an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table’. I felt that you exhibit a talent in your writing for creating surprising and satisfying contrasts between a story or poem’s elements. For instance, the embattled tropical nation of Kuovala in 'Demonland' manages to contain CIA agents, communists and jazz girls, giant blue butterflies, demons and codeless computer programmes within a very tight narrative arc. To what extent do you feel that bringing together the disparate is a guiding principal behind your work?

It probably has something to do with being a poet; metaphor, which asserts the similarity between apparently dissimilar objects, is fundamental to poetry. I remember stumbling upon the technique of narrative juxtaposition in the first story I wrote, ‘American Fugue’. I was writing about an amnesiac American poet who runs away from home and ends up living on a university campus in the Nevada desert. For some reason that wasn’t apparent to me at the time, I made this a very odd university, in which all the students were divided into social groups according to their main interest in life: vegetarianism, religion, Eastern mysticism etc. It just seemed to make the story more interesting to have two unusual and apparently unrelated things going on it. Afterwards I realized that it was saying something about the sometimes chaotic pluralism of postmodern culture. I try not to follow a single line of thought, but let my mind jump tracks every now and then, and see what the result might be.

You have been compared to both Byron and Borges during your career – which of these do you feel more affinity with? In 'American Fugue', Dr. Jespersen contends that ‘life was essentially paradoxical’. Do you consider yourself a surrealist?

Definitely Borges. My eldest brother gave me a copy of Labyrinths for my sixteenth birthday: Borges has been a touchstone for me ever since, and the comparison to him in a review was, for me, the finest compliment my work has received. If there’s a Borgesian element in my fiction, it’s perhaps the determination not to let too much realism get in the way of an interesting idea.

As for Dr Jespersen’s remark, it’s a disguised reminiscence: when I wrote that story (many years ago), I was not long out of psychotherapy myself. It was a very unhappy time in my life, and the comic confusion of the nameless narrator reflects my own more distressing confusion. During my therapy, I was taught the technique of ‘paradoxical intention’, where the patient deliberately tries to bring on unpleasant symptoms as a way of preventing them. It seemed to epitomise the upside-down world I was experiencing at the time, and which my narrator also experiences.

And regarding surrealism, I find the idea of it liberating, the practice usually disappointing (in literature, anyway – I admire surrealist painting and am a huge fan of the films of Luis Buñuel). Just as I don’t want to be too trammelled by realism, so I don’t want to escape from it altogether. A related question would be whether I consider myself a fantasy author. As a matter of fact, I am now, for the first time, experimenting with fantasy fiction in a novel I’ve just begun. Up to now I’ve only flirted with departures from the physically possible. In ‘Singing a Man to Death’ the magical powers of the song are only hinted at, never confirmed, in ‘The Vegetable Lamb’ the mythical object of the heroine’s quest never quite appears, and so on. I suppose being bitten by a butterfly (as in ‘Demonland’) is impossible, come to think of it, but it’s a minor detail so it hardly counts.

Your background in the computer industry obviously influenced your 1989 novel WHOM, in which a gigantic computer system controls the White House, and stories such as 'Demonland', in which demons are apparently manifest in lines of computer code. Apart from these examples, do you find that your background in computing has informed your writing as a whole? Have you found any surprising parallels between the process of writing fiction and that of writing software?

For most of my computing career I was a technical author, writing manuals for software systems. It was great training for a writer – you get used to producing large numbers of words quickly and editing your own work and that of your colleagues. In one of my jobs I gave in my notice, and then had to spend a month sitting at my computer in the office with nothing to do, since no one was going to give me a new project at that stage. So I used the opportunity to start work on WHOM. I was never very knowledgeable, just good at translating what I learned from the programmers into a language ordinary people could understand. WHOM is very unsophisticated in its treatment of IT: put it alongside William Gibson’s incredibly prescient treatment in Neuromancer, which came out at about the same time, and you’ll see what I mean. ‘Demonland’ parodies an actual piece of documentation I came across in the course of my work, and draws on anecdotes I had heard about programmers who were assigned to far-flung places. ‘The Beehive’ also uses some of my experiences of that time, including an explanation of how to make breakfast using the principles of project management!

It’s interesting you mention Gibson: I find dreaming to be a strong recurrent theme in your writing, as in his. In the millenarian 'Between the Walls', one of the stories in Singing..., you call dreams ‘the medium by which God communicates with those of us who are not ready for the ulcers and the haloes’ of sainthood. Do you consciously make dreams a concern of your work? Are the processes of writing and dreaming essentially similar?

I am fascinated by dreams and the way they act as a counterpoint to our waking lives. They’re a wonderful source of imaginative energy, but at the same time I find it very difficult to draw on them directly – just as I also find it difficult, as I mentioned before, to dispense with the laws of reality in my writing. Tell people about your dreams, and they just switch off: it’s the same, most of the time, with writing about them. Some of my favourite works of fiction are those that have overcome this problem: Robert Irwin’s The Arabian Nightmare and Jonathan Carroll’s Bones of the Moon are two extraordinary and underrated contemporary novels dealing with dreams, and an older and even finer example is Jan Potocki’s early nineteenth-century masterpiece The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. I have written about dreams in my poetry, which is perhaps a more appropriate form for them – poetry could be described as a dreamlike use of language. But I’ve never really managed it in fiction.

Your next novel, tipped to be set in the seventeenth century, and moving between London and Wales, seems to continue many of the themes that have concerned your previous work. Do you feel this is true, or will it be a break from what has gone before? Is it going to be a set of seemingly unrelated stories, like WHOM, or have you set your sights on a more traditional narrative structure?

The novel, which still hasn’t found a publisher, is called The Book of the Needle. It’s based on the life of a real man, the seventeenth-century Welsh tailor and prophet Arise Evans. In some ways, Evans resembles the narrator of my 2008 poetic sequence Mandeville. Both are men with a very clear personal view of the world, and in both cases it’s difficult for the reader to know how far to believe them. Questions of belief seem more and more important in the contemporary world. We haven’t, as some of us expected when I was much younger, moved beyond faith: rather we have a world of multiple faiths, constantly conflicting with each other. Mandeville and Evans, unlike me, are both very religious people, and each, in his own way, is a visionary. Ultimately the reader is not going to accept those visions, and the way they come into conflict with reality is sometimes a source of comedy. At the same time, I hope the visions are a richly imaginative experience even when you don’t share the narrator’s faith that inspired them.

Best of luck finding a publisher - I look forward to reading it! Your next collection of poetry, a section of which is published in New Welsh Review under the provisional title 'Things that Make the Heart Beat Faster' finds its setting in medieval Japan, and recent poems have spanned seventeenth-century Muscovy and even a voyage to the moon. What compels you to travel so far in the scope of your work, and occasionally to move so far back in time?

All the three of the poems you mention have literary sources. ‘Things that Make the Heart Beat Faster’ is based on The Pillow Book by the tenth-century Japanese courtesan Sei Shōnagon, ‘Muscovy’ on a journey to Russia undertaken by the poet Andrew Marvell and described in a book by one of his travelling companions, and ‘The Man in the Moon’ draws on a piece of early modern science fiction by the seventeenth-century bishop Francis Godwin. I am increasingly fascinated by the technical and imaginative challenges involved in adapting material like this; Mandeville and The Book of the Needle are other examples. My first few stories were all set in foreign countries that I hadn’t even visited, and at one time I thought I was incapable of writing a story set in the UK! Just as I feel the urge to look outside my own life for my subject matter, so I often like to start from someone else’s words rather than my own. Writers have always done this, of course – Shakespeare hardly wrote an original plot. In the poetry world, there has been a vogue for adaptations of classic material recently. I’m currently reading Alice Oswald’s Memorial, the latest of many recent poetic adaptations of Homer. I prefer not to use sources that everyone is familiar with, though – digging out obscure but fascinating texts like the writings of Arise Evans or that account of Marvell’s trip to Russia is one of my great pleasures, and I see it as an important part of my creative process.

In Familiar Spirit, one of your recent poems, you celebrate the ‘downbeat, doorstepping rhythms’ of Welsh speech. I even thought (though this might be stretching too far) that the ‘salad of trees’ line in your poem 'The Man in the Moon' bore more than a passing phonological resemblance to the famous ‘cellar door’ analogy that Tolkien used to praise the Welsh language. As a writer in English, what is your attitude towards the Welsh language, and how has living in Wales sculpted your voice?

I’ve lived in Wales for twelve years, the last eight of them in a Welsh-speaking area on the west coast [Llanon, near Aberaeron]. I hear Welsh spoken around me every day. I still hope one day to learn the language myself, but at present, I’m afraid, I only know a few common words and phrases, plus the meanings of place-names etc. One of the effects of hearing a ‘foreign’ language spoken regularly is that it dissolves the spurious layer of normality that clings most of the time to one’s native language. Carol Rumens describes this brilliantly in one of her poems: on coming back to England from France she hears people speaking English and finds the sounds strange: ‘a language lumpy as a ploughed field’. Living in Wales has probably not made me any less English (though I am flattered when, occasionally, I read descriptions of myself as ‘a Welsh poet’), but it’s put my Englishness in context, as well as giving me glimpses into a rich culture that, as yet, I barely understand. The earliest piece of mine which draws on my Welsh experience is the title poem of my 2001 collection Dragons, in which I tried, without being too obvious, to draw on the rhythms of South-Walian English. I also think there’s something very ‘Valleys’ about the gentle irony with which it spoofs the ubiquity of that mythic Welsh symbol. There’s a lot of Welsh material in The Book of the Needle, and in some of my recent poems, but none in the stories. Some were written before I came to Wales, but of those that came after, two have what I call a disguised Welsh setting. ‘The Vegetable Lamb’ is set in a fictional Tartary, and ‘Assassin’ in the Middle-East, but those landscapes are really based on Wales. I walk in the countryside as often as I can, and feel privileged to live in such a beautiful place.

In the eponymous ‘Singing a Man to Death’, a mysterious song is believed to kill any man who hears it a certain number of times. Similarly, in ‘The Lovers’, ‘Read a certain word on a certain page and the succubus slips in through your eye into your brain.’ Words, literature and music seem to become weaponised in your work. Are they potentially dangerous things?

Certainly powerful things. And dangerous, not usually when used by artists, but by demagogues, whether religious or political. That’s a theme in both my novels, but in the stories it’s hinted at rather than explored in detail.

One of my favourite lines in the poem ‘Muscovy’ is: ‘He wrote us so far. Now he must write our way out.’ Is your work a process of ‘writing your way out’?

‘He’, in this context, is Andrew Marvell, one of my favourite poets. And the line alludes, once again, to the theme of language as an instrument of imaginative power. Most of my main characters are writers of one kind or another, in addition to their roles of traveller, courtesan, prophet or whatever else. So for all the wide-ranging interests of my work, much of the time I’m looking at the reflection in a variety of distorting mirrors of this bizarre thing I’m doing: writing.

Paul Cooper is currently an intern at New Welsh Review and will take up his MA in Creative Writing at UEA next September.

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Next on blog: review by Gwen Davies of the new Dylan Thomas prizewinner, The Meeting Point by Lucy Caldwell

Monday, 28 November 2011

Barrie Llewelyn on how as a memoirist she found herself recreating her grandmother as a Chicago prostitute

I never knew my paternal grandmother. Nor did my father. She was persuaded to leave her marriage and her infant son for $500 in 1925. My dad told me the stories he had heard. She was ‘incapable of looking after him’. She ‘left him wet or dirty’ while still at home; afterwards, she’d try and ‘kidnap’ him back. ‘Rosie was a prostitute.’

On car journeys, my father would rage, but not at me. I was a girl traveling alone with him, but I wasn’t scared. I learned to share his pain. His missing mother lived in both our lives. When I had my own babies, I couldn’t comprehend how anyone could give up a child. As the years went by, so my dad’s depression grew, despite his having seemed a happy and popular, if introverted, man. The terrors of his childhood may have caught him up.

Five years after my father took his own life, I found myself in a hotel room in Fort Lauderdale. I started to write and before long I had down the first section of Rosie’s story. She is in the waiting room at Chicago’s Union Station, in her purse an envelope containing $500 cash. Rosie isn’t thinking about what she will do with the money, nor about the decision she has just made, nor the new life ahead of her. All she cares about is what she looks like.

My novel in progress attempts to understand Rosie’s choice. In reality, I didn’t even have her maiden name or know where in Chicago she’d lived. The facts my father had, he took to his seaside grave. I had no hope of knowing her, nor the will to conduct a thorough search. When I finished my first draft in 2008, I felt that I had found her story, her truth. I had to accept my own version of her life.

But last month I had a message on Facebook: ‘Are you George Volk’s daughter? I am his half sister.’ I am now in contact with Rosie’s daughter, my aunt Franny. Francine told me stories of her mother’s life. My missing grandmother was a flapper in Chicago who frequented Al Capone’s speakeasies. Francine and her sister Caroline believe that any love Rosie had was left behind with her baby son. How it would have changed my father’s life to know his mother loved him!

Franny and I haven’t spoken since I returned from holiday. I’m hesitating about getting back in touch. Why am I somehow disappointed? This is my theory: I never actually wanted to know anything about Rosie. As a writer and storyteller, I preferred to make it up. So how do I go on with the story now?

A version of this was first published in the Western Mail's Insider books column on Saturday 26 November 2011. Barrie Llewelyn is an online contributor for New Welsh Review.

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Next blog: review of Lucy Caldwell's Dylan Thomas-prizewinning The Meeting Place

Next interview coming soon: Matthew Francis

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Jim Perrin talks to the Wales Literature Exchange about his latest book West

Jim Perrin's 'Slate Country Fictions' is in the winter issue of New Welsh Review, out this week.

Jim Perrin from Wales Literature Exchange | Cyfn on Vimeo.

Film by Sara Penrhyn Jones

Jim Perrin's latest book, West, A Journey Through the Landscapes of Loss, was out in paperback from Atlantic this spring. His essay 'Slate Country Fictions, Outside Views of Wales' looks at three novels of the past sixty years which succeed to varying degrees in capturing 'the agricultural/industrial interface along the northern and western margins of Eryri: sheep-country; slate-country; Kate Roberts country.' The novels are Patrick O'Brian's Testimonies(1952), John Wain's A Winter in the Hills (1970), and Peter Ho Davies' The Welsh Girl(2007). You can read Jim Perrin's 'Slate Country Fictions' in the winter '11 issue of New Welsh Review, straight to your doormat this weekend if you subscribe or order from us direct, or in shops from 1 December.

Next author interview: Matthew Francis, whose long poem 'Things that Make the Heart Beat Faster', inspired by Shei Shōnagon (Japanese courtesan and recorder of The Pillow Book), is also in our winter issue. Things that Make the Heart Beat Faster is the title of Matthew's next poetry collection.

Christien Gholson talks to Paul Cooper and Nia Davies

Christien Gholson is author of a novel, A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind and a prose-poetry collection, On the Side of the Crow, both published by Parthian. His dystopian short story, The Feed, is published in the winter edition of New Welsh Review, out next week. Paul Cooper is currently an intern at New Welsh Review and will take up his MA in Creative Writing at UEA next September. Nia Davies works at Literature Across Frontiers, has published poetry for Salt anthologies, and is drafting her first novel.

David Mitchell recently described Hari Kunzru’s new novel Gods Without Men as ‘an echo chamber’. I felt this description also applied to A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind – such a varied mix of voices and influences resonating together: from Magritte and Rimbaud to The Battleship Potemkin. Do you feel this is an accurate description of your novel, or indeed novels in general?

I recently saw a conversation on the Lannan Foundation site between John Berger and Michael Ondaatje, two of my favourite authors, in which they both spoke about echoes. Ondaatje said that when he was writing In the Skin of a Lion he was immersed in the murals of Diego Rivera. “Someone’s holding a wrench over there on that wall,” he said, “and someone’s holding a pencil over there on that wall. It’s exactly the same gesture...” Those echoes intrigued him, and he mirrored them in gestures and scenes between all the characters in the novel. Berger said of echoes: “No story exists without them, really”, and I would agree. All the characters in Fish are different aspects of one whole; each particular narrative trajectory needs the others to find its completion. The pattern of the novel is, for the most part, the order in which it was written, so anything that was left unsaid, or unfinished, is completed by someone else in a following chapter. If you lifted just one character’s narrative out of the book and read it all by itself, I’m not sure it would make sense.

My own experience is that the self doesn’t really exist as some rigid, defined thing – an isolated billiard ball clacking against others – but that it exists only in context, mired in a constant process of creation and interaction with its surroundings. As the master magician Chiqui says to Guy: “Nothing exists by itself.” Everything is in a constant process of being created; the idea that things exist in isolation is, to me, an illusion. That surfaced in the pattern of the book - in a community of characters that, in the end, couldn’t exist without each other.

Most people imagine a novel starting with a single idea, a ‘eureka moment’. Was this the case for you? What was the initial spark or germ that you felt carried it through to the end? In what ways did its conceit mutate and develop as you wrote?

If you mean that in terms of a vision where a skeleton of the entire story appears all at once, then no, that didn’t happen. It started as a long prose-poem sequence: fish swimming through fog over the Belgian countryside (which now appears as one of Marie’s visions about three quarters of the way through the book). I’ve always been fascinated with the phenomena of animals, insects, or other odd things raining from the sky - the mystery of it. And I’ve been equally fascinated with the funny contortions that Science and the excessively logical-minded must do to explain it.

The prose-poem sequence turned into the opening of a short story. All the characters were there at the beginning, except the Rimbaud scholar, Raoul. The short story seemed unfinished somehow, so I thought I’d expand it a bit more, turn it into a novella. The more I worked on it, the more I encountered odd surprises that propelled me further, deeper, and I just kept following the trail of crumbs.

So the mystery of the fish was the initial question - the initial koan - that appeared, and I took a whole novel to ‘answer’ that question.

Your family travelled a lot, including to Belgium, where the novel is set. How much of the novel is an account of your own experiences, and how much is imaginative invention? Do any of the events have a basis in reality?

Between the ages of 10 to 15 I lived in Obourg, a cement factory town in Southern Belgium, somewhat like the town of Villon. Years later, as a young adult, I walked across Southern France, and then lived for a month in the municipal campground in Mons, which is near Obourg. Many strange things had happened to me on the journey and I needed a familiar and comforting place to let it all sink in.

While I was in Mons, I wandered out to Obourg and saw posters all over the town announcing: “Obourg...poubelle d’Europe.” Obourg...rubbish bin of Europe. I asked around and found out that the cement factory was to lease their empty quarries as toxic dumps for waste that would be imported from all over Europe – and there was a movement to stop it. Similar issues are still ongoing in that area, if I’m not mistaken.

I hesitate to go into more detail about what was my own experience and what is imaginative invention because a couple of the most ridiculous and illusory scenes really happened. It’s a truism to say that life is stranger than fiction. Fish do indeed fall from the sky.

A Fish... is set in an area of Belgium heavily touched by industrialism, near to an enormous quarry and a cement factory. Did you find any inspiration for the setting in Wales’ industrial past, and your time living in Swansea?

Oddly enough I wrote the book in the Central Valley of California, in Davis and Sacramento. The only similarity I found in California to southern Belgium was the smog. As a kid, though, the broken landscape and rain of cement dust was all I knew. Because my father didn’t work at the factory, I had an economic distance from it: I saw it as both a great evil monolith – especially when one of my sisters developed breathing problems - and as a mysterious and sometimes beautiful thing. There’s nothing like a sunset through plumes of cement dust. It’s only when I started working in factories around Philadelphia that my deep rage at industry’s enormous waste began. Many people live far away from the factories that make their lives possible. They don’t see the incredible cost – to the earth, to individual lives. The factories are invisible to them. In the novel, the cement factory is almost as consistent an image as the mysterious fish. It is mysterious only because it is so big, dominant... and yet invisible.

Living in Swansea, with the steel works of Port Talbot a constant vision on the east side of the bay, has triggered memories of the various industrial and industrially ‘forsaken’ places where I have lived. Still, on clear nights the flames from the flare stacks are beautiful, a match to the eye. But I see it from a distance. A tourist’s view. Factories like that make Mumbles and Swansea possible. Yet who is clocking the cost?

The novel takes illusion as one of its main themes, and I wondered if you see the writing of a novel, and indeed poetry, as a fundamentally illusory process?

There’s a bit of the magic trick about novel writing. You want the devices and tricks you use to be transparent, unobserved, so the reader can sink into the dream of the story. So, yes, there’s a bit of distraction involved; a bit of talking your way through the trick, keeping the audience focused on the monologue, so no one notices how the egg or the coin actually disappeared. There’s nothing worse for me when I’m reading a story than constantly ‘seeing’ how it was put together. I want be unaware of the devices and techniques used.

I definitely see writing as a trickster activity. Far in the background of Fish, there is the figure of Til Eulenspeigel - the itinerant vagrant of the Middle Ages who plays the fool in order to expose vice and greed and hypocrisy. At the time I wrote Fish I was also steeped in North American Coyote tales. And Zen Buddhism has a bit of the brain-breaking trickster aspect about it, too. The beauty is that the trick, the illusion, reveals a truth that sometimes cannot be told any other way. What’s the Picasso line about art? “Lies that tell the truth.”

Many have commented on the seeming ease with which poets can turn their skills to the practice of fiction (Joe Dunthorne and Anne Michaels for example). Do you feel that your background as a poet prepared you for the challenge of writing the novel? Did you discover any surprising difficulties?

Although I’ve written many prose-poems that seem to have a narrative line, quite a bit of the poetry I write and read has no conventional narrative. Most of my poetry makes connections by juxtaposition or in the flow of the overall pattern, and I think poets with more of a narrative bent are more likely to ‘get’ the tools of fiction.

Having said that, as a poet I think I picked up description and dialogue fairly quickly. It was for a big demon like Plot that my poetic background had not prepared me at all. What it did do, though, was give me license to do anything I felt like doing. I didn’t know enough to care about ‘how’ a novel was supposed to be structured.

If I knew then what I know now, I probably never would have attempted the same interweave of six characters for my first novel. I was basically learning about fiction as I wrote the book. I think there’s something to be said for that sort of naiveté, though – you aren’t aware of what you can’t do, so you just keep going, whistling in the dark.

What’s funny is that Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion was one of the models I used for Fish, and that he is also a poet as well as novelist.

The novel is clearly concerned with the great variety of voices that each of its characters uses and inhabits. For instance Marie, the Seer, who experiences in each object she touches the impressions left by its previous owners, or Father Leo, the Lover, who sees everything he experiences as a variation on the mantric theme of the fish. Even the epistolary Seeker is affected by his narrative voice, which we experience through his letters. If we think of the narrative voice as a device that allows us to approach something particular in each character’s nature, what were your considerations in choosing their voice – which techniques did you most enjoy, which were the most yielding?

I think of each narrative voice as a melody played by a jazz musician. Soon enough, the musician moves very far from the melody, taking it apart, reassembling it in different ways, but no matter how far out they go they always return to the melody. It grounds the entire performance. So, in the case of Marie, once I wrote the section where she tries on a dress in Casimir’s house for the first time and inhabits the story of the person who previously wore the dress, I knew her melody. I could go anywhere with her and always have something to return to. With Father Leo, whenever I was stuck I would return to his internal fish chant and that would unlock the next sequence.

I didn’t consciously choose those devices, though. These narrative voices, for the most part, appeared in an unconscious way. All but Raoul. His letters are, to a certain extent, an intentional conscious choice meant to fill in any gaps left in Guy and Chiqui’s discussions about illusion.

Marie was the surprise of the book, the easiest to write. She came seemingly out of nowhere, and yet she immediately seemed the most familiar character of all, as if I’d known her all my life. Guy was the hardest, simply because his illusion problem had to be explained without dabbling too much with Buddhist terminology.

Maybe Guy and Marie are my favourites because they are the key to the book for me – Marie’s experience of mystery as ineffable, juxtaposed with Guy’s more negative belief that because everything is impermanent, then all is illusion, and thus pointless.

Your book was taken on by Parthian, the independent Welsh publisher, and published in June 2011. Many people nowadays seem to be of the opinion that the major publishing houses play too safe with their acquisitions of new authors, and are too shy of risking large overheads on first-time writers of literary fiction. Do you feel that the independent scene, at least in the UK, finds itself better placed than the big houses to publish literary fiction?

From what I’ve read since I’ve been in the UK, I think the larger publishers in London are a bit more open than those in New York. Not by much, but there’s still good, interesting literary novelists who slip through into the UK mainstream. Most mid-list literary authors in the States have to find smaller publishers. I’ve also noticed that some small press American novelists are being published by larger houses here. And I mean the very same books.

But, on the whole, it’s been the same story for years in the larger publishing houses – marketing departments are the ones in charge. The decision to take on an author is no longer in the hands of editors. With Fish, three editors in three houses in NY wanted the book but each time their marketing departments said no - because they didn’t know how to market it. Parthian, on the other hand, took the book because they thought it was a good book and should be read. I don’t think their first question was ‘how can we monetize this?’

So yes, the smaller presses are, for the most part, publishing the most interesting work at the moment. But that’s always been the case, especially with writers working in more experimental ways. Since the collapse of the publishing industry in 2008, small presses have become THE place for most novelists to send their work, bringing publishing back to a human scale. You don’t necessarily have to deal with agents and marketing departments to see your work into print. That should lower the blood pressure of a large percentage of writers... it lowered mine.

I enjoyed your dystopian short story The Feed, published in the winter edition of New Welsh Review, out next week. It seemed to share some themes with A Fish... – namely society’s voyeuristic tendencies, and an unending appetite for entertainment and illusion. What do you think are the concerns that most strongly permeate your writing?

The question of what is and is not illusion still permeates my recent work. When dealing with illusion, I’m necessarily also dealing with the question ‘so, what’s reality, then?’ I don’t see it as a tricky, philosophical postmodern question, though. My own understanding of illusion comes somewhat from a Buddhist perspective – that our concepts, expectations, desires, ideas of what life is and how we want it to be, are all blocking us from experiencing what is right there in front of us. So, for me, it’s pretty basic - about finding a true grounding. Discovering what is.

Illusion and Mystery (with a big M) will probably always be a part of anything I write. Illusion (especially the illusions created by the satanic-mill-factory-financial system currently in place) eats us. Mystery feeds us.

Do you think your imminent return to the States will change your writing?

I have a feeling that when I get back to the States I’ll write more about Wales. That’s how it seems to work for me. I wrote about Belgium in California, I’ve written a bit about the South-western US while living in Swansea, and I’ll probably write about south Wales once I get back to the States. It takes a good long while for any experience to alchemize inside my body before it re-surfaces as a story.

Lastly, if you don’t mind me asking, what’s next for Christien Gholson? Another novel, another burst of poetry?

For the past two years I’ve been writing a long poem tentatively entitled Tidal Flats (echoing Buntings’ Briggflatts). The poem’s central focus is Swansea Bay (I’ve basically spent the last two years hanging around the bay). It weaves together the sensual foundations of language, the evolutionary dependence of human cognition on the environment, current climate change catastrophes, and my rage (and sorrow) over the massive wave of extinctions going on throughout the world. The usual.

Hopefully I can get the first draft done by the time I leave Wales – then look at the incredible mess I’ve made and see what’s salvageable. It might end up being quite a bit shorter than it is now. It probably should be. Then maybe someone other than my wife will read it.

As to fiction, I’m working on a group of speculative short stories in the same vein as The Feed (these spec stories take place in the same world as my second novel, a dystopian work called Among the Angels’ Hierarchies). I also just started working on my third novel, but the less said about it the better. I’m superstitious about these things.


The poems in On the Side of the Crow seem to be ekphrastic riffs that stem from

artworks which may or may not be real - pieces such as a 'Collage made from refuse found on a movie theatre floor' or 'Patterns burnt by an atomic flash onto desert stone.' Were these visual pieces starting points or end points?

The beginning image that started the poem didn’t usually end up being the central focus. If you look at “Portrait of Leo’, the one about someone listening in on an arms dealer’s conversation, that started with an image of a blind, albino fish in a cave pool. So - don’t know where they come from, don’t know where they’re going to go...

Can you describe something of movement between visual/kinetic into language that takes place in your poem-making?

I find image rides the language and language rides image. They’re usually


So... what states best trigger these kinds of poems for you - darkness or bright

light? Noise or silence (etc)?

I write the initial lines of most poems outside, so I’m a big proponent of silence (i.e., non-human noise). Most poems I’m interested in weave their way between both noise and silence.

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Next interview coming soon: Matthew Francis