Erthygl - Alcemi Interviews Fflur Dafydd

Talking to: Fflur Dafydd

Alcemi: Can you explain how you use excavation in the novel, Twenty Thousand Saints?

Fflur: Throughout his life, the archaeologist, Deian, has been excavating different sites on the island, pretending to look for remnants of saints, while really hoping to find the remains of his mother, whose mysterious disappearance has never been solved. In the same way, many of the other characters are forced to 'excavate' themselves and their past, to peel away the layers and to see what is really there. It's also a metaphor for Welsh identity – the incessant digging that the Welsh are engaged in, longing for their past to explain their present. I also like the idea that the earth has its own secrets and that archaeologists spend their entire lives trying to uncover them – the earth knows what has gone before, and is much more knowledgable than the people who traipse around on top of it. But the metaphor is double-edged – the earth can't explain everything – and one needs to find a way to live life in the present, to tread ground that is new and untouched, to find a Welsh identity that looks to the future.

A: What is it about an island-setting, and Bardsey in particular, that made your novel easy or difficult to write?

Ff: It was difficult to make a fictional landscape out of a very real one – there's only one Bardsey Island, and I was anxious to be true to that landscape while also allowing the fictional narratives to flourish. The Bardsey in this novel is probably very different to the one its inhabitants and visitors know and love – but hopefully adds a different dimension to it and explores island life faithfully. Having said that, I feel that being a writer in residence there for six weeks back in 2002 enabled me to get a 'slice' of island life that is different to the experience of a holiday maker or an islander – it is somewhere 'in between' – which gives me a different viewpoint, and hopefully an insight.

A: How does Twenty Thousand Saints explore different aspects of sexuality and fertility?

Ff: By placing the characters in such an intense location, their desires are intensified; characters form sexual bonds with people they perhaps wouldn't find sexually attractive on the mainland, and this makes for an interesting exploration of what sexual attraction is – and what motivates and drives it. In terms of fertility, it also raises questions of where fertility fits into sexual relationships, and how much of a blessing and hindrance it can be, depending on the situation. Overall – I wanted to explore the fact that island relationships are like no other – and the question remains – do these relationships work on the mainland – or do they depend on the intensity of the enclosed space? How does the 'outside' world impair and change our desires?

A: What is your favourite character from your novel?

Ff: Viv, or Sister Vivian as she is called in the novel. She grew, from one tiny little anecdote about a nun, to be someone I genuinely cared about, and is arguably the most vivid of all the characters. She is an activist-turned-nun, a closed heretic and rhubarb pilferer, a stubborn yet endearing and heart-warmingly funny woman – who, looking back, is reminiscent of my wonderfully independent grandmother who passed away when I was writing the novel.

A: Favourite alltime character from literature?

Ff: Meursault from L'Etranger by Albert Camus. I first came across him while studying for my French A Levels and subsequently went on to read and re-read the English translation rather obsessively – enamoured of the cool, laconic voice. As a consequence, it seems that all my male characters are destined to have a little bit of Meursault in them.

A: Favourite musician?

Ff: It's difficult to choose just one! I suppose the artists I can listen to again and again and still get a kick from are Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and Suzanne Vega.