Articles - The Book Depositry Blog (Interview)

Fflur Dafydd
TUE, 09 DEC 2008

Fflur Dafydd is from Llandysul. She graduated in English at the University of Wales Aberystwyth, before gaining an MA in Creative Writing in East Anglia University and a PhD at the University of Wales Bangor. Currently, she lives in Carmarthen and is a part-time lecturer in Trinity College, and a freelance author and writer. Her first novel written in English is Twenty Thousand Saints.

Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing Twenty Thousand Saints?

Fflur Dafydd: I spent six-weeks as writer-in-residence on Bardsey Island back in 2002, an island off the tip of the peninsula of North West Wales, and knew, almost from the moment I got there, that this tiny island – reputedly the island where twenty thousand saints are buried – would be a huge source of inspiration. It really was a turning point for me – I was at the time a young writer, 24 years old, and a research student with very little to say outside my research topic – and then suddenly I was thrown in amidst a very different community of people and forced to learn quickly, mixing with people of all ages who I would probably never have the fortune or insight to meet on the mainland; ecologists, archaeologists, bird-watchers, seal-watchers, farmers etc. who all helped me gain some valuable life experience. I felt it a huge privilege to become part of this community, to become an islander for a short while, and also to get to know a place that is a huge part of our Welsh heritage – having been seen throughout the ages as a sacred place of pilgrimage, solitude, reflection.

Living on Bardsey makes you forget about the mainland, and emotions are extremely keenly felt, which obviously has its advantages and disadvantages. It is also a place, that as Brenda Chamberlain once said, “is governed by the moods of the sea; its tides, its gifts, its deprivations,” and I felt that the sea around us also played its part in changing the narrative of people’s lives, keeping the boats away for long periods of time, and changing the nature of the events on the island. Leaving there was an unexpectedly painful experience; it had become my everyday reality so quickly that I didn’t want to let go, but knew I had to, and this is probably why I’ve decided to revisit the island through fiction, because there are still things I want to say about the intensity and beauty of island experience, and I’m keen to share what was such an important learning curve for me. Even though the characters of the book are fictional; I was eager to remain true to the island’s landscape and geography, to locate events in real places, and to generate a real sense of the island’s mood and atmosphere, and to share some of the wonder of this mystical island that changed my life, and my outlook, forever.
The title, Twenty Thousand Saints is a playful take on the island’s mythological identity, and as the novel progresses, addresses different notions of ‘sainthood’ in the novel’s characters. The island is also, in some ways, a microcosm of Wales itself; and also addresses cultural and linguistic identity.

MT: How long did it take you to write your book Fflur? Is this the usual timeframe for you?

FD: I took about two years to write this book, about a year and a half pottering around with ideas and getting a draft together, and then six intense months of rewriting to give it definition. It started out as a translation of a Welsh-language novel, and after about a year or so, I decided that it really wasn’t working – so I decided to start from scratch with a completely different story. But having that amount of time to muse and re-write is complete luxury for me – both my Welsh language novels were written under extreme pressure in around three months or so, and with a looming deadline, as I was keen to enter them both into the Prose Medal competition in the National Eisteddfod of Wales – a competition for an unpublished work, entered under a pseudonym. The first novel, Lliwiau Liw Nos, was shortlisted, but didn’t win – so I had another three months then to work on it before it was ready for publication. The second novel – Atyniad – was awarded the prize, and as is customary with this competition, it is then published straight away. I wouldn’t really recommend this timeframe however, even though there’s a lot to be said about immediacy in a work – it has a kind of truthfulness that is often lost through the editing process. Having said that, I think the process of writing Twenty Thousand Saints over a much longer period of time was much healthier. It’s the result of countless deliberations, and is a much stronger, more polished work as a result.

MT: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

FD: I write straight on to computer. I write the first draft for plot, without stopping to correct anything, and the second draft for character. I don’t usually really start editing until I’ve already got something substantial that resembles a draft, and then I notice the many inconsistencies and more or less write the whole thing again!

MT: You normally write in Welsh -- Twenty Thousand Saints is your first English-language book. Is English your first or second language? How does writing in English compare to writing in Welsh?

FD: Welsh is my first language; and I was brought up by Welsh-speaking parents, in a Welsh-speaking community, and received the majority of my education through the medium of Welsh. I chose, however, to study English at University, at MA and PhD level, and part of the reason for that was because of a fascination with the language and its literature, and a desire to explore a language that was at once alien and familiar to me. Writing in Welsh is completely different to writing in English; because fewer writers are writing in Welsh, there is so much more to be done, and there is real opportunity to be innovative with the way that you use the language. English is different; less vulnerable as a language and therefore more robust and exacting, so that when writing in English I’m less concerned with language innovation and more concerned with finding my own voice and identity within that language. Ideally, I would like to be able to recreate the rhythm and feel of the Welsh language in the way I use English, though I’m yet to discover if my readers will recognise that in the writing itself, or whether English is inevitably always just English.

MT: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your novel Fflur? How did you overcome it?

FD: There were many difficulties with this novel – one of those was the notion of writing about a real location using fictional characters, and the worry that, because it is a small island, perhaps some islanders would feel that I was misrepresenting the island in some way, or shattering the island’s myths through challenging them. But ultimately you have to overcome these fears as a writer, and I have come to know the island in a different way by recreating it as a fictional space.

MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your earlier books? Did you learn anything from them that affected the writing of Twenty Thousand Saints?

FD: I did learn a lot from the reviews that came after my second novel Atyniad (a kind of predecessor to Twenty Thousand Saints.) There was a lot of criticism that was very useful; to do with how I presented character. Looking back at Atyniad, I am now able to see that there were far too many characters to allow the narrative to flourish properly, and so with this novel I decided to scale down, and focus on four main characters, and to get to know these characters in depth. Reviews are usually useful in terms of technical advice, although by now I’m good at recognising if the reviewer has an agenda. The Welsh-speaking community is a fairly small one, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say that some reviewers will hate anything you write just because it’s you, making bizarre comments about your age, whether or not you do too many other things apart from write, in short, anything but comment on the work itself – and I have a pretty good idea now who those reviewers are, and have developed a much thicker skin to deal with them! I can finally look forward to reading reviews by people who know nothing about me, and even if they have negative things to say about the book, I will appreciate their honesty and the fact that their standpoint is a neutral one, and that it is the work itself, not the author, that motivates their criticism.

MT: You are also a musician Fflur -- tell us a little about that.

FD: A student once said to me: “there’s another Fflur Dafydd who sings, do you know her?” I was tempted to lie and say that I did not, for in many ways it feels like music and performing belongs to another life, and another persona. Music forces me out into the world, and makes me more human! Writing is such an intense, solitary pursuit, and music is my release from it, a sociable experience in every aspect – working with a band, going to concerts, becoming part of a scene and meeting other musicians. As an act we’re called “Fflur Dafydd a’r Barf” (Fflur Dafydd and the Beard), and I write mainly Welsh-language songs that are a fusion of blues, soul and pop, performing them on guitar and vocals, with a much more able and talented four piece band behind me, holding the whole thing together! We’ve released two albums so far – and we plan to release another next year. You can check us out at www.myspace.com/fflurdafydd.

MT: What do you do when you are not writing and singing?

FD: When I do have time off – proper time off – there’s nothing I like better than to spend time at home watching films and comedy DVDs. I’ve just worked my way through 6 box sets of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I’m now planning to tackle the list my brother has given me of ‘1001 films to see before you die!’ Watching quality film and television is the only time I ever really ‘switch off.’ Other than that I enjoy cooking elaborate meals for friends and family and reading as much as I can.

MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

FD: That’s an interesting question. Perhaps with Welsh I do think about the kind of people who would be reading the book, and perhaps subconsciously I am addressing them in some way in my writing. When it comes to writing in English I think that making the leap from a smaller audience to a much bigger one takes away that notion, so that you return to writing just for yourself, writing the kind of book that you, as a reader, would enjoy reading in that language.

MT: What are you working on now Fflur?

FD: At the moment I’m working on a black comedy about undertakers in Carmarthenshire. This is an idea I’ve been working on since I was an MA student in UEA in 2000, and for some reason or other it’s never been finished. In the meantime, I met, fell in love with, and got engaged to an undertaker’s son from Carmarthenshire (who, incidentally, is also one of my band members – a marriage of musical convenience) – so now I feel like I’ve got the motivation and the family contacts and resources to be able to complete it! It’s unbelievable the lengths a writer will go to for the sake of a good novel…

MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

FD: It’s impossible to say from one month to the next – I tend to get obsessed with certain writers, read a lot of their work, and then move on. I have recently been reading a lot of Milan Kundera and Daphne Du Maurier – worlds apart in terms of their styles and yet they both offer so much insight into human relationships. I read Kundera for character and philosophy and Du Maurier for mood and plot. My all time favourite text, however, will always be The Outsider by Albert Camus. I am still in love with Meursault’s cool, laconic voice, and I think it’s a novella that demonstrates the cunning economy of style and the astounding power of the unsaid.

MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!

FD: Don’t let a day go by without reading or writing something – even if it’s only a diary entry or a short extract from a book – it will ultimately provide the stepping stone back to where you want to be as a writer. I look back at my days as a freelance author (before I was a lecturer) and I can see how I frittered away a lot of my writing time because I wasn’t yet aware that you can always do something to move your writing forward – even if the ideas don’t come at once. There’s nothing less conducive to writing than staring at a blank screen for hours on end or beating yourself up about wasting time. Guilt should never be a part of a writer’s life!

 

 

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