Articles - AmeriCymru Interview

An Interview With Fflur Dafydd - Welsh Novelist, Singer-Songwriter
Posted by Ceri Shaw on September 30, 2009

Fflur Dafydd is an award winning novelist, singer-songwriter and musician. Whilst predominantly publishing in Welsh, she also writes in English. She records in Welsh, and her work is regularly played on Radio Cymru. She spoke to Americymru ahead of her forthcoming visit to Portland, Oregon with the International Writing Program ( 10/3-10/9 2009 ).For full details of her visit and associated activities go to this page.

Americymru: You're a very prolific artist: at 31 you've published four novels, a collection of poems and short stories and non-fiction, written plays, screenplays, you're/you were a columnist for the Western Mail, in addition to a very successful music career which includes four albums, various singles and performances in Wales, Europe and the United States (please let me know what else should be in this list). What do you think of your success, do you feel lucky, tired, excited to go forever or do you ever want to take a break and wait tables or wash dogs?

Fflur: I’ve already done my stint as a waitress but I’ll pass on washing dogs, thanks! I do feel that I’ve been lucky in many respects to have the opportunity to do so many things, and to be honest, when you live in a small country and are part of a minority culture perhaps there is more urgency to do a little bit of everything, to contribute to the culture, to keep it thriving. But I have worked very hard these past years – and I don’t think success comes without real hard graft, so I do feel a little bit exhausted at times! My new album is coming out next month, and I think once I’ve finished promoting that, I will be looking for some ‘downtime’ – eating chocolates and singing Christmas carols. I feel happy with the work I’ve produced so far and there’s no rush now to publish or to record again for a while.

Americymru: Your first novel in English, 20,000 Saints, was published in 2008 and you've written three novels in Welsh: Lliwiau Liw Nos ("Colours by Night," 2005 Y Lolfa), Atyniad ("Attraction," 2006 Y Lolfa) and Y Llyfrgell ("The Library," 2009 Y Lolfa). Do you have a preference for writing in English or Welsh?

Fflur: Welsh is my first language, so I instinctively want to write in Welsh and find it exciting to do so – there is still so much that can be done with the language, and I like to think that Welsh contemporary authors now are helping move the language forward into the 21st century. But writing in English also helps me gain a sense of freedom, the sense of working on a broad canvas where no phrase is impossible, no word unutterable, and where no story would seem implausible – there is a great thrill in that.

Americymru: Your latest novel, Y Llyfrgell (The Library), was inspired by your time as a graduate student pursuing your Phd in Aberystwyth, at the National Library of Wales - what can you tell us about this novel?

Fflur: This is a novel about a siege which takes place at the National Library of Wales, when two armed female librarians take the building and its workers hostage one day in 2020. It is a far-fetched, slightly magic realist, black comedy, with lots of action and a fast paced mystery – I’m very proud of the book and I do think it’s one of the best things I’ve written in Welsh. It says something about Welsh culture and history and is a very political book in many ways. It has also been described as ‘controversial’ which has certainly helped sales!

Americymru: "20,000 Saints" is also a sort of nickname for Bardsey Island and the second novel you've set there. How did this story develop, what was your process in creating it?

Fflur: I had seen the post of writer in residence on Bardsey advertised by Academi, the Welsh literature promotion agency, as an open call to their members, and it immediately appealed to me. I was writing a PhD thesis on R.S. Thomas, at the time, the Welsh poet-priest who had been instrumental in setting up the Bardsey Island trust, and many of his poems are about the island, as he was a frequent visitor there, and birdwatcher. It felt like I was destined to go there, to follow in his footsteps, to understand him better. I was fortunate enough to get the post, and of course, ultimately, I found the island to be the biggest source of inspiration for my own work. I wrote one book of fiction in Welsh – Atyniad – based on my own experiences, and then rewrote the book in a completely different way for an English audience, with a different plot, narrative , characters – and it also had a different mood and feel.

Americymru: How autobiographical do you think your own work has been? Do you subscribe to the idea that you should write what you know and, if so, what does that mean to you?

Fflur: There is an autobiographical element to most works, I think, and characters always tend to embody parts of yourself. My first novel, Lliwiau Liw Nos, was far removed from my reality, and perhaps because of this, I don’t consider it to be a particularly successful novel. Atyniad was heavily influenced by personal experience, and it has an intimacy and honesty that would be impossible without the raw emotion that went into writing that prose; straight out of my own heart, at times. But I have also learnt that ONE autobiographical novel is enough – you do need to move away from yourself as a subject ultimately, because readers also want narrative, and they want you to make that necessary leap between your own history and imagination.

Americymru: Any chance your Welsh-language novels will someday get translated into English for those of us not lucky enough to read Welsh yet?

Fflur: One day I hope to be able to let someone else do the translating. It has struck me that I’m changing so much when I adapt my own work that the English-language readers are unable to fully “access” the Welsh language writer in me, that part of me still somehow remains hidden. So I’m going to do one more ‘reworking’ of a novel (I’m rewriting The Library now), and then I will let the languages take off in different directions – hopefully working with a translator for my Welsh books.

Americymru: You're currently the writer in residence at the University of Iowa and you've previously been a writer in residence in Wales and Finland, what is a "writer in residence" and how did you come to become one?

Fflur: Basically a writer in residence is a when you spend time at a place or an institution, not merely to write about it, but to get time to really work on a project, away from the hassles of your daily life. I think they’re all important things. You usually get thrown in with a group of new people (Bardsey) or a new cultural experience (Helsinki) or you are part of the life of a University (Iowa) and can contribute in all sorts of ways by giving talks and readings and became part of that place for a short space in time. The International Writing Program here at Iowa is an excellent program, stimulating and culturally diverse (as I’m here with writers from 32 different countries) and there is time to write during the day, which is a liberating thing. I was offered this post by the British Council – the IWP have never had a Welsh language writer and they were interested also in getting a performer here, and so I fit the bill, and I feel extremely proud to have been chosen to represent Wales here.

Americymru: You're traveling to Portland, Oregon with four other writers as part of the International Writer's Program? Who are the other writers and what will you be doing while you're in Portland?

Fflur: I will be joined by Lijia Zhang (China), Soheil Najm (Iraq) Fedosy Santaella (Venezuala) and Osman Pius Conteh (Sierra Leone) and we will engage in a series of literary events, in collaboration with the Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland State University, and the Oregon Council for the Humanities. This will be the first IWP delegation to take part in such a dynamic slate of activities in the city. There will be visits to classes, group readings on campuses, roundtable discussions and one or two musical performances. Please see for further details of events.