John Lavin: Hello Joao. You have put Cardiff Prison onto The Fictional Map of Wales. It strikes me as being an important addition to a map that has so far attended more to locations in Wales that are, at least in part, defined by their beauty. What was the inspiration behind the setting and indeed the plot of the ‘The Visit’?
Joao Morais: I’ve never been incarcerated myself but many of my friends have been in and out a few times. I’ve still got all my letters from them. The inspiration behind the setting is fairly simple. About eleven years ago I was visiting a friend in prison and a couple nearby were getting off with each other. It was all a bit graphic. At the end of the visit when everyone got up to leave, a bunch of screws jumped on the con and his girlfriend. And I do mean literally jumped. We guessed they were trying to pass something illicit between their mouths, like a wrap or a SIM card. This was my first experience of prison. Sometimes, short stories just develop from small incidents you once experienced, and this is not an exception here.
Do you think that a nation’s prisons in someway reflect a nation’s psyche?
Probably more so than a nation’s Consumer Price Inflation Basket but probably less so than its welfare state and health service. Or indeed lack of. I think Mandela said something to the effect that you must judge a state on how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Who’s to disagree with such an eminent man who knew better than I do on these matters?
The prose work of yours that I have read has been frequently written in a South East-Walian dialect that is peppered with Cymraeg (I also understand that the novel that you are working on as part of your PhD also features this technique). Could you tell us a little bit about your reasons for working in this style? Do you feel that it is more honest? And does it enable you to locate the stories you want to tell more readily?
I talk a lot of Cymraeg in my day-to-day life. Some days, I speak more Cymraeg than I do Saesneg. Just don’t ask me to speak it when I’m drunk. This is still quite unusual for someone living, and having been born, in Caerdydd. We’re in the minority after all. So that old maxim ‘write what you know’ comes into it in some respect. However, my oral Cymraeg is much better than my written Cymraeg, and if I had the confidence and the ability to write coherently in the iaith then I would. I hugely envy Jon Gower for being able to do so.
But the main reason I work in this style is because I find it difficult to write in standard English. If my lofty aim as someone who writes is to reflect the world around me then the last thing I want to do is write in a standardised way. My sense of style is not, at this moment in time, nuanced enough to do that. I hope it never is.
There is a great tradition of writing in dialect in Scottish literature – James Kelman and Hugh MacDiarmid perhaps springing most readily to mind – but, unless I am mistaken, less so in Welsh Writing in English. Why do you think this is? Do you think it is important to change this?
I’d say that there’s a good few Welsh writers, all well known who write (or wrote) in dialect. Niall Griffiths does it in the most authentic way imaginable. The highly unfashionable (yet massively brilliant) Alexander Cordell did it too. Ron Berry could do it like no other. So there are plenty of books out there that use the technique. Two of the best books I’ve ever read were in the Cymraeg, and they both used dialect in the most startling of ways: Caradog Prichard’s masterpiece, Un Nos Ola Leuad, and Twm Miall’s Cyw Haul. Seriously, Miall’s use of English dialogue using Welsh phonetics is perfect.
And these examples are just off the top of my head. I know that it’s not as much as the tradition in Scotland, but it’s important to remember that the situation is different there. Scotland has three recognised languages. You can guess what the first one is. The second two have been classified since 2001 as ‘regional or minority languages’ under the relevant European Charter (hope this isn’t a bore–I find this stuff interesting). They are Gàidhlig, which I’m sure you also guessed, and Scots. The Scots language is considered largely to be a Germanic language similar to but different from English. For various historical reasons including but not limited to the Brad y Llyfrau Gleision, or the Treachery of the Blue Books, Wenglish does not have the same gravitas or usage. Perhaps things will be different now that so many of the Cymry Cymraeg have settled in the South East of the country – or perhaps they won’t now that S4C has decided to relocate to Carmarthen.
Do you have a particular writing routine?
I could bore you with exact details because I would be lost without my diary which tells me everything from when to wash to when I’m allowed to pick my nose, but someone else asked me this not too long ago and I distilled my routine down to this: Write until you feel physically sick. Walk it off; try to take a route you’ve never been on before. Come back, write until you feel sick. Collapse. Repeat until you’ve written something worth reading.
You also write comic verse, and were shortlisted for the Percy French Prize for Comic Writing for the brilliantly witty ‘Oedipus Rex’. Could you tell us a little bit about that poem and also about your admiration for comic verse, which I know you consider to be an undervalued mode?
I’ve long admired the poetry of Hilaire Belloc and Roald Dahl, who both wrote cautionary tales (one of Belloc’s most famous books was Cautionary Tales for Children). I wanted to write something similar but with more adult themes. ‘Oedipus Rex’ is what I ended up writing. You can read it here.
I consider it to be an undervalued mode because it is extremely difficult to write something designed to make someone laugh. I reckon it took me at least a hundred hours to write ‘Oedipus Rex’, which is roughly an hour a line. It also takes a lot of nerve to get on stage and recite a piece of comic verse. How people like Mab Jones write and perform consistently funny poetry is beyond me. It really takes it out of you.
Your stories also often contain a humorous, satirical tone. Do you see yourself principally as a satirical writer?
I don’t know. Maybe that’s what I’ll call myself when I mail my finished manuscript to this agent who’s interested in it, but labels are less important when it comes to the act of creation. I think it’s better to strive to do what only you can do, and to write the things that only you can write instead of trying to frame them around a term. If anyone else wants to say that about me though, cool. I’ve been called a lot worse.
Finally, you are at work on a novel as part of your PhD, could you tell us a little bit about this work?
It’s a contemporary kitchen sink tragedy about a small-time drug dealer. Earlier versions of chapters were originally short stories (note: not the other way round). ‘Anatomy of a Beating’ can be read in New Welsh Review 100 and ‘Exile All The Longer’ can be read in Rarebit, a collection of new Welsh fiction out with Parthian at the moment. Obviously they’ve been edited eighty gazillion times since then to go into the novel, but you can get an idea of what it’s about if you choose to read these.