Speaking about writing a book – particularly years after writing it – is, to a degree, somewhat fraudulent; but I know for sure that in 2010 I was under pressure to write longer. Publishers liked my writing, but the three novels I’d written at that point were short. They wanted a ‘proper’ book. Tackling this head on, I set about writing one. Its title was Traces of People.
The book would have two parts. The first would tell the story of an Italian interned on the Isle of Man when Mussolini declares war, before being released to work on a West Wales farm. The second would pick up the consequences of the ensuing love affair some sixty years later. It would be told obliquely, through the story of a farmer who confronts a man baiting badgers on his land. A character, remnant from the first part, would bear witness to the story of the second, and bring the thing together at the end.
I wrote the second part first. I switched between two lines – the narrative of the farmer, and the narrative of the badger baiter. It took about a month, from late January to February.
The following year on Valentine’s Day I began writing the first part in earnest. Since landing the draft of Part Two I’d been researching and developing the wartime story. Notes from early 2011 refer to the hours I spent looking through newspapers on microfiche at the National Library. How, as the Daily Mail put it on May 12th 1941, ‘…six hundred trained Germans will no longer flutter, as grotesque goblins, about the night skies,’ and how, as the Cambrian News announced a few days earlier, shoals of sprats had made their appearance the previous week along the seashore at Aberayron.
I’d visited the Imperial War Museum. Gathered wartime pamphlets, leaflets, replica cigarette cards. Studied tracts from the time on best agricultural practice and land improvement. I interviewed local people who were children in the 1940s, and read many first hand accounts of internment, particularly in the Isle of Man camps, and the mainland holding camp at Warth Mills, a decaying cotton factory, the ‘floor slippery with oil and grease’, with rats ‘scuttling among the remnants of the mill machinery.’ I even looked at meteorological records from the time to know I had the weather right.
It was colourful, vibrant, and emotive. My Italian, from the hills above Arpino, had character and patience and it was little wonder the widowed farm wife fell for him; a thing her eldest son could not accept.
Around the end of March 2011, I had the body of both parts of the book down, had brought the ‘witness’ into Part Two, and had a working first draft some 90,000 words long. The problem was it didn’t work. My agent was helpful in pointing this out.
I ditched Part One. In essence, cut 60,000 words off the book in one go.
I’m unsure of exact timings after that. I had to work away a lot to bring in cash and gradually, each time I came back to the text, another echo of Part One was removed. By June 2012 I’d reworked the piece. It was pretty much the story of the farmer and the badger baiter I’d first written in 2010. The Italian was gone.
The same week Parthian declined the book – mainly because the Italian had gone – I had a call from Granta Magazine. They wanted a British-set story of some 5,000 words and I gave them a chapter of the rejected novel. When they accepted it, I regained confidence in the choices I’d made for the book.
In a final break from its original form, I changed the title of the book from Traces of People to The Dig. The short story (of the same name) got on the shortlist of the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award and publishers started calling my agent. It didn’t matter now, after years of being told it did, that the book was short. It went to auction, and after some tough thinking I signed it with Granta. It was published in January 2014.
I’m often asked whether the story I cut will surface. Whether the work that went in was a waste. It isn’t. No work is a waste. The ‘witness’ character who inhabited Part Two for so long has since found life in a short story; the alleged U-boat sighting that fascinates a child in the abandoned Part One appears, albeit briefly, as a surreal implication in Cove. More vitally, a lot of people who read The Dig are struck by ‘the shard’. A talismanic piece of iron stabbed into the ground of the farm. They feel it has significance and it does. The story of how it got there is in my drawer, and about 60,000 words long.
You can find out more about Cynan Jones and his latest work here.