Two years ago Alys Conran was just another struggling writer, waiting for her debut novel, Pigeon, to be published by independent Welsh publisher Parthian Books. But now, at the end of 2017, she is a multi-award-winning novelist, winner of three awards at this year’s Wales Book of the Year to add to a shortlisting for the International Dylan Thomas Prize. Already, many view Conran as a senior figure on the Welsh literary scene. Gary Raymond caught up with Alys to discuss an exciting year.
Congratulations on the Wales Book of the Year Triple Crown – is it still settling in?
Thank you. It is lovely, particularly the people’s prize. Although I still think ‘triple crown’ makes it sound like some kind of awful beauty pageant.
These competitions are strange for writers. Really the effort that went into writing has long been spent before the competition happens. Winning and not winning both feel like they come out of the blue, as if they’re not related to the writing at all. It’s strange to turn up at a given place one day, years after doing something, and suddenly be given a trophy for it or told you’ve lost. Mind you, I feel I should put a good word in here, for Wales Book of the Year as a competition, because books need all the help they can get to find their way into the hands of readers. Hopefully more people know about Pigeon, and might read it and the other books on the shortlist. That, is important to me. And it’s important also to all the often unsung people who were involved in publishing these books.
For most people, writing has in it an essential series of stages of validation – from the first time a friend likes a poem you’ve written on the back of a school text book, all the way up to the Nobel Prize. Maybe it’s too early to tell yet, but do you see the WBOTY win having any effect on your writing?
I know what you mean about validation. I think it’s very necessary for writers to have that, even in small ways, from their peers, their teachers perhaps, and then through publication. You have to watch out though, because too much validation from one direction can send you hurtling that way when actually a direction less pleasing to some people might be the right one for your work.
While I think WBOY and the Dylan Thomas prize shortlisting have opened some doors, I hope these things won’t make too much difference to the writing process itself. I’ve been able to write a second novel without the usual pressures that accompany that, because most of the first draft was done by the time Pigeon came out. That was a good thing. It’s good to write not knowing whether it will be good enough to publish. I’d like to keep that rigour and that doubt present. Anything that makes you push your work further is a good thing.
Pigeon is what I might think of as a modern twist on a traditional story – for Welsh literature at least. It is the story of kids growing up in a small Welsh town, but this is a modern, culturally diverse experience. Did you think it was important to write this story for those reasons?
To me growing up in a small welsh town isn’t traditional in any particular way. It’s just what a lot of kids do. It’s as contemporary an experience as any other and no more traditional than life in some parts of London, say. But in terms of Welsh literature I think you’re right, it does mean that the book puts a different twist on the kind of place that a book like Un Nos Ola Leuad is set in, and yes, I think that difference and diversity was important and natural to me as I wrote. The town I live in, for example, is really a post-industrial place, not some kind of rural idyll. I think there’s a need for more cultural representation that emphasises the complexity of small-town, or rural life, particularly in North Wales. We suffer a bit from the notion that we’re all farmers or something, and some of us are of course, but most of us aren’t and even farming families live with all the trappings of contemporary life, just as people do elsewhere. I did want the book to reflect modern life in North Wales, and just how nuanced and mixed communities here are, and have been all my life.
How conscious were you during the writing of Pigeon as a Welsh novel?
Absolutely conscious. If it wasn’t there’d be no storyline, no characters, no dialogue, no setting, no specificity to the language I use. Really the book only started to grow once I realised it rested on this premise of interplay between Welsh and English. I had no sense of a plot before I started writing. The plot grew organically because of the tension (in the sense of an energetic tension, not necessarily a conflict) between both languages in the book.
Do you think Welsh writers have any kind of responsibility to “Welsh literature”? Or are we in danger of hobbling creativity by asking it to serve a “cultural agenda”?
This is a really difficult question, Gary! I think both things are true to a certain extent.
I’m not sure if I feel responsible ‘to Welsh literature’ but I do feel that I should be aware of what has come before me, and of what’s happening now in both languages. I also think that there’s a responsibility to continue to look through it and beyond it, and to draw on influences and challenges from as far afield as possible. Though I grew up in a household where Welsh literature in both languages was tremendously important, my own influences are as often American, Hispanic or English as they are Welsh. I love reading both prose and poetry from all over the world, and am lucky to be able to read in a few languages. But I do think Wales and Welsh experience is an infinite fuel for writing. It’s an absolute gift, not a noose around my neck. Wales offers me various illuminating lenses to see the world through, rather than some kind of limitation on my world.
Pigeon isn’t only a “Welsh novel”, of course. I saw many parallels with some of the great novels about the working class – I thought often of Kestrel for a Knave when I read it. Are you a political writer?
There’s no such thing as ‘only a Welsh novel’. Our point of view is as broad, and as capable of producing stories of scope as are identities from the elsewheres we crave so much. I think it was Patrick McGuiness who said that we can mine the local to get to something universal, which is very interesting. It’s the opposite of what most people think. If you start using ‘universal’ in the way big publishing tends to, only people whose viewpoint is sufficiently privileged by the media will be able to claim to speak of something universal, simply because enough readers will already have been forced to become familiar with that territory or point of view. New York, for example, is a setting that is now pretty much universally intelligible, because of Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean that a story set in New York has inherently more scope than one set in Wales. So yes, as well as its Welshness, people have talked about the book as a coming of age tale, as a post-industrial novel, as literary fiction, as a young-adult novel, as a crime novel, as working class fiction. I sometimes feel that people almost suggest that it manages to be many things ‘despite being Welsh’, a bizarre level of prejudice, which actually many Welsh people seem unconsciously to share themselves. We really need to look at that. Yes, of course I’m a political writer. We all are. I once went to see a comedian in Barcelona who introduced himself by saying ‘‘Soy apolítico: soy de derechas’, which translates as ‘I’m apolitical: I’m right wing.’ Writing apolitically would be a concerted political effort. I think my work wears its politics on its sleeve, though it sometimes covers shirtsleeves with another jacket.
Pigeon, perhaps a little like Billy Kasper, has the potential to become an iconic literary character. Where does he come from?
I really don’t know. He arrived like a genie from a bottle, once he was out there was no way he was going away. I always feel that Pigeon’s out of my control, he’s beyond me, unpredictable. I worry about whether I did right by him. Was I a suitable conduit for the things he stands for? I don’t feel I invented him really. He invents himself. Writing’s like that. It comes as much from places other than you as it does from yourself. Pigeon is a much better storyteller than I am. I’m slightly scared of him actually. I feel about him much as his friend Iola does in the book. I once wrote a letter from Pigeon to me, and it was quite a frightening experience, because I felt that he was so out of control. I know all this sounds ‘mad’, but it’s the kind of insanity we need more of to stay healthy. I care about him a tremendous amount, and I find it wonderful that other people seem to feel the same way.
Pigeon is a landmark book in many ways, and was published simultaneously in English and Welsh – can you tell us a little about how this came about, and the process?
It was always a hybrid novel, with much of the dialogue in Welsh and a fair amount of what people now call code switching throughout. When I sent it to Parthian Books, Richard Davies suggested that we bring it out in both languages. I said great, as long as both novels were allowed to be mixed. The idea was that they would be like photographic negatives of each other. So there’s a fair bit of English in the Welsh books too. Not translating it myself was a tricky decision, but I didn’t want to rewrite my own book, and I also didn’t want the first fiction I wrote in Welsh to be a translation. Sian Northey was the perfect choice of translator. She has the right Welsh, and a conciseness that I admire. She got the voices, and she got Pigeon. I had to back off from the translation process. I think we were both clear that it needed to be her translation. I believe in the freedom of translation as a creative process in its own right. I did give feedback on Pijin, the Welsh version of Pigeon, at a few key points though, and luckily when I read the final version I absolutely loved it. Pijin is Pigeon in his own language. It was great for me because I got to experience my own book as a reader.
You grew up in a literary household. How did this inform Pigeon specifically, but also in a wider sense, how you view the world etc?
I grew up with no TV in a household where really we all entertained ourselves by reading books. We had books on tap, which was a huge privilege. More than this though, we had folktales and folk ballads, and hearing poetry spoken and read was normal to us. My father made up stories to tell us, and until very recently we’ve produced one of these stories for Christmas every year. But actually it was my mother who was particularly brilliant at finding us books for whatever stage we were at and whatever we were going through. She still runs a reading aloud group in Bangor Library.
Stories and songs are very important to Iola and Pigeon, and I think that reflects an early awareness I was given of how we can make sense of the world and ourselves through the stories we tell, the poems we share, and the songs we sing. Literature has always been an alive, spoken thing to me, and a thing that is useful. I also spent a lot of time discussing my father’s poetry with him, from a very young age, and even helping him to write and organise his writing, as he had cerebral palsy and later on had trouble with typing and handling paper. That was a kind of apprenticeship to writing, though neither of us were that aware of it at the time. I think I got a head start that was rare in the days before creative writing degrees. I try to pass on some of what I learned through my upbringing to creative writing students at Bangor. It’s just great that those kinds of opportunities are available now, so that you don’t have to be a writer’s daughter or son to learn from other writers.
The dreaded question: what are you working on next?
I’m redrafting my next novel, again. It’s completely different in setting to Pigeon, but also rests on a friendship. This time the friendship’s an unlikely one: between a troublesome elderly ex-memsahib and the young British-Indian girl who cares for her. It’s really a novel about British colonialism and its legacy in contemporary life. Tremendously interesting and challenging to write. My father was born in Bengal, so I’ve been able to mine family history for inspiration, though of course no one from the family actually made it into the book. It’s not set in Wales, but I think experiencing British colonial culture from a Welsh perspective gave me a better sense of it.
I’m also still writing some poetry now and again, planning a collaboration with my husband Joe Roberts, who’s a sculptor, and I’ve a strange fiction project on the go, a story which marches from hyperlink to hyperlink.
Oh, and I think I might have started a third novel, about Barcelona, a city I once called home.
It’s the end of the year, so I have to ask what other books have really moved you in 2017?
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of women. Anita Desai again. Revisiting Fire on the Mountain was incredible. It’s so understated, and so terse, with intense imagery that plays out in all kinds of patterns and seeps into you. I found, when I returned, that Desai gets into all kinds of memories and places in your mind and imagination. I also picked up and loved her Clear Light of Day and a set of novellas called The Artist of Disappearance.
Three of the books that I enjoyed this year are wonderful explorations of female identity. The Equestrienne by Slovak author Ursula Kovalyk I absolutely loved for its surreal exploration of female sexuality. I also thought the translation was beautiful, and preserved its strangeness, which I expect some translators might be tempted to flatten. Ali Smith’s How to be Both also stood out. I think she’s magic and have her ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’ lined up to read next. And Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing is a novel that gets under your skin and churns you up inside. Its liminal and resonant voice is really unforgettable.
Tristan Hughes Hummingbird is a haunting book. I really admire how he peels back the layers of the Canadian landscape so that it becomes defamiliarised and unsteady.
Finally, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara also floored me this year. I still ache when I think of its protagonist. I was furious with the author when I finished the book, but the rage has settled now, and I think it’s terrific.
(Author pic by Anna Milner)