Cynan Jones’ fifth novel, Cove, was published last November to considerable acclaim. Here John Lavin talks to the author about the process of writing the novel, Jones’ recent work for the acclaimed TV series Y Gwyll / Hinterland, and about his approach to the creative process in general.
John Lavin: One of the central qualities of your work has always been the fastidiously sculpted, minimalistic nature of your prose style. As when reading Hemingway and Carver, the reader feels that an unnecessary word would cause the author sleepless nights for a considerable period of time. And, for me, Cove feels like the ultimate expression of this aesthetic, in that the prose and the narrative are whittled down to a point that you might not have dared to go to before, so much so that they take on an almost mythic, elemental aspect (and of course the subject matter of the book is very much concerned with both the elements and the elemental). Was it your intention to mirror the narrative of the novel in its aesthetic construction? And following on from that – from a stylistic point of view does this feel like a work that you’ve always been working towards?
Cynan Jones: It was utterly intentional. The story dictates the prose. And there were a number of sleepless nights to boot.
I’m not sure Cove was the work I’ve always been working towards, as such, (though to some degree, whatever you’re working on at any given time is the thing you’ve until then been working up to). But you do know when you’re not yet good enough to write a certain thing.
To write a story in which the central (in some regards only) character has no firm sense of themselves; when they don’t know where they are; or who they are relative to – all of this was a hugely challenging narrative to pull off. I needed the experience of everything I’ve previously written to do it.
The work feels almost as much like a long poem as it does a short novel, right down to the thick white gaps between your paragraphs giving the impression of stanzas. Would you agree and if so was this a conscious decision or something more instinctual?
It was instinctual, and – as I say above – determined by the narrative, the story. It’s about the surface, the meniscus – that’s the language. There’s endless space above and around, and depth below. It was important to have that visually on the page as well.
Having already alluded to Hemingway, I feel as though I must mention The Old Man and the Sea, which I felt Cove contained echoes of, and ask whether it was on your mind at all during the book’s composition? In a sense the novel almost feels like a contemporary update of Hemingway’s, with the masculinity of the protagonist being so much gentler and his way of life being so much more benign, but with the elements being as fearsome and unforgiving as they always have been.
When you sit down to write, everything you’ve read is on your mind. Far greater writers are looking over your shoulder. That being the case, you damn well better write a good book…
The Old Man and the Sea was there, as was Garcia Marquez’s Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, and Life of Pi. I didn’t read Pincher Martin until after it was written, and I hadn’t seen All is Lost. I re-read Robinson Crusoe, Coetzee’s Foe. The Swiss Family Robinson. Moby Dick. It’s all there.
As with The Dig, Cove is set in the area of West Wales, that you call home and the seascape you describe is, I presume, the one besides the small Ceredigion villages of Aberarth and Llan-non where you live. Was living and working by the sea the catalyst for Cove? What was the initial impetus for the novel?
I’ve been near the sea, this sea, the majority of my life. I wanted to write a story which had none of the things my other books call heavily on. Certain sense of place; integration into that place; tangible relationships. To cast a person out onto the water seemed the right way to tell a story like that. My own experiences over the years informed the physical action of the novel. The landscape delivered the possibility of the story.
Following on from this, do you find that you learn about and understand West Wales – a previously underwritten part of the world in my opinion – with greater lucidity the more frequently that you write about it? Do you feel that your ability to describe the area grows the more you hone the skill of it? Is there a part of you that wants and is consciously trying to ‘give’ Ceredigion to the world?
No, to all of the above!
I populate the places important to me with stories. Characters. No different from the places important to me when I was a child, where a dinosaur bones were, or a spaceship settled. I have to understand the place, and what is possible there, in order to draw the story from it.
I don’t find describing the area difficult, so I have to be careful that doesn’t become automatic. That’s about seeing it for real, not seeing it through what I’ve already written.
All I’m trying to do is write strong stories that resound, and stay.
Where do you see yourself going after Cove? Do you see yourself continuing to work in this space where the boundaries between fiction and poetry are purposefully ill-defined and perhaps not even of any great importance? Could you ever see yourself writing a very different kind of book – a great big Dickensian kind of novel, for instance? And indeed could you ever see yourself writing a novel set in a completely different territory to the West Wales that you have become synonymous with?
I think that comes back to the key mantra: the story is god.
You recently wrote an episode of Y Gwyll / Hinterland, the acclaimed West Wales-set detective drama. How did you find the experience of writing for television, and indeed for characters that were not of your own invention?
I enjoyed it. When it came to it, the basic storyline and the characters carrying that story were pretty much decided, so it was a case of picking up the ball and running with it. The characters aren’t characters I’d generally gravitate to, but the task was to make them fit the requirement of the series.
The only slight weirdness came with changes that were made I didn’t know about until I finally saw the episode. It’s got my name on it, but some of the work isn’t mine.
Could you see yourself writing more for the screen in the future?
Absolutely. Watch this space…