Rhian Elizabeth

An Interview with Rhian Elizabeth

Rhian Elizabeth was born in 1988 and currently lives in South Wales. Her debut novel Six Pounds, Eight Ounces was published earlier this year by Seren Books.

John Lavin: The idea behind A Fiction Map of Wales is to create a series of individual portraits of life in 21st Century Wales, thereby creating an honest, albeit fractured, vision of the nation as a whole. The thinking behind this is that art, despite being the product of someone’s imagination, can offer a truer reflection of society than either newsprint or historical documentation. Do you think that this is true? And do you think that it is important to write creatively about Wales – or indeed any location – in order to understand it?’

Rhian Elizabeth: I think the importance of writing creatively, as opposed to literally, about anything, be it a place or whatever, is that you have more room to explore it, to play with it, and in the end that can only produce something more interesting to read. Whether that means it’s a truer reflection of it or not is another thing. It would make sense that you’d have to be from a place or had experience of it to be able to write about it and therefore understand it, but I think a really brilliant writer could write about anything and anywhere and make you believe it.

You have chosen to add the ‘sleepy streets’ of Cwmdu (… in Powys? Or an imaginary Valleys town?) to the Fiction Map of Wales. What was behind your decision to set ‘Our Cardboard Binoculars’ in this location?

Imaginary. I’ve never been to real life Cwmdu but I’m sure it’s lovely and nothing sinister happens there like it does in the Cwmdu in my head. Cwmdu translated into English means Black Valley and ‘Our Cardboard Binoculars’ is a story about absent fathers and mass murder and is set in a Welsh Valley, so it seemed apt.

Like your debut novel Six Pounds, Eight Ounces, ‘Our Cardboard Binoculars’ is a wonderfully witty work that, at the same time, deals with far darker material. The real heart of the story is, in fact, about the narrator not knowing whom his real father is. This combination of humour with undercurrents of melancholy seems to be an intrinsic component of your style. How did this style evolve? And do you think that it is related in someway to growing up in the Valleys? When I interviewed Rachel Trezise recently she seemed to be of the opinion that using humour as a defence mechanism was a part of Rhondda life and something that was reflected in her own writing. Do you think that this is right, and do you feel the same way in relation to your own writing?

Definitely agree with Rachel. It doesn’t really evolve – it’s kind of born in you if you happen to be born in the Valleys. Something in the water up here. That dark sense of humour you talk about, you hear it from your grandparents, your parents, your neighbours… the people on the bus. Bad stuff happens and so you laugh about it, naturally. I think it’s about turning it on its head and taking the power away from it because otherwise you’ll just be crying about it. You actually are crying about it deep down but by transforming that negative into something that makes someone else laugh (albeit awkwardly and uncomfortably – a bonus) seems a much better thing to do than just be depressed about it. And I suppose that seeps into writing, too.

You frequently reference Tom Jones in the story, which seems to me to be quite a risky thing for a Welsh writer to do – and yet you manage to avoid cliché even as you reference many clichéd things associated with the singer (knicker-throwing etc.) What were the considerations behind this? Did you want to deliberately send up certain hackneyed notions pertaining to the Welsh? Or was it more to add to the almost hyper-real-seeming narrative of the story?

This is a bit grim but I’ve heard that story so many times – kids who were told by their mothers that this elusive ‘Tom Jones’ was their father when really he was just the milkman or someone who didn’t bother to stick around. More of the ‘dark humour’ we were just talking about. Hilarious. So I wrote it, clichéd or not. I also love that Tom Jones song ‘With These Hands’ and I wanted to sneak it in there somewhere.

Both ‘Our Cardboard Binoculars’ and Six Pounds, Eight Ounces are written in the first person, in a perfectly judged, flowing colloquial register. It feels like a very natural style. Is it a voice that comes quite easily to you? Or is there, as I suspect, rather a lot more work involved in it than that?

It is natural and easy for me. I suppose because I’m writing about things and places I know. In a sense I feel like I am actually the character who is narrating, even though the character in ‘Our Cardboard Binoculars’ is a teenage boy and I’m a girl, and I’ve never once thought or been told that my father was Tom Jones. I feel like I am taking control of the story this way and like it’s mine even when it’s not really. But when I’m writing complete fiction the voice varies.

Your debut novel Six Pounds, Eight Ounces came out this year to hugely positive reviews in Wales. I understand that the book took a number of years to write, and that you initially began work on it while taking creative writing at the University of Glamorgan. Could you tell us a little bit about the journey from the novel’s genesis on that course to its publication by Seren earlier this year?

The book started off as a short non-fiction piece in a class led by fellow Seren writer Maria Donovan. It was all about my life and I’d condensed it into about two thousand words. Then I started to write a little bit more, about girls, the Valleys, school, friends, everything I’d seen or experienced growing up and I soon realised it was much more fun to fictionalise it because the stuff I made up was much more interesting than the stuff that actually happened. Plus, no one could sue me that way. Thousands more words were written and it took a lot of editing until they were deemed ready to publish.

Are there any writers – or indeed musicians or artists – who have exerted an especially strong influence on your work?

I wasn’t a big reader as a child or a teenager. I didn’t discover books properly until I was in my early twenties (I’m only twenty-six now so it wasn’t that long ago). The Secret Garden was one of the first books I ever read and it will probably always be my favourite. I love Annie Proulx – she is the queen of writing about a particular place so it’s always good to study and appreciate her when you want to see how it’s done properly. Flannery O’Connor, Louise Gluck, lots of others. I’ve been reading lots of Tyler Keevil’s writing lately… highly recommended.

Finally, what next? Is there a new book on the way?

After my novel I said I would never write about Wales again. Mostly because I want to do different things and am terrified of being typecast as someone who can only write about what she knows. But then Wales Arts Review’s A Fiction Map of Wales came along and I was asked to write a story for that, the rule being that you had to write about Wales so I decided that was okay because it wasn’t my fault/choice. I started writing a new novel shortly after Six Pounds, Eight Ounces was published and finished a couple of drafts but I have now decided it’s rubbish and I’m going to take some time reading and writing and putting something together that I’m proud of instead of something that makes me want to smash my head against the delete button.

Six Pounds, Eight Ounces is out now through Seren. ‘Our Cardboard Binoculars’ is included in our new short story anthology, A Fiction Map of Wales, available to purchase here: https://www.walesartsreview.org/newsletter/the-wales-arts-review-store/

 original illustration by Dean Lewis