Helen Pendry

Book Club Interview: Helen Pendry

This month our WAR Book Club members are reading The Levels by Helen Pendry (Parthian). Helen’s debut novel, The Levels is a wonderfully slow-burning mystery which delves into themes of violence, politics, consumerism and the environment. Voted for by Book Club members, The Levels came out on top against Niall Griffiths’ Broken Ghost to be named September Book of the Month.

‘A moving and angry quest for a kind of justice in an unstable world, The Levels de-romanticises and politicises its beautifully and harshly drawn mid-Wales communities and landscapes. As the local and the international tangle and snag, trust in institutions and between individuals shifts and splinters. Helen Pendry looks our unequal society full in the face, but threads her compelling story with the filaments of fragile hope.’  Mary-Ann Constantine

Helen Pendry has worked in higher education, research and editing. She has also worked in a zoo, a hostel, a bookshop and the European Parliament. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Planet MagazineNew Welsh Review and also here in Wales Arts Review, and she has been the recipient of a Literature Wales Bursary Award. She lives in Machynlleth.

Answering questions from myself and from Book Club members, Helen begins by giving some insight into the creation of The Levels.

For avid readers (and maybe writers in the group?) it may be interesting to know that I initially set out to write a crime novel, but when I sent an early draft to a professional reader I was told it wasn’t crime – I break too many rules of the genre to please crime-fiction fans – and that it was ‘literary fiction’ instead. That sounded both impressive and a reason not to give up the day job (I work in a bookshop, and I know just how literary fiction doesn’t sell). The book therefore retains some of the crime genre motifs – a flawed main character who is a loner, a quest to find the truth, a ‘baddy’ or two, a bleak landscape – but I was also liberated to follow my own interests (which are mostly political).

The Levels is, on the face of it, a gripping mystery – but it’s also a bit of a social and political statement. The erasure of history and culture is a central and pressing concern for the inhabitants of Pont Rhith. Is this an issue you’d been thinking about before setting out to write the novel?

Yes, definitely. Politics is in my blood!

In my teens, I lived in New Mexico for a couple of years. It is a stunningly beautiful, mountainous state with the highest population of Hispanic and Latino Americans, and the second highest population of Native Americans (after Alaska) of all the states. English, therefore, isn’t the only language being spoken by its inhabitants. There’s a lot of rural poverty, too, and a large military presence (it’s where the US built and tested its first atomic bomb) and a mineral extraction industry. All that resonated for me with Wales, but I wasn’t fully conscious of that resonance at the time.

I then studied Social Anthropology at university, to try and make sense of my experiences of cultural differences in New Mexico. Its clear that different cultures and languages see the world in different ways, and that the obliteration of those other ways of seeing, mostly in the interests of corporate profit, is a loss to us all. It also became clearer to me that oppression (economic and military) plays a large part in the configuration of cross-cultural relationships in many parts of the world – Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine… and that lack of tolerance for different ways of speaking or eating or praying isn’t the sole obstacle to peace and understanding. The main obstacles are inequality and injustice.

It was only later that I realised my questions about culture and power and history and identity had been there long before high school in New Mexico and Social Anthropology at university. My mother is Welsh and my father English and I grew up in England but spent most of my holidays in Wales with my mother’s family. I was therefore aware of the cultural (and linguistic) differences between the Welsh and the English, and because my mother’s family worked in the slate quarrying and coal-mining industries, I was also aware of class exploitation and the despoliation of the land and nature.

With ‘Rhith’ meaning ‘illusion’ in Welsh, the location conjures questions about truth, which is fitting as the novel is largely about uncovering truths – from Abby’s quest to find out about the drone crash, to the more internal questions of identity and one’s own truth. Did you base Pont Rhith on a particular place, or is it meant to represent mid-Wales more generally?

It’s a mash-up of a few slate villages and towns. Some acute observers have spotted elements of Aberllefenni/Corris and Machynlleth (where I live and go a-wandering). My slate memory also goes back to childhood stays in Bethesda. The military training area at Epynt is pertinent, of course, as is the drone-testing site at Aberporth (where there have been four accidents involving large military drones in the last few years – just saying!)

In the novel, it is suggested that the name of the town is linked to an old legend about a ‘ghost bridge’ (like Devil’s Bridge, I suppose). I wanted the name to have a history. There’s a whole politics, of course, around the renaming of places in Wales, so I wanted the name to be bound up with history and myth and deep roots, even though I was making it all up.

Abby is an interesting character – her abrasive attitude and ‘fuck you’ demeanour don’t seem to sit with the facts about her: that she is a social worker, and has cared enough to travel a long distance to a strange place, all because of a cryptic note she’s received. What would you say motivates her?

For me, the central theme of the novel is violence, although no one else has commented on that, so maybe I failed to nail it! Or perhaps violence, and the threat of violence, is just the sea we swim in. It shapes our lives and warps our characters and influences our choices… choices about which streets we walk down and at what time of day, about what we wear, what we’ll say out loud (and in which language) in specific company, how we travel, the work we do, where we live (particularly when we are driven out of our homes by violence). There is personal, every-day and domestic violence, and there is systemic and economic violence, and the violence perpetuated by the arms trade through war. I also think the erasure of history and culture is a violence – it has a very real effect on people’s mental health and resilience and life prospects.

In the novel, Abby says her demeanour is a bluff she’s worked up in a life lived between hostels and bars – ie it’s self-protection in a world that doesn’t feel safe for many women (and children – domestic violence and institutional violence are also in the book).

I think we’re all called on to try to answer some particular questions life has chucked at us – because of where we’re born and who we’re born to and what has happened to us along the way. Many writers are worrying away at those specific questions, either consciously or unconsciously, in their work. One of my ‘unanswerable’ life questions is about the correct response to violence: should we meet violence with violence, or is that the worst response (on a personal and international level)? And what constitutes self-defence on both those levels? And, of course, there’s a strong history of principled pacifism in Wales which I’m also aware of and engaging with in the novel.

Abby, I think, cares about the victims of violence, and she also wants to smash the perpetrators in the face while protecting herself from harm. It’s a difficult line to tread. It may look contradictory, but it makes sense to me.

As to her motivation… there are a few people in my life who give me hope. Even if I don’t see them for years, it’s important for me to know they are still in the world, doing their thing, and if they suddenly disappeared, I think I’d feel motivated to go and find them. Tegid is one of those people for Abby.

Abby’s social work is a big part of her character; the difficulties of working in social care aren’t something you gloss over. In fact, they drive Abby’s resistance to forging emotional connections. Did personal experience inform this choice for Abby’s backstory? If not, what did?

In the late ’80s I worked in a hostel for the long-term homeless in London, and in a day-centre for homeless people in the community. I saw some of the best and worst of what human beings are capable of doing to each other when they’re in dire situations. I didn’t do the job for long (a year maybe), but yes, it had a big effect on me. At the time, more than half of the city’s homeless had mental health problems. Now there is a high proportion of failed asylum seekers who are living in destitution and fear. Homelessness was a problem that seemed to recede in my life-time, and now it’s back with a vengeance (due to government policies). It tells us a lot about our society’s values.

I also think ‘care’-workers in a broad sense don’t get enough validation and ‘artistic’ representation (never mind financial remuneration) in our society, considering how important they are. Caring isn’t cool, I suppose, but oh what the carers could tell us.

I was really intrigued by Tegid’s eccentric map-making and his assertion that ordinance surveys and standard maps ultimately fail in their depiction of places – that they can’t contain fascinating and necessary information, like the people, events and history that forge geography into what we see today. Do you feel it’s important we recognise and research these cultural legacies, as residents (or perhaps visitors to) places in Wales – and elsewhere?

Yes! That would be fabulous! More psychogeographers, please. More writers of the ‘milltir sgwar’. I’m going to cheat here and quote a paragraph from a review I wrote of Mike Parker’s Real Powys:

Morag Rose of the Loiterers Resistance Movement tells me that the term psychogeography was coined by Guy Debord to name a pseudo-scientific and political method of subverting ‘the Spectacle’ – the overwhelming tendency of contemporary culture to make us all passive viewers of just the stuff we are meant to see and nothing more. Psychogeography is a way of wresting ourselves away from the main roads we’re funnelled down, and the tv screens we’re plonked in front of. As such, it encourages an active engagement with the ever-changing land and communities we live in, and the complex histories that have sculpted them.

On a mapping note, the novel was originally called (dis). On OS maps, it means ‘disused’, and that seemed to encapsulate for me both the landscape and the main characters. But I was told librarians would never forgive me, and no one would be able to find the book on Google, so it had to be changed!

Finally, we’d love to hear whether you are working on any new projects (or books, perhaps)?
As you’ve noticed, I like to take on (political) issues. A novel takes a long time and a lot of effort (outside trying to earn a living and bringing up kids), so it needs to engage me and deal with things that are important to me. I’ve been working on something to do with the off-shore finance system and its pernicious effects, but I’m not finding it easy. The novel as a form thrives on the individual, and on individual choices, whereas politics is often about systems and power structures where individuals have very little control or agency. We’ll see!

Thank you so much Helen, we wish you the best for what sounds like a challenging and fascinating new project! 

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