In the latest of a new series of Q&A’s with some of Wales’s leading artists, musicians, performers, and writers, former Children’s Laureate of Wales Eloise Williams talks about her inspirations, her battles with self-belief, and Beyoncé.
Where are you from and how does it influence your work?
I’m from Llantrisant, a small town with a big history. It has influenced my work massively. Firstly, I grew up opposite a library, so I fell in love with reading when I was very young. Then we moved – about ten houses up the road – and I grew up a bit more opposite the site of the first cremation in Britain, so I fell in love with the past. There was a castle ruin up the alley from the back of both houses and I spent a lot of time there. My mother would whistle us in for tea or we’d come back after dark. In the summers there were festivals where people would beat the bounds of the town, bands played on the bullring and revellers danced in the street. It was quite a raucous celebration and it happened right on my doorstep. Everyone was poor. I don’t think you ever forget being poor. My parents were young, and fun, and bohemian in many ways. My sister was the very opposite of me, and brilliant because of it.
My work is influenced by all these experiences. The drama and scruffiness. The wildness of the nearby landscape and of being a child in the Seventies and Eighties when you made your own fun. I have always been quite awkward and felt like an outsider, and I embrace that in my writing. I suppose, when it comes down to it, I still feel about twelve-years-old and like I don’t fit.
Where are you while you answer these questions, and what can you see when you look up from the page/screen?
I’m in the living room of my cottage. I can see an old miner’s lamp and an iron kettle against a yellow wall. A half-made wreath which I’m trying to fashion out of hagstones, feathers, shells, driftwood, a small buoy and other found bits. It isn’t going all that smoothly at the moment – I think I may have reached the end of my creative talents with it. A teapot of magenta sweet peas and a curiosity cabinet. Out of one window, a copper wind-spinner catches the sun, and breezy trees sway making the light in the room green. From the other, I can see Monkstone Point – cliffs which look like monks bent in prayer – and a very small sea glimpse.
I’m a messy person by nature. I have an unsigned contract (nothing exciting) next to me, a screwdriver and a box are abandoned on the floor, a printer’s tray and a mirror balance against a wall, there’s a stack of books threatening to topple and kill the dog. The whole place could do with a really good clean but I’m a huge fan of spiders so I’m going with a Halloween aesthetic all year round.
What motivates you to create?
I’m not sure exactly. An ache. A search for meaning, possibility, connection. An emptiness. A restlessness. Beauty and sorrow. Fear and hope.
What are you currently working on?
I’m toying with lots of ideas. Annoyingly, I have to wait to see which one persists. I’ve made a couple of notes on each and now I’m giving myself a bit of thinking time. It’s something I’ve learned to allow myself between books.
When do you work?
Being quite chaotic, I’ve tried to fashion a routine and found it impossible. I struggle with anything timetabled or repetitive. Most of my writing is done when I’m least expecting it. Walking through woods, swimming in the almost-warm waters of Saundersfoot Bay, sitting in the garden waiting for a goldcrest to land. I think a lot, and then I write a lot. If I’m working to a deadline, I often get up around five and write while it’s quiet. Of course, it depends on how many school visits, events, and other work I have booked in. I learned that to be creative I need to keep some time back to be alone and I need to think my way into a story. Forcing words onto the screen just doesn’t work for me.
How important is collaboration to you?
It’s such a joy to work collaboratively. Writing can be a very solitary affair so having the energy, expertise and ideas of others is a huge bonus. I’ve been incredibly lucky with the teams at Firefly Press, Barrington Stoke and Unbound. The process of crowdfunding then working with a large team of authors on The Mab was so interesting. I like the mixture of working alone and working with others. It suits me perfectly.
Who has had the biggest impact on your work?
My husband. He’s an artist so he understands the pursuit of that illusive something. Whenever I face rejection or feel I’m not good enough at what I do, he tells me I was born to write. I’m not certain it’s true but he means it sincerely, and though I often think I was born to be confused, I do find some sense of peace in writing.
What was the first book you remember reading?
I think it was probably ‘Me and the Yellow-Eyed Monster’ by Barbara Shook Hazen. I don’t remember anything about it except that the book is designed so that you can insert the reader’s name as the protagonist. I, or the Eloise in the book, solved the mystery though I can’t remember what the mystery was. Something about a yellow-eyed monster I’d guess.
What was the last book you read?
It was The Virago Book of Women Gardeners edited by Deborah Kellaway. I like to think of myself as being very rock and roll these days.
Is there a painting/sculpture you struggle to turn away from?
Yes. There’s a small painting I first saw in the National Museum Cardiff. It’s called ‘Buildings in Naples’ and it’s by Thomas Jones. There’s something fascinating about its apparent simplicity. It brings the heat of the city with it, and you can imagine yourself into the landscape. I love it when art transports you like that.
Who is the musical artist you know you can always return to?
David Bowie. My dad used to sing his songs to me when I was a baby in my cot, so I guess he’s been the soundtrack to my life. I sometimes write with Bowie in the background. I find his work comforting, and I admire the way he changed his creative path in so many ways.
Also, if I can sneak another in, Beyonce.
During the working process of your last work, in those quiet moments, who was closest to your thoughts?
My grandmother, Ruth. She came from Dusseldorf just after World War Two to marry my grandfather, George, who had been posted in the city to help with the recovery of the area. I’ve been thinking of how brave she was to have come to Wales at that time. It can’t have been an easy choice and I think their love must have been very strong. She’s been gone for about twenty-five years now, but I still think of her often.
Do you believe in God?
Do you believe in the power of art to change society?
Yes, I do. Writing saved me. I think the more generous we are in providing opportunities for everyone to be included, the more we will be connected to ourselves and each other. There’s so much joy to be shared.
I wish there was more emphasis on art and play in the education system. I worked with a Year Eight pupil who told me that he’d had an imagination when he was young but had lost it. Working creatively with me and his peers made it come back. The thought that he’d lost his imaginative self by the age of twelve was so sad. It has really stayed with me. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone felt free to dream, to follow their curious spirit, to play?
Which artist working in your area, alive and working today, do you most admire and why?
I’m going to cheat a little here and go for an author who lives across the water in Gower. Jane Fraser. She came to writing a bit later in life and uses her work to illuminate the voices of the people of her area, past and present. I just find her inspirational as a person, and her writing is so moving and beautiful. I often wave across the water to Worm’s Head and think of her. I hope somehow her talent will magically wash across with the waves and I’ll get just a tiny bit of it in my own writing.
What is your relationship with social media?
I’ve made some great connections via it and I’m grateful for those, but I worry about the impact it has on people’s mental health. I worry about young people using it to try to live up to an everchanging, unreachable perfection. I worry that it turns people into products. I worry about a lot of things. I’ve seen it make people, and I’ve seen it ruin people.
On a personal level, I’ve been down the comparison route and thankfully realised it’s a damaging and draining path. I’ve taken myself off that path completely. I’m perfectly happy with what I have and with what I’ve achieved. When I’ve written a book, I do my best to shout about it on social media and I’m interested in what other people are doing, but there’s no room for doomscrolling or envy in my life. Give me photos of the moon, sunsets, quirky bookshops, beaches, whales, Wales, wolves, and I’m there for it.
What has been/is your greatest challenge as an artist?
Self-belief. I am my own greatest enemy.
Do you have any words of advice for your younger self?
Yes. There is nothing wrong with being a quiet person.
What does the future hold for you?
Who knows? I try not to think much past today. This evening, I’ll go for a swim, wander around the garden doing very little, then read a good book. Who could want for anything else?
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Eloise Williams is a novelist and former Children’s Laureate of Wales.