Rhys Milsom interviews Cynan Jones on A Father in Zion, a retelling of Caradoc Evans’ A Father in Sion, as part of the Wales Arts Review Story: Retold series.
Cynan Jones was born in Wales in 1975. His first novel, The Long Dry, was published in 2006 and won a Betty Trask Award. Other books include Everything I Found on the Beach; Bird, Blood, Snow; The Dig; and Cove. His latest work, Stillicide, was published by Granta in 2019. His work has been translated into more than ten languages and republished in the United States.
The title of your piece, ‘A Father in Zion’, is extremely close to the original Caradoc Evans short story, ‘A Father in Sion’. Why did you choose the title to remain so closely named to the original?
Cynan Jones: I wanted to keep the disturbance that comes with Evans’s title: implicating the lead character with religious fervour. But I think in a good number of cases ‘Sion’ would be read as ‘Sean’, so I gave it the Z to disambiguate it.
Other titles that came to mind included: Fifty Grades of Neigh and Mother Does Nag…
Why did you choose to interpret ‘A Father in Sion’? Is Caradoc Evans an influence on you or is the story simply one you were interested in?
Cynan Jones: When I was asked to re-tell one of the stories from the collection, I started reading through them from the start. I was waiting for a ‘bingo’ moment, when something in a story stood immediately out. The line ‘Your mother is not as she should be’ was the trigger. I knew immediately what I wanted to do with the story, but it took a good deal of time to decide how exactly to handle that.
I got a feeling of unrest and turmoil when reading your story – was this aura intended?
Cynan Jones: Very much so. And that comes from the original, which I think is a deeply unnerving piece. It was important to deliver just enough detail to create that unrest without being clumsily gratuitous.
The Dig is your most well-received novel to date; winning Wales Book of the Year Fiction Prize 2015 and a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014. Was this the most enjoyable of your novels for you to write? If not, what was?
Cynan Jones: No. Bird, Blood, Snow was the most enjoyable. Like ‘A Father in Zion’, this was a re-telling of an existing tale – the Peredur tale, for Seren’s New Stories from the Mabinogion.
Each story demands how it should be approached, dictates the narrative style and so on. The Dig demanded a great deal of restraint, careful handling where the language necessarily grew more Gothic, and an overall sense of proximity to the events and characters of the story. That meant being very disciplined in the writing.
Bird, Blood, Snow was altogether more playful. It felt instinctively right to break rules, show off, and surprise the reader. I’ve said it before. It was a bicycle kick. How can you not love a bicycle kick?
Your work is known to be remarkably compressed, was this a skill you worked on or did it come naturally as part of your writing process?
I think copywriting helped teach me not to fall for my own prose. Every word should be doing a job. That fed in, I’m sure, to the compression. But I also think the more clear you are about what you want to say, the fewer words you need to say it. This, along with a great trust in the reader’s ability to fill in gaps, join the dots, colour in pictures, has convinced me to write the way I do.
Your next novel Cove has been announced for publication in 2016 by Granta. Can you give us any information on what the novel is about? If not, is it similar to your previous work in style?
Cynan Jones: A man goes out on a kayak and gets hit by lightning.
You live on the West coast of Wales, would you say this has had an effect on your writing in the sense of influence/writing process?
Cynan Jones: I’m a product of this place, and it’s a place I value very greatly. Having written a number of weak stories about displaced people floating round ambiguous urban settings, The Long Dry was a breakthrough. A story about the sort of people I intimately knew, set somewhere I understood completely. It made me realise stories could happen here and still be compelling beyond the world I’m describing. The translation deals make that clear.
What are you reading at the moment?
Cynan Jones: I’ve just finished Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Brilliant, brilliant writing. I’m eyeing the reading pile trying to decide what to follow it with.
Finally, I know you to be a connoisseur of fine wines. As Christmas is approaching, are there any in particular you would recommend as we all settle down with a glass and a good book as the nights get darker and the days get colder?
Cynan Jones: Remember a £10 wine is around 25 times better than a £5 wine. Given a pint of Guinness is generally near a fiver nowadays, man up and spend £10 – £15 on a decent bottle of something. You’ll drink it slower, and get a lot more from it.
Currently, white, I’m really enjoying Hungarian Dry Furmint. (I’m about to demolish a bottle of Isabella Zwack’s ‘Dobogo’ with tonight’s pork roast). Come Autumn, reds, I start craving Nebbiolo. Earthy, moody stuff.
You can read ‘A Father in Zion’ here
More of Wales Arts Reviews’ features on Cynan Jones can be found here.