Francesca Rhydderch

In Conversation with Francesca Rhydderch

Francesca Rhydderch’s début novel, The Rice Paper Diaries, has been longlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award 2014 and shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year Award 2014. Her short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies, and have been broadcast on Radio 4 and Radio Wales. She is currently working on a collection of short fiction.​

John Lavin: ‘Love: A Pathology’ is a sombre work about death, the passing of time and also, I think, about the innate separateness of the individual. These seem to me to constitute some of the major themes of your work. Would you agree, and if so, would you care to elaborate a little on these themes?

Francesca Rhydderch: Anya, the main character of ‘Love: A Pathology’ is very much an outsider. She lives between languages – her native Russian, and English, with Welsh in the background – and this is paralleled in the difficulty she has reading the people around her. That little piece at the opening of the story about the medical dictionary and the diagrams on the wall is just a bit of black humour in one sense – verbal playfulness on my part, even if Anya refuses to see it – but on another level it’s deadly serious.

The feeling of having lived through a significant moment alongside a character is for me one of the most satisfying aspects of reading as well as writing fiction. With Anya, I wanted to manipulate time in that ambiguous, elastic way that is only possible in a short story, in the hope that by the end we have a sense of what can be considered the sum of her life, ordinary yet precious.

What was the inspiration behind the story?

I like the between-ness of journeys, even when you are very close to home – the notion that when you are in neither one place nor another you can step out of the self that your friends and family know and be a blank page for the person sitting opposite. That’s where a story can begin. Apart from that, I’m not quite sure where this story came from. Sometimes I will work my way quite deep into a piece before I know exactly what it is about: for example, I’m working on a story at the moment which started out as a very different version over a year ago – so different that it includes barely a word of the original draft. ‘Love’, on the other hand, had a very clear shape in my mind right from the beginning, dynamised by the constant movement of all the characters through place as well as time. I am still learning my craft as a short story writer, but I do have a much better sense now of when a story is finished, and if it is ‘right’ or not – or at least as ‘right’ as I can make it.

One similarity between ‘Love: A Pathology’ and your debut novel, The Rice Paper Diaries, is that both contrast the lush, verdant spaces of West Wales with more urban environments (Hong Kong in the case of Rice, and an unspecified Russian city in ‘Love…’). Could you tell us a little bit about the thinking behind this? It seems to me to be a very effective device in that it serves to highlight the otherness of both locations.

The Rice Paper Diaries was a gift in that respect, and I immersed myself completely in each landscape as far as I could when I was working on the book. I discovered too, though, that distance was just as important: writing about New Quay turned out to be possible only if I wrote from the oblique, slanted perspective of Mari, the little girl born in Hong Kong who comes ‘home’ to a place she has never known.

I love the layered effect that fiction can create by moving between different places. My characters are often far from home, which contributes to their sense of alienation, their awareness of their own outsiderness. I have always been fascinated by Freud’s sense of the uncanny, Das Unheimliche, the ‘opposite of what is familiar’, the ‘un-homely’. Home is itself of course an increasingly complicated place for most of us in these post-colonial, multicultural times, and in Wales this has a particular resonance because of our language, culture and history.

Your debut novel, The Rice Paper Diaries (2013), which has just been shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year Award and long-listed for The Author’s Club Best First Novel Award, was inspired by the life of your great-aunt Menna Wilders, née Gillies, and, accordingly, feels like a very strongly felt, deeply personal work. Is it a novel – it feels like one – that you had always felt that you would write?

Yes, I wanted to write a book that would connect the women in my family, commemorating and exploring our experiences in a fictional form. The Rice Paper Diaries is partly about what the ‘front line’ meant for women during the Second World War. It’s no coincidence that much of the drama in the novel (apart from Tommy’s section in the prisoner-of-war camp, of course) takes place in the home, often in the kitchen, in both Hong Kong and Wales.

I was also conscious that there are plenty of novels which record the British ex-pat experience in the Far East, and numerous commercial fiction titles about Hong Kong during the Second World War. I wanted to do something a little bit different: firstly, to write a story about a Welsh woman in Hong Kong, not an English one, and secondly, to find a form that might do justice in its own small way to the experience of war, which is both overwhelmingly plural and intensely individual. That’s why The Rice Paper Diaries is written from four different viewpoints, with Lin’s section loosely mimicking the letter form and Tommy’s piece presented in the style of a ship’s logbook.

Now that I’ve stepped back from the writing of it, I can see that the novel was also for my mother, as she died quite young and quite suddenly in the 1990s, just a year after Menna. Although Mari is a character – very much her own person, on the page – I can see elements of my mother in her, and of my daughter, and maybe of me too. When I was writing the book, my daughter, who was just starting to find out about the world and her place in it, would often surprise me with questions about my mother – What colour were her eyes? What was her favourite flower? What did her voice sound like? – and The Rice Paper Diaries was my way of answering some of these questions. It became the place where we could all meet.

Part of the novel takes place in Stanley Internment Camp on Hong Kong Island. That must have been a difficult subject to imagine and portray so convincingly. How did you go about entering into that world? Was there a lot of research required?

My great-aunt chose never to speak of her experiences, although both she and her husband survived. I later discovered that this silence was a very common symptom of the trauma experienced by former prisoners-of-war, especially those who had been interned in the Far East. There are fortunately a few key publications and websites which bring together a handful of interview transcripts and memoirs, and these first-person accounts were invaluable.

One of my uncles, who was a young man when Menna and her husband Cosmo came back from the war, remembers Cosmo telling him that they had been so hungry at Stanley sometimes they had eaten grass just to fill their stomachs, and at night Cosmo used to chew his blankets. Both these vivid touches went into Tommy’s logbook in The Rice Paper Diaries. All the same, when I started writing I put the research to one side and focused on the story. It was as important to me to use my imagination to fill in the gaps as it was to ground the novel in historical fact.

I very much admire the way that you handle the novel’s format i.e. the way that it is told from the point of view of four different characters. For one thing it draws attention to the distance and the differences between people who would ostensibly appear to be very close. For another, it chronicles the passing of time in a way that feels very true, i.e. nothing feels pinned down and certain, and everything appears open to a different interpretation. What was your reasoning behind writing the novel in this way? Did it seem as though the best way to approach a subject as large as this was to approach it from several different angles?

I’m glad you thought it worked! The joy of interweaving different perspectives and voices is that you can create ambiguity and ambivalence. Historical sagas often read like a true rather than a fictional record of events, however deftly they are written (and that is their attraction for many readers, of course). In The Rice Paper Diaries, I wanted my reader to step into the shoes of each character in turn: each section can therefore only offer us a partial and partisan version of the war and its after-effects. By the time we reach Mari’s section of the book, when the family comes home to Wales, the reader is in possession of more of the story than any of the characters who are living through the events themselves. This, combined with all that Mari simply cannot know because she is so young, was intended to contribute to the emotion of the final chapters.

I understand that you’ve (in association with Wales Arts International), recently been to China to promote The Rice Paper Diaries. Considering the subject-matter of the novel, this must have been felt like a very rewarding and appropriate expedition. Did this prove to be the case? Could you tell us a little bit about the trip?

I had been to Hong Kong before, but not to mainland China. I was invited to take part in the Bookworm International Literary Festival, which involved travelling to different cities to read at offshoot events as well as at the main festival in Beijing. I also visited universities to talk to students, and had a meeting in Shanghai to discuss translation possibilities. It was a short trip – just over week – and what made it was so productive was the collaborative support work done in advance at this end by Wales Literature Exchange, Literature Across Frontiers and Wales Arts International. The Shanghai Translation Publishing House has just announced its intention to buy the rights to publish The Rice Paper Diaries in Chinese translation, and it’s hoped this will be the beginning of an ongoing publishing exchange between Wales and China which will benefit other authors, not just me.

Beijing has a population of 21 million, while Shanghai, at 24 million, is the largest city in the world. Coming from a small country of 3 million people to a continent as huge and complicated as China was bound to be a culture shock. But what I love most about travelling is getting to know people. One day I got lost on the way to Tiananmen Square on the Beijing metro at rush hour, but several people took the time to stop and help me find where I needed to go to get back on the right line. They were so kind, despite my lack of Mandarin and their lack of English – they didn’t seem to mind being stuck poring over a map in an underground station crammed with impatient commuters, tourists, soldiers and police.

Do you have a particular writing routine?

I write when my children are at school or asleep. Things become more complicated during the school holidays, but either way I try to write as early in the day as possible, before I hear my son and daughter calling ‘Mam, Mam,’ around the house. I also work as a freelance editor, so I usually spend time every day reading other people’s work, which can be very beneficial. I don’t need a room of my own, just a laptop: head space is more essential to me than physical space from other people. When I am travelling, I use it as an opportunity to write until my eyes are ready to drop out.

Are there any writers, do you think, who have specifically influenced or inspired you as a writer?

There are so many – I don’t know where to begin! At the centre of my reading life are Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Roberts and Virginia Woolf: three extraordinary women writers of the twentieth century who were deeply engaged in politics, philosophy and journalism as well as fiction.

I tend to read a lot of work by one author and then move on to another one. Last year it was Muriel Spark, Raymond Carver and Alice Munro. At the moment I am working my way through Joyce Carol Oates’ short stories. She’s a wonderful writer: relentlessly dark and subtle, and very much in charge.

You also recently wrote a Welsh-language play about Kate Roberts, entitled Cyfaill, which was shortlisted for the Welsh Theatre Critics Award 2014. Could you tell us a little bit about this work?

When I was commissioned by Theatr Bara Caws to write a play based on the life of the Kate Roberts, I decided to concentrate on the months following the sudden death of her husband Morris Williams in 1946 from alcoholism. There has recently been renewed interest in Roberts’s life and work, much of it focused on Morris’s alleged sexual relationship with fellow writer Prosser Rhys. Kate Roberts was forced re-examine her marriage following Morris’s sudden, tragic death: this was an extremely painful period for her, out of which emerged some of her greatest work as a writer. In Cyfaill I draw a parallel with one of Roberts’s own works, Tywyll Heno (Dark Tonight), a novella about a minister’s wife who has a nervous breakdown. It’s an incredibly powerful and in many ways a very modern book.

I also revisited books such as Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story and Simone de Beauvoir’s La Femme Rompue (‘The Woman Destroyed’) in order to bring a broader female perspective to the story.

Do you find writing in Welsh a markedly different creative experience compared to writing in English?

That’s a difficult question to answer because I am so steeped in fiction that writing a play for the first time was in itself like learning another language. As for the linguistic divide between English and Welsh, this was a drama that couldn’t have been written in English – it had to be written in Welsh for a Welsh-speaking audience. However, although I’m fluent in Welsh, I had all my education in English, and I have never previously been tempted to write in what is technically my second language. Having said that, our family language is Welsh, and it is my children’s mother tongue, so the balance has been tipping in favour of Welsh for some time now.

Finally, what next? Is there another novel on the horizon?

I will be working on a collection of short stories for the rest of the year – I’ve fallen in love with the short story as a form and am finding it difficult to tear myself away from it, but once the collection is finished I’ll be ready to write another novel, which will be set in Cardiff. Last summer we moved here from Aberystwyth and the world of my imagination seems to have migrated with me! I love living in the city – there is so much to say about it – and I can’t wait to write it into my fiction.

John Lavin and Francesca Rhydderch will both be in conversation with Adrian Masters at ‘Literature on the Lawn‘, part of the Caerleon Festival. The event, also featuring Jon Gower and Joao Morais, seeks to explain and explore Wales Arts Review’s ongoing project to ‘map Wales in fiction’ in association with the Rhys Davies Trust.

Illustration by Dean Lewis