In celebration of twenty-five years of writing, and his recent win at the Wales Book of the Year Awards, John Sam Jones sat down to speak to Emma Schofield about his life and career. Here, he talks about what it meant to win the Creative Non-Fiction Award for his memoir, The Journey Is Home, the significance of giving voice to overlooked narratives and his recent prostate cancer diagnosis.
It’s a chilly November morning the day I sit down at my desk for my Zoom call with John Sam Jones. Preparing for this interview I realise that while this will be the first time I’ve actually met Jones, I’ve been reading his work for almost two decades; I make a mental note not to act like I’ve known him forever. In reality, once we begin chatting that seems impossible to do. Jones chats easily and warmly about his work and his life in Germany; at one point leaning back in his chair so that I can get a proper view of the jumper that he’s wearing, which he proudly informs me he has knitted himself. There’s a lot to talk about, Jones is due to undergo surgery to remove a cancerous prostate gland in just under a fortnight’s time and the looming surgery has prompted a reflective mood. We start with happier things and a look back to Jones’ win in the Wales Book of the Year Awards earlier this year.
Emma Schofield: It’s been quite a year for you. Winning the Wales Book of the Year, Creative Non-Fiction award for The Journey Is Home must have felt like a very significant moment in a number of ways. How did it feel to gain that recognition for a book that is actually a memoir, and is essentially your own story that you’ve put out there in such detail?
John Sam Jones: Yes, yes, it really was. The thing is it was huge for a number of different reasons. Back in the summer I actually heard you on the Review Show on BBC Radio Wales, talking about the Wales Book of the Year Awards, and you said how glad you were to see me on the shortlist because I was “under-recognised”; until then I’d never thought about that before and it really made me start thinking about my career. I wrote a novel last year and had a great time writing it, then sent it to Richard Davies at Parthian and in January he sent me an email back saying, “sorry” – he didn’t like it and couldn’t say much more about it. So from January until I heard that I’d been nominated for the Award, I was in the doldrums and felt like I’d never write again. I’d never had much confidence in my writing anyway, but being shortlisted for the Award and then having your words in my ear suddenly felt like a real commendation for twenty five years of work and I was happy with that, it was wonderful.
I think when I said that about you being under-recognised it was because I vividly remember reading Welsh Boys Too for the first time when I was student and it just being completely different from other books from Wales that I’d read up to that point. It was something that people weren’t writing about in literature from Wales and I feel as if it was time someone put everything you’ve done together and said “well, at look what he’s achieved across those twenty five years”. Which is why I thought it was really nice that you were nominated for the WBOTY Award for a book which was about you and your life.
John Sam Jones: It’s interesting because I’ve always thought of myself as a health professional, not as a writer, and I’ve got so much fulfilment from that role. Writing was always something that I’ve done because I had to. When I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to go to California to study, I studied Theology and I did a course that was entitled Theology in the Novels of Elie Wiesel. He was a holocaust survivor and he went to work in the US and became a professor of philosophy, before writing a number of novels that tried to help him and other survivors understand their experience. So this course I took was taught partly by him and one of the things I remember him for is that he was just very humble and very quiet about his experience. He believed that part of the responsibility he had as part of the holocaust was that he bore a witness to it and that he shared that testimony, which he did through writing novels.
That struck a chord with me. I went to America five or six years after I’d experienced electric shock aversion therapy. Now that is an absolute atrocity and when I went to California I couldn’t have articulated the fact that I probably had post-traumatic stress syndrome. I was a completely broken person, sexually, and that’s part of what we explore in The Journey is Home. This links to another book I’d read by Viktor Frankl, who’d written a book called Man’s Search for Meaning, where he talks about his tactic for surviving months in a concentration camp by trying to find meaning in every day. Somehow those two things came together and during my time in California I started to get the sense that maybe one of the meanings to my life was that I had to bear witness to the appalling thing that happened to me.
Emma Schofield: Why is it so important that we write about these experiences, even when they aren’t easy to approach? I’m thinking of things like your own description of your experience with electric shock aversion therapy and the subsequent trauma that came from that. We instinctively shy away from subjects that make us uncomfortable, but maybe memoirs are particularly powerful in that respect… There’s nowhere to hide from those topics in a memoir, you have to confront them.
John Sam Jones: Yes, this is it. You could find no literature about aversion therapy, there were very few witnesses and part of the reason for that is that so many people committed suicide. There were two kinds of aversion therapy, electric shock aversion therapy, which I don’t describe so much in The Journey is Home, but I’ve described it in Crawling Through Thorns. There was also chemical aversion therapy, where people were given drugs to make them ill and then just left in their own vomit and diarrhoea for days on end with gay pornographic film being shown to them all the time. So the whole concept was linking something negative with your homosexuality. What that did for me was to close down my sexual response altogether, it didn’t change it. The Journey is Home ended up being written because Richard Davies kept on at me asking me to write more about how I’d pulled myself back from electric shock aversion therapy. I’d described it in detail in Crawling Through Thorns, but I hadn’t explored how I’d reclaimed myself after that. In a small way I was able to do that through The Journey is Home, perhaps because it’s only referenced in relation to me having electric treatment to save my heart, that juxtaposition made it possible to address it in that way. It felt right to explore it. All of which is to say that I became a writer because I felt that I had a responsibility to be a witness, not just to electric shock aversion therapy, but to what it was like to be a gay young man of that generation, in Wales.
Emma Schofield: It sounds as if that sense of responsibility became your purpose…
John Sam Jones: Yes, it did and another thread that came together for me when I was in Berkley, was that I took a course in feminist theology. This was back in 1981 and the men had to sit outside the lecture theatre and watch it on a video screen. Only women were allowed in the lecture theatre, because there was some concern about the power balance and a worry that if men were in the lecture theatre they would somehow take over and be the ones asking the questions. We read a book by Carol Christ called Women Writers on Spiritual Quest and her opening paragraph said that women’s stories have not been properly told and without stories, we have no way of articulating our experience. It was followed by a whole series of writings about reclaiming stories and it woke me up to my male privilege and to how his-story had silenced her-story. I also realised that we’re doing the same thing with gay men’s stories. Without stories we have no articulation of experience and that’s exactly what I felt when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen; I had no way of articulating what I felt was happening to me. That’s how Welsh Boys Too came about, it was my effort to give voice to those stories that hadn’t been told. I did re-edit my whole thought process later on when I realised it’s not true that there were no gay stories, but there were no gay stories written by gay men… just the hearsay stories handed down over generations that homosexuals were all just that mad, bad, sad; we were swimming in a sea of negativity. What I wanted to do through Welsh Boys Too and Fishboys of Vernazza was tell a different story – the ‘first-hand’ story. I wanted to take a fragment of truth and say “what if?” and those stories resonated with audiences around the world.
Emma Schofield: These narratives have always been concealed, something that wasn’t grounded in real life and fact. That’s what stood out to me about your writing, that the narrative of being gay in Wales was just there as a part of everyday life.
John Sam Jones: That was so important to me. When Welsh Boys Too came out, Parthian asked which influential people we should send review copies to and I didn’t have a clue. My life has been as a health education professional, not a literary expert, so I said, with my tongue in my cheek, send it to the cabinet in the new Welsh Assembly. So they did and I had a lovely letter from Rhodri Morgan saying what an important piece of writing it was, thanking me and saying how beautifully written and lyrical it was, He spoke in his letter of how it had made him think about things in a way he hadn’t before. Then I started getting letters as well from people who’d read it and were saying “thank you – this has saved my life” and in many respects, I’m satisfied with my legacy as a writer; I don’t need to be on a list of the most influential gay people in Wales or anything like that. It’s just enough to know that I’ve touched peoples’ lives in that way.
I went to a book reading in Caernarfon when Fishboys of Vernazza was on the longlist for the WBOTY and at that time all of the longlist books would go on a tour around Wales. So I went to Caernarfon and there were about 20 people there and there was this guy who stood at the back looking serious and wearing a leather jacket and he came up to me at the end. Part of me thought he was going to hit me, but he said, in Welsh, “I just want to thank you for your books, because they’ve helped me understand my son”. I didn’t need anymore than that. That was enough.
Emma Schofield: Going back to that thought about Welsh identity and your legacy as a writer from Wales, I wondered whether it was all the more significant for you that The Journey is Home was published simultaneously in Welsh and English?
John Sam Jones: That was hugely important to me. I’m a man who lives with enormous privilege; my husband and I have been on a double income, with no kids, for thirty-six years and over the years we’ve inherited as well, so we’re in a fortunate position that when Parthian agreed to The Journey is Home I could offer to pay for the Welsh translation and publication. One of the biggest frustrations of my writing career is that although I’m a fluent Welsh speaker, I can’t write decent Welsh prose. I just don’t seem to have that ability in Welsh. So I paid Sian Northey, who is wonderful, to do that translation and we sent an early copy to the Welsh Books Council who offered to pay for the translation. I didn’t know Sian personally, but she was just lovely and because we both come from the same area, and have the same kind of Welsh, and I could read what she’d written and have input into the nuance of that. So I was hugely pleased that we did that and actually, it was read more in Welsh than in English before the WBOTY nomination.
Emma Schofield: Of course, the WBOTY Awards also coincided with a significant time in your personal life. I know plans were underway for a tour and some celebrations to mark The Journey is Home winning the Creative Non-Fiction prize, but those have been derailed by your recent cancer diagnosis…
John Sam Jones: That was the irony of the timing. It was so wonderful to be shortlisted for the WBOTY Award, but then circumstances took over and it all fell a bit flat for a while. Prostate cancer had always been there in the background as a potential threat. My Dad had died from it and it was a painful and horrible death. Because of that I’d always been aware of the importance of getting checked and there had been a few changes over time, just getting up more times to go to the toilet in the night etc. So I got checked and it was fine, but they wanted to monitor it with annual checks. Then in June, they did the checks and my levels were raised and that was the first indication of what was going on. From there I was diagnosed and then told I’d need to have the prostate gland removed.
Of course, there is a kind of grief associated with it as well and this is another thing that isn’t really talked about when people discuss prostate cancer. There are many men, gay and straight, who do enjoy prostate orgasms; they’re a whole-body experience and the removal of the prostate gland means an end to that. Yes, it’s the removal of a prostate gland, but it’s also the loss of a part of my sexuality and there is a process of grief involved in that.
What really struck me was when I had the appointment to discuss the surgery and the doctor talked about the potential side-effects of the removal of prostate gland and the possibility for complications. He spoke about the risk of erectile dysfunction and the potential for loss of bladder control and the need to relearn that, so I mentioned it and said “of course, I won’t be able to have a prostate orgasm any more” and he just looked at me. He looked at me like I was talking a foreign language.
Emma Schofield: Because the focus is predominantly on the functional side of things? It’s not really a topic we hear much about…
John Sam Jones: No and it’s strange because probably the only comparison you could make would be to the female G-spot and yet that is discussed and talked about. There was nothing to talk about that loss and the sense of grief I’m experiencing at knowing I’ll never be able to feel that prostate orgasm again. Of course, it’s necessary and the surgery is vital, but that doesn’t make that loss any less significant. We should talk about these things, they’re a part of the process of undergoing this kind of treatment and they add another layer of emotion to that diagnosis.
Emma Schofield: Keeping those emotions and that sense of loss in mind, where do you go from here as a writer? Will any of this be reflected in the work we see from you next?
John Sam Jones: Oh, absolutely. I’m not sure it’s what everyone wants to read, but it’s another example of a narrative that needs telling. It took me a long time to write The Journey is Home, there is quite a gap between Crawling Through Thorns and The Journey is Home and I really started writing it after we made the move to Germany and I started thinking about the politics of it all. It started out more about that process of moving to Germany, leaving Britain and taking the piss out of Britain!
The same may happen here. The book that I’m writing now is evolving in real-time and is taking that prostate cancer diagnosis as its starting point. That story needs to be told and I’m writing it and letting it unfold as we go along. The strange thing about it is, I don’t know how that story will go because I’m finding out about it as it happens. It’s a fascinating, but also quite scary, place to be and we’ll see where it takes us.
The Journey is Home: Notes from A Life On the Edge is available now from Parthian Books.