It’s raining steadily in the centre of Pontypridd as Rachel Trezise arrives for our interview, not that the rain seems to worry her. She pulls her hood up over her head as we scurry up the street towards an independent coffee shop which Rachel assures me is ‘nicer, and quieter’ than the major chains. She has a point, as we settle down to talk about her reimagining of Rhys Davies’s short story ‘Revelation’ it’s impossible not to enjoy the warm atmosphere and the smell of fresh bread and cakes. There’s something very authentic about the shop which serves as a bakery and a cafe and where our served at our table. Several times our discussion is interrupted by a man who seems to be in charge of the cafe, but is complaining that it is too warm. He opens the door to let in a stream of cool, damp air, before returning to check repeatedly that we are not getting too cold.
As our coffees arrive the conversation turns to Rachel’s version of ‘Revelation’, here she seems less certain than she did when choosing the coffee shop. I assure her that I really enjoyed reading the story, but she tells me that she is still uncertain about it. I ask why and a thoughtful expression crosses her face, ‘I think because it’s not the story I would write really, I was kind of forced into it by following the Rhys Davies story’ she admits. It’s the kind of honesty we’ve come to expect from Rachel since she first caught the attention of the literary world in 2006 when she won the inaugural Dylan Thomas Prize for her autobiographical novel In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl (2000). Since then she’s gone on to achieve further success with short story collections including Fresh Apples (2005) and Cosmic Latte (2013) and her 2014 play Tonypandemonium. Here she discusses why she chose ‘Revelation’ for her contribution to Wales Arts Review’s ‘Story: Retold’ series and how she came to bring a touch of Elvis to her interpretation of Rhys Davies’s work.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your story. Can I start by asking how you came to choose ‘Revelation’ for your story?
I picked it by the title. I thought ‘Revelation’ sounded like there would be some kind of revelation for the characters. I was really busy at the time, so I read the first few sentences and I could see that it was set in a mining area and thought it would be a good option. The story also seemed quite male and I wanted to concentrate more on male characters so I just thought I’d try it. And, in a way, the story sort of challenged me as well because I didn’t know it already. When I read back through the whole of Davies’s story later on I thought ‘oh God – this wasn’t what I expected at all!’
I chose the story partly because it was closest to me geographically as well, I knew it had to be set in the Rhondda for me so that was a big factor in my choice.
Although part of your story takes place in Porthcawl…
Yes, but there’s a bit of history with Porthcawl and Barry Island and their connection to the valleys areas. Everybody went there as a child either on a Saturday or in the summer in miner’s fortnight for a holiday.
Although I’ve never been to the Elvis Festival in Porthcawl actually, I can’t imagine anything worse to be honest! There was an underlying theme in the story about art and beauty, particularly when Gomer sees his work colleague’s wife naked and she’s depicted as being an object of beauty, almost like a work of art. So I wanted to get an element of that art into my story and music seemed like a natural way to do that, because there’s the piano in the original story, which was how I came to introduce Elvis to my version!
Did you consider any other writers before you decided on Rhys Davies?
I was torn between Rhys Davies and Gwyn Thomas and being really shallow about it I was flicking through these quite long Gwyn Thomas stories and I just didn’t have the time to read them through properly! Rhys Davies’s were much shorter and I felt I could work better with that! I dismissed Dylan Thomas because I just felt that there was too much Dylan Thomas going on at the time I was writing it and I really wanted to do something different.
You story does contain some key differences from Davies’s original, I noticed that you’ve changed the names of the main characters from the more traditional Welsh names of Vaughan, Blodwen and Gomer to the more anglicised Emma and Justin. You’ve also reversed the roles a little bit so that it is the male character who ultimately surprises his female partner in your story. What were the reasons behind those changes?
I suppose I was just thinking of the anglicised valley and my generation again. My grandmother’s called Blodwen and everything was Welsh, or had a Welsh connection in those days, but I think since then the culture became more anglicised so I wanted to incorporate that. I think things are maybe moving slowly back towards the Welsh again at the moment, but I wanted to reflect how the area is now and portray the Rhondda I know.
In terms of the role reversal, I thought that first of all I would try to write the story from the male point of view, but there was one part in Davies’s original that I really couldn’t get my head around. Blodwen wants a piano and Gomer ends up sort of bribing her by saying that she can have her piano if she will show herself to him naked and I felt I couldn’t write that. It didn’t seem genuine to me, so I had to change the roles a little there.
You’ve achieved a lot of success with the short story form and become quite well associated with it, do you see that form as your focus now? You’ve also been doing quite a lot of teaching, for example with the Arvon Foundation, has that experience changed your perception of writing?
No, I’m trying to master the novel! I started with In and Out of the Goldfish which was autobiographical so I didn’t have to plot it out or anything. It was different when it came to writing the next novel, because the agent wanted the next one and I didn’t have a clue where to start really. So I kept starting it, I started it three times, but I kept putting it down because it wasn’t going anywhere, or it was going too far, and every time I put it down I lost the thread a bit. Then somebody commissioned me to write a short story and I didn’t feel very sure about that either, but there was less restraint and the plot didn’t seem quite so important. It felt quite natural to me; writing short stories is my favourite thing to do above all else really, it feels like it suits me. I would definitely like to write another novel, but I’m sure that there will be more short stories along the way.
Teaching hasn’t really made much of a difference to how I write because the thing about the courses is that I often teach my students things that I don’t do myself. Things that I learned in University and I thought weren’t important, but I now tell my students because I can see that they are important.
You started your career with a very strong focus on Wales, especially the Rhondda area, but your last short story collection, Cosmic Latte, took an international approach. Is that an angle you’d like to include more of in your future work?
Well, kind of. The novel I’m working on at the moment is set, not so much in a completely different culture, but in the world of the Orthodox Jew and Stamford Hill. It started off in New York, but I’ve moved it back to London now. So yes I suppose it is connected to ideas about people from different cultures and different nationalities; I’m interested in differences and similarities.
Politics has been at the foreground of discussion with the recent General Election and Wales Arts Review has provided quite extensive coverage of the election and its relevance to Wales. Do you feel directly influenced by politics when you are writing, or do you feel like you are writing outside of that framework?
Events like that do affect my writing somewhere along the line, but it’s really about the people. I’m aware that all those things are happening, but it’s not something I focus on. I would say that perhaps it’s ‘political’ with a small ‘p’ because politics affects everyone, whether they realise it or not, especially in this area. As soon as there’s a large amount of unemployment and more education is not an option because it’s too expensive that takes a lot of choice away from people, it removes their ability to make a choice about their future. I think maybe we don’t realize how much it does influence us though. I was watching TV yesterday and there was an artist talking about sculpture and how he wanted art to be as popular as football, but I think art is as significant to people’s lives as football, but they’re more aware of football and sometimes those same people don’t notice that art is all around them.
Can you tell us a bit about what you are working on at the moment?
The novel, but also I’m trying to be really disciplined. The problem was I was working on too many different projects apart from the novel, it was going a bit wayward again and then the novel wasn’t getting done. What was happening was that I kept having to go off and teach somewhere or write something else and then I’d put the novel down for a week or so and I was losing it every time I did that. The problem with a novel is that it’s so much to hold in your head compared to a short story! I’ve dedicated two hours first thing in the morning to working on the novel, before I do anything else, before I even brush my teeth. That way I never have to leave it because, whatever I’m doing, I still manage those two hours in the morning and that seems to be working. I mean, I’m on the eighth or ninth draft now, but I’ve just accepted that it will happen when it happens! That’s the thing about writing, sometimes when I’m working all I change in a whole paragraph is a comma, but it takes time to do that editing and it’s a necessary part of the process.
Your writing career really took off after you won the inaugural Dylan Thomas Prize in 2006, what do you think about how the Prize has developed since then?
Well I mean it’s good really. When I won the Prize it was every two years and the prize money was £60,000 and of course now it’s run every year the prize money has dropped to £30,000 so I feel a bit sorry for the people now who only get £30,000 for winning it! It was a great way of getting recognised outside of Wales, but I don’t think they did themselves any favours letting me win it the first year actually, even though it was against international entries.
I just wish they wouldn’t keep changing things about it as well. I mean, they’ve changed the age limit now so you used to have to be under 30 to enter and now you only have to be under 39 and that doesn’t seem the same somehow. Maybe they didn’t think there were enough people under the age of 30 to enter it, but it doesn’t seem so much like a level playing field as there’s a lot of difference between being under 30 and being 39. Unless the change is meant to genuinely celebrate the life of Dylan Thomas and stick very closely to the details of his own life by reflecting the age he was when he died.
Do you think we need more prizes like that?
I suppose so, I mean you can get a bit sick of that kind of thing going on if it’s happening all the time, but there’s nothing in fifteen years of writing that has brought me the kind of attention that winning the Dylan Thomas Prize did. Looking back now I’m not sure what I would have done without it because I was really desperate to be published and well-known, so I don’t know really, I wish that everyone could have something like that to help launch their career.
You also did the Scritture Giovanni project, but we never hear as much about that, why do you think that is? Because in many ways in probably reaches out to just as many people and maybe to people who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to read your work…
I don’t know why that is actually. I mean I was pleased as punch when that happened because I got to go to other festivals and they took me under their wing a bit. To have that chance to have one of my stories translated and read by an actor in front of a huge audience in Italy was such a wonderful opportunity, even though I think my story was a bit rubbish! And of course out of that we sold In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl to be published in Italian, because the person who bought the rights was sitting in the audience at the festival and once he heard ‘Jigsaws’ being read he went to London and bought the rights to publish In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl in Italian straight away. That shows what a difference that project can make.
Finally, going back to ideas about place and setting and thinking about how you came to choose ‘Revelation’, a lot of projects have encouraged people to look at and engage with the places around them recently (e.g. Wales Arts Review’s Fiction Map of Wales etc). Do you think you can just choose a place and write about it, or do you have to have a pre-existing connection with a place? Do you think that there needs to be an anecdotal element to really engage with a place?
I think you have to have some knowledge or a feeling of knowing it well, so yes there is an anecdotal element. I did kind of pick places for the stories in Cosmic Latte, but they were all places which I’ve been, except for one set in Asia where I’ve never been; I just liked the story and it seemed like the right place to set it. I think that having a reason to write about a place is important.
I’ve always wanted to set something quite substantial in New York; I feel like I know it quite well as a place, but the problem is so do a lot of people. In a way I haven’t got a reason to write about it…Every time I sit down with an idea and seriously start to think about setting it in New York I always think to myself that New York gets so much exposure already as a place and whatever the story is it might be much better set in a smaller place.
As our conversation draws to a close the man from the coffee shop returns, worrying again about the door; ‘are you sure you’re not getting too cold ladies?’ he queries, hovering awkwardly next to our table. A nearby waitress ushers him away and we all suppress a smile as he ambles over to pose the same question to the people at a nearby table. I point out that you don’t get this kind of experience in most places and Rachel nods her head in agreement, but continues to smile. I’m left with the feeling that she wouldn’t have it any other way.
You can read ‘Revelation’ here.
Original Artwork by Dean Lewis.