John Lavin interviews Cynan Jones to deliver the inside scoop on his latest novel The Dig, and learn more about his writing process.
Cynan Jones was born in Wales in 1975. The Long Dry won a 2007 Betty Trask Award from the Society of Authors and saw the author nominated as the 2008 Hay Festival Scritture Giovani. A chapter of The Dig was published by Granta Magazine and shortlisted for the 2013 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award in which it won the readers vote but not the £30,000 prize. The Dig – published in January to widespread critical acclaim – won a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize earlier this year and is so far to be translated into French, Dutch, Turkish, German and Spanish. The Long Dry is also translated into Arabic, Turkish, French and Italian and Everything I Found on the Beach into the latter two languages. Earlier this year, Granta republished the backlist in cooperation with Parthian. U.S. publishers Coffee House will publish The Dig in the States next Spring, and the backlist will follow. The Dig is newly available in paperback. Cynan lives near Aberaeron on the Ceredigion coast.
The Dig is, for me, without doubt the best Welsh novel to be published this year. And while I am not as a rule particularly interested in ideas of nationhood when it comes to literature, I do think that in the case of this novel that it is a particularly Welsh work, or perhaps I should say a particularly west Walian work. This is to say that it is a work that intimately understands the Ceredigion landscape in which it is set, as well as the people who inhabit it. Indeed I have previously lived in Ceredigion myself, but I felt as though I came away from this book feeling as though I understood the area with a great deal more clarity. Quite a lot of fictional books about Wales are happy to live with clichés relating to the country but this novel – quite rightly – doesn’t even remotely acknowledge such concerns. Rather, it is unflinchingly honest. It asks the reader, really, to bear witness to the events that it so unnervingly portrays.
Was it a difficult book to write?
Cynan Jones: I need to be clear about what I want to write before starting on a book. If I am clear, the difficult aspects are structure and final narrative decisions.
In terms of the difficulty of the emotional and factual material, badger baiting, and for that matter lambing, any mammalian birth, is blood-ridden and potentially terrifying. Some of the research was harrowing, but those were the facts. I had to write them clearly. It’s about triggering reactions without being overtly shocking. The reader will take it from there.
The key challenge of The Dig was to keep two characters mostly apart and yet deliver a sense of impending collision.
There was also the use of the language itself. Heightened, more poeticised language for Daniel, without pushing over into crass poeticism. More fundamental, physical language for the Big Man to mirror his antisocialness, and to portray horrible acts without judging.
If I get these things wrong, the reader bears a wrong witness.
The book is very specific to place and to the event with which it is concerned but at the same time it is also a universal story that could happen in any rural location. It is also, or so it at least seems to me, a deeply allegorical piece about humanity as a whole. The opening scene in which the ‘Big Man’ treats the dead, ravaged mother badger with such detestation and contempt feels highly metaphorical in terms of the way human beings can treat one another. The concept of ‘the dig’ itself also, of course, brings this to mind. I don’t know if this was deliberate, for instance, but as I was following the news about the horrifying events in Gaza this year, I couldn’t help but see parallels between the blockaded badger set and the blockaded Palestine people. Were you consciously thinking of parallels like this when you wrote the book?
Cynan Jones: I use physical and natural allegories to say things about the way people are, and the way they are towards each other. Readers are creative and intelligent. They understand the reference instinctively.
There are no deliberate political parallels in the book. That comes with the universality of it.
From a technical point of view, the way that you intersperse the passages relating to the monstrous ‘Big Man’ with those relating to the gentle and bereft Daniel is very effective. It almost lends the book the dimensions of a horror story because the reader comes to dread the every appearance of the ‘Big Man’. Had you always planned to construct the novel along these lines?
Cynan Jones: The Big Man had to be a horrible figure. And yet one that had integrity, fear and care within his own sphere.
I’ve mentioned the technical challenges of the book in the answer to the first question, but here are the bullet points as to how the book was constructed, as I remember it:
Since the publication of The Long Dry in 2006 I had been under pressure to produce ‘a longer book’. At the beginning of 2011 I sat down and wrote Daniel’s narrative and the Big Man’s narrative separately. At that point there was also a third character. A witness: an old (ageless) tramp – a pilgrim, sufferer, redeemer. His sections were also written mostly at this point. This was to be Book Two.
I then set about Book One. This was the story of an Italian émigré interned at a prison camp on the Isle of Man when Mussolini sided with the Nazis. He is released to work on a west Wales farm. I won’t spoil the story in case something further comes of it, but things happen.
Book One was to be the story of how a shard of iron ended up embedded in the land of the farm where Book Two plays out. The ‘tramp’ character links the two stories. Taken together, the whole book, then called Traces of People, was around 90,000 words.
I delivered my ‘longer book’ to my agent. He read it. I read it again. We dumped Book One. In the end the tramp character walked out of Book Two as well. (Though he turns up, fleetingly, in Milk, published in The Lampeter Review).
The real story was the (horror) story of Daniel and the Big Man. In 2012 I pared that back, tightened it, worked structurally to give it pressure.
The character of the ‘Big Man’ is a truly terrifying literary creation. What was the impetus behind his creation? Is he based on people that you have actually met?
Cynan Jones: These people exist. He is a combination of people I know and the things I think I know about them.
What moved you primarily to write a novel about badger baiting? Having grown up in a rural landscape, is it a problem that has been on your mind for a long time?
Cynan Jones: I write about the way people are. As mentioned, a compelling way to do that is to find parallel in natural and physical things. In The Dig I wanted to write about the way we try to create a safe space for ourselves and for things we care about; and how something can dig into that space. Badger digging provided the allegory.
Just to stay on the subject for a minute. What are your opinions on the government’s highly contentious badger cull?
Cynan Jones: The government have ignored the science.
If I can move away from ‘The Dig’ now and talk about ‘Aberarth’, the ‘short story about erosion’ that you have contributed to our A Fiction Map of Wales anthology. The story is set around the area of Ceredgion coastline that you yourself call home. Did you choose the location specifically because the erosional nature of the landscape mirrored your protagonist’s mental state?
Cynan Jones: Absolutely. Again the physical allegory presents the state of a person so I don’t have to describe it directly. That allows me to focus on the processional detail and the action of the story rather than having to describe the inner state of someone.
But that’s chicken not egg. The first and most important thing for me approaching the Fiction Map piece was to write about my place. Aberarth is my filltir sgwâr, my square mile. I chose the location first, and after writing a few other draft stories about it I realised there was a stronger and more appropriate one already waiting, though in a different form.
I understand that Aberarth was modified from Out Onto The Water, a novel that you wrote some years ago that hasn’t been published in this country [it has, however, been translated into Italian as Le cose che non vogliamo piu ( Things we don’t want anymore)]. Could you tell us a little bit about this novel and how ‘Aberarth’ grew out of it?
Cynan Jones: Out onto the Water. Which was, in earlier form, Dance to This. The story of the crew of a bin lorry. It’s a story about what we throw away, the wrappings of things, the empty cartons and how we dispose, consume and package. The narrative reflected that. It was quirky (and deliberately off-hand and sometimes half-done seeming and considered ‘too European’ to be published in the UK. It had a great response in Italy, though).
Various parts of the book have been reworked, incorporated into other stories, and published in their own right (for example ‘I’d Like a Slice of That’ in NWR). There are also further bits of the book relevant to the ‘Aberarth’ story through a link from the piece online and through an interactive map. Bits that have broken off and gotten scattered). I like that this book is about what we throw away and how we deal with what we throw away has been discarded, reused, recycled. It suits it.
The story of Out onto the Water essentially centres on Alan. Aberarth is the reduction of his story to its essential point. (The story itself eroded of all looser material). I think I’ve said more effectively in 2,000 words what I was trying to say in 50,000.
The idea behind A Fiction Map of Wales is to create a series of individual portraits of life in 21st Century Wales, thereby creating an honest, albeit fractured, vision of the nation as a whole. The thinking behind this is that art, despite being the product of someone’s imagination, can offer a truer reflection of society than either newsprint or historical documentation. Do you think that this is true? And do you think that it is important to write creatively about Wales – or indeed any location – in order to understand it?’
Cynan Jones: Art can only produce a truer reflection of society if it’s made with a clear eye and is free of clumsy remit. Which it often isn’t.
I don’t think it’s important to write creatively about a place in order to understand it. I do think it’s important to understand a place to write creatively about it.
Do you have a writing routine? Is there somewhere that you particularly like to write?
Cynan Jones: I write at home. I write on my own, and need days at a time totally uninterrupted. I’ve tried to work other ways but it shows in the end product. I write from about ten in the morning armed with a good coffee and go from there. Sometimes I’m done in an hour. Other times it’s dark before I really come to.
My preferred way to work on a book is to have all the thinking and research done before going near the desk, then sit down and write it –generally in Jan, Feb, March. By ‘write it’ I mean land it. Drag it out of the brainwater, get it on the deck as a physical object to gut, slice, dress.
I try not to write a book unless I can pretty much see it; then I write like I’m watching, or remembering.
Are there any writers that have been a particularly important source of inspiration to you?
Cynan Jones: Whatever you read inspires you, one way or another. Either to write like that person, or to avoid writing like that person.
At the beginning, when you start to write, you’re a copyist, essentially, so you try to write like people you enjoy. Or in the way of a writer delivering a similar story. For me, Steinbeck, for example, with The Long Dry. However, there’s a point, if you write enough and you have it in you, when you just start to write like yourself. You’re not necessarily aware of it when it happens, but the people who read your stuff are.
Camus said that, ‘art is nothing but this slow trek to discover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence [your] heart first opened.’ Would you agree, and if so do you have ‘two or three’ such images yourself?
Cynan Jones: Not that I’ve ever been conscious of. Love. Struggle. Wonder.
Finally, what next? Are you working on new material at the moment?
Cynan Jones: The Dig came out in January. I was contractually obligated to deliver a first draft of a ‘next book’ by March. I did that, but the book was written under circumstances that didn’t allow me to work the way I have come to trust. So I halted it.
Granta were nothing but supportive. The ‘next’ book exists on paper, but in the state it normally would be only in my head. Come January I’ll write it again, as if I never started.
‘Aberarth’ by Cynan Jones is included in the Wales Arts Review anthology, A Fiction Map of Wales.
Cynan Jones will be reading at ‘A Fiction Map Of Wales – The West Wales Launch’ on Tuesday, November 25th. Founder’s Library, Lampeter Campus, University of Wales, Trinity Saint David. 7pm. Tickets £3/ £2 (including discount off the price of A Fiction Map).
More of Wales Arts Reviews’ features on Cynan Jones can be found here.
original illustration by Dean Lewis