Gary Raymond writes about the evolution of his new novel, JellyBread, which is to be published in serial form over the course of a year via the Substack platform. Telling the story of Vardaman and Moses, two young DJs who get caught up in the death of a bouncer, it is a dark comedy about what the author calls “a great misunderstood town that doesn’t care it’s greatly misunderstood one bit”.
You can subscribe to JellyBread for free here.
Before I’d ever had anything published, people I knew in my hometown – raconteurs, bons both viveur and vivant, roustabouts and runaways, one and all – would ask me when I was going to write my Newport novel. Indeed, for some, so long as I regarded myself as a writer, with little up to that point to back it up apart from scribbles and scratches, the only benefit of the doubt I was due was if I was privately toiling away on that tome, on that big bright homage to the city of a thousand angles, the city of the lost art of pissing it up the wall, the town that politics forgot, the town that is a city that is a town. Being a writer in Newport – even if you have no publications under your belt – is like being a comedian in a London taxi. Just as every cabbie has a joke for the stand-up, every barfly, the polite and the other sort, has a story for you. Your next novel must be the drama of someone else. Lean over here and drink this in. It will change your life. Then you can turn it into three hundred pages and change the lives of everyone else. Nobody had any trouble believing I was – or aspired to be – a writer. Newport is a town of great faith and seeing as I was always sincere whenever it came up (or I brought it up, more accurately) I was never scoffed at. You want to be a writer? Good, then write this down.
Of course, Wales Arts Review exists, in large part, because I wanted to be a writer. The wheels of the machinery of book publishing would never move fast enough for that part of me that wanted to bark my views as I simultaneously honed that bark into something more artful. A stylised bark. Perhaps, one day, a melodious howl. In my local pub – pretty much my front room for twenty-odd years – the place where I learned a lot, formed a lot, argued, laughed, and did a bit of slurring here and there I don’t doubt – I would begin to get the tilt-back head and the one squinted eye and the respectful smoke signal of I read that thing you wrote the other day… which would invariably lead on to a lengthy discussion about the subject under review, be it Ken Russell or Emyr Humphreys or Batman or whatever. And then… when are you going to write about Newport?
If I was to be a short form writer, a critic, an essayist, a reviewer, a commentator of the thousand-word missive, then that would be fine un all, but how about some words for posterity on the characters and vibrant life force of the town of my birth and breeding? The little I did write on Newport included an ABC, inspired by finding Czeslaw Milosz’s in Massolit Books on a trip to Krakow in Poland, where I tried to fix everything important up into a format that sucked the reader and writer alike inexorably toward the blackhole of the letter X. We ran a Newport special in 2013, tried to pay tribute to a place often overlooked, and when it wasn’t being overlooked was being besmirched and bemoaned. Truth is, I was reticent to write anything at all about the place in which I was born and grew up. I wrote because of a love of literature, and literature was about escape; not escape from Newport – I was excited by what I was getting out of the place – the music, the friends, the encounters, the riots, the ransacking of the temples – but escape from the predictability of life. School. Work. Bus rides. Rain. Taxes. The inertia of being flat broke. Nothing happening fast enough and romance being up there and out there on the highways and moors and big cities and sweeping plains. The contradictions. The certainty of south Walian life. Books got me out of it.
When I had my first novel published in 2015, it was nothing to do with Newport, nothing to do with me or my life, and everything to do with the books I had read. It was about a poet who got mixed up in the Spanish Civil War. And it was a good book – I’m proud of it – and I’m sure the eight people who read it thought it was good too. But I had now shown I was capable of the long form (For Those Who Come After is a long novel). So, why now not write the Newport novel? That’s coming next, right? But what would the story be? Newport is a thousand bright stories blistering on the carcass of the night. That would have been the sort of shitty sentence I would have come up with back then if I’d even tried a Newport novel. All I really knew was that I didn’t write about things so personal as my life.
My next novel was based on my life. Or at least a part of it. A chapter of it. A brief one. The Golden Orphans(Parthian, 2018) fictionalised my experiences living for a short while on the island of Cyprus some ten years before I put pen to paper on it. It was a success, well-reviewed and good sales. I had to contemplate the notion that I had tapped into something in my own writing. Writing from experience. By the time I had repeated the trick of turning things that happened to me into a novel that tackled things I wanted to write about with Angels of Cairo (Parthian, 2021) I had no choice but to once again quietly consider whether it was time to think about Newport. I decided to put a bit of pressure on myself by stating at an online book event that my next novel would be about Newport. But when I got to it, it was hard. Writing is hard. Writing about something so close is harder still.
Whether my Newport novel, now formed around the title of JellyBread, is any good or not, time will tell (and this is literature, so it could be a great deal of time), but what I have found out is that the struggle with the idea of writing about my hometown is that I have not known where to start, where to middle up, and where to end. It now has a structure, inspired by a real-life event, although twisted and pummelled out of all recognition from anyone who may have at one time been familiar with the facts. What it needed was a format. A twisted and pummelled format that changed my relationship with the idea, and formally changed my relationship with the reader. And so JellyBread is going underground. I have forgone the route of book publishing for this one, where excellent editors push me to panel-beat the book into something streamlined for the ever-sleekening literary production line. I am allowing the nature of the subject to dictate the requirements of the structure of the story.
The moment I landed on the idea of the novel being a serial, sent out by email in portions to subscribers, everything opened up. I could see how it could work. Not to encapsulate a town, but to give a flavour of something impossible to encapsulate. Think not petals falling randomly from a flower, but the Gatling Gun at the end of The Wild Bunch. Think not I.B. Singer’s The Family Moskat, but the scales falling from Neo’s eyes in The Matrix when he sees the world as patterns to be read. Think not Dickens’ sprawl, but Ballard’s roundabout.
Although, you can’t really escape Dickens. When I first mooted the idea of putting JellyBread out as a serial to friends, every single one of them said, Like Dickens! And it must be said, there is nothing so radical about this approach that wasn’t done in the 1850s. I hadn’t read Dickens in twenty years until lockdown when I returned to Bleak House. Something obviously stuck, lingered. It’s influence, as a piece of literature, hangs heavy in Jellybread as I wrote/write it (for those curious about process, JellyBread is written, but it will be rewritten, redrafted, and edited, as we go along over the year). And this is something to be noted abut Newport. It has always been a place I have seen through the lens of literature, and so all those books – here’s the satisfying loop of this introduction – the ones that I thought were giving me escape, were actually preparing me for this project of introspection, of doorstep adventuring, decades down the line. Books brought me to the precipice of the understanding of Newport, a place I revelled in gutsily for so long. And so, here we are.
You can subscribe to JellyBread for free here.
Gary Raymond is a founding editor of Wales Arts Review, has written three novels and two non-fiction books. His history of Welsh writing is due out with Calon Books in 2024. JellyBread is his first fiction serial.