Manon Steffan Ros is arguably the most successful novelist writing in Welsh at the moment. She has won everything there is to win, including four Wales Book of the Year awards, four Tir na n-Og awards for writing for young people, and both the drama medal (twice) and prose medal at the National Eisteddfod, and is widely translated and widely read. Born in Rhiwlas, Snowdonia, Gary Raymond caught up with her in her home in Twyny via Zoom.
Gary Raymond: This is perhaps the interview with the longest gestational period in the history of Welsh literature. We’ve been trying to get this done for years, and like so many things, it’s the restrictions of Covid that has finally given us the opportunity to talk via the magic of zoom.
Manon Steffan Ros: Yes, I actually remember very well when we first discussed it, because we were both tutoring at Ty Newydd, and one evening after dinner we were discussing the Winter Olympic which must have been going on at the time, and you were suggesting improvements to curling and how great it would be if they replaced the stones with puppies.
Gary Raymond: I don’t remember that conversation specifically, but it certainly sounds like one I would be involved in. I can see the attraction of seeing those puppies sliding down the ice.
Manon Steffan Ros: And that does put it at 2018.
Gary Raymond: And typical of the of the sort of highbrow literary conversations that one can get into after dinner at Ty Newydd.
Manon Steffan Ros: Exactly. I was thinking that recently; watching and being a part of the British Council Wales Germany literature seminar and thinking how it all sounds so intelligent, but I know the truth, and I know you start conversations about curling with Yorkshire Terriers. So, don’t fake it with me.
Gary Raymond: If only people knew the truth behind the myth. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the mythologising that goes on around writing. And as you go on and you progress through your career, the curtains are pulled back, and you begin to understand the extent of the mythologising.
Manon Steffan Ros: That’s the same in any walk of life though, isn’t it? Whatever career you have you have to have one version of you and one version of you as the worker. I don’t know, I’ve never had a proper job, so I wouldn’t know. But before I was a writer, I was an actor. And you have to be out there being an actor, playing the part of the person who plays parts, being that person, and then I come home watch Married at First Sight Australia, and you just abandon all this perceived intellect.
Gary Raymond: Trust me, I was definitely lowbrow long before I was a writer.
Manon Steffan Ros: I’ve got a bit of a problem with labels like that anyway. Just because something is easy to watch, or easy to read, or easy to listen to, that’s not a reflection on its inherent worth. I wrote something about Love Island. And just finding the reactions of people reading that I like Love Island was so interesting; people saying to me, “I never would have thought that you’d like that.” Why would you think I wouldn’t like it? The trouble is, when anyone asks me what my job is if I reply I’m a writer it feels to me like I’m saying, I’m a rock star, or I’m a cosmonaut, like one of those jobs that you want when you’re five years old, and it’s not a proper job and I should just grow up. But I think also people do think that you’re a certain way, and people read into your work and think that they know who you are. And I’m sure they can figure it out who you are, to some extent. But it’s true that there’s always a voice in my head saying, what are you going to do for a living once they find you out?
Gary Raymond: There is an area of the industry that is dependent on the perpetuation of the mythology of the writer, and how, no matter how insecure we might be, we also do play into that, because it’s part of the of the job, isn’t it?
Manon Steffan Ros: But also, being a writer, if you try to explain your work, you try to talk about where your ideas come from, or answer any of the questions that people ask you, you can’t answer those questions honestly without sounding a little bit pretentious, or just going into it in some kind of quite fine detail. And that kind of adds to the mythologizing of it. But at the same time, it’s honest, because, you know, when I write something I really do put my heart into it, and it really does come from an intimate personal space. And there’s no way that I can talk about that and take it lightly.
But I hope that although I always take my work seriously, but that I never take myself seriously.
Gary Raymond: I think that’s the that way sanity lies. So, acknowledging the dangers of enhancing the mystique, how do you work?
Manon Steffan Ros: I’m terrible procrastinator. If I’m given eighteen months to write something, I will do it in the last fortnight and have to stay up until three o’clock in the morning. And I just do this over and over and over again. And every time I’m like, ah, God, why did you do this? Did you really need to binge that Netflix series? And did you really need to do all those other things?
Gary Raymond: I’ve got quite good in the last few years at convincing myself that absolutely everything I do that isn’t writing is somehow feeding into my writing; like I’ve convinced myself that the Netflix binge is teaching me something about plot structure.
Manon Steffan Ros: I do the same thing, and it’s such nonsense.
Gary Raymond: Well, I’ve totally convinced myself, so I won’t agree it’s nonsense, of course. That would be fatal. It’s a coping mechanism for the great procrastinators.
So, let’s go back a bit. Where does the story of you as a writer start?
Manon Steffan Ros: I left school after A-levels and I took a year off. I was thinking about going to do a performance degree or a directing degree or something. I would have liked to do that. I’m still on my year out.
Gary Raymond: Still on your gap year?
Manon Steffan Ros: Yeah, yeah.
Gary Raymond: Do you ever think of going back to Uni at any point? You sound slightly wistful about it.
Manon Steffan Ros: Well, you know what, sometimes I think about it, I think about it every couple years. I open a university prospetus and look at it and think one day I’m going to do that. But yeah, I’m thirty-eight now, but I’ll do it at some point. But Not yet. Not yet, because that would be the ultimate procrastination, to do a Degree just to put off actually writing a novel.
Gary Raymond: You say you’re a procrastinator, but you’re very prolific.
Manon Steffan Ros: Yeah, because I started writing when I was quite young. It’s become a kind of therapy to me, and it’s become a way for me to process the world and events in my own life. The first novel I wrote was a novel for young people, and it was when I was pregnant with my first son. And I had lost my mother when I was 19, a couple of years before, and when I was pregnant, I was very aware of the fact that that my children would never meet my mother. And I had pictures of her up in the house, but I kept thinking they’re just going to see her as this two-dimensional person in this picture, this smiling still character, and I can tell them all the stories, but they’ll never know her voice. And so I wrote a novel for young people with my mother as one of the characters because I thought, well, this would be a more effective way of my kids getting to know mam. And that’s where it started, really. So, because it started from that kind of grief, and me trying to work through my own grief and pregnancy, I started the pattern of me just using writing as a process of understanding the world. And I think that’s why I’ve written so much, because every time there’s something I don’t understand something I struggle with, I have to write it out.
Gary Raymond: So, you’re processing things that are personal to you, but you’re not presenting them as memoir, these are exciting entertaining stories.
Manon Steffan Ros: I take the emotion and the feeling behind whatever it is that’s in my life and I create a fictional character in a fictional world and I give that to them and see how they run with it. I feel really lucky that I haven’t been pigeon-holed as a YA writer or as a writer of fiction for adults or historical fiction or as a screenwriter. I am allowed to do all of these things because they serve me, personally, in different ways. And every working day is different for me.
Gary Raymond: Do you find that there’s more freedom in writing for younger people than there is in writing for adults?
Manon Steffan Ros: Yeah, I definitely feel that I’m freer as an author in every way really. I read YA more than any other genre. It’s exciting what’s happening in YA. And also, when I was that age, I read mostly just books for adults. So, that blurs the boundary a little bit. I never think about the fact that they’re young adults that are reading my book. I just think for me, it’s more of ah okay, maybe the word count is going to be a little bit shorter. But thematically I don’t think of it as being any different to writing for adults. I’m not sure where that boundary is. And that’s quite exciting.
Gary Raymond: Do you ever have to think about whether a scene might be too scary or too violent or too something like that?
Manon Steffan Ros: No, I never policed myself in that way. I’ve written a lot of YA over the years and occasionally something will come up and I’ll think, Oh, I’m not sure if that’s quite suitable. But I always, always decide to go with it in the end, because it’s just about trusting your reader. I’ve got a fifteen-year-old son, and I know that you can trust them with any theme that you can trust to an adult; even more so maybe. And I think that it’s more exciting to trust a young person with these kinds of themes, somehow. There’s just more freedom in it. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I remember who I was at that age, and that I wanted to read things that didn’t patronise me because of my age, books that acknowledged the kind of life that young people live.
I’m always a bit more self-conscious writing for adults, which is weird because adults tend to read my YA stuff in Welsh. Llyfr Glas Nebo was written for young people, but it’s mostly been read by adults, and then my most recent novel Llechi is a crime novel for young adults but again it’s mostly been read by adults and I wonder if I would have written it differently if I would have known that was going to be the case. Hopefully not. But yeah, in my head, I do have to justify a lot more when I’m writing for adults. And that doesn’t really help the work.
I think my job as an author is to give about 80%. And then the reader will give about 20% of the film they see of your story in their head.
Gary Raymond: You have translated your own work from Welsh to English. Is that easier than letting someone else do it?
Manon Steffan Ros: I’ve translated other people’s work, too. Having done that, I have so much sympathy for people who do creative translation, because you’re not allowed to use your voice when you’re translating someone else’s work. If I’m translating Enid Blyton it’s really very, very important that nobody can hear Manon Steffan Ros’s voice. But when I’m translating my own work, I get to mess around with it a lot. When I translated Llyfr Glas Nebo into English as The Blue Book of Nebo I changed quite a lot of it.
Gary Raymond: I’m interested in where your thinking is on that. Why were the changes made? What were the changes?
Manon Steffan Ros: I felt like it needed to be a different novel in English. For one thing, the book is written from the perspective of a mother and son after nuclear disaster, and it’s located in north west Wales. And I felt, okay, naturally, these characters would be writing in Welsh, they will be communicating in Welsh. But now they’re not I need to come up with the reason why they’re writing this down in English. And that sort of became a theme that they were doing that because if anyone was to find it down the line this testimony will be more useful to people who would understand it if it was written in English. And why was that? Taking that theme of finding the Welsh language and trying to make these characters own their own mother tongue, that’s a completely different theme in the English translation that simply isn’t there in the original.
And also, I’m still not quite sure why I did this, but I changed the names of the characters.
There’s only four main characters and I changed the name of three. Don’t know why.
Gary Raymond: I’m not sure which is more interesting: the fact that you changed the names or the fact that you don’t know why you changed their names.
Manon Steffan Ros: I guess they’re quite different people. And, in my mind, I’ve essentially written another book. I’m translating something, but I am creating.
Gary Raymond: So, you’re using elements, but it’s become a different book. So, I come to an obvious next question: what are your thoughts on writing in English in future?
Manon Steffan Ros: I really want to have a go. I think this has taken a long time for me to acknowledge to myself. Welsh is my mother tongue. I think and I dream through the medium of Welsh, and I didn’t write anything creatively in English for a very long time. And when I translated my book Blasu into The Seasoning, that was the first creative writing I’d done in English since school. I just think it’s like having an extra toy. It was just such a lovely feeling to be able to just find the joy in my own bilingualism, and really celebrate it. And instead of feeling like I should be writing in one language or the other, just thinking, oh my god, you’ve got two languages: use them. Why would you not use them both. It’s a great thing to be able to do. And I’m so lucky that I’m in a position to be able to do it. I think my voice is different in English. And I think my themes will probably be quite different. I do write a lot of short stories and flash fiction in English and never show them to anyone.
Gary Raymond: Do you feel there would be an inevitable political perception of you writing in English?
Manon Steffan Ros: Writing through the medium of Welsh shouldn’t feel like some kind of political declaration; it’s just me writing a story. And, and in exactly the same way, me deciding to write a novel through the medium of English shouldn’t feel political either.
I just think the Welsh language is used as a political football and that’s not fair. You know, language is a means of communication. And all languages are beautiful. And in the same way, I think we tend to politicise the English language. I remember being on a on a panel once with different Welsh language writers, and I had just translated Blasu into The Seasoning, and one of the other writers, who is a poet, said something along the lines of “Oh, well, you know, Manon obviously feels the need to be acknowledged by the British literary establishment”, and I thought, how sad for you that you feel that me writing a story is some kind of gesture. I have views and I get quite ranty about them, but my work isn’t that. I feel liberated by having more than one language and I love them both. I probably love Welsh a little bit more because of my personal history with it, and it’s the language I speak with my kids and language I spoke with my mother.
Gary Raymond: So, looking to the future, what’s coming up next?
Manon Steffan Ros: I’m working on a novel for older children about football. I wrote a football-based novel a couple years ago, and I’m going have a go at another one, but I’ve also got an idea in my head for something else. I’d like to write something about the Welsh Liverpool connection. I tend to get obsessive about something and think, oh, that’s what I’ve got to write next. And I know that’s going to be a novel for adults and I know what it’s about. And it scares me because I know it’s going to have to be like an eighty-thousand word saga. But anyway, I think I’ve got I’ve got to actually start writing that now. It’s in my head, so it’s got to come out. All that’s left is for me to turn up for work and not to sit watching TikTok recipes all day.
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