Richard Owain Roberts

Richard Owain Roberts in Conversation

In 2020, Richard Owain Roberts was awarded the Guardian Not the Booker prize for his debut novel, Hello Friend We Missed You.  It was a stunning victory that, for the English literary establishment at least, seemed to come from nowhere. But in Wales, Roberts has been a writer to watch for some time. His first book, a collection of short stories, All The Places We Lived, gathered much praise and was recognised as the arrival of a new and important voice in Welsh fiction. So, with all of this success, why does it seem as though Wales has yet to truly embrace his talent? Gary Raymond spoke with Roberts mainly via email, punctuated by one roadside coffee on a bright morning in Canton, Cardiff.

GR: Hello Friend We Missed You has gotten you something of a reputation as an experimental novelist. Do you see yourself that way?

ROR: I wouldn’t say I see myself that way but, saying that, it’s not something I think about. For me, writing is an expression of self and a sense of purpose. I’m just going to write what I want. I don’t go to writer events as a rule, but there’s a certain kind where the writers doing the talk start speaking about the many reasons they did everything in a novel, really explaining it all, and… as I say, I don’t go to many writer events.

GR: Can you tell us a little about how the voice of the novel evolved? 

ROR: Hill’s voice arrived fully formed, if I recall. There was more work on the other characters, focusing to select the rhythms, imagine the details of their lives. I worked on the first chapter every single day for probably the first half of the novel, until the nuances felt consistent and became second nature, and then I kept going after, checking and updating, right through until it was done. Hard work is happiness, I feel.

GR: Is that unusual for the voice to come out at you like that? Or does this “fully formed” phenomenon actually come at the end of a conscious gestation period?

ROR: Definitely, there’s a gestation process. I’d say, in my experience, probably unconscious for the most part, then I piece it together and finesse it.

GR: How do you edit? From a writer’s perspective, your style feels like seeing the bones of the original animal as it occurred to you.

ROR: Typically, word by word from the previous day’s work. Then on larger edits, removing paragraphs or sentences that don’t feel consistent or useful. I was working with Tom Bullough on early edits and he was a beast for this, then Susie Wild at Parthian. Working hard with an editor is something I enjoy.

GR: The book has a dour sense of humour. I wonder if this isn’t the healthiest way to look at the world as it is at the moment, and considering the tools used to look at it, and if in part, that’s contributed to the success the novel has received?

ROR: I always try to look at situations with humour, some of the most painful events of my life I have experienced levity during, so it’s normal. I am very glad when people tell me they found Hello Friend funny, and it’s a wide, wild range of people that, honestly, I wouldn’t have expected.

GR: The humour is part of the evolved voice of the novel, then? After getting your foothold with the work on the opening chapter you mentioned, did it come “easily” after that?

ROR: The humour in the novel is just my humour, for the most part. In terms of Hello Friend it was more about finding the correct way to present it, and then get the consistency to carry it through.

GR: Does spontaneity play any part in your work?

ROR: It does, I feel. I think initially it’s all spontaneous, then edit and structure, then edit the spontaneity back in, which could be an adjustment on punctuation or word choice, and sometimes deleting the sentence and typing it out again, sometimes same, sometimes different. There’s spontaneity in the edits themselves. I live a free life, but part of that is having built the infrastructure to be able to, and it’s the same with writing.

GR: How does your short story collection, All the Places We Lived, fit into your development as a writer? Do you still write short stories?

ROR: I can’t imagine why I’d write a short story in the future. Bret was talking about how film was maybe a hundred-year-old art form that is now over. I’m not sure I agree with that entirely, but the same could certainly be said for the short story. I haven’t written a short story since All The Places We Lived in 2015. I did win the PENfro short story prize for Terrence Malick in 2019 but didn’t/don’t consider that to be a short story. There’s definitely a crossover with creative non-fiction.

GR: What makes “Terrence Malick” different to a short story?

ROR: It’s a piece of short autofiction, or non-fiction, or however you want to say it. But I didn’t want to let a category title stop me. It was four years after All The Places We Lived, nothing published, and I just wanted to flex.

GR: Reading your work I see an influence from the experimentalism of the short story rather than the novel – that tightness of concept and discipline of execution. Would that be fair?

ROR: Definitely it feels important to me to be disciplined in concept and execution. Some of the writing that influenced me most as a writer has been short stories, but very traditional work rather than experimental. Writers like Carver and Fitzgerald may seem very obvious to say, but their work seems so real to me, and inspirational to have read and considered.

GR: And the less obvious?

ROR: I’m forever influenced by Ben Stiller’s Cable Guy. The execution of even the most miniscule detail, nuance, the layers upon layers, is so deeply felt. I spoke to Gian about Cable Guy periodically, and Ben Stiller’s commitment to making that exact movie for his exact vision is very real to me, as it was to Gian – not that I knew him well at all, but Cabler knows Cabler.

GR: Do you ever see yourself writing a 900 page winding epic?

ROR: Today, I would say it’s unlikely. But, later, if I want, of course.

GR: But do you see your evolution as a writer continuing so that you might become someone who expresses themselves without that concision you mentioned?

ROR: I think the novel I’m writing now will be about twice the length, probably around 70k words, but that’s because there’s seventy thousand words worth of novel to write, rather than any specific conscious choice in my head. I’ll evolve the style, aim to work harder and do better, that’s all I focus on.

GR: Winning the Guardian Not the Booker Prize must have been a great feeling. But you don’t seem to have had the same level of recognition inside Wales. Is that a fair perception?

ROR: It was a great feeling. I wanted to win, I did win, and that’s not nothing. In the eleven months since, the book has sold thousands of copies, I’ve agreed the film adaptation rights – which I’ll say more about – and been reviewed in the most respected, international establishment publications. It’s where the work belongs, and I’ve done the work to get there.

In Wales? Maybe it’s different. Nation.Cymru review books about Swansea University campus facilities from the 1960s but didn’t publish a review of Hello Friend or write an article about me, a Welsh person, a Welsh nationalist, winning a major English literary award for a novel set in Wales. That’s wild. I nearly swerved off the road when I heard Books Council Wales’ offer to keep my next novel published in Wales. It felt to me like a zero was missing. Planet Magazine ‘couldn’t fit me in’ for a review. At what point does all of this start to feel like a slap in my face.

GR: In fairness to the Books Council, that’s undoubtedly an admin decision rather than a judgment on the value of you as a writer. They have grants allocated for writers, and they are not market-evaluated. But there’s a deeper question here about how things are run in Wales, and an even deeper one about how we as a nation value our culture. Do you think that’s fair?

ROR: But… this is me? Change how you do it? I mean, yes, it’s structural and how the culture is perceived, the ambition for it. If it meant a proper, credible offer could be made even only once or twice a decade, which seems realistic to me, then do it that way. I’d be saying the same thing if it wasn’t me in this position, but it is me and if I don’t speak up, how many will? I’m not even saying there’s an offer I would accept, but it should at least be possible.

GR: Why do you think it is, that you’re being overlooked in some quarters?

ROR: Sincerely, I’ve got no problem with any of these establishment individuals or institutions here doing what they feel is right for them, it’s none of my business and it’s not, ultimately, relevant to my life. Why would I need a three grand bursary to write?

Richard Davies wrote a Bookseller/Nation article with specific reference to Hay, which I really appreciated, and of course Parthian publishing me in the first place. I’ve had good support from Wales Arts Review, BBC Wales, and even had strangers approach me in the Co-op queue asking me to sign their copies. I don’t need anyone to tell me what the Welsh book of the year is.  

GR: Do you think there should be a big new venture in Wales that puts us on the map? I don’t think we’re on the map. The Dylan Thomas Prize doesn’t think Welsh writers are worth putting even on its longlist. The Hay festival, as you say, has been called out for its lack of interest in Welsh writing. What do you think could do it?

ROR: Ideally, of course. But rather look to publishing first. There’s no reason at all why there couldn’t be a Welsh Canongate, Fitzcarraldo or a Tyrant. Maybe a person or some people will make it happen.

GR: Welsh literature, as a brand (God forgive me for using that word in this context) has a severe image problem, particularly when compared to our celtic cousins. It seems to me – and seemed to me at the time – that your prize win could have been a springboard to help change the perceptions of the “Welsh novel” that exist and persist in and outside of Wales. But the establishment (again for want of a better term) clearly don’t see it that way. Have you pissed off the wrong people over the years?

ROR: I don’t know, it’s possible, but I can’t control anyone’s responses here in Wales, and it’s not my place or in my motivation to try to either. Whatever anyone else here is doing, or what the establishment here does or doesn’t think or do, or whether me winning Not the Booker made them big sad or big mad, all I can do is wake up every morning, smile, and get to it. 

GR: What do you think Hill would have made of it all?

ROR: Haha, that’s a good question. Early-novel Hill would have numbly vibrated in the toxicity, whereas end-novel Hill may have… spoiler alert… got something of a grip of himself.

GR: There is a question here about the confidence of an identity in a national literature. Ireland clearly has the confidence to be literary, to be experimental and contemporary, and Scotland has the confidence to be gritty and reflective and honest, and I think Welsh literature has those things but without the confidence. There is a real block there. A few years ago I would have said Wales was a million miles away from the success of a Milkman or a Shuggie Bain, and then you win the Not the Booker and I think maybe we’re not as far away as I thought… and much of the Welsh establishment couldn’t give a shit. (There’s a question in there somewhere).

ROR: Ireland is an independent nation, Scotland is independent in all but name, a formality at this point. You know where I’m going with this. That said, the responsibility comes down to individuals to work harder, smarter, keep going, make themselves irresistible.

GR: You seem more active on Instagram than any other platform. What do you find, in literary terms, it offers you? – I mean, you don’t tend to use it to show pictures of your dinner. It’s like an extension of your literary persona.

ROR: It’s just me being me, I think nothing of it. Writing takes a lot of time, it feels nice to amuse myself and possibly other people when I can. Sometimes it’s me practicing sentences or working on visual things for new work. Or sometimes it’s things I see or get sent.

GR: You’re also a staunch supporter of Welsh independence, and a Yes Cymru member. How does politics find its way into your writing?

ROR: Aside from wanting my nation to have what every single nation has the right to – the fair and proper opportunity to govern itself – I’m not political. Left and right seem like very dated binaries, not really fit for purpose in the world. So why even try to deal in those terms.

GR: Do you think there is exciting stuff going on in Wales, in artistic and literary terms – do you look around and feel emboldened and inspired?

ROR: Culturally, independence will change everything from an output point of view. It will be our children, and their children, who’ll see the real benefit of that. I have friends here who are doing very well in 2021. Matt Redd, The Toll, John Abell, art, both excelling. Outside of that, right now I don’t know because I don’t look at many things.

GR: I feel like the world of fiction and nonfiction has never been more closely aligned, and I think it maybe has something to do with the experimentation going on in nonfiction writing. What do you think?

ROR: I studied creative non-fiction with Chelsea Hodson at Bennington College at the start of the year and that was fantastic – Tonight I’m Someone Else is one of my favourite books of the last few years. Ann Manov’s Caveh Zahedi piece in The Believer recently was great. Writing is writing, mostly it’s the author’s taste and style that I’m interested in.

GR: What excites you as a reader? And what excites you as a writer?

ROR: Same for both. Style, taste, total commitment to the vision.

GR: Tell us about your relationship with Serbia, and how that is influencing your writing.

ROR: When I toured Serbia for the translation of ATPWL it was, looking back, part of a profound healing journey. The respect, the ambition, the belief in literature, the individual. So many of the values I hold now have roots in, and were reinforced by, my time over there. I genuinely want to make my Serbian friends proud and forever thank them for the trust.

GR: How has that trust manifested itself?

ROR: I think by publishing me twice, backing me as an artist, being invited to speak to university students, inviting me on TV, radio, bookshops, letting me, an outsider, be a part of the culture. When you give your all in service to the work, it’s rewarding and moving to be embraced so openly and generously.

GR: What is next (or current) for you, writing-wise?

ROR: I was up until recently working on a treatment for the film adaptation of Hello Friend We Missed You, but the production company pulled out a couple of weeks ago and the adaptation rights are available again. Maybe things happen for a reason. Robert Pattinson could make an excellent Hill, perhaps now this means it can be possible.

Other than that, I’m working on my next book, a novel called Our Life of Peace. Let me say thank you Gary for the support, and, at the end of it all, Rest In Peace Norm Macdonald.


Richard Owain Roberts‘ latest book, Hello Friend We Missed You is available now

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