Bethan Tachwedd attempts to pin down one of Wales’ freshest literary talents and asks who actually is Richard Owain Roberts?
I first became aware of Richard Owain Roberts via Twitter (@RichOwainRobs) and then through attending Pyramid Scheme, the Cardiff literary fiction night he co-runs. I reviewed it for Wales Arts Review and was on the whole impressed, agreeing with Plastik Magazine editor Marc Thomas’ assessment that Cardiff needed something fresh in its live literary programming. However on the night it struck me that Richard was never quite fully in the room, an odd thing perhaps given that this was an event he had gone to the trouble of putting together. When he read his piece, as persuasively rhythmic as it was monotone, to an engaged audience, this feeling persisted. He was reading for himself and those in attendance seemed to accept this, their appreciation almost egging him on to continue in this vain.
Afterwards, we spoke briefly. He was polite, receptive and made me laugh. I told him that I was interested in interviewing him, working towards a piece that was something more than a generic Author Q&A. I expanded my point to include the potential benefit of being able to help the promotion of his début short story collection (All The Places We Lived, Parthian Books, May 2015). He said he was happy to do it and we agreed to a series of emails and two or three face to face meetings. As I wanted to build up a narrative, ideally fitting in with the run up to the release of his book, we concurred that the exchanges should be spaced out over a period of months. It was at this point that Richard questioned whether we should meet in person stating rather confusingly, to me at least, that this could be ‘problematic maybe’. I didn’t push too hard on this point, assuming that this reticence was something to do with the sense of disengagement I’d picked up on earlier and that when it came to it, we could meet and talk without too much of a problem.
I didn’t hear anything from Richard for the next couple of months. I watched his Twitter and began to categorise his tweets. His tweet style seems to range from ‘non-sequitor light-hearted’ to ‘overtly political’, from ‘anti-foodie troll’ to ‘meta-corporate zen’. Generally, his tweets that ask questions never have question marks, the forward slash that appears at the end of nearly all tweets at once a catch-all form of punctuation, but also a barrier to ward off communication. Certainly the tweets seem like crafted projections as opposed to attempts to interact with anyone. This didn’t worry me at the time, but in retrospect perhaps it should have.
I decided to speak to people in and around the arts and literature world. Opinion appeared divided. One eminent member of the literary establishment described him as ‘the truly exciting and unruly presence in Anglophone Welsh literature’. I spoke to another of similar stature who saw things a little differently, the somewhat less favourable description of ‘an aloof little prince’. Interesting: a Jon Snow or a Prince Joffrey? Certainly, in the time that it took me to complete this piece he was involved in a couple of spats that played out in the public forum. One centred on a business using his name without permission (albeit for a charity event), the second surrounding an publicly open and viewable Google Doc response to an Independent article that he took umbrage to. I became involved in one of the arguments, defending Richard’s point of view and receiving copious abuse for my trouble. He messaged me to say thank you for the support (‘Sorry that people can be so strange. I don’t know.’) and asked if we should start the interview. He explained that he couldn’t meet me in person because he didn’t want to be around alcohol and was busy in the daytime. We compromised and agreed to Skype.
Richard messages me ten minutes before the agreed time to say that he can still do the Skype but would rather do it audio only. I’m disappointed but go along with it. We begin talking but it soon becomes very clear that Richard is distracted. He is evasive when I ask him about Pyramid Scheme, and it takes a lot of effort on my part to get him to talk about his book. From having read his story in Parthian’s Rarebit anthology, and having heard him read other stories, I’m interested to know how much of it he draws from real life, and whether thematically this will be the same in his collection. ‘Probably all of it is real. Maybe none of it. I don’t know.’ Evasive (yet again). I ask him to expand on this; I’m trying to make the connection between the couple that seems to anchor most of his stories, and whether it is essentially the same couple but with different names for each story. Silence, followed by a long sigh. ‘Is this important? I don’t mind if you just write whatever for this, it’s okay to make up quotes.’ But I don’t want to make up a quote, I say. I want to hear it from him. We struggle on for another five minutes, the pauses between sentences, and increasingly between words for that matter, getting longer and longer. I ask Richard if everything is okay. ‘Is it possible to not ask me personal questions?’ I’m not sure that I have done in truth, certainly not overtly invasive questions at any rate. I tell him that people will be interested, naturally, to know to what degree the stories are drawn from his own experience. ‘My wife died in a car crash two years ago. Say that. People will find that interesting and appealing and can buy the book to piece things together. The feel-good tragedy of the year.’ Very droll, but it seems to have sparked him to life at least.
We actually end the call on a fairly upbeat note, sharing our admiration for the film adaptation of the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. ‘The plot, also I liked what David Fincher did, stylistically maybe. I like Ben Affleck too, Paycheck seems underrated lol.’
Over the course of our correspondence, their seems to be a running admiration for auteur film directors (Fincher, von Trier, Baumbach, the Duplass brothers all come up fairly regularly). The idea of control is something that appears important; this is evidenced by the often excruciatingly truculent approach to answering questions, but also by the precision and measured minimalism that exists in his writing. By chance, we meet very briefly outside of Beanfreaks on St Mary’s Street a week or so later and Richard talks about his pride in the ‘completely awesome aesthetic of the whole product (the book).’ He speaks enthusiastically about working with Parthian Editor Susie Wild, cover artist and illustrator Katherine Hardy, and, rather more vaguely, ‘a brilliant thinker and creative director I know.’ We say goodbye before I can press any further down this avenue, and I feel frustrated that this isn’t the version of Richard Owain Roberts I have been dealing with so far.
Richard agrees to talk to me again on Gmail chat, saying that he can talk for ‘maybe 30-50 minutes’ and is happy to discuss ‘literally anything at all.’ I’m keen to establish at least a degree of information regarding the book, his influences, who he likes to read, other areas of cultural influence he may sight. Later that week at the agreed time, I log on to chat and toss up an easy opener, thinking that this will ease the mood and put to bed any issues from our last Skype correspondence.
BT: You’re a new father, how do you find balancing your time between writing and parenthood?
ROR: No one cares about how I balance my time, or me being a parent. I don’t know.
Not wanting the wall to come down again, I change tack.
BT: You grew up in the north, moved to England for university, then moved back to Wales and Cardiff. Has this had any impact on how you perceive the world, and by extension your writing?
ROR: Probably loved living on Ynys Môn. It’s difficult to talk about this. I mean, you’re referring to my book, specifically? Okay. I think if you exist in different places then clearly you’ll have a different, or evolving, worldview. I don’t know.
BT: Do you want to talk more about living on Anglesey?
ROR: I have never lived on Anglesey.
BT: Okay, do you want to talk more about living on Ynys Môn?
ROR: It was very tranquil and idyllic but also it’s one of the most deprived places in Wales. I wasn’t fully aware of this at the time, it was probably just normal to me. A lot of people at my school arrived in Jaguars and Range Rovers but my friend and I used to show up in an old Lada. Seems really defiant somehow. I don’t know.
BT: Did you care that you had a bad car?
ROR: I didn’t have a bad car. We had an old Fiesta for a few years, but it worked every day and in the winter also (the definition of a good car).
Richard goes offline and I regret not trying harder to speak to him for longer when I’ve had the chance in person, or pushing harder for a face to face meeting to progress the interview. Trying to extract some kind of truth from email interactions seems almost impossible if the person on the other end has no real interest in communicating. I’m about to sign out of chat when he comes back online and says that he was making a kale, Spirulina, cucumber, and pear juice. We talk about being vegetarian and how Cardiff is, as he puts it, ‘maybe pretty backwards’ in its provision for ‘plant centred diets’. We begin talking about film and I’m a little taken aback, and surprisingly emotional – it’s also a favourite of mine, to learn that his favourite film is Star Wars: Episode IV. I ask him to expand on this.
ROR: Just the optimism. If you can watch something and see and feel joy I suppose that’s great. Optimism is all there is, in truth. I’m optimistic for the future maybe. I can’t really say any more on it than that. Star Wars. I don’t know.
Richard immediately logs off and I’m left none the wiser. I feel angry that he has all of the power in this situation (despite, I suspect, him feeling like he is the one being pushed into a corner). I feel angry that I got involved to support him during one of the Twitter beefs he was involved in and he won’t even answer a basic question about what his favourite book is. I feel angry that he just doesn’t seem to care. I decide to call a halt to the interview.
I haven’t had any contact with Richard in weeks. I have injured my calf, an old netball injury, and realise that I am out of painkillers. It is three in the morning and I’m drinking red wine and lying in bed, the glow of my laptop reflecting rather brutally back onto my late night retinas. I check my Twitter feed and see that Richard is tweeting in what could be best described as the ‘non-sequitor light-hearted’ tweet style. Within seconds of each tweet appearing, they are deleted. I think about it for a second, try to weigh up the pros and cons of getting involved in this again. Before I can change my mind I cut and paste a series of questions I had prepared for him the day after we had first agreed to do the interview and email them over, hastily adding in a couple that I assume he won’t even contemplate answering but what the hell. Not expecting an immediate response, and barely expectant of a response ever, I forget about it and close my laptop, the dull glow of the screen doing its best to negate the sedative effects of the red wine. Pills, red wine and emails. Not normally a good combination.
I wake up four hours later and see that Richard had in fact responded within five minutes:
BT: Why the short story, particularly in regard to your own personal motivations?
ROR: Probably feel like the short story is how I expressed myself at the time of writing. I read a lot of short story collections. A short story in isolation is maybe not so interesting to me. Probably this was in my mind when I wrote ATPWL. Just try to write something important and emotional. It’s okay, my idea is clear.
BT: How long did it take you to write All The Places We Lived? How different was the first draft, siting specific examples if possible, to the final version?
ROR: The initial draft maybe three months. I was working a day job and chose to go down to part time hours, that was pretty important. Also maybe it was privileged, I acknowledge that. There wasn’t much editing to do, I don’t think. It’s always been minimalist. It was more about taking out large paragraphs and not replacing them. The version that people read will be the truest version of what the product. That’s probably as specific as I’d be on that.
BT: Which writers do you like? What book are you reading right now?
ROR: Richard Brautigan is cwl, I love him so much. It’s hard to think how a writer could be more relevant in their output. I just read Chris Killen’s IRL, then Matt Meets Vik by Timothy Willis Sanders. Both are really great in my humble and correct opinion lol.
BT: What’s it like working with Parthian? What attracted you to them and visa versa?
ROR: Have a great relationship with Susie Wild, her suggestions all made sense to me and we worked together very well I feel.
BT: What are you working on now?
ROR: A novel. I’m so excited, I’m nearly done.
BT: Are you going to stick to prose? What else might you do?
ROR: Unsure, probably might say something like: I could be a TV presenter.
BT: Do you have any plans to work in Welsh?
ROR: I would encourage producers from S4C or Welsh language production companies to email me to arrange a meeting. I’d love to be given that opportunity. Y Gwyll (or Hinterland for those watching on the BBC) is the bare minimum standard we should expect to see on television, I’m comfortable with that standard as a starting point for what I could make.
BT: Are you interested in making money from writing?
ROR: Ambitious to make a lot of money because then I can create more.
BT: Do you want to talk about some of the “issues” or “spats” you’ve had with people recently? Specifically online etc
ROR: Everyone is great :) :) :)
BT: What are you watching (tv,laptop, whatever) right this second? Please answer this!
ROR: Watched an episode of ‘The Comeback’. Really like Lisa Kudrow, she is funny and intelligent, I think probably at genius level. She has unbelievable control of her art, like how her performance is so measured and technical but she can still illicit genuine emotion from the audience lol. She makes me laugh anyway haha. But going to sleep now haha. I attached a pdf of my book haha. See you around haha.
I drag myself out of bed and prepare myself a large mug of strong black coffee. Thinking about what I have just read, I consider how difficult it was to get to this point, and I still don’t fully understand why it was so hard, but I’m glad that we (just about) kept going. I open the pdf and start reading.
I finish reading the pdf and everything has become a lot clearer. I have so many answers yet many more questions. I think about a follow up interview, but perhaps not for a while at least. It’s not just an old netball injury I need to recover from.
All The Places We Lived (Parthian Books) by Richard Owain Roberts is being launched at Chapter Arts Centre at 7pm on May 14th, Free Entry. You can follow Richard on Twitter @RichOwainRobs