Tuesday, 8 November 2011
Why did you suddenly decide to write a novel after m any years of writing non-fiction?
This may sound spooky, but the decision was made for me. I had no thoughts of writing a novel when my wife and myself travelled to Gran Canaria on holiday in 1999. I picked up some strange bug on the plane, and even before we arrived at Las Palmas I felt terrible, with a high temperature and other flu-like symptoms. As soon as we arrived at the apartment I went to bed, and I spent the night wide awake, sweating profusely and with a splitting headache. I think I was delirious, but during the hours of darkness the story of a young woman of the regency / Victorial period came into my head. Places, characters, names, story-lines, details of the plot and even details of conversations -- they were all there. In the morning I felt better, and everything was still present inside my head. I told my wife about this strange experoience, and her instinctive response was “Well, you’d better start writing!” So I did. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before or since, and I still feel that the story of Martha Morgan was handed to me as a gift. It would have been churlish if I had not done something with it. If nothing else, I now know what the term “feverish imagination” actually means.
That explains one novel -- but SEVEN? When did the simple story turn into a Saga?
It was probably inevitable from the beginning. In On Angel Mountain I wrote what had to be written, but still I covered only a year of the young heroine’s life. I knew even then that there was almost another half century of Martha’s life to write about -- it was all there, inside my head. If the public had not responded enthusiastically about the book, that material would never have been written down. So in response to the pleading of my readers I decided to keep going, and the idea of a Saga of five volumes was born. Early in 2002 I set myself the target of writing, publishing and selling one volume a year for five years. Somehow or other I managed to hit that target -- but without the massive support and encouragement of my readership I don’t think I could have found the motivation or the stamina to complete all five! Then, with Martha in her grave (or was she?) people kept on asking me for more -- no now there are seven books............. and who knows where it will all end?
Why did you decide on a diary format for the books?
When the story came to me it was all about the diary of a long-lost woman -- its discovery and its contants. The bulk of the story had to be told through diary entries if I was to be true to the “gift” given to me in that strange delirious episode. That made me very apprehensive, since I know that very few successful novels have been written as diaries. But having started to write On Angel Mountain I discovered that there were many advantages to the diary format; for example, some entries can be short and others long, and if the “diarist” has nothing exciting to report, there can be gaps of months or even years. People seem to like relatively short entries with frequent breaks; it makes the phyisical process of reading easier. What is more, there is a great immediacy about diary entries. Things can happen very suddenly without prior warning. And diary entries can easily reflect changes in the heroine’s mood or in her opinions from one day to the next. Human beings are like that, especially if they are as impulsive and wilful as Mistress Martha! One has to resist the temptation to analyse motives and to prepare the ground for forthcoming events, and there is no room for lengthy sermonizing or moralizing. That’s fine by me, since some books (for example Hardy’s Tess) have too muuch of the author and too little of the heroine in them. The biggest problem with a diary is that Martha cannot, anywhere in its pages, describe herself -- readers have to get to know her through her reporting of what other people say about her, or simply through the way in which she describes conversations and events.
Wasn’t it risky for you, as a man approaching retirement, to presume to speak as a pregnant, suicidal young woman from another age?
Very risky indeed. But I had to do it, since that’s the way the story came to me. So I swallowed hard and had to get on with it, for better or worse. Luckily I seem to have got away with it, and many female readers have complimented me on the accuracy with which I have portrayed female moods and instincts. Maybe that’s the female side of me coming out, or maybe it’s down to accurate observation of women over a long period of time! But here I have to thank my wife Inger, who has been my chief critic and consultant on the female psyche. She reads everything as soon as it is written, and does not hesitate to put me right on misjudgements large and small, and indeed on all things feminine. I have to admit to some difficulties in writing the most intimate and erotic scenes in the five books, and also in describing a miscarriage as experienced by Martha herself. No man can really understand the emotional turmoil and physical anguish involved.
Where did Mistress Martha come from?
I really have no idea. I am as mystified by the creative process as anybody else. When the story of this feisty and imperfect heroine came into my head during a bout of high fever in 1999, she seemed to me to be ready-formed and in need of no manufacturing on my part. I saw myself as an artist creating a portrait of a model sitting (not very quietly) in front of me -- my task was to create a picture of her in words, hoping that my portrait might capture the essence of her character. I have known a lot of strong female characters -- my mother, two sisters, my wife, and many female friends -- maybe Mistress Martha owes something to all of them. She takes no orders from anybody, and on many occasions during the writing of the five books I have wanted her to do something and she has refused to cooperate. I know now why writers often say that their characters “take over” and dictate the development of the story. In retrospect, my heroine has always been right, and has refused to do anything which might be out of character.
Did you intend Martha to be a classic tragic heroine?
Again, I did not have to work at this. It was clear to me right from the beginning that as she travels through a long and exciting life she trails disaster in her wake. Her beauty is the source of her strength and also her curse, and as she survives one terrifying episode after another she loves and loses not just one good man but five. Many of her enemies love her too, or at least lust after her. In some ways she is naive about her own power over men; but her friends and family see it perfectly well, and do their best to warn her and protect her. There is an inexorable momentum in Martha’s tragedy. In some way it is surprising that she survives into her seventies, but it must be clear to all the readers of the Saga that Martha will not die in her bed. Nor does she......
Many readers have remarked that Mistress Martha is really “Mother Wales.” Have you set out to encourage that belief?
When I wrote On Angel Mountain I was simply intent upon writing a rattling good story with believable characters and enough twists and turns in the plot to keep readers happy. Young Martha Morgan was my heroine, but I had no plan to develop her as an iconic figure. Then a good friend read the novel and asked me whether I had modelled Martha on Chris Guthrie in Grassic Gibbons’ Sunset Song.
I had not even heard of that novel or its author. But I went off and read all three novels in A Scots Quair, and was bowled over by them. I can quite understand why Chris Guthrie is viewed by many students of Scottish literature as Mother Scotland. But she is a victim, and Martha Morgan is anything but a victim. I have not tried to manufacture her character, but I have tried to bring out different aspects of it in the five novels of the Saga. Maybe she does embody all that is best and worst about Wales. On the one hand she is beautiful, passionate, feisty, strong-willed and fiercely loyal and protective of those whom she loves. On the other hand she is prone to introspection and even deep depression and paranoia. At times she becomes arrogant and manipulative. She cannot keep her nose out of other peoples’ business, and becomes involved in great campaigns which can only lead her into trouble. But she hates injustice and suffering, and is prepared to take huge risks in the rightings of wrongs. She has an almost mystical relationship with the landscape in which she lives and the house which gives her shelter. She belongs to Carningli, and the mountain belongs to her. She is also proudly Welsh and refuses to submit to any authority which she does not respect. If that makes her Mother Wales, so be it!
There are many supernatural episodes in the stories. Are you cashing in on the Harry Potter / magic mania?
Absolutely not. When Mistress Martha “came to me” during my strange feverish episode, I knew immediately that she had to have special powers, and that premonitions and supernatural phenomena would figure strongly in the development of the story. I also knew that Joseph Harries Werndew had to be in the stories as Martha’s mentor and friend; he really did exist, and he really was a wizard, although I know nothing at all about what he was like as a person. It seemed important to me to flag up the naive belief in supernatural events that existed in rural Wales around the year 1800. I also wanted to show how wizards and witches were not just tolerated but often respected as healers, herbalists, sleuths and amateur psychiatrists in the days before Charles Darwin and the development of modern science. The idea of “the knowing one” is very important in the Welsh folk-tale tradition, and I wanted to remind readers of that fact.
What about symbols in the stories? Some readers say they see them everywhere!
Yes, there are many symbols in the books, although I have tried not to cram in so many as to make the stories into allegories or parables. Because Martha feels so strongly that she is a part of the landscape of Carningli, and that the landscape is a part of her, it is natural that the mountain itself should be her “cathedral” -- a sacred place, a great monument to the glory of God, and the place where she can find peace. The cave is an obvious symbol too -- it is dark and secret and enetered via a narrow slit in the rock face. That is Martha’s ultimate hiding place, where she can curl up like an embryo and escape from all that threatens to overwhelm her outside in the wicked world. It is found by others but defiled only once, by Moses Lloyd at the climax of the first novel. Ffynnon Brynach provides water for the Plas and is a place of anointment and cleansing; the kitchen table in the Plas kitchen is a sort of altar; Martha’s servants and family are the angels who protect her at the Plas, and the ravens are the angels who protect her on the mountain; the grove in Tycanol Wood, where Martha makes love with a number of different men during her long life, is sacred and profane, and a place of ecstasy and terror; Bessie is Martha’s conscience; Jones Minor Prophet is a Christ-like figure, too good to be allowed to survive. Some have seen symbolism in dates and numbers -- there may be symbols there, quite unbeknown to me.............
How would you summarize the themes of the seven novels?
The Saga as a whole is about resilience, love and honour, and about the ability of the human spirit to conquer brutality, betrayal and all manner of other evils. Mistress Martha is no paragon of virtue, but I hope that she is close enough to “everyman” and “everywoman” to give comfort and inspiration to at least some of my readers. Part One is about a naive and frightened young woman who learns -- the hard way -- how to survive when she is confronted by monstrous wickedness. Part Two (the most complex of the five novels) is about Martha’s recognition of her own strength and about taking responsibility for the righting of wrongs; it is also about the dangers of arrogance and manipulation. Part Three (a much darker and more introverted novel) is about loss, insecurity, mistrust and paranoia. Part Four is about Martha in middle age, deciding to use her talents to try and make the world a better place. And Part Five is about the dilemmas of old age, with Martha trying to live life to the full, and give her love to others, while confronting the inevitability of death. Part Six is a sort of ecological parable -- it's the closest I come to telling a fairy story! And Part Seven is very dark and brutal -- it is more of a thriller than the other stories, and some of the contents are shocking. Although many deaths and many brutal incidents are described in the pages of the novels, I see them as ultimately optimistic, and about the triumph of good over evil.
Why have you now killed off Mistress Martha, in defiance of the old rule “never kill off a good character”?
I am by no means fed up with her, and indeed I now know her so well that she is almost a part of the family. A couple of years ago I was afraid that with a sixth book, or a seventh, I might have had nothing new to say about her. I had dealt with five phases of her life and with many different aspects of her character. Even if I still had some “unused episodes” of her life story in my head, I was more than a little afraid that in a new book I would be going over old ground and becoming repetitive. On Angel Mountain was popular because the characters, the period and the context were all fresh and new to readers, and therefore exciting. With every successive book that excitement is increasingly difficult to recapture, because the reader who has been with me from the beginning is familiar with almost everything to do with Martha’s life. He or she is also familiar with my writing style and with the “conventions” of the books, such as the episodes in which each successive diary is discovered and translated. So I was worried -- but I need not have worried too much, and I found that there are still new things to say about Mistress Martha. That having been said, there are still a number of long episodes in Martha’s life which have not, as yet, been covered !
One major novel per year for five years was a very ambitious schedule. Do you write very quickly?
Yes, I do. I work straight onto the computer, banging away with two fingers, making lots of mistakes, and correcting as I go along. If I am working on a difficult passage I may keep going for twelve hours or more, with very few breaks; but I do seem to have the knack of getting away from writing for days -- or sometimes weeks -- and then picking up again where I left off. The critical thing is to keep the creative process going inside my head even when I am gardening or travelling or doing building work......... My greatest output in one day was about 11,000 words, but a more average output would be around 4,000 words. On Angel Mountain took me about eighteen months to write, but the other books were written much more quickly -- in about four months each. I wrote "Sacrifice" in two months flat. Now, of course, I know all of my characters well, and there is much greater efficiency in my research and plot development as well.
You mention research -- how much research and preparation goes into the books?
A considerable amount. Because I am writing historical fiction I have to get the social history -- and all sorts of other things -- right. For example, I have had to study folk traditions, the events of the farming calendar, beliefs, political issues of the day, the details of women’s clothing, and the timing of great events on the world stage. If you get anything wrong in historical fiction, you can be sure that somebody will jump on you from a great height! Luckily I have a considerable library of relevant books at home, and that has saved me from long hours spent in public libraries. The internet has been a boon. But a lot of the detail in the books was in my head already, from years of reading and writing about folk tales and local geography and history. The background detail is enjoyed by many readers, and there is of course a “learning” aspect to the reading of historical fiction. By the same token, as an author I enjoy the “teaching” opportunities that come in the quieter parts of the novels, and they serve a useful technical purpose too in permitting me to vary the pace of my storytelling.