Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Welsh Voices by Gillian Hamer (Part 2)

Welsh Writers II

As some of you will know, my books are all based in North Wales and I have a deep affinity with the country, its landscape and its people.

Here, in the second part of my discussion with Welsh authors, I speak to another collection of talented writers, some who are Welsh born, others now live in Wales and some are simply moved to write about Wales or set their books there.

Whether it’s location, language or legend – there seems to be something special about Cymru.


Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing?

I am the author of six historical novels and a few short story collections. Since I studied creative writing and history at uni, it seemed the natural course to take. My earlier books have an Anglo-Saxon or medieval setting but recently, due to reader requests, I have been writing in the Tudor period. My books are mostly from a female perspective although the multi-narrated plots have a male point of view. I am interested, some might say obsessed, in perspective and like to show how a single event can appear so differently to each witness, which proves my point that there is no ‘truth’ in history.

Which of your books are set in Wales?

Peaceweaver is the story of Eadgyth, daughter of the rich and powerful Earl of Mercia. Eadgyth’s story begins when she is sold into marriage to Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, leader of the Welsh; a man old enough to be her grandfather. Her life in turmoil, she discovers both friendship and romance, but not from her husband. Ultimately she finds herself accused of treason, fornication and incest.

The peace of Rhuddlan is shattered by Harold Godwinson’s surprise night attack on the palace. Gruffydd and some of his household escape but Eadgyth is abandoned and falls into the hands of the Saxon invaders.

After the betrayal and brutal murder of Gruffydd, Eadgyth is separated from her sons and taken to the court of the Saxon King, Edward the Confessor. There, desperate to be reunited with her children, she befriends the queen and her feminine charms enable her to infiltrate the sticky intrigues of the Godwin family.

My novel The Song of Heledd is loosely based on a collection of fragmentary middle Welsh poetry detailing the downfall of the 7th century Kingdom of Pengwern.

Most scholars date the Canu Heledd poems to the ninth century but generally agree that they are representative of an earlier oral tradition. The beautiful Welsh lament, the Canu Heledd, together with the poems of Llywarch Hen, describe the fall of the Cyndrwynyn dynasty. The narrator is Cynddylan’s sister, Heledd, her pain and loneliness is in every word of the ancient poem and also apparent is her strong sense of guilt.

We can never know the true story but I began to wonder about this woman who lamented so woefully for her brothers and the lost kingdom of Pengwern. Over the next few months I sifted through the smoke ruined halls of Cynddylan to piece together a story for Heledd, a fiction of what might have been.

What do you think Wales or Welsh history adds to literature?

Readers of historical novels love to stumble upon something new, they like to learn as they read and, as I mentioned earlier, Welsh history isn’t taught in English schools. They can’t help but be biased because they are ignorant of the Welsh story. My books are enjoyed not only by the Welsh or those of Welsh descent who are now overseas, they are read by readers of English history who are keen for new perspective. Often people don’t even realise there is another side to it. Wales is always depicted as the underdog, the thorn in the flesh of the English kings, they don’t realise how it must have been for the Welsh to be so persecuted, although they should do for it was a very similar story for the Anglo-Saxons after the Normans came. Literature is a great way of reaching out and getting the former enemies of Wales to see that, actually, we do have a point.

Name some of your favourite Welsh writers or books? (Feel free to quote a passage)

Of course I love the Mabinogion or Dylan Thomas with something bordering on passion. The Mabinogion has a great mystical atmosphere that I adopted when writing The Song of Heledd. This excerpt is from The Song of Heledd, the llys is under attack and the women have taken refuge in the hills.

At last, to everyone’s relief, we huddled in the shelter of a large outcrop where scrub grew up to screen us from the enemy below. If I stood on the tip of my toes, I could just see the llys far below us, and the river running into the flooded valley and on toward the sea.

From our great height the skerries looked tiny and the men milling about them as small and as insignificant as insects, although I knew that each and every one of them had a family and home. I suppose, when seen en mass, we all appear as nothing more than insects; our approaching enemy had no concept of us as people who wept and loved and laughed. We were just in their way, like a nest of wasps and so must be destroyed. I think that was the moment, although I had not the time to contemplate it, that I first conceived the true cost of war.

I scanned my eye in the other direction, across the purpling mountaintops until I perceived in the distance a cloud of dust far off on the valley road.

‘They are coming,’ I whispered and Rhonwen began to cry, her head in Gwarw’s chest. The old woman patted her shoulder, crooning comfort as she so often had to me. I turned away from them, into the wind. I could offer them no consolation, would make no false promises. In the next few hours anything could happen.

And then, quite suddenly, as if from nowhere, an eagle flew down, the wind from his wings lifting my hair, his mournful cry penetrating something buried deep within my mind, bringing the memory of heartbreak and defeat. And pain and dread lurched in my stomach as I recollected a childhood dream.

Gerald of Wales was a helpful resource too with his detailed diaries of his travels through Wales in the 12th century. His work also illustrates how little things have changed here. It is still possible to stand close to a spot where he once stood and enjoy the same view he did.

As a girl I used to read R.S Thomas’ poems because they spoke so richly of the place I was missing. His imagery is so perfect you can almost smell the rain. I think my favourite is Ninetieth Birthday, I feel I am walking up the track beside him, inhaling the scents of the landscape.

You go up the long track
That will take a car, but is best walked
On slow foot, noting the lichen
That writes history on the page
Of the grey rock. Trees are about you
At first, but yield to the green bracken,
The nightjars house: you can hear it spin
On warm evenings; it is still now
In the noonday heat, only the lesser
Voices sound, blue-fly and gnat
And the stream's whisper. As the road climbs,
You will pause for breath and the far sea's
Signal will flash, till you turn again
To the steep track, buttressed with cloud.

And there at the top that old woman,
Born almost a century back
In that stone farm, awaits your coming;
Waits for the news of the lost village
She thinks she knows, a place that exists
In her memory only.
You bring her greeting
And praise for having lasted so long
With time's knife shaving the bone.
Yet no bridge joins her own
World with yours, all you can do
Is lean kindly across the abyss
To hear words that were once wise.

I studied the metaphysical poet Thomas Vaughn at university but I prefer the less flowery approach of Dylan and R.S. Thomas. For me they represent the essence of Wales, omitting nothing and painting a truer picture.

Modern Welsh novelists I enjoy are Jan Ruth who writes contemporary grown up romances novels set in north Wales. They have everything, humour, sorrow, and a sense of how irrational and silly relationships often are. Jean Mead’s books are great too, she writes Welsh historical fiction, her Widow Makers is really worth reading. I also enjoyed Judith Barrow’s Changing Patterns and Pattern of Shadows, again they have a historical slant but that is what I enjoy. Reading about the past illustrates what shaped us into the society we are today. I can’t get enough of it. A new (to me) author I discovered recently is Kate Murray, her writing and her illustrations are fabulous, so look out for her, I can see her going far. That is the great thing about the Welsh writing community is that it has a bond and we can support and share each other’s work. It is how we grow.

What is your favourite Welsh story or legend?

Well, my vote has to be for the Canu Heledd and the poems of Llywarch Hen. It has everything; history, love, loss, betrayal, war, death. Any tale that mourns the end of a great dynasty does it for me. I am a great romantic. The poems, although they only survive in fragments actually tell us a lot about Cynddylan’s hall, his purple cloak, and speaks of the war with Oswiu of Northumbria. I just wish we could find the middle part of the story to discover the catalyst of the disaster (which appears to have something to do with Heledd) although that might mean I’d have to rewrite The Song of Heledd. Historically we know nothing about Heledd herself but her brother, Cynddylan is believed to have united with Cadafael of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia against Northumbrian forces in the battles of Maes Cogwy, Chester, Lichfield and Winwaed, where Penda was slain.

Shortly after Winwaed in 655AD Oswiu invaded Mercia and Powys, launching an attack upon the royal llys at Pengwern and practically obliterating the dynasty in one night.

It has been suggested that, in order to cement the alliance between Powys and Gwynedd, Heledd was married to Cadafael, then King of Gwynedd.

For reasons we will never know, on the eve of the battle at Winwaed, Cadafael suddenly withdrew his troops and rode back to Gwynedd, abandoning Powys and Mercia to their fate. This act earned him the title of Cadafael Cadomedd, which translates as ‘battleshirker.’ There is no record as to his motivation but it did his reputation little good and shortly afterward, although the circumstances remain sketchy, the rule of Gwynedd passed back to Cadwaladr.

It is extremely rare for a female narrator to appear in early poetry but in Canu Heledd, Heledd speaks out loud and clear. The first time I read it I was compelled to help her spread her message.


Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing?

My name’s Will and I’m an authorholic. That means it could be dangerous for me to stop writing: at least, that’s what I used to say to my ex when she wanted me to mow the lawn. I’m a fifty something lover of blues, rock and jazz who has recently fulfilled a lifetime ambition by filling a wall of my study with bookcases. And then filling the bookcases. When not writing speculative fiction for children, teenagers and adults, I can be found walking the hills of Wales peering into caves for dragons. I haven’t found one yet, but it is only a matter of time.

I write horror, children’s books for the 5-8 age group, and what I fondly imagine to be a hilarious fantasy comedy collection called The Banned Underground which is centred on a dwarf rock n roll band working in modern Britain. Speculative fiction is the best encompassing term I’ve heard.

Which of your books are set in Wales?

Not all, but most, of my books include a Welsh setting or locations. I enjoy writing about the places that I love, or as one of my characters once said: he’s too idle to go looking for somewhere new to write about.

Tell us about your Welsh background or connections?

I’ve lived here now for over fifteen years: I’ve wanted to live here a lot longer, but circumstances were against me. My father always told me that one of my ancestors had fled Powys after being accused of sheep stealing. He grew up on a farm in Norfolk, so I’m not prepared to discount the theory. And of course I’ve been walking/climbing in Snowdonia for over forty years.

What is it about Wales that inspires you to include it as a setting in your novels?

The scenery is just tremendous, isn’t it? How can you not want to write about the hills and mountains and the myths and legends the surround them and flow across the landscape like a mist? Just walking out of my door – I’m lucky enough to live rurally – and looking out at the landscape is enough to get a writer’s imagination firing on all cylinders.

What do you think Wales or Welsh history adds to literature?

What hasn’t it added? The Mabinogion, one of my favourite books, is the source material for countless books. I write speculative fiction – aka fantasy of sorts. Wales has dragons, knights, ghosts, elves, enchanted forests and lakes and mountains… everything any writer in my field could ever need. We even have the essential rain! (it helps to keep us writers indoors at our keyboards, you know). Our mythology is so rich and varied it seems inexhaustible.

Tell us what books you are planning in the future that include Wales as a location?

I’ve got a YA –teenage- fantasy novel set here which will be coming out in 2015, and also a paranormal/horror novel called The Picture which will be out towards the end of 2014 or the start of 2015. The Picture started in my head one day whilst I was sat in a cafĂ© in one of the Arcades in Cardiff, watching reflections in a glass window opposite.

What is your favourite Welsh story or legend?

Oh, that’s really hard. I like so many of the legends and stories, from the enchanted lakes at Llyn Y Fan Fach and Llyn Lech Owain, to the mountains whose slopes turn benighted visitors into poets or madmen (or, presumably, both)… but I think I’d go for The Dream of Macsen in The Mabinogion. As long as I can remember I have been fascinated with the history of this land at the time of the Roman invasion and occupation, and this story relates a version of a part of that time. It isn’t overly accurate in historical terms, but dreams aren’t meant to be factual, are they? They are there to tease, tantalise, intrigue and inspire.


Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing?

I've lived in Wales for a year now, on a hillside, in Cribyn, Lampeter. I started out in a tent, moved up to a caravan and finally, 10 weeks later, moved into a tumbledown 300 year old farmhouse, with my partner and four cats.

I worked in the City, BC (Before Children) but since 1999 I've indulged my creative side, training in natural therapies, belly dance and writing. Publication of dance articles led to writing courses, and summer school, producing my first novel 'Destiny of Angels - First book in the Lilith Trilogy.'

In 2012 I published my first non-fiction title 'Wendy Woo's Year - A Pocketful of Smiles', as well as two short story anthologies and an erotic accompaniment to the Lilith Trilogy 'Too Hot for Angels'.

In June 2014, I published my second novel 'Wrath of Angels – Second book in the Lilith Trilogy', available on kindle and in paperback.

Which of your books are set in Wales?

The Lilith Trilogy is set in Wales and London, though my characters also visit Rome and Paris. In Destiny of Angels, you'll discover that Angel was sent to live with her maiden aunt in Wales at age 16, while her parents go abroad on their missionary duties and her love of the country stays with Angel as she buys a home near Corris. Angel and her friends celebrate the Spring Equinox there in the second book, Wrath of Angels, and all the final scenes of this book are set at Cader Idris.

Tell us about your Welsh background or connections?

My aunt and uncle lived at Llysfaen near Llandudno so my first introduction to Wales was walking the dogs over the hills when I was 3 years old. I have no other family connections but after our first holiday in Wales 15 years ago, I didn't want to go home and subsequent camping and cottage holidays inspired my dream to live in Wales one day.

What is it about Wales that inspires you to include it as a setting in your novels?

Wales is awesome in every sense of the word! From the greenest, verdant pastures to soaring mountain peaks, from sheep spattered hillsides to narrow, winding lanes and from waterfalls to fast flowing rivers, everything about the scenery is beautiful.

What do you think Wales or Welsh history adds to literature?

The fact that Wales promotes it's history and culture as well as the amazing scenery and extraordinary weather, makes it an inspirational setting for novels of all genres.

Tell us what books you are planning in the future that include Wales as a location?

I am writing the third book in the Lilith Trilogy, Angels and Demons and there are scenes in the house near Corris and near Machynlleth and I've begun a Christmas story set partly on the site of a bronze age settlement near where I live.

What is your favourite Welsh story or legend?

It would have to be the legend of Bran the Blessed which embodies Wiccan values of giving, light and rebirth. Bran's story is one of royal responsibility and great personal sacrifice as well as showing a king's love for his people and the land.

1 comment:

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