Richard Gwyn is a novelist, poet and academic. His latest book, The Vagabond’s Breakfast, charts his personal memoirs of vagrancy around the Mediterranean in the 1980s and a recent chronic illness which culminated in a liver transplant. It won the 2012 Wales Book of the Year Award for creative non-fiction.
I meet Gwyn in his office in Cardiff University. The shelves are overflowing and the surfaces are littered with piles of books, papers and magazines. He offers me a seat, apologising in advance for his inability to remember names.
“I can do faces, but just not names. It’s really dreadful – friends, family … I always forget.”
After reading The Vagabond’s Breakfast, I had formed a distinct mental image of a wild-eyed, long-limbed and erratic individual, but this small-framed, well-spoken man could not be further from what I was expecting.
I look harder, trying to spot left-over signs of his turbulent past and recent near-death brush. Two missing fingers on his left hand and a slight weathering around the eyes are all I come up with.
Settling down, I ask if he could tell me something about the process of writing The Vagabond’s Breakfast. He nods, looking pensive. “I never set out to write an autobiography,” he muses. “To have a chronic medical illness completely turned my life inside out. It made a very profound impression on me because as a writer I’ve always been interested in modes of perception and altered states of consciousness.”
He pauses, and I recall that in 2006 he was given a year to live unless a suitable liver donor were found.
“I didn’t do much writing at the time, but afterwards it seemed worth recording, almost as a reporter on the inner process of what that type of inner deterioration felt like.”
In order to present his illness in a coherent narrative, Gwyn felt that he had to link it in with autobiographical information as to why he was in this condition in the first place. This inevitably brought him back to his years of down-and-out vagabondage around the Mediterranean during the 1980s and, later, to his decision at the end of that decade to go back to college, study, and become an academic.
I interject that writing a memoir must have been an emotional process and ask how close he felt to the narrator of The Vagabond’s Breakfast.
“Yeah, that was the first lesson I learnt,” Gwyn says. “I think I started writing it in the first person in which the written ‘I’ was myself in memory and I got terribly stuck. I had to conceive of myself as a third person. Because unless you detach the persona of your subject from yourself then you inevitably get caught up in digression; you lose the story.”
Transcribing the past, particularly one’s own past, is surely not easy. I ask how he went about doing so, to which he replies that memory is only ever a version of events.
“Memoirs raise the question: How much of it is actually memory and how much of it is what you think happened or what you like to think happened? And without trying to consciously deceive the reader, how much of it can be trusted? And I quite like that idea.”
In spite of a decade of poverty, homelessness, alcoholism and hospitalisations, Gwyn has come out the other side.
“What you got with The Vagabond’s Breakfast was a very chopped-down version of somebody trying to assess their state; why they came that close to death, why they got into that situation and why they survived it.” He labours the last point, looking deeply thoughtful and slightly troubled. “Why they’ve survived it, because it inevitably begins to, you know … however atheistic or agnostic you are, there’s always a question of why you’ve survived when most of your friends have died or got lost along the route.”
When I read The Vagabond’s Breakfast, I was struck by the narrator’s tempestuous yet graceful journey to a sort of self-accepting realism. Was the process of writing it a way of coming to terms with all that happened in the past?
Gwyn shakes his head, admitting he doesn’t really like The Vagabond’s Breakfast to be labelled ‘redemptive’, although many reviewers brandish this term around. “I don’t think you can write a redemptive story unless you’re dead. And, to be honest, I’m far too concerned with living to see my life purely retrospectively.”