In conversation with Richard Gwyn

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.

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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.

Illness

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.

Memory

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.”

Survival

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.”

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The Vagabond’s Breakfast is available in most good bookshops for £9.99

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Book release: Patagonia travel memoir

Imogen Herrard’s journeys in Patagonia led her to discover the descendants of Welsh settlers and veiled indigenous people groups

Beyond the Pampas, an autobiographical account of a European’s journeys around Patagonia, has been released this week by Seren.

Its German author, Imogen Herrard, spent a year in Aberystwyth where she became intrigued about the descendants of the Welsh settlers in Patagonia. She has since travelled there several times in the last ten years.

The book also charts her discovery of the indigenous peoples of the region who have suffered greatly under past Argentinian authorities and still face hardships today.

Mick Felton, manager of Seren, says: “It’s also a personal journey going on because Herrard had a difficult childhood with her parents and has been looking for a new family since then. Meeting the communities in Argentina helped her to put her own issues in perspective.”

Imogen Herrard is launching her new book in Chapter Arts Centre on Friday 30 November at 7pm. The event is free of charge.

Beyond the Pampas is available to buy from the Seren website for £9.99 

Further info

Welsh settlers in Patagonia:

The first group of settlers were a group of about 150 people from all over Wales. They sailed from Liverpool to Patagonia and arrived in New Bay (Port Madryn) on 28 July 1865. Over the next few years, groups of Welsh immigrants from Wales and North America made the journey to Patagonia. By 1876, the population numbered 690.

Migration continued over the period 1880-1887. Economic depression and insecurity in the Welsh coal mining industry caused another influx of emigrations in the period 1904-1912.

Today, the ties between Wales and Patagonia remain strong. More than 50,000 Patagonians claim Welsh descent, mainly clustered around the towns of Gaiman, Trelew and Trevelin. The number of Welsh speakers is rising.

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The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness

The Last Hundred Days won the 2012 Wales Book of the Year Award.

The Last Hundred Days is Patrick McGuinness’s first novel. Written from the perspective of an unnamed British narrator, it tells the story of the last hundred days of Ceausescu’s communist reign in Romania. Sinister and engrossing in equal measures, the book draws the reader into an odd, secretive world.

Patrick himself lived in Romania from 1985 to 1987. When I asked him if he closely identified his own self with the narrator, he replied in the affirmative. “But none of the really sexy and interesting bits are autobiographical,” he added.

Perhaps it is because he was there that he is able to write with such clear authority and painstaking attention to detail. The world described is one “whose brutality was matched only by its absurdity” and both of these components are fleshed out throughout the narrative.

Past traumas and grievances in the narrator’s own life are pitted expertly against the grim backdrop of Romanian communism. A difficult relationship with a cancer-ridden, tyrannical father reflects the dying days of Ceausescu’s oppressive regime. Vivid characters spring to life on the pages and add colour to the grey streets of Bucharest: There’s Leo, the dodgy black-marketeer; Trofim, the elderly and erudite Romanian gentleman; Cilea, the sensuous and mysterious daughter of a party apparatchik.

Romania is a recurring theme in Patrick’s writing. The last section of his 2010 volume of poetry, Jilted City, is a set of poems called “City of Lost Walks” by the fictional Romanian poet, Liviu Campanu. I ask why Romania is so important in his writing. He thinks for a moment and then says, “The world I knew there was unlike anything else I’d seen before. It was a pretty traumatic time for me, so I spent quite a lot of time ignoring it and trying to repress it. But 20 years later I sat down and wrote about it – and it came out as a novel.”

Patrick McGuinness is a professor at Oxford University, as well as a poet and novelist

Further information:

The Last Hundred Days has been published by Seren. Not only did it win the 2012 Wales Book of the Year Award, but it was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award (2011) and longlisted for The Man Booker Prize (2011).

Patrick is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Oxford University. He divides his time between Oxford and his home in Caernarfon. He tells me, after a great deal of thought, that his favourite writer would probably have to be the poet Thom Gunn.

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Review: The Water-castle by Brenda Chamberlain

A Library of Wales edition of The Water-castle marks the centenary of the renowned Welsh writer and artist

The Water-castle, first published in 1964, is available to buy in a new centenary edition by the Library of Wales for £8.99

“This is a work poised suggestively between a journal and a novel, autobiography and fiction, romance and political documentary, Welsh and European spaces, West and East, island and mainland selves.” Damian Walford Davies

I was introduced to the works of Brenda Chamberlain two weeks ago at the Cardiff Literary Salon. After an insightful and reflective talk on The Water-castle by Professor Damian Walford Davies, said book was handed to me – along with a request to review it.

So, without further ado …

Firstly, allow me to register mild confusion. The book simply evades categorisation. Is it a journal or a novel? Is it autobiographical or fictitious? These questions floated around my mind as I read it and remain unanswered now that I have finished it. (It seems, though, that I am in good company; see above for the verdict of Walford Davies himself).

Perplexity aside, however, I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. It charts the account of a Welsh poet and artist, Elizabeth Greatorex, who travels to the wintery landscape of Westphalia with her husband to meet her former lover, Klaus.

Set in the 1950s, Elizabeth and her husband arrive in the newly-divided Europe from their home on a remote Welsh island. Not only are physical borders being remapped, but Elizabeth’s relationship with both her husband and her past are thrown into question.

A great deal of suppressed, raw emotion is buried beneath the often matter-of-fact tone (in keeping, I presume, with the journalistic form of the book). Chamberlain writes with what I would call a “light” touch; sentences are short and precise and the narrative moves fluidly from one scene to the next.

The Water-castle is pock-marked with painstakingly vivid descriptions, giving an incredible sense of place. The characters, though, are less rigidly defined and often more difficult to access. The complex web of relationships generates a sense of gentle intrigue which certainly served to keep my interest lively throughout.

Further information

Brenda Chamberlain was born in Bangor in 1912. She was an artist, as well as a writer of poetry and prose. To mark her centenary, Parthian is publishing a series of works by and about Chamberlain, including a Library of Wales edition of The Water-castle for £8.99. The Water-castle was first published in 1964. Chamberlain died in 1971.

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Christina Thatcher: On writing to empower

How the art of creative writing can be used as a means of empowerment

Christina is passionate about using writing as a tool to empower others

Bright, bubbly and full of energy, the American-born and Cardiff-based Christina Thatcher is convinced that creative writing can be an important means of empowerment.

“I’ve always had a really strong drive to do what I do,” she says, referring to her multiple roles as freelance writer, researcher and educator. Among other things, she is a researcher for Welsh Women’s Aid, the leader of the writing programme at The Gate, the writer-in-residence at the Milkwood Gallery, the Wales representative for Half Moon and the co-facilitator for the Literature Wales Young People’s Writing Squad.

Christina also runs two literary open mic events, Voices of Roath and My Words My Voice.

Her main passion lies with working with at-risk youth and children. She has run creative writing workshops from gang-riddled neighbourhoods in Philadelphia to the streets of Merthyr Tydfil. “I’ve never had a negative experience,” she says. “If you tell someone ‘you’re going to have a voice and I’m going to listen’, it’s totally empowering for them. Even the most disengaged teenager will engage with that.”

A troubled journey

Christina may be successful in her chosen career, but life has not always been a bed of roses. Growing up in the US, her home life was unhappy and she struggled with literacy in her early years of kindergarten. “One of my teachers told me I would probably never learn to read which is a bit crazy,” she laughs.

Comments like that only made her more determined and gave her a drive from a young age to practise reading and writing. She worked hard and began to use writing as a form of escapism from family troubles. “I kept my head down and wrote a lot of poetry, stories and journals. It really helped me rise above the circumstances and understand what was going on and how I was feeling about it.”

Her hard work and gritty determination paid off when in 2009, on completion of her US degree in English Literature and Secondary Education, she won an international scholarship to study a Creative Writing MA across the pond in Cardiff. The following year, she continued her studies in York and graduated with an MA in Equity Issues in Education. “But I missed Cardiff so much I moved back,” she confessed.

“One of my teachers told me I would probably never learn to read,” Christina says.

Pushing the boundaries

Christina’s own writing is a lens that helps her to interpret the world. She writes about childhood trauma, domestic abuse, domesticity, sterility and fear of womanhood. As a happy and optimistic character, she suggests her writing reflects a negativity that she doesn’t portray in her regular life.

“Writing is such an intense part of my life, but I would never just want to be a writer,” she says earnestly. “My own work is equal if not secondary to the work I’m doing with young people and if I had to choose I would always, always pick running workshops and groups, being with the community and making an impact on other people’s lives.”

Christina has had wonderful feedback from her different classes and strong support from her various employers. But in spite of her success, she is adamant that she never wants to feel completely satisfied. She says, “I always want to feel there’s more I can do to help young people and reach out to others.”

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November challenge: Write a story in six words

We all know that November is National Novel Writing Month. But if you’re gearing up for lots of late nights and frenzied typing sessions, don’t panic – the six-word story challenge is for you.

It was the late American author, Ernest Hemingway, who started the trend for writing a story in six words. He once won a bet by crafting a story in less than 10 words: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Short, sharp – yet tinged with grief and brilliant poignancy.

Getting bogged down in lots of words is a familiar feeling for many writers. And of course, on the other end of the spectrum, so is that vacuous fog that sometimes numbs our minds when we are faced with – horror of horrors – a blank sheet of white paper.

If either of the above applies to you, the six-word story challenge is a brilliant way to help you refocus your mind and sharpen your writing skills. And the beauty of it is that it’s oh-so-simple.

So, without further ado, here’s the challenge:

Let your creative juices flow, your imagination run riot – and write your life story in six words (no more – and no less).

Stories should be emailed to katiebethharris@hotmail.co.uk by 23 November, with your personal details included – name, age and where you’re from. No attachments, please.

All the best!

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Creative inspiration is not a butterfly

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