Today I was trying to decide which is the best Welsh novel (in English) of the last decade. It's tough because after years in the doldrums the Welsh novel has, of late, experienced something of a renaissance. I managed to narrow my list down to 5: Cardiff Dead (2000) by John Williams, mainly because Williams is the writer who kick-started so-called Welsh noir and in the process gave Welsh writing (in English) its credibility back. Sheepshagger (2001) by Niall Griffiths, with its supercharged prose style. Chasm City (2001) by Alastair Reynolds, which won the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel. More recently we have had the pleasure of Tristan Hughes's eerie Ynys Mon gothic in Revenant (2008); and Joe Dunthorne's uber-cool Submarine (2008). If I had to choose just one, though, as the Welsh Novel of the Decade (in English) I'd probably plump for Sheepshagger. Here's an old interview I did with Niall Griffiths back in 2004:
What is your writing routine?
I get out of bed and go to my desk and pick up my pen and write until I think I should stop. This could be at any point between 2 and 10 hours.
You started writing fiction as a child - what kind of stuff were you producing and what was motivating you to pick up a pen at such a tender age?
I wrote horror novels, alien invasion stuff, mutated rampaging animals, the kind of thing an excitable child from a non-bookish household is likely to write. Why? I don't know; probably as a way of coping with my sense of self emerging into a violent and confusing world. There were no books in my family but there were lots of stories; it was very much an oral culture.
Your debut novel Grits is set in perennially unfashionable west Wales - how did you manage to get a London publisher interested in it?
I think the time was right; London's eyes were looking at the Celtic fringe, as they do from time to time. It's not always about marketability or fashion; if you're lucky, and you find the right editor (or s/he finds you), then it can just be about the writing.
I think of Grits as your drugs and geology novel. Its depiction of drug culture is obviously based upon personal experience - what about the geology?
Difficult to give this a pithy answer; I mean, I wrote a 500 page novel in an attempt to work this question out. But I will say that I'm fascinated in the ways landscapes work on a people, on their social and linguistic habits etc. We are an ancient people in an ancient landscape of lakes and of mountains; a liminal race in a liminal place, and mad, fascinating and seemingly irrational things happen in these breaches between worlds. This question is central to my writing and I'll continue to address it until I die.
How do you approach dialect writing - do you get the story out then go back and translate it into demotic English; or do you have to put the accent directly on the page as you think it, so to speak?
I translate the accents straight onto the page. It's easier that way. Some re-writing is involved, of course, but I just chip away at it until it looks and sounds right.
Sheepshagger is a milestone book in that you have given Welsh writing (in English) its first genuine youthful outsider figure - Ianto. Do you think Welsh literature has suffered in the past from not having its own Holden Caulfield or Alex to appeal to a younger audience?
Well, this assumes that novels can have a huge social impact, and I'm not sure if they can, although I'll go on believing that they can . . . But there are flesh counterparts: Dylan Thomas, of course, Richey Edwards, Robbie Savage, Robbie Earnshaw. We live in a weakened print-conscious age. Could Catcher in the Rye or A Clockwork Orange have the same cultural impact now? I doubt it. The literary establishment appropriates these things anyway and defuses them through monopolisation. I get a wide variety of people at my readings, and I prefer to sign books for people with facial tattoos than cravats. So that readership is there, maybe. . . although I don't want anyone to emulate Ianto. Don't really want him to be a role model. If he, as a character, helps in any way to combat confusion or exacerbate pain then I'm happy.
Invasion neurosis (usually displaced) is a strong theme in Welsh popular culture - rarely though does anyone actually mention the English coming over the border. In Sheepshagger you broke this taboo - why?
'Displaced' is right; 'misguided' could be used too. It's more class-based than nation-based, I feel, and I don't want to augment anyone's sense of indignant victimology (nor, indeed, dissolve it; we all need crutches, don't we?), but I do despair at the Playground Wales mentality that a lot of wealthy English people have. I despair at the smug and soul-less attitude that assumes that everything can be bought, that everyone has a price (these last four words were whispered in my girlfriend's ear by a fat rich southern English businessman in a plush Cardiff hotel. She was wearing a cropped top and it was assumed that she was a hotel whore. When she denied that, the self-satisfied fat fucker hissed those four words into her ear). Why should we shy away from naming these people? They won't be shamed, because they genuinely don't care who they hurt or offend, but let's put a tag on them and point at them in public anyway. There's no respect in them, so let's arraign them, because in doing so we declare our opposition to them and their values. They stink. And what puzzles me is this; why does their privilege only bring them bitterness? Look at their elders; they're not happy - they hate themselves, each other, and the world. So let's declare that we're not like them. One other point; second home ownership in Wales is despicable, but those homes have to have sellers, don't they? If you need the money, fair enough, but don't then start complaining about the holiday-home Sais. Just bank the cheque and shut up.
Your fiction often contains passages of highly charged poetic prose - this goes against prevailing notions that spare, pared down writing is somehow superior. How did you arrive at your prose style?
It fell on me, one wasted morning on Constitution Hill in Aberystwyth. I'd spent a few days in the mountains and at a lakeside rave and my blood and brains were bubbling, and words suited to expressing the madness came out of the sky. I was sick of minimalism; it can work very well, sometimes, but I felt then that the world was supercharged and that it needed a new expressive language. That kinda thing.
Who is Kelly and Victor actually based upon - are there any autobiographical elements in that obsessional relationship?
Not telling yer.
Why is there so much violence in your fiction?
Well, I'm not a violent man, and I think it's incumbent on non-violent people to study on and write about violence. That's the sacrifice we have to make; it's what justifies our place in the world. Like all ages, ours is characterised by violence, and I think it's vital that we try to work out why. It makes for a sometimes pretty unhappy existence, but why should it be otherwise? People of violence aren't happy either. The darkness in our hearts needs to be explored. Fighting violence doesn't really alleviate the situation; I've recently accepted that suffering will come to you whatever you do, and that violence will always be here, as it always has; but we must deal with it, mustn't we? A social conscience isn't solely the preserve of writers. All of us need to stare at the world.
Is it fair to say that your books are essentially anti-pastoral returns to the primitive?
In some ways, yes, they're anti-pastoral. Pastoralism is a middle-class concept; the Enlightenment Humanists painted it all rosy, and it's not like that. It's essentially reductive, a reality-denier. There is blood and pain in cottagey valleys just as there is in city alleys.
You often use dialogue as dialectic - characters argue and philosophise about everything from colonialism to sex. Are you working out your own position on various ideas when you do this?
Yes, of course. All writers do, I think. The best ones, anyway.
It's also in the dialogue that your books' humour is usually located. How important to you is the comedic aspect of your novels?
Absolutely crucial. It's basically an absurdist view of the world in which laughter and tears are equally valid responses. I find human life as hilarous as it is heartbreaking; I don't want people to come away from my books depressed, I want them to be exhilirated at the spinning extremes of existence.
Stump won the Welsh Book of the Year Award - what did that mean to you?
I don't write for awards, of course, but they're an added bonus. Plus I was pleased that my first major award bore the name of the country that called me back to it, that beckoned my blood and inspired me, helped me to find my voice. And the money was nice, too. I went on a two-week drinking spree in Spain and Croatia.
Music has been a big influence on your writing - give us a few of the records which have inspired you.
The Clash, Nick Cave, early Pogues, Schubert, techno/trance, football chants, birdsong, Tom Waits, blues. . . a huge list, really. I've recently been listening to a lot of bluegrass/hillbilly stuff and this is beginning to seep into my work. And the best band of recent times is The Libertines; they're playing now, in fact.
Finally, in a recent Channel 4 documentary about yourself Iain Sinclair suggested that success and the avenues it opens up might distract you from your literary vision - do you agree with him?
Too early to say, really. But I'll fight like a lion against it happening, although I do have a sense of its insidiousness, its invisible-enemyness. We'll see, I guess. But it's going to be a great adventure.