Friday, April 16, 2010

Interview with Tristan Hughes 2006

Here's an interview I did with writer Tristan Hughes from back in 2006.

Tristan, you were born in Atikokan, Canada, before moving to Wales - what influence has a split-heritage had on your writing?

I'm sure it's had quite a big influence on my writing, in all sorts of different ways. To begin with it tends to give you a slight feeling of detachment - a sense that being from two different places means you don't entirely belong to either of them, that you're always looking at them from the outside and the inside at the same time. A lot of my writing seems to shift between insider and outsider points of view.

On a more concrete level, there's also the question of the different influences you're exposed to. In Wales I grew up in a small rural community and spent a lot of time listening to local tales and legends, genealogies, ghost stories, a whole body of oral history (and fiction too, I suspect) relating to the place, and this helped me perceive the landscapes around me as layered, historically textured - profoundly 'storied', so to speak. And yet at the same time the written stories I was reading tended to be Canadian and American (my mother brought a lot of her books over with her from Canada).

I detected a strong gothic element in your latest novel Send My Cold Bones Home - do you acknowledge this presence? If so, is the gothicism instinctive or planned?

Yes, there is a strong gothic strain running through SMCBH, and some of it was planned. It's a particular type of the gothic I think. William Faulkner is a very important writer for me, as are other writers in the tradition of Southern literature, like Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor. Southern gothic grew out of a perception of how the past doesn't just inform the present, it deforms it, and that's an insight I'm slightly obsessed by. The gothic is a kind of border genre (if that makes sense); a fictional space where things get mixed and muddled, where they merge and overlap - the past and the present, the natural and the supernatural, the real and the fictional - and that's extremely appealing to me as a writer. I'm also interested in haunting, in the invisible presences and absences that linger around the edges of our lives, and the gothic is a good vehicle for exploring that.

In SMCBH a restless traveller develops a fascination for a Welsh recluse. It strikes me that all the characters in the book are determined by either stasis or movement - what were you getting at with this idea?

The relationship (and tension) between stasis and movement is a major theme in both my books. In one sense it's very place specific - it's an island thing. Islands represent a paradoxical mix of isolation, detachment, and connection; the sea that cuts you off also links you more promiscuously with the wider world. On Ynys Môn this used to be ingrained into our economy: you were either a farmer or a sailor; a stay-at-home, tied to particular patch of land, or a sea-farer, intimate with all the far-flung ports of the globe. You only have to go to one of the island's graveyards and take a peek at the inscriptions to see this: half the people buried there probably didn't stray much further than their village pub, while the other half probably travelled the world. And that creates certain psychological legacies: a habit of being simultaneously outward and inward looking, the frictions that arise between those points of view, the persistent need for one special place you can call your own and a restless craving to get over the horizon and see what's out there.

On the other hand, and without meaning to sound too grandiose, I think these frictions and tensions are increasingly characteristic of the modern world. Cheap travel, the internet, advanced communications systems - all of them bring the world much closer to us and give us what I suppose you'd call a global perspective. And yet far from erasing a consciousness of locality they seem to have sharpened it: independence movements appear to be proliferating, regional identities are being re-asserted, minority cultures re-invigorated. We seem torn more than ever by the simultaneous desire for a home and an elsewhere, staying still and lighting out for the territories.

Trauma plays a significant part on character in SMCBH - the notion that people who have suffered get stuck into patterns of behaviour from which they struggle to escape. Why does this interest you?

I'm interested in the effect of trauma on character because of the way it warps time and experience. It can make the past coterminous with the present, and trap us in a way of seeing the world that refers endlessly back to one particular event, one degree zero moment that we can't get out of and so are doomed to repeat.

Amongst the more exotic meanderings in SMCBH are episodes concerning the Valparaiso earthquake of 1906 and the search for the Mandan Indians. What attracted you to those historical incidents?

I've been fascinated with the Madoc legend for many years. I also studied early American travel literature, so the Mandan section of SMCBH was an opportunity for me to bring those two interests together. I also wanted to suggest something about the fragility of cultures and communities, that behind what we call progress there's a terrible history of extinction and despoliation. Mobility has its darker consequences.

Valparaiso was more a piece of serendipity. I was reading an old sailing memoir when I came across a Valparaiso Jones, whose name intrigued me and eventually set that section of the book into motion.

One of SMCBH's strengths is its structure which ebbs and flows between past and present rather than having a straightforward linear plot. How difficult was this to handle from a writing point of view?

Pretty difficult, if I'm being honest. I wanted to create a structure that would allow me to make temporal shifts and leaps without it becoming too confusing, distracting, or just plain irritating, for readers. I tried to build up echoes - through shared images and motifs - between the contemporary and historical sections of the book, in order that they mirrored each other - at least obliquely. As a result SMCBH has quite a complex and intricate structure, although hopefully, if I succeeded, it shouldn't seem that way.

The main setting for your two books has been Ynys Môn - do you intend building up a body of work set on that island or can you foresee yourself writing out of other geographical areas?

Even after two books I don't think I've even begun to scratch the surface of Ynys Môn as a fictional subject. And I could easily spend the rest of my life writing about it and still make nothing more than a faint indentation. I'll probably (hopefully) use the island as a setting for a lot more of my books, although that doesn't preclude my using other geographical settings too. I've always had a Canadian book floating around in my head, so one day I'd like to get that written.

I'm always interested in how novelists set about their work - can you tell us about your writing routine?

My writing routine is fairly boring I'm afraid. I can probably sum it up in a sentence. Wake up, write for three or four hours in the morning, spend the afternoon full of doubt and self-loathing about my skills as a writer, come back in the evening feeling a little better and revise what I wrote in the morning.

You recently sparked a bit of an urban v pastoral literary debate in Wales with an article you wrote for the New Welsh Review. Why did you feel it was necessary to draw people's attention to this divide - perceived or otherwise?

The NWR piece was born directly out of my annoyance with the Rhys Davies Competition being themed. That the theme they chose was 'Urban Fiction' was in a sense incidental, although obviously it was going to irritate (and exclude) those writers who set their work in rural locales and exacerbate regional divisions (from a North Walian perspective 'Urban Fiction' sounds pretty much like South Walian fiction). It seemed like a particularly crass and ill-judged piece of marketing - an idea that urban was somehow synonymous with cool and edgy - had taken precedence over the real object of the competition: to encourage, and offer an outlet for, Welsh writing in English. The point I was trying to make was that it doesn't matter what or where you write about, everything and everywhere is the provenance of fiction, and writing competitions should celebrate that fact, not inhibit it.

Finally, what are you currently working on?

At the moment I'm working on a new novel, which is set - surprise, surprise - in a small sea-side town on Ynys Môn. I'm about half way through it. I'd let you know the title but it'll probably change by the time I've finished it, so perhaps it's best I keep it under wraps for now.

*Since this interview was completed Tristan has had his novel, Revenant, published by Picador and it's a corker.