Getting a place on the Arts Council of Wales Writers at Work programme at the Hay Festival was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. 20 writers attended Hay for 10 days, boarding in local cottages and revelling in advice from a seemingly endless parade of some Welsh but mostly London editors, publishers, agents and press and PR as well as established writers.
Within days, it was apparent that, outside of Wales, Welsh writing needs serious re-branding. There is a preconception that Welsh writers are preoccupied with small themes and quiet novels on subjects that have little broad appeal.
The visiting parties were sometimes brutally honest about the challenges we face as Welsh writers. We took it in the vein of tough love. To overcome barriers, we must first be clear what they are.
By the time I had been at Hay for a week, I thought I had a handle on the issues, but there was one last surprise.
Our Friday morning session began with a talk on Press and PR. Three people had kindly agreed to come to speak to us: Caitlin McNamara, an expert in social media, Ben Wright, the BBC Washington Correspondent who had just written a book about political drinking called Order, Order! and a Welsh journalist who had made it big in the BBC, Guto Harri.
Guto Harri started sympathetically. He knew the obstacles, he told us – the Welsh so often classed as unintelligent and poorly educated. He told us about disparaging letters received by himself and Huw Edwards early on in their careers. In one correspondence, Guto had been compared with a ‘retarded amoeba’. Amoeba, Guto told us, in the letter writer’s mind, obviously didn’t go far enough.
But then Guto Harri went in an unexpected direction. He recommended that if we want to have any kind of wider success, we must play down any Welsh element to our writing and play up the universal. We Writers at Work cast questioning looks at each other. We had heard this before from some of the London agents, editors and publishers, but it was surprising to hear it from a Welshman. Ben Wright nodded his head in agreement.
I told Guto that I have a novel coming out in the autumn called Black River about the Aberfan disaster and that, in the hunt for a publisher, one London agent had given me broadly similar advice. The novel would work better if I made the village anonymous.
Surprisingly, Guto agreed it would be a more commercial story were it not so rooted in Wales. I understand what he means, but this has all sorts of implications. The most concerning for me, for example, is how would the people of Aberfan feel if they came across a book obviously about the terrible tragedy that had befallen the village in 1966, but now re-imagined as a fictional village which could conceivably be located in England?
A poet in our group, Clare Potter, asked Guto whether he believed the Irish writer Frank McCourt would have received the same advice.
Guto offered a suggestion – a compromise of sorts. He knew of an author who had anonymised a real tragedy and on the back of the book, in small print, the author had clarified with something like: ‘This novel is based on the event which occurred at…”
I must mention a related story which happened on the Bank Holiday Monday, three days in to our 10 day stay. Thomas Keneally came to talk to us in our Writers at Work tent in advance of his discussion with Phillipe Sands about Schindler’s Ark. I was desperate to ask him the first question of the session:
“Do you believe the story finds you?”
The Australian legend smiled. The answer was yes. Keneally had stumbled across the Oskar Schindler story in a leather goods shop in Los Angeles after the owner of the shop got talking to him.
The reason I had wanted to ask him that particular question was because I have always felt that the Aberfan story found me. I hadn’t had any intention of writing about Aberfan. I have no personal connection to the disaster. After coming across a reference to the Welsh Office having difficulties with the press on the day of the disaster, a seed was planted. And watching Leveson on the news also made me wonder, what sort of problem with the press? I needed to answer that question and when I did I was compelled to write Black River. But it was as if I was being nagged into it. I was nudged and prompted. If the story chooses you, you honour the story.
Black River, in providing new insights into the disaster, is therefore meaningless if the village in question is not Aberfan and, if anonymised, would I believe be a betrayal of the village and what it has come to stand for.
Welsh novelists should not be ashamed of setting their stories in Wales.
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