INTERVIEW by Kat Dawes

NWR Issue 99

Tristan Hughes

Tristan Hughes was born in Atikokan, Ontario, and brought up around Llangoed, Anglesey. Hughes is the author of The Tower, Send My Cold Bones Home and Revenant, all set on Anglesey; his most recent novel is Eye Lake, set in Canada. He won the 2002 Rhys Davies Short Story Award and his new story ‘Shapes and Pieces’ (a response to A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes) features in NWR 99, out now.

NWR: When did you first read A High Wind in Jamaica and what struck you about it then?

TH: I came to it quite late, about four years ago. I found an extremely old copy of it gathering dust on a shelf in our family cabin in Canada, and read it over the course of one long, sunny afternoon. It was getting dark when I finished it, which seemed entirely apt – it’s a book full of shadows; pools of darkness just beyond the edges of your vision. My first response was: what a strange and wonderful book. My second was: why haven’t I read this before? I mean, it must have been there since I was a kid and it had the name Hughes on the cover.

NWR: From your description of A High Wind, one element of your story that closely echoes its themes is the ‘unflinching and unsettling portrait of childhood’ — Cory’s dad shooting Mr Christie isn’t as important to Cory as his own killing of his first grouse. How did Richard Hughes’ work spark your story, and what prompted you to pick this thread to work with?

TH: There’s something genuinely unnerving about Richard Hughes’s portrayal of how children’s minds work. The children in A High Wind in Jamaica inhabit a mental world in which the perceptual and moral settings of adulthood are oddly skewed or superficial or absent. They see things differently – not just as miniature adults. I guess I was interested in writing a story in which what seems to be the most important event actually isn’t – not for Cory anyway. I liked the idea of trying to play with this disjuncture. What Cory actually sees in what he sees isn’t quite what you’d expect.

NWR: There’s a lot going on in the background; a lot that is unknown to Cory. The story is a jigsaw that isn’t quite finished when you run out of pieces, and Cory himself has no more to add to the picture. How did this idea of ‘shapes and pieces’ come to you and what, for you, does it reveal about how your stories are made?

TH: Yes, there’s definitely a lot submerged in there. Partly this reflects Cory’s way of looking at things – he only sees what’s immediately important to him in the picture; whatever is beyond its frame he’s happy to leave hidden in the wallpaper.

I love the analogy of a ‘jigsaw that isn’t quite finished when you run out of pieces’. In some ways, I think that’s true of the short story form in general. Often, they give us no more than a few suggestive pieces – a moment, an episode, a detail – just enough to evoke a bigger pattern (it’s the iceberg of prose fiction). VS Pritchett described the short story as ‘something glimpsed from the corner of an eye, in passing’, which seems to capture its essence rather beautifully. If a novel is like switching the lights on in a room, then a short story is like striking a match in one: the illumination is briefer, more fleeting, and so you have to look that much more intensely and carefully.

All of which is why it’s such a great literary form – more than any other type of fiction it shows the least and asks the most.

NWR: Was ‘Shapes and Pieces’ influenced by the latest school shooting in the US (Connecticut) and the subsequent debate about gun laws?

TH: Not at all. It was actually written quite a while before.

NWR: Your first three novels were based in Wales and your latest in Canada, and place is vital in all of them. Why is it important to you to explore landscapes and their attached cultural meanings in your work?

TH: There’s a line somewhere by David Jones, where he describes writing (and art in general) as ‘trying to make a shape out of the very things of which one is oneself made.’ Now, I’m not at all sure exactly what I’m made out of (it used to be a lot easier when it was just snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails), but, amongst many other things, and in some infinitely complicated way, I think I am made out of the landscapes which I know best and love most. And so every time I try to make a shape, that shape seems to include those landscapes; they’re part of my creative DNA.

NWR: Do you identify more with Wales or Ontario? Or does this change with different projects or where you are at the time?

TH: I identify with them equally. I’ve been moving between them constantly since I was five years old. The odd thing is sometimes a peculiar kind of convergence takes place and they begin to overlap somehow in my imagination. There are bits of my writing set in Ontario that seem afterwards to be very Welsh, and parts of my writing set in Wales that seem very Canadian.

NWR: You have taught creative writing at Cambridge, Leipzig, Bangor and now Cardiff. How does this work fit in with your own writing practice?

TH: In some ways, entirely naturally. When I’m teaching I’m talking about things I face almost every day when I sit down at my desk. On the other hand it’s quite important to try to keep your writing and teaching brains as separate as possible – what works for you may not for anybody else, and vice-versa. It’s the paradox with teaching anything creative: you’re trying to help someone do something in their own unique way. How you look at the world is all you’ve got as a writer; trying to help that emerge without spoiling or altering it is what you’re trying to do as a teacher.

NWR: What’s the hardest thing for you about the act of writing itself?

TH: The same as the best thing – never knowing exactly what you’re doing or where you’re going. Of course, a lot of the time it can make you feel like blubbing and putting your head through closed windows and crumbling beneath glaciers of self-doubt and loathing, but sometimes there’s no better feeling in the world (or almost no better – I’m still holding out for scoring a century at Lord’s).

NWR: And about being a writer in more general terms?

TH: Being at all confident that you actually are one.

NWR: What have you read recently that’s made an impact on you?

TH: I’m half way through Roger Deakin’s Wildwood and even before finishing it I know it’s going to be one of my favourite books. It’s incredibly generous, witty and wise; a lifetime’s observation distilled and bejewelled by a brilliant prose stylist... I could go on and on. Plus I love trees, and reading it makes me love them even more. What more can you ask of any book?

NWR: Do you have anything creative underway at the moment, and if so can you give any hints about it?

TH: Yes, I’m partway through a new novel. I’d like to say more, but to be honest I’m not hugely sure I really know what it’s about yet.


previous interview: John Harrison
next interview: Mary-Ann Constantine


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