INTERVIEW by Kat Dawes

NWR Issue 100

Interview with Cynan Jones

Cynan Jones lives in the coastal village of Aberarth near Aberaeron, Ceredigion. His new flash fiction story ‘Lifeboat’ is published in issue 100 of NWR and he has just completed judging the NWR Flash In The Pen microfiction competition, held in honour of NWR’s hundredth issue. Cynan will announce the winners on 28 May at Hay Festival, when Cynan Jones and Lloyd Jones will also be talking to NWR Editor Gwen Davies about their part in Seren’s Mabinogion-inspired series, their novellas, respectively, being Bird, Blood, Snow and See How They Run. Also at Hay on the evening of 28 May is NWR’s launch party to celebrate twenty-five years in publishing and the hundredth issue.

Cynan was recently shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award for his story ‘The Dig’, part of his next novel, which will be published by Granta in 2014. Society of Authors' Betty Trask Award-winning The Long Dry and 2011’s Everything I Found on the Beach (his first two novellas) were published by Parthian. Cynan’s most recent title, Bird, Blood, Snow was published by Seren.

You can read an e-version of ‘The Dig’, alongside stories by other Sunday Times Short Story Award contenders, in the ebook Six Shorts. ‘Lifeboat’ appears in NWR Issue 100, published on 25 May.

NWR: ‘The Dig’, shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, is part of your next novel — is this a pivotal point in the story?

CJ: I wouldn’t say the novel has pivots. It works by an increase of pressure.

The truth? Granta Magazine called out of the blue and asked to see something for their Britain issue. That was a Wednesday afternoon. They needed something by lunchtime Friday. I’d just torn the dig section out of the novel because of a negative reaction to the book as it then was. I thought perhaps the section was slowing the narrative down.

The other short stories I had to hand didn’t suit, so I looked at the dig section and tightened it up. Granta took it on. With that it went back into the book and brought my confidence in the story back, and the book came back into focus.

NWR: What are the main concerns of this new novel?

CJ: It’s about living deeply in an environment. The burrows we build. The things that dig down to us. And it’s about persistence. One man’s persistence with things, another man’s against things. The way a person can persist when they are gone. The persistent demands of farming. The persistence of working dogs; digging itself as a process of physical persistence. The land as a persistent reference point. Even the way scrap metal will persist in the landscape.

NWR: What do you like about short fiction?

CJ: I like the limitation. The consequent economy. That you can’t waste words, or digress pointlessly (or flamboyantly, or ‘look how clever I am-ly’). Having to package back-story, relevance and consequence into the unsaid is strong when it’s done well. It creates a very intimate relationship with the reader. That’s the challenge.

NWR: What were you looking for in entries to the NWR flash fiction competition?

CJ: Genuinely, I’ve stopped myself from thinking about it. That gives entrants the fairest chance.

NWR: The Long Dry was written in ten days and Bird, Blood, Snow in three months. What is your preferred pace of writing: do you find yourself immersed, does it depend on the project and how the ideas come together…?

CJ: I do most of the work on my feet, think it through, do research the story might need. I wait until I can pretty much replay the story in my mind, then write it down as if I’m watching it. It’s immersive and fast. The intensity of the process comes through in the work. However, it’s slightly contrived to say ‘this book took this long to write’. It would be more accurate to say it took this long to write down.

Bird, Blood, Snow was different. The story was already there [since it is an adaptation of the Mabinogion story Peredur], so there so there was no work to do in that respect. It was more a question of what to do with the existing material, a puzzle more than a process of building from scratch.

NWR: How and when did you start writing fiction? Why this outlet for the expression of your ideas, inspirations and preoccupations?

CJ: I began trying to write fiction seriously at 28, after five years working as a copywriter – a job I did to teach me how to write properly. I gave myself two years to write something worthwhile. The Long Dry was the result. Essentially, a love of reading drew me to writing. I find it hard to like something a lot and not try to do it myself.

I write because I love the process. I don’t see it as an outlet. When I was little, I’d run around playing ideas; now I’m older, I write them down. Things come ‘in’ and the buzz is to do something with them.

NWR: What would you say your literary influences are?

CJ: Everything you read should influence you. Even the back of a cereal packet. The more you take notice of words, the more you understand how to use them. I would suggest (quietly) that perhaps the people I have not liked have had more influence than those I do. I don’t try to write ‘like’ somebody. But I do try to make sure I don’t write like others….

NWR: And what are the non-literary things which inspire you?

CJ: I think you just are inspired. If inspiration is a momentary thing for you, you’re only going to be momentarily creative. The important thing is not to try and ‘gather’ inspiration, but to try and ditch distraction.

When you write, you are your own clay. If you’re not right, you won’t write right. I make sure that the things that make me tick are around me. The physical environment, good food and drink. Sometimes people.

NWR: Your most recent publication is Bird, Blood, Snow, part of the New Stories of the Mabinogion series commissioned by Seren. Your book is based on the tale of Peredur, a young knight seeking to win Arthur’s favour through bold adventuring. What were the elements of the original tale that most interested you, and that you thought you could work with?

CJ: I was the last author to be invited to contribute to Seren’s series [even though two titles, Fountainville by Tishani Doshi, and The Tip of My Tongue by Trezza Azzopardi will be the last to be published, this October. Peredur’s was the only story left. For good reason. As a piece of writing, the original is repetitive, obtuse, unfinished, and bare of the imagery and asides that enrich the other stories.

When I read it over, one thing stood out: it’s violent and nasty – I couldn’t shy away from that. And Peredur was a delinquent. Having worked in schools, and more specifically in a Pupil Referral Unit, I had a good idea of how to take him on. He is the most compelling aspect of the story. I focussed on him and what he could present, both in terms of carrying the tale and as an allegory.

NWR: Apart from the three-month deadline, what was hard about re-imagining such an old, fragmented tale? And what did you enjoy?

CJ: Once I accepted the original as disparate and unfinished, I used that. As an oral tale, the dry language would have been brought to life with voice, performance, gesture. The question was how to get that back into the written page.

I brought in different voices, perspectives, techniques. Tried a sense of pantomime. Half-did things. Wrote incorrectly. Caused confusion. Added pictures. Mind maps. Crossings out. There was a thrill to that and a necessary pace. It had to be visceral and colourful and compelling.

Bird, Blood, Snow was a bicycle kick, as I’ve said before. I figured if I missed the target, what the hell: it would be a worthy effort, and entertaining.

NWR: Obviously there wasn’t much time available to research the book, but what did inspire or help you?

CJ: The key work was consuming the various novels and other texts I wanted to bring into the story in order to create echoes. I wanted readers to feel they recognised the piece, to reflect the fact that motifs, occasions, references in the original would have been understood by its contemporary audience. So I added allusions, passages, quotes from other books; I bent Welsh nursery rhymes into the story. Sometimes verbatim, other times parodied or hinted at.

The single factor that determined the approach of the book more than any other was the change in deadline — I went from having over a year to work on it to having three months.

NWR: Have old stories such as those in the Mabinogion previously influenced your writing and your evident sense of connection with Wales?

CJ: Not consciously, but everything feeds in somehow. The connection I feel with Wales is foremost a connection to the physical environment.

NWR: Do you speak Welsh, do you write in it, and how does the language inform your writing in English?

CJ: I speak Welsh with some people. I don’t write in it. There’s perhaps a change of sound to the English I use, a bias in the choices I make as to pace, the order of words. But mostly I avoid the over-wrought, emotional prose that some may see as being traditionally associated with the term ‘Welsh writing’ and which perhaps comes from the verbal flamboyance of the Welsh language.

NWR: Just recently, you were shortlisted for the EFG Private Bank Sunday Times Short Story Award, your novel has been picked up by Granta for publication next year, you’re appearing at the Hay Festival and judging the New Welsh Review microfiction competition — there’s a lot happening for you at the moment. What do you feel is the natural progression of all this, and what are your ambitions for your writing?

CJ: To continue to do it. To not buy into my own bullshit. To focus on each book as it comes along.


previous interview: Writing your way out – an interview with Matthew Francis
next interview: Interview with Rhian Edwards


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