Two Mid-Wales Writers Chat About Myth, Poetry And The Donald

In a thoroughly enjoyable year of interviews, which have given us three different takes on King Arthur by Celtic expert and author John Matthews, fellow storyteller Andy Harrop Smith and acclaimed poet, translator and children's writer Kevin Crossley Holland, I have also enjoyed my interview swap with my friend and fellow writer Sharon Tregenza and a fascinating chat with Marty Stewart, whose first two books are Riverkeep and The Sacrifice Box. But we end the year with a real treat, a wide-ranging chat with four time Tir Na nOg winning writer and fellow resident of glorious Mid Wales, Frances Thomas.

Now Frances is someone who my old editor Viv suggested that I should get in touch with several years ago and now I'm delighted to have finally done so. Recently it led us to a book swap where I got by far the better end of the deal in that I was able to enjoy over a weekend her first trilogy about the Welsh bard and mythic figure, Taliesin, one of my own great heroes. Among the many things i enjoyed was the way she brought together the two very contrasting versions of Taliesin and it was that which really prompted this chat.

So, Frances, first many thanks for agreeing to this chat and for responding so enthusiastically to my questions.

Thanks for asking me, Steve. I've really enjoyed doing it.

I’ve always been fascinated by the origins of someone’s art. It’s that first workbook and the glimmers of the ideas within that intrigue me. Recently I’ve read your Taliesin trilogy from the 90’s, which you very kindly provided in a rather uneven swap. After telling you how much I enjoyed it and ripped through the whole thing over a weekend, you told me it was all so long ago that you could hardly remember it. But do you remember its genesis and what intrigued you so much about the figure of Taliesin?

it all started; well, I really can't remember. Except that I've always been fascinated by Welsh mythology, and when I first decided that I was going to try and finish a book (rather than making the endless false starts I'd done until them) I'd look for a Welsh theme. And Taliesin seemed an interesting subject - not so over-written as Arthur- there was a good deal of scope for me to make up my own story, combined with the scraps of legends; a known yet unknown figure if you like.

Now I’ve been fascinated by the figure of Taliesin for twenty years or so, but for me it’s always been more the Taliesin that wrote the mythological poems - multi-layered and full of meaning - and was said to be King Arthur’s bard - the one if you like who was present in The Spoils of Annwn or in the company of the Singing Head. You, on the other hand, in the second and third books in your trilogy in particular, chose to concentrate far more on the less mythic figure, the Taliesin who was court bard to Owain of Rheged and indeed Owain features significantly in your series. Why did you choose that version?

Although I love myth and magic, I find that when I'm writing, I want to write about people and their relationships and their connections with the world about them. And I want to find reality in the magical/mythical elements.

Taking a massive leap forward to the past few years, you’ve been concentrating your attentions on Greek Myth with your Troy books. What do you think are the main differences in the mythology of your native land and that of classical mythology?

Our versions of Greek mythology have been much cleaned up and sanitised by countless retellings. And when you first read the Mabinogion, the stories can feel strange and rambling; you look hard into them to find the connections and structures you expect from modern tale-telling. (Probably the stories as we now know them have been worked on by their Christian scribes, so we don't find out too much about the pre-Christian deities who were there originally, which also adds to the strangeness). You need to find your own way of reading them, and then they are suddenly full of real people -loves, betrayals, friendships, cruelties, quests and disappointments, revenges and triumphs.

What is it, do you think, that myth has to offer not just the growing child, but the questing adult, and how well equipped are we as a society to provide that kind of nurturing?

Myths have an especial richness, in that they've been worked on over centuries by people trying to find answers to the basic questions of life - why are we here, what are we supposed to be doing, how is it that things go wrong, how can we do the right things, how do we relate to other people, why are some feelings - love, hate, revenge, excitement - so strong and so universal? When we read them, we tread in all of those thousands and thousands of footsteps that have gone down that road before us. So for both adults and children there is a feeling both of strangeness and familiarity; we benefit from being exposed to them in so many ways. (This in spite of the publisher who rejected my 'Helen's Daughter' with 'These sorts of things don't sell' - well, I think they do, if children have the chance to see them)

Brass Owl

Would you say there have been distinct periods of writing in your career. Has happiness necessarily coincided with success?

I don't think I've ever been very successful - there have been periods when things seem to be going quite well, but then they're followed by disasters. Publishers are never very easy to work with, and most writers can't rely on the expectation of success. I found that out the hard way at the very start of my career when the second and third books in my Taliesin trilogy were turned down by the publisher of the first one.

But happiness comes from writing - when I'm writing, I'm perfectly absorbed in my writing world and perfectly happy. That's what a writer should look for and enjoy rather than 'success' which is transient and unreliable.

How important is the home and the landscape you live in, do you think, to the life of a writer? I’m thinking particularly of that fascinating and almost indefinable Welsh word hiraeth, that I’ve mentioned in a previous blog. Is that longing a part of what you write or what makes you write?

I love living in mid-Wales, which as you know, is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I love being able to look out of my window every morning and see the light and the colours, different and gorgeous every day. I'm less mobile than I was, for various reasons, so the joys of sight are especially blessed. But I'm also - and this might sound paradoxical - a Londoner at heart, since I lived there for more years than I have lived in Wales- and I feel 'hiraeth' for London when I'm in Wales.

But looking back over my stories, I don't think I write about either; I try to bring to life the landscapes of the places I write about, even if I don't know them well. I remember when I was a child I always believed that Rosemary Sutcliff must have been a great traveller, as she wrote about places so vividly; and I found out later that she was so disabled, she must have travelled very little and with great difficulty. It's imagination that does the trick.

Landscape

And apart from skills, in this day and age its tolerance and understanding that seem increasingly to be going. On one of your blogs, you wonder what Donald Trump’s favourite poem might be, and the actual answer turns out to be fascinating. Can you tell us about that.

I don't suppose the Donald has ever really read a poem in his life, but he quotes as his 'favourite poem' the words of a song called 'Snake' originally sung by black soul singer Al Wilson in 1968. It's about a woman who out of compassion takes home and nurtures a wounded snake, which, when healed, turns round and bites her. Before she dies, the snake sneers 'You knew I was a snake when you found me.' For snake, of course, read Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants generally. In spite of objections by Wilson's family, Trump continues to quote it.

Now poetry is important to you - not just your own, but clearly other people’s. This has led to you publishing two rather extraordinary books of poetry. Can you tell us the thinking behind that?

I love reading poetry and I try to write it, though I don't think I'm very good. My two 'poetry' books, A Bracelet of Bright Hair, and Dancing In The Chequered Shade, are basically journals in which I about the events of my day, and try to match a poem to it. Some of the poems are by me, but mostly they're by real poets. Readers have told me that they've found the books helpful and inspiring. Certainly they were very enjoyable to write.

Landscape

Two years or so ago I did a wonderful six week course on Mental Health in Literature with Future Learn and co-tutored by Doctor Jonathan Bate and Professor Paula Byrne, (now Lord and Lady Bate). Among the many wonderful things covered was the therapeutic nature of poetry and I was able to give first hand experience of how wonderfully it worked for Rosie, who was quite ill at the time, on one of my blogs. I also learned how very different an experience it was to read a poem out loud when Jonathan gave us the task of doing this with On Westminster Bridge - admittedly after we’d heard Sir Ian McKellen have a stab at it! Do you think there’s any particular way of approaching poetry that’s more effective for you?

I think good poetry can make you a better person if you give it your full attention. I don't think it would work on Trump though. Remember Auden's marvellous poem on the death of a tyrant; 'the poetry he wrote was easy to understand...' I don't think there's a better or worse way of approaching poetry; just give it your full attention and then watch out for those poems that suddenly grab you by the throat. I remember how Donne's love poems did this for me when I first read them as a teenager.

Let’s move back to the present and your Girls of Troy series. How did that fascination with classical mythology finally bear fruit and what made you tackle it in this way?

I realized that there were also figures half-hidden on the margins of the well-known Greek legends just asking to be let out, and these figures were mostly women and girls; and I suddenly found them clamoring to tell me their stories. When I found that Helen of Troy had a daughter, Hermione, I knew I had to find out her story. Then I discovered that Achilles had a son, Pyrrhus, and that Hermione and Pyrrhus had a relationship. How could I resist such a beginning? This became 'Helen's Daughter' the first volume in the trilogy. Then I knew I had to write about the actual battle for Troy, so I give this story to a slave girl who witnesses it all, in The Burning Towers.. Finally, the story has to be finished off by writing about the murder of Agamemnon and the subsequent revenge taken by his children Electra and Orestes. For a long while I tried to find ways of telling this using a voice other than Electra's; but finally I realized that she had to tell her story herself. This became the final volume, The Silver Handled Knife.

Stone Gateway

Rosie and I are currently listening to Anton Lesser narrating The Iliad on Audible. It’s a long and confusing narrative with so many lists of names that it makes the Welsh story of Culwch and Olwen seem positively half-hearted in comparison. How do you de-bug something like that and make is more accessible - the same I suppose with the ancient Welsh books and the poems of Taliesin. Or do we just have to accept them as they are as much as we do Shakespeare’s plays and not soften or reduce them?

Anton Lesser must be great to listen to - what a voice. We have Derek Jacobi doing the same thing, and it's great to listen to in the car. I think that in their raw form, the stories can be a bit indigestible especially for children. But they can be retold in such a way that you concentrate on the universal and exciting elements of the tales, and children can 'get' them. When I was young, my father bought me a copy of the Odyssey in Barbara Leonie Picard's adaptation and read it to me at night. I loved it, and Odysseus has always been one of my heroes. (yes, there are gruesome bits in the story, but somehow I absorbed those).

This seems a nice point to ask you about the pictures, Frances. I asked you to select several which had some kind of meaning for you. Could you tell us about them and what led to your choices?

Apart from a little bit of self-advertising for my Greek books, there the Lion Gate in Mycenae, which we first visited a few years ago, after longing for years to go there. Seeing it inspired me to write about Mycenae, and Agamemnon and his family. There's also a little Greek Athene owl, which I bought in Greece, and sat on my windowsill while I was writing the trilogy,, and I hope , gave me inspiration from the goddess! Lastly two pictures taken from our house, just showing how beautiful Wales is, and how lovely it is to be able to wake up every morning and see such beauty for free - it's different every day and I never take it for granted. I don't have any pictures for the first trilogy, but certainly the beauty of the countryside inspired me to write about it.

The Girls of Troy trilogy of books

The second picture looks very like a place I walk in regularly. That's Mid-Wales for you. But finally, Frances, are there still remaining characters, themes and ideas you want to work with and why?

I have a story that I wrote some years ago, set in the seventeenth century and the era of tulip fever. My agent wouldn't send it out, so it's still sitting there. It's probably a bit 'quiet' for today's market, but I'd like to work on it a bit, and bring it out myself. I don't have many indulgences any more, so self-publishing is one I can allow myself, I think.

Well I hope your tulips get to flourish at some time in the future, Frances,Thank you so much for chatting to me and everyone who reads this blog.

Steve, it's been a pleasure.

And I, everyone, will see you next in January so I'll look forward to that.

Steve Gladwin
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call.'
Writer and Screenwriter
imagepoet7@gmail.com

Family Book Worms Interview

As part of our Tir na n-Og Award Celebrations, we are delighted to have been able to interview author Frances Thomas, winner of the Tir na n-Og Award four times! Her first children’s book, The Blindfold Track, was published in 1980 and won the 1981 Award. The Region of the Summer Stars won in 1986; Who Stole a Bloater? in 1992 and Finding Minerva in 2008.

Frances was born during the War in Aberdare, South Wales, where her mother had gone to escape the bombs. Her mother’s family was Irish and English, her father’s Welsh. She returned to the family home in London, where she grew up. A few years ago, she moved to Mid Wales where she lives very happily, she says, trying to learn Welsh, going for walks on the hills, writing and painting.

Her books have been translated into ten languages and she has been published by Bloomsbury, Macmillan, Red Fox, Gomer and Seren Books, amongst others.

You have won the Tir na n-Og Award an incredible four times. More than any other author. What does that mean to you?

I was surprised and overjoyed to win the Tir na nOg; it’s gratifying to know that people have read and appreciated my work. Otherwise writing can be a somewhat lonely existence.

You have been nominated 6 times — what draws you to write books set in Wales?

There are various reasons why I write about Wales — I’ve spent a lot of time here over the years, family holidays and travel. And for the last fifteen years we’ve lived in Mid-Wales. Partly of course because Wales is so beautiful — the view from my window inspires me every day. And there’s such a rich store of mythology and story to draw on. How could I not want to write about it?

Which other authors of Wales do you admire?

There are many writers for children in Wales whose work I admire; Catherine Fisher, Jenny Sullivan, Jenny Nimmo, Paul Manship, Phil Carradice; they’re all very different writers, but full of imagination and inventiveness. I wish their books could be more widely available in the rest of the UK.

Many of your books could be classified as historical fiction. What is your favourite period in history? And why do you suppose historical fiction is so popular with readers?

As a child I devoured historical fiction; Rosemary Sutcliffe and Geoffrey Trease were my idols. It’s a little less popular now, I’m afraid, especially for young people’s books; publishers don’t seem to think it sells (of course it doesn’t if they don’t publish it). My most recent books are a series of four set in the period of the Trojan War — part history, part myth. I’m fascinated by all those long ago dark periods, and love trying to shine some light on them. And the dark ages aren’t really dark when you examine them…

Of more modern periods I love the seventeenth century, a kind of turning point between the old and the modern, when we suddenly find we can recognise the people and their ideas and desires, at the same time being aware of their difference from us. Many of the ideas and scientific theories that we take for granted now had their origins in the seventeenth century. And there were some marvellous poets writing then — Donne, Herbert, Traherne. I once set a story in that period (not published of course because Historical Novels Don’t Sell but I hope it might see the light of day some time.)

Hilary Mantel has proved that historical fiction can be both well written and popular; she manages to shine a light on the politics and political machinations of the present day, and also to delve into the strangeness and difference of the past in a way that makes it accessible to her readers and highly enjoyable.

Your books are well-known for their vivid, evocative descriptions. Do you have any advice for budding writers wanting to improve their descriptions?

I think the only way to write successful descriptions is just to observe and observe. You turn yourself into a perpetually open eye, looking hard at what you see, even if what you’re looking at seems banal and everyday, and trying to pin down the exact words. And keep those words as simple as you can; you don’t want to be overladen with flowery elaborate language. I might be wrong but I have a feeling that today’s school pupils are being encouraged to fish out fancy words, rather than using the simple. strong, expressive words that make our language so rich and subtle. And if you can’t be present at a scene, set your imagination to work on it — as a child I believed that Rosemary Sutcliffe must have travelled extensively to write the descriptions that brought her historical backgrounds so vividly to life — it wasn’t until I was older than I realised she was almost completely crippled, and that many of those descriptions came from her imagination. Everyone has imagination — it just needs to be switched on.

Taliesin, The Blindfold Track and Regions of the Summer Stars include elements of Welsh legend / Mabinogion — as do other Tir na n-Og winners — Jenny Nimmo, Susan Cooper and Catherine Fisher. Why do you think the reimagining of these stories has had such widespread appeal?

The Welsh legends are just so exciting, so mysterious and so full of stories. And there must be many others which were never written down or which haven’t survived — who, for example, was Dylan, Son of the Sea, mentioned so tantalisingly in the Mabinogion? This gives writers a chance to poke about in those murky areas and find out stuff that they can set their imaginations to work on.

Which Welsh character from folklore do you most identify with and why?

I’m rather fascinated by Morgan Le Fay, a clever, talented girl maligned by being seen as a witch by male interpreters of her story. I did start a story about her some years ago, but my Welsh publisher at the time said they didn’t want any more stories about mythology and legends, so I shelved it. I think the reasoning was that they wanted more emphasis on contemporary themes. But it did seem that some perfectly good babies were being thrown out with the bathwater. Hmmn — I’ve thought about that story since, and wondered how it was going to work out (curiosity about how your own story is going to end is one of the motives that impels writers to keep going). So I think I might just take it off the shelf and dust it down. We’ll see.

We are delighted that Frances Thomas took the time to answer our questions and allowed us to celebrate her achievement in being the most crowned author of the Tir na n-Og Awards. You can find out more about Frances at her website, and you could also follow her on Twitter. Her most recent novels can be found here. The links to her Tir na n-Og winning books are shown below.

See the original inteview on Family Book Worms.