Wales Literature Exchange interviewed our Bookcase author Richard Gwyn, about his writing and his influences.
1. What first inspired you to be an author and where do your ideas come from?
Until my mid-teens I wanted to be a composer; then something happened and from that point on I started writing. I can even pinpoint the moment, at fifteen or sixteen, when I read a short story by the German writer Christoph Meckel, called ‘The Lion’. I still remember my astonishment on reading it. My first thought was: ‘I didn’t realise it was possible to do this’, and then, immediately afterwards: ‘I could write like this’.
It’s impossible to say where ideas come from. Anywhere and everywhere. But the writing process usually begins with a phrase, or even a complete sentence. Often a pair of words, an unlikely collocation. I write them down in a notebook and sooner or late come back to them and, if I’m lucky, they take off and become something.
2. How would you describe your writing?
In my fiction I don’t go in for a lot of description or exposition. I enjoy writing dialogue. I indulge in digressions: most everything is a digression of some kind. Readers have commented on the number of animals in my work. There is not much overt engagement with politics as such, although I am, as we are all, deeply affected by political events. My concerns are primarily with matters of perception, and the many ways that individuals attempt to overcome the recurrent problem of communication. I try not to get hung up on trivia, and at the same time I love detail.
The urge to write poetry seems to emerge from a different part of the brain. A Colombian guy – a member of the audience and himself a poet – approached me after a reading and said ‘there are no metaphors in your work’. I realise this may be true, although I do not consciously plan it that way. I do sometimes feel a weariness with writers who constantly resort to simile, the trope of something being defined by its likeness to something else, which diminishes the essential quiddity or uniqueness of individual experience. I feel the need to restore a sense of perspective, to remember that we are creatures on a small planet spinning at vast speed through infinite space. I want to question fixed assumptions about reality and destabilise the shabby edifice of identity. If my writing achieves any of that, it would be something.
3. Which authors have influenced you the most?
We usually start out by imitating the writers we admire, which is no bad thing. But imitation isn’t the same as influence; influence is something that happens under the skin, at times unconsciously, and it’s hard to pin down the individuals who share the territory from which one’s own writing emerges. The writers that influenced me are not necessarily writers I seek to emulate in any way.
Certainly J.L. Borges helped shape my understanding of literature as a thing fed by many diverse sources, closely followed by the fabulist Italo Calvino and – during my time in Greece – the twentieth century Greek poets, especially C.F. Cavafy and Yannis Ritsos. Jean Giono, and his understanding of humans as an intrinsic part of the animal world, was a revelation to me. Proust, and his treatment of time, and life as an accretion of interweaving digressions . . . all of these helped shape my vision as a writer. None of them wrote in English, it will be noted, so I should mention the Metaphysical poets, Donne and Marvell especially, Coleridge and De Quincey, through to Conrad – who wrote in his third language and is among the finest of English novelists – and Woolf and the modernist poets, especially Eliot and Stevens. Mavis Gallant, whose short stories are among the best I’ve ever read. Contemporary American poets I admire are Charles Simic, Adam Zagajewski and Laura Kasischke.
I read more fiction from places other than the US and the UK, especially from Spain and Latin America, and I read a lot of poetry, in Spanish and French – Jean Follain is a favourite poet – as well as English. But I am also a translator (from Spanish) – and this is no doubt another factor in the way I have evolved as a writer. By which I mean my work as a writer and as a translator, although quite separate, are intimately woven together at some subterranean level, and this probably has a huge influence on the way I think about language, and therefore about writing. As Lydia Davis (another favourite) has put it, ‘to translate is also to read, and to translate is to write, as to write is to translate and to read is to translate. So that we may say: To translate is to travel and to travel is to translate.’ Writing, translation and travel for a kind of trinity in my creative life. In a real sense all writing is translation, translation from life into words on the page, and I find that a useful way to think.
I should add that I’m probably influenced by visual artists, notably the Surrealists and German Expressionists and the contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer, and film makers like Andrei Tarkovsky, Werner Herzog and David Lynch.
4. In your opinion what are the biggest challenges that writers face today – and do you think these challenges have changed since you started writing?
Perhaps every generation perceives itself to be in a time of crisis, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I don’t think writers face bigger challenges than anyone else in the greater scheme of things, but things have changed for us. The monopoly of the market by amazon, and the knock-on effect on the publishing industry makes it harder to earn a living. Advances are rarely adequate, and most writers that I know make ends meet by teaching at universities. There are other options, of course, writing online romances or porn; or ghost-writing – well-paid work if that appeals. Digitalisation has meant an end to certain traditional routes but has provided others, if one is prepared to engage with the whole social media game that necessarily accompanies it. There are more and more would-be writers, all clamouring to be heard. As ever, success in the marketplace is rarely an indication of quality.
5. What are the hardest and easiest parts of being a writer?
There is so much to write about, and all this stuff – both planned and merely postulated – accumulates over the months, the years, so that when one finally is in a position to start writing, one is overcome by the wealth of possibilities, and simply does not know where to start. How can I know what I mean until I have started to write? And this in turn creates a kind of inertia. As Geoff Dyer puts it: “It is always easier not to be writing than to be writing, and at least by not writing one is keeping alive the option of at some time writing again. But then, as soon as one is doing absolutely nothing, the intolerability strikes one as not so much a freedom as a prison, walled in on every side by limitless possibility”.
The easiest parts of being a writer? It’s a privilege to be able to travel to other countries and meet other writers who work in other languages, in other cultures. There’s a real sense of community and connection at times, and that is something I thrive on.
6. Which writer from Wales would you recommend to readers and why?
Impossible to name just one! Dafydd ap Gwilym and other poets of the Medieval era, such as Gwerful Mechain, are part of a European troubadour tradition that extends through France to the Mediterranean, and their work is quite remarkable, and deeply appealing to me. David Jones, although born in London, is a quintessentially Welsh poet, whose work is still not given the recognition it deserves. Jean Rhys is an exceptional writer, whom I hold in high regard. Of contemporary Welsh novelists who write in English, I have a great deal of respect for Tristan Hughes and Tom Bullough, to name just two, who have re-energised a sense of place as habitat, of humans as being part of an intricate natural landscape, something that is also very much evident in the poetry of Robert Minhinnick.