Wales Literature Exchange interviewed our Bookcase author Tristan Hughes about his writing and his influences.
1. What first inspired you to be an author and where do your ideas come from?
It was a mixture of my early experiences of reading and listening. In terms of reading, it was a growing wonder that words on a page could have the power to entrance and move and transport me; the discovery that what I used when speaking every day were actually like magic beans or spells. I remember one example of this quite distinctly. I was about 10 or 11 and me and a friend had gone fishing for mackerel off the coast near my home. My friend – a far more skilful fisherman than me - was hauling them in, but I couldn’t cast far enough to reach where they were shoaling. After about an hour of feeling like Tantalus, I sat despondently on the rocks and began to read a book I’d brought with me (I won’t say which one). To my amazement, after a while I didn’t mind as much about my failure to reach the fish - and, more than that, I found I was weeping (it was a very sad book). And I remember thinking: if words on a page can do this, then this is something I want to learn to be able to do.
In terms of listening, I was lucky that in both places I grew up, Wales and Canada, I was surrounded by family who were wonderful storytellers - particularly my grandmothers. I spent a lot of time listening to local tales and legends, genealogies, gossip, ghost stories, accounts of family history (and some fiction too, I suspect). It made me see the places and history around me as full of stories. And this has remained my greatest source of inspiration and ideas - the perception of the landscapes and people around me as profoundly 'storied', so to speak.
2. How would you describe your writing?
I think my writing still cleaves closely to what first inspired it. I’m fascinated by remote, and often isolated, places and landscapes, and with voice too. Whether I’m using first or third-person narration, I’ve always been concerned with the rhythm and sound of my writing. I imagine it as listened to, and hope that quality comes through.
3. Which authors have influenced you the most?
That’s almost impossible to answer because it alters every day: you are constantly discovering new writers and new books, and sometimes you don’t even realise how they’ve influenced you until long afterwards. The list is always changing and being added to, and could be endless, but a provisional one would include Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Proulx, Alice Munro, Kazou Ishiguro, Emyr Humphreys, W. G. Sebald, William Trevor and Carson McCullers; and of the authors I’ve been reading most recently, I’ve been incredibly lucky with brilliant novels by Laila Lalami, Juan Villoro, Sebastian Barry, Esi Edugyan and Anna Burns.
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?
I think right at this very moment it’s probably the sheer craziness of the world and trying to find a way to get a purchase on it, to make sense of it. Philip Roth, in a famous essay from the early sixties, complained that American reality was constantly outstripping and outdoing what fiction could imagine. That appears to be even more true these days, and for most realities.
But the greatest challenge for me is probably still the same empty, silent page and finding that hushed, whispering place – literal and figurative – where stories begin to take shape. The noise outside may be louder and more berserk, but the essential nature of that challenge remains the same.
5. What are the hardest and easiest parts of being a writer?
I think the hardest part is trying to keep self-doubt at bay, or at least trying to trick it for a chapter or two. There’s always a point when I’m writing a book (usually just past the halfway mark) when I find myself feeling like I’ve woken up naked on a wire over a waterfall and I’ve no idea how this tightrope walking thing works.
The easiest parts are those moments when I first have an idea for a book, and I haven’t soiled that idea by actually writing it.
6. Which writer from Wales would you recommend to readers and why?
I would recommend Emyr Humphreys. His novels offer an epic chronicle of Welsh experience in the twentieth (and early twenty-first) century, and - together with his poetry and literary and cultural criticism - represent a truly remarkable literary achievement and career. His masterpieces, A Toy Epic and Outside the House of Baal, are two of the greatest Welsh novels ever written.
Shattercone was selected to the Wales Literature Exchange 2020 Bookcase, our annual selection of recent Welsh literary works which we recommend for translation.