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Bookcase Focus Questions: Matthew Francis
Wales Literature Exchange interviewed our Bookcase author Matthew Francis about his writing and his influences.
What first inspired you to be an author and where do your ideas come from?
I was an obsessive reader from an early age. I borrowed books from the library every week, and saved my pocket money for the three shillings and sixpence for successive volumes in the Narnia series. I remember worrying about what would happen if I one day ran out of books to read. So I suppose the ambition to be a writer began with the desire to produce for myself the kind of books I liked reading.
My ideas come from reading, television, the internet, conversation, and, I suppose most of all, from daydreaming. I don't usually find ideas a problem, though knowing what to do with them often is, and it can sometimes be years before an idea finds its appropriate vehicle. In the case of The Mabinogi, though, the idea of a poetic adaptation wasn’t my own. I went to my editor, Matthew Hollis, and asked him what he thought I should write next, and this was his suggestion, which turned out to be an inspired one.
How would you describe your writing?
I am interested in history, and enjoy writing about fantastic and magical themes, which, for me, work best in a historical context, set in an age when people really believed in magic. A lot of my writing, like The Mabinogi, is transposed from existing texts, perhaps because I have trouble thinking of my own plots. (Shakespeare did the same, so I am in good company.) As a poet, I am fascinated by form, and a lot of my poems are in syllabic stanzas. My poetry and fiction often has a self-reflexive element, exploring the nature of writing itself.
Which authors have influenced you the most?
In poetry, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, W.S. Graham and Paul Muldoon. In fiction, Laurence Sterne, Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass.
In your opinion what are the biggest challenges that writers face today – and do you think these challenges have changed since you started writing?
The biggest challenge remains the same as it’s always been: how to make a living at it, or, at least, how to make a living while continuing to do it. But the answer to that question has changed dramatically in recent years, and is continuing to change. I’ve been lucky to find a congenial home in academia, something that wasn’t an option for most British writers of an earlier generation, as well as a supportive publisher in Faber and Faber. But changing reading and buying habits, the assault on copyright and the effect of new technology on every area of our lives make the future of writing impossible to predict. I am sure it will go on in some form or other.
What are the hardest and easiest parts of being a writer?
The hardest parts: continuing to believe in your work when it is rejected or (somehow worse) ignored; finding time to do it; clearing a space in your head for it. The easiest part: when, usually after much effort and many false starts, the page suddenly seems to be writing itself.
Which writer from Wales would you recommend to readers and why?
There are some outstanding Welsh writers among my friends and colleagues: I can’t list them all and I don’t want to leave any out. But I’ll mention Christopher Meredith as a really imaginative poet and novelist who for some reason doesn’t get much attention outside Wales. There is a very strong tradition of the short story (a genre I love) in this country, with great practitioners like Caradoc Evans and Dylan Thomas. In our own time, Catherine Merriman and Jo Mazelis, among many others, have written some excellent ones.