Tag Archives: Jon Gower

Several lives, several careers, changing form.

Maybe it’s my greed for experience, but I’ve always wanted to lead several lives, a desire made manifest through my choice of projects and parallel careers. I have been a physical theatre performer, a chambermaid, a live art practitioner, and a relief aid worker in war zones. I have written librettos, radio drama, short film, prose; sold shoes, meat, and advertising copy; directed film and dance theatre; been a writer in residence and Creative Fellow; and supervised postgraduate degrees in writing for performance whilst participating in Deaf arts, disability culture and the mainstream.

I think one of the most important lessons I have learnt is never to perceive myself as one thing. This business will often try to label us, slap a convenient sticker on our forehead and file us away under a limiting, narrow definition. Although often seen as perverse, I pride myself on not being easy to define. I try to keep experimenting, taking on new challenges and developing my skills.

I’ve often found in the UK that diversity is seen as an anomaly, a vulgar excess to be treated with suspicion. Phrases like ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ damn the Renaissance wo/man. I know writers who have limited their careers and creativity by believing it’s inappropriate to try something new (‘stick to what you know. Why change a winning horse?’) or who believe that there are set patterns and processes to adhere to (if only they could decipher them), rather than inventing new ones.

When engaging with press to publicise a particular project, in my experience they will invariably do one of two things: simplify my career and back catalogue in order to focus the article, or make a feature of the fact I write for more than one medium – but not necessarily in a good way: ‘If it’s Tuesday, she’s writing a novel – the confusing life of playwright Kaite O’Reilly.’ This was the actual headline in a regional newspaper some years ago, which begged the question: confusing for whom?

Perhaps this is a cultural thing, but achievement or multiple skills aren’t embraced in the UK as they may be elsewhere – unless you’re also undermining your efforts by making a self-deprecating comment verging on self-loathing.

I personally love getting to know a writer through different genres or forms: The novelist who also writes award-winning screenplays and illustrates childrens’ books and sculpts and paints (http://www.markhaddon.com); the poet who is also a novelist (ee cummings and his harrowing novel of the First World War, The Enormous Room); the novelist who also writes and performs Haiku (listen to Jack Kerouac on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJdxJ5llh5A&feature=player_embedded).

I also think that this attitude is currently shifting – there seems to be more opportunity for practitioners to explore other form – or perhaps it’s becoming a financial or career imperative? Literary fiction writers changing form if not medium is considerably more common, with a host of ‘literary thrillers’ entering the market, and several scare stories of writers being dropped by their publisher and agent for not attracting enough readers, and so experimenting with a more commercial genre.

There are other more positive and nurturing projects aimed at extending the careers and broaden the opportunities for exceptional writers. I’m immensely excited in being one of the mentors on Y Labordy, a new tailored initiative for experienced Welsh language writers of theatre, film and TV, led by Literature Wales.

 

Bethan Marlowe, Jon Gower, Fflur Dafydd, Dafydd James outside Ty Newydd

Bethan Marlowe, Jon Gower, Fflur Dafydd, Dafydd James outside Ty Newydd

The objective of this ground-breaking initiative is to create a pool of contemporary writing talent with the capability of writing high calibre scripts for different media platforms and to broaden ability for writing from an international perspective. The tremendously talented team are Fflur Dafydd, Jon Gower, Dafydd James and Bethan Marlowe – and I’ve been fascinated and thoroughly engaged in conversations with Jon and Daf as we negotiate medium and cross form.

Such endeavours fill me with excitement and inspire me with possibility. Perhaps we’re back again to my greediness, but I just want more, more, more….

(This is revised from an earlier blog)

Llareggub, Welsh Noh, and me.

I’m currently deep in Dylan Thomas territory – the hype, history, and cultural tourism created about the man. I’ve been invited to write an essay on Dylan Thomas by that literary mountain of a man, Jon Gower, who is editing a collection. There is much noise being made about legacy in this centenary of Thomas’s birth, and especially so when living where I do, close to where he spent the late war years, 1944-45.

Some weeks ago the nature poet Chris Kinsey and I took ourselves off for a wander around Newquay, Cei Bach, and St Ina’s Church at Llanina Point in Ceredigion. It’s my local walk, but we were doing it as a literary pilgrimage, following the blue plastic plaques and local hearsay about where Dylan Thomas walked, talked, wrote, and (most importantly for the commercial impact) drank.

I have to confess, I hate ‘The Dylan Thomas Trail.’  These strangely marbled plaques bearing the face of a young Dylan Thomas decorate the odd tree or wall, leaving me mystified as to the locality’s significance. There’s no nearby information and the ‘map’ which the literary curious are supposed to follow to decipher the import of each place wasn’t available and the tourist information office was closed.

The information boards around Newquay aren’t much better. They’re fine for the day trippers to glance at when licking an ice cream on a sunny August bank holiday, but they can’t hold their own against the posters advertising the wild porpoises and bottle nosed dolphins who visit these parts. I also find the ‘facts’ about Thomas so bland as to render any detail invisible. Sure, the local tourist board may not want to go into his drunken exploits and womanising (although that seems to be what everyone wants to discuss), but his literary legacy and strong connection between creativity and place could be drawn a little clearer. Newquay is reputed to be the inspiration for Llareggub (say it backwards), the marine town in ‘Under Milk Wood’, although the Thomases walked, bickered, and drank a longer trail, up to Tal Sarn and Llanon, further up the coast.

So we took ourselves out across the beach at low tide in a wind blowing itself up into a gale, shivering in the February drizzle. Poor Chris was incubating a stupendous cold and wading about in the fresh springs that flow across the beach and into Cardigan Bay mustn’t have helped. We walked up to St Ina’s Church, one of my favourite spots in Spring, when the graveyard and surrounding wood overlooking the sea is filled with bluebells, nodding my approval as always at the revision of one of Thomas’s most famous lines on a headstone by the gate: ‘Go gentle into that good night.’ Chris also shared my enthusiasm for the rewrite, saying on a personal level we wouldn’t want a loved one raging into death.

Writing the essay for Jon has refreshed my relationship to where I live, and reanimated my thoughts about language. characterisation, and playwriting. My focus has been on ‘Under Milk Wood’ and it has been a pleasure and education to revisit this text, especially when in the shelter of one of the nooks in Newquay harbour, ostensibly in the shadow of Captain Cat’s house.

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Today’s blog has a distinctly Welsh flavour, for my essay on The Llanarth Group’s  cultural exchange with Ami Theatre in Japan last November has been published in the most recent edition of New Welsh Review. An extract of the account of touring ‘Told by the Wind’ to Babylon Theatre in Tokyo, and an exploration of what NWR editor Gwen Davies has coined ‘Welsh Noh’ can be found at:

http://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=706

I’m off to give a last polish to my essay on Dylan Thomas, then head out to Cei Bach to walk along the golden sand and look across to Llareggub/Newquay in this  sudden welcome Spring sunlight.

In praise of short stories – “hand grenades of ideas.”

Short fiction seems more targeted – hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them.  Paolo Bacigalupi.

It has been a stupendous week for short fiction. Today’s blog is in celebration of Alice Munro being awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, and Sarah Hall winning the BBC National Short Story Prize. It also seems to be a year for women short fiction writers, for all on the National Short Story Prize shortlist were female.

For me a page of good prose is where one hears the rain. A page of good prose is when one hears the noise of battle…. A page of good prose seems to me the most serious dialogue that well-informed and intelligent men and women carry on today in their endeavour to make sure that the fires of this planet burn peaceably.   John Cheever.

Munro is the thirteenth woman to have won the award since its inception in 1901, and didn’t expect to win, partly because of what could be seen as an undervaluing of the form. On winning, she said “I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art.” 

I remember a time, until quite recently, when it seemed that the short story was in decline, or certainly out of fashion. The genre seemed to be in free-fall, and there were campaigns to ‘Save Our Short Stories’. Publishers were blamed for not offering collections, and they in turn criticised the reading public for not buying and so investing in the form. With today’s burgeoning list of short story competitions, some of them extremely high profile, like the BBC’s national offering and The Sunday Time’s EFG private bank award, the situation seems to have changed. But as Ursula Le Guin states so clearly, below, we need readers:

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.
 Ursula K. Le Guin

I have been enthralled by a whole range of short stories it has been my great fortune to have read during the past eighteen months: Work by my favourites Kevin Barry and Sarah Hall, but also Helen Simpson, Jon Gower, Matthew Francis, Claire Keegan, Lavinia Greenlaw, Edith Pearlman, Ali Smith… the list could go on. It seems robust and innovative as a form, and I’m excited that publishers, including small presses like my local publishers, Cinnamon Press, are championing both the writers and the form.

In an article in The Guardian ‘We Need a Story Laureate’, Sarah Hall gives an overview of the state and general health of the short story in the UK, “..if not gloriously ascendant in Britain, then airborne and at reasonable altitude,” she says, in a recommended read: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/11/sarah-hall-short-story-laureate

So let us celebrate this week’s achievements, and support the form through being good readers as well as writers!

“For the source of the short story is usually lyrical. And all writers speak from, and speak to, emotions eternally the same in all of us: love, pity, terror do not show favourites or leave any of us out.”  Eudora Welty, On Writing.

To hear extracts from recordings of the BBC shortlisted stories, please go to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0079gw3

For further information on UK short story competitions, deadlines, and where to get the forms, go to: http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/adults/short-stories/prizes/

Alice Munro wins the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-24477246

Thresholds, ‘the international home of the short story’ has links to short stories you can read online, including work by Kevin Barry, Helen Simpson, O Henry and others at: http://blogs.chi.ac.uk/shortstoryforum/9019-2/

20 Questions…. Jon Gower

Continuing my new series in asking writers, directors, actors, designers, poets, sculptors, artists, burlesque performers, playwrights,  choreographers, and other artists who catch the attention 20 questions about process, creativity and their work…. My third interviewee, Jon Gower…

Jon Gower. Photographer Emyr Jenkins

Jon Gower. Photographer Emyr Jenkins

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Jon Gower has written fifteen books on subjects as diverse as a disappearing island in Chesapeake Bay – An Island Called Smith – which won the John Morgan award, Real Llanelli – a west Wales tour in psycho-geography – and the fiction of Dala’r Llanw, Uncharted and Big Fish. His most recent work of non-fiction isThe Story of Wales, which accompanies a landmark TV series and his latest Welsh language novel, Y Storïwr, won the Wales Book of the Year award in 2012.

20 Questions…. Jon Gower

What first drew you to writing?    

My primary school teacher at Ysgol Dewi Sant in Llanelli, Mr. Thomas – known to us as “Tommy Tomatoes” – turned up at a talk I gave recently in the town and handed me a copy of school essays I wrote when I was nine or ten.  The fact that he had kept them all this time – they would have been written around 1968 – along with the fact that Mr. Thomas was still alive made this a life event. but the quality of the writing, too, impressed me. I was at that age reading Defoe, Louisa May Alcott and Conan Doyle. Reading avidly would eventually lead to writing, as it so often does.

What was your big breakthrough?

I’m still waiting for it.  Time enough.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?   

Finding time, as I have a young family and a lot of projects on the go at the same time, always.

Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you? 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ is the only book I finished reading and then started reading it straight through immediately, despite it’s being four in the morning.  I was a student at the time, so this was maybe 1980.  This mesmerizing novel still exerts a quiet but insistent influence on my writing which, even now, tends towards Welsh magical realism.

What’s more important: form or content?                                    

Content, though choices of  form as regards, say, length – short story or novel, essay or book – are clearly pretty important.

How do you know when a project is finished?                                                

I don’t.  Even when my recent novel ‘Y Storiwr’ was at the final proof stage my editor wasn’t sure that it was finished.  Truth be told, I was trusting a bit of the final writing to the reader!

Do you read your reviews?                                                           

Yes, and they can hurt.  A lot.  Or make the heart sing.

What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?                                                                       

Read lots.  Read attentively.  Read widely.

What work of art would you most like to own?                                 

John Martin’s ‘The Plains of Heaven, ‘ though it’s so big we’d have to move house and I’d feel to guilty about other people not seeing it to want to have it to myself.    51e9Dn3Pm4L._AA160_

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?           

That everyone has a book in them or, rather, that they would know how to write it. 

What are you working on now?                                                                      

Just finished half of a Welsh language stage play (which has given me the time to answer these questions) and am in the final few furlongs of a collection of short stories, also in Welsh.

What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created? 

Simple. John Updike’s entire output.

What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?      

That the real work comes after the first draft.

What’s your greatest ambition?    

To please the reader.

How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?  

It’s a necessary part of it all, not dissimilar to the nerves felt by an actor before curtain up or a rugby player before kick off.  You’re never satisfied, though the occasional good sentence might torch some pride in you.

What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?    

 A reviewer for New Welsh Review condemned my latest collection of stories, ‘Too Cold For Snow’  as being journalistic and cliched in their language. I work too hard on language for this to be true.  Had the critic been a proper writer it would have hurt more than it did.  It still hurt, though.

Too Cold For Snow And the best thing?                                                                                        

Richard Ford praised the self-same collection and his opinion graces the front cover.  For a moment I felt that Ford was a peer but then the old, necessary insecurity set in!

If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?                                                                                  

It’s a river, sometimes running swift and true, at other times meandering slowly, or worse, coming up to the weir, or did I mean the wire?

What is your philosophy or life motto?                                                        

Life is about creating things – be it conversation, babies, friendships, art.

What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?          

The best stuff often comes unbidden, and in the middle of the night.  Also, if you’re writing you’re always writing, even as you sleep.  So be prepared to get up to write it down.

What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask? 

Why do I do it?  Because I have to.  It’s an acceptable, realistic and manageable version of something grand, such as having a destiny.

For information on Jon’s books, go to his Amazon page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jon-Gower/e/B001KDY5WA/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1364235160&sr=1-2-ent

Too Cold For Snow http://www.amazon.co.uk/Too-Cold-Snow-Jon-Gower/dp/1908069848

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Story-Wales-Jon-Gower/dp/1849903727/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1364234258&sr=1-1

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Uncharted-Jon-Gower/dp/1848512090/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1364234364&sr=1-6

A few of my books of the year 2012

This time of the year is rife with ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ lists, and so never one to buck a trend, here are some of the books of the past year that provoked, delighted, or prickled in my memory long after they’d been put down.

SingingAManToDeath_v2-195x300

Singing a Man to Death – Matthew Francis

It was a year of short stories, novellas, and of small independent publishers. Hats off to small Welsh concern Cinnamon Press for Matthew Francis’s accomplished collection. I subscribe to the press, which means a literary surprise comes through my letterbox each month – and I have been relishing the polished intelligence, and cool-eyed humour of these wry, sophisticated stories. Only half way through the book, this still makes my ‘few books of the year’ list – with sincere best wishes to Cinnamon’s future success and in anticipation of Matthew Francis’s forthcoming novel and poetry collection. Bravo! Diolch yn fawr!

http://www.cinnamonpress.com/singing-a-man-to-death/

Country-Girl

Country Girl – Edna O’Brien

I adore Edna O’Brien. I have been meaning to write her a fan letter since I first encountered Cait and Baba in The Country Girls, when I was thirteen. All her novels, plays, and stories have since beguiled and perplexed in equal measures, me revelling in the lavishness of the language and  the delicacy of her fine-tuned precision. It is also the look of the woman I love: That open, astonishingly beautiful freckled face – the young author photographed on a rainy boreen  which adorned the cover of her first novel, written in innocence and banned in Ireland. Then followed the groomed, glamorous shots of the literary life, culminating in the recent profile in shadow on the back of Country Girl, her 2012 memoir. Thanks to my friend Sam, I received a signed first edition for my birthday in September. It is delicious, delirious stuff, from her mournful childhood in west Ireland, to drinking with Beckett in Paris and dropping acid with RD Laing in London, amongst other anecdotes surely to become legend. It is as effecting, otherworldly and heartbreaking as her wonderful voice, which must be heard and celebrated, hence the link to an interview, below.

http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/blog/post/tag/Interview-with-Edna-OBrien

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Gods Without Men – Hari Kunzru.

I have long been a fan of what Douglas Copeland has identified as a new literary genre, Translit. As he explained in the New York Times: ‘Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present.’ Set in the Mojave desert in south-eastern California, the interconnected narrative threads of Gods Without Men include a 2008 missing child, a 1960’s UFO sect, a missionary friar in 1775, an ethnographer in the 1940’s studying Native American creation stories, and Iraqi refugees employed to people a simulated Iraqi village to train soldiers in urban assault. The work is massively ambitious and not altogether successful, but audacious in scope and haunting in its depiction of “Three columns of rock … like the tentacles of some ancient creature, weathered feelers probing the sky”.

beauty_is_a_verb

Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen.

A stunning collection of essays, crip poetry, cripple poetics, and work by Deaf and disabled poets. As the editors note, ‘we include not only poets who created and embrace the disability/ crip poetics movement but also those who might resist such a classification and have never been considered in that exact context.’  Powerful. Diverse. Utterly fabulous, celebrating all the possibilities of what it is to be human.  http://www.beautyisaverbbook.com

Too Cold For Snow

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Too Cold for Snow – Jon Gower.

I was sitting beside Jon Gower and his family when he rightly won Wales Book of the Year for his Welsh language novel, Y Storiwr (The Storyteller) .  With the publication of Too Cold for Snow, 2012 continues to be phenomenally successful for this prolific writer, whose recent output gives the notoriously productive Joyce Carol Oates a run for her money. Audaciously inventive in at least two languages, the sprawling creativity of the man is evident in every paragraph of this collection of short stories. Funny, sensitive, surreal, and and at times devastatingly poignant, his stories are inherently of Wales, whilst provocatively re-imagining exactly what that might mean.

Sightlines

Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie

This is a wonderful collection of essays about the landscape, nature, and the environment. Unfussy, almost pedestrian in her approach, I was seduced by her straightforwardness, how ‘Between the laundry and fetching the kids from school, that’s how birds enter my life…’  ‘a sorceress of the essay form,’ John Berger described her, and who am I to quibble with him? Stunning. Do go and buy it.

The Beautiful Indifference.

The Beautiful Indifference – Sarah Hall.

The first paragraph of ‘The Butcher’s Perfume’ was enough to rush me to the book shop cashier and immediately back home – to hell with the shopping –  to devour the rest of this disturbing, exquisitely written story. The setting of that story, ‘the burnt-farm, red-river, raping territory’ establishes the tone for this violent, memorable, beautiful collection of short stories. Disquietening, stirring what lies beneath the surface, aspects of these stories remain in the memory long after they’ve been read.