Interview with Cynan Jones
The characters in Welsh writer Cynan Jones’ fiction are not the kind of people you might run into at a hot new cocktail bar, at a gallery opening, or schmoozing with literary types at an agency party. They’re not even the kind of people you’d likely see taking tacky tourist photos in Times Square or outside Buckingham Palace. Jones’ protagonists are too busy trying to make peace with, some sense of, and money from a savage kind of nature that never stops pushing back. These men and women are wised-up, but not so hard-boiled that we don’t get to see what’s going on within their minds. And what we see is at times painfully familiar, even if we’ve never set foot on a farm or been at the sea’s mercy.
Jones’s latest book, Cove (2016, Granta), is a cinematic epic in under one hundred pages. An unnamed narrator finds himself stranded on the ocean in a kayak with no memory, a broken body, and the shore out of sight. I won’t spoil either how he ended up in this position or what he does about it, but Jones takes the Jack London-style story of man vs. nature and twists it so that we see man vs. his own nature when the natural world has gotten inside his head. It is the kind of book that you can read in an afternoon and wouldn’t consider putting down even if it were longer.
Before this, Jones published The Dig (which I reviewed here), Bird, Blood, Snow (2012, Seren Books), and two books now being released in America for the first time: Everything I Found On the Beach and The Long Dry (Coffee House Press). What all of these books have in common beyond their portrayal of the complexity of rural life and how it shapes consciousness and habits is lush, yet precise prose. Like Joan Didion, Jones is a minimalist in terms of the number of words he uses, but a maximalist in term of their abilities to establish tension, evoke emotions, and construct landscapes. There is more to think about in ten pages of Jones work than in one hundred by most other writers.
Cynan Jones lives in Aberaeron, Wales. We conducted our interview via email, and we at LAR thank him for his generous answers.
-Dan Pecchenino, Assistant Book Reviews Editor
My first encounter with your work was The Dig, which I loved. Did you always intend it to be a counterpunctual novel? Where did the two main characters come from and why did you decide they needed to be in the same story?
The Dig was originally the second part of a much longer novel, the story of which stretched back to the 1930s. This second part played out in contemporary time, through two chief characters built from very real people around me. They were always intended to be set one against the
other. The story was about the way we try to create a safe space for ourselves and the things we care about, and how something can break into that space. The badger sett provided the allegory, and the characters followed from there. On one level, the characters look posed utterly at odds with each other – a person trying to protect their space, and a force that threatens it, black and white; but there is a lot of grey area here. The (ostensibly violent) unnamed ‘big man’ has great vulnerability, a parental care for his dogs, a fear of others, perhaps; the (ostensibly compassionate) farmer, Daniel, is required to make pragmatic, sometimes cruel, choices. Perhaps even courts violence as a solution to his situation.
Your books are all relatively short, yet the prose is rich in sensory detail. But the writing in your latest novel, Cove, feels even tighter than in your previous work. Was this a conscious effort to see what you could do in a more minimalist space?
The story itself determines the prose approach. The conscious effort came, not in the decision as to how to use language to get the story across, but in the decision to write a story that denied me any of the factors my previous work relied heavily on. Namely connection to place, relationships, and characters with a determined understanding of role.
Cove is about a physically injured, partially ‘amnesiac’ man adrift on a kayak. Both space and depth are great threats; the ground under him is reduced to a few feet of floating plastic. He has no idea where he is, or who he actually is. The prose had to be compressed.
On a related note, the trend in literary fiction seems to be toward sprawling, 400-500-page (or more) novels. At just over 225 pages, Everything I Found of the Beach is your longest novel. Why does the short novel speak to you as a form, and what do you think it offers readers that more bloated books can’t?
The level of engagement between the reader and a short novel has to be very strong. A short novel often relies more on implication than explanation. It is required to create emotions, and judgements, rather than describe them. A short novel is a moment, not a journey. There’s no time to drift off and stare out of the window as there is in longer forms. Everything counts. I love that as a reader, and that’s probably the driving reason behind me gravitating to the form.
For readers not familiar with Welsh literature, what (if anything) would you say defines it? And how has being Welsh shaped your identity as a writer?
I’m not really sure it’s possible to answer what (if anything) defines Welsh literature. Firstly, you’d have to make a distinction between literature in the Welsh language – which has an incredibly long tradition – and literature written by Welsh people in English. You’d also have to take into account the fact there isn’t ‘one’ Wales, as it were. There’s industrial valleys, dramatic fastnesses, agricultural areas, distraught fishing ports… The list goes on. All these areas have their own character and produce their own writers. Like many countries, “Wales” only exists as one thing in an administrative sense.
In terms of shaping my identity as a writer, it’s the landscape around me, in which I grew up and still live, that’s had the primary effect.
While all of your novels have something to do with the interaction between man and nature, The Dig and The Long Dry are distinctly rural (though not pastoral). Why do you think the rural novel, which has a rich tradition in both British and American literature, feels something like an outlier in the contemporary literary world?
Because most people live in cities nowadays. That relegates the countryside to a caricature of itself, for many. Much rural fiction I’ve read by contemporary writers often feels quite fake, written from the point of view of a visitor, rather than a native. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that if the story is good; but writers who work from the rural environment, (Steinbeck, Wendell Berry, Ted Hughes to snatch a few names from the air) achieve more purpose setting their stories in the land.
When reading both The Dig and The Long Dry, I found myself thinking about Faulkner. While your writing styles are in some respects quite different, there’s a deep knowledge of place and what happens in it that connects your work to his, in my mind. So who are some of the major influences on your work?
Everything you read influences you. Even the copy on the back of a beer bottle. What’s interesting is why a writer chooses to write what they write. Does the influence come from wanting to write like another writer in particular? Or from something external to literature that you’re driven to write about, which – in doing so – means you write work aligned with writers driven by similar things?
The strongest stories I’ve written have been stories, simply put, of ‘men getting through things’, often physically. As I said earlier, the story itself determines the prose approach; given the subject matter, a muscular writing suits the telling here. People therefore assume I’m influenced more by writers who write that way. But that’s not the case. Angela Carter is as important as Hemingway is as important as Dylan Thomas is as important as Pablo Neruda. The vital thing is to find the thing you should be writing, not try to write like other people, or what seems to be in vogue.
What are your writing habits? How do you start a new project, and how do you try to make sure you finish it?
I try to write in my head. Ideally, I don’t go near the desk until the story is built and I know everything about it I need to know. Only when it feels ready do I sit down. The I write as if I’m watching. Remembering. I keep my eyes on the characters, and write down what happens as strongly as I can.
That first act of putting the story on paper is an incredibly intense process. I spend days at a time alone, waking up early and thinking through the day’s work in my head; then I start writing around 10am, until I’m done. By done, I mean until the writing has pole-axed me. In general, it takes me about three weeks to get a book ‘landed’. Then the real work starts. The interrogation. That can take months. In the case of Cove, years.
As for making sure I finish a project, that should never be in question. If you have to force yourself to finish a story, it’s likely your readers will too.
What are the five best books (regardless of when they were published) that you’ve read in the last year?
Impossible… but here’s five from the top drawer, (including some I’ve revisited).
Colin McAdam – A Beautiful Truth
Julia Leigh – The Hunter
Tommy Weiringa – A Beautiful Young Wife
Callan Wink – Dog Run Moon
Jon McGregor – Reservoir 13
Two of your older books, The Long Dry and Everything I Found on the Beach, are being released in the United States on Coffee House Press. What up to this point has your relationship been like with American audiences?
It’s a humbling thing to have your work published in other countries. Particularly when you write about a very specific part of the world, and about characters who are not ‘global’ (in the sense of being deliberately geared around politics, ethnicity, sexual orientation and so on).
The boon with American audiences is there’s no language barrier, so it’s easier to engage with interviews, online book clubs and the like. There seems to be a genuine appetite for good writing in the States. I was over for the launch of The Dig in 2015 and I’m looking forward to building on that experience, with The Long Dry coming out in April, and Cove next year.
One of the themes in all of your novels is men who, for one reason or another, can’t connect with the women in their lives. This is often juxtaposed with the man’s relationship with nature. Why do you find this juxtaposition so pregnant with narrative potential?
I guess because I was born and brought up in the environment I have so far written about, and all of my life nature has been a strong developing force.
It’s possible to have a relationship with nature – the environment around you – without fear of letting it down. It’s way bigger than you, and you, to it, are ultimately irrelevant. That’s liberating. But a relationship with another person, woman to man, or man to woman, or adult to child regardless, is utterly loaded with responsibility and the anxiety we will fail the other in some way. If we fail Nature, she doesn’t care. Setting our frailties and strength against this makes for a great underpinning for the narrative.