Q&A With Shortlisted Novella Writers
Cath Barton: 'The Plankton Collector'
New Welsh Review: What was your initial reaction to finding out you’d been shortlisted?
Cath Barton: Disbelief!
NWR: What first inspired you to write a novella?
CB: At the beginning of 2015, a friend in a local writing group said 'Who's going to write a novella this year?' I found myself putting my hand up for the challenge, though I hadn't thought of it until that moment!
NWR: The Plankton Collector is a brilliantly enigmatic figure; how do you go about creating such a character?
CB: One day at the gym I happened to see an intriguing clip on TV about people gathering plankton. I did a little research into those microscopic creatures which, literally, enable us all to live. That became the starting point for my novella. My character The Plankton Collector helps the other characters in my story to come to terms with what life has dealt them. He is Everyman, which is a very liberating device for the writer - I could make him whoever and whatever fitted the story at any point.
NWR: I love the imagery and language of the seasons passing. Why is time such an important theme within your piece?
CB: Thank you! I am fascinated by the nature of time, which J B Priestley explored to such great effect in his plays. Our memories are potent, yet unreliable. We constantly remake them, and get further away from what really happened each time we do so, apparently. One aspect of this is that sadness recalled is not fixed, and can be transformed in the present to show us the possibility of happier times.
NWR: Are you working on any writing projects at the moment?
CB: I have a few ideas bubbling away. One which has been in my mind for a long time is to write a story based on the life of my Auntie Phyllis, who was a circus artiste. I'm also thinking of writing something drawing on the work of Hieronymus Bosch. Two rich worlds to explore!
Olivia Gwyne: 'The Seal'
New Welsh Review: What was your first reaction when you were told you'd been short-listed?
Olivia Gwyne: I was absolutely delighted. It’s always very encouraging as a writer to see your work appreciated and especially to be short listed in such a well-regarded competition.
NWR: What inspired you to write this memoir?
OG: The Seal began life back in 2013 as a creative writing exercise while I was on the Masters in Creative Writing programme at Newcastle University, with the wonderful Jackie Kay. She asked us to write something from the viewpoint of a child, something which by and large I’d always avoided up to that point. A theme that features in a lot of my work is the way we tend to view the world through a set of filters and how these colour our sense of what’s actually happening. Children, unfortunately, all too often have little in the way of defences against the views of those around them. I’d been walking on the North Sea coast a few weeks before and found a dead, near mummified, seal on the beach which combined with the desolation of an out-of-season coastal village I thought would work as a backdrop for a story about a highly dysfunctional situation from a child’s point of view. After several goes at completing the novella over the next few years it wasn’t until last year that the ending became clear to me.
NWR: The dialogue within The Seal often feels tense, with what is unspoken often as significant as what is. How did you go about bringing the voices of your characters to life in such an illuminating manner?
OG: I think the most fascinating parts of human interaction are those parts that are never made explicit, never memorialised, the spaces in between events and so often what’s left unsaid. The unspoken can hold a real sense of suppressed power. For dialogue to feel authentic characters need to be allowed to speak in their own voices, and that includes all their evasions, deceits and repressions. I find writing believable and engaging dialogue is mainly about knowing your characters and allowing them to speak for themselves and, as the writer, acting as secretary and writing it down.
NWR: The ending of The Seal is striking and very ambiguous. Was this intentional? And why? Would it be pushing it to ask what you thought happened in the final scene?
OG: Most definitely intentional. The ambiguity of the ending is a reflection, hopefully, of the ambiguity inherent throughout the novella. One of the great things about literature is that each and every reader is free to interpret a piece of work differently. Here, any interpretation of the ending is going to be drawn from the characters of Michael and the child, set against who is in danger and who is a danger. Although I do have a definite opinion about the ending I think I’m going to allow readers to draw their own conclusions.
Nicola Daly: 'The Night Where you No Longer Live'
New Welsh Review: What was your initial reaction when you found out you had reached the shortlist?1.
Nicola Daly: I was delighted to be short listed and I was also quite shocked.
NWR: What inspired you to write The Night Where You No Longer Live?
ND: This is a story that I have been reworking for a long time now and changed parts here and there. Writers like Angela Carter have had a big impact on me as a writer and this is perhaps what inspired the fairy tale aspect of the story. However initially I wanted to write about the dysfunctional relationship between siblings a slant on the Hansel and Gretel story if you like. I also knew that I wanted to write in a distinctive voice and not just make it like every other dark tale with disturbing themes.
NWR: The novella presents Claudette's tale using many ambiguous elements, strange yet enthralling metaphors, and a colourful, antiquated vocabulary. Was it a challenge to write in this style?
ND: It was not really a challenge. I don`t like to write within constraints. As a writer I am a risk taker. I find writing in this way liberating and enjoyable. I like adopting new styles and techniques where possible.
NWR: The Night Where You No Longer Live encompasses many themes of identity, family, sexual violence and abuse. Of these, which do you feel is the most dominant?
ND: I think all the themes feed into one another. The siblings are a product of their dysfunctional family. The sexual violence and abuse and their struggles with identity stem from their upbringing. Alfonso`s behavior is againa result of the violent abuse he received from their tyrannical father. I see him as much a victim as Claudette.
NWR: What can readers expect from you next?
ND: I am currently working on a novel essentially about female beauty and the role in plays in society. The story is a cautionary tale told through the female voice of an opera singer, her sister and her maid as they travel around the world.