Llangwm Literary Festival is Pembrokeshire’s newest festival, now in its fourth year, established by the inspirational Michael Pugh.
It’s raining as we drive into Llangwm. Atlantic rain and wind spiralling up the Cleddau, seeking out this estuary inlet, as the Vikings did once upon a time.
There are lots of ‘once upon a times’ around here, with stories of those Norsemen, Mesolithic settlements, the Flemish. There are even more this weekend, as the annual literature festival takes place.
Llangwm Literary Festival is Pembrokeshire’s newest festival, now in its fourth year, established by the inspirational Michael Pugh. It showcases the international and the local, covering a variety of themes. In the past, it has featured among many others, Dervla Murphy, Griff Rhys Jones, Thomas Morris, Horatio Clare. This year, there’s the Countess of Carnarvon, Ferdinand Mount and Isambard Wilkinson… and me.
It’s a shame about the rain, stopping us wandering down to the water’s edge, or ambling through the warren of streets, to greet locals and visitors as they hurry between venues
And yet, somehow, it’s appropriate for what I’ll be talking about.
I’m here, with Chloe Turner, author of the short story collection, ‘Witches Sail in Eggshells’, in a discussion about our work with writer, Philippa Davies.
I’m going to be reading from ‘Esther Bligh’, my novella, published last year.
And ‘Esther’ has a lot of unkind weather in it. It’s set further north along the coast, a fictional place, where the wind and rain are far worse than we are experiencing right now. And they never stop.
It’s a dark book, about strange happenings, stemming from real psychological trauma – a fair description of many of my stories.
I get to talk about my stories, too, which is great, because I can make the first public announcement about the publication of my collection ‘Trouble Crossing the Bridge’, by Blue Nib. In fact, I think I manage to say ‘the wonderful Blue Nib press’ and how thrilled I am.
Good – it’s what I meant to say, but I can never be sure if the words in my head will come out through my mouth, as I intended.
Because that’s the problem – festivals are about talks; interviews, panels are about talking, and talking’s different from writing, which is what I normally do. They are two quite distinct experiences, surprising, in fact, as they both need words.
Writing is a solitary exercise. Just you, the pen, the paper, or more likely these days, you, the computer keyboard and the screen. And now suddenly, here you are, with an interviewer, another writer, and an audience. And they want to know about you, your work, and about how you write.
And here’s another problem.
You don’t think about the process while you are doing it. At least I don’t. Perhaps it’s different for Creative Writing students, but for me it’s all rather organic.
One of my favourite writing quotes is from Aminatta Forna, who said ‘a story is like taking a thought for a walk.’ It’s a perfect description of the way I work.
But now I’ve had to consider how I craft a story and translate my musings into something rational, in the hope that it provides some useful lesson for those in the audience wanting to embark on this ‘writing journey’. Or I’m supposed to try.
So – I get my idea, which is usually something I’ve read. I don’t need more than a line or two to have one of those ‘light bulb’ moments. It’s the written equivalent of William Trevor on his park bench, overhearing a few words of a conversation, and getting up and walking away, because he doesn’t want to hear it all. He wants to make the rest up. And so do I.
Most of these things I come across are out of the ordinary. A diagram of the Doomsday Clock, the formulae for Blue Monday and Black Friday, facial recognition, face blindness all provided perfect material for me. And then I’ll invent a character to experience these peculiar phenomena life has ordained they must deal with.
I choose all kinds of characters. I’m not ‘writing what I know’ here. Gone are the days when every writing manual would say that’s what you had to do. I’m getting into the heads of people quite different from me – men and women of all ages – not simple reproductions of myself. Some are real. I’ve written about Edvard Munch, and his recovery from a mental breakdown, Jean-Baptiste Becoeur and his invention of arsenical soap for preserving in taxidermy. Grace, one of the two main characters in my novella, was based on a true account. But most are purely fictional, as are the interpretations of these ‘real’ ones.
And then, once I have my character, there are two things I need before I can start my story properly – my voice, (which is usually the character’s voice, because, after all, I’m inside their heads), and my opening. I work very hard on my openings. And when I’ve found these, the story moves along fairly easily, following whatever path that ‘thought’ of mine chooses to take.
I’m not sure if any of this makes sense, or if it’s useful to anyone else, but it works for me. As does the way I spend too much time on research (and most of my stories need research because they’re about those ‘unknown’ subjects). And what my aims are, and…
And suddenly I’m thinking perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to formulate all these things in my mind, so that I know where I’m coming from, where I’m at, and better still, where I’m going. It’s my ‘once upon a time’, when it comes to writing, at least, and I realise it’s important to address it now and then.
Taking part in this discussion has given me that opportunity, Llangwm festival has given me that opportunity. And it’s also given me support and encouragement, two things so important for a writer, to compensate for all the rejection and criticism we receive. And I know now it’s an experience to be embraced, rather than doubted, as I did at the start.
The rain gets worse as we drive home, heading in from the bay, sending the white horses frantic. I don’t mind. I’m happy with the way my interview has gone, the response I received. And I find myself looking forward to another festival, wherever and whenever it may be.
Thanks to Llangwm Literary Festival, Michael Pugh, Chloe Turner and Philippa Davies.