“Instinct and Keeping a Clear Eye”: An Interview With Cynan Jones, Part 2


In the first part of this interview with Cynan Jones, we discussed the roots of his writing, the role of rural Welsh landscapes in his excellent novel The Dig, and the process by which he became a writer. In the second half of our conversation, we delved more into the specifics of The Dig, including the origins of some of the book’s most harrowing scenes, as well as how the novel’s timing dovetailed with a political controversy in the U.K. Also on tap: mythology, allegory, and much more. You’ve also written a novel inspired by mythology…

That was a brilliant series of books. The Mabinogion are a series of 11 stories that were originally oral tales. They were formalized and written down and translated into English in the Victorian era. They range from some really quite bizarre folk myths to Arthurian legends. Seren, the publisher, commissioned ten writers to rewrite these eleven myths–two of them are very short, so one writer did both. I was the last guy to be asked, so there was one left, the one that everybody had avoided because it’s just terrible, it’s a tedious, dreadful piece of work. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that, but–you can see why everyone avoided it. But that played beautifully into my hands, because there wasn’t the same level of structure that you couldn’t escape.

It was an amazing experience. I was asked to do that in March, when I was finishing The Dig. I accepted it, and it was [due] eighteen months later than that. In April, while The Dig was just being tailed off, they called and said, “Someone’s defaulted on one of the slots; something’s happened and they can’t finish the book. Would you be able to do it earlier?” I said, Eure, when would you need it? They said, “By June.” I said, Yeah, go for it. I had to finish The Dig and then had to suddenly write this other book. That meant that I approached it with this really open shoulders, spontaneous–it’s really similar to the way that I try to build the story in my head and then write it down. That work had been done for me; that was already there. The original myth was there. It was an amazing process of interpretation. It was also an amazing excuse… What happens is, people talk about your style, what you do. Because the story is God, the three more conventional novels share a stylistic approach. But Bird, Book, Snow gave me the opportunity to just be playful. The book dissolves into mind-maps, it has pictures in it, Rorschach shots, plays, tape recordings–it’s this extraordinarily free playground.

You had referred to The Dig as having an allegorical quality–did you see any interplay between them?

Absolutely. All of the book are allegorical. The three novels, there’s a natural allegory in the center of them that really informs the human situation that the book talks about. The allegory in Bird, Book, Snow is really more historical/political, but it’s definitely there. The chief character plays the role of Welsh identity, and its delinquency and its anger and its successes.

After the allegory that began The Dig, did the badger-baiting or the farming come next for you?

I think the opposition was the key driver. To write a story of two things in opposition; to write a story of pressing tension. The pressure had to be atmospheric rather than physical. And how you create a narrative that doesn’t involve people meeting repeatedly, operating apart from each other, but having the reader feel that there’s going to be a collision.

It all happens in a kind of wallow. It’s a really bizarre process: you’re doing so much work undeneath all the time, and the moment when you see a book, it’s almost like there’s this flash: “I’ve got it! There’s going to be a badger, this, a farmer.” It’s really hard to pin down. It’s not as mechanical as it might look on the outside.

The novel follows both of its main characters very closely, but there are also moments when it breaks away from that–I’m thinking of the moment with the discovery that the doctor makes. How do you make decisions about what to include in the book’s narrative?

I think instinct is so, so key. And I think the instinct comes from reading enough to know what you can do and can’t do. This worries me sometimes, with the more formal or more academic approach to creative writing, where you build narratives that can feel a little more like writing by numbers: you can’t be doing this or you shouldn’t be saying that because it’ll draw the reader’s eye… You know. If you trust the readers, you know that you can do these things. Follow that line. As I said, you’ve built this in your head. I’m almost writing like I’m remembering, and at that point, you can just see it. The doctor’s there, picking the crumbs off the plate with his fingers. That’s the key, important thing that’s happening there, not the people consoling anyone in the kitchen. That’s the key thing that’s going to get the sense of the thing across. That’s it: instinct and keeping a clear eye.

How much do you revise or edit once you have something completed?

With The Dig, it was an interesting process. It was originally part of this much bigger book, these two novels that sort of coincided and were linked together. Even within that process, the first thing I wrote was the narrative of Daniel, and the narrative of the big man. I wrote them separately. Obviously, I needed them to tail in at the end. I dedicated myself for a few weeks to Daniel, and for a few weeks to the big man. Structure is possibly the most key thing in any given piece of writing. You need to be able to write; that’s a given. So you shouldn’t be worrying about writing, and where words go. That should be something you can do. But the thing which trips you up, the most difficult, arm-wrestling process, is structure. How do you bring that together; how do you bind them in; how do you balance it; where do you cut it? Do you really need to know that? And it is the case for me that every word needs to be doing something in the book. Even if it’s giving the writer a place to breathe, or a little bit of distance, everything needs to be doing a job. That can sometimes take a very long time. And you get to the stage where you almost can recite the book; that’s how much you’ve worked on it. It’s all dead to you; all the emotions, all the deaths, all the surprises. You are really working, fundamentally, on word after word after word: is it doing the right job?

Was there any research you needed to do on this? I’m thinking especially of the birth sequence that comes late in the book.

No; I’ve done that myself. I’ve been through that process myself of lambing, helping in the shed, being there in the shed. It’s something I grew up with. There was no research necessary at all. You check your facts, sometimes, because you wonder, “Is this just Welsh farming folklore?” Or you put it down as Welsh farming folklore. What you don’t want to do it be putting things down that are incorrect.

The badger side of things–a lot of that was built around assumption. I approached the idea, and I don’t want assumption in a book. I want things to be true. So I got in touch with the badger watch and rescue in the county, and they furnished me with some really quite difficult images of digs and baitings, and the result of that process. It’s all highly illegal, obviously, but the digging itself is still within living memory, so there are books on it. There are books on how to train terriers to do it. I also worked out that there were various groups online who were showing trophy pictures of the dogs, fights, that sort of thing. So I managed to track some of them down, and worked out the various phrases going on that would imply that they had “working dogs,” as they call them. What would happen is that they would flash up a webpage, and if you were party to it, you could see these pictures, and then they would disappear. I didn’t do that for very long, but I needed to know that those people really existed and that culture really existed. That was the real research that went into it.

When the book first came out in the U.K., was there more of a reaction to those sections?

It was quite weird, because it completely accidentally coincided with this bizarre political event, which is a badger cull. It was a situation where they decided that they were going to cull 70 percent of the U.K. badgers because there was a possibility that they transmit bovine tuberculosis. They do carry it sometimes, but the top 30 scientists in their field in the country said, “If you try to shoot them, they’ll disperse it, and if they are carrying it, it’s only going to get worse.” Basically, all the science was against it, but they insisted on it going ahead.

There was this consciousness of the problem. Brian May, from Queen, was leading the “Save the Badgers” field. It’s something that was very public. And I think that meant that when people saw the book, they had a little more political engagement. It’s not a political book, but it became slightly politicized as to whether it was there as a tract against the cull. It was slightly shaded by that.

Two of your earlier novels will be released in the U.S. in the near future. As you look back on them, is there anything you’d like to change, or plan to change?

It’s a really hard thing. The same thing, essentially, happened in the U.K. The books came out through Parthian, an independent Welsh publisher, but after The Dig, Granta bought the backlist and re-published them. There was this moment when I went, “I can just re-write them so much better now.” But you can’t. I find it very difficult to go back to anything that I’ve written. The act is the writing. That’s the thrill. When it’s gone, I want to be moving along to the next thing. It’s not going to be good enough, it’s not… You’ve just got to trust other people’s responses to it, because you just think it’s crap. You have to be humble enough to trust the response it’s getting.

There was the opportunity to change the stuff, but I think what’s important is that you should write more books than you publish. That means that the book that comes out should be the best book that you could write at any given time. And you write books which fail, or which don’t work, or which you come back to years later. So I look back at those books and I think, “No,The Long Dry was the best book I could happen at that time.” And Everything I Found On the Beach was a result of pressure to elongate the book, because publishers are so anti-short novel. I certainly prefer my original, slimmer, shorter version, but people say they like the fact that there’s more narrative to look at. So you have to just trust the integrity of the time and allow them to stand on their own. It’s a bizarre process, though.

Do you see your travels in the States as having any effect on your future projects?

I think they impact they have, in a strange sort of way, is–it’s very difficult to believe what you are when you’re sitting in a room in Wales trying to write a book. You think, “This is a bit surreal.” When you’re out there and you’re being asked questions about your writing and you’re being approached as a writer because people know you only through this thing that you produced, you tend to go, yeah, this is what you do. It helps you believe in this thing that you’re doing. It maybe helps the confidence to continue to do it, really. I don’t think there will be a great Cynan Jones New York novel, a New York odyssey, or anything like that. But what I would say happens is that it finds its way into short stories. That’s a quicker form. We shall see; nothing’s wasted.

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.