In the second of my Wednesday interviews with fellow Honno authors, I’m pleased to be talking to Alison Layland about her début novel.
Alison is a freelance translator and writer. She grew up in West Yorkshire, and after moving around the country quite a bit, now lives and works in the lovely Welsh village of Llangynog, in the Berwyn mountains, where she lives with her husband and cat; her two grown-up children having flown the nest in recent years. She translates from German, French and Welsh (which she learned when she moved to Wales) into English. When not reading, writing or working she loves walking, travelling and oral storytelling –(so far as an audience member rather than a teller, though she says she’s working on it! )– and dabbling in various crafts.
So let’s start, Alison, by you telling us about your début novel.
Someone Else’s Conflict is about Jay, a rootless storyteller and odd-job man, who uses his stories and chosen way of life to try and escape from a dark past – his involvement in the Croatian War of Independence, and actions that he regrets. He meets Marilyn, an aspiring artist, and commits to helping her. As friendship grows between them, he begins to wonder whether she can also help him, and whether the time has come to think about settling down. When displaced teenager Vinko enters their lives, he is forced to confront his past in more ways than one.
What experience do you want for your readers?
First and foremost, I hope my readers will get involved in the story and the characters, and enjoy living in the world of my novel for a while. I like stories where things aren’t black and white, and I hope the grey areas raise issues for readers to think about. What would it be like to be in such a situation? What would I have done? Was he or she right to act as they did?
The “historical” back story (assuming that 20 years ago can be called historical) is presented in quite an impressionistic way in the novel, and it may inspire some people to find out more about the intricacies of the conflict following the break-up of Yugoslavia, which happened on our doorstep and has resonances with what is going on in the world today.
Are any of your character traits or settings based on real life?
All the characters are entirely fictional, although, as I’m sure is the case with all authors, they are coloured by hints of my own experiences, watching and wondering.
My wider locations are real, while immediate settings are invented. In particular, I wanted to make sure that the Croatian village of Paševina, the events that happened there, and the renegade character of Lek, are entirely fictional – not related to any real events of which I am aware, but plausible within the wider history of the 1990s conflicts. The main setting of the novel is in the Yorkshire Dales, an area where I’ve spent a lot of time over the years, and it made sense to have the Dales town of Holdwick fictional, too, but grounded in reality, to achieve a balance.
When did you decide to become a writer and why?
Ever since I can remember I’ve told myself stories, from intense, snapshot-like scenes to long, rambling epics. It wasn’t until about 15 years ago that I started to write fiction, as an indirect result of learning Welsh. Our course tutor was the poet Cyril Jones, and when the course came to an end, a few of us continued with him in the form of creative writing classes. Strangely, I found that writing in another language helped me to lose my self-consciousness and start to write things down for others to read. I eventually progressed to writing in my native language, English, though still enjoy writing in Welsh from time to time. Now I can’t imagine feeling those inhibitions (in any language!) – on the contrary, writing is part of who I am.
Which comes to you first, the characters or the story?
The characters with hints of their stories, which I try and tame into a reasonable framework and set of ideas before launching into writing, and develop as I go along. My second draft (and the next, and…) is when it really takes shape.
What are you currently working on?
My next novel is at the initial “taming and shaping” stage (see above), but it’s getting there. I’ve recently worked on a wonderful translation of a series of poetic reflections on Armenian culture and the experiences of survivors of the genocide in 1915 [http://www.delphinejacquart.com/bibliotheque.html] It’s been lovely to work on – beautiful writing, and a fascinating insight into a country and an aspect of history about which I previously knew very little.
Do you have any writing advice you would like to share with aspiring authors?
In short, read a lot and write a lot. Don’t be afraid of getting it all down in a first draft, then rewriting and editing to shape your final work. If you want to be published you have to develop a thick skin and not be afraid of rejection – it happens to most, if not all, of us. I found the best antidote to be putting your energies into working on something else.
Courses are also really helpful for learning and refining your craft – personally, I have really enjoyed a number of courses at Tŷ Newydd.*
It also helps immensely to have creative support; I am lucky to have be in regular contact with two talented novelists and authors, Martine Bailey and Elaine Walker. We offer feedback on each other’s works in progress and enjoy talking about and discussing all aspects of writing, from inspiration through to publication and beyond, as well as visiting local places of interest, exhibitions, etc. that inspire us. This friendship is really important to me, as is the wonderful welcome and support I have been given by my publisher, Honno, and the “family” of other Honno authors.
What inspires you in your writing?
I get inspiration from all around me – snippets of news, overheard conversations, pictures, travel, things I read.
Music is hugely important to me. Although I rarely listen to music while actually writing, I have playlists for each work-in-progress of music that inspires me – it may not be a whole song or piece, but often snippets of lyrics (which may be interpreted by me in an idiosyncratic way that I’m sure the songwriter never intended!) that suggest an aspect of a story, atmosphere or a character trait.
I love oral storytelling, and try to see as much as I can, as well as volunteering as a steward every year at the Festival at the Edge storytelling festival in Much Wenlock. Telling and writing a story are two very different techniques (which I have always realised, but which was forcefully brought home to me recently when I had a go at telling one of Jay’s stories out loud to a small audience), but I find listening to stories and watching storytellers’ performances to be really inspiring.
Describe yourself in three words.
Introvert, fun-loving – paradox.
Do you ever wish that you had an entirely uncreative job?
No – I left a career as a Chartered Surveyor to become a translator, and then a writer, and would definitely not want to go back. My commercial translation work can be quite prosaic, but when I’m working on something creative it can be every bit as enjoyable as my own writing, and I’m constantly trying to develop this aspect. I also love the freedom of working from home as a freelancer, without having to go out to an office environment every day.
Do you research your novels?
Yes, I like to try and get the details right as much as I can – though I try and ensure that my research informs my story without taking it over or being excessively obvious. My research for Someone Else’s Conflict included extensive reading about the 1990s conflicts in former Yugoslavia and the wider background, both factual books and fiction from the region. I have always been fascinated by the Balkans and wanted to know more, so have found the research, and my travels around the region, to be absorbing and fascinating. Although the aspects that I present in the novel are the dark side, that’s deceptive as in fact I’ve fallen in love with this part of the world. Given my love of languages, part of my research has also included attempting to learn Croatian, which I’m still doggedly pursuing.
Someone Else’s Conflict is published by Honno Press:
Amazon.co.uk link: http://amzn.to/1DTIL5I:
Lovereading link: http://bit.ly/1FpvAdR
Or direct from Honno: http://bit.ly/1Aa97S5
My website: www.alayland.uk
* Tŷ Newydd: http://www.literaturewales.org/ty-newydd/].