My greatest support has come from the group of authors published by Honno. We have a Facebook group where we can chat and ask for help, information and generally boost moral when it’s needed. And we’ve met up in real life on many occasions. About three years ago I shared interviews with some of them. Since then there have been other women writers who have become Honno authors. So this is the first of a new set of interviews and today I am with my friend, Alison Layland
Please tell us a little about yourself.
I’m originally a Yorkshire lass – well, my family originate from Nottinghamshire, but I grew up in and around Bradford. With my family, I moved to Wales in 1997 and feel it’s my home now. I’m a translator, both commercial and now predominantly literary, and speak six languages to different degrees of fluency. I love the natural world and being out of doors – walking, gardening, foraging and photographing. I’m an environmental campaigner, currently hoping we can learn from our experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic to make the deep social and economic changes needed to mitigate the climate and biodiversity crisis.
When did you start writing?
When we moved house a few years ago, I found some cute poems and songs I wrote in infants’ school, at the age of about 5 (including an illustrated limerick about a man who kept pups in cups, which made me smile). I’ve always told myself stories in my head, but never had the courage – or self-belief, or lack of self-consciousness? – to write them down, at one stage thinking I’d satisfy my love of words by translating other people’s work. However, much as I still enjoy translation, when we moved to Wales, I learned the language and started using it to write my own stories. Writing in another language – together with the affirmation of winning the short story competition at the National Eisteddfod – enabled me to break some barriers down and I haven’t looked back since.
What genre do you write in and why?
As my novels tend to be very character-driven, and I like a good dose of conflict, mystery and drama, they fall nicely into the genre of psychological thrillers, but in truth I don’t actually write in any genre; I simply get the story down in a first draft and my novels are shaped in subsequent drafts. As a reader, listener of music or appreciator of any other art form, I tend to shy away from boxes and categorisation; I take more notice of a description, sample or synopsis than a genre. Although there are definite ideas behind my writing, and things I hope my readers will be moved to think about, I’m also inspired by music, legends, folk tales and history – first and foremost I like to tell a good story.
How important is location in your novels?
Location is an essential aspect of my writing. Riverflow is set close to my current home, on the banks of the river Severn on the border between Wales and England; the river in particular infused the story.In Someone Else’s Conflict, I was drawn to the Yorkshire Dales, where I spent a lot of time when growing up, and my former stamping ground of West Yorkshire, for the present-day part of the story. The backstory is set during the Croatian conflict of the 1990s, and although the scenes are quite impressionistic, the location was nevertheless important to me for conveying the atmosphere.
My immediate locations tend to be fictional; this began with the Croatian village of Paševina, which is entirely made-up as it was the location of a wartime atrocity. It therefore seemed logical to make my Dales village, Holdwick, fictional too, although based on aspects of several real places. I love the freedom of creating a fictional micro-location with the wider setting grounded in reality, and the village of Foxover in Riverflow is another one that’s not on any map.
Who is your favourite (non Honno) author?
There are so many; it’s impossible to choose – and my choice changes with the latest book I’ve enjoyed. Having said what I said before about genre, I particularly love authors who surprise me, writing excellently in a range of different genres (or none at all) like Margaret Atwood, Iain Banks (RIP), TC Boyle, Jim Crace and Joanne Harris, to name but a few. I also love the inventive fantasy worlds of China Miéville, and exploring all corners of the real world through the translated novellas published by Peirene Press.
Where do you write?
When we moved to our present house we converted the garage to an office/writing room/reading nook looking out over the canal and some magnificent trees; I feel lucky to have a such a lovely place, particularly at the moment during lockdown. However, when I can, I also like to get away to write, and have used AirBnB and house-sitting for friends as low-budget writing retreats. Since last year I’ve had a caravan permanently located at a site in North Wales, which is a wonderful place to go and write – inspired by nearby Ynys Ennli/Bardsey, my work-in-progress is largely set on a remote island.
Who is your favourite character in your books?
I know plenty of others have said this, but it’s true that it’s like being asked to pick a favourite child! I get immersed in all of my main characters. However, in both of my published novels there are those who appeared early in my first draft as minor characters, but I became increasingly fond of them until they ended up with key roles. In Someone Else’s Conflict this was teenage economic migrant, Vinko, who lost his parents to the war and has been rootless and taken advantage of ever since. I remember when the book was published, realising he doesn’t get a mention in the cover description – typical of the poor lad’s fate in life – so he’s getting one here! When I was writing an early scene in Riverflow, my main character, Bede, mentioned a favourite uncle. At the time, I never thought that Uncle Joe, and his diary, would turn out to be central to the story. He’s not as amiable as he may seem at first, but it’s not always the nice characters who are the most interesting, and I really enjoyed getting into his voice when writing.
What was your favourite bit of research?
I really enjoy research and have to work hard to make sure it doesn’t become an excuse for procrastination! For Someone Else’s Conflict, as well as reading widely, both non-fiction and fiction, about the 1990s civil war, I also really enjoyed getting to know Croatia more widely, including travelling, attempting to learn the language and discovering music from the region (I build playlists for each of my novels), particularly a brilliant singer called Darko Rundek: https://youtu.be/X1bzBZvgxbs], who has become a firm favourite.
After all the research I did for the background to my debut novel, I thought that the local setting of Riverflow, and its environmental themes that are so close to my heart, would make it easier from a research point of view. However there were plenty of aspects of sustainable and off-grid living that I needed to find out more about, and my research could also be said to be life-changing – I’ve always been into environmental issues and tried to live as sustainably as possible, but have never been particularly politically active. My visit to the Preston New Road anti-fracking protests while writing the novel, and the emergence of Extinction Rebellion hot on the heels of me writing about protest, changed all that, and I’ve been actively involved with Oswestry & Borders XR ever since.
What do you like most about being published by Honno, an indie press rather than one of the big publishing houses?
It feels like being part of a close-knit family. The small but dedicated and talented Honno team are accessible and supportive at all stages of the process, and it’s been lovely to become friends with so many of the other Honno authors. We’re a wonderful community, and although we’re scattered all over Wales and beyond, it’s particularly lovely when we get to meet up in person.
Alison’s bio & links:
Alison Layland is a writer and translator who lives and works in the beautiful borderlands between Wales and Shropshire. She translates from German, French and Welsh into English, and her published translations include a number of award-winning and best-selling novels.
Her debut novel, Someone Else’s Conflict, was featured as a Debut of the Month on the LoveReading website in January 2015, and her second novel, Riverflow, was Waterstones’ Welsh Book of the month in August 2020.
Social media and buying links
My website: www.alayland.uk
Honno website: https://www.honno.co.uk/authors/l/alison-layland/