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 a new set of interviews and today I’m really pleased to introduce a new author to Honno, Jane Fraser, and to showcase her book: Advent.
Please tell us a little about yourself:
I live, work and write, in Llangennith, a small village in the north-west corner of the Gower peninsula, south Wales, in a house facing the sea which bears the full brunt of the south-westerly wind. By day, I’m co-director of NB:Design, a branding, digital and photographic agency, which my husband Philip (a designer and photographer) and I have been running together since 2000 from our studio on the third floor here at Channel View. The ‘day job’ sees me do all the marketing, the new business, share strategic thinking, write commercial copy for projects for clients in a variety of sectors, across Wales and beyond. When I’m not doing the day job, I try to be a writer and a good grandmother to my three granddaughters, Meg, 11, Flo, 9, and Alice, 5, whom l’m lucky to have living relatively near me at Oxwich, on the south side of the Gower peninsula.
When did you start writing?
I’m not a ‘young’ writer in the numerical sense of the word, but I consider myself ‘young’ in terms of appearing as a published author. My debut collection of short fiction, The South Westerlies was published by SALT, the UK’s foremost independent publisher of literary fiction, in June 2019. I will be forever grateful to them for giving emerging writers of any age a voice, and championing the short story.
I didn’t always want to be a writer, even though, looking back, I was always writing. As a child, I was an earnest diary-keeper which I kept under lock and key. I wrote the odd story at school and wrote little plays to perform with my friends. My mother always told me I had ‘an over-active imagination’ (which I don’t know was a criticism or a compliment); but I didn’t choose writing as a career or even have the ‘itch’ to write as I grew up and grew older.
I dropped out of University first time around, married too early, had two beautiful children, returned to college and became a teacher. Then my marriage failed and I worked for a book publisher as a sales person and then a manager before meeting lovely husband number two and starting our business in 2000.
It was around this time that I felt the urge to be ‘creative’: there was something in me that was unfulfilled and ‘stuck’ and begging to be set free. I wanted to express myself; but I didn’t know how. I started a once-a-week art class and failed miserably. I learned the piano where I fared better; but was no Llyr Williams. I also started writing outside the day job: poor poetry and autobiographical snapshots and what I thought were short stories. Just as the childhood diary had been under lock and key, this ‘literary output’ was hidden away in a cupboard in the attic. But it kept calling me. I loved the process of thought finding itself in words on the page. It was almost magical.
This went on for almost a decade, when, as if by magic, I was searching online for a creative writing class where I could up my skills and I came across the MA in Creative Writing at Swansea University, founded by the late poet and psychogeographer, and much-missed Nigel Jenkins, and the wonderful, novelist and academic Stevie Davies, and now fellow HONNO author, both who were to prove instrumental in my writerly journey.
I completed the MA, part time, in three years (2010-2013) and it was a wonderful experience, opening my eyes to a range of genres I had not encountered, or tried working in, and also giving me the tool kit to make me a hopefully better writer. I gained a distinction and also the motivation to continue study and gain my PhD in Creative Writing in early 2017, under the supervision of firstly, Nigel Jenkins, and then the wonderful, Fflur Dafydd.
Even though I have skirted around the ‘how old are you?’ issue, I am proud to say that I have just turned 66. As I write my responses to the questions posed for this in this interview, we, in Wales, are in our sixth week of lockdown as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and my birthday was on the first day of the lockdown. A day to be remembered and marked with a birthday card my husband designed me based on the lyrics of ‘take your kicks on Route 66’. Now imaginary kicks and an imaginary journey for me and millions of others.
What genre do you write in and why?
In terms of genre, I discovered during the MA that I wasn’t a poet, but loved the haibun genre which allowed me to combine prose and haiku. I was pleased to win two major international competitions around 2014 and I still am drawn to the form. I was comfortable with creative non-fiction, but I did enough of that in the day job. It was the short story genre that really set me alight thanks to the expert teaching and enthusiasm of Jon Gower who opened up the possibility of this genre to me. It’s a wonderful vehicle to glimpse a whole life lived in a few thousand words, to illuminate rather than develop character, and to use dense language that aims not to waste words. I love the genre for what it doesn’t say rather than what it does. As the wonderful Welsh writer, Cynan Jones, says: “the short story is about what it leaves behind”. As a writer who was, and remains, time-poor, I found that I could draft a short story in one sitting by getting, and staying, in the ‘zone’ without losing voice or narrative impetus. I simply love the short story.
Writing long fiction (my forthcoming novel Advent) I found such a different challenge: to keep my concentration over a long period of time, more characters, complicated plot lines, and the issues of time shifts and duration, and the organisation of a whole lot more of words. Its shape is altogether different: whereas I find the short story drills down and works towards the closing of a >, like an arrow in flight, the novel, I feel, starts small and grows big, opening up to a < if you get my gist. And then there was the new issue of research, especially as I’d chosen to write historical fiction and set it in 1904-1905.
How important is location in your novels?
Whether I write long or short fiction, location and setting is central to my process. It’s my starting point. This is not true, I know, for many authors, who can do desk-top research to write location. But for me, I have to create a sense of place based on personal experience. I have to know my patch, my ‘cynefin’ my ‘milltir sgwar’. I usually do this ‘on the hoof’ walking my way into writing. I really feel it enables me to have a rapport with my environment, what Durrell called “an identity with the ground”. For me at least, there seems to be a link between walking and creativity.
Here in Gower, I can feel the pulse of the place where I feel most creatively nourished and I try to translate these feelings I imbue through the senses on to the page so that I try to transport my hypothetical reader to a place that feels real and authentic. I’d go further and say, that in The South Westerlies, and Advent, both works set in Gower, place is not a cosmetic backdrop but an affecting agent in the lives of my characters and the actions they take in story. My characters are ‘functions of place’: some rooted, some desperate to escape. Gower is home to me and where I feel I belong and so to date, I have used by relationship with it to feed my fiction. I would say that both my works to date are ‘made’ rather than merely ‘set’ in Gower.
My current work in progress is another novel, this time contemporary, and set in south-west London. It’s a location where my daughter lived for ten years and where I spent a lot of time pounding its pavements, so I can re-cast my physical experience of its streets and sights and smells and use it in fiction. I hope the end result will reveal a narrative that is made in London not just set there in the same way as I have done for my home patch of Gower.
Who is your favourite (non Honno) author?
It is said that to be a good writer you have to be first and foremost a reader. I have read most of my life: childhood days delving into Enid Blyton to the Legends of Greece and Rome; late teenage years loving Flaubert and Zola; then on to other ‘dead’ authors who I still read – Lawrence, Orwell, Greene and of course, all the Brontes with their expertise to plot place on the page.
Lately, I’ve been reading Elizabeth Strout (a very ‘knowing’ writer, my mother would say) for her complete understanding of the human condition and its frailties at all ages; I’ve loved Anna Burns for her unique voice and ability to meld the tragic with the comic; I devour Anne Enright. In fact, I’m smitten with Irish writing, old and new, that wonder of being able to use the English language in such a distinctive way. Where to start? John Mcgahern, Edna O’Brien, Billy O’Callaghan, Danielle McLaughlin, and my hero, the fabulous Claire Keegan. Whether it’s a novel, novella or short story, I’m drawn to these writers who are all about suggestion rather than statement, about rising tension rather than high drama, about creating a sense of place. I’m in awe of them all. They are my inspiration.
Where do you write?
I know some writers have their go-to places to write and their rituals to get them going. I’m not in this category. I write when time allows, so where I go to write is anywhere out of the studio where I work. Even though it has views to die for, I have to disconnect from ‘work’ me and ‘writing’ me so have to physically distance myself from the top floor. Usually I go to the conservatory, semi-horizontal on the sofa, my lap top on my stomach; or sit up in bed writing after I’ve had a glass of wine or two. Sometimes, I’ll write on the train if I need to go to London to see my lovely agent, Gaia Banks, of Sheil Land Associates. IF we manage a holiday, I write well wherever we are, and sometimes the distance from my home patch allows me to see it more clearly. I’m not a writer who rises at 4 o’clock for my craft and neither am I a night owl. I just write when I can, where I can. The only foible I have in my writing ‘process’, is that there has to be no noise whatsoever, no distraction, no nothing. On this topic of ‘process’ I’m not a planner or a plotter either (should I say this?). I really go where the story takes me though I often have an end image in sight. I find the whole process mysterious and that’s why I love it.
Who is your favourite character in your books?
The characters I have created for my books to date have been many and varied – especially for the short story collection; young and old, male and female, insiders and outsiders. However, in Advent, my favourite character has to be Ellen Thomas: young, feisty and flawed, determined and full of desire, headstrong and heartbroken. Manipulative too. She is loosely based on my great aunt who left a Gower farm in 1899 to sail alone to America for a new life with just £10 in her purse and a sponsor at her destination. I saw a photograph of her: the set of her jaw, the focus in her eyes; and I had to write an imaginary version of her life. Ellen Thomas has many selves. I think that’s true of us all. She might even have some of the traits of my younger self in her, or perhaps elements of a life not lived; but I’m not going to be drawn on that one. My agent kindly said this: “Advent has, in Ellen Thomas, one of the best central characters I have read in a while. Can’t wait for this novel to be out in the world.”Gaia Banks Literary Agent Sheil Land Associates
What was your favourite bit of research?
There were many highlights in the research for Advent, mostly the walking: tracing the disused railway line through north Gower which used to serve the coal industry on the north side of the peninsula between Gowerton, Penclawdd and Llanmorlais; walking the streets of Loughor and getting a feel for Moriah Chapel where Evan Roberts, the Welsh Religious Revivalist used to preach. Then there were the photographs to be rifled through, the ships’ manifests to be scanned, and the conversations with my ninety-year-old mother about her memories of ‘Mount Pleasant’, the Gower farm Ellen Thomas was born, and to which she returns for the duration of the novel.
But let’s not forget the research challenges too. What I found most difficult was how information was passed between characters, and how long it took. Sometimes I just wanted to write: I picked up my mobile and told them the news. Or, Text me the time you plan to arrive. Instead I had to revert to the telegram or snail mail and write at a different pace and deal with the time lag that this involved. The sheer time practicalities. Hard. Hats off to Hilary Mantel!
What do you like most about being published by Honno, an indie press rather than one of the big publishing houses?
I think with HONNO, my forthcoming novel, Advent, has found the perfect home with the UK’s longest-standing independent press that champions Welsh women and Welsh writing. I am proud that I now find myself among a list of authors I so admire. In fact, I am the first author with a surname beginning with F! The F category previously stated ‘no authors found’.
Advent, was due to be published in autumn 2020, but due to the current Covid-19 pandemic, HONNO, with insight and foresight, will now publish it on 21 01 21. It’s a great decision. I like the numbers! And I will support HONNO and its authors in any way I can as we navigate our way through this crisis.
So, although it’s quite a while until the advent of Advent, but I hope the wait will be worth it and readers will connect with the time, the place and the characters. Advent is not just about the religious sense of the word, but the wider sense, with a lower case a. It’s about forthcoming events of all sorts: religious, seasonal, farming, romantic and so much more. I look forward to being a published HONNO author and I know, as an independent press, and a group of supportive fellow women authors, HONNO will be with me, holding my hand, every step of the way.
Thanks to HONNO author, Judith Barrow, for inviting me to tell my story.
If you want to find out more about me and get latest news, reviews and events, you can visit www.janefraserwriter.com or follow me on Twitter @jfraserwriter