Honno: “Great Women, Great Writing, Great Stories.” Today with Alison Layland #TuesdayBookBlog

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is riverflow-final-front-only-small.jpg

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is someone-elses-conflict-final-front-only-1.jpg

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

Twitter: @AlisonLayland

Honno website: https://www.honno.co.uk/authors/l/alison-layland/

(https://www.honno.co.uk/riverflow/

Hive: https://www.hive.co.uk/Search/Search?Author=Alison%20Layland

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AlisonLaylandAuthor

YouTube: https://youtu.be/Ty_hqQ_UcOE

Wednesday’s #Honno Author Interview – today with Alison Layland

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

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.

 

alison book

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:

alison book

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon.co.uk link: http://amzn.to/1DTIL5I: 

Amazon.com: http://amzn.to/16FqTAh

Lovereading link: http://bit.ly/1FpvAdR

Or direct from Honno: http://bit.ly/1Aa97S5

My website: www.alayland.uk

Twitter: @AlisonLayland   

* Tŷ Newydd: http://www.literaturewales.org/ty-newydd/].  med full colour honno logo