Today, I’m really pleased to be joined by Alison Layland.
Hello and welcome, Alison. Great to see you here today.
Glad to be here, Judith.
How many books have you written, and which is your favourite?
I’ve written severalnovels, but so far had two published – Someone Else’s Conflict (2014), a psychological thriller involving storytelling and the long aftermath of war in the Balkans, and Riverflow (2019), a story of family secrets and community tensions against a background of flooding and environmental protest.
Like children, it’s impossible to name a favourite, as they all have a place in my heart while writing, but if I had to choose, I’d say my most recent novel, Riverflow.
How did you come up with the title for your book?
Although the title just came to me while writing, I evetually realised I was subconsciously remembering the Levellers’ song of the same name, which, at the time, I hadn’t listened to for quite a while. Music is a really important influence for me, and I compile playlists for all my novels, both while I’m developing ideas and during the process of writing. Although I actually write in silence, or at most to soft but atmospheric instrumental music, the songs on my playlists inspire me by capturing a moment, a feeling, an idea or an atmosphere – whole songs or just a line or two, often shamelessly taken out of the context of the original songwriter’s intention!
Although my playlist for Riverflow does include a couple of songs by indie folk rock rebels, Levellers, their song of the same name isn’t directly relevant to the novel, although it does nicely encompass the idea of life flowing like a river, which is also central to the book.
What inspired the idea for your book?
I’m passionate about the environment and wanted to write a novel that highlights the issues, while giving readers a good story. As always happens when I write, the characters, particularly protagonists Bede and Elin Sherwell, took over and it also became a family drama, where past mistakes strongly influence the present.
What part of the book did you have the hardest time writing?
I don’t like black-and-white villains, but I found it hard to sympathise with the antagonist, Philip Northcote, the Sherwells’ landowner neighbour, who is keen to develop fracking on his land (which was still a real threat when I was writing, in 2018-19). Northcote does have personal reasons for his antipathy towards the Sherwells, but I found it hard to get my head round what drives a climate change denier. How can people, such as my character, justify fracking for shale gas, a fossil fuel, in the face of climate science? In the name of research, I suffered for my art by watching a video interview on the subject with my notoriously anti-Green MP, Owen Paterson – who recently hit the headlines for different but equally nefarious reasons.
If you’re planning a sequel, can you tantalize us with a snippet of your plans for it?
My work-in-progress, Tidings, builds on the ideas that are central to Riverflow: environmental protest, climate change and the related threats to a small community. It stands alone, but is a distant sequel, as it features some of the characters from that novel(though I’m not saying which ones!) The year is 2056, the world has changed, and the Seeders, an idealistic island community, could be making a big mistake when they welcome a mainlander onto their island. I’ve really enjoyed imagining the political and environmental changes that might happen over the next thirty years if governments don’t get their act together…
What do the words “writer’s block” mean to you?
Something I’m prone to more than I should be. Another reason for my novel playlists – to keep me “in the zone” when the words aren’t flowing.
What do you need in your writing space to help you stay focused?
A great little piece of anti-distraction software, Cold Turkey (getcoldturkey.com). It can be used to shut off selected procrastination-inducing websites and apps for a defined period of time, freeing the harried writer from the lure of notifications and random browsing, while still allowing limited internet access for essentials such as research.
What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why?
Neither, as I don’t plan, but rather make it up as I go along. I start with an idea, a setting and/or a character or two, and take it from there. I don’t have a plot as such when I start, but quickly develop an idea of the direction I’m heading in. The plot fills out as I write, but my second draft is where I do most of the nitty-gritty of the planning. It’s a similar story with the characters – I have a couple of central characters from the start, and the rest find their way in. Characters who start out as incidental do have a habit of taking on central roles, such as displaced teenager Vinko in Someone Else’s Conflict, and Bede’s Uncle Joe in Riverflow.
How do you use social media as an author?
By battling with my self-consciousness and introvert tendencies – which extend to online activity – and when Cold Turkey (see above) isn’t active! I use Twitter (@AlisonLayland) and Facebook (facebook.com/AlisonLaylandAuthor) to spread the word about my books and events, but am far more comfortable doing social media as part of a group, such as among our lovely Honno authors, and the Crime Cymru (crime.cymru) collective, where I’m actively involved in the Gŵyl Crime Cymru Festival (gwylcrimecymrufestival.co.uk/). My favourite social media moment to date is the book trailer video for Riverflow (https://youtu.be/Ty_hqQ_UcOE ) made for me by my talented daughter.
Why did you choose? Honno as a publisher?
It’s lovely to be published by a respected independent press, where you feel part of a family – both among the Honno team and the lovely authors’ community that has developed over the years, many of whom are now dear friends of mine.
Alison Layland is a freelance writer and translator who lives and works in the Welsh borderlands. She is the author of two novels, Someone Else’s Conflict and Riverflow, both published by Honno Press, and is also a literary translator from German, French and Welsh into English. She also writes short stories and flash fiction; her story Quirky Robbers will be featured in the Honno crime anthology, Cast a Long Shadow.