Honno: “Great Women, Great Writing, Great Stories.” Today with Alys Einon #MondayBlogs

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 author, Alys Einon

Please tell us a little about yourself.

Well, I’m in my late 40s, and live in Swansea, which is a beautiful place to live and work. I am an academic, working in the fields of reproductive health, gender, sexuality and motherhood. I live with my wife and stepson, three dogs and one cat, in a tumbly-down old townhouse with a garden I attempt to grow things in. I have a grown-up son who lives nearby, and another married stepson who also lives nearby. I am a bit of a workaholic, but I love being out and about in nature, and there’s plenty of that near me, including beaches, woods and parks. I am an avid reader, and I am also a very spiritual person. I like to be active, and even now, during the pandemic, I am keeping active by doing Five Rhythms Dancing and practising my karate and kickboxing.

When did you start writing?

I was seven years old when I started writing, the youngest of a family of six living in a council house with very little money. I loved reading, and read and re-read everything we had in the house. One day I was reading the back of an Enid Blyton novel, and saw an author’s note, and I thought, I want to do that! So I started writing stories. I got laughed at by my siblings, but it didn’t stop me. Then when I was eleven I saw a film about Anne Frank, and I started keeping a diary in a little notebook (I still have that notebook). And I’ve kept a diary ever since.

I think I suffered a lot from the weight of other people’s scorn growing up. My parents dismissed writing as a career, telling me I would have to have a proper career. I was clever in school, so they fixated on me doing something important that would make them look good. I went along with that, but in my heart of hearts, being able to craft and tell a good story was all I longed for. I had one teacher at school who encouraged me, but she was a realist and knew how hard it was out in the world. Other than that, I just had to believe in myself.

As an adult, I experienced a sudden tragedy at the age of 20, which changed my life forever. I found my vocation as a midwife. But I still carried on writing, and began collecting rejection slips! It was worth it, in the end, as now I am published by Honno.

What genre do you write in and why?

Literary fiction is how I am loosely located. I have written in other genres, particularly speculative fiction, but never anything good enough to be published. What I am interested in is the tiny details of women’s lives. I write about women and their lives because that’s what I am interested in, and because there are so many stories still not told. I grew up seeing too much of history, too many narratives, that didn’t represent the world of women that I came to inhabit. So that’s what I write about. That and some of the challenges that beset us, because we are women in world that still doesn’t see us or value our central role in keeping the world turning.

How important is location in your novels?

Very important. I feel it is important to evoke a sense of place, and in particular, place, for me, reflects something integral to the plot. In Inshallah, Amanda’s connection to her home and to Wales, and the relocation to Saudi Arabia, are central to the plot and to understanding her as a character. Both places are powerfully symbolic, as countries connecting to her perception of her sense of self, and of belonging. She feels trapped in Wales, in a life with no meaning, but to which she ‘belongs’, and then moves to what is to her an alien culture, having to learn the language, but fuelled by the sense of meaning afforded by her conversion to Islam. This place, and its customs and rules, is a core element of her story, right up to her attempts to escape.

Inshallah

In Ash, the sense of place is linked to houses. Houses play a key role, homes, places of residence – how potent and how powerful a symbol these are in our lives and imaginations! The relationship with different houses, the description of these, their association with different periods of time and identity for both Amanda and Ash, are core to the narrative. I often dream about houses, and I know that in dream interpretation these are meant to represent the self, so I feel as if they grew in that symbolic representation of self in the novel.

Ash

Who is your favourite (non Honno) author?

That is impossible to answer, because I love so many authors dearly. I would say… Scarlett Thomas, closely followed by Anne McCaffery, closely followed by Starhawk, closely followed by Margaret Attwood, closely followed by Marion Zimmer Bradley, then Tolkien, Charlotte Bronte…. My favourite book has always been The Lord of the Rings, and it always will be, but I have too many favourites really to focus on only one author…

Where do you write?

Usually I like to be out and about writing, either in my local café, Crumbs, which does an excellent vegan breakfast for a treat on Saturday mornings, and where the staff are used to me scribbling away and demanding tea every half and hour, or out in my camper van at the beach or elsewhere. I have a big van that has comfy seats, a bed, and a cooker and cupboards, so I can go anywhere, really, and always have access to a cup of tea when I want one! I usually listen to music while I am writing, something that evokes the kind of mood I am working with. I find the urge to write in odd places – I can be inspired by someone walking past, or the way evening sunlight hits a calm sea, or a scent on the breeze. So writing in different places helps with that. I always carry my diary with me just in case I have to jot something down, wherever I am. But because I have a ‘day job’, I often have to make the decision to go and write somewhere, rather than simply following the urge. This is why I often go out – because it focuses my mind on writing for a period of time, and I am less likely to be distracted, and more likely to be productive.

 I type up and edit in my study at home, which is on the first floor and overlooks the garden. It’s a lovely space, full of books and beautiful things I have collected over the years. It is rich with colour and texture, and smells of home-made incense and essential oils. I have a big old schoolteacher’s desk which is in the bay window, and it is littered with books and papers and pens and notebooks.  Right now, because of the pandemic, this is pretty much where I do all my writing and my day job. I sit on a chair that has been in my family since before I was born, and I have a CD player to my right, and an Ipod dock to my left, so I can listen to whatever takes my fancy.

Who is your favourite character in your books?

Hmmm that’s a tricky one. I would say, Ash, the main character in Ash, mainly because she is so honest. Brutally so. Yes, she’s an annoying, self-obsessed teenager at times, but she sees the world in black and white, and although she has a lot of growing up to do, she is generally honest with herself. I also love Amanda’s twin sons, Ash’s brothers, who seem to be a foil for both Ash and Amanda’s limitations.

The thing with characters, I have found, is that once I have a general idea of who they are, they seem to take off and become something more. I don’t always feel like I am in control of that. It was hard, deciding to write Ash from a first person perspective, because I am not a mixed race young woman living in today’s society! I could only bring what I could into that character, read up about the experience of mixed-race children in the UK, and try to represent the racism she experiences as plainly as possible. I can’t claim to understand such a perspective, but I do know a lot about being a young woman, feeling alienated, and the experience of negative body image, which are all important parts of her story.

What was your favourite bit of research

Ah, now that’s a good question. I would have to say, my favourite bit of research was researching Islam and Saudi Arabian culture. I knew nothing about it, really, before I started writing Inshallah, but I knew I wanted to write about faith, and about that feeling that there is something bigger that may be guiding our steps through life. But I also wanted to become more educated on something that I had only ever seen through the very biased lens of media representation. So I read the Qu’ran, in translation, and read books about Islam, so that I could gain some basic understanding – as much as Amanda would have had, anyway. And I explored a lot of women’s sites relating to Saudi Arabian life, especially cooking! I experimented with many of the commonly made dishes, to find out what they were like, and I even dressed in hijab to experience the sensory feelings that Amanda would have experienced when she first put on the headscarf/veil.

As a writer, I knew I could only ever write about this subject as an outsider, – which is what Amanda was – but I found myself developing a great respect for a faith that puts so much emphasis on charity and community. And it really got me to think about the world differently.

People say, ‘write what you know’ but not everyone does that. Of course we write from our own perspective, but there are things to learn, always, and new ways to see the world. A good book should take the reader out of their comfort zone, but do so in such a way that they are carried along effortlessly. I hope I have achieved that.

What do you like most about being published by Honno, an indie press rather than one of the big publishing houses.

First, the fact that I am published by a women’s press is a major achievement. I grew into my own identity reading books by Honno and other women’s presses, and I felt that there must be something really special about authors who are published by smaller presses who can’t afford to take a gamble in the way in a bigger publishing house could. I am in awe of my fellow Honno authors, and I really do feel honoured to be in their company. It is so great to have a good relationship with my editor, and the community of Honno authors is so supportive and helpful. It is a huge plus to not have to have an agent to get your work read. I could paper my wall with rejection slips and after a while it just wears you down. Then there’s that personal experience of being nurtured by an editor who really knows her stuff and is invested in making sure your work is the best it can be.  

I think with Honno, the authors are all excellent, and that kind of sets a standard. It makes me strive to be better, to be worthy of the association. And it’s a feminist press, so what’s not to like?

Links too Alys

@AlysEinion (Twitter)

Facebook: Alys Einionhttps://www.facebook.com/AlysEinion/

Links to her books:

Honno: https://bit.ly/2W9TxH2

Amazon: https://amzn.to/35BO1Ae