Talking with Peter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh Girl
Q: What inspired you to write The Welsh Girl?
A: One of my earliest memories of my grandmothers house in North Wales is playing with the small brass trinkets a letter opener in the shape of a sword, a tobacco tin I took for a treasure chest shining on her mantelpiece. She told me they were made from old shell casings by German prisoners of war held in camps in Snowdonia. I was fascinated by how these objects had passed from their hands to my grandmothers and then to mine. It might have been the first time I felt history brush up against my own young life.
Q: Your father is Welsh, but your mother is Chinese, and you grew up in England and now live in the United States. How Welsh do you feel?
A: I wasnt sure at the outset that I was Welsh enough whatever that means to write the book (Ive had the same anxiety when writing about Chinese subjects, too, so its a double bind). In the end, though, I think I wrote it not despite that doubt, but because of it. The writing of the book is an effort to answer the question, How Welsh am I? Or actually to enlarge that question a little, to understand what it means to be Welsh.
Q: And what does Welshness mean to you now?
A: The aspects of the Welsh character I respond to the most are the endurance and the stoicism. Theyre the ultimate underdogs, after all, the very first colony of the British Empire, in a sense (something that provides an interesting link for me to my mothers family, most of whom grew up in Malaysia when it was a British colony). That long colonial history takes a toll on a people, I think, but also brings out certain strengths. I admire the dogged stubbornness of the Welsh, though at the same time I suspect that, taken too far, it approaches a tragic flaw.
Q: Youve created sensational emotional chemistry between Esther and Karsten. Was this component of the novel a pleasure to write or a creative dilemma?
A: Creative dilemmas are a pleasure at least if you can solve them! Once I decided to take on the challenge of writing a period piece, I thought, why not write from the point of view of a woman, and then, if I was writing from Esthers point of view, why not try to get behind the eyes of a German POW? It was like a poker game where the players keep raising the stakes. In retrospect, though, it may be that this relationship and my take on it owe a lot to a longstanding interest in and sympathy for forbidden love stories some-thing that probably dates back to my own parents interracial marriage, which in its time was quite shocking.
Q: The Welsh Girl is a historical novel. Why did you choose to write it rather than something more contemporary?
A: Im not sure I see a hard distinction between historical and contemporary work. I think most good historical novels resonate with the times we live in. And the question of nationalism seems a timeless one. The idea of German POWs imprisoned in North Wales, a hotbed of Welsh nationalism, struck a chord with me from early on. It made me think of the contrast between what we might call a benign nationalism like the Welsh kind and an evil one like National Socialism. And, of course, recent world events have raised new questions about what it is to be a loyal citizen, a patriot, in a time of conflict, and about how we treat enemy prisoners and define war crimes.
Q: One potentially controversial aspect of the book is your portrayal of Rudolf Hess, Hitlers deputy führer, who was also imprisoned in Wales for a time. There are those who argue that any depiction of such figures in fiction tends to humanize them.
A: The German film Downfall, about Hitlers last hours, was criticized for scenes in which Hitler is shown as being kind to his dog, as if this humanizing touch would make him more sympathetic. But to me a Hitler whos kind to his dog is more frightening than the idea of a Hitler or a Stalin or a Saddam for that matter who is only and always vicious. The idea that monsters are monsters every moment of their lives seems simplistic, and more than that, dangerous. The corollary to that logic would suggest that a man whos nice to his dog or a man whod be good company at a barbecue (as we sometimes frame the question in our own political time) is incapable of monstrous acts.
Q: Youve served as director of the MFA program at the University of Michigan, one of the top creative writing programs in the country. What are your thoughts on the writer in academia? Does time in the classroom inspire you, or does academic life stifle you? How do you strike a balance between teaching and writing?
A: Im a believer in the workshop, without claiming that its the only way to learn as a writer. Having come from an academic environment in the UK, where there was almost no teaching of creative writing, I think such programs are a wonderful gift. Growing up in Britain, it simply seemed impossible to me to become a writer. I didnt know any writers, I was of the wrong class, I didnt live in London. Martin Amis was the most famous young writer of the day, and since his father was Kingsley Amis, a famous older writer, I thought writers inherited the family business. In the United States, by contrast, just about every college student has the chance to take a creative writing class. At a fundamental level, that seems to me to represent a kind of democratization of art something wonderfully American.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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