Mari Strachan answers questions about her first book, The Earth Hums in B Flat
We find it inspirational that you are being published for the first time in
your sixties. Has this novel been a long time coming?
No. I've always written, on and off, scraps, short stories, even poems (terrible ones, I'm no poet!) but never thought anything was worth publishing. The urge to write is hard to ignore. I decided to focus on it, a now or never thing, and in 2002 applied for a place on a part-time, on-line creative writing Masters course with Manchester Metropolitan University. The course was excellent; the way it studied other novels and made me focus on my own writing showed me that I had been ignoring my own voice and style and trying to imitate other writers whose books I admired. That was a revelation to me. The Earth Hums in B Flat was written as the 'dissertation' element of the course. It began with an image that had been in my mind for some time (so maybe I should qualify that adamant 'no' at the beginning) of a skinny child, with wild red hair, balancing on the seat of a chair with her arms outstretched. Altogether, it took three years to write (there was a year when I did no writing when my energies were taken up by family matters). I graduated in 2007 with distinction, and some very positive feedback from the people marking the novel. That gave me the confidence to start looking for a literary agent, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history!
The subject matter of The Earth Hums in B Flat is actually very dark but the lovely quirky character of Gwenni brings necessary lightness to it. Is Gwenni someone you're familiar with?
No, again! Gwenni is not based on a real person; she grew out of that image I mentioned previously. Sometimes I think that maybe she's the child I wish I had been. I grew up in the 1950s when children were barely seen and never heard, and was taught that it was impolite to contradict or argue with anyone. Gwenni is not afraid to ask questions even when she knows it'll cause trouble for her, and she's not afraid to do what she believes is the right thing, which was not easy for a child in those times. I'm full of admiration for her pluckiness!
"At the length truth will out". Do you think Gwenni and Bethan suffered for not knowing for so long? If these events happened today the children would probably be told.
Everything that happens to us makes us what we are, so Gwenni and Bethan are bound to be affected, for good or bad. The characteristics they've both inherited from their families also conspire to make their reactions to the shocking things they learn quite different. These reactions give a clue, I think, to how they will be affected by what they've learnt as they grow up and as adults.
In the book, Gwenni is an imaginative child who senses that something is not quite right in her home life, and deals with it by projecting her unease onto inanimate objects, like the Toby jugs, or onto the landscape in which she lives where there are watchers in the sea and wraiths rising from damp ground. She also tries to distance herself, to escape, with her flying dreams and her desire to fly. Or has she inherited her mother's bipolar disorder, and this is partly what causes these responses? However it may be, we feel Gwenni's emotions so strongly we just know that, of the two girls, she is the one who will be most affected, but we also know that she is the one who will deal constructively with whatever happens to her and look on the positive side.
Bethan is concerned with what affects her directly. She's not worried about her grandmother's suicide; she's quite certain that she has not inherited her grandmother and mother's 'madness', although she has, I think, inherited her mother's self regard. Bethan will continue to use her fiction of a famous American father to her own advantage, I feel sure. She will stay with Siân and her family perfectly happily because she won't fit in with her father and Gwenni any more than she ever has done, she was her mother's girl in more than one way. When things don't go the way she wants them to in her life her response will be 'it's not fair' for Bethan everything is about herself.
Both girls will have been strongly affected by finding out the various secrets, but I think Bethan is the only one who will feel that she has 'suffered.'
We were intrigued to read that you actually wrote the book on your houseboat in London rather than your Welsh home. Was that distance essential to formulate the story?
In fact, I spent part of my time on our narrowboat, and the rest here in my Ceredigion home. Ceredigion is not the part of Wales in which the book is set, so in that sense I'm as removed here as in London. Place is very important to me when I write, almost another character. A place shapes the lives of the people who live in it as surely as their family and friends do. And yes, I do need the distance in order to be able to write about a place, because as a writer of fiction I need to fictionalise it to some extent, and I would find that difficult to do if I was looking at it through the window as I wrote.
Are you writing anything at present?
I am panicking slightly because I'm further behind than I should be with my second novel. It's set in the 1920s and I have done quite a bit of research, a lot of mulling over, made some notes but have not written much of it yet. It's entirely my own fault. I let time slip away, and now I'm involved with the imminent publication of The Earth Hums which is eating away at writing time!
Who do you like to read?
Anyone who writes a good story well! I find I read differently now to the way I read before studying for my MA: I notice the craft behind the writing in a way I never did previously. In a funny way this both adds to and takes away from the reading experience.
I like to have several books on the go; at the moment I'm reading the graphic novel Watchmen, Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, Ifor ap Glyn's Lleisiau'r Rhyfel Mawr (Voices of the Great War), and I've just finished Fred Vargas's first Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg novel (in translation) and am about to begin Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indriđason (I do like a troubled detective!), and I dip now and then into the poetry of Gillian Clarke, Carol Ann Duffy, Menna Elfyn and Gwyneth Lewis for a quick fix.
Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Canongate Books.
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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