REBECCA ROBERTS | INTERVIEW
This author from Prestatyn is nothing if not versatile, having written for adult and young adult markets in both Welsh and English. Her third and latest book, Welsh-language YA novel #Helynt, recently picked up a Tir na n-Og award. Billie Ingram Sofokleous spoke to Rebecca about her work.
#Helynt has recently been recognised by the Books Council Of Wales, whose annual Tir na n-Og awards celebrate homegrown children’s literature. If this novel – or your previous two, Mudferwi and Eat.Sleep.Rage.Repeat – were adapted for screen, who might play the cast?
I ‘hear’ my characters rather than visualise them, and try not to compare them to other people, so as not to conflate the image of the character in my head with the real person. However, sometimes I do see an actor, or someone will walk past me in the street, and I’ll think, “that’s exactly what so-and-so looks like!”
If I were to cast any of my novels for TV, I’d like the female leads to go to unknown actresses. I was fortunate that some people saw raw talent and invested time in helping me to develop as a writer; giving an unknown actress a chance to play [Mudferwi’s] Alys, [Eat.Sleep.Rage.Repeat’s] Caitlin or [#Helynt’s] Rachel could potentially open doors for someone trying to break into the industry.
Of the other roles in #Helynt, I would love a part for Cath Aran, who is a tremendous Welsh actress. I can see Luke Evans playing Shane, and Huw Garmon would be perfect as Tony. Stephen Graham is possibly my favourite actor ever – he could play John in Mudferwi, Dad in Eat.Sleep.Rage.Repeat or Jason in #Helynt. He’s played some evil characters, but he always manages to find the humanity in them.
Which character did you most enjoy creating?
I write in the first person, so I spend a lot of time listening to my protagonists as they narrate their stories. They are a product of my imagination, but by the end of the writing process they do seem to have lives and identities of their own. By the time I start the editing process, it’s as though I’m writing about a real person.
My protagonists Alys, Caitlin and Rachel are all very special to me, but Caitlin and Rachel were both very liberating to write – they’re defiant, brave and have confidence by the bucketload. I worry too much about consequences, and they just dive in and start throwing punches. I also have a soft spot for John in Mudferwi: he’s fun to write dialogue for because he’s prone to verbose outbursts of temper. He’s one of the main characters in the sequel (out this October), and I enjoyed getting to know him better.
I also love the Calvi family from #Helynt, especially Shane. There’s a dark side we don’t see much of in #Helynt, but I know it’s there.
Who are your biggest influences as a writer?
George Orwell and Sue Townsend were huge stylistic and thematic influences when I was younger. A journalist recently compared my style to Townsend’s, which was a massive compliment.
Back in 2012, I was involved in a theatre project based on Fresh Apples by Rachel Trezise – there was something about her prose that was both shocking and brilliant. I’d been in the writing doldrums for several years and lost confidence in myself and my authorial voice; the drama project made me excited about writing in a way I’d not been for years. By the time the workshop was over I had Caitlin seared into my brain, begging me to tell her story, and the sketch I wrote was fleshed out into Eat.Sleep.Rage.Repeat.
What have you learned in the creation of your three books to date?
To write in my own voice. I found my time at university stymieing because there was a strong emphasis on literary fiction, and I’m not really an academic. I finally found success when I gave myself permission to write in a style that felt natural to me, to use my own dialect. Choosing to write in Welsh was a key part of that.
I also realised that I need to plan and plot my fiction. When I could just type and see what came out of my head, it made writing an adventure into the unknown – but my work is much stronger if I have a roadmap to follow.
What book made you realise your love of reading and writing?
It’s impossible to pick just one. From very, very young I took books with me everywhere, like a sort of comfort blanket. I still do! I completed my first proper novel when I was about 14, heavily inspired by the Mabinogi and the books of Jenny Sullivan. I even wrote a sequel, but it was all lost when our PC was stolen, in the days before cloud storage.
Then, when we moved house in 2019, my husband presented me with a folder – a partially-printed copy of my novel, including the handwritten legends I’d created as part of the origin story. I’d given it to him to read and he’d kept it for nearly 20 years. It’s the only copy.
Mudferwi was launched at the 2019 Eisteddfod, in Llanwrst – and there is a sequel planned. How exciting!
Yes – only a handful of people showed up, but it was such a weird, thrilling sensation to walk past book stalls and see copies for sale. The sequel, Chwerwfelys, is due out this October. I initially struggled with writing a sequel because I felt as though I’d painted myself into the ‘happily ever after’ corner, but one day I was struck by a proverbial lightning bolt and thought, “that’s it, that’s what happens next.”
It’s a lot more densely plotted than Mudferwi, and there’s subplots, twists and revelations galore. It’s a book about love, but I wouldn’t call it a romance. Chwerwfelys means bittersweet in Welsh, which is indicative of what the reader can expect. I’ve just finished writing it, and although I enjoyed the process, I’m just as nervous about Chwerwfelys as I was about my debut novel, because they are two very different creatures.
And finally, can we get a sneak peek of what you’re working on right now?
Here’s a snippet, in English, from my next YA novel, Curiad Gwag. I’m actually writing it in Welsh and practising my literary translation by writing excerpts into English. I’m a qualified translator, but even so, translating my own work is proving surprisingly challenging.
If my family want to find me, there are breadcrumbs enough – a letter on my file saying I’d welcome contact through Social Services, for instance – but I’ve scrubbed much of my old life off the internet. MySpace and Bebo are both gone. I’m ex-directory. I occasionally give strangers a false name. It still freaks me out when people recognise me in public. Because of this, I am the mistress of reinvention, the rolling stone. For years, I’ve trodden the fine line between invisibility and traceability. I want to be left alone; however, I don’t want to go missing and have nobody notice until my corpse is found in a wheelie bin.
And a snippet of my next Welsh novel for adults, Y Defodau, which will hopefully be published early spring 2022. It’s very different to anything I’ve written before, and the most experimental thing I’ve done to date.
Adriana, Dafydd, dyma ni unwaith eto
Heddiw, ddown ynghyd i
Josiah, bachgen bach mor annwyl, mor arbennig
Y tro olaf deuthum at ein gilydd fel hyn oedd i ddathlu
Yn riant fy hun, mae’n
Boed tangnefedd y dyfnder mawr i chi
Boed tangnefedd yr awel fwyn i chi
Boed tangnefedd y ddaear hen i chi
Boed tangnefedd y sêr uwchben i chi.
Diolch i chi oll am ddod heddiw.
Yma, ymhlith y coed a’r blodau
Yma, yn y goedwig, un o hoff lefydd Josiah
Yn niogel ym mreichiau ei fam a’i dad
Does dim geiriau i geisio cyfleu’r
Does dim geiriau
Dim ond tawelwch.
Dim crïo ganol nos.
Oes ganddo hoff dedi bêr, mam?
Beth am y flanced hon?
Gwiail neu helygen?
Wyt ti’n barod?
Sut alla i fod yn barod?
Sut alla i ddeud
Does dim geiriau
Wyt ti’n barod?
#Helynt is out now, published by Gwasg Carreg Gwalch. Eat.Sleep.Rage.Repeat is to be republished by Y Lolfa later in 2021. Info: rebeccarobertswriter.weebly.com
words BILLIE INGRAM SOFOKLEOUS