This week, we were lucky enough to speak with the 2015 winner of the Wales Book of the Year, Cynan Jones. Cynan is the author of four short novels, The Long Dry (Parthian, 2006), Everything I Found on the Beach (Parthian, 2011), Bird, Blood, Snow (Seren, 2012), and most recently The Dig (Granta, 2014).
Granta Books have recently republished his first two novels, and Cove, his next, will be published in Autumn 2016.
Did you write stories from a young age?
I didn’t think so. I remember I used to draw, all the time. But a while ago I found some drawings Mum had kept since I was little – 4, 5 years old. On the back of many of them were the stories of what was happening in the picture. I don’t remember writing them, but clearly the drive to tell a story was there very early. (Even if the spelling wasn’t).
Later, when I did ‘write a story’, I did it utterly. I sat down and filled up a whole exercise book with an epic tale, writing from sun up till bedtime. My best works were ‘Cest Aracus and the Men with the Evil Eyes’ (circa 9 years old), and prior to that ‘The Secret Crystals’ (circa 8 years old) – a sprawling tale of three owls saving the world from evil…
Have you always aspired to be a writer, or was it something that came later in life?
It came later. It wasn’t so much that I ‘became a writer’; more that everything else fell away to leave it the only thing I really wanted to do very much. Once I had the suspicion I wanted to take writing seriously, I gave myself two years to write a novel. If nothing came of it, I would grow up and do something more sensible. I was 22 when I made that decision but also recognised I had no real idea how to write. So I decided to set myself up as a freelance copywriter for a few years to learn (the hard way), and to give myself from 28 to 30 to write a book. The Long Dry was written, in ten bizarre days, at the very end of those two years after five years of experience copywriting.
However much natural talent you have, you have to work a great deal to master the craft. The more natural talent, perhaps, the more work needs to go in to being able to convert the potential of that talent.
You are described as ‘a writer of short novels’ on your website. How does your approach change depending on whether you’re working on short fiction or a novel? Do the forms pose different challenges, and which do you prefer to write?
The story is god. The story itself will demand what approach is taken to tell it, and if you try to ignore that it will throw a tantrum. So! In the case of a short novel – my preferred form – implication is key. There’s no time to go off on tangents, or spend chapters filling in backstory – everything has to be delivered economically, placing great trust in the reader to make connections, fill in blanks, and understand emotional repercussion instinctively. Those restrictions make a real demand on the writing that I think helps deliver a tension and engagement into the story.
At the point of ‘writing down’, I generally work quickly and intensely to start with. The basic body of a novel goes down in around three weeks, but it can be months of tinkering – mainly with structure and balance – before a piece starts to feel right.
Do you have another job besides writing?
Who are the writers that are most influential to your style?
Everything you read influences you, even the back of a cereal packet. There’s also the writers who influence you by writing a way you really don’t like. The important thing is to read everything. Read constantly!
Can you name any writers that people wouldn’t expect to be influential to you?
What are you reading at the moment?
Catch 22 and Conrad’s The Secret Agent alongside various novels and short story collections I’ve been sent by publishers with a view to endorsing them. Of those, keep an eye out for upcoming short story collections by Daisy Johnson (Fen) and Callan Wink (Dog Run Moon).
Name one book that everyone has read, but you haven’t. A book you’ve always been meaning to read, but never got round to it.
Great question – I’m reading Catch 22 for this very reason! Actually, the ‘been meaning to read’ thing is something I determined to address a few years ago. Particularly with big books. I now read a “big” book I should have read before every Christmas. The last few years: The Count of Monte Cristo; Moby Dick; East of Eden. Next year Joyce’s Ulysses!
What’s the hardest thing about writing?
Recognising it’s very difficult to write well.
What’s the easiest thing about writing?
Recognising it’s very difficult to write well.
Hanif Kureishi claimed that 99.9% of his Creative Writing students are ‘untalented’ and said that writing a story is “a difficult thing to do and it’s a great skill to have. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can.”
If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why?
When I was little and I used to run around the garden playing football, I never pretended to be Ryan Giggs scoring a goal. I was me scoring a goal. Because I loved goals. I write because I love to read. I feel quite lucky that I still want to write because I love the act of writing itself. I’ve never been primarily driven by ‘being published’ or ‘being an author’; likewise, I’ve never read a book and thought: ‘I wish I’d done that’. What does happen is I read a book (having now written a few myself) and think: ‘How the hell did they write that!?’ – Richard Brautigan’s So the Wind Won’t Blow it All Away and Colin McAdam’s A Beautiful Truth for example.
We are a creative writing advice platform, so it would be criminal not to ask you for some sage advice on writing. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
The rule I set myself when I started writing seriously: write as well as you can; everything else is a side effect.
Name your top 3 all-time favourite works of fiction.
Many thanks to Cynan for taking the time to speak with us. We wish him all the best for the publication of Cove and very much recommend you pick up a copy!