Author Essay for Parthian Books

Which writers, books or ideas have inspired you?

I’m a constant reader and always have been. Without a love of reading, of words and how they’re put together, I don’t see how a person can become a writer. I certainly couldn’t have. I have a wide range of authors who are inspirational, from those I love with a passion, like Stephen King and Jon McGregor, Peter Carey and Angela Carter, to those I admire deeply for their skill and intellect, like Vladimir Nabakov and Anita Brookner. I’m very defensive about Stephen King; he tends to get written off as not literary enough, as too popular, but his prose style is quite beautiful in places and I’ve never read an author with a better ear for dialogue. And his imagination, that elusive, whimsical creature which isn’t prized nearly highly enough in today’s writing world, is, in my opinion, awe-inspiring. He writes his fears out onto the page, purges himself of them, and the resultant behemoth of a book is usually tremendous. Try Lisey’s Story or The Dark Tower series and tell me you don’t love them!

I studied English Literature many moons ago, for my BA degree, and fell in love with the poet Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues. The first story I ever had published, in 1999 or 2000 if memory serves, was based on Porphyria’s Lover, one of Browning’s poems, which is about a man who strangles his lover to preserve her feelings for him and ensure that she will never learn to love him less than she does at that moment. My story was called The End and I inverted the poem’s premise slightly to give Porphyria herself more awareness of her own impending death. I didn’t see her as a victim but as a participant in this attempt to immortalise their love in its current perfection, un-soured and untainted by life’s pettiness. Another story I wrote, Execution, which was based on Browning’s My Last Duchess, was also accepted for publication but the magazine unfortunately folded before it saw print.

I peep at these early stories of mine now from behind my fingers, wincing slightly at how young they were in style and vision, but I can also see in them the seeds of the writer I have matured into – fascinated by the darkness that flickers on the edges of our vision and also that darkness within us, fascinated by the porous relationship a person has with the world (both natural and supernatural) they inhabit. I love animating the inanimate in my writing, giving voice and soul to trees, shoes, hills…. I think I probably over-indulged on the fairy tales when I was young!

I worked in social care for about a decade with many client groups and needs, from care-leavers to drug and alcohol dependants to those with mental health or learning disability issues, and I saw across a whole range of human strengths and frailties (co-workers included). I’ve always been interested in our psychological responses to situations, particularly unusual situations, and a lot of what I write is inspired by my wish to explore these situations further. The Crying Girl, for example, a short story that was published in The Lampeter Review last year, was written as a response to the way, in those social care jobs, I witnessed medication being thrown at every experienced sadness and discontent, to make it go away. But what’s wrong with simply feeling sad, or lonely, or shy (which has also become a social disorder which can be medicated for)? And so I imagined a girl who wasn’t depressed or mentally unstable or grieving, but who just woke up one morning and started crying and couldn’t stop. Ever. She’s probably still crying now, for all of us who’ve forgotten how to shed tears because we’ve reached for the particular tablet that will take that inconvenience away too.

Finally, as to inspiration, writers and books, song lyrics (My Beloved Monster…) and life experiences aside, I tend to write as a sudden and urgent response to an image that springs into my head. I was outside in the garden watching the full moon a few months ago and there appeared in front of me a small boy, crouched low on the ground. He had the moon in his arms and he was taking huge and hungry bites from it… Obviously I didn’t actually see that, but my mind and my imagination did, and so I wrote a story about a little boy who ate the moon. What else are you going to do? But where did that inspiration come from? I have no idea, and I’m not too sure I want to know either. It’s enough, for me, that I have an imagination as vivid and fertile as it was when I was a child, and I’m also blessed with all those writers, those books, and the love of language, to give me a framework to write my stories in.

What is the first thing you ever wrote?

I went to the shops to meet my mum

But I could see no one.

I went to the wood where my mum often stood

But I could see no one.

I went to the park where a crow sat on a branch

And it called out ‘Caw Caw’.

I went home sadly wondering,

Then I saw her at the door.

I was seven years old so be kind. And, no, I’ve not written poetry since.

Actually, at a distance of thirty years, I’ve got to wonder what would drive a small child to write a poem like that. Why did I think my mum was at the shops? Why did she often stand in woods? How stupid must I have been to not just go home in the first place, since that was the obvious place to look? And why do I still remember every embarrassing word of every cringe-making line?

Close analysis would highlight themes of emptiness, loss and abandonment. A small, motherless child wandering through a world devoid of humanity, where the only meaningful contact is with a harbinger of death. Then that final, redemptive glimpse of the mother-figure at the door. Will the child be allowed entry? Is the door an actual door or a portal between worlds? Is the mother actually real, or the projection of a lonely child’s yearnings?

Thank god I’m not into analysing my work.

But I do have my therapist on speed dial.

Could you describe your writing room?

For the last two years, with a change of home, I have had the luxury of a whole room to myself to write in. Before, I would sit at the table in the kitchen, books and papers spread everywhere, and gather everything up every evening when it came time to eat.

The first thing I bought for my writing room was a desk. A proper desk. I thought I’d want a real antique with spindly legs and delicate flourishes to the woodwork but I saw a 1950s solicitor’s desk in an antique store and fell in love. It’s kidney shaped, sturdy, with a ruddy leather top and drawers where I can lock away all my secrets. I found an almost matching chair from another antique store, with a plaque screwed to the back of it – Presented to Saron Chapel Penyrheol, on its anniversary, May 1936 – and that’s where I sit. It’s piled with cushions to pad its uncomfortable solidity, and after a couple of hours I start to get cramp in my neck because either the chair is too high or the desk too low for the pair to marry well. The pain keeps me awake through the afternoon hours.

The desk is covered with those essentials that I need within easy reach: my laptop, teetering piles of books, papers with scribbles and doodles and half-finished stories, photographs both framed and unframed of animals I’ve loved, pens that don’t give up their ink, an ashtray buried under cigarette ash, a little calendar from Italy that I can make no sense of… I have my back to the window but spend more time than I should swivelled around in my uncomfortable chair, thumping at the pane to scare the magpies off the bird feeder or watch the hedge sparrows trapeze wire their way from seed to fence and back. If I have to get up in a hurry (the postman only ever rings once) then I bash my hip on the corner of the desk as I slide out sideways from behind it, and then crack my shins on its legs. I sometimes stumble into the radiator and then ricochet across to the door, to bash the other hip against the frame. It’s a small writing room, you see, and I’m proud to say that I’ve managed to cram into it a bookcase, an old leather wingback armchair, a folding screen, two smallish cupboards, and, of course, my desk.

The leather armchair should really go. I’ve never sat in it because once you’re up close you can smell the garden shed it sat in for decades. It’s olive green and draped with a purple feather boa that I’ve never had the courage or the occasion to wear outside the house. It was bought for the hours of musing I planned to do in my little writing room, but once I realised no amount of scrubbing and spraying would do more than take the edge off the stench I decided musing was for wimps. A cat I had until recently, and still miss desperately, then claimed it as his own and would settle onto it and glare at me daily, from lunchtime through ’til teatime. The beloved, bad tempered beast died this year but his ghost still crouches against the smelly leather, facing down the hours until his next meal, and while his fur’s still wedged down the cracks of the armrests I can’t possibly get rid of it.

The bookcase is half-hidden behind the piles of books that I’ve dumped on the floor in front of it with the someday intention of weeding through them and taking a load to the charity shop. The piles of books are half-hidden by more recent piles of books that I’ve dumped on the floor with the someday intention… On top of the bookcase stand more photographs of more animals that I’ve loved, and three figurines of moon gazing hares. Draped across the door and the folding screen are a blue velvet cape, a purple velvet hat circa 1960, a pair of gauze fairy wings (Human-made. Actual fairy wings would just be cruel), an assortment of strange and bug-eyed stuffed creatures which I can’t grace by giving them the term teddies, various spangly and sparkly things, and a lot of dust.

When I drag poor unfortunates in off the street and march them around my house for a tour of admiration there’s always a short, stunned silence when they walk into my writing room. There’s not enough space for more than one person to stand in there – what with all the stuff – so I hover on the landing and watch as their head swings from side to side, trying to take it all in. They usually back out with their eyeballs revolving slowly in the sockets. Stuff overload. So I take them by the hand and lead them downstairs and make them a cup of coffee before setting them free.

That’s my writing room.

Tell us something that not many people know about you.

Okay, I will, but this is strictly between us. I suffer from prosopagnosia (the inability to recognise faces). Well, it’s not been formally diagnosed and there are some people who would argue that what I actually suffer from is an inability to pay sufficient attention, but I’ve done my research and I’m telling you I’ve got it.

Let me give you some examples and then you can pass your own judgement. A couple of years ago I went to Aberystwyth train station to pick up my beloved dad who lives in Thailand and whom I hadn’t seen for about 18 months. I skipped past a couple of men sat on suitcases in the car park and began a charge up the steps and then someone called out to me. I turned and smiled politely at the bewildered face raised to mine, wondering what the old codger could possibly want, and then the face crumpled into shock and I realised that the old codger was my own dear dad. He was appalled that I didn’t recognise him. I was appalled that I didn’t recognise him. I blustered some excuse and changed the subject pronto. I think he forgot quite quickly so apologies, dad, for the reminder. And maybe you should hold a placard up with your name on it the next time you come to visit me? Or don’t leave it so bloody long between trips.

Last year a friend and I decided to set up a book group in our village. We put out posters and argued book lists and on the night of its maiden meeting we sat in the local pub and waited for the hordes of fellow book lovers to arrive. In due time they did. Both of them. A lovely couple with vaguely familiar faces and lots of enthusiasm for reading came to sit with us. My kind of people, I thought. I’d like to get to know them better. At one point in the evening I asked them whether they lived locally and the look on their faces told me immediately that the curse of prosopagnosia had struck again. Yes, they lived locally. In fact they lived two doors down from me and had done for over a year. And not only did I stop and chat to them whenever I passed their house but I had stopped and had an extra long chat with them that very morning. I was mortified, as you can imagine. They were just confused and a little offended. They thought I was weird.

I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve greeted me on the street or at a party with a huge grin of welcome and the belief that I’ll know just who they are. And why wouldn’t they, for the last time we met we’d had a hugely enjoyable conversation and parted as bosom buddies? Sometimes I’ll think to ask a leading question, or a sympathetic friend will hiss a name into my ear, but as often as not I’ll just panic and flounder until the conversation grinds to a halt and they shuffle off thinking I’m quite possibly the unfriendliest person they’ve ever met.

I’m currently developing a theory about prosopagnosia and the writer’s mind. Something about the all-encompassing nature of the writer’s internal focus, something highbrow and pompous that’ll put me and my condition beyond reproach. It’s still at the woolly stage and I can’t find anyone to back my theory up yet, but I’ll get something written about it before too long, even if I have to fabricate evidence.

Until then, if I walk straight past you the next time I see you, please don’t think I’m ignoring you on purpose, because I don’t mean to be rude. Honest.