You’ve just finished your novel as part of your PhD programme. How does it feel to finish and could you tell us a little about it?
It’s quite scary to finish a novel, because as soon as you do, and you confirm the fact that there’s nothing more you can do with it yourself, it doesn’t belong to you any more. And then you see loads of things you should have done differently and you can’t help but think, ‘for Christ’s sake who the hell wrote this crap’ and then you remember it was you and you can’t wait for it to be selected for publication cos then you get to go through the editorial process again.
Before you declare this to be my Ratner Moment, I defy anyone to say they felt differently upon completion of their first novel (except, perhaps, for one particular ‘bestselling’ author who got banned from the Kidwelly Spar last year).
The novel itself is about a bodybuilding, drug-dealing bully who falls in lust with the new girl behind the bar at his local. But before he can have her he must get rid of her clingy boyfriend. And the catastrophic consequences lead both men to find out what losing everything really means.
You won the 2013 Terry Hetherington Award and were a runner up for The Rhys Davies Short Story Prize in 2009. What would you like to achieve next?
Next for me is to write another novel. I have a provisional title, a plan up on the wall, a depressingly unorganised Shard of notes, and enough experience from writing a novel for the PhD to (hopefully) make a success of this one. It’s provisionally about a trustafarian who must break all his hippy beliefs to win back his girlfriend from the gangster who put him in prison. I can’t say much else as this is likely to change during the writing process. Some elements are still too similar to the novel I’ve just written. And the only person alive who can get away with writing the same thing over and over again and making it bloody great every single time is Woody Allen. Also, no-one should ever discuss what they’re writing at the moment because it never makes sense to anyone but the person writing it (or that’s my finding, anyway).
You’re a regular contributor to New Welsh Review and Wales Arts Review. How do find the time to write so consistently alongside a PhD?
I’d say that if anything, I don’t write enough outside of the PhD. It’s something I’m hoping to rectify. I remember speaking to Jon Gower once and at the time he was writing two books simultaneously, one in English and one in Welsh. This man has a family too. And you know that the quality of what he writes is always going to be awesome. Until I can type separate novels in two different languages on two different computers at the same time while putting Frozen on Netflix for the kids and ensuring that the fish and chips in the oven haven’t burnt as Jon’s undoubtedly done before, then I’ve failed at life. Another award-winning novelist told me how she use to wake up at 4.30am every morning so she’d have time before the kids woke up to write her debut novel. Having thought about it for seven seconds, I don’t think I’ve ever seen 4.30am with even a single degree of sobriety. I’m really not trying hard enough.
You’re pushing boundaries in terms of comic verse with poems such as ‘Oedipus Rex’ and ‘Not OK Cupid’. Do you find yourself merging your more serious work with satire?
I think it’s imperative that you have something to say about the world. I don’t want to be one of those people who has a platform and doesn’t use it. What’s the point of writing if you have nothing to say about the world or what it is to be alive? This is an easy generalisation to make but I guarantee that you’ll never have to look far for an example. I try to address issues on which I am passionate and have acquired some knowledge. It’s easier with long form comic verse because the moralistic tradition has already been established (see Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children and Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes). ‘Oedipus Rex’ is about the corruption of power. ‘Not OK Cupid’ is about the perils of alcohol addiction.
You were published alongside your PhD supervisor Richard Gwyn in A Fictional Map of Wales. How did it feel to share the stage?
It felt great to be recognised alongside so many other writers who I respect and admire (many of whom, like most of the general audience of that book, would have been seeing my name for the first time).
Which contemporary authors do you enjoy?
Niall Griffiths has released seven novels and I wish I’d written all of them.
I also think, like much of the sane world, that Zadie Smith is a brilliant author. I love her 10 ‘Rules for Writing Fiction’. Here’s one of them, randomly selected: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”
Any particular works that you are inspired by, or aspire to?
I’m inspired by Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, which is about immigrant life in London during the 50s. Maybe it’s a bit of a personal one in some ways, because my godparents are from Trinidad (as was Selvon), but the voice and the truth he gets to through it are flawless. When reading it, I also often think also of the experiences my grandparents would have had when first coming to this country (although the multicultural community formerly known as Tiger Bay in Cardiff’s docklands, being probably the oldest in the UK, would have led to more of a welcome for them, I would imagine). The one section on the summer in London, which is written in a stream of consciousness type of way in the Trinidad vernacular (and with no grammar), is perfect. I’d urge anyone with an interest in voice to read this to see and feel what Selvon has achieved.
I aspire to write about place as Ron Berry did. Read the opening page or two of So Long, Hector Bebb and tell me you don’t feel like you’re in a boxing gym up the Valleys somewhere, surrounded by characters who’d be just as brusque, unchanging and sure of themselves even if they were in front of the Queen. It’s their world you’re entering, and you have to abide by their rules.
Thanks for your time, Joao!