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Q & A with Welsh author Niall Griffiths

The novelist reveals thoughts on health care, the graphic detail of his works, and how his writing process works

Author Niall Griffiths has written 6 novels, and has become increasingly popular for his portrayal of UK street life, and unapologetic stories detailing the consequences of violence, drug use

discusses health care in the UK, the prevalence of drug use and a modicum of violence in his works that depicts life on the streets, his writing influences and habits, and his upcoming visit to Portland for the
He’s written six novels, radio plays, and numerous travel articles, and lives in Aberystwyth, Wales.

MC: As a writer, do you spend a lot of time observing people for inspiration, and how do you translate your observations onto the page?
NG: I find people endlessly fascinating anyway — we’re such a determinedly strange species. So I don’t go out to “observe,” rather

 

 

 

 

 

courtesy of Avner Vengosh
Welsh author Niall Griffiths is speaking at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland on August 22.

than interact, which is, of course, what I’d do if I wasn’t a writer, being a pretty sociable kind of bloke. As for transferring that onto the page, well, all you need to do is listen to what other people are saying and always remember that each person you meet is immeasurably more complex than you could ever hope to understand. They are never, ever, mere cyphers oir symbols, however much the writer in you wants to make them so.

MC: I’ve seen you mention feeling “Catholic guilt” if you don’t write; how has your upbringing (religious or otherwise) influenced the topics you write about?
NG: A satisfying answer to this question would run to volumes; indeed, answering it is, really, one of the things I’m trying to do with everything I write. But there are a few things I can point to with open acknowledgement of their origins in my upbringing: an irreverence; a political engagement and anger; a sense of connectedness and social responsibility. Also a notion of the ineffable mysteries of other people’s lives. And a love for story-telling. And the heroic, epic qualities of individual human existence; the journeys people undertake in order to better themselves, hopefully, and the importance of personality and, despite the significance of feeling open to movement and exploration, the cruciality of rootedness, of being grounded. But look — I’m rambling, now. I warned you I would. I’m the issue of immigrants, in many ways; that necessarily informs my writing.

MC: There are 3 very distinct writing techniques in Stump: a forlorn yet dark reminiscing on past, almost absurd dialogue, and lyrical passages of scenery; how did you go about organizing/preparing the styles, and was this written all in one place?
NG: It was written in the one place, yes, which is mid-Wales, where I live. Stump began as a short story, but I soon discovered that I wanted to do more with Darren and Alastair, and with the one-armed man, too; as a short story, it felt attenuated, kind of, aptly I suppose, amputated. As to how it came about, well, I tend not to dwell too much on form and structure, even tho they can be quite complex in my work; the structure just suggests itself, often unexpectedly, and by surprise. I never think too much about how the story will be told; the how, it seems, looks after itself, and I focus more on the why. But the mixture of registers is, of course, very deliberate; I like the clash and discordancies, plus I like to suggest that the way people such as Darren and Alastair speak, for example, isn’t too different to the kind of highly charged poetic prose the narrator uses; they too employ mretaphor and rhythm and striking imagery and everything else. I like to think that I don’t value one register over any other, but personally I prefer to use the lyrical voice because it excites me more. I can get all mad preacher-ish in a dark and rain-lashed mountain chapel. Writing that way gives me a rush of blood which is very precious.

MC: I understand that there’s a strong oral tradition of your family, passed down by your Welsh-speaking grandparents, and wanted to know how much this has affected the dialogue of characters? I also wanted to ask specifically about your restricting Runt’s character to just 500 words, and how logistically you managed to do that?!
NG: Yes, I was brought up in a non-reading household - there were very few books - but it was full of stories; of the old countries (grandparents on my father’s side were Irish, Welsh on my mother’s), of the war, of ghosts, of witches, everything else. Sitting all wide-eyed and shock-headed around the old people next to a gas fire in a terraced house. This must influence my writing; the legitimacy of the individual voice, and it’s ability to enrapture. I hope that my work grows directly out of this, despite the subject matter. As for “Runt,” well, I don’t know whether his lexicon has exactly 500 words, but it’s probably around that mark. I didn’t count or keep a list or anything, but I could tell when a word rang false. The circumstances of it’s writing were fortuitous, really; I wrote it whilst living in Sweden, in a very flat part of the country, which meant that I wasn’t bombarded by descriptions of mountains whenever I left the house, as I am in Wales, being surrounded by them. So it really wasn’t that difficult to keep the vocabulary simple and curtailed. One of those serendipitous moments that happen to writers.

MC: “Sheepshagger” and “Kelly + Victor” have deservedly been described as “shock lit,” in a style very distinct from, yet compared to a local writer here, Chuck Palahniuk. Who was your audience for these books, and what did you hope readers would feel or think while reading these works?
NG: Why “deservedly?” I think that work that sets out primarily to shock must be very poor work, and easily done.
One of the spurs for the graphic scenes in “Sheepshagger” was a reaction to the treatment of violence in popular culture, which shows it as without consequence, and with much of the blood and squalor washed away. That, to me, is more shocking than, say, Tim Roth bleeding to death in Reservoir Dogs. Plus, I think it’s incumbent on nonviolent people to make a study of violence, because we don’t get polluted by it.
It might rob us of some of our stability, but a life lived well does demand sacrifice of some sort. And Sheepshagger is about, amongst other things, rage, and Kelly + Victor is about, amongst other things, a quest for meaning of such intensity that it becomes soul-ripping; how could I look at those questions without certain scenes? The shock is, really, in the recognition that some people’s lives are so desperate and despairing and filled with howling that they are prepared to annihilate themselves and others to make them less so. I can’t speak for America, but Britain is becoming a terribly bland, homogenised place; the populace is being systematically groomed into unquestioning compliance, over-legislation is treating people like naughty children so they’re acting like naughty children, the countryside is dying as a place of work and being slowly given over to the leisure industry. Being a good citizen, now, means being a snoop, and a stooge, and a pursed-lipped net-curtain-twitching disapproving begrudger with a heart full of hate and envy. There are two main reactions to this; robotic obeisance, or fury, a fury which is directed at each other, and one’s self, which makes it despairing, and pointless. And don’t forget — much of Sheepshagger is made up of praise, propitiarory almost, of the natural world; Ianto’s profound connection to that is partly what drives the events. So I don’t think my work is shocking; I think it’s inevitable. Who was my audience for these books? Absolutely anyone who wanted to read them. And what did I hope readers would feel? Well, alive, and sad, and angry, and entertained.

MC: Many of the darker elements in Stump, Wreckage and Grits correspondently involve drug use — what has been your history with narcotics, either witnessed or observed?
NG: I’ve been around drugs of all descriptions since I was a teenager; late punk brought speed, the outdoor rave scene brought ecstasy, and cocaine, and heroin to come down. Plus booze has been a constant. Drugs aren’t, and should never be seen as, an automatic index of despair; they can be tremendous fun, and more to do with a celebration of life than it’s negation. The problems, when they arise, aren’t produced by the drugs but by the deep dissatisfaction that escalates their use. For myself, I’m a 42-year-old diabetic, and am not planning on pegging out any time soon, so I largely stick to alcohol and nicotine these days. Which are the two biggest killers, but oh well.

MC: I saw a piece you did for the Welsh wanders series for The Guardian, that included a talk about rebel leader Owain Glyndwr’s first Welsh parliament, Machynlleth ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/audioslideshow/2009/mar/25/wales-cultural-trips-niall-griffiths ). Does your interest in history and/or politics affect the writing or reasoning in any of your works?
NG: Well, for the politics issue, see above. And below. On history, Wales is a country in which history is a beating and breathing presence, a continuum, and not something found only in classrooms. It’s next to you, at your shoulder; the landscape has been shaped by our ancestors - some of the green humps behind my house aren’t hills, they’re burial mounds, tumuli, earthworks for fortification. They weren’t there until we appeared. Standing stones, castles, etc. In young countries like Australia, I feel a sense of shallowness, as if I’m somehow being cored out; the feeling of relief when I return to Wales is immense. It’s this notion, I think, that helps me to cast individual lives in an epic light, or at least, it helps me try to do that. And regarding Glyndwr, he’s one of the figures that makes Wales maverick and Other and an offence to the middle-England mindset; only a couple of hours from central London is a place of misted mountains and freezing lakes where, for God’s sake, they don’t even speak English. Mr and Mrs Smith from Tunbridge Wells can’t stand that thought. Which makes me cheer.

MC: This is a bit of a leap from Stump, but, what your thoughts are on health care and services for the poor/sub-class people in modern British cities and the surrounding countryside?
NG: Aw Christ, don’t get me started. My girlfriend works for Cantref, a Welsh home safety organisation, that helps vulnerable people get grants for home improvements; smoke alarms, stairlifts, etc. This is a noble organisation that employs some lovely people (my girlfriend, of course, being one of them). The problem is the system of detailed delegation that the government has divided it’s institutions into; not only does this mean that the task of finding someone who deals with certain items is made onerous, but that blame can never be apportioned should things go wrong. “The fire escape is faulty? Not my department.”
This produces a lack of accountability which can be seen throughout Britain; the parliamentary expenses scandal? The murders and beatings of peaceful protestors by our wonderful police? Same thing. The MP’s insisted that they acted within the rules. although they wrote the rules; the police tried to make out that the officer who killed Ian Tomlinson was a member of the public impersonating a police officer. For Christ’s sakes.
Meanwhile, people like my girlfriend and her colleagues, who genuinely do want to make a difference to people’s lives, have to bow and grovel and scrape for every penny to put up a handrail for Mrs. Pugh who lives alone aged 83 in a cottage on Mynydd Bach. And there’s more to this; for decades, there has been a steady stripping away in the poorer areas of any sense of social responsibility or connectedness or self-discipline, and also dignity, in favour of a benefits culture; now, the press is demonising ‘benefit scroungers’ who are told to change their habits of a lifetime more or less overnight or lose any entitlement to state benefits. What do they think this will do? It’ll incentivise more people to rob and mug and scam.
The winner of this year’s George Orwell Award for investigative journalism, a blogging policeman, has often written about housing estates full of the “evil poor”; when does he think these people became evil? In the womb? At conception? It’s a hideous situation that’s only going to get worse. What’s sad about it is that the apparatus is there to support vulnerable people, or those born without connections or charisma or strength or luck, but they’re being at best ignored and at worst systematically dismantled. I can hear Nye Bevan spinning in his grave.
I told you not to get me started. There’s steam whistling out of my ears.

MC: What spurred your move from Liverpool to the Aberstwyth area, and have you noticed a shift in your writing tone, character development, or story progression due to this big-city-to-little-city move?
NG: Moving to Wales felt like going home, in some ways; I’d lived in many cities across the UK, but more or less on arriving in Aberystwyth I felt relaxed and rooted. I was amongst people who were very like me; average height, stocky build, black hair and blue eyes, given to morbidity of mood and extravagant gesticulation with the limbs and to bursting into bellowing song when drunk, which was very often. I’d seen such people in Liverpool, of course, but I’d just been in Cambridge, amongst the tall blonde Saxons. Additionally, Aberystwyth and Liverpool aren’t very different; Celtic ports, with a shared and certain cockiness amongst their denizens. So it wasn’t a jolt, to move; the transition was smooth. And I feel quite privileged in having two places where I feel at home, which allows me two places to write about, which is rich and fertile and to be praised. Which doesn’t really answer your question, I know. But it’ll do, right?
MC: Thank you so much for your time, and is there anything else you would like to talk about?
NG: I’m looking forwards very much to exploring Portland; it’s acquiring a reputation over here of an exciting and colourful city, suitably bohemian, artistic in the best sense, which is loud and ringing and full of blood. I’ve been to America’s east coast, but never further inland than Washington. And I’m eager to show people the sides of Welsh culture beyond the shawls and stovepipe hats and laver bread and Tom Jones and How Green Was My Valley shite. We’re an intriguing wee nation, as you’ll find out.


 

 

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Last Updated: August 20, 2009