Richard Gwyn has been homeless, hungry and a true vagrant. Now, he’s one of the UK’s brightest up-and-coming authors and part of a new generation of writers emerging from Wales. But his two novels are based far from his Welsh homeland – his debut book, The Colour of a Dog Running Away, takes place mostly in Barcelona while Deep Hanging Out, released this year, is based mostly in 1981 Crete.
Before taking up writing, Richard spent many years wandering around the Mediterranean, including a lengthy stop in Crete where he teamed up with a small fishing boat.
Why did you decide to return to Wales after living in Crete and travelling around the Mediterranean for so long?
After a long and arduous spell of vagrancy I became very ill and was taken to hospital in Barcelona. The consultant looking after me wouldn't let me leave unless I went somewhere I could recuperate and convalesce. I could have escaped I suppose, fled across the rooftops in my pyjamas in emulation of the Roof People (a mysterious group of Barcelona people existing on roofs featured in The Colour of a Dog Running Away), but he had a serious point, and I was, by then, worn out by a lifestyle of reckless delinquency. So I came home, telling myself it was only a temporary measure . . . However, things turned out very differently.
What did your six-metre fishing boat mean to you?
Well, it's easy to romanticise these things in retrospect. I've never been much of a fisherman, and couldn't figure out the engine of that boat at all, but I had a friend who did and so it was nice all the same. We would pootle along the coastline on low revs with the boat making that gentle chugging sound, lovely on a summer's evening with a bag of olives and a bottle of raki and the sun sinking into the sea.
Did you ever fit into the 'starving writer' category?
I'm afraid so, and entirely through my own negligence. I squandered the money I made by selling my boat and drank my way into wretched oblivion, ending up as an agricultural labourer, more correctly, a vagrant, for a number of years. This led me to a first-hand experience of homelessness and hunger and it was a dark time. I stayed in dosshouses and hostels across Italy, France and Spain in the company of felons and other suspicious persons, got into a lot of trouble, and walked long distances in bad shoes. I met and shared experiences and soup with many people who survive below society's normalising radar. And it amuses me now that the characters in my novels have money: it's a kind of retrospective wishful thinking.
Are you writing full-time now?
I try to.
What's the origin of your second book's title - Deep Hanging Out?
I can provide a pretty full answer to that. I first heard the expression in a talk by a visiting lecturer at Cardiff whose name I forget. I liked the expression and googled it, finding a review in the New York Review of Books in which a well-known anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, was reviewing the work of a colleague, whose name is James Clifford. As it happened, I knew and liked the work of both these men. Geertz was referring to the kind of fieldwork done by certain anthropologists (such as Clifford), which basically involves falling into the rhythm and lifestyle of the 'subjects' under observation without taking too 'scientistic' a position with regard to them. Actually I think the term was first used by another guy, Renato, and I will now have to dig out the clipping from my chaotic archives. But the genealogy of the expression goes approximately thus: Renato; Clifford; Geertz; unknown lecturer; Gwyn.
What other current Welsh poets or writers do you admire? Rachel Trezise for example...
a writer with a good deal of native talent and a whole lot of determination.
What Niall Griffiths
has done is remarkable, especially with Grits and Sheepshagger
- though I do wonder where he's going to go now, after six or seven
books - perhaps he will reinvent himself entirely; in any case I have
a lot of time for him. Owen
Sheers has real ability but I feel he's been over-exposed by media
attention and all that it entails. Other novelists: Trezza
Ho Davies and Iain
Sinclair: Poets; Robert
McGuinness and out on a sometimes wondrous limb – David
Greenslade and Lloyd
Robson. There are a couple of younger writers I'd like to mention
- Clare Potter is a fine poet with a persuasive voice and a strong narrative
line, Holly Howitt's
longer and shorter fiction is starkly, sometimes horribly, good.
Are you tempted to write a novel set in Wales?
I am, currently. It is called The Blue Tent.
Deep Hanging Out is packed with bull themes such as Crete's minotaur mythology and Pamplona's San Fermin festival - what was the thinking behind that?
The bull myth was the starting point for the novel - it is such a universal idea and such a strong one. If you delve into myth by reading people like Joseph Campbell you find that certain images just keep repeating themselves through prehistory and into the present. The minotaur was conceived by Zeus adopting the form of a bull in order to impregnate the wife of Minos, who had disguised herself as a cow for this very purpose. Bull-imagery saturates the artwork of ancient peoples all along the Mediterranean, from the Minoans to the cave paintings at Lascaux. It is symbolic of enormous energy contained within a single source. I saw the bull theme as the conceptual glue holding the story together. The characters, Cosmo in particular, might represent animistic forces as well.
Are you a fan of Hemingway? An elderly character in Deep Hanging Out refers to him as a boor.
Aha. I met this lady in a hotel bar in Pamplona, during the Fiesta, in, I think, 1979: I was pretty young anyhow. Someone in her company had told me she had known Hemingway, so of course I had to ask, and the answer she gave was the one I attribute to Mrs Schlesinger in the novel. I would not describe myself as a fan of Hemingway, but to anyone of my generation, at least, (and the previous one) he is, as a novelist, sort of unavoidable. His influence is immense, acknowledged internationally in incredibly disparate quarters. In fact writers from Japan, Eastern Europe and Latin American countries seem less embarrassed about owning up to his influence than Brits and Americans do. And Ernesto was definitely there, barefoot, smelling of brandy and bullshit, sneering and leering over my shoulder while I wrote the Pamplona chapters of DHO.
What came first - your debut novel, The Colour of a Dog Running Away, which features an abduction or the real-life abduction of your niece during your visit to Argentina?
The novel came first. I departed for Argentina the very next day after the book was launched at Waterstone's in Cardiff and the abduction of my niece took place that first evening in Buenos Aires. Life occasionally presents these synchronicities, and they probably come at times of heightened sensitivity to forces quite beyond our control. I say that now, but of course at the time you are unlikely to be aware of such a pattern and are concerned only with the shock and the violence of the incident, of having to deal with fear and pain and hospitals and police and bureaucracy and Tourist Bureau officials trying to hush things up in collusion with the British Consulate who are of course only there to help even if they take four days off at precisely the time in question leaving you to deal with all police and bureaucratic shit yourself. Well that's how it goes. My niece has written her own brief account of this now, www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2006/oct/17/travelnews - salutary reading for young people travelling alone.
Find copies of Richard Gwyn's new book Deep Hanging Out | Find copies of The Colour of a Dog Running Away