The Very Act of Cruelty, an interview with Cynan Jones, author of The Dig

Welsh author Cynan Jones’s short novel The Dig is released in the U.S. by Coffee House Press on April 14th this year.

The novel is about a bruising encounter between a badger-baiter and a grieving farmer in rural Wales. In contrast to the long and expansive novels which fill so much bookshelf space, The Dig’s taut span of just 156 pages takes you into the emotional heartland of the place where Cynan Jones grew up and lives now. His work is imbued with the spirit of that land and speaks powerfully of lives trapped there.

The Dig was a winner of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014 in the UK. In an end-of-year round-up of books published in 2014, Paul Baggaley, Publisher of Picador, wished that he (rather than Granta) had been the one to publish in the UK what he called “a shocking, brutal yet poetic novel.”

I talked to Cynan about the country he comes from, the difference between novellas and short novels, writing sheds and not being a natural festival-goer.

Cath Barton: The Dig is set in Ceredigion in West Wales, where you grew up and still live. The story — and indeed much of your previously published fiction — carries a strong sense of place, but is about the landscape of the heart as much as it is about a particular geographical area. Are the two bound together as part of your Welsh identity?

Cynan Jones: Wales, to me, is the physical place I am connected with. Ideas of nationhood, cultural history and so on are more conceptual and secondary. My ‘Welsh identity’ is referred to mainly to point out I’m not English. Overseas, and even within the UK, that’s a necessary requirement given that people don’t understand British doesn’t always equal English. The question of identity is often raised as if there’s something elusive behind it, but there isn’t. Being Welsh is a fact, as is being 40 years old.

It sounds like I’m digressing from your question but I’m being very specific. The land itself and my sense of connection to it is what holds me here, not any idea of Welshness or ideal of Celtic belonging. In as much as home is where the heart is, then yes, my identity is utterly bound to this geographical area.

CB: All of us as writers are influenced by those we have read, but we all also hope to be identified for who we are and our own voice, rather than “in the tradition of x, y and z.” Or is it more complicated than that?

CJ: People categorise, make links, connections. We’re pattern-making animals, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing on some levels. Personally I try to live under a rock when it comes to writing and just do my own thing. But I am driven to writing certain things over others. Generally I write about men getting through things, often physically. And that aligns me with other writers who write about similar dilemmas, most of those writers American. People tend to slot me alongside Hemingway, Steinbeck, McCarthy rather than Auster, Roth, McEwan — writers whose characters are more often academics, dentists, psychologists, lawyers. But I have a long way to go before I’m anywhere near worthy of being on lists like that.

One of the best things about being ‘compared’ or aligned with other writers is being compared or aligned with one you’ve never read. That way I came to McCarthy, Carver, Flannery O’Connor, and as I’m writing this — after Geoff Bendeck’s review here — William Gay.

CB: I’d like to pick up on your comment that you “write about men getting through things, often physically” and link back to my first question, how you write about the landscape of the heart. Yes, you do write about men doing physically demanding things, but you also reveal their emotions, emotions which they themselves may not easily reveal to others. I love this line from The Dig:

The cat came up and sat with him, and for a while they sat like that, in the comfortable sound of the rain, and the closeness of the cat was almost too much.

You show here something profound about your character Daniel’s feelings for his dead wife. But you also show men’s emotions in more physically brutal scenes. To me there’s a tenderness in there which some might say is at odds with the subject matter. Or is it?

CJ: I think there is a tendency to break emotions up into artificial objects so we can handle them more easily. But emotions are multi-faceted. I don’t know many people who experience emotion in a non-complicated manner. In a situation of pressure, or greater jeopardy or responsibility — anything heightened — emotions fracture into increasingly complex things. The very act of cruelty can bring a person not used to tenderness face to face with it. An act of necessary brutality can demand a person finds the cruelty to see it through. These feelings are not simple.

CB: Your work is often called poetic and it does seem to me that you choose and weigh each word, as a poet does. You’ve drawn a distinction between the novella, a short form of fiction which you describe as being carried by energy, and the short novel, such as The Dig which relies on weight and is, as it were, a longer work condensed. It’s a form you’ve used before, starting with your first novel The Long Dry (2006). Did you consciously choose it, or has it chosen you?

CJ: The story is god. Ultimately it chooses the form that best suits it. First comes the compunction to commit to a story; then the clarity to listen to it. For example, I’ve been working on a short novel for the last two years. It wasn’t right. In early February I recognised why. It’s a long short story, not a short novel.

The Dig similarly. I was under pressure to write a longer book. I addressed that pressure by writing a book comprised of two parts. The first set in the 1940s, telling the story of an Italian interned and sent to work on a west Wales farm. The second a contemporary tale picking up the consequences of a relationship that developed in the first story. When I read it through, my agent also, we recognised that the story of the two characters — The Dig — was the real story. I cut the book from 90,000 words to 28,000 or so. You have to be prepared to do that.

A strong story should be a stubborn, belligerent thing.

A strong story should be a stubborn, belligerent thing. And like stubborn, belligerent people, their demands aren’t always the easier ones to accept. A short novel works by implication. The eye has to stay on the action, and the rest of the world has to exist behind that action. It thrills me to work in that form. Rule setting is one of the most important aspects of writing, and limits free you up to make the correct creative decisions. So, I choose in general to write short novels, but am also drawn to stories that are best told through that form. Chicken and egg.

CB: You’ve described writing as “a spell cast.” Who casts the spell and as the writer can or should you attempt to break it?

CJ: First the story itself has to cast the spell on you as the writer. It’s better to write under that spell. Then you have a duty to shake off the enchantment and put the result to the test. Every single aspect should be tested, free of the spell. The only time you get to feel the way a reader might is that first moment when you write the thing down. You have to trust that first emotional reaction you had, but also scrutinise.

CB: Actually, I think your writing casts a spell over the reader. There is something very powerful about a book which almost forces you to read it in one sitting. To me this is because of the power of the emotion carried by your writing. In The Dig, Daniel, the farmer, says:

It is the ability of a person to bring a reaction in us that gives us a relationship with them…

He is talking about his wife, but it also says something to me about how you, as the writer, draw in your readers and form relationships with us. Some might say you want to shock in The Dig. You certainly don’t flinch from showing the reality of badger-baiting, though it is not crudely brutal and there is poignancy in large measure in your work too. Do you consciously want to provoke a reaction?

CJ: I am always clear about the reaction I want the story to provoke when the reader closes the book, but I try as closely as possible to carry that reaction out of the characters or action into the reader. Readers are generally compassionate, creative people in their own right so I don’t see a need to ‘tell them how to feel.’ I try to write a thing down as strongly and clearly as possible, trusting that the reader will have their own judgements and emotions.

The Long Dry, despite what happens, needed to leave the reader with hope, a sense of continuation. The Dig would have lied to have any of that. It’s not the story. It had to finish, and it had to finish suddenly, like a blow. That was my conclusion after trying thirteen or so different endings. Things in life either happen more suddenly or more slowly than we expect them to.

CB: Your compatriot Dylan Thomas famously had a writing shed, a place where he could hide away to write. What does your writing space look like? Are there particular things you have to have there by your side when you’re writing?

They are sacrosanct places. No one else goes in them.

CJ: I have a shed. I came home to write from Glasgow where I’d been working for five years as a copywriter. I promised myself I’d come home when I was twenty-eight and give myself two years to write a book. I lived in a shed in my Mum’s garden, which I still work in. I also built a writing room into our house. They are sacrosanct places. No one else goes in them. There’s nothing particular I have to have (other than pens, blank paper and a window) but I am incredibly protective of my writing space.

CB: As you garner writing success, people increasingly want to interview you, invite you to literary festivals and otherwise take up time when you might prefer to be writing. I’m wondering whether this distraction has any compensations, perhaps some you hadn’t expected?

CJ: I’m as protective of my writing time as I am of writing space, but yes, the requirements to be available grow. However, there’s a danger at a certain point of success — when you can exist more or less through writing — that you disappear up an ivory tower. Then you start to wonder why the things you’re writing aren’t communicating with people as well as they should. And that’s generally because you’re not communicating with anyone you don’t choose to. So the compensation is that it forces you out of the indulgent space you’ve waited years to arrive in, but which isn’t healthy for good writing. I also think that a strong story needs time to happen, so the excuses to not be writing it down are important, provided the time comes when you do.

CB: So I’m wondering, have you been asked any questions at say, a literary festival, that have made you sit up and review any fondly held views?

CJ: No. What does happen, though, is that talking about writing a book after you’ve written it makes you realise you did know what you were doing at the time. So much of writing, during the act itself, is instinctive. All the practice, the pre-thinking, everything that has gone in fades behind the attempt to tell the story.

CB: I’m curious to know what it’s like to combine writing and farming. Clearly your knowledge of the land and of animal practice means that your writing is very true, but on a day-to-day basis do you find the two activities complementary?

CJ: I don’t work on a farm on a day-to-day basis but I’ve grown up around them and supported friends, neighbours and family at certain times. Lambing, for example, haymaking. Times like that you need all hands on deck. I do try to balance time at the desk however with time on my feet, doing practical, tangible things. That’s very important to clear writing.

CB: And finally, what’s your fantasy career — astronaut, deep sea diver, arctic explorer? Or is it writer or nothing for you?

CJ: I don’t really think in terms of careers, of jobs. I see things as ambitions. The job is to fulfil the ambition. Writing is the main thing I want to do, and the thing that is the backdrop to everything else.

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