INTERVIEW: Fflur Dafydd

Interview with Fflur Dafydd
Deinventor 1 by Lina Theodorou
By Robin Grossmann

Many novels set in the future might be said to pitch a society at a frontier, playing with established authority, extending the possibilities of technology – in this case, as regards literature and culture (among other themes). How did you feel about this? Was there a sense of being at a frontier yourself?

I wanted to set the novel only slightly in the future – far enough not to be bound by any social or political reality, but close enough to still seem plausible, to still seem within the bounds of reality. So in that sense the novel itself is definitely at a frontier – we can relate, hopefully, to the characters, even though they live in a different world to us, because they still share the same traits, are still human and flawed, irrespective of the period in which they live. And the same is true with the other fictional liberties I took – the technological advances are not on a colossal scale, after all – the e-book, CCTV, electronic equipment – all these things are already present in our daily lives. It’s their application, their dominance that differs from our present reality. So in the novel it is society that’s at a frontier perhaps, changing its focus, changing its behaviour, yet everything which upholds that society is still the same. It’s a book very much satirising the behaviour of a minority – I believe that Welsh-language society will still be fundamentally the same – absurd, hilarious, parochial, tenacious, bizarre and wonderful – even with all the technological advances in the world. Whether we move backwards or forwards is irrelevant: we will never escape who we are. But the frontier is important on a creative level – because it also allows for the little incongruities which remind us that this isn’t a completely ‘real’ world - the strangeness of the twins, the behavioural traits of the Head Librarian and the porters, Dan careering along the red carpet with an overweight cook and an albino kitchen-hand as his only back-up, Eben’s quest through the bowels of the library on his hands and knees – all these little things suggest a world that is essentially other.

Y Llyfrgell has received a great deal of praise for its balancing of dramatic narrative, satire and black comedy. To what extent can you see it as speculative? Were you conscious of a cautionary attitude in writing it?

I must stress that I wasn’t trying to be any kind of visionary in terms of my imaginary 2020. My point was to tell a story, through interesting characters, which would raise questions, and I wasn’t trying to be didactic in any way. I am not saying, ‘Beware of the digital age, it will destroy us,’ for example. I am just looking at the possible developments of the future and seeing what can be derived from that – this is a novel about people, and the way they deal with things. And a lot of humour comes from that. If anything, I’m responding more to the absurdity of our culture. One thing that certainly sparked the whole novel was the poor quality of reviewing and critical commentary in Wales. Eben was conceived as a character in order to satirise that weakness – he is the kind of critic who advocates personal attacks on writers, rather than analysing their work – and it leads, or so he believes, to the author’s suicide. Evidently there’s a lot of black humour there. But strangely enough, the one character I meant to satirise the most actually became the most dear to me. It just shows that a ‘cautionary attitude’, as you put it, can certainly spark a novel but it can’t carry it; you need to work things out as you write, lose your anger and find humour instead. In the end we find out that there’s another reason for the author’s death, so Eben cannot be held accountable. I’m not sure I had envisaged that from the beginning, but as Eben became more real to me, I saw that maybe he wasn’t the villain I believed him to be. Occasionally, I think that the writing process itself can help you understand the very things you’re railing against.

You have described the tension between (imaginary) dramatic events and the "serene" atmosphere of the library as being of particular interest to you as a writer – as a spur to your imagination when you began to have ideas for the novel. How important is this kind of tension for you, artistically? Is it significant to the way you think about literature, and even (perhaps to stretch a point) wider society?

The most memorable pieces of literature to me are those that draw attention to places that have previously been overlooked. The purpose of literature is to give readers a new take on things, to change their perspective. It seems odd to me that no one has written a novel entirely set in the National Library of Wales before – it’s a breeding-ground for fiction. Its towering stature, its red carpet, and the myriad doors and corridors that lead to who-knows-where - it’s noir fiction waiting to happen! I knew that anything set in a library needed therefore to be exciting, pacy, interesting – everything the reader believes a library is not – that is the challenge every writer should face, to transform the space they’ve chosen. I felt the same was true for Bardsey Island, where I undertook a residency in 2002. There were hardly any books in fiction in Welsh or English about the island which looked at it from a contemporary viewpoint, and so I went about writing them [Atyniad and Twenty Thousand Saints]. Again I wanted to transform the space through fiction. And I feel passionate about both places, and am glad to have brought them to the reader’s attention.

Two of the main characters, the identical twins Ana and Nan, seemed innocuous enough to their colleagues early on – and yet the novel hinges on their violent action. Did you feel a sense of indignation while writing the novel? Or of tapping into a sphere of repression?

The twins are the oddest characters in the book, there’s no doubt about that, and possibly the most unlikeable. I have always had a fascination with twins and was always writing about them – this was my one chance to bring them to life in a dramatic way, and they seemed to fit the story. Their names are palindromes, of course, so there’s again that feeling of the not-quite-real about them. There wasn’t any sense of indignation behind their creation – merely an attempt to counterbalance some recent noir fiction stereotypes – it seems that noir fiction is very much a male-dominated genre, and you always get male villains with guns, or hauntingly beautiful villainesses. Ana and Nan were neither, they were just plain old librarians, holding their guns up high in a library. It’s wholly unexpected – and therefore it’s to do with changing the space through character. But then again, sometimes a librarian will look at you in a certain way and you’ll think, if anyone is going to snap and do something drastic, it’s them...

How about the Porter, Dan? Caught in a dead-end job, secretly rebellious, taunted by the prospect of his own potential. His role in the novel might seem a portrait, or challenge to a large section of modern society...

Dan is a certain type of character that some would say appears in some form in all my novels. That slightly sketchy, directionless male who is downtrodden yet somehow strangely attractive, despite his flaws. He is only supposed to represent himself. He’s been left alone to guard the library – it’s the only thing he has to do, and he thinks it’s a simple job. But he gets himself locked out. I had that scene in my mind from the beginning – the security guard standing outside this enormous building he’s supposed to be defending, with no idea how to get back in – and I wrote Dan’s character around the absurdity of that scene.

You have said that the novel “will upset many a reader". But did you find yourself having to hold back, weighing the temptations of satire, or to push ahead where passages felt risky? One can imagine certain readers seizing on features of the novel – the depiction of the political pre-eminence of women in the novel as a critical portrayal of the advance of 'feminism', for example. Are readers' inferences something you face with resignation, or relish?

Any kind of reaction shows that the book is doing its job! I don’t think it’s caused half as much of a stir as I was hoping, actually! A lot of attention has been paid to the way I’ve portrayed women, and some would say that I’m critiquing feminism, but no one at all has commented on the way a whole group of men are portrayed – the literary boys’ club I satirise – scheming amongst each other to try to cut the women down to size. There is still a lot of snobbery about women’s writing in Wales, particularly in Welsh – it’s still a man’s world and certain men of a certain age don’t like women, especially young women, coming in with their new ideas and taking over! In that sense you could see the whole novel as a protest-novel, and the act of writing this kind of noir fiction, as a young woman, as a political act in itself. It was entered for the National Eisteddfod’s Prose Medal competition under a pseudonym, and so the judges read this as being a novel by an older, rather audacious male, with an anti-feminist stance – exactly the kind of character I’m satirising in the book!

Were there other books you had in mind at the time of writing, consciously or (in retrospect) subconsciously, as models or touchstones?

I read many books about libraries, as you can imagine. Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, Library Confidential by Don Borchert, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. I also have to say that Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto was a big influence, as it depicts a siege with such tenderness and beauty. But when I was thinking about this novel originally, many, many years ago, I remember wanting to try to recreate the kind of curious, absurd atmosphere you get in the film Delicatessen. It’s such an odd, beautiful film – and I often know how I want a novel to ‘feel’ before I’ve even begun writing it. I think I wanted it to feel more European, dealing with Welsh issues in a non-Welsh way.

Are there aspects of the novel you think you'll return to in future work? And do you think you would set your work in the future again?

I think writing about the future is often tricky, and I’m only relieved that it seems to have paid off in this novel, so I’ll probably leave that device for a while! The theme of memory and collective memory is still one that fascinates me, and I’m working on a novel now, in which the protagonist has a memory disorder which disrupts his world. I think that I will also continue to satirise and explore elements of Welsh culture, I do believe that that’s what makes me unique as a writer and is part of the reason why I write. And it is something can do it from the inside, especially in your own language, because you’re laughing at yourself, not at other people. When I write in English, the approach is slightly different – I’m more eager to bring positive aspects of Welsh culture to light, like I did in my last novel Twenty Thousand Saints, because often the best things about a culture are best explored at a distance, with detachment. But the next exciting project I’ll be working on is a reworking of the ancient Welsh Mabinogion Tale, Culhwch ac Olwen, as part of Seren’s Mabinogion Series.

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