The Welsh novelist on badger baiting, human resonance in the natural world, and why he holds his breath while writing.
At the back of the log house the writer Cynan Jones built on the coast of Wales is a small room he calls “the submersible.” Its single “escape hatch” allows Jones to choose exactly what enters the space—be it visitors, objects, or wayward news. He lets in very little, protecting his simple haven from the world outside. But the writing that emerges from the submersible belies its small origins. Jones’s new novel, The Dig (Coffee House Press, 2015), is a warren of inquiry into vulnerability and violence, isolation and loss, and the limits of the human spirit.
The Dig takes place in rural Wales, where a sheep farmer named Daniel is up to his elbows in the demands of lambing season. His world has just been turned on its head by the sudden death of his wife, and the near-constant needs of his ewes provide the only diversion from his enormous loss. Intertwined with Daniel’s story are the illicit activities of “the big man” who lives nearby, alone with his prized dogs. The man spends his days digging badgers out of their setts to put them into fights with dogs—the illegal practice of badger baiting. As the book unfolds, Daniel and the big man’s lives collide in principle and psyche.
The depictions of capturing and baiting the badgers have an unsparing cruelty, and that depravity serves as a chilling counterpoint to Daniel’s grief at the death of his wife. But Jones is careful to bring meaning to bear on the twisted ways of the big man. “This is violence clearly born of the desire to belong,” as Evie Wyld wrote in her New York Times review. The big man’s motivations echo those of Daniel, whose strength derives from a deep commitment to familial companionship. Even in death, his wife’s presence buoys him. Writes Jones, “It is the ability of a person to bring a reaction in us that gives us a relationship with them, and for the time they do that they have a livingness to them.”
For Jones, the often-harsh parallels between the natural world and human behavior provide fertile writing territory. His first novel, The Long Dry (winner of a Betty Trask Award), explores the fragility of life through a farmer looking for a missing cow. The landscape and minutiae of rural existence in modern Wales are the potent foundation of The Dig, his first book to be published in the US, and winner of the Wales Book of the Year 2015 for Fiction and the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. When not putting his ideas to page in the submersible, Jones runs a wine store with his wife in Aberaeron, Wales.
Fittingly, nature is where Jones himself feels safest, although we met midway through his ten-day visit to New York City and and Washington, DC, this spring. “In somewhere like a city, I’ve got about two days tops, and then I just want to be somewhere else,” he told me amid the bustle of a Manhattan café. Our conversation traversed the politics and rhythms of the Welsh language, the present absence of women in his stories, and why he believes “writing is a technical skill, not an art.”
—Henry Peck for Guernica
Guernica: Interwoven in your novel The Dig are two stories: a sheep farmer struggling to cope with the death of his wife, and the hunt of a badger by an unsavory man. What was the germ for this pairing?
Cynan Jones: I wanted to write about the way we try to create a safe space for ourselves, and how a force can break into that safe space. The allegory of the badger sett, and the activity of digging into that and threatening it, was perfect. What you can do with that is tell the reader a lot without having to describe all the intimate detail of the situation that your character’s in. In the first novel, The Long Dry, I wanted to write about the way we sometimes proceed through life and careers and relationships without putting our head up; just pushing forward. The calving cows can do that just before calving—they can get a sort of bizarre plod on, and they do just push, they want to find themselves somewhere without looking up. So it’s always the natural world that I’ve grown up amongst fusing with something I want to write about in human terms, really.
Guernica: Excluding a few present-day markers, the farm run by your protagonist Daniel and his wife could exist in a range of past time periods. How does it fit into modern Wales?
Cynan Jones: There’s an increasing dilemma in Wales about how to continue to exist in the way that some people have committed to exist, with small-scale agriculture increasingly beset with paperwork and bureaucracy. The numbers don’t really stack. But it’s an ingrained lifestyle for many people, so trying to break from that is a really difficult thing. I think there’s a sense of that through the book, in the way that the characters have created the team together—they’re happy with it, they know that they’re not going to make money, but they’ve made this world for themselves. This kind of safe space. However, they are dealing with paperwork and the ideas they might come up with to perhaps create some holiday accommodation, which lots of people might do with their barns, to have llamas or something ridiculous like that. But ultimately they’re a product of their background, they’re sheep farmers. That is really modern Wales in many senses, it’s a real change of culture in economic terms.
I’m sort of famous for bullshit theories, but I think there’s some truth in that there’s much less physical work for people now. Employment was hugely physical in Wales, and that’s gone in most cases. So if you work hard physically all day, there’s no need to prove that you’re physical and hard, perhaps. And when that’s been removed, there’s maybe an increased need to show that you’re physical and hard by acts of bizarre cruelty. And it’s very much the case that when the visitors come in, the caravaners come in from the midlands or from south Wales, this activity seems to grow. So I wonder if it is linked to that loss of role, that loss of physical work.
It’s interesting to deal with when people tell you you don’t write about women…. It’s possibly the most key thing in the books, even if it’s the absence of them.
Guernica: That reminds me of how you articulate the aging process of Daniel’s mother. You write, “It was certain to him that his mother had never questioned the role, but with that same conviction—age being a role in itself—she had adopted oldness when she assumed she should, rather than when her body told her to…” And you go on to describe the gap between the age she assumes and her numerical age. “And then suddenly she was old, and the incongruity was not there.” It embodies the ancient Greek idea that there are two different kinds of time, chronos and kairos.
Cynan Jones: That’s something which fascinates me about people and myself as well, that we get places sometimes sooner than we should, or even take longer to get somewhere that we should be, and it’s a recognition of role that I think is really important in the book. I think my own parents—I don’t have children and my brother doesn’t have children—you can see that they’ve slightly lost an anchor because they should be in the role of a grandparent, and they’re not. So that doesn’t quite make sense to them. Whereas my partner’s parents—she has brothers and sisters who have kids. And there was an amazing moment when they were fighting being senior, and suddenly they’re surrounded by loads of kids and they can be grandparents and they just sort of accepted it and it made them younger. There’s points in life when you’re fighting against what you are, and there’s points in life when you’re fighting to be something you’re not.
Guernica: Daniel’s mother is also the only living woman we encounter in the book. What is her significance to the setting and to the story?
Cynan Jones: The role of the mother was important in giving that balance, where women act in the mechanism of the community, the farming community, as this kind of fixer, as this kind of mechanic of the more physical male workers, if you like. The dialogue about equality nowadays fascinates me, because in the situation I grew up in, there was no question of any superiority of one sex or the other: it was a team. People did what most naturally came to them. The men were throwing the bales on top of the trailer, and the women were doing something different because the women couldn’t throw the bales on top of the trailer. It’s ridiculous to fight those things. There was a really natural sense of role there. But it’s interesting to deal with when people tell you you don’t write about women. Sometimes what I’m criticized for is [that the books are] quite masculine or machismo, but if you look at the role of the women in the three novels, it’s really important. It’s possibly the most key thing in the books, even if it’s the absence of them.
Guernica: There are certainly moments that convey the machismo environment you mentioned, like the extreme violence in the description of badger baiting. The group of men tear out the claws of a badger, put it in a pit, and set dogs on it, forcing it to fight until death. You’ve said that digging the badger out of its sett is crueler than the actual badger baiting. Why is that?
Cynan Jones: I think it’s a bizarre thing. Whether it’s something that excites you or not, I can sort of understand why someone might be compelled to watch a blood sport. For me, it’s an insanity. But I can see why there’s a flurry, there’s a visceral engagement there that a certain type of person might find thrilling. Likewise, the joy of actually hitting something with a gun, hitting something on target. All of those things, I can kind of see why people might be drawn to do them. But the badger digging thing just seems really bizarre, it’s the equivalent to trapping a school pupil whom you’re in class with in a cupboard, and kicking him. It is a bullying, quiet, slow, restrained, very, very psychologically odd thing. For me it’s more sinister.
Guernica: You describe the reaction of a boy brought along to the dig by his father. The boy finds himself having to struggle to find a reason to despise the badger, needing to develop a hatred of something living in order to bring himself to target it, and not to disappoint his dad. That moment rang very true to boyhood. Where did it come from?
Cynan Jones: I worked as a teacher. Obviously I was a kid myself, so you witness this anyway. We’ve all had experiences where we’ve been the one bullied, or we all regret picking on a particular kid, or whatever we’ve done. And I’ve taught in the pupil referral unit, and that was a unit of kids who were essentially thrown out of all the state facilities, a last-chance saloon, really. So they had an extraordinary level of aggression, pent up violence that sometimes spilled out. And it was that. The kids who got the worst deal were the ones who wouldn’t fight back, wouldn’t react. And you saw they’d almost be despised. That was really interesting to me. It is allegorical, you know that this can happen, not just from an adolescent desperate to feel something that makes him want to hurt the badger. Actually, that becomes a reason in its own right. That happens on the playground as well as in this sort of event.
Guernica: At one point in the book, an ancient shard of metal that has stuck out of Daniel’s field for years is extracted. Daniel begins to blame the movement of the shard for the other events in his life, and seeks to return it to its berth. He doesn’t appear to be a superstitious man but does have these normalized superstitions—the black lamb in the flock, the shard being out of place, somehow upsetting the balance. Do you have any superstitions like that?
Cynan Jones: I think I’d like to say no immediately, but we all do. Especially under times of pressure and stress, we do imbue things, and we also often find ourselves looking for an excuse that’s perhaps easier to give than the real reason. So Daniel feels that perhaps moving that shard is what’s created this thing. It’s easier for him to forgive that than the randomness of things. So we try to feel that we have some kind of control or input into a given situation, whether we’re superstitious or not.
Writing is a technical skill, it’s not an art.
One thing that’s fascinating with writing is, once I commit to a story and start working on it, if it’s the right story, the amount of what you could call coincidental things that start to happen is extraordinary. Really, truly, absolutely extraordinary. There’s a story I’ve been working on—I randomly had the guy keep a token, he keeps a wren feather as a token, they found a wren, him and his partner, that the cat brought, it’s not quite dead but it’s lost some wing feathers, so they both keep a wing feather. And that was just something I wrote. Going over various pieces of research, it turns out that the wren feather historically is this extraordinary object to protect you from a certain thing. Which is exactly what has happened and threatened the guy in the story. When you’re writing the right thing, that happens all the time. You start thinking, “Hang on, this must be right.” It doesn’t matter if you pretend to not be superstitious, it’s almost as if something’s pushing you to keep going with that thing. And you have to have that almost childlike faith in the process.
Guernica: On the subject of writing, I know you cut your teeth doing commercial copywriting in Glasgow. How was that as an education?
Cynan Jones: It’s the most important step I took, I think. When you talk to a lot of people who are writing, they struggle with the words. They’re struggling with the language they’re using, they’re struggling with how to say, how to get a story across. Words are very, very dangerous things. They’re going to suck you in, and before you know it you’ll have spent days working on the words instead of working on the story.
What copywriting did was put that to bed very quickly. You’re writing for a client. Writing is a technical skill, it’s not an art, and you learn that very quickly. You learn the tools and the carpentry of writing, and how to adapt that to any given narrative, whether that’s a poster in a casino or a novel. You need to use appropriate words and an appropriate approach. So for me it was a baptism by fire, it was an incredibly quick learning curve, and it means that I’m not precious about my words. The words are not the important thing, it’s what you’re getting across with them. So that was vital. And, I think, probably a better lesson than any creative writing course would have been. Because it was about the direct, technical substance of the words.
Guernica: Do you ever write poetry?
Cynan Jones: I did. When I was in college, I wrote a poem a day for a year. All based on acronyms for whatever word or statement most stood out for that day. Just dreadful. I feel that with a novel you have to be clear about what you’re writing, and actually to write good poetry you have to be confused about what you’re writing—that’s its struggle, that’s its tension, that’s what makes it compelling, those tiny breakthroughs about something which maybe confuses even the writer. The indirectness of it. Whereas if you do that in a novel, you just annoy people.
People do say my style is very poetic, it’s almost prose poetry. But I think that’s just in the economy, and in the way that poetry has to deliver vast packages of information very quickly. I try to do that within the prose, but again, it possibly comes from copywriting and learning to strip out all the fluff and extraneous stuff that’s not doing any work. But no, I no longer write poetry. I’ve moved on. I used to write song lyrics as a fourteen-year-old, and after my breakthrough piece—“Satan’s Angel,” which was a classic—I decided to hang up my guitar.
Guernica: They’ll be in your archive.
Cynan Jones: They’ll be there! I need a Viking funeral for all that sort of thing, I think.
Guernica: All of your books run on the shorter side, but you’ve mentioned that you’ve experienced pressure from publishing companies to provide longer manuscripts. Why do you think there’s a push for length?
Cynan Jones: I’ve never had a satisfying answer to that. For years it’s been frustrating to me that publishers won’t touch short novels. When the chapter of The Dig came out in Granta and it said this is a piece of a novel in progress, suddenly the agent’s phone was ringing with “What’s the novel, what’s the novel?” And the answer was that it’s a short novel, you’re not going to like it. “No, no, we like it now…”
As a reader, I love the short novel form. I’ve never worked with reading groups or talked to readers who don’t. So where publishing gets its ideas from, I’m baffled. I’ve even heard the argument that the spines are too slim, and therefore the name doesn’t jump out of the shelf. Which obviously in the days of Amazon and the like means absolutely nothing. I’ve heard “It costs more or less the same to produce a thousand pages than to produce two hundred pages,” but I just don’t think readers with any real love of reading buy books by weight, and I’m not writing for the people who do. They also say, “Well, short novels don’t seem to sell.” You go, “No, no, literary fiction doesn’t sell.” It’s not that short story collections don’t—literary fiction isn’t a great commercial choice for someone, it’s a labor of love.
Guernica: How would you describe the current state of Welsh literature, and are there any particular Welsh writers whom you draw from?
Cynan Jones: I think it’s a really strange thing that, apart from Dylan Thomas, really, and later on some R.S. Thomas, or the odd Edward Thomas poem, some Daniel Jones, Gwyn Thomas very late on and very small amounts of it, you just didn’t grow up around Welsh literature. It wasn’t there. There’s a great program now called the Library of Wales series. It’s a commitment to keep in print what are determined to be the key texts of Welsh literature—So Long, Hector Bebb, Raymond Williams, and these kind of guys. Which I’m getting through but I’m coming to them in my late thirties and I’m now forty.
I find it fascinating that you automatically have a sense of sound, of rhythm, because of where you’re from.
What many people think of when they hear the words “Welsh literature,” “Welsh writing,” is kind of overblown, overly sentimental, slightly churchy, kind of poetic stuff which is brilliant when it works well, but is very far away from what I’m doing in some respects. I’d be easier to link with the American guys, the more pointed, physical writers like Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy—they keep being brought up as people, but that’s obviously mildly comic to me. I can see what people are driving at in that they’re about men getting through things and the language is quite physical.
The state of Welsh literature at the moment is, I think, very strong. But I think there’s a danger sometimes in self-celebrating. I think the bar needs to be kept very high, otherwise there’s a danger of flooding out things which are pedestrian, or adequate. And that’s not really going to do Welsh literature as a body any great service. There are some outstanding writers, but there’s also a lot of effort and energy going into encouraging lots of writers. The bar has to be there. I’m not in charge of being a Welsh writer—I am Welsh. It’s a fact, I have no say in that. So I don’t attempt to be a “Welsh writer” in that respect, if that makes sense.
Guernica: You’re bilingual—do you write in Welsh at all?
Cynan Jones: No. I just don’t think that way in Welsh. Everything I do, my thought process in those respects, happens in English, which is my first language. But I find it fascinating that you automatically have a sense of sound, of rhythm, because of where you’re from. So [being Welsh] certainly affects the English prose, but Welsh is such a difficult language to write anyway, the rules involved are torturous, you have to be very much a first-language natural speaker to get it right. Or, what’s now happening, is using Welsh in a very living, live, vibrant way, so you’re not necessarily applying to the law of the language, you’re just using it. Which is absolutely fine, and reflects a lot of the way Welsh is used nowadays. But it’s a completely different instrument. And I’ve worked so hard to try and get to a level in English that there’s no chance.
Guernica: You ran into hot water in an interview on Welsh television for this idea—what was it you said?
Cynan Jones: That it was a bit like hearing someone play something on the piano and then asking them to play it on the flute. And it is. The skill, the technical practice that you have to do in any given language. There’s some Welsh-language writers now writing in English. Very, very few of them to my mind write well in English. And they’re doing it because obviously you get stuck. My work’s going into eleven-odd languages at the moment, but for a Welsh-language piece it’s got to go into English first. And I think that more focus needs to be placed on—or more respect needs to be given to—translation. Because there’s a lot of bilingual people who say, “Ah, I can translate this from Welsh into English.” But they’re not actually brilliant translators. So the English checks aren’t that great. And then they suffer, and then they don’t go any further. The chances of going from Welsh to Japanese or Welsh to Armenian are very slim, so it’s got to go to English first. Those people who want a bigger market, or find that frustrating, are perhaps now trying to write in English. But they should be the people who are stonily sticking to the language they believe in. Campaigning a little or forcing people to translate them better.
It’s easy to write a pastiche, but it sounds like a pastiche.
Guernica: There seems to be a smaller market for works translated to English than for works translated from English. Have you observed this?
Cynan Jones: Yeah, it’s a weird one. The other thing I’m suspicious of sometimes, which I’ll say here: there’s a lot of Welsh-language novels that come out and you go, “This sounds very like this English-language novel that’s suddenly been quite successful.” I’m slightly worried that there’s not enough integrity—there’s some brilliant, brilliant writers in the Welsh language, there’s some really original, amazing things. But I do also feel that there’s quite a few going, “Hang on. So and so’s done that in this language well, and you’ve decided to do a Welshified version of it.” Again, you’ve got to be so careful. We need to have integrity and we need to have levels. That’s how we’ll draw attention to the culture of Welsh writing, not by taking shortcuts.
Guernica: There’s a distinct harmony to the sound of Welsh, and even to the Welsh accent in English. How does Welsh phraseology inflect your writing?
Cynan Jones: I definitely think it’s rhythm, a bias and a rhythm that come through. The way that you order the words, perhaps. At the point of writing, it’s all instinctive. You should not be thinking about it too hard, it’s like kicking a football. You’ve got to just be able to do it, you’ve got to do all the practice so that you do it at match time. Particularly with some of the more exaggerated bits that Daniel goes through, I think the sentence structure is veering toward that more rhythmic, melodic Welshness. Using words as almost a wire that the reader has to string their emotions to. In other aspects of the book, it’s more like a nail that has just been driven in, driven in, driven in. It’s a much more fundamental process of getting a piece of information.
Guernica: Otherwise it risks becoming twee.
Cynan Jones: That’s it, you’ve got to have a completely instinctive idea of what word would be best next or what order to put the words in. It’s easy to write a pastiche, but it sounds like a pastiche. You can write a Dylan Thomas pastiche, and I’ve done this in classes. You can go, “Ok, ‘The sun was as yellow as a tennis ball.’ How do we make that Dylan Thomas? ‘The tennis ball yellow sun.’ Perfect!” It’s easy to do, because words are blocks. Words are a technical skill. You’ve got to be careful you don’t start doing that too deliberately.
Guernica: One element that I expected to encounter in the book and did not was a reference to the badger cull—the recently trialed killing of all badgers in a certain area to restrict the spread of bovine tuberculosis. What would Daniel think of the badger cull?
Cynan Jones: My experience is that people are in one of two camps. I don’t think Daniel would be for the cull at all. I know farmers who think it’s an absolute insanity. I’ve had the odd piece of mail saying how dare I try to paint this in a bad light. It’s not a political book. The fact that it coincided with the cull was kind of an accident of publication, in many ways, even though the cull happened earlier in Wales, and was protested against, and was abandoned—they didn’t do it. They never started it. But in England they went, “Ah, we’re going to do it anyway,” and then it was obviously quickly abandoned. They’ve since started a Welsh badger vaccination program, so they’re targeting the bovine TB hotspots, and in the 1,424 badgers they captured and vaccinated, zero showed any signs of bovine TB—in the hotspots! So you start to think, “Well, hang on…” It’s a really bizarre piece of politics going on there. I know many farmers who would be utterly against that level. They’re pragmatic and if there was a sensible means of lowering the risk, I’m sure that they’d be pragmatic toward it. But the cull was just this insanely misinformed policy.
Guernica: Is it true you hold your breath while you write?
Cynan Jones: Yeah. I made a joke ages ago, I said I’m writing so hard my teeth hurt. I’ve suddenly also developed this really bad temporomandibular joint thing, so I’m sort of physically damaging myself. Which is why I kind of want to write a comedy or something. You write almost in this bizarre state of distance from what you’re doing, but you’re really up there, you’re really in it. And you never give yourself credit. You finish something and you’re absolutely exhausted for a long time, or you’re slightly fragile. And you say, “What the hell’s wrong with me, get on with it!” Well, no, you can’t write with that level of intensity without going off somewhere. So, yeah, holding the breath is one, and recently jaw-clenching…
Guernica: Like the badger clamp!
Cynan Jones: Yes, absolutely! Acting the badger while I’m writing.
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