My Welsh Dad and some thoughts on writing
WITH a surname like Wynne-Jones my family’s Welsh roots are obvious. My dad spent his early years in Lampeter and later on in Llanishen and it’s important to me that I know that because my mother’s early provenance is a mystery. It is precious to me that I know that dad’s father became a fluent Welsh speaker and also became a Welsh Nationalist and that his mum baked wonderful cakes and was enterprising and courageous. As a young girl I sometimes visited ‘Granny in Wales’ when she shared a house in Sully with her son Basil, who was a clergyman. I met cousins, uncles and aunts at Welsh family gatherings and was taught how to pronounce some of the longer and poetic Welsh place names. But I do not even know what liaison led to my mother’s birth. Was it happy or sad?
Given the way of such things it was probably both. If I were writing a book about it, I think would have liked to give the tale a happier ending. I feel a sympathy for the grandmother I never met, just like I often feel compassion for people in my books. For some reason she couldn’t keep her baby but in one of my novels a single mother keeps her child, though he was also born in an age when illegitimacy was shameful. I’m sure the mysteries surrounding my grandmother informed the story-line.
My mother was adopted by a rather grand Anglo Irish family with a beautiful estate in Ireland and became a ‘de Vere’. She eventually wrote a lovely book that describes her childhood and experiences as a young woman. Writing seems to be in the family genes, and I occasionally wonder if the Granny I never knew sometimes found herself voyaging with words, feeling the solace of it – the surprises and discoveries.
Writing, then, was very much part of my early life. Dad had written some educational books for children when he was younger. He worked overseas in education for many years and then became a teacher and headmaster. He was 54 when I was born and shortly afterwards became a clergyman. We lived in County Limerick in the depths of the Irish countryside and he spent hours tapping away on his typewriter in the large, rambling rectory. His face intent, his fingers hardly able to keep up with his thoughts. I sometimes borrowed his typewriter. In fact I wrote my first book on it called ‘Stories For Everyone’. I was about 11 at the time.
A self-published work with a print run of one copy, it featured a woman, a horse and a puppy on the cardboard cover, and the singer John Paul Jones on the back. It contained two stories. One was about my pony Merrylegs and another was about the joys of nature, so it didn’t quite live up to its title. But mum and dad liked it. And as we all know, encouragement is invaluable to a budding author.
I now live in Ireland and have also lived in England, Africa and the United States. Though I still adore ponies and nature these days I have extended my subject matter. Other women’s lives fascinate me and writing about them helps me to make sense of my own experiences. What’s more, I make all sorts of new friends as I type the chapters. Characters sometimes just seem to turn up, and I greet them hoping that they will share their hopes and disappointments, their fears and dreams and perplexities.
I love intimacy in ordinary life, people who seem to understand, people I don’t have to pretend with. And that’s what the characters in my novels ask of my friendship with them. They want to take off their masks and tell it how it truly is. Sometimes male characters do this too and I almost fall in love with them. For example I find Charlie in my book Ordinary Miracles deeply fanciable. And Nathaniel in The Truth Club would make a most wonderful confidant.
When people ask me for advice about writing I tell them to write. It is the process of writing that will reveal the kind of writer they are. The creative side of you needs to be sensitive, but the part of you that sends off manuscripts and receives feedback and may have to deal with rejection, has to develop a thick skin.
As to finding an agent, one tip is to read the Acknowledgments in books that you love. The author’s agent is usually mentioned and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t contact them yourself. But do your homework. Find out, for example, if they initially just want a synopsis and some sample chapters.
But whatever you do, and whatever your inspiration, write. Get on with it and see where the journey takes you. As Joseph O’Connor said, “There is only one trait that writers have in common. They watch for the extraordinary magic that lies in the everyday. Not willing inspiration but just being open to the world. This quiet looking and thinking is the imagination. It’s letting in ideas. It’s trying, I suppose, to make some sense of things.” Yes, that’s what us writers really need, and hope for.