Category Archives: Interviews

Writers turn to social media

Last year I wrote several pieces on the digitisation of the publishing industry, so I was interested to hear Margaret Atwood championing Wattpad in the headlines.

The site allows users to upload story extracts as they write and receive feedback from online readers. Unpublished writers can build a fan base and reach a global audience.

By contrast Atwood, who joined Wattpad in June, is a literary heavyweight and a Booker Prize winner. Although she already has all the publicity she needs, her presence on the website has drawn attention to what she calls a “new generation” of writers.

As a journalist I already know the value of having an online presence and I wanted to find out how important this has become for writers as well. I contacted Susan Richardson, a full-time writer, performer and tutor of creative writing based in Wales, to find out how she uses social media to promote her work.

Interview with Susan:

When did you start using social media in your capacity as a writer and why?

I started using Facebook back in 2008 and began blogging in the same year. My first collection of poetry, Creatures of the Intertidal Zone, had recently been published and I was looking for new ways in which to market the book and also seeking to do more readings/performances. Facebook proved to be very useful in this respect and I also appreciated feeling more connected to a wider community of writers.

Susan Richardson at work

I tend to go through phases. Often I will use Facebook and Twitter several times a day. At other times, I may go for a week without checking in at all. I think it depends on where I am with a particular writing project. When I’m deep into first-draft-writing and things are flowing well, I try to minimise distractions. However, when I’m more in editing mode or if I’m in a sticky place with the writing, I often actively seek distractions of the social media kind.

Has social media become obligatory, is this the way things are moving? Are writers able to opt out of these anymore?

I feel that social media has become obligatory in the sense that it’s a very valuable way of spreading news of publication/readings/performances. I can’t imagine trying to attract an audience to an event by relying only on flyers and other print publicity, or word of mouth, any longer.

You’re also a creative writing tutor. How are online systems being used to encourage new writers?

My first experience of online creative writing tuition came in 2002 when I became one of the tutors for trAce, the online writing school at Nottingham Trent University. It was very exciting to be involved at this time – to tutor students from different parts of the world, and to encourage these students to offer feedback on each other’s work, just as in a face-to-face workshop.

I also had the experience of tutoring several students at trAce who had already taken courses with me at Cardiff University. They really blossomed in the online environment, both offering and receiving feedback with gusto, whereas in non-online workshops, they’d tended to be more reserved. The semi-anonymity of the online environment definitely put them at ease and they found the experience very valuable.

Some writers remain sceptical about sites like Twitter and Facebook. What would you say in response?

As I’ve said, I’ve found Facebook to be very helpful in terms of publicising readings/performances/other events in which I may be involved, and there’s certainly been a knock-on effect, in that I’ve gained more bookings as a result. I’m less convinced of the efficacy of Twitter in this respect, but then I haven’t embraced it to quite the same degree. I mostly tend to use Twitter as a writing news information source – visiting, and disseminating, writing-related links and so on.

How do you use social media as a writer? Any tips? Let me know by posting a comment, I’d love to hear from you.

Susan also has her own blog which you can see by clicking here


Vanessa Gebbie on The Coward’s Tale

Vanessa Gebbie’s novel The Coward’s Tale was published in November last year by Bloomsbury. It begins with a young boy, Laddy Merridew, who is sent to live with his grandmother in a small Welsh mining village. Vanessa’s novel, which unpicks life in the village, is a poignant exploration of love and loss. 

You have a deep attachment to Wales as a country. Why has it has such an impact on you?

Vanessa Gebbie

I was adopted at birth, by David and Gwladys Rees, a Welsh couple from Merthyr Tydfil.  They had had to leave South Wales during the depression to follow the professions they’d chosen, to find jobs, and never really settled properly in England. Wales, more specifically Merthyr, was always, always home. It is where both families were, both sets of grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. So, from my earliest days going home meant going to Merthyr.

There was then for me as a child, a double-displacement. That of being removed from my birth mother, and then living with a mum and dad for whom home was never the house, or indeed the country we lived in. Add to that their love and mine, for the place they did call home, and perhaps you can see why a child would identify very strongly with that place and that background.

The Coward’s Tale is based loosely on your childhood town of Twynyrodyn in Merthyr.

Did it help to have a picture of a certain place when you started writing?

It certainly helped to visualise the places I knew.  Everywhere means something to me or my parents. I know all the places where they grew up, went to school, played, went for walks when they were courting. All were put in the novel to give my late dad pleasure.

My grandmother lived in Highland View, Twynrodyn. That became Maerdy Street in the novel, where one of my favourite characters lives, Half Harris.  Mary Street, which is an extension of the same street in reality, became a parallel street. The pub, The Cat, is made up. But on Twyn hill there is of course the Bali Glas. Seeing that pub was always a signal to the child in the back seat  of the car that we were almost home so it had to be included.

The character of the beggar or storyteller Ianto Jenkins is the one who has been there all his life, of course. Laddy, the boy, arrives at the start of the novel. He is an outsider, just as I was. So perhaps I also see the town through his eyes, a bit, fresh and new.

Vanessa remembers the bus going up Twyn Hill, "leaning in, as if to look into the bedroom windows".

Did you revisit Wales at any point while you were writing?

I went back to Merthyr once or twice while I was writing this novel. The first time, I took my then very elderly Dad back, and we visted his old haunts, Cyfarthfa Castle  and the streets of Twynyrodyn, Penuel Chapel. The second time was in a snowstorm in about 2007. I went up on the train to visit the library, in the very early days of writing. I say in the library reading room and read lots of microfiched newspapers. My Dad was born in 1915 – it was really fascinating, and often moving, to read about the town back then.

I remember reading the court cases, particularly about the soldiers who’d come back from WWI, many of them damaged in some way, unable to work much. One chap, his wife was pregnant with their fourth child, and the  snow was deep in the steets, as it was while I was there. He dug just enough coal from the drift mines to keep the house warm for two nights, his wife was on the point of giving birth.  He was fined, and sent to prison.

There’s a picture for you.

But once I was really into the novel I didn’t go back. I’d been shocked and intrigued to find the library wasn’t as I’d remembered it, it was a different colour for a start. So I decided to trust to the creative spirit to settle the town of the book as it was meant to be. Not as a real place, but as somewhere that owed an awful lot to memory. And the writer is grateful for that.

Your description of the deaths down the Kindly Light Pit is particularly poignant after the Gleision tragedy last September.

That was dreadful. My heart went out to the families, and the whole community.

I  remember being advised a few years ago that today, no-one could write fiction involving a coal mining accident in Wales, as that was all in the past, and was something Wales would rather move away from. Well, I’m sorry, the Glesion Colliery tragedy shows how wrong that is. Mining is not in the past. You can’t just shove it all under the carpet like that. Men are still risking their lives for coal.  My family too, both sides, were involved in the coal industry  for generations. I am not going to just forget that. Both grandfathers died young because of the industry. I grew up with a strong sense of that heritage.

The Coward’s Tale is about coming to terms with your heritage, and learning to live your life despite it, or as in my case, thanks to it. It would have indeed been cowardly of me not to write what I really wanted to wouldn’t it, to allow myself to be frightened off?

Picture of the Taff Merthyr Colliery by Chris Sampson

Many of the details of the Kindly Light mine collapse are based on the 1913 Senghennydd disaster. It was important that the mine collapse should be right, it had to be ‘true’ if not real. I did not want to do it the disrespect of not making it as horrific as it was. The superstitions as well, the bad luck associated with seeing some birds, and associated with a miner going home after he’d left for work, they are real.

How hard is it as a writer to tackle issues of grief and loss? Was this an inevitable part of your story after choosing to write about a Welsh mining town?

I don’t think you could write about a mining community without the subject of grief and loss coming into it somewhere. It would not have to be Welsh, but of course, coal mining is the ground on which the people of today are walking in the valleys, like it or not.

Having said this,  the themes come first. I have always written to those themes, for years. Most of my short stories in both collections explore those issues from various perspectives, because they are some of my preoccupations – displacement, fractured lives, overcoming loss in many ways.  Maybe I needed to find a larger canvas that explored the themes in more depth, which this novel does. But exploring them in a town, as opposed to the restricted palette of a short story, allows for a richer end-result perhaps. There is more room for all the colours, the facets, the light and dark of life. The humour and the beauty as well as the ugliness.

The Coward’s Tale contains some things which are typically Welsh, for example the tradition of storytelling and the fact everyone knows each other.

Did you try to work with or against these typicalities at different points in the novel?

 I woudn’t say storytelling is a preserve of just the Welsh, by any means. No I think storytelling is rooted in most cultures. And everyone knows each other in small communities the world over, don’t they?

Ianto Jenkins, the beggar-storyteller in The Coward’s Tale is an outsider. He’s been ostracised, for reasons that become clear during the novel’s unfolding, and then reconciled to some extent with the community. Maybe his ability to spin the stories of the town have helped with that reconciliation, but it hasn’t gone far enough. Its the journey of the novel, tracking the final stages of that process.

One thing I know, is that an outsider has a privileged perspective, they aren’t bamboozled by politics and agendas as much as those closer to events. His stories hold truth, uncomfortable as that often is.

I think most people understand the idiosyncracies of small communities, everyone knowing everyone else’s business, the way rumour can flash round impossibly fast on the one hand and, among the positive things, a community’s abilities to pull together when things are tough for the whole of for the individual. And the tradition of the storyteller – it’s in our cultural heritage, for most of us – whether its recognised or not, overtly. So I was working in the knowledge that most people know or understand that.

As a storyteller was Ianto the character you felt closest to?

The paperback edition of The Coward's Tale was published last month in March.

I am a mix of everyone, probably, but closest to Ianto and Laddy, who are, in a way, old and young versions of the same person. I have always felt myself to be an outsider – because of my origins, I suppose. But that is a hugely privileged position to be in, for a writer. As a child, I loved escaping into a make-believe world, daydreaming, others call it.  And then escaping into fictitous worlds, the best escape ever. The jump to telling stories to myself, and then my friends was not that big, I used to fill school exercise books with my early utterings, mostly  horror stories. Gory things, thank heavens I got that lot out of my system!

Who would you choose to be if you were to take the place of a character?

Peter Edwards. I would love to be able to pick up a piece of coal and hear through my fingers the stories of what it is like to be a forest, or a stone and hear what it is to be a mountain.

This is your first novel, how different is it writing a novel compared to short stories?

The writing process is the same , it is in the editing stages that the bigger piece is more difficult to lick into shape. I had great difficulty keeping track of it all, as I was too superstitious to keep it all together anywhere, it was in bits in files on several computers, and on memory sticks all over the house. I had no real idea how to structure it,  that took a year of further work after I finally finished a complete draft. Thanks to the Arts Council and their Grants for the Arts scheme, I worked with a wonderful novelist, Maggie Gee, who guided me thorough the polishing stages.

How different is The Coward’s Tale now from when you first started writing?

The first little bit of writing that ended up in The Coward’s Tale was written in 2003.  I stayed playing with the voice, and snippets, back then. So perhaps its not that different. I like to think it is more focussed, though. It is certainly more coherent. I found, once I brought it all together, that a few characters’ names had changed, one even changed sex, several moved houses, without asking me.

Vanessa has her own blog which you can see by clicking here.

If you’ve enjoyed this post I’d love to hear from you. Please click ‘like’ or leave a comment. 

An interview with Nigel Jarrett

Nigel Jarrett is the author of Funderland, a collection of short stories which explore the complexity of human relationships. Funderland was widely reviewed in the national press at the time of its publication, in October 2011, and has been longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2012.

Lesley McDowell, writing for the Independent on Sunday, said you’re “not afraid of unusual perspectives”

Can you explain what she means by this? What should readers expect when they buy a copy of your book?

She was probably referring to one or two stories in which the traditionally formal element of construction is varied- in one case it’s epistolary (though the ‘letter’ concerned is not one that you could ever imagine anyone writing) and the other is annalistic-episodic; it’s broken up into events at different times and places,  in India and in London. I hope readers will enjoy being introduced to unusual settings and unfamiliar lives. I wouldn’t want to tell them anything they already knew.

Funderland is the name of your title story, the tale of a big-dipper crash.

 Do you enjoy writing dark and scary stories, why?

Nigel won the Rhys Davies for contemporary short fiction in 1995 and has been a competition finalist twice, most recently this year in February

I’m a dark and scary person (I jest). The story you refer to is not about a fairground fatality as such, but the accident is the background to the events depicted. The survivor becomes emeshed in a relationship that may already have begun, in one case at least, before the accident happened. Sometimes it takes trauma to bring these things into the open.

For many of us, our feelings and desires are literally unspoken. But if you’ve seen two friends or relatives fall to their deaths from a Big Dipper and been badly injured yourself, it’s likely that your inhibitions were among the things that fell away. Not that such cause and effect applies here with any immediacy; but clearly there’s something going on:  the movements of the couple (a man and his sister-in-law) are still ritualised around what amounts to a taboo – that of incest, though the relationship is not a blood one. Incest also crops up in another of the stories. This is not the stuff of nightmare. I think taboos should be dealt with candidly.

Google says there are three theme parks in Belfast, Limerick and Dublin named Funderland.

Do you base your stories on real-life locations and situations or do they come from your imagination?

Funderland is published by Parthian Books

I found out about the Irish Funderlands only when I Googled my book after it went on sale. All my locations are real-life ones to a certain extent, but in this case I though I’d made up a word. I’m a keen neologist and have a pair of binoculars to prove it. Funderland is the title of the fairground accident story for (a) obvious reasons and because (b) it reverberates throughout the collection, in which the ‘fun’ element is paradoxical (a lot of these happenings are not funny). The ‘wonderland’ part reflects the extraordinary world of human relationships.

As for real-life situations, none of my stories is autobiographical. My father often took me, my brother and sister and my mother from South Wales to Cornwall on holiday and, before the Severn Bridge was built, the journey often took twelve hours. But he’s not the disturbing stepfather in Watching The Birdie, which depicts a car journey to a sort of domestic hell.

You’ve been a reporter and music critic for many years.

How did you make the transition from journalist to poet?

There was no change of clothes. The designations are mutually exclusive. In any case, I was writing poetry and fiction while I was reporting and sub-editing, though writing for a living makes the assumption of one activity, while pursuing the other, much easier.  Until this year, I’d never based a poem or a work of fiction on my life as a journalist. I have now. It’s a novel about a former Fleet Street crime bureau chief washed up on a provincial weekly newspaper. I know all about this stuff. Sensational events ensue, needless to say. I have high hopes of publication.

Journalists are trained to keep copy sharp and accurate but poetry seems a different way of working with words.

Has your experience as a journalist affect the way you write or is it just a case of adapting your style for different platforms?

All writing should be sharp and accurate. Journalism obviously makes you keen to obey the same rules whatever you’re committing to print. The main difficulty is in wanting to escape the strictures of an economical style, to be more effusive and elaborate. It’s like going on holiday and drinking too much. The great example is Evelyn Waugh, who had economy of literary means from the start. No-one knows where it originated – certainly not in the English of his day, in which ‘far-reaching propositions’ was always rendered as ‘propositions of a far-reaching character’. It’s called circumlocution and I’ve spent years banishing it from reporters’ copy. It’s Sod’s Law, of course, that some will identify it in these answers.

What’s it like to have the tables turned? Is it odd to see your work being critiqued instead of being a critic?

Nigel is music critic for The South Wales Argus

I don’t mind criticism, as long as it’s well-meant.  ‘Tables turned’ suggests some kind of hostility. We’re all in this together though I  feel that destructive criticism is often written for effect or notoriety and effusive praise for ease and to avoid trouble. Except in my case, where unbounded enthusiasm for my work is carefully-considered and well-meant. He said.

Short story collections are often tied together by a common theme or idea and critics have noted the stories in Funderland often deal with family relationships.

Would you agree with this and why? How long did the collection take to complete and is it organised in particular way?

Interesting. Four stories in the script submitted originally had to be dropped because my wonderful editor, Eluned Gramich, didn’t think much could be cut. So we were left with a quart of words and a pint-sized book. She noted the family theme, which I hadn’t. That’s the genius of editing. She was right, of course. We then knew which stories to drop.

Someone has also pointed out to me since publication that there’s a lot of sitting on settees , a lot of people staring out of windows and two ‘abstemious’ families. These are clearly deep psychological observations. I don’t know what they mean or whether they’re significant, and I hadn’t even noticed them. But I love it when readers pick up on things I’ve been unaware of. It proves there’s something else going on when stories are written

The collection is not ‘organised’ as such. Most of the stories had already appeared in literary magazines of solemn obscurity; in my more raffish moments I describe such publications as ‘underground’. But obviously I had to choose what to include out of the forty or so I’ve had published. I’m still writing – every day of every week – and not just stories.

If you’ve enjoyed this post I’d love to hear from you. Please click ‘like’ or leave a comment. 

An interview with Ivy Alvarez

Ivy Alvarez was born in the Philippines and grew up in Australia. Her work has appeared in anthologies and journals around the world, with individual poems translated into Russian, Japanese, Spanish and Korean. Now Ivy lives in Cardiff where she runs poetry workshops and is the editor of The Private Press, which publishes handmade chapbooks. Her book Mortal was published by Red Morning Press in 2006.

Your first collection Mortal started with the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone

When did you first hear this story?

My interest in fairy tales, biblical stories, myths and legends stem from childhood. I was very much a reader even then.  I can’t exactly recall when I first discovered the Demeter and Persephone myth in particular. Quite likely it was around that time or pretty much soon after arriving in Australia when I was ten years old.

What was it about this story which captured your imagination?

Photograph taken by Rachael Duncan

The one element in the story of Demeter and Persephone that always sticks with me is the detail of the pomegranate seeds and how everything can be undone by overlooking something so simple and almost trivial. It’s also not a little maddening. They would’ve escaped Hades, if only Persephone hadn’t taken the seeds! Still, I can understand the action. It is an all-too-human mistake.

When I first read it, I had no idea what a pomegranate looked like, though. It’s not very common where I grew up, either in the Philippines or in Tasmania. Knowing it as I do now, the closest approximation I have would be the guava, though in my book, I use the aratilis (Muntingia calabura) to replace the mythical fruit.

Persephone’s story has been used throughout history by poets like Tennyson and artists like Rossetti and Bernini

How did you alter it to make it your own?

The Demeter and Persephone myth provides a solid framework for Mortal and is a microcosmic version of Dee and Seph’s story. In the book, Persephone becomes Seph, Demeter, Dee. The name-change, switching from the formal to a casual nickname, demarcates a splitting-off from the mythical characters. These are now not gods — merely a mother and daughter.

Another sign of this myth-disruption can be found in the prose poem ‘The Abduction of Demeter’, which begins: ‘This time it is Demeter Hades wants.’ This poem forms part of the Demeter and Persephone sequence in Mortal. I envisioned this sequence as a tapestry painting, depicting a story which, when transposed onto the modern lives of Dee and Seph, shows the differences and similarities between past and present.

What was the inspiration for the title of Mortal? How does the collection deal with issues of mortality?

I love it when a word has a multiplicity of meanings, and especially when these meanings contradict each other. ‘Mortal’ is one such word. The poems in the book address these definitions one way or another and the theme of gods and mortals threads its way through some of them.

How does the collection deal with issues of mortality? I’m not sure the book completely resolves the many issues surrounding that question. All one can do is tell a story and hope that, in the telling, one can gain an understanding of why it is mortals have to die and gods can live forever.

In the myth Demeter’s grief after the loss of her daughter is particularly painful 

How special is the bond between a mother and daughter?

The question — what would it be like if they die before I do? — probably floats through one’s mind, as either a parent or a child, at one time or another. This is the yawning chasm nobody wants to look into too closely.

How can one come to grips with such an emotionally loaded topic? One turns to the past. A mythical character’s grief happens at a remove. There is the paper. There is the ink. There is the story of what they’re feeling. Here I am on the other side of the page, reading about it. The myth helps one understand, brings it closer into focus, and so create order from chaos.

 Have you had different responses to the book in different parts of the world? 

One notable response to the book comes from readers whose relationships with their mothers are, I gather, somewhat strained or non-existent.

To these readers, I guess a mother-daughter relationship where the mother is clearly distraught at the loss of her daughter, as depicted in the myth, must seem foreign and unrecognisable. I must admit, it interests me, this reaction, and its difference from what I usually encounter.

Do you think your travel experiences have benefited you as a writer?

In May 2011, I received an invitation to give poetry readings in Seoul, Korea as part of Cordite’s Oz-Ko Poetry Tour. One way I tried to comprehend this life-changing experience is through writing a short series of strange prose poems. I find these personally intriguing because they feel so unlike my previous work.

Anything that shakes me out of my writing habits is to be highly prized, I feel. Travel definitely provides that jolt.

Snowdonia, taken by dringer

What do you think about Welsh culture and writing?

Cardiff’s cultural energy is hard to quantify or describe but it’s undeniable. It’s there. It has a quiet confidence in its own identity, one that’s not strident or self-important. I admire that.

When I first arrived in Cardiff, it felt familiar. The climate reminds me a lot of Hobart, where I grew up. It shares a similar topography: both have a river running through it, both have access to mountains and hills.

I think having a sense of the familiar helps provide some foundation. Wales is where I’ve lived the longest outside of Australia and it feels very stable to me. People here are the closest to the Australian level of laidback that I’ve seen. And I’ve written more here than anywhere else.

I’ve heard you’re writing a second book, can you tell me more about this?

I first had the idea for my second book in 2004, while I was in the middle of trying to get Mortal published. It is about a man who kills his wife, his son and then himself, leaving a daughter as the sole survivor.

I envisaged the work as a novel-like poem, a long poem made up of many poems, all telling the story of this terrible crime. It quickly became an obsession with me. I completed it in early 2011, so that’s about seven years, which is a long time to be living with such dark material. I admit to feeling quite emotional when I finished it.

I’m very excited about it. It’s quite an incredible accomplishment for me and I’m really looking forward to the day when it is published and other people can read it, too.

Ivy has her own website which you can see by clicking here

Cathy Farr on fantasy writing and dog walking

Author Cathy Farr would certainly agree with the saying a dog is man’s best friend. Her Irish wolfhound, Finn, has been a constant companion for four years and also inspired her first novel Moon Chase.

In Cathy’s story the villagers of Thesk, a wild and dangerous fantasy land, rely on the protection of the Fell men and their hounds to defend them against the Wraithe Wolves. For Cathy, having Finn allowed her to picture this world and the personality of the hounds.

Copyright: Monique Green

“People who know wolfhounds describe them as people, they always have a knowing expression,” said Cathy. “He watches me as though he’s trying to understand me.”

At nine foot long, Finn attracts plenty of attention during his walks with Cathy in Cosmeston Park, near their home in Dinas Powys. These trips provide exercise for Finn and inspiration for Cathy.

“When I get blocked and I haven’t got an idea I go to Cosmeston,”said Cathy. “There’s a bit at the back which is a bit barren and it’s great to get a feel of what the fells in Moon Chase might be like.

“If I go down to Cosmeston everybody wants to know about the book and about Finn. It’s really nice, I answer all their questions.”

Finn is also popular when Cathy visits local schools to talk about her book. Last month he accompanied Cathy to twenty different schools in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan. During these visits Cathy shares her passion for writing and reading with pupils.

“When I go to schools I’m really glad to see how many children are aspiring to be writers,” she said. “The book is especially popular with young boys.

“It’s very fast and pacy, it includes bows and arrows and big horses running around. The story grabs them and they keep reading.

“I wasn’t very good at English, I wasn’t that widely read. But I used to pore over song lyrics. The first novel I read was Wuthering Heights and I only read it because of the song. Kate Bush inspired me to read, you never know what’s going to kick people into reading.”

Cathy’s second book, Moon Crossing, follows on from Moon Chase and will be published between May and July. To write this Cathy used a technique called free-writing, each chapter was written spontaneously as the story gained momentum and characters came to life.

“I just find it easier to go with the story,”said Cathy. “It comes out of my head when I’m writing it.

“There are bits in the book I didn’t know would happen until they happened. When I started Moon Crossing I had a specific idea of what the end was going to be. But when I got there I realised there were far more stories than I had intended. That scene is in the middle of the book now.”

This month Cathy received a draft front cover for Moon Crossing, which she is hoping will help to make her book stand out on the shelves.

Moon Chase happens in the night-time so the cover is dark and black,” she said. “The second story is set in a big town. There’s a lot of fire and gold is mentioned, so the cover is orange and gold. It should jump out at you.

“I’ve left it open-ended again. I have the opportunity for a third book, but I don’t know if there will be any more. I didn’t think there was going to be a second book, so I don’t want to promise anything yet.”

Cathy has her own website which you can see by clicking here

If you’ve enjoyed this post I’d love to hear from you. Please click ‘like’ or leave a comment. 

Author David Wagner releases his autobiography

The life of a 70-year-old author, who survived years of childhood poverty, has proved to be golden material for an autobiography.

David Wagner’s new book Boy tells of life on the road with his mother Dolly since the age of six, after they were evicted from their home in Regent Street, Barry.

“History is usually written for the rich and famous and I thought it’s time it was written for the impoverished,” said David, who was signing copies of his book at AB Snell and Son, Penarth, last weekend.

“We slept rough anywhere we could find to shelter from the rain,” he said. “I’ve lived in bug ridden slums, that’s the sort of squalor I have encountered.”

After a period in the workhouse David and his mother, a former concert pianist, left and began travelling around the country looking for housekeeping or manual work, in Wales, South England and the Midlands.

“I was never in any place more than a few months,” said David. “You couldn’t look forward to next week. My mother was a very determined woman, she would go anywhere and try anything.”

Set in the 1940’s and 1950’s Boy tells the story of the first 15 years of David’s life. “It’s a world which has disappeared now,” he said. “I used to busk in pubs at the age of ten blacked up as Al Jolson, people didn’t think anything of it then.

“I have tried to introduce the next generation to it through the book. I’ve been telling these stories to my friends for years. People are very kind, they’ve said they found it fascinating.”

Boy includes David’s recollection of characters he met during his childhood, including a pig breeder with a glass eye from Pontllanfraith and a foster father with one leg.

“He took us in when my mother spent a year in hospital,” said David. “He had a smoke house and used to hunt rabbits. I never met my father, my foster father was the closest I had. He would do anything to keep the family provided for.”

Without a formal education, David learned to read from his mother and by reading his favourite author, Dickens. “Dickens was my tutor, I learned my English from him,” said David. “My mother, when she had pennies spare, she would buy me a book. Second to food was a book.”

Boy, which took a year to write, has the same title as Roald Dahl’s childhood memoirs. “My foster father used to call me boy, it was my second name,” said David. “I was called boy more often than I was called David. It was only after I discovered Dahl had called his book boy too.”

Now secretary for Barry Arts Centre, David settled in Penarth 35 years when he met his wife Pamela. “She was a good influence on me, I became respectable,” said David. “I never felt hard done by. That’s the way it was, you survived.”

David’s book can be purchased on Amazon or at AB Snell and Son. He has already started work on a sequel, Lad, which will detail the adventures of his later working life.

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Female writers at Agent 160 steal the show

Although women make up 52 per cent of the population, men write 83 per cent of plays, according to feminist theatre company Sphinx. Now Lisa Parry, artistic director for Agent 160, an exciting new female writer-led company, aims to change all this.

Twelve female playwrights will steal the limelight during the launch of Agent 160, at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, this weekend. With £16,520 worth of funding from art councils in Wales, England and Scotland, Lisa’s new venture will support rising female talent.

Playwright Lisa Parry

A former journalist, Lisa turned to playwriting after freelancing for several national newspapers. She returned to university to study scriptwriting at Birmingham. But as a regular theatre goer, Lisa soon found most plays were written by male authors.

“There was a definite run of them,” said Lisa. “Some writers are absolutely brilliant but it is unequal, you need to hear as many voices as you can. Writing is one of the ways which we express ourselves, we are not getting the full picture if there is no female voice. Frankly it’s not fair for young girls who want to write.”

Two years ago Lisa e-mailed several of her favourite female writers and Agent 160 was born.

“I got an e-mail from Lisa saying I’ve got a project, do you want to be involved?” said Welsh writer Branwen Davies, who is currently studying for a scriptwriting PhD in Aberystwyth. “I was horrified by the statistics when Lisa told me, it wasn’t something that I had thought about before.

“I thought through my favourite writers and a lot of them were men. Then, because I’m a Welsh speaker, I thought about the Welsh speaking playwrights who jump to mind and they were all male. I’m not really sure why this is, but the writers who are breaking through at the moment are all female. I think this will tip the balance.”

Agent 160 playwrights describe their plays in one word

After this weekend Agent 160 will perform in London and Glasgow. The team includes artists who live as far as Scotland and Ireland. Lisa, however, whose family is from Merthyr Tydfil, was happy to see the project launched in Cardiff. “I wanted to go there, it feels more like home,” she said.

Without an office, each writer works from home, using computers and secret internet forums to communicate. This keeps company costs down and makes the project all-inclusive. “All the writers are completely different,” said Lisa. “We deliberately gave them an open brief as some of the writers felt they were being pigeon holed.”

Branwen’s play is called Genki? – it means happy in Japanese,  and is based on her experiences during a year out in Japan.

The piece uses two female actors, with the second actor playing several different parts.  “I wanted to give it a sense of fun, to look at what Japan is like,” said Branwen. “The rehearsals went well yesterday, we had a good giggle.

“I think there is a stigma about female writers, that they write about how bad men are, and how wonderful women are. I wouldn’t say I’m writing in a typical female way. When I write for female characters I want to make them really powerful, I worry if they are too girly.”

Although the scriptwriters are female, other positions in the company are open to men, including London producer Dan Baker. “I think the men love it,” said Lisa. “Everyone has been working separately so I don’t think Dan has been exposed to the full female troop at the moment.”

Agent 160 takes its name from the restoration playwright Aphra Behn. Behn, who was one of the first women to earn a living by both acting and writing, also worked as a spy for Charles II and Agent 160 was her codename.

“I would hope she’d approve,” said Lisa. “From her plays it is obvious she understood power and gender politics.

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