The current Books Council of Wales Welsh language Book of the Month is Rebecca Roberts’ novel Y Defodau which intriguingly has as its central character a humanist celebrant of namings, marriages and funerals.
Jon Gower has been talking to her to find out more about this latest volume and her background as a writer.
You knew you were going to be a novelist even when you were attending primary school? What made you so certain?
I’ve always been a storyteller. As a child I was a daydreamer, a bookworm who loved imaginative play (traits I’m seeing in my own children). Even from a very young age I loved telling stories.
If I’d not become a novelist I know I’d have expressed my creativity in another way, whether it be doing story time in libraries, creative workshops, working in theatre, acting or working as a celebrant.
Happily, when I started high school I learned to type and wrote my first 10,000 story, and after that I knew that I’d found what I was meant to be doing.
What’s helped you realise this ambition along the way?
Lack of a social life and a disinterested family. I lived miles away from my friends, so until I was 15 I basically spent school holidays stuck at home.
My family have always been supportive, but not in an intrusive or inquisitive way. I was basically just left to get on with teaching myself how to write novels. Having that time and space to develop was very valuable.
Along the way, there were little ‘boosts’ that made me realise that I might have an above-average chance of getting a novel published.
The first sign was winning the Cwpan Coffa Eleanor Cotton for the best short story in Welsh, in year 6 of primary school.
I won a few minor competitions, and even when I didn’t win the feedback was usually enough to persuade me to keep going.
If I’m honest, the one thing that’s helped me realise this ambition has been my own ability to persevere – to write and re-write in the face of rejection and believe that I could be good enough, even if I wasn’t there just yet.
Has it been an easy path to follow?
No. I don’t want to think how many hours, weeks or months of my life I’ve spent writing. Some of my books I’ve re-written several times.
I’ve been rejected by agents and publishers, and been told ‘I don’t think you’ll make it as a writer’ by a university tutor.
2017 was a personal low point. After years spent working on novels, I had come so close to a publishing deal with two different publishers and securing agency representation… and then I realised that I’d not heard from any of them in months and I was probably being politely ghosted.
Then I got really bad feedback from a competition and decided to scrap that novel. I remember sitting with my head in my hands, wanting to cry at the realisation that none of my four projects were going anywhere. I was on the verge of giving up writing.
As one last roll of the dice, I decided to send two of the books to Gwasg Carreg Gwalch and Gomer Press – and within weeks of each other, they’d accepted Mudferwi and Eat.Sleep.Rage.Repeat for publication, and asked for #Helynt too.
Even since then, I’ve had to push through a lot of self-doubt and impostor syndrome.
It’s only really this past year that I’ve begun to ‘feel’ like a novelist rather than someone who just got lucky.
Ultimately though, despite all the hard work and the self-doubt, I have no regrets over the path I’ve chosen. I’m proud of my books and I feel that I’m improving with each novel.
There aren’t that many Welsh language books set in north-east Wales. Is it part of the aim of your writing to change that?
I write about north-east Wales simply because I’ve lived and worked here all my life. I know the geography, the dialect, the communities, and I think that gives my work an authenticity.
Your latest novel, ‘Y Defodau‘ (The Rituals) has an intriguing central character, Gwawr, who is a secular celebrant of namings, weddings and funerals. How did she come into being?
I’m actually a humanist celebrant myself, and I work in partnership with my mum.
It occurred to me that a celebrant would be a good subject for a novel, as they are often in emotionally difficult situations, and meet lots of interesting people and tell their stories.
I remember going for a walk one day and Gwawr just sort of popped into my head, fully-formed.
I called her Gwawr as my Mum is called Dawn, and I dedicated the book to her too.
To what extent is your writing autobiographical?
I choose not to write autobiographically, mainly out of respect for the privacy of family and friends. However, a close friend observed that my books are a sort of roadmap of my life.
The themes and ideas that feature in my real life often end up become central to my fiction.
This is partially intentional (‘Write what you know’ allows me to write from a place of emotional authenticity and do minimal research), but also serves as my way of exploring and making sense of the world.
A good example of this is ‘Chwerwfelys’, which was commissioned, written and published during the Covid-19 pandemic, meaning that I had to find time to write despite being constantly in the company of others, while I was unwell with Covid and struggling to juggle multiple jobs.
I think some of my exhaustion and frustration seeped into the text, and that’s why it feels claustrophobic and carries the message that we need to slow down and place fewer expectations on ourselves.
It’s a lesson I learnt – and so did Alys, the protagonist!
It’s arranged as a series of notebooks, kept by Gwawr. What made you decide to present the story in this form?
Each chapter is named after one of Gwawr’s clients, and begins with a snippet of a ceremony Gwawr has conducted.
Sometimes it’s a note scrawled during a family visit (complete with crossing out and spur-of-the -moment ideas); sometimes it’s a first draft when Gwawr is struggling to find the right words; and sometimes it’s a section of the final script to give the reader a better idea of what a non-religious ceremony entails.
I did this because I wanted to show the celebrants’ writing process at work – every ceremony is completely unique and celebrants spend a lot of time finding the right way to tell our clients’ stories and capture them on paper.
From a practical perspective, it helped to name the chapters after individuals.
There’s a large cast (many of whom only appear posthumously), and I wanted to avoid Gwawr conducting a string of meaningless ceremonies for nameless, faceless clients.
Everybody mentioned in Gwawr’s notebook impacts her in some way. She may be telling their stories through the ceremonies – but this also helps her find a way to progress her own narrative.
Did the notebook structure have any problems or limitations?
Some chapters read almost like short stories: Gwawr meets a client who says or does something to change her perspective on life, she reflects and learns something about her own situation.
There’s sometimes a moral or a saying attached to a chapter, (such as when her Taid reminds her ‘No man is an island’).
But I think an entire book of such stories wouldn’t have given the reader the opportunity to see the full extent of Gwawr’s development, so I introduced scenes and elements which had nothing to do with her work as a celebrant.
Gwawr’s book begins as a notebook for her celebrant work and ends as a personal journal, complete with press cuttings and other ephemera.
It’s not quite the structure I envisioned when I started writing the book, but the evolution was natural, and I think it made the plot stronger.
Gwawr joins a cast list of characters in your novels who are female, strong and are in some way dealing with trauma or challenge. Is that you staking out your territory as a writer?
I think my novels feature strong female characters because I am surrounded by so many of them in real life!
I have far more women in my family than men, and I work in a sector traditionally dominated by females, and my best friends are all female.
There are so many inspirational, courageous and ambitious women in my life. I’m not going to embarrass them by naming anyone – other than my Nan, who sadly is no longer with us.
Like Gwawr, she suffered the worst loss a person can suffer, and she internalised her pain and carried on living her life with grace, kindness and compassion.
When I write, the best bits of the people I love find their way into my fiction.
If I can create strong, brave, resilient characters, it’s because I’ve absorbed those qualities from the people I love.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m half way through Prawf Mot by Bethan Gwanas.
As someone who once wanted to work with dogs, I find it uncanny how accurate her ‘dogseye’ view of the world is!
I’ve been too busy to read much recently, but I hope to change that over the summer holidays.
If you had to do something else what might that be? Or is it impossible to see yourself doing anything other than writing?
I’ve always been a writer, and I will always be a writer. Maybe one day I’ll become a full-time novelist.
I’m a creative person who enjoys painting and dancing and anything that lets me express myself; but I’ve always had a ‘proper job’.
I’ve been working since I was 13, and I’ve worked for over 30 different employers – in kitchens, schools, offices, hospitals, festivals…
When I was young I knew that I wanted to study creative writing, and after that I had no idea what I would do with my degree or where I would be employed.
I have no idea what I’ll be doing in five- or ten-years’ time, other than writing more books.
Are you already on to the next book? Happy to give us a glimpse?
I’ve just reached the half-way point of the sequel to #Helynt, and I’ve plotted a sequel to Curiad Gwag, so I have my next few YA projects lined up.
In terms of adult fiction, I’ve had a work in progress constantly since 2019 and suddenly I have no commissions or deadlines to meet.
I have three or four synopses, but haven’t decided what my next story is going to be.
My work so far has concentrated on the character arch of a single protagonist, written in the first person, so I feel the time has come to push out of my comfort zone and be a little more ambitious and diverse.
I think it’s going to take a while for me to find the right project and writing style.
I’ve just started a short stage play (the first I’ve written in many years) about an anarchic climate change activist who tries to help prevent the closure of a rural primary school by chaining herself to the Tŷ Bach Twt in protest.
I’m not sure if it’s satire or comedy or political drama – but I’m having fun writing it.
All the books mentioned can be found by following the links or from good bookshops.
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