Today, please welcome Hilary Shepherd in my Welsh Wednesday Interview Series.
Hello Hilary, first up, please tell us about your connection to Wales.
I’ve lived in mid-Wales for nearly forty years, apart from two years in the 80s when we lived in the Sudan. My grandmother came from West Wales so although I’ll always be an outsider Wales is somewhere in my blood.
Tell us a little about yourself as writer and as person.
I was always stabbing at writing but it never flowed. It didn’t help that I was farming for twenty years and had three young children and a husband who was absent for weeks at a time. I was always far too busy to sit down for long at anything indoors. What pushed me over the edge in the end was a boil on my leg. While it lasted, farming was agony and the only thing I could think of to distract myself was to start writing the book I’d got in my head. The sheer pleasure of writing took over like an addiction. I finished that novel in a year and wrote another the year after. The children were teenagers by then, but the vegetable garden did grow a little wild.
Of course those ‘novels’ were really only first drafts, and anyway they went into a drawer. Divorce and a new job that took me off the farm three days a week put paid to writing for the next three or four years. Then I wrote a third novel, and polished up the first two. I started approaching agents but drew a blank until I sent outlines of all three novels to the Welsh publisher, Honno. They offered me a two-book contract.
My first two books to be published were based on periods of my life spent in Africa – the Sudan in ‘Animated Baggage’ (published 2012), and Ghana in ‘In A Foreign Country’ (2014). In both cases I used the period and some of the events that I’d experienced as the framework for the plot, but part of the pleasure of writing was to look through different people’s eyes. It was also a homage to places I found difficult to live in, but which I could not now live without.
Unfortunately, ‘Animated Baggage’ was only in print for six months. Some people I knew in Khartoum in 1986 felt that some of my characters looked too much like their family and threatened legal action. Although to me my characters were quite different, the blur between reality and fiction is very difficult to defend and it was a relief when the publishers decided it would be diplomatic to withdraw the book. It was a terribly painful experience but one day I hope to re-draft the passages in the book they took issue with and publish it again.
What is your life like outside of writing?
I have a wonderful life! I spend more time writing now than used to feel respectable, but I like to balance it with practical work outside the house. We bought a derelict property five years ago and are gradually working our way round the house and outbuildings, replacing roofs and making windows. I’m the chippie – I do all the woodwork. One of my greatest pleasures is running up stairs I have built.
Which Welsh person would you like to invite for dinner and what would you serve?
It would have to be Dylan Thomas, for Under Milk Wood (and hearing Richard Burton read it when I was sixteen). And it would have to be straight alcohol that I served. But I think I probably wouldn’t like him at all. Sometimes great voices should be heard and not seen.
What is the best thing about Wales?
The people. Especially the farmers in our valley.
What are you working on now?
I have a book out with an agent at the moment, which means it is still a work in progress. It’s a historical novel set in Spain at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Meanwhile I’m writing the next one, novel number five. This is a psychological study of a 25 year relationship which begins when a teacher runs away to India with one of his pupils. It’s been quite difficult moving from such a big canvas as the Spanish Civil War to a story set entirely within the confines of a marriage, but I’m about three quarters of the way through the first draft now and I’m beginning to be confident of the ending. I was afraid the story might get to 110,000 words and peter out…
What are the best and the worst aspects of writing?
Best: having a good idea. Worst: finding it hasn’t really got an ending.
How do you balance marketing one book and writing the next?
The answer for me is, in spite of good intentions, I don’t do it very well. For one thing, life keeps getting in the way. For another, I’d much rather write the books than sell them, just as I much preferred rearing beef and lamb to selling it.
What is your advice to new writers?
From bitter experience I can say be careful if your story is set in real time and space and within the framework of real events. Before you publish, think about each character and what similarities each has with real people in that time and place, bearing in mind that it’s surprisingly easy for the sub-conscious to trick you, turning up details you didn’t know you knew, or even more weirdly, turn out to be true even though in your story you were using pure imagination. Consider your reaction if any of those people were to challenge you. The answer might well be that you are happy to stand by what you have written, however uncomfortable, but if the thought gives you palpitations, take avoidance action. Bearing in mind that Colm Tóibín said some stories are too good not to be written. If you care about being sued, be a solicitor instead.
IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY
Even in your father’s house you can feel like an outsider
It has taken Anne a long time to arrive in her father’s house: he has been working in West Africa ever since her parents separated when she was small. Now at last, her university studies completed, she has come on a six month visit – a chance to get to know her dad properly as well as put her anthropological studies to practical use. But in northern Ghana it is the start of the rainy season and even small events are dramatic. As storms break noisily and the natural world erupts into leaf and flower, nothing is quite what it seems.
A coming-of-age story as a young woman struggles to fit her liberal principles to the awkward realities of life in the heat of the African sun.
Paperback. Also available as an e-book
First published by Honno in March 2014
Order from bookshops. Also available on-line from all major booksellers and from www.honno.co.uk