Today I have the pleasure of introducing Nigel Jarrett to my blog. We met on Facebook in the Scribes of Wales group and have chatted a fair bit since deciding to do this interview. I am delighted to present him and his ideas to you. So welcome Nigel. Please tell us about your connection to Wales.
I was born in Cwmbrân and I’ve always lived in Wales. But I’m not a nationalist or even a patriot. I’ve never waved a flag and I have no intention of doing so. If anything, I’m an internationalist. Where you are born is pure accident, so how can you have any obligation to ‘country’? I mean, if you’re born in a slum or to violent parents, it’s not where you want to stay, not that the land of your birth is degrading or hazardous. So I’m connected to Wales by umbilicus, upbringing and domicile. However, I hate the idea of ‘connections’. I like the Lake District or London more than I like the South Wales valleys, even though both my grandfathers were coalminers here. But their being coalminers was to me more important than being ‘Welsh’ coalminers. The predicate is meaningless. If I were more adventurous and not prone to homesickness I’d live in Italy or France.
What I hate most of all is jingoism and xenophobia, the sisters of nationalism. I always shudder when, in rugby, England is referred to as ‘the old enemy’. You might think it innocent joshing, but it’s the surface of deeper and troubling divisions. I live in Britain. I’m British. The UK seems a reasonable acreage to function as an effective state, particularly as it’s surrounded by sea. It’s far from perfect but the alternatives are worse. I’m against devolution, which is a political blind alley. Despite their televisual bonhomie, Sturgeon and Salmond in Scotland are dangerous secessionists. How we are governed is more important than where we are governed from. That’s not to say that cultures should be ignored or that parts of the state do not get a good deal. For instance, I’m all for supporting and extending the Welsh language and Welsh culture, but only because the more languages we have the more variety there is in ways of expressing thoughts and ideas, and the wider range of culture we have the better. To me, devolution is only valid if it is more economically and practically advantageous. It’s nothing to do with country; it’s to do with geography and demographics. My politics are fluid but softleft-leaning and I’d like to vote for the party that seems to be doing the right thing. Alas, I always vote Labour, even when my candidate is a dim no-hoper. Every circumstance is different. Idealism is a luxury and, in times of stress, brainless. This is why we have politicians who would build nuclear submarines without warheads. What next? Guns without bullets? Whether or not they’re as dangerous as politicians who would stock and use nuclear weapons is one of life’s imponderables.
How have you found the experience of publishing, particularly self-publishing?
I’ve not tried self-publishing yet, because I’m unable to distinguish it very much from vanity publishing. I hate vanity publishing: it’s cynical on the part of the ‘publisher’ and it’s self-delusional on the part of the writer. I go the traditional route: you submit a script to a publisher, it’s accepted (or rejected, mostly rejected) and the whole cost of publication is borne by someone else. While there are lots of very good self-published books out there, an author needs a third-party value judgement and the work needs to be edited. So many self-published books are badly edited, or not edited at all, even when the publisher you’re paying says it is. That’s because authors think they don’t need to be edited or totally misunderstand what editing is, what effective syntax is; it’s a form of arrogance mixed with cowardice. Some self-published books are practically illiterate, poorly constructed and prolix. Having been a daily newspaper sub-editor for many years, I know that every story that came my way could be improved. Why would writers not want their work polished?
There’s nothing wrong in principle with self-publishing; it’s just that the question of being told by someone that your work is crap – and it may well be – cannot be countenanced. The big ‘literary’ fiction publishers – Cape, Faber, Chatto and Windus, Viking, Penguin, Picador etc. – can take only a small number of scripts, the small indie publishers a few more. If you can’t make it with either group, you have to self-publish. But you shouldn’t do it before you get a second or third unbiased opinion. There’s usually a good reason why your scripts are rejected. Take the criticisms in good faith and be honest with yourself. Is your work as brilliant as you think it is? But when a ‘self-publishing’ company offers to take on your book for £456, make sure it values the book’s essence as much as it does your willingness to part with cash. Otherwise, it’s vanity publishing by another name. If you do everything yourself, of course, then good luck. But don’t get your mates or some non-entity to write a 3,000-word encomium on the web and then flag-wave it as a five-star review. Try to get the TLS interested – or someone else with some clout. A notice in the London Review of Books is an achievement; one by an obscure blogger in Scunthorpe is flattery to deceive. I manage something in between. There’s a dangerous tendency among self-published writers these days to create a virtual redoubt on the web – you post something about my book, I’ll blog something about yours; that sort of thing. Writers shouldn’t consort too much with other writers; it’s non-writers who furnish the material for most of their work. Mix with them – and talk about anything but writing.
Why did you decide to write in your chosen genre(s)?
I’ve no chosen genres. I write poetry, essays, stories, novels. While I was a newspaper reporter, I wrote without thought of being published. It was mainly short fiction, because I had no time for anything more involved: I worked junior-doctor hours. Poetry was a result of that too. I’m amazed that so many writers stick to one category. When you think of something to write about, it chooses its own genre. Something is best expressed as a poem, something else as an essay, or a story. I’m always looking for publishing outlets.
Although I’m probably diametrically opposed to its politics, which are right of centre, I pitched an essay on politically-correct zoos to The Salisbury Review and it published – and paid me. It’s the money I’m interested in. As Dr Johnson said, only a fool writes for no pay. I’ve often been foolish in that sense and I still am. But other essays were taken up by that magazine and the cheques kept coming. If they knew what I thought of their political stance on most things, they’d probably ditch me. I’ve been a music critic for many years, so when I left full-time employment in newspapers I wrote to Jazz Journal magazine, asking if it would like to take some reviews from me. I’ve been with it for over five years. Ditto Acumen poetry magazine. Poetry and stories intended to be published as collections have to be previously published. But I’m no model of success. For the eighty-plus stories I’ve had published in magazines, mainly print, I’ve probably had over 400 rejections. That’s in twenty years. Bloody hard work, isn’t it? No doubt, many people think I’m third-rate; I probably am. That said, everything I’ve written has been published, bar the things I’m working on or revising at present.
What is your life like outside of writing? What makes you laugh, what makes you cry?
I’ve never really understood this kind of question. Writing is part of life, albeit an important part. The other parts consist of, well, living. Family life, friendships, interests – they all feed into writing. I often find it weird that people can get through life without the need to express themselves formally. Even the things I’m interested in outside writing involve others expressing themselves and making a success of it with me when I laugh (Alan Partridge, Groucho Marx, Tommy Cooper) and cry (Schubert, Delius, Richard Ford). This is, anyway, a question that can only be answered by others in the sense that one’s life outside writing is the life that impinges on other people. Most writers are almost wholly self-absorbed, because writing is not a social activity. It’s the loneliest activity there is. You could always be doing something more useful when you’re writing, perhaps because it can only be done with no-one else around; and that includes loved-ones who need to see evidence of your devotion.
Now I come to think about it, almost everything I do is associated with writing: walking is a way of thinking about writing; listening to music and reading are ways of communicating with kindred spirits; watching Question Time on TV is a way of developing your own ideas and a creative view of the world, and pitting your views against their opposites; swimming is a means of keeping oneself fit for writing. See what I mean? I don’t have hobbies, which seem to me to be just directionless ways of killing time. What’s the point of collecting Dinky toys or matchbox labels? I can see that chess might be a way of training your memory and sharpening your wits, As with writing, I want to be good at it, so it’s also about wanting to win, to be a better chess player (and a published writer, published by someone who wants to publish me and is prepared to bear the whole cost). I thus tend to be interested only in activities that I can perform myself. Writing in this way is connected with reading. John Updike said a writer was at base just ‘a reader who wanted to get in on the act’. I like cricket because I could once play it, after a fashion; I enjoy music because I was trained, albeit for a short time, as a musician (piano). I began to study A-level art but finished for reasons that don’t concern. I drew the image on the cover of my first poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, published by Parthian in 2013. So I’m a useful draughtsman and therefore interested in visual art. I’m an odd sort of bloke in these respects. I could never be interested in anything I couldn’t make a reasonable fist of myself. Maybe I need to see a psychiatrist. She or he would probably conclude that I was amiable, amenable, opinionated and over-focused – and not half bad at writing. Oh, and my wife and I have a 21-year-old cat, our third. Didn’t I mention my wife? Remiss of me. She’s cleverer and more sensible than I am. She’s a historian.
Tell us about the concept behind your books.
There’s no concept behind my writing. Concept implies pre-meditation and the only thing I know about a poem, a story or a novel is that it starts because it has to start somewhere. And it usually starts with something I’ve seen, heard or read. Long novels can arise from the slightest of materials. Graham Greene wrote a novel after seeing a man in a white safari suit entering a tin hut beside a river in Africa. No concept there. Concept, anyway, reminds me of Conceptual Art, which is always interesting but mostly disappointing and unsuccessful – for me, at least. Art is visual; concepts are abstract and in the mind. No matter what ideas (concepts) are adduced to explain an art work, if it’s not visually arresting it means nothing, can mean only nothing. But I’ll always give it a go. Who knows? I might be wrong about it. There’s nothing more satisfying than enlightenment. It’s just that I feel so often that there’s no illumination there at all – in an unmade bed, for instance. Once I’m into a piece of writing, of course, I have to make decisions about how it will proceed. Even then, one sentence simply begets another and another, almost as if the thing is writing itself, though any suggestion that I’m being directed by some hovering God of Inspiration is just ridiculous.
My new novel, Slowly Burning, is about a former Fleet Street hack. I’m not like him; and I really don’t like him. In a film, he’d be played by Brian Cox, the music would be the Helston Floral Dance performed by a brass band (the novel’s partly set in Cornwall) and the female lead would be played by one of the Pleasance dynasty, sired by the great Donald. I’m not like any of the characters. Actually there are not many. There’s a bit of every writer in every character they write about. That’s as far as it goes.
Rebecca Evans, the opera singer. She’s a keen cook, so I’d find out beforehand, and surreptitiously, what food she liked, so that she wouldn’t be put off by the menu. She rose to international fame from unlikely beginnings – she used to be a nurse – so I’d expect her to be down-to-earth.
Who is your favourite Welsh author?
Rhys Davies. I won the award named after him: the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction. He was courageous in criticising Wales, though he evidently loved the place. He was a great short-story writer – arguably, and at his best, as good as Chekhov. Also, he got out, went to London and pursued the (closeted) gay life. Dylan Thomas’s classic description ‘ugly, lovely’, employed, I think, to describe Swansea, would have been Davies’s description of Clydach Vale, where he was born and brought up. I also like his unerring focus on women in his fiction, the proverbial Valleys matriarchs. I don’t do ‘blokes’. I’m not a blokey person. My idea of a dead night out would be a pub crawl with other men. Even today in the valleys, men and their lapdog women will go out together, only for the women to huddle in a corner while the men josh and buy the drinks in a blokey group of their own. It’s Neanderthal, pathetic. The women are to blame as much as the men. I dislike female blokes – ‘ladettes’ – as much as I shun all-male company. There’s only one thing more unsightly than blokes throwing up in St Mary Street, Cardiff, and that’s high-heeled women doing the same. Come on, girls; you’re more dignified than that. If that’s sexist, I care not. It would make good copy for a Welsh writer, though – sundry revellers throwing up in St Mary Street. As my paternal grandmother once said about a woman prone to self-abasement, ‘Is that why one of us chucked herself under a King’s horse?’ Welsh men who boast of their drinking exploits are usually liars. It’s bravado. That would be a great topic as well. All the heavy drinkers I’ve known have been cold sober after eight pints of Black Label.
What is the best thing about Wales?
Its natural affinity for music. And its hills.
What are you working on now?
A novel about a couple who discover a lost relative, only to find that… Hang on, I’m not giving it away! Also polishing the script of my second story collection, due to be published this autumn.
What are the best and the worst aspects of writing?
The best is receiving a letter or email from a publisher or editor, informing you that they enjoyed reading your work and would like to publish it, thus allowing you to obviate the need to go down the self-publishing route as a default position. As I said elsewhere, I’ve nothing in theory against self-publishing; many great books never found a publisher before their authors forced them to produce it themselves. There’s also no doubt that some of the most famous book publishers regularly produce bummers. But, for me, some kind of endorsement of your work is necessary before it appears in public. We are not all God’s gifts to literature. Revision as a result of input from people (other authors?) you admire and respect may get you that contract – and, if it doesn’t, you go down the self-publishing route with the confidence that the world of publishing is wrong and you and your readers are right. I have to say, though, that I’ve read more appalling self-published tomes than I have read those coming from established, traditional publishers, and I’m talking not only about the poor editing but the half-cocked and implausible constructions, not to mention the impossible twists. An author who doesn’t know the difference between a defining clause and a non-defining one shouldn’t be writing; one who is willing to be told the difference by an editor or other third party should.
The worst thing about writing is undoubtedly the rejection slip. I’ve had scores of them and sometimes become so depressed that I’ve thought of giving up writing altogether. Then I contemplate the alternative – collecting Dinky toys and matchbox labels – and I knuckle down again. After all, a rejection is usually only one person’s opinion (though if you like what that person publishes you’re bound to respect the decision to reject). If A doesn’t like it, send it to B. Then to C and D. Probably, E will take it, or F. But if Z returns it as well, there’s a fair chance that it won’t do. Sometimes, even the writer suspects a fault but hopes an editor will miss it. There’s no worse con trick than the one perpetrated against yourself.
NIGEL JARRETT lives in Monmouthshire and is a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction. In October 2011, Parthian published his début story collection, Funderland, to widespread acclaim, including in the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday. Funderland was long-listed for the Edge Hill Prize. His first poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, appeared from Parthian in 2013.
His poetry, stories and essays have appeared widely in newspapers and the literary press, including the Observer magazine, London Magazine, Agenda, The Salisbury Review, Wales Arts Review, Crannóg, Roundyhouse, The Moth (Eire), Poetry Ireland Review, Western Mail, Buzz, New Welsh Review, Poetry Wales, Oxford Poetry and Planet (the Welsh internationalist). His stories have been anthologised in Signals-2 (London Magazine Editions), Mother’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe (Cambrensis/ Welsh Arts Council) and Tilting at Windmills (Parthian), and several of his poems are catalogued in the South Bank Centre’s national poetry archive. He is also the co-editor of The Day’s Portion, a collection of journalism by Arthur Machen (Village Publishing). His story in the Mother’s Baby anthology was described by Jon Gower in New Welsh Review as ‘so good I wish I could quote all of it’.
Nigel Jarrett was educated in Pontypool and at Cardiff University, where he studied zoology and botany but left without a degree. He has worked in newspapers as a reporter, a freelance sports writer for the national Press, a sub-editor, news editor, arts critic, business editor and books reviewer. From 1987 to 2013 he was music critic of the South Wales Argus daily newspaper. He reviews jazz for Jazz Journal and poetry for Acumen magazine. He also writes for the online Wales Arts Review. His first novel, Slowly Burning, was due to be published in March and his second story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, will appear in autumn this year.
Funderland and Miners At The Quarry Pool are available widely, including on Amazon, from the Welsh Books Council and through bookshops.
Nigel Jarrett is also on Facebook