Alison Layland, another Crime Cymru author talks to us about her novels, skills with foreign languages and upcoming events to watch out for.
When did you start writing, and why?
I’ve always told myself stories, including a couple of long-running soap operas, and I recently came across a treasure trove of childhood poems and songs. However, I only began to realise that I could actually be a writer when we moved to Wales, I took to learning the language, and our Welsh classes continued in the form of creative writing sessions. I found that writing in a language that wasn’t my mother tongue somehow broke down inhibitions and opened doors. I was thrilled when my Welsh short stories won Eisteddfod prizes, and I had a number of Welsh flash fiction pieces published. Since my first published novel, however, I’ve written mainly in English, my native language, and mainly novels, though I’d love to return to short stories and flash fiction as well.
What motivates you to write?
I love telling stories. There’s nothing more fulfilling than developing characters and then spending time with them, along with the satisfaction of a plot unfolding and loose ends coming together. From that, it’s probably obvious that I’m a character-led “pantser” when it comes to first drafts; meticulous planning takes over in subsequent drafts, however, and I enjoy both stages equally.
I’m also keen to explore a variety of issues in my fiction, and love the research that involves. In my first novel, Someone Else’s Conflict, the central issue, and springboard for the story, was the long-lasting effects of war – a fictional atrocity during the 1990s Croatian War of Independence – on two of my characters. I did a lot of research for the Croatian part of the story, including historical reading, travel and even learning the language to deepen my feel for the culture.
My second novel, Riverflow, was initially motivated by a desire to draw attention to environmental issues. As the story unfolded, I found myself drawn into my characters’ relationships and the effects of external events on my protagonists’ marriage.
Which do you like to write, series or standalones?
My two published novels are standalone psychological mysteries. However, having spent months or years invested in my characters and their worlds, it’s tempting to revisit (on paper as well as in my mind!) and I’m attracted to the idea of a series. I’m not sure if it counts, but my work-in-progress is set in the future, and it refers back to some of the characters in Riverflow.
Who is your favourite of your characters, why and in which books do they appear?
One of the things I most like about fiction, both writing and reading, is that you can get close to characters you’d probably run a mile from in real life. A classic example is Bede, the protagonist in Riverflow. As I would in real life, I admire and respect his ideals, but he’s a really prickly character who would be difficult to know in real life – but the reasons for this are revealed in the novel. I know several readers feel ambivalent towards him and, as I do, sympathise with his long-suffering wife, Elin, but think of him as a difficult but ultimately sympathetic character.
All in all, however, my favourite character is itinerant busker and storyteller Jay Spinney, from my debut, Someone Else’s Conflict. Although he has a dark past and a reluctance to be open and honest, he is ultimately compelled to do the right thing, and several readers have fallen under his spell.
Who is your least favourite of your characters, why and in which books do they appear?
Although I try to see the nuances of all my characters and understand their motivations, some are nevertheless distinctly unlikeable. Mihal Novak, a small-time gangster in Someone Else’s Conflict is one of them, and in Riverflow it’s arrogant landowner Philip Northcote. Although he’s a true antagonist, I drew on aspects of a couple of people in real life when creating the character, so who knows, there may be some who relate to him more than I do!
Tell us about your last book…
Inspired by my own environmental activism, my second psychological mystery, Riverflow, was published in 2019, and chosen as a Waterstones Book of the Month.
“In a village in the Welsh Marches, the undercurrents are as dark and strong as the River Severn. After a beloved family member is drowned in a devastating flood, Bede and Elin Sherwell only want to pick up the pieces and pursue their off-grid life in peace. But when a local landowner applies to start fracking near their smallholding, they are drawn in to the frontline of the protests. Mysterious threats and incidents begin to destroy trust, rake up the past and threaten their future together. Who is trying to ruin their world and how far will they go?”
What’s coming next…
I’m working on a novel set in the mid-21st century, about a community of people who have chosen to live an island life apart from a troubled society. As well as some intricate character relations and intrigues, I’m also really enjoying developing a vision of what the world might be like in three decades’ time…
Anything else you want to share?
I’m proud to be associated with Gŵyl Crime Cymru Festival, the first international crime festival in Wales, for which I’m helping to organise a special competition. We’ll be holding a digital festival on 26 April-3 May 2021 and our inaugural in-person festival in Aberystwyth on 29 April-2 May 2022. Watch this space!
Alison Layland is a freelance writer and translator who lives and works in the Welsh borderlands. She is the author of two psychological mysteries, Someone Else’s Conflict and Riverflow, both published by Honno Press, and has also translated a number of best-selling novels.
Thank you Alison, Wales is quite a seductive place to live, and I envy your skill with foreign languages.
Tomorrow and last up is writer Charlotte Barnes