Francesca and Elaine are thrilled to bits to welcome Angela Johnson to our blog to talk about her debut novel, Arianwen.
ARIANWEN is set in my native West Wales, a place of gentle hills and valleys and a beautiful coastline, which is an integral part of my mental landscape. We are formed by the experiences of childhood, and the music of the language and the stories I heard in a small, and not very private, community were all relevant in the formation of my story.
The novel roams over the old kingdom of Dyfed: Ceredigion, North Pembrokeshire, and Carmarthenshire. My protagonist, Arianwen, grew up in a woollen mill set in a deep valley, which is based on a real place I knew and visited as a child, a place of tall trees and the persistent sound of running water, and, a recurring motif in the novel, the wheel turning in the power of the water, a strange creaking whirr which remains with me still.
For a child it was a most magical place to visit, and even now, many years after, I can smell the dankness from the stream, hear its silver music, and see the trees, verdant in spring, and their strange balletic movements in autumn storms. The old mill creaked as you walked through it, but there was nothing Gothically terrifying about it. For me it was a place of benedictions.
Arianwen’s adult life is in another village, whose topography is very different from that of her home, a place of wide spaces, closer to the sea, and more open to the weather than the enclosed valley of her childhood, a place of bleating lambs in spring and heather and gorse in late summer.
I am Welsh speaking and the rhythms of the language form the person that I am, even though I spent many years working as an English teacher in the Home Counties.
Most of the novel is set at a time when Welsh was the main language of the neighbourhoods I portray. The villages are much changed, prettified, less Welsh, less rural in character. Something has been irretrievably lost.
I chose this setting because I wanted to write for the first time at any length, about the places and the people who moulded me, my work, mainly, being set in England where I have lived most of my life.
It is also a tribute to all those agricultural workers on both sides of my family whose lives were hard and unrelenting and whose love of their few acres destroyed them.
Alas, I don’t have a favourite writing place. My writing place is a place of compromise and pragmatism. My computer and I, occupy a dull corner of my dining room while my husband occupies a rather pleasant, if chaotic study overlooking the garden. I stare at a blank wall and one solitary picture of a Lady’s Slipper Orchid. There is no obvious symbolism to the Lady’s Slipper, although if I think about it long enough I shall find one.
I am easily distracted, so there is no radio, no music, only in the background the vapid hum of suburbia. This place is blank, the pale green wall, the light comes from the window to my left. It is a writing place, which suits me well.
I’m a great believer in sustenance for writers, yes, food and drink helps, especially the odd glass of chilled Sauvignon, but we also need sustenance for the mind, and that means getting away from the computer and living a life. I like going out for coffee with friends, a bit of gossip, and, on my own, a rewarding listen to others’ conversation. Even the banal can be fascinating.
Before lockdown, I used to enjoy swimming, the most solitary of occupations, meditative, stimulating, and the perfect exercise for thinking about narrative development and character delineation.
I like walking and looking, observation is fundamental for the writer, simple things like the shape and colour of a leaf, the sheen on a horse’s back, and the silly hopping of a crow, and just this week, I passed a decrepit cottage with weeds growing out of the chimney, bit clichéd, but, outside was parked an ancient car which had once been red, and is now completely overgrown with rampant vegetation. Such possibilities there.
I love travelling to exotic countries. I have watched birds all over the world, and in this country on winter days on the North Kent marshes, huge flocks of lapwings and marsh harriers low over the banks of the Thames, and in the summer I enjoy looking for wild orchids with my in house orchid expert and love to see the strange beauty of these small flowers. And I love reading the papers, one particular one, but I won’t divulge which one.
The book I’m working on now is a return to West Wales, this time to my beloved Ceredigion and its lovely coastline of small coves and cliffs, and one particular one which I have always loved, a small beach overlooked by a tall cliff and a tiny ancient white church, a place where peregrines fly and choughs hop around the car park.
My protagonist lives near here, and she is a very different character from Arianwen, a professional woman, not this time a teacher, a woman who has never conformed, who looks at the world as a battle place and challenges it.
Her life has always focused on independence, on doing exactly what she wants to do, but gradually she is drawn by the various characters who impinge on her life with their various need, into a different kind of caring from that which was demanded of her in her professional life.
Thank you for chatting to us Angela. it’s lovely to get an insight into your novel.
Born in a hidden valley in West Wales during the first half of the 20th century, Arianwen is one of the blessed to whom life comes easily. Hers is an ordinary life, similar to the lives we all live, filled with the small pleasures that help us bear life’s tragedies, in the hope that things will get better again.
But, in a fast changing world, Arianwen must learn the hard way. It is endurance that will see her through real adversity.
Elegantly written, with an understated humour, and a lyricism that reflects the natural rhythms of the Welsh language, Arianwen is a captivating portrait of one woman who represents us all.
Published by Black Bee Books and available on:
About Angela Johnson
Angela Johnson was born in West Wales and is a Welsh speaker. Her work is often inspired by the Welsh countryside, the characters she knew in childhood and the tales they told.
In a previous incarnation she was an English teacher, and taught in a number of schools in the South East of England. She then studied creative writing at the University of Kent. Her novel Harriet and her Women was shortlisted for the Impress Prize for Fiction, and she has won the Poetry Prize at the Folkestone Arts Festival.
She lives in Kent, enjoys travelling to look at birds and plants in exotic places, and is a passionate environmentalist, and, latterly, is spending too much time fulminating about politics.