Feb 20, 2013

Owain Glyndwr - 'The Silver Fox' - An Interview With Welsh Writer Jenny Sullivan


AmeriCymru spoke to Welsh author and novelist Jenny Sullivan about her life and work. Jenny is the author of many children's books including Tirion's Secret Journal and Full Moon which won the prestigious Tir Na-Nog award in 2006  and 2012 respectively. She is currently working on a series of historical novels based on the life of Owain Glyndwr. Jenny was born in Cardiff and now lives in France. She travels to Wales to work with school students on a regular basis

AmeriCymru:  Hi Jenny and many thanks for agreeing to talk to AmeriCymru. When did you decide to become a writer?

Jenny:  I don’t think anyone “decides” to become a writer.  One either is, or is not, and wishing can’t make it so.  (I seem to meet a lot of people who “have always thought they could write a book”.  My answer is usually, “then do!)  The first time it entered my head was in primary school, when my beloved Miss Thomas, a spinster lady of probably quite youthful years, although she seemed ancient, of course, to an 8 year old, read one of my stories, tugged my plait and told me that if I was prepared to work very hard, one day I would become a famous writer.  I remember being quite taken with the idea, rushing home to see my poor, put-upon mother, who had five other childebeasts beside me, and reporting Miss T’s opinion.  Mum put down her potato knife, sighed and said “I’m going to have to go up the school and have words with That Woman, putting stupid ideas like that in your head”.  She didn’t, however (too busy) and from that moment on I was A Writer.  I wrote my first novel, aged 16, about a racial war on the Isle of Wight (go figure).  That one I buried in the garden.  The one after that I put in a metal wastebasket and set fire to it.  Lost my eyebrows...

AmeriCymru:  You are currently writing a series of historical novels based on the life of Owain Glyndwr. Care to tell us a little more about the 'Silver Fox' series?

Jenny:  At the ripe old age of 50, somewhat by accident, I found myself tackling an MA at University of Wales, Cardiff (now Cardiff University).  When I’d finished that, my tutor, with whom I’d become friendly, came with his wife to dinner.  Having found the MA something of a trial (having left school at 15 without so much as an O level to my name), I was being entirely frivolous when I mentioned that I’d been thinking of doing a PhD next.  He raised a languid eyebrow, surveyed me for a brief moment and then delivered his opinion:  “Nah.  You wouldn’t get it.”  My instant reaction was, I bloody would!  So I applied, was accepted, panicked, and decided to write a novel about Owain Glyndwr, whose exploits had fascinated me since I was in primary school (again, thanks, Miss T.  She never managed to teach me maths, but boy, did she ever interest me in history and fiction!).  I did two years’ research before I wrote a word, and when the time came for me to stop researching and start writing, I just couldn’t find the “handle” into the book.  So I went to that magical place, Ty Newydd, the Welsh National Writers’ Centre in Llanystumdwy, near Cricieth, David Lloyd George’s old home, leaving my family at home, and to cut a long story short, the Welsh Wizard worked his magic, and the writing began.  That first book took me another two years to write and edit, and then I had to tackle the loooooong dissertation, but at last I was able to submit it (which is another tale entirely!).  THEN I found out I had to have something called a “vive” or “viva” or something.  Didn’t have a clue what this was until m’tutor explained.  About 20 minutes of grilling, he said, do defend your novel and thesis.  At that point I went into total panic.  The interview was on 12th December, my husband was working away, all my children were at work or college and I betook myself to Cardiff for the aforementioned torture session.  Forty-five minutes later, a small, limp rag came out of the interview room.  I was hooked into a tutor’s office, and he kept me supplied with Kleenex for the next fifteen minutes while I snotted and howled.  I knew I’d totally blown it.  Summoned back, the Chair of the panel said, “congratulations, Dr Sullivan”...  Leaving the college, I phoned one husband, three daughters and my father-in-law.  Not one of them answered.  I had to wait until 7pm that night before I could tell anyone. 

Then, of course, I had to write part two.  Did that.  Loved every moment of it, because I knew I didn’t have to submit this to anyone but a publisher.  I started submitting part one, but couldn’t get any of the Welsh publishers to even read it.  Historical fiction, apparently, doesn’t sell.  (Tell that to Hilary Mantel.)  I found a London agent who loved it, wanted to handle it, but wanted her colleague to see it first.  Colleague loved it too, but “nobody’s interested in history, especially Welsh history, so we’d like you to take out most of the boring historical stuff and put in more sex...”  So that was another avenue closed.  I went the self-publishing route, paying for the first edition, and when that sold out I went to Amazon CreateSpace and republished in Kindle and paperback, following it up with part two.  I’m currently working on part three, which I hadn’t planned, but I keep getting emails from people who want to know what happens to the characters next.  I’d hoped to get away without writing the tragic end to the Glyndwr story ~ but I’m going to have to tackle it.  I’ve just started research and am much cheered by the wonderful reviews the first two are getting on Amazon ~ and not all, I should add, from family and friends!

AmeriCymru:  How difficult is it to imagine the world of the 15th century and in particular the life and times of Owain Glyndwr?

Jenny:  Imagining the 15th century isn’t difficult.  People then were just people, just as we’re people in the 21st century, with the same desires, same hopes, same frustrations, only with more blood and fewer iPads.  I enjoyed writing the novels so much that, because my husband often worked away from home at that time, I sometimes used to work all day and late into the evening.  It was bliss.  I remember one night realising I was overdoing it, however, when I had one of my 15th century characters checking his wristwatch... 

AmeriCymru:  You have written many childrens books. How does writing for children and adults differ?

Jenny:  That one’s easy.  Adults will persevere with a book if they really want to read it.  Children, if they aren’t captured in the first couple of paragraphs, will give up and go back to their X-box or Wii or whatever.  I love writing for children ~ it’s pure escapism, and “I” have the most amazing adventures.  Which is why, I suppose, most of them are written in the first person.  I thoroughly enjoyed writing my two historical novels, “Tirion’s Secret Journal” and “Troublesome Thomas”, both set at Llancaiach Fawr Manor near Nelson in mid-Glamorgan, and may revisit the house in Tudor times when I’ve finished part three of Silver Fox. 

AmeriCymru:  You have taught Creative Writing to adults and children in primary and secondary schools. Although you currently live in France you visit Wales a couple of times a year to work with school children. How important to you is this ongoing classroom contact?

Jenny:  When we moved to France it was on the understanding that I could return three or four times a year.  I love that contact with children, teachers, librarians, parents, and of course it helps to sell books, although that’s the least important reason of all.  I love the buzz of meeting a class of children and getting ALL of them writing and achieving things they didn’t think they could.  I often have teachers say at the end of a session “that boy (it’s usually a boy), I’ve never managed to get more than two lines out of him, and you’ve got a page and a half”.  I’m quite smug about it, but that’s the reward ~ something they can do, that they didn’t think they could.  When I visit my daughter and her family in Northern Ireland I always visit my primary teacher son-in-law’s class and work with them.  As he says, “I don’t always agree with your methods, but I admit you get results”.  The other thing that arises from my school visits is that I always have an eye peeled for talent ~ if I can say to a child what dear Miss T said to me, I’m delighted, and I always offer to mentor children and young people that I meet who really want to write and are prepared to put in the necessary slog to do it.  I spent the weekend talking one of my protegees out of nearly £700 worth of self-publishing (with a publishing company with a reputation like a venus fly-trap), editing a chapter for her, and recommending Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”...  Nuff said!

AmeriCymru:  You have won the Tir na n–Og Award twice, once in 2006 for 'Tirion's Secret Journal' and again in 2012 for 'Full Moon'. How did it feel to win such a prestigious award? Can you tell us a little about the prize and the selection process?

Jenny:  When I was younger, I had three ambitions:  to fly in a helicopter, to see a whale in its natural environment, and to win the Tir na n-Og.  Only the whale remains...  The helicopter flight was the best fun I’ve EVER had with my clothes on...  The Tir na n-Og is chosen by librarians, who are “shadowed” by children from various schools.  I don’t know any more about the process than that, but I’m glad they do it!  The first time I won, in 2006, the whole thing was fairly low-key, and my overall opinion of the evening was that the Welsh language winning author was more highly regarded than the English one.  The cheque for £1000 was good, though!  The 2012 award was a whole different kettle of fish ~ the Welsh award was presented on a different evening, and as well as the cheque I was given a gorgeous glass trophy, which means considerably more, given that the cheque disappeared, divided between three daughters and a husband, and there were lots of interviews from newspapers and radio and the WBC made a You Tube fillum about me, which is interesting but fairly dire from a vanity point of view.  It’s a wonderful feeling to be recognised by the people who matter in literature ~ children first, then librarians and the Welsh Books Council, who organise the Tir na n-Og. 

AmeriCymru:  Where can people go online to buy your books?

Jenny:  All my children’s books can be purchased from the Welsh Books Council on line, or from Pont/Gwasg Gomer on line, or indeed from Amazon.  The “Silver Fox” books can also be obtained from Amazon, in paperback and for Kindle e-readers.

AmeriCymru:  What are you reading at the moment ? Any recommendations?

Jenny:  Just discovered the Kate Shugak novels by Dana Stabenow, and have read the lot.  I can recommend “The Princess Bride” and anything at all by Dorothy Dunnett.  I love the Jacquot books, about a French rugby-playing policeman.  My favourite book of all time, however, and perhaps the book that has influenced me and my writing more than any other, is T H White’s “The Once and Future King”.  It’s the story of King Arthur, and it can be read on so many different levels.  Children can enjoy “The Sword in the Stone” part of it, and adults will enjoy that and the other parts two.  It’s a wonderful book.

AmeriCymru:  What's next for Jenny Sullivan? Any new titles in the pipeline?

Jenny:  “Silver Fox ~ the long Amen” is being researched;  I have at least five other books with Pont awaiting publication (I may get impatient and self-publish through Amazon);  I’m half way through writing a fantasy for teenagers, and somewhere along the line I’m going to write a novel about two families (loosely based on mine and my husband’s) during the two World Wars, and something bloody and murderous when I can find the time.  I read loads of crime fiction and want to see if I can write it too.  It will be a far cry from my children’s books, but fun to write, I expect. 

AmeriCymru:  Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?

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