Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Bringing Down the Giants – Cynan Jones talks about taking on Peredur.

One of the things I love about book-blogging is discovering books and authors that may not have come to my attention through my local bookstore or library. Oddly, though, my attention was drawn to Seren Books' series of re-worked tales from the Mabinogion by a clothing website. The series is now drawing to a close with Cynan Jones, author of Everything I Found on the Beach , being asked to adapt the tale of Peredur to a modern setting. The result is Bird Blood Snow and we are lucky enough today to have Cynan explain how he went about it.

I was the last of ten authors to be invited to write one of Seren’s ‘New Stories from the Mabinogion’: I got Peredur. The tale everyone else had left.

When I read it I thought: Shit. I came away with one image – the bird and the blood in the snow; and a sense that the hero of the tale was a delinquent. There were reasons why every other writer had avoided the story.

However, such was the totality of my reaction, that I had no doubt how to approach it.

Writing Bird, Blood, Snow was a “bicycle kick”. There was the surety of what I wanted to achieve and the necessity to achieve it immediately.

So I stopped thinking and just went for it.


I brought in different voices, perspectives, techniques. Tried a sense of performance, of pantomime. Half-did things. Wrote incorrectly. Caused confusion. Added pictures. Mind maps. Crossings out. I threw it all in.

There was a thrill to working like this and a necessary pace. Like a bicycle kick, I figured if I missed the target, what the hell: it would be a worthy effort, and entertaining. If I hit the net, all the better. The only issue was if I missed completely and landed on my arse.

I wasn’t going to know until I handed in the manuscript. But Penny Thomas, the series editor, had been clear: I had a totally free creative remit.

Luckily, she liked it.

When were you awarded the commission to write the book?

I was awarded the commission at the start of 2012. The book was due for October ’13 and would have been the final book in the series. Then Seren asked whether we could bring things forward a year. That was March ’12. They needed the manuscript by June. I said yes.

If I’d had longer I might have taken a different approach. I might have looked at telling the story of Peredur’s mother and father, bringing it to the point where Peredur is taken from things – the point the original tale starts. It would have been more like my other work. More considered, scant, controlled.

Was there a lot of research involved in writing the book?

I usually research heavily. It’s part of the process of limbering up to write. Given the shift of deadline, research went out of the window this time. I think that fed into the book. I’m fully aware the psychiatric treatments I describe are outdated. The mishmash of voices is deliberate. I use the anachronisms with intent.

The key work, other than the writing, was consuming the various novels and other texts I wanted to bring into the story in order to create echoes.

I wanted readers to feel that they recognised the piece, to reflect the fact that the motifs, occasions, references in the original would have been understood by the audience. I added echoes of other books. Sometimes verbatim, other times parodied or hinted. I bent Welsh nursery rhymes into the story.

What were your chief aims when deciding on the approach you took to the book?

I wanted to repeat the sense I had from the original that it was written down – and therefore ‘solidified’ – before it was ready. That it hadn’t matured properly, (much like Peredur himself), before it was sent out into the world.

I wanted to bring in the fact the original was an oral tale and would have been performed. Performance would have brought emphasis and exaggeration and spontaneity to the otherwise dry language. I had to get that back in somehow.

I wanted there to be a degree of celebration. The original tale is violent and nasty, and I couldn’t shy out of that. But there had to be something of the romp to it! It had to be visceral and colourful and compelling, but it had to be fun.

In the end, though, a book can’t rely on party tricks. It has to work as a coherent whole.

I hope it does for you. 

It most certainly did for me! Many thanks for letting us in on the working process. 

Maryom's reviews of the Seren tales from the Mabinogion can be found here

More information on Seren’s ‘New Stories from the Mabinogion’ can be found here and if you are not familiar with the Mabinogion tales then brief information on the Mabinogion can be found here and more specifically the Peredur story here

Cynan Jones' website can be found at www.cynanjones.net and you can follow him on Twitter as @cynan1975

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