Interview 2005 regarding publication of ‘On the Other Hand’
Are you left-handed?
No, I’m very right-handed.
What gave you the idea for OTOH?
A lot of different thoughts suddenly came together. My husband,
one stepdaughter and a close friend are all left-handed and it
has fascinated me for some time to watch how they do things.
When my friend Lesley and I were going fishing, she would drive
and as she is totally confused about left and right, I had to
say ‘turn your way’ or ‘turn my way’ to
give directions. My husband, on the other hand (!) says he never
confused left and right until I wrote a book on the subject,
and he is very good with his hands – I’m the clumsy
one. Then, in addition to personal contacts, I was training teachers
about literacy, and I realised that other trainers didn’t
often consider left-handers. The final spark was a book another
friend lent to me, ‘Drawing on the right side of the brain’,
all about the different jobs done by the two halves of the brain.
All of a sudden, I could see these imaginary characters, Jamie
and Ryan, finding out some of this stuff, and I wanted them and
their story to be influenced by what they find out, so that the
facts aren’t just stuck into the novel, they’re part
How did you do the research?
I asked any left-handed people that I knew, a lot of questions,
such as what it had been like in school or what annoyed them.
I read any books I could find on the subject and I looked up
lots of websites.
Did you find out anything that surprised
When I started asking groups of teachers whether they were left-
or right-handed, I couldn’t believe how few of them are
left-handed, a lot less than 1 in 10, which is the ratio in the
general population. This seems stranger to me than the high proportion
of left-handed tennis players or artists and I don’t know
of any scientifically sound research into these oddities. Many
of the facts that Jamie and Ryan find out surprised me and I
hadn’t realised how handedness works in nature, in spirals
for instance. I certainly hadn’t appreciated how people
had been persecuted – in the past I hope – for being
left-handed. The biggest surprise was how all my left-handers
in real life just accept a right hand world and get on with making
the most of it.
Do you have a favourite character?
I spent the most time with Jamie and Ryan so I know most about
them and care very much what happens to them. I suppose I see
myself as more like Ryan than like Jamie in that I was a soldier’s
daughter, so I always had to move house as a child and was always
the outsider. I really identify with Ryan being told not to leave
marks on a house that’s not really theirs. I was never
as cool as Ryan though – more like Jamie in lacking confidence.
But I can’t say I have a favourite character – I
have a soft spot for Kelly because she has talent and guts; for
the Head of English who’s getting nagged at home for working
too hard; and most of all for Keith, the Big Issue seller. When
he says ‘Bad that’, it’s my favourite line
in the whole book. There have been so many times in my life I
would just have liked someone to say ‘Bad that.’
How do you know the facts in OTOH are true?
I don’t. And one of the difficulties with the research was
that there is a lot published which definitely isn’t true – websites
saying someone famous is left-handed and then that person stating
that he’s not. I tried to cross-check facts by using different
sources and I left out a lot of assertions that are founded on
dubious statistics or are misleading in their conclusions.
Suppose someone does a survey that finds out that people with
bigger feet do better in exams and the survey concludes that having
big feet is a sign of intelligence; what’s wrong with this
is that they don’t mention that the people with bigger feet
are 16 years old and the people with smaller feet are 10, so in
fact it is growing up that is the cause of the greater intelligence
not the feet size. This is a really important difference, between
cause and correlation.
With regard to left-handers, a ‘fact’ often quoted
is that left-handers die younger than right-handers and the conclusion
is that they are killed by their clumsiness in a right-handed world.
The actual fact is that there are less left-handers among the oldest
people in the population than in the population as a whole; this
might well be because when they were young, parents and schools
often forced left-handers to write right-handed. You have to be
very careful with interpreting statistics – and that’s
if the statistics are reliable in the first place.
Where do you write?
My desk looks out of the window onto the garden and I write there,
on my laptop, but I write poems anywhere, on anything – backs
of chequebooks, shopping lists – and I always write poetry
by hand first.
How do you plan your books?
carefully. I usually have a rough outline of the plot so that I
know what will be in a chapter, but I do change details or twists
in the narrative as I write. I didn’t like writing an autobiograhical
account of a year in France because I didn’t know what was
going to happen next.
Was there one bit that was harder to write
than the rest?
Yes, the tragic incident was very difficult to write. I don’t
like people getting their kicks from watching all the most horrible
news that they can find and saying ‘how awful’ and it
worried me that I was doing the same sort of thing, enjoying how
awful something was. What helped me write it was the idea that
writing was a way of thinking about what happened and why, with
the idea that if we know why, we can prevent these sorts of things.
Not saying ‘how awful’ about the whole world but looking
at just one bad thing beside us, eyes open, and saying ‘Well?
What are we going to do about it?’
Which part is your favourite?
I like the ending, I like moments between Ryan and Jamie, just
in the way they talk to each other, when I think their friendship
is something very special. The bit that was the most fun to write
was where the boys from the band get tanked up in the coalshed.
What do you think of the cover?
I was lucky that y Lolfa, the publisher, allowed me to suggest
an artist who worked on the cover after talking to me. Clive
Biscoe, the artist, came up with a dozen ideas, all brilliant,
and then we narrowed the choice down to four. The Editor then
chose the design he liked the best and what I like about this
one is that it’s subtle in suggesting the left-handed theme,
and there is a hint of mystery through the glimpse of the girl.
Do you care what people think about what you write?
I don’t feel that what I’ve written has come alive
until someone reads it and enjoys it. I am very interested in a
reader telling me what he or she liked about something I’ve
written. I can and do accept constructive criticism before something
is published but it’s not much use to me afterwards, and
nobody actually enjoys being criticised. If you listen to enough
criticism, you’ll get total contradictions, which just shows
you how subjective it all is. For instance, one professional critic
thought that ‘On the Other Hand’ was too politically
correct; another thought it was unacceptable because it was ‘anti-American’.
Do you think it is anti-American?
Good question. Ryan is anti-American because he’s been forced
to move there, leaving his best friend, and he doesn’t see
himself as American, even though his mother wants him to; in so
far as we see America through Ryan’s eyes, then yes, it is
anti-American, but it also gives a lot of detail on American life – and
American left-handers – and you might notice that Ryan is
starting to use American expressions, the longer he lives there.
As for the ‘tragic incident’, it is a fact that more
of those sorts of incidents occur in America, but it could and
does happen in Europe too.
On balance, no, I don’t think it is anti-American but, suppose
it was, so what? If it’s pro-Welsh, so what? Don’t
I have the right to show the world as I see it? And you, as a reader,
to make your own mind up?
Do you see yourself as a Welsh writer?
Yes. I’m proud of being a member of the Welsh Academi and
much of what I write was born in Wales, even if I wasn’t,
even if I’m not actually writing about Wales. I lived and
worked in Wales for 25 years and that will always be part of me.
I have lived in France for 18months now in dazzling sunny weather,
amongst mountains, lavender and olive trees, and I love it; but
I love Wales too. The French say that I’m ‘Welsh Provençal’ and
I’ am happy with that, although my Scottish parents wouldn’t
What are you going to write next?
I’m in the middle of writing a cookery book because I love
cheese and live in the middle of a fantastic goat cheese region
in France. I also have several ideas for the next novel and I don’t
know which to choose first – once I start it will take me
about a year to write it and I won’t be able to do anything
else, so choosing is important.
Interview 2001 after publication of ‘Snake on Saturdays’
When did you start writing?
I can remember writing stories when I was seven onwards. I even entered a couple
of short stories to gain an A level qualification in English with creative writing
(Northern Exam Board) but I stopped writing at eighteen when I went to university
in York. Something about studying Literature with a capital L was too intimidating
for my own writing and in those days (‘970s) there were no creative writing
courses. I started writing poetry in my twenties and at thirty, after several
rejections from journals, Outposts Poetry Journal accepted a poem, ’Note
from Guinevere to Lancelot’, for publication. You don’t forget your
first acceptance! Over the next ten years I had two volumes of poetry published.
What made you write a novel?
I was forty and it was a year for challenges; I became a comprehensive school
Headteacher, I gave up sugar and I had an idea for a major work - the novel.
Giving up sugar was the hardest to stick at.
What was the starting point for the novel?
I was on my way back from a camping holiday in south-west France, re-energised
and full of writing plans, and I had the idea for the central tragedy in the
novel. I could clearly envisage where it happened, the impact it had on Helen’s
life and the difficulties it would pose for her relationship with Dai. As soon
as I realized that Helen moved to Llanelli and that Dai was deeply rooted in
his family, his landscape and his language, I could explore their feelings. It
was more like discovering a novel than creating one, although I kept planning
and rethinking the structure.
How long did it take you to write ‘Snake on Saturdays’?
I thought I had finished it in a year but I have revised and polished it over
the three years since then. My Editor has been crucial in making it the best
it can be; I believe that every writer needs an outside view to challenge you
over cuts, changes and what I call continuity. In a film, the Director checks
that the detail, for instance what the actor is wearing, is consistent from one
scene to the next. If scenes were shot at different times, it’s easy to
miss daft mistakes like a sleeve that’s just been ripped off appearing
neatly attached to a jacket. When you’re writing over a year and have moved
whole chapters from chronological sequence to flashback, your work needs careful
How did you research the background to the novel?
I had a little knowledge of all the worlds in the novel but not enough. Three
keys areas I had to research were cows, men-only funerals and French criminal
law. My vet was the source of all cow knowledge but I think he was a bit bemused
at being asked to provide technical support on a novel! Two teaching colleagues
gave me spellbinding oral accounts of Carmarthenshire funerals while I took handwritten
notes and I am particularly proud of this chapter (the one you can read on the
Summer Reading web-site) because it goes so far beyond my own experience. My
third piece of research involved phoning the French Embassy in London and, in
my best French, saying, ìIf someone had committed this crime in France(
I gave details), what would be the trial procedures and where would the trial
be held?î The receptionist obviously thought I was a nutty Brit who’d
actually committed the crime but she sent me a really helpful booklet and she
told me the likely place of trial. I even asked her what the local papers there
would be that would report the trial.
What does the title mean?
It refers to an old French legend in which a woman makes her husband promise
to give her complete privacy on one day each week. Although they are really happy
together, curiosity gets the better of him, and when he sneaks a look into her
private chamber on the forbidden day, he sees that she has turned into a snake.
She screams at the discovery and leaves forever. For me, the legend is a metaphor
for the secrets everyone holds even within a close relationship and the impact
of revelations. It’s exactly what’s being discussed with regard to
the young men known as ‘the Bulger killers’ and their hopes for relationships
in the future. This theme is central to the novel but I’ll let you read
it to find out why.
What advice would you give young writers?
My advice always comes in paradoxes and is based on what I wish I had been told
when I was a young writer.
Have confidence in your own writing; particularly women, who are on average ten
years behind men in their writing careers, tend to wait for someone else to tell
them they’re good writers. That may never happen even if you’re a
marvelous writer. You need to believe in your own writing and convince others
that it’s good. At the same time, you should learn from others. It took
me a long time to realize that I could learn from rejections, even if I couldn’t
help being upset by them.
Publication is a business - be willing to learn your specific business. The fiction
world is different to poetry, to television drama, to screenplay . If you’re
expected to pitch an idea, that’s a skill you can learn (one I’m
just learning and find hard). At the same time, writing can also be highly emotional
- you need to know what’s private and also what is not for sale. If that
Hollywood ending is not what you want, how desperate are you for publication?
I’ve had suggestions for the ‘improvement’ of a stage play
that I would not consider for a second.
Read widely. Read what ‘s being written now. Talk to people who are writing
now. The INTERNET has opened up the world. At the same time, write your heart
out and don’t think you must know it all before you can write. Who knows
what your personal voice is or what it will become; sing and find out.
Never give up. It helps me cope with all the rejections if I always have something
out in the world seeking an audience; then when I get something rejected, I can
pin my hopes on what is still ‘out there’. Send as much as you can
out into the world rather than pin your hopes on one poem sent to one Editor.
Never give up.