Alis Hawkins writes fiction based in two centuries and two places: England in the 14th century and West Wales in the 19th. But, as she tells Historia, shuttling between the two is easier than you might think.
Congratulations on The Black and the White being published! Tell us a bit about your latest novel.
My ‘elevator pitch’ for The Black and The White was “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road meets Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley“. Of course, to mention my work in the same breath as McCarthy and Highsmith is wildly self-aggrandising but the combination of slick, dangerous charmer and apocalyptic road-trip made those two books obvious reference points. (Not that I had either of them in mind when I wrote The Black and The White.)
The shout line on the front of the book reads: “The Black Death is raging but are some the victims of murder?” but, though there are a lot of suspicious deaths, The Black and The White isn’t a whodunnit. If you subscribe to Jeffrey Deaver’s excellent distinction between crime fiction and thrillers (“Crime fiction answers the question ‘what happened?’ whereas thrillers answer the question ‘what’s going to happen?’”) it might be described as a thriller. But, as that implies a greater number of cliffhangers than the book lays claim to, I think I’ll just stick with the elevator pitch!
What’s it like having a new book come out during the Covid lockdown?
It’s very odd. Everything seems to be happening at one remove and the publication of The Black and The White is no exception. But, as Sapere Books are an Amazon-only publisher, at least the date of the book’s publication wasn’t affected. But, because I’m doing my day job from home at the moment (I work part time for the National Autistic Society in family support) my work patterns have changed which means I’ve had a little more time to be active on social media on the book’s behalf which has been useful.
The Black and the White is set during the Black Death of 1349. Has the current crisis affected its reception in any way?
An article I read recently suggested that downloads of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Pepys’s Diaries have increased during the pandemic as people try to locate their experience within a wider historical context, so some people have possibly been drawn to it for that reason. But I suspect most people – myself included – are looking for something a little more escapist at the moment.
However, one reviewer was kind enough to say that the book “shows how the world narrows when everyone you meet might be infected by the dread disease, and how mistrust becomes a way of life. It takes us deep into the psyches of our travellers, showing us their deepest fears – what if this really is the end of days?” Getting into my characters’ psyches is every bit as important as plot to me.
Your next book, Those Who Know, one of the Teifi Valley Coroner series, has had its paperback publication delayed because of lockdown. How has that been for you?
Yes, Those Who Know was due to be launched on May 28 with various events in bookshops and at festivals. That’s now been pushed back to September. And, though my publishers, The Dome Press, agreed the move with me, the delay is disappointing because I was hoping to build on the launch event I devised for the previous book in the series. To publicise In Two Minds I went on #IndyBookTourCymru2019 – a tour of all 25 independent bookshop in Wales, during National Crime Reading Month (May) – and I was looking forward to revisiting some of those bookshops for events in May 2020.
But, of course, this small setback is nothing compared to the bookshops’ current fight for survival. Meeting so many booksellers last year and being lucky enough to hold events in their shops meant that I got a deeper insight into the business and came to understand that bookshops are often at the heart of small Welsh town communities. The thought that some of them might not survive the current crisis is genuinely awful as their loss would represent so much more than one fewer retail outlet on the high street.
You write historical fiction set in two very different eras, the 14th century and the 19th. What’s it like shuttling between them?
I have a feeling that shuttling between the 14th and 19th centuries is easier than dividing my writing time between two temporally closer periods. There’s very little chance of getting confused about which period something belongs to! And, of course, I also shuttle between my fictitious medieval university city of Salster, in south east England for the medieval books and the Teifi Valley in West Wales for the crime fiction.
But, actually, shuttling between the two isn’t as difficult as it might appear as some things definitely cross over. For instance, the agricultural sector in West Wales in the mid-19th century would have been immediately recognisable to a 14th-century peasant and, quite frankly, the same peasant (certainly if she was from South East England) would have turned her nose up at some of the poorest dwellings in mid-19th century Cardiganshire. Earth floors which turned to mud in bad weather, no windows, thatch made of gorse or bracken and only one room – not exactly what people think of when they think of a ‘traditional Welsh cottage’!
Similarly, the belief structure of what might be called the ‘peasant class’ of the two places and eras was not all that different; certainly, for many poorer people religiosity and/or superstition was every bit a engrained in mid-nineteenth century West Wales as it had been in the Middle Ages. Without widespread education and literacy, there had been nothing to change that, especially in largely static populations.
What is it about the 14th century that interests you?
As a non-historian, I’ve always had a largely instinctive response to the 14th century. For some reason, I’ve always felt that it’s the most absolutely human century; a society that might just be what we default to as human beings in the absence of fossil fuel-powered technologies.
The 14th century is both very definitely not the modern world, but you can see the modern world waiting in the wings. Everything’s developing, ready to give us the England we know – our laws, our language, our culture, the mindset which puts up with taxes but rebels when those taxes seem unfair…
It was also a century that had all the ingredients of the Apocalypse: War (the Hundred Years’ War with France), Famine (terrible weather in the early years of the century lead to widespread starvation), Pestilence (various cattle plagues, human diseases brought on by bad weather and starvation and, of course, the Black Death) and Christ/the Church (which was an integral part of life in a way which most people find it almost impossible to imagine now). And, as we’re seeing at the moment, times of such extremity bring out the best and the worst in people, which is great to write about.
In The Black and The White, I’ve tried to convey the beliefs, hopes and fears of my 14th-century characters as faithfully as I can, without making them feel too alien, too incomprehensible to the modern reader. If we’re going to enter the world of fictional characters we have to be able to see how much they resemble us as well as marvel at how different their world was.
And why did you go on to write about crime in 19th-century Ceredigion?
Ever since I started writing, I’ve wanted to write about the period of widespread civil disobedience known as the Rebecca Riots – a campaign of tollgate destruction (amongst other things) which) took place in West Wales the late 1830s and early 1840s.
Rebecca and her daughters, as the rioters styled themselves, were infamous at the time. The riots caused questions to be asked in Parliament, saw the first investigative journalist (Thomas Campbell Foster of The Times who later went on to report on the Crimean War) to be ‘embedded’ with the farmers responsible, and saw the rioters eluding the yeomanry, the regular army and a contingent of metropolitan police officers over three counties for the best part of a year. (If this has piqued your interest, you can find out more about why I was so keen to write about the Rebecca Riots on my website.)
The Teifi Valley, where I grew up, saw many Rebecca actions so it was the obvious place to set None So Blind. However, the bulk of the action doesn’t happen during the riots but seven years later, after the discovery of human remains in 1850, when my main protagonist, Harry Probert-Lloyd, has been forced back to his father’s estate by encroaching blindness.
But, though None So Blind was intended as a stand-alone novel, while I was doing the research for it two things happened to turn it into the first of the Teifi Valley Coroner series. Firstly,I fell in love with my two central characters, Harry Probert-Lloyd and John Davies, the young solicitor’s clerk Harry employs to help him. And, secondly, I became fascinated by contemporary life in West Wales. The mid-19th century saw the ultra-modern world of Victorian industrialism with all its associated social mores come crashing, with great speed and force, into an area where life had changed little for centuries.
Even before the physical coming of factories and railways, people were reading about them in newspapers and speculating financially in anticipation of their arrival. And attitudes were changing. The franchise was being extended, the old relationships between estate landlords and their tenants were breaking down, elementary education was becoming more and more widespread and though Victorian family values were alien to the more female-empowered Welsh population and they were late to adopt those values, adopt them they did.
And, when people are being forced to deal with a world they no longer quite understood, things become destabilised. Old certainties and loyalties break down and new possibilities emerge. Add to that a new, mistrusted, county constabulary whose remit was whatever the county magistrates decided, cost-cutting at a local and community level by those same magistrates and a coronial system which was subject to huge contemporary debate and change (allowing non-conformists like Harry Probert-Lloyd to make of the job what they would) and you have a wonderful backdrop against which to have murders committed and investigated.
Ceredigion – and all of Wales – is important to you, both personally and as a writer. But there aren’t many well-known novels set in Wales. Why is that, and what can be done to change it?
Oh, what a can of worms that question opens! When my agent was first trying to find a home for None So Blind, we came up against the preconceptions of a primarily London-centric publishing establishment that did not see Wales as a commercially-attractive setting for crime fiction.
So, once the series had eventually found a home, I decided to do something about the woeful under-appreciation of Welsh crime writing. Together with a couple of authors who, though English by birth, have settled in Wales and set their fiction in Wales, I founded Crime Cymru – a collective of Welsh crime writers which has three main aims:
● To support crime writers in and of Wales
● To help in the development of new crime-writing talent in Wales
● To promote Wales, Welsh culture and Welsh crime writing in particular, to the wider world
Not all of Crime Cymru’s authors set their fiction in Wales, for the reasons mentioned above, but Crime Cymru takes the long view and we hope to encourage more and more crime authors to follow television crime drama’s lead and look to Wales for inspiration. With Hinterland, Keeping Faith and Hidden all proving to be huge hits in the UK and overseas, Wales as a setting – both urban and rural – is finally becoming sexy.
How important is it to you to stick to the known historical record in your books?
Given that we’re shaped so much by the times we live in, getting the historical period right is really important if my characters are going to be believable 14th- or 19th-century people. And I say believable, not typical. Typical representatives of either century would have a world view that was too alien to be sympathetic to modern readers so my main protagonists tend to hold what you might call minority views. However, it’s important to me that their views and behaviour are feasible in context, however much they might have raised contemporary eyebrows. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to crime fiction – it’s full of non-conformists!
But sticking to what really was happening in the world of my novels is really important to me as their plots arise out of contemporary events – the Black Death and its aftermath; the Rebecca Riots; Welsh emigration to America; the rise of (and resistance to) autopsy as a medical and forensic tool amongst other things – and I want to accurately reflect those events and their impact.
What advice would you give to someone writing their first book?
Decide what genre you want to write in (preferably one you read a lot) then begin reading with an analytical eye – how do your favourite writers build tension, keep pace going, convey character? Then you have to just start writing to see how you, personally, are best going to construct your books.
Some people need to know everything about their characters and plot before they start. Others, like me, prefer to get to know their characters as the book progresses and let events unfold as they will. And if you’re one kind of writer, trying to do it the other way just won’t work.
Then, once you’re under way, read your words aloud to yourself. That’ll show you when things are beginning to flag, when you’re writing clunky sentences or when you’re over-using the same words and phrases.
A bit of fun – if you could time travel for one day, what time and place would you go to? And what object would you bring back?
I’m going to go back to 17 July, 1839, in Efailwen, a little Pembrokeshire community on the lowest slopes of the Preseli hills. There, I’d look out for Thomas Rees – locally known as Twm Carnabwth and, by tradition, the first rioter to be addressed as ‘Rebecca’, giving the tollgate breakings their name. I’d deprive Twm of the nightgown he wore as part of his ‘disguise’. Then, when I got back to the 21st century, I’d take the nightgown to a reliable forensic lab for DNA analysis to see whether any descendants of its owner can be found in the area. In that way, I’d hope to be able – finally – to nail the question of why the Rebecca Riots are so named.
One theory goes that Twm borrowed his nightgown from a ‘large old maid’ of the parish named Rebecca who supposedly was the only woman who had a frame robust enough to lend him clothes. The other theory is based on a quotation from the Bible: “And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, Thou art our sister, be thou the mother of thousands of millions, and let thy seed possess the gates of those which hate them”. (Genesis 24:60, if you’re interested.) It would be great to end the debate definitively!
And what are you working on now?
The fourth book in the Teifi Valley Coroner series, which is currently without a title. It’s August 1851, Harry is now coroner in his own right, rather than being a temporary stand-in, and he has to find a way to work with the police and the county magistrates of all three counties in his jurisdiction. His assistant, John Davies, is getting to grips with his new job as under-steward for Harry’s Glanteifi estate and has realised that he has a problem on his hands in the shape of his boss, Mr Ormiston.
When the book opens, John is at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, having his world view radically altered, and Harry receives a visit from his favourite medical witness, Benton Reckitt, who brings news of the sudden death of a young woman in odd circumstances.
The plot involves family secrets, new ideas shaking things up in the Teifi Valley and troubling times for Harry and John as they try to find a stable place to stand both as individuals and as the coroner and his assistant. By the end of the book, much will have changed and there will be new questions facing both the young men that they will have to begin to deal with in the next book.
Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire. Her inner introvert thought it would be a good idea to become a shepherd but three years reading English at Oxford revealed an extrovert streak and a social conscience which sent her off to train as a Speech and Language Therapist.
She has spent the subsequent three decades bringing up two sons, working with homeless people and helping families to understand their autistic children. And writing – nonfiction, plays and, of course, novels. She lives in the Forest of Dean on the Monmouthshire/Gloucestershire border with her partner.
Alis Hawkins at Griffin Books in Cardiff on the book launch tour for In Two Minds: supplied by author
Miniature by Pierart dou Tielt showing the people of Tournai burying victims of the Black Death from Gilles li Muisit’s Chronicles, c1353: via Wikimedia
Cottage near Aberystwyth, Cardiganshire (Ceredigion), 1850s, by Charles P Neville: Crown Copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales
Rebecca and her Daughters, Illustrated London News, 11 February, 1843, reproduced in Gossip in the First Decade of Victoria’s Reign by John Ashton: via Flickr
Nani’r Coed, Tregaron, by John Thomas: Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales via Flickr
Hill pasture above the Teifi Valley, Ceredigion, by Roger Kidd: via Geograph