Every week we feature a Q&A session with one of our Crime Cymru authors. This week, Alison Layland talks of her passions of language, literature and the environment and how they inform her writing.
What’s your connection to Wales?
Although I’m originally a Yorkshire lass – I grew up in Shipley and Bradford, West Yorkshire – I moved to Wales with my family in 1997. As a linguist, I was delighted to find our village was Welsh-speaking and I immediately started learning Welsh. It was thanks to this that I started writing, as when our language course finished, a group of us continued in the form of creative writing classes. Writing in a language that isn’t my mother tongue somehow silenced the inner critic and opened the doors for me, and I started writing short stories and flash fiction. After winning the Welsh Learner of the Year competition at the National Eisteddfod in 1999, I became a member of the Gorsedd of Bards, which gives me the annual opportunity to dress up and join in the ceremonies celebrating Welsh literature and culture. A couple of years later I was thrilled to win the short story competition at the Eisteddfod, and the Crown at the Powys Eisteddfod, for a collection of short stories.
After translating some of my work for family and friends to read, I started writing in English, and both of my published novels have been in my first language.
Were you good at English at school? Did you like it?
I enjoyed English to an extent – I was an avid reader from a very early age, and have always been fascinated by language, words and stories. However, although I’ve always told myself stories in my head, I was rather self-conscious about writing my ideas down and sharing them, so I never really shone at English. My favourite school subjects by far were languages (French, German and, later, Spanish) and, as with Welsh in my adult life, I learned a lot about language, literature and writing through studying foreign languages.
Do you like town or country?
Although I grew up in Bradford, I’ve always been drawn to the country. My debut, Someone Else’s Conflict, reflects this, moving from a remote farmhouse in the Yorkshire Dales to urban life in Keighley and Bradford, as well as a background in the Balkans in the 1990s. My second novel, Riverflow, is totally rural, although the fictional village of Foxover is far from a rustic idyll; I love exploring the tensions and undercurrents of village life.
What do you do for a day job if you have one and do you like it?
I’m a translator, and I love it, particularly since in recent years I’ve concentrated largely on translating fiction. Becoming a translator back in the early 1990s allowed me to indulge my passion for words and language before I began to write myself.
It’s also a perfect complement to my other life as an author, not only because as a freelancer working from home, I can arrange my work schedule to allow plenty of time for my own writing, but also because I really enjoy bringing other authors’ work to an English audience. It’s also an opportunity for me to explore different worlds and periods of history; my translations have taken me from modern-day Haiti to pre-war Germany, Sri Lanka to fin-de-siècle Vienna. There’s the added factor that writing, like any craft, improves with practice, so whether it’s a translation project or my own work-in-progress, I’m always writing something.
What are your other hobbies and interests?
I’m an avid reader, and pick up a book, ereader or audiobook at every opportunity. I love music and the performing arts; I enjoy local live gigs, storytelling and theatre, and look forward to being able to go to live events again when lockdown eases and it’s safe to do so. l volunteer regularly for a local community cinema and the Festival at the Edge storytelling festival, which provided a lot of inspiration for the stories my main character Jay tells in Someone Else’s Conflict.
I also enjoy gardening and crafts. Not long ago, I took up knitting again, which is a perfect complement to my recent discovery of audiobooks!
Over the last year or so, I’ve also spent a lot of time campaigning for action on the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, with our local Oswestry & Borders branch of Extinction Rebellion.
If you like to write to music – what do you choose and why?
I like a wide range of music and most genres. I have playlists for each of my novels or stories, made up of songs that inspire me, whether by conjuring an atmosphere or suggesting a story element from a lyric. I love playing songs on random, and sometimes a strange juxtaposition – two songs which, apart from the fact that I like them, don’t go together at all in most people’s ears – can trigger a whole new thread of ideas.
I rarely actually write to my playlists, but play them often, and if I’m not writing for any reason it’s a great way of staying in the zone. When writing, if I feel I want music, there are certain instrumental pieces I turn too, often the work of a brilliant musician called Steven R Smith. I was delighted when he agreed to me using snippets of his music for my book trailer videos.
Do you do your research strictly online, or talk to professionals in the field or a mixture of both?
I use a mixture of sources, both online and from reading books, as well as talking to people if I need insights into a specific aspect. Having decided on the 1990s conflict in Croatia as the backstory to Someone Else’s Conflict, I read widely, both nonfiction and fiction in translation from the region. I also spent time travelling and getting to know the Balkans and, being me, made an attempt to learn the language, to help me feel confident enough to write about the situation.
As Riverflow is entirely set close to home, and features issues I’m passionate about myself, I didn’t envisage having to do much research – wrong! Among other things, my research took me to a green energy trade fair and my first ever (of many, as it turned out) protest, and also involved some fascinating conversations with my neighbour, a flood defence engineer.
Do you think of the twists first then the story, or does this change every time?
In the “plotter” or “pantser” debate, I’m at the extreme end of making it up as I go along. That’s not to say I don’t plan – I do, meticulously – but it’s largely during my second and subsequent drafts. I tend to start with characters, and the story with its twists grows from their situations, interactions and backgrounds. It’s not only a question of the storyline, but also new characters emerge and the dynamics between them change, which can often lead to some interesting plot developments – and headaches. My way of doing things does mean substantial rewrites, but that’s a process I love, and often a new draft doesn’t involve half as much work as I fear it’s going to; my subconscious usually has a fair idea of what it’s doing.
Tell us about your latest book.
Riverflow is a psychological thriller set against a background of environmental protest and flooding on the River Severn.
After a beloved family member is drowned in a devastating flood, Bede and Elin Sherwell only want to pick up the pieces and pursue their off-grid life in peace. But when a local landowner applies to start fracking near their smallholding, they are drawn in to the frontline of the protests. Mysterious threats and incidents begin to destroy trust, rake up the past and threaten their future together. Who is trying to ruin their world and how far will they go?
Will there be a sequel?
Not a sequel as such, but my work-in-progress, a cli-fi utopia/dystopia set about 30 years into the future, continues with some of the themes raised in Riverflow and, though it has a whole new cast, it does involve one or two of the characters. It’s fascinating to explore what they might be like as they get older, and what has happened to them in the intervening period. It’s also far enough into the future to allow me to envisage one way the world might be, without being thrown too badly off course by current events.
Read more about Alison Layland.
To discover Alison’s books, follow the link here to her Amazon page