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On dosh, dash and Dylan Thomas: Owen Sheers Interview

Owen Sheers Owen Sheers is a Welsh poet, author and scriptwriter. Owen joined in conversation with Cathy Galvin at Word Factory #13 in July after reading from Pink Mist, his verse drama based on conversations with soldiers who had returned from Afghanistan, examining the impact of the experience on them, their families and friends. Pink Mist was commissioned by BBC Radio 3 following a play on the same theme Owen had written, The Two Worlds of Charlie F. The drama’s impact was delivered through a blend of everyday speech and classic Welsh poetic rhythms. What he had to say that night told us a great deal about his vision as a writer and the practicalities of making a living as one.

Q – Did you maintain contact with any of the people that you spoke to during the research process of The Two Worlds of Charlie F?

A – I’m still in touch with most of them. Sadly the first lad that I interviewed died recently – essentially because of his wounds, four or five years later. Pink Mist is dedicated to one of them, Lyndon. He came to the launch – that was a very interesting experience I think for both of us. I had obviously I asked him about the sections that I’d read. The section with Arthur having that flashback to the two American soldiers on fire –that was the flashback that kept Lyndon awake for two years. So to read that in front of him was sort of the leading edge of this process really. I think we both found it difficult but we were pleased that it had been able to happen. I’m also in touch with them because I’m pleased to say that the play will be coming back and will be going on tour.

Q – Where did the whole process begin? Why did you want to create Pink Mist?

A – Well, it’s a good question. Because having done The Two Worlds of Charlie F, which was a challenging project in many ways, I felt very privileged that I’d had access to these people – not just access, but time when I did. I think that was the extraordinary thing. That it was so soon. Both the soldiers and their families were still living the issues that we were writing about. And if I asked them the same questions now that I asked them then, I know I’d get very different answers. They were very raw, it was on the surface. And that was part of the thinking behind The Two Worlds of Charlie F – to get people to speak soon. The average amount of time before someone approaches Combat Stress, which is the main charity that deals with conditions like PTSD, is fourteen years. In that space there is often marital breakdown, unable to see their children, experiences of alcoholism. It’s all about now – we’ve now been in Afghanistan for longer than the First World War and the Second World War put together. It’s going to have a very long tail, this conflict, in terms of children and families. So it’s about trying to engage people quickly.
So having gone through that, I did think about whether I should go back to it. Then Tim Dee, who’s a producer for Radio Three, he was introduced to me as “a secular saint of poetry” – and he really is amazing. He works in a very old-school way; he asked me if I’d like to write a five part radio drama, in verse, across five nights. It was the structure that attracted me. The concept of having fifteen minutes of poetry on radio every night; that sort of episodic structure, about what you could do with that in terms of character, in terms of storytelling, in terms of where you could leave people. I realised then that I wanted to return to the same territory. Because I hadn’t been able to mine a lot of this material in The Two Worlds of Charlie F. It was also very important that for the therapeutic part of The Two Worlds of Charlie F the stories on stage related very directly to those acting it. Whereas in Pink Mist, although it’s absolutely informed by these stories, there’s a huge amount of imagination, I was allowed to invent. That’s really where it started with me. When I started writing I felt intrigued and a bit daunted – but very lucky that I’d sort of stumbled upon a form which, unknown to me, I’d been moving towards quite naturally over the last sort of five or ten years.

Q – Given the subject matter, there is elegance and beauty in Pink Mist alongside restraint. I think we got a little sense of that with the imagery of the boys collecting eggs. Even in Arthur being talked to as he’s being put into his final resting place before he’s brought home. That’s clearly deliberate on your part. Why did you hold back on the brutality of their experience?

A – Partly because that’s how these young people were –we shouldn’t forget the ages involved; eighteen, nineteen, twenty. They’re kids, they’re boys. After this I did a project with the Welsh Rugby team which I thought was going to be some sort of light relief, but actually it was very similar territory. Because again, you’re with young men in these masculine monocultures, in which they both have life experiences that we can only imagine. And yet they had no life experience. So because of the combination of that, when they talk about the brutality and the extreme violence of war, they talk about it in a very matter-of-fact way and I suppose I wanted the poem to inherit that matter-of-factness. I think if the content is that strong then you don’t need to do anything else. You just need to present. Also I think it’s very important just to present the subject in all of its nuance. A lot of the boys I spoke to would still join the army, if they could, again. A lot of them were essentially pro the war, not necessarily anti the army and it’s a lot more complex. Wilfred Owen had it right, and it hasn’t changed. He said “all a poet can do is warn”. You present and you say: here it is. I think if you push too far in some of those moments you’d start to feel the finger coming out of the page and wagging at the reader. Where all you want is a reader – especially nowadays when we have such an ability to live at such a distance from the conflicts that are fought – to remember what those three letters mean. W A R. That’s what it is. And that’s how long the shadow is. And then I hope the facts do the rest themselves.

Q – Given your heritage and the geographical basis of Pink Mist, did you consciously use some of the medieval Welsh rhythms or imagery in this?

A – I did. All the three names – Hayden, Arthur and Taff’s real name is Geraint – they’re all names that appear in Y Gododdin. There’s a nod to medieval Welsh poetry and the sort of mirrored assonance and the alliteration of that kind of work. That was intentional because as well as being contemporary, it’s also a nod to David Jones’s writing about the First World War. He uses phrases from Y Gododdin to introduce his writing in parenthesis. I wanted to say quietly there is continuity here. David Jones saw the soldiers of Agincourt at the Somme, and I see the soldiers in the Somme in Afghanistan and we all see them back in Y Gododdin. And it’s just that constant beat that we have to keep saying is, look, we’re still doing this. There’s got to be a better way because it’s not working and it’s awful.

Q – Do you think that the core of you as a writer is being a poet? The range of work you’ve done is astonishing. From novels to plays to The Passion, for example, which was pushing the boundaries of playwriting. Why have you explored so much?

A – Absolutely. It shouldn’t have worked. It almost didn’t. Because I’ll write anything for cash, me. I joke, but there’s an element of truth there. The economics of being a writer have changed, and they’re not easy. If you do want to live by being a writer, and keep as much of your time for writing, then you have to be flexible. I probably wouldn’t have written Pink Mist if it hadn’t been radio that came to me. That’s partly because it is a very interesting form with that five-part structure. But it also enabled me to have the time to write it.
Another answer is that I get bored easily; I enjoy writing when you’re quite far down the learning curve. I find it exciting when you’re finding out how these different engines of storytelling work. You make mistakes and you’re able to think: oh right, so that’s how it works.
There’s also the social element. Writing poetry and novels and non-fiction especially entails thousands of hours of silence at the desk. At the end of that process I am often looking for collaboration. Which is where working in theatre or on film scripts comes in. Especially with film scripts when you’re writing a blueprint and then give it over to all these other people it can feel invigorating, exciting and it’s not all your responsibility any more. Of course at the end of that process, when everyone’s stamped all over your work and you’ve got no say, you go back to the novel or the poem and you think: God, this is brilliant!

Q – Have you ever written short stories?

A – Yes, I have. Actually it was a short story that kicked the whole thing off. The Hay-on-Wye festival had a very grandly titled competition called the All Wales Young Writers’ Competition and I wrote a short story for that. It wasn’t very good and I missed the entrance date; my mother – in the end we’ve all got to thank our mothers – sent it off, late. And it won. The prize was a week up in Ty Newydd, the North Walian residential writing centre. It kicked everything off because it was a poetry course that I chose to go on; that’s what started me writing poetry.
I should say I’ve since found out that only four people entered the All Wales Young Writers’ Competition, so I was quite lucky. I also should be very, very grateful to short stories, because it was a short story in a magazine that only ever ran to one issue which actually got me my first agent and which led to me writing The Dust Diaries.
A very good friend of mine, Sarah Hall, has just published a fantastic collection of short stories called The Beautiful Indifference. I’ve been talking to her and Pete Hobbs recently about the short story and feel like it’s having a real resurgence at the moment – by which I mean it’s good to see publishers treating the form more seriously. I think that Sarah’s collection did a very important thing at Faber – it made them sit up and think: actually, these can do very well. It’s another aim of mine for next year to go back to the short story. Every time I feel I’ve got a short story, I quite often end up writing a poem instead.

Q – Have you made some terrible mistakes? Things that you can pass on to people and say: do not make this mistake…

A – All the time. I think saying yes to too many things becomes a mistake. It also relates back publishing work too quickly. That’s the main mistake. Not letting something sit and distil for long enough. One mistake that I think all writers continue making – and they have to make because that’s what hopefully makes them improve – is that of not switching quite enough to the editorial side of the brain. Not being quite hard enough on yourself. And the other one which again is quite common, is kidding yourself that you need to do more research because really you very rarely do. But it feels a proper job; so when you meet your mates in the pub you can say: I did this today, rather than: well, I kind of looked out the window and wrote five hundred words.

Q – One of the things that you’re working on is Under Milk Wood. What will you do with it?

A – Yes. It is sort of an adaptation. Which means I’ll probably never be allowed back into Wales. Or I’ll have lots of death threats. It’s another project that has come from the outside, which I’m very grateful about, but it means it wasn’t necessarily my idea but I loved what the idea was. Next year is the centenary for Dylan Thomas – by March we’re all going to be sick of Dylan Thomas, there’s so many projects – but it is also a great moment. I had a really interesting discussion with his grand-daughter about it being an opportunity to re-position him and to re-focus the conversation about the poetry, not the poet. Because you know, he’s really suffered from this awful myth sort of crystallising around him and not enough attention on the work. So the project I am working on is an adaptation for the BBC – it has to be an hour, so already it’s a huge editing job. What they wanted was the text of Under Milk Wood to live in a twenty-first century story; in the same way that Macbeth might be set now on a Council Estate. It’s a bit like that, except actually that I’ve made the text dance to a different tune, so it is a different story. It’s set between a west village in Wales and west village in New York and it’s a little love story between two people who communicate really by either observing or imagining the lives of their neighbours. It has a strong connection to Under Milk Wood but it goes lots of different places. Unfortunately I’ve just learnt that it’s going to be pre-watershed, so I’ve just had to take out all of the S and M scenes – because Under Milk Wood is fantastically dark, sexually. That was one of the things I really wanted to do was to mine that.

Q – There seems to be a pattern in recent history that the returning soldier from war is not a hero at home and schisms open up between them, their loved ones and the public. Will we ever get over that do you think?

A – I doubt we will. You’re absolutely right, the most common wounding was to relationships. When working with the twenty odd men who were non-officers in Charlie F I discovered that all of their marriages had broken down and/or they were estranged from their kids, quite often because they were taking a lot of medication for various things. Although there’s a greater awareness of our returning soldiers and problems with homelessness etc, I hope that the narrative will become slightly more nuanced.
You used the word ‘heroes’. I’m actually very nervous of that word. We’re using it increasingly, more like they do in America, which is anyone in a uniform is a hero. None of the people I spoke to felt necessarily heroic. And maybe they’re not, some of the people I spoke to were racist thugs. But that didn’t mean that they hadn’t suffered terribly as well and that their families weren’t suffering terribly as well. I hope that the understanding will deepen and I think it is starting to get better. A lot of veterans are starting charity groups etc to assist with this. Whether we’ll ever prevent that schism happening? I don’t think so because it’s just human nature, to go from an environment of extreme violence and then to come back to a world that is “normal” where it hasn’t even brushed against most people’s lives. It is like your internal scales are imbalanced. I really got involved in this territory when I did an event in a prison, in Bridgend. I was struck by how many of the inmates had very recently been soldiers. It’s because what you ask of a soldier in war, where they are rewarded to kill. One of the most terrifying lines in Charlie F is where one of the soldiers says, “Yeah, well there were good days, you know, when you’re seeing them drop.” So if you’re pushing someone to a point where the definition of a good day is seeing someone who you’ve killed die, then there’s always going to be a schism. Because it – you hope – runs counter to the essence of humanity.

Q – In terms of the writing, what you found the biggest challenge when you had to do the second draft of Pink Mist?

A – The biggest challenge was the rhythm. Which meant me endlessly talking to myself. Or rather reading it aloud in cafes where people asked me to leave – that sort of thing. It was all about just trying to get it right on the ear. Going back to the question of time, I knew that the best way to do that is just to put it aside, and then come back to it two months later and you’ll hear where it’s kind of clanging and the rhythm isn’t working. I tend to write quite naturally in a regular metre so a lot of this was about breaking the metre because it had to also still feel inherited from the rhythms of speech as well.
There was a lot of editing but not in terms of content. Content I felt very lucky with, it sort of came. There were a few passages I increased the restraint on them where I thought: actually we don’t need that. I should also say when it comes to publication, I think every writer needs an editor. I had to go looking for my own editors, and I went to a poet who I really admire, Clare Pollard, who’s just brought out a fantastic sort of versions and translations of Ovid’s Heroines. Clare was very good at just making sure that I had an eye on that restraint It was crucial to hear “you don’t really need that, you don’t need that. You’ve already done that work.” Everyone needs that outside eye.

Q – You must have felt a huge sense of responsibility when you were writing these stories. How much did you feel like you were writing a history? Did you feel like a poet historian? Did you have to sort of feel a huge responsibility to tell the stories as you heard them?

A – That’s a really interesting question, because I never thought about the history element. Although I was aware that I was very lucky with the moment when I spoke to these people, because it was unusually soon. For example, those who were amputees had only lost their limbs four or five months before, or in terms of those who were suffering from PTSD and that kind of thing they were still living within it. So I was aware of those circumstances as well as being aware of the privilege of that moment. In terms of responsibility, I felt it hugely in terms of the stage play, because we didn’t want that to be verbatim theatre. As a recovery project it wouldn’t have worked, we think, if we’d just put our interviews on stage. It was distilling those interviews through art, through all the magic and tricks that theatre can do. We had them singing, dancing… jazz hands, the works. You know, we able to have fun whilst creating this project, alongside the deeper responsibility just to get it right. Authenticity was the key word of the project. As a writer I was very lucky to work with very honest people. If it started becoming inauthentic, someone very quickly told me – they’d say “that’s bollocks”, With Pink Mist it was more complex because there was a duty; there were people like Lyndon, people like Jack who’s just died, whose elements of their stories are in this book. Yet I also wanted to push the imaginative element, the characters are invented and so I’m loaning experience out, or I’m taking an element of it and feeding it elsewhere. So there was still a duty of care and it was more complex, because it wasn’t about being historically true. It was about emotional authenticity then, as well as the factual authenticity.