Friday, 21 March 2014

Until Our Blood is Dry by Kit Habianic (Interview)

(See here for Triskele's review of Until Our Blood is Dry)

Welcome to the Book Club, Kit, tell us about your new novel, Until Our Blood is Dry, and the inspirations behind it ...

Thank you so much for inviting me.

Until Our Blood is Dry is the story of two families and a South Wales industrial community caught up in the 1984-1985 miners’ strike that closed the UK’s pits for nearly a year. The strike was a defining event for the miners, their families and wider communities, not least because they lost the strike, then lost their livelihoods as the government then shut pit after pit. 

The dispute has left deep scars to this day, yet very little fiction explores this directly and none really looks at the strike from the women’s point of view. There’s David Peace’s GB84 and Philip Henscher’s The Northern Clemency, which uses the strike as a backdrop, and Billy Elliott, the hugely successful screenplay reworked into a novel. 

But I wanted to dig deeper into the issues raised by the strike – issues of loyalty and identity and belonging, and pragmatism versus principle, of a man’s world ripped apart and women stepping forward. 

The miners had everything to win and everything to lose. They gambled everything and lost; people had their livelihoods and certainties and hopes ripped apart.

Characterisation is clearly important to you, where do you start when plotting a new character?

Character evolves and is not planned or plotted. It may start with a voice, or a strongly-held viewpoint, or a relationship or an event in the news. It’s almost always a blend of random and eclectic influences that somehow come together to create something that is nothing like the sum of its parts. 

I once wrote a story about a squaddie who comes unstuck in Iraq that sprang from the story of a businessman beheaded in Jordan and a laddish Welsh voice that popped into my head as I was waiting for a bus after a writing class one night, while listening to Mass Destruction by Faithless. That’s how irrational and disconnected the process usually is.

When I think about Gwyn, the main character in Until Our Blood is Dry, I have a strong visual image of Andy Serkis playing Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Though no one who reads the book is likely to see any resemblance between the overman at Blackthorn Colliery and a Hollywood take on Tolkien’s Stoor Hobbit.

You show the miner’s strike from the point of view of the strikers, the women who supported them, and the strikebreakers. Why was important to see the story from all three sides?

To this day, the strike is a divisive issue across the UK’s one-time coalfields. A conflict of that intensity throws out some very fundamental questions, of loyalty, of choosing sides, of right versus wrong and pragmatism versus principle.

Thirty years on, there are many truths about the strike and I felt the only way to get anywhere close to the heart of the matter was to build the story around two characters pitted on opposite sides of the dispute, and a character caught in the middle who could go either way.

Despite the polarisation, the characters go through periods of questioning and doubt and soul-searching. In fact, the should-Is and what-ifs are not so black and white.

Where were you during the 1984 miner’s strike? Do you have memories or family connections?

My Welsh family is rooted in the mining communities of South Wales. My great-grandfather worked at Oakdale colliery in Blackwood.

The year of the strike was the year I left Wales. I felt desperately homesick watching the conflict played out in the media. When my family moved back to South Wales, I lived and went to school in the area’s mining villages. 

When the strike began, there was a lot of solidarity work supporting the miners beyond the coalfields. Like many students, I got involved with that.

Why do you think it’s important to tell this story now? Why is it still relevant today?

Thirty years on, some people look back on the strike as a kind of civil war that split our country into warring camps. 

I see it as at the very least a defining event for Wales and for industrial communities across the UK, symbolic of a time when the economy was shifting from making stuff to servicing stuff. 

That shift shaped how working men and women made a living and how they saw themselves and their prospects. But it also marks a shift from a male-dominated economy to one where women start to come forward.

All of that has an effect on all of us today. 

Although March 2014 marks the 30th anniversary of the start of the strike, the shockwaves from the events of that year are still making themselves felt. People from all sides of the dispute feel passionately, still, about the events of that year and what they meant.

I believe that arriving at a title for this book was quite a convoluted process. Can you tell us about that?

Ha. Earlier titles include unpronounceable (to English folk) Welsh words, unpronounceable Welsh place names, unrepeatable swearwords, unforgettable lines from the poems of Dylan Thomas and unforgiveable quotes from Margaret Thatcher … 

Richard, my publisher, is a poet and was keen to choose a title that had resonance but that wasn’t obvious. Until Our Blood is Dry is a line from the poem Gwalia Deserta by Idris Davies. Gwalia Deserta is Welsh culture’s answer to TS Eliot’s The Wasteland and the line refers to the General Strike of 1926. 

The minute Rich suggested it, it felt right.

Strong settings are a feature of your writing, how do you decide where to set your novels and how important is location to you?

Sense of place has always been important to my stories, and South Wales lends itself very much to that. It’s not such a stretch to feel inspired by the bleakness of former mining towns, or the vividness of rain-dashed hills, or the brashness of Barry Island. 

I wanted landscape to function almost as a character in UOBiD. The winding tower at Blackthorn, my fictional colliery, pretty much has a speaking part...

How do you handle research into the period under discussion, do you love or loathe research?

Research is the fun part. I spent weeks, months at the British Library, the South Wales Miners Archive at Swansea University and at Collingdale Newspaper Library, read pamphlets, listened to wobbly cassette recordings from the year of the strike, looked at how the newspapers reported the events and how the miners and their women hit back at those accounts. 

Right now, I’m working on a second novel set in contemporary London and am struggling with it because there’s no research to dive into, no body of history or literature or writing to kick-start the planning and plotting.

What’s your writing process? And has it changed over the years?

When I wrote UOBiD, I plotted the whole novel in the sense that I jotted down 15 lines that summarised what would happen in each of 15 chapters. I then sat down and wrote a chapter a week, every week for about three months. At the end of it I had a novel. Just not a very good one.
I then rewrote and rewrote and rewrote, over and over and over. Never again.

I think there’s a place for planning, and that the pile-driver approach is perhaps an antidote to the kind of aimless faffing that so many of us writers do so well. 

But I threw myself at the project as though it was a journalistic assignment and then struggled to excavate the emotion and the themes and the nuances from the storytelling.

What do you think your Welsh background brings to your writing?

Rhythm? Also an outsider sensibility and a large dollop of bloody-mindedness.

In a Desert Island discs style, if you could only keep three books with you for life, which would they be?

Three? Just three? That’s so hard.

How about two all-time favourites, plus one less-travelled book stuffed full of stories within stories that would be fun to revisit?

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, The Outsider by Albert Camus definitely. Then maybe the Richard Burton collection of stories from the Arabian Nights. Or Angela Carter’s Fairy Tales? Or the collected short stories of John Cheever or Alice Munro or Raymond Carver?

It’s too hard to choose…

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