An interview with Angela Graham

Ahead of the launch of her debut short story collection A City Burning, we interview Angela Graham to find out more about the book and what inspires her.

In the twenty-six stories in A City Burning, set in Wales, Northern Ireland and Italy, children and adults face, in the flames of personal tragedy, moments of potential transformation. On the threshold of their futures each must make a choice: how to live in this new ‘now’. With a virtuoso control of tone, by turns elegiac, comic, lyrical, philosophical, A City Burning examines power of all types. The result is a deeply human book full of hauntingly memorable characters and narratives.

What is the meaning behind the title A City Burning?

In the opening story, ‘The Road’, a young girl witnesses her city blazing. She understands that this is a sign of the collapse of the status quo, of all the usual certainties. She is confronted with the need to react to this new situation. What values should guide her in this choice? I realised that this story encapsulates the theme of many stories in the collection – witnessing major change and having to work out a response. It seemed a fitting title for the book.

There is a theme of change in this collection, what, if anything, do you hope the reader can take away from this underlying message?

I haven’t thought in terms of such a message – at least, not while I was writing the stories. It wasn’t until late in the day that I saw that facing change was a link between them, and it took someone else, an editor, to point that out. In an important sense, I had to understand my own work from a more objective perspective. I’d like readers to recognise that ‘the given’ (whether positive or negative) can break down in very noticeable and in very subtle ways. One person sees a city burning, another sees some detail in a single photograph that opens their eyes. Usually, I believe few such opportunities for perception appear out of the blue. We have usually been sensitized to a shift in circumstances but we may be unwilling or unable to respond at an earlier point.

I’ve just looked up the etymology of ‘catastrophe’. The word comes from kata- ‘down’ + strophē ‘turning’. I imagine that as the point at which a wheel, goes into its irreversible downward momentum. We have watched the wheel move upwards and we know something has to give but we are not always prepared for it.

Words Flowering at Ty Newydd

There are a lot of different settings and ideas conveyed in these stories. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Anywhere that’ll have me! To give an example, the story, ‘Life-Task’ which is set in northern Italy at the end of the Second World War came to me because a person who had just retuned from Italy recounted a story she’d been told by someone who’d had it from someone who’d heard it from the actual protagonist. It must have been brilliantly told originally to be so vivid (after passing through several tellings in this way) for it to reach me so powerfully that I could see the events as the story was shared with me. I went home and wrote it down. Of course, it helped that I had, for completely other reasons, been doing research into post-war Italy, had read Italian novels on the subject, and taken a particular interest in what happened in northern Italy when the Germans (the allies of the Italians) had been defeated. And, in writing a story, one has to aim for a satisfying balance between all the elements. This may introduce material which is not part of ‘the original’.

Do any of the stories draw on personal experience?

This is a book of fiction. It’s not memoir or autobiography. It’s all made up. But it’s true to experience, my own and that of many others.

Coasteering near Dunluce Castle, Co. Antrim

You engage with a number of different languages in the book including Ulster Scots in the story ‘Coasteering’. Why was it important for you to foreground these languages in the collection?

I have always been interested in languages and I’ve worked in Wales for a long time, a country where two languages are in use alongside each other. I learned Welsh as soon as I moved to Wales when I married a Welshman. In Northern Ireland I had much experience of the link between language and identity; even nuances of accent, in a city such as Belfast, are sifted for meaning. Whenever a chance has presented itself to get involved with a language I’ve tried to take it. For example, I did a crash-course in Romanian as part of the writing of a screenplay set in that country and it made a big difference, when I was researching there, that I could follow what people were saying. I learned Italian by ear when I was a teenager and, again, I wrote a screenplay, set in Puglia. Most of the time, people are pleased that one has made an effort to allow them to stay in the language in which they are most comfortable, most ‘themselves’.

In regards to Ulster Scots, that fascinates me. I have written the first draft of a novel in which two major characters are Ulster Scots-speakers and language, including Irish, is key to the book. Clashes over language and culture are deep-rooted in Northern Ireland but there is also great potential to overcome seeing language as an obstacle. I’ve worked with a number of Ulster Scots writers. My father’s family are Ulster Scots. It’s important to me that Ulster Scots takes its place in contemporary literary fiction.

Words from Ulster Scots displayed at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Bellaghy

What is your favourite story and why?

The Road. In its 800-or-so words I’d like to think it pushes that wheel up out of catastrophe; gives it a push into an upward turn.

You’ve added some new stories based on the pandemic in the last few months. Why did you decide to write about it and were they hard to write?

They were not hard to write in that I was fuelled by indignation at the plight of low-paid workers whose interests were not given proper consideration. I have personal experience of the ‘worlds’ of both stories and I felt able to depict them forcefully. I checked out facts, naturally, but the internal impetus was immediate. Once again, it seemed to me, the people who are considered ‘least’ in our society − least important, least powerful − were receiving least attention, whereas if their needs were a priority we’d have a better balanced society in which to live.

You turned to writing full time a few years ago. How did you first get into writing and what has it been like working up to publication of your debut collection during the pandemic?

I committed solely to writing because I was busy with media work and I felt the need to sharpen my focus. Writing is what I have always done, since I was about six years old. My first poem was published in a mainstream magazine when I was seven and I wasn’t one bit surprised at the time. I knew that was what magazines were for – publishing stuff. I had a very child-like view of things. Of course. Very naïve. It’s by no means easy to get work published. And that’s a good sign – there are so many exceptionally talented writers.

I’ve always written but usually for the screen. I’ve done journalism and radio work and non-fiction tv tie-in work and poetry. A City Burning is my first chance to pull a substantial amount of fictional material together into a coherent whole.

Once I’d negotiated the early days of the pandemic – the practicalities − the pandemic (because I was lucky to stay well) made no great difference to the practice of writing at a desk. There were fewer distractions. But there was no access to libraries and I had planned to do an in situ major piece of writing for a month and the restrictions made that impossible. I had to re-invent the form of the work. It’s a book on my childhood in Belfast, partially supported by a Support for the Individual Artist Programme award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the National Lottery.

Acquiring a cover photo was hard in the circumstances. It would have been lovely to have had the launch I had been hoping for in Belfast’s No Alibis bookstore and I would have had a small one in Ballycastle, County Antrim which is where I’ve spent lockdown. Ballycastle Library is accepting a copy of the book, I’m pleased to say. Filming and editing a promotional video had to be done by ingenious means by my director husband, John Geraint. Sending paper proofs back and forth was interesting because of blips in the postal service. But the attention from Seren’s staff has been the key thing and that was undiminished.

Angela Graham on Ballycastle Beach, Co. Antrim

A City Burning is available on the Seren website £9.99

Create your free Seren account and enjoy 20% off every book you buy from us.

Join us tonight for the virtual launch of A City Burning which starts at 7pm. Angela will be in conversation with Phil George and there will be readings from the book by Viviana Fiorentino, Liam Logan and Geraint Lewis.

An Interview with Alexandra Ford

A forgotten history, a lifetime of secrecy and one woman’s search for the truth.

Alexandra Ford’s debut novel What Remains at the End sheds light on the lesser-known history of the former Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans – the Danube Swabians – and the horrors inflicted on them in the aftermath of World War II under Tito’s partisan regime. In this interview, we talk to her about writing the book, its themes and what she might have in store for us with her next novel.

 

What Remains at the End focuses on the forgotten history of Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans—the Danube Swabians. What first drew you to this topic?

Like Marie, I have a family connection to this history. My grandparents were survivors of the expulsion. And much like Marie’s grandparents, my Oma and Opa, while they spoke a lot about the war, didn’t go into detail about what had happened to them, to their communities. So, in many respects, researching for and writing this book was my own way of grappling with and understanding my family’s history.

What was it like doing research for this book and where did you focus your search? Have you visited any of the places Marie travels to in her own search for answers?

Researching for this book was a challenge. I interviewed my grandparents when they were still alive, but unfortunately, we’re at the point where many of the people who lived through World War II are gone. At least in the English language, there aren’t many written resources available, and the resources I did find were often written and compiled by people with a strong connection to the history. So, they weren’t academic texts, you could say, and there was a lot of understandable emotion—anger, indignation, horror—written into them. Which didn’t always make them reliable sources. But they were human, and they were primarily composed of personal stories as told by victims. Which is what I was most interested in as a writer—that and those grey areas of morality in Western culture.

And yes, I visited pretty much all of the places Marie travels to in her search for answers. I think it would have been very difficult to write this book without having seen Vojvodina and these places where so much horror took place—both for the historical short pieces and for the modern narrative, to understand what Marie would have felt living her experience.

The book shifts between 1940s Yugoslavia and modern day, connecting Marie’s journey with the experiences of her grandparents. What made you decide on this structure to tell their story? Are the historical sequences based on real events?

This book began with the historical pieces. The first one I wrote was the one about Emma Marzluft and her family being forcibly removed from their home. I created the characters and put them into very real, researched circumstances. A number of my stories came in this way. Others drew heavily on personal accounts. Which is a very roundabout way of saying yes, these stories are based on real events, real people, real places, often real details.

The structure didn’t take long to follow. I knew I needed something to balance the bleakness and violence of the historical pieces, something that wouldn’t trap me in the same place as my resources: coming across as indignant or self-righteous, leading me—and readers—down a path that doesn’t differ terribly from hate. The book needed to make room for complication in the landscape, and paradox, if only because it’s arrogant to believe we are incapable of the things other people have done, that we are better. Maybe we’re not. Western culture as a whole has a lot of blood on its hands.

I also felt it was important to show who these surviving victims became and perhaps why their stories have remained unspoken into the present day. So, I knew what I needed, but I didn’t know how to build it. It was actually in conversation with one of my mentors that I realised Marie was my way forward. I told my mentor about my upcoming trip to the former Yugoslavia, my connection to this story, and she said, ‘That’s it. That’s the answer.’ And it was like someone pulled open a window blind and all the light came rushing in.

You often opt to describe the horrors inflicted on Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans through the eyes of a child. What was it about the child’s voice that made you choose them as key narrators of these events?

Part of this, I think, is that, of the personal accounts I’d heard or read, many had come from people who were children during the war. If they were old enough to be telling me their stories, as my grandparents were, they could only have been children at the time. And sometimes in their retellings, I could hear the childhood language they may have used to describe it all before they grew up. It made sense for me to tell it from that point of view. But also, I find something particularly compelling about a child’s perspective. They can be much wiser than adults. They speak a language more evocative and open than grown up language allows.

What Remains at the End makes the reader consider several moral themes that will be challenging for some: ethnic cleansing, racial prejudice, infidelity. Do you think it’s important to challenge readers by discussing difficult/undiscussed topics?

Absolutely. Where, if not in books, can one wade through these things? I love the space fiction leaves for the reader to think and feel their way through complicated issues. I look for that, as a reader. Life is complicated—both personally and on a macro level. Getting stuck into moral dilemmas is part of what it means to be human. But I acknowledge that some of the themes in this novel are particularly challenging. They were challenging for me as well. I asked myself often if anyone would even want to read about ethnic German victims of World War II. If it was right to tell the story of German victims, if the process of doing so would belittle the millions of victims of the Holocaust. But what I came to, and what I hope readers come to as well, is that it’s important for us to look at our history in its entirety. Because if we don’t look at all the things that have made us, how do we know who we are?

Your book has a dual purpose, firstly to entertain readers, secondly to shed light on a lesser known but significant part of history. Why did you think it was important to bring the horrors of these events to light and why now?

It certainly feels relevant to share this story today. We’re in the throes of Brexit, after all. So much has changed in the decades since WWII, but not as much as one might hope. Donald Trump, the rise in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, right-wing populism—Western society is swinging the pendulum back toward nationalism and the rhetoric of otherness. I never thought I’d quote Mark Twain, but here I am. He said, and I’m paraphrasing: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.

Sometimes those rhymes are riddles. Sometimes they’re terrifying echoes. But we have to know the lines that came before to feel the rhyme. And this seems a pretty good time to brush up on our poetry.

This is your first novel, although you have been writing for a while. How did the process differ from what you have done before and how did you find the process? Was it harder than you expected?

The biggest difference between the writing I had done before and What Remains at the End was moving from short forms into writing a longer narrative. I felt comfortable in the world of short and very short fiction, where you have to be super economical with your writing to pack a whole story into a small space. Longer narratives don’t work in quite the same way, so there was definitely a learning curve. Weaving the historical short pieces through Marie’s story was surprisingly one of the more intuitive parts of the process. But I suppose the thing that was most difficult, and definitely harder than I expected, was how long it took to revise. It took two years to write what I felt was a strong first draft—and five years of revisions after that before it was finished. I learned the importance of embracing a book’s evolution and to accept that that evolution takes time. And it needs people. Writing a book is not a solitary journey.

You are currently working on your second novel. Will it be exploring similar themes or are you looking at something different the second time around?

It’s early days for my second novel, so it’s difficult to talk about with clarity. I’ll continue exploring challenging themes, but with a much more acute scope. It will tell the story of two women isolated together in a rundown house—a mother and her grown daughter—as they navigate life, death, grief, and healing from past trauma. I don’t know if it will be a book about forgiveness, but it will be a book about the idea of home, about memory and longing. And about morally complicated people doing the best they can and coming to terms with the possibility that their best isn’t enough for their loved ones. If it turns out as planned, it’ll be a bit of a dysfunctional Marches pastoral. But one thing I’ve learned is that the process of writing a book is full of surprises. So, we’ll have to wait and see, but it feels really good to be writing something new, not knowing where it might lead.

 

What Remains at the End is available to pre-order on the Seren website: £9.99.

Join us for the official launch of What Remains at the End at The Hurst (The John Osbourne Arvon Centre, SY7 0JA) on Saturday 23rd November from 4pm. Alexandra will be reading from the book and there will be wine, cake and a signing afterwards.