Angela Graham is a film maker from Northern Ireland who has had a long career in Wales. She now splits the year between both places as a fulltime writer. Angel will be a guest reader at this Short Story Double Event hosted by Clare Morgan on 10.11.22
When did you first feel like a writer?
I don’t remember ever feeling that I was not a writer or, to put it positively, I have always been a writer. I made up poems from the age of six and had my first poem published in a popular Irish magazine when I was seven. The rules said no one under eight could enter so my mother pretended I was eight and my headmistress went along with it, providing corroboration. I remember the heading included the words, “Authenticity vouched for in the usual way.” I was fascinated by the wording: ‘vouched’ and ‘authenticity’, and I felt guilty at the ruse.
What’s the most interesting thing that has inspired your writing and what was the result?
Very often an object, or a dream, inspires my writing. An example would be a thing I saw in the window of an antique shop in the Via dei Banchi Vecchi in Rome, near the Vatican. It was a portrait of a man and it was so striking that I researched it and its genre. It was a beatification portrait. These are done as part of the process of seeking canonisation for a person. They tend to portray the individual at her or his best but stressing the spiritual qualities. Nowadays photography is used. This particular example was like an icon in its intensity and yet realistic in the modern style even though it was old. It formed the basis for my story, Above It All.
Another example is the wide discrepancy between the words of the well-known Welsh song, All Through The Night. In English it is a sweet lullaby. In Welsh it is a profound consideration of the brevity and preciousness of human life and the need for solidarity. That gap fuelled my story, All Through The Night. You can read the story here and listen to an extract beautifully read by Geraint Lewis.
But if a set of events can be a ‘thing’ then civil violence and the collapse of societal norms is a powerful engine behind my writing.
Paint us a picture: what does your writing process look like? Do you write in coffee shops at night or only on an old type-writer?
I have a physical disability which restricts my capacity to type and write so I have to pace my writing stints. I’ve recently bought an adjustable desk so that I can vary my writing position, sitting and standing. The act of writing is, for me, very conditioned by what my body will tolerate. I have learned not to be anxious when I am interrupted by a spell of worsened symptoms. It’s not how I would want things to be but I know that I can return to the point at which I broke off and, with patient attention, I will pick up the thread, and maybe something even better will offer itself.
I’ve tried voice recognition technology and that is helpful sometimes but it struggles with my Ulster accent and I haven’t yet been patient enough to coach it along!
I write most days in office hours, the time punctuated by stretching sessions. However, I pay careful attention to my dreams and as soon as I wake I check over what the night has thrown up.
Since I’ve had many spells of enforced inactivity due to health issues I have become used to long sessions of structed reflection and especially of imagining scenes. Once I see a thing, I find it relatively easy to write about it.
Describe your ideal reader: who would your work speak to?
I don’t have an ideal reader. I am grateful to anyone who gives their time to reading anything I’ve written.
Who’s an author you’ve changed your mind about and why?
Sally Rooney. I really struggled with Conversations With Friends. I found the two lead female characters pretentious and some of the plotting incredible. I didn’t get much further with Normal People but I persevered, and Beautiful World, Where Are You? I enjoyed. It seems to me to be more true to life and to life as lived nowadays and the philosophising is better integrated into the plot.
If you could interview any other writer/artist, who would it be and why?
I would like to interview the Northern Irish journalist and writer, Malachi O’Doherty https://malachiodoherty.com/about/. Many years ago I read one of his columns in The Irish News and, though I now can’t remember the topic, I will not forget the impact his approach had on me. I felt I was reading something honest about the politics of Northern Ireland. Something was getting said that needed to be said. His 2003 memoir I Was A Teenage Catholic impressed me when I read it on publication, and again recently, by its humour and insight. He has written several factual books on Northern Irish politics which bring his journalistic and personal experience to bear and this is a combination of approaches that I find illuminating.
Recently he wrote a newspaper article about Ulster-Scots which I found a bit wide of the mark and I would love to discuss it with him. Ulster-Scots is the form of speech that developed from the interaction of Scottish Protestant ‘planters’(who came to the north of Ireland in the seventeenth century in a colonisation organised by the Crown) with the indigenous Gaels. I write in Ulster-Scots and won the first prize for poetry last year in the inaugural Linen Hall Library Ulster-Scots Writing Competition.
What motivates you to keep writing?
When I was working on the stories in my collection, A City Burning (Seren Books) https://www.serenbooks.com/productdisplay/city-burning the editor pointed out that many of the twenty-six stories were to do with an act of witness. I hadn’t spotted that, but it is true. Reflecting on this since then, I realise that bearing witness is a key motivator for me. I grew up in Northern Ireland, very aware of, and affected by, major social injustices. When a person’s voice has been muted there can be a powerful impetus to break through that muffling and speak, loud enough to be heard; not so as to browbeat anyone but simply to say, ‘This is how it looked from where I was standing.’ I believe that when we offer our ‘witness’ as honestly and compassionately as we can, energy shifts as a result; stasis breaks up; the shadows are pushed back.
How do you deal with writer’s block or being overwhelmed by the writing process?
I never have writer’s block. When I reach a point at which I can’t see what to do next, I try to accept that I have reached a kind of limit and that this may mean that it is time for a re-consideration of tactics or approach. I don’t blame myself. I wait. I show up at the desk. I do what I can.
As to ‘being overwhelmed by the writing process’, that again relates very much to my body. It seems to be very reactive. For decades I haven’t been able to tolerate any of the medications or painkillers for the condition I have. I produce a firework display of symptoms!
In the course of my writing, I have on three occasions experienced truly major reactions. I was a film maker and screenwriter for many years. I was commissioned to write a certain feature film script. I undertook the work because I could see it had great potential and I was trying to collaborate with the interests of the production co-operative of which I was then a member, Teliesyn. I did huge amounts of research, including learning Romanian, as the film was set in Romania and Wales, and went to Romania on my own not long after the revolution when the country was pretty unstable. But I was, from the start, out of sympathy with the female protagonist and I never learned how to really see the action from her point of view with proper compassion. I got very sick and had to give up. My body couldn’t cope with my efforts to tell that particular story.
It’s as though the internal effort to handle ‘unexploded ordnance’ blows up inside me. I pay for what I write with pain, tiredness and paralysis. I don’t think this is a desirable state of affairs, of course. I do a lot of internal work to bring that payment system to an end.
Where would you like to see yourself in a decade? A creative writing teacher? As a best-seller?
I’d like to see myself writing without pain because that might mean I had resolved the inner ‘combustion’. I’d like to be widely read and also closely linked with other writers. Film is a very collaborative medium and I’ve spent decades as a film maker, especially in documentary where the task is to enable others to speak (to bear witness to their experiences). I chose to design my poetry collection, Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere (Seren Books) as partly a collaboration with five other writers. The book deals with many aspects of sanctuary so I sought two poets living in Wales and two in Northern Ireland who have experience of one aspect or another of this theme. I invited them to write a poem each with me. This is very different to being asked to give a poem to a collection which one has written alone. It requires openness; it risks collision but it offers depth and breadth through the engagement of two lives. My mentor, Glen Wilson contributed a poem of his own.
I would like to have published the novel I’ve written about the politics of language in Northern Ireland (Irish and Ulster-Scots) and to be writing regularly in Ulster-Scots. I’d also hope to have written more in Welsh. I learned Welsh as soon as I married a Welshman and moved to Wales.
What has your work taught you about yourself?
One of the most uncomfortable things I’ve learned about myself through my work is that I have a kind of expertise in ‘suffering as an act of war’. The editor of the short story collection, Gwen Davies used this phrase in writing about me and my approach in a blurb for the book. I didn’t recognise the words. I found them shocking. Yet I had written them in one of the stories. I had to accept they applied to me as well as to the fictional character they were attached to. It’s not something I think is a good thing at all. It has its roots in the complex mesh of reactions arising from the experience of being in an oppressed minority. It is not a healthy attitude. It is profoundly, but subtly, violent. Along with other experiences, this has taught me that trauma can lodge inside one and one should be very careful not to replicate the traumatising behaviour, directed at others.
Recently someone used the word to me, in this context, of ‘shrapnel’. It’s important to locate those barbs and splinters and remove them compassionately so that they don’t provoke one to treat others as one has been treated negatively oneself. In a poem recently I found myself writing the concluding line, “Violence is not what saves the world.” Yes, and yet I can find myself failing to use genuinely non-violent means – I don’t mean actual violence but emotional violence, or at least insufficiently considerate behaviour.
I’ve also learned that I am very persistent!