Cynan Jones‘s The Dig is one of the most taut, haunting reading experience you’re likely to have this year. It juxtaposes two stories: the pastoral life of a farmer grappling with tragedy and a badger-baiter whose actions occupy a much less noble sphere. It’s a visceral, stark work, and one that left me curious to read more from its author. (Coffee House Press will release his earlier novels Everything I Found On the Beach and The Long Dry in 2016 and 2017.) I met with Jones earlier this month at a cafe near Lincoln Center, where we discussed everything from the structure of The Dig to the curious position he finds himself in now, where his debut to American readers is his fourth book overall. This is the first of two parts of our conversation; the second half will run on Thursday.Geographic space plays such a huge part in the book? Did that come first, when you were writing it? Did the characters?
I think the allegory comes first, if that makes sense, in that I want to write about certain human situations, dilemmas, challenges, situations people find themselves in. And I try to do that by linking it with a natural allegory, or something that goes on around me in the natural world, in the environment that I grew up in. So this idea of the way that we try to create a safe space for ourselves and are forced to break into that, that was perfectly represented by the idea of this badger sett, and the people that dig into it. That was the drive for that piece. In fact, it was also linked to what I was trying to do with a much bigger book, almost two short novels, the title of which was Traces of People. There was a greater element of the way that people and things could be left in the environment and the psychological, the emotional landscape of an individual as well. Those were really the things that started it.
Is there are where the novel is set inspired by where you grew up?
Absolutely. I don’t name places in my writing. Certainly not very often. But I know, very specifically, pretty much exactly where most of those things play out. Or they’re a fusion of places I know extremely well.
Was that a conscious decision that you made early on in your writing?
It was not. When I was first started writing, I thought, I’m going to write a proper book. A grown-up book. The stories I came out with through my twenties were more [about] these lost urban characters with no sense of place, always trying to find some connection. The Long Dry, which was my first published novel, was my first book that happened in a place that I knew. I started writing it almost by accident because I was in the process of writing – I had just finished something else, and it had almost become a physical habit. I didn’t have something to write because I’d finished the other one, and it just came out. Written, edited, typed up–ten days, bang. And it was a real flash moment. And within that, it was set in this place that I knew. That was a breakthrough moment for me.
A friend of mine has mentioned that he tries to write a certain amount every day, just to keep the routine going–is what what you do as well?
No–I try to do as little writing as I can. I have to stop myself from writing until I’m ready to. My ideal working scenario, and it’s not always the way you can do this, is to think of everything in my head before I go near the page. It’s a process of walking, planting potatoes, chopping up onions. Whatever I’m doing, it’s simmering away. Doing the research behind the piece. And whenever it feels ready and I make space to sit down and write it, at that point, it’s usually a very intense, very quick flurry of writing. Usually it’s about three weeks to get the novel on the desk. That’s very much the raw novel, after which all the tiny work goes on. Once you’re in the process of doing that, it becomes, very quickly, something you enjoy. Because it’s so intense, it’s not something that I can do all day, every day. That’s not the way I write.
When you’ve been in the process of gathering things together, has there ever been a point where you’ve realized that something didn’t quite fit together with everything else you were trying to write?
It happens all the time. This is why I think it’s very important to have the story in your head before you start. The possibilities that can fly off of any given narrative are myriad, and you can spend days being drawn into a craft of of writing that you never intended. And it might be pretty thrilling, but you can sometimes lose the drive of the story. I like to be very clear on what I’m doing before I write. That work of “Does it fit? Doesn’t it fit?” happens away from the desk. It’s very difficult to have found out incredible things–you know so much more than hits the page. You have to resist the urge to over-inform the reader, or just stick some stuff in there because it’s fascinating. It’s got to have relevance, every single element.
Looking at the way that the text is arranged in The Dig, there’s a lot of space on the page, which creates a very specific mood. Is that a mode you generally work in, or is it something that worked for this specific novel?
The story’s generally the god of any given decision that you’re making. The style, the type of prose, the weight of the prose, the speed of the prose, even the density of the paragraph, and so on. It certainly suited The Dig. But it also comes from the notion that I sit down with, hopefully, a degree of clarity about what I’m about to write. Therefore, I’m not exploring those ideas on the page at all–I’m putting them down. And there’s a more statemental, blocky, visual scene that happens. It just comes with the style, I think.
You had talked about your earlier stories being set in a more urban space; you’re now living in a more rural environment. Does the progression of where your fiction has been set mirror where you’ve lived over the years?
I grew in the environment the books are set in. I’ve had time out; I went to the University of Brighton for three years. I worked up in Glasgow for five years. But I was always aching to come back. I get about two or three days in the city and I burn out. This trip’s ten days, DC and New York, so I’ve got the shakes already, five days in–”I can’t do it any more! There’s too many people!” (laughs) I’m very much that kind of country boy.
There was definitely a state, when I was in my early twenties, when I was less certain of choices and less certain of where I wanted to be. Or, perhaps, I didn’t have the confidence to be certain about it. That’s definitely reflected in the work: you’re finding things, so you tend to write about characters who try to find things.
Was there one moment that solidified your decision to return to a more rural space?
There was a plan that I formed at 22. I was teaching at the time, and I was doing bits and pieces. I’d always written, but not with any great determination to be a writer. I just liked to write. I was working on some film stuff for a guy, this lunatic Welshman I’d met through a friend. He was looking for film noir ideas, and, as you do, I started spilling those out to him. I enjoyed the process of writing in a more formal way. I was 22 years old, I was teaching at the time, and I decided: look, I don’t want to be 45 and turn around and blame my wife and children for never having had the chance to write. I’ve seen too many middle-aged men have that kind of bitterness, that they would have been something incredible if it hasn’t been for this.
I thought therefore that I had to give myself a certain length of time to get this out of my system. I gave myself two years to write a novel. I decided, at 22, that I’d give myself between 28 and 30 to write that novel. And I realized that I didn’t know how to write, really, and so I moved up to Glasgow and worked as a copywriter. I spent five years working in copywriting, which cut my teeth; it taught me to write. I got to 28, and there was quite a lot of pressure; I was freelance, but I had to make quite a gutsy decision: no, I’m sticking to the plan, I’m going to live in a shed in my mum’s garden for two years. The end result was The Long Dry, which came out at the end of that two-year period. That was ten years ago. So it’s taken ten years from then to get to the stage where I am now.
This is your first book to be released in the States. Do you find that readers here view you differently than writers overseas, who have had the opportunity to read more of your work?
I made jokes, ages ago when I got on with the process; I’d say, “No, I want to have a couple of novels out, I want to hit the ground running. Third novel, so that I’ve cut my teeth and learned the pitfalls with a couple of quieter books.” And that’s exactly how it’s played out. And the responses are really humbling, on both sides of the water. Very similar, actually, in terms of what they reacted to and are picking up on and described in the writing. I think there’s more fascination here–first of all, there’s the act of badger-baiting, and what a badger really is in the culture, which you guys don’t really have that sense of in the same way that they do in the U.K. There’s a bit more fascination there: “What is this? This is bizarre.” So there’s more emphasis on that. In a strange way, one of the really strong things that came from the press response in Britain was, mostly I was linked to American writers. People were making these, what I consider slightly comedic: “Oh, it’s Cormac McCarthy! It’s Hemingway! It’s Steinbeck! It’s of an American tradition.” And for that to be happening here, too, which it is, there’s quite an interesting correlation there, too.
It’s an interesting process, the comparison route. You’re so instinctive in the writing itself, you’re not mimicking anyone. But at that point, anyone that suggests that they’re going to write should have a massive library that they’ve already consumed. They need to know what’s out there. They need to know the levels. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but I can see that there’s a physical thing and a landscape thing. People link to that, more than anything else.
Were there particular books that you read when you were young that made you think, “This is what I want to do?”
I absolutely loved reading. I find it really, really difficult to do something that I really enjoy without trying to do it myself. The same goes for cooking–I love food, and because of that, I try to teach myself to cook. Writing, really, is a side effect of reading. It’s come from reading. It’s come from that sense that I don’t think you can get from anywhere else, that amazing moment when you’re reading, you’re on your own, and you have this overwhelming sense of the world. It’s just that, really.
Do your reading habits change when you’re writing?
Very much so. It always depends on what you’re writing and at what stage of the writing you’re at. Once I have an angle on what I’m about to write, I try to stop, because I give myself that process to build the story in my head, and wait. And, during that time, start to rethink that which might be relevant. With Everything I Found On the Beach, the second novel, it’s much more deliberately a thriller narrative in some respects. It’s using the cliches to do some of the work. Once I knew that was the way I was going to take it, I started reading Geoffrey Household and Boys’ Own adventures. You consume Graham Greene stuff, even stuff like Raymond Chandler. How do you work with drama and mystery? You do this huge process. I generally read those kinds of books while I was reading as well. What I found when I was writing The Dig was that I needed something entirely in contrast. At the end of the day, when it was time for me to pop off, I’d read something completely different.
When you’re reading, are you generally returning to writers you like, or do you find yourself seeking out new writers?
I work really hard to try to read new things, but I’m very, very often disappointed. I’m a really hard reader. If I see the strings… Because you can’t do it, you can’t work with words in the way that I do and then read something that’s badly written. It just fails, immediately. So I find myself struggling with a lot of books. But once you get one that you don’t struggle with, it’s almost like it’s an even more incredible experience. The stuff I’ve read recently, like J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country… Richard Brautigan, someone pointed me to: So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away is the only one I’ve read so far. It’s giving me goosebumps just thinking about it. It’s spectacular stuff. What’s great about the process of having a book out and being spoken about, in reference to your work–I had never read Cormac McCarthy until people started making these comparisons. Someone was talking about William Gay’s work recently, and I read two of his novels and thought, “Wow, these are brilliant.” You’re constantly on that thrill-seeking mission for that amazing book. But it’s also difficult–you read so many things people rave about reading, and you think, “That’s not particularly good.”
For part two of the interview, click here.
Photo: Alice Fiorilli