New Welsh Review

Interview with Alis Hawkins

Issy Rixon interviews Welsh author Alis Hawkins on her inspiration for the third installment of her Teifi Valley Coroner series, Those Who Know

PUBLISHED ON: 19/04/20


TAGS: Historical Fiction, Rebecca Riots, Wales, crime, nineteenth century, series

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How do you feel about launching Those Who Know into the world?

I’m actually feeling unsure about when it will be launched! The book was due to come out on 28th May but Covid-19 has put paid to that. My publishers, The Dome Press, have provisionally re-scheduled publication of the paperback for the 24th September, though we’re still aiming to release the e-book on 28th May. I’m going to have to work hard to make sure that Those Who Know gets a definite push into the world.

Those Who Know is being launched to an enthusiastic fan base and I’m looking forward to seeing people’s response to the developments in it. The book marks a new departure for Harry who throws himself into the world of politics in order to secure his election as coroner in his own right. As he’s visually impaired (he has a form of macular degeneration), having to speak to crowds of people whom he can’t see leaves him feeling very exposed and he tries to escape the demands of canvassing by throwing himself into investigating schoolteacher Nicholas Rowland’s apparently accidental death. Suffice to say, neither the politicking nor the investigation go as well as he might hope, and he ends up with some difficult dilemmas.

Is launching a new book in a series different from launching a stand-alone novel?

Both writing and launching a book that’s part of an established series comes with its own demands. Because people won’t necessarily read the Teifi Valley Coroner novels in chronological order, it’s important that Those Who Know can stand alone and build on what’s come before. Readers who are new to the series need enough information to understand the relationships between the characters and how we’ve got to where we are, but it’s important not to overload readers with too much recapping. And then there’s the issue of spoilers. In the first book, None So Blind, there’s a big ‘reveal’. I’ve referred to it in In Two Minds and Those Who Know but only obliquely so that people who start the series with a later book can go back and read None So Blind without knowing exactly what happens.

What kind of research did you do for this book, and how long did you spend researching before beginning the novel?

Before I started None So Blind, I had to do an enormous amount of research because I knew next to nothing about Britain in the early years and nothing about mid-nineteenth century west Wales. I had to acquire a working knowledge of the politics of the period and how it differed in England and Wales (my main character, Harry Probert-Lloyd has spent almost ten years away from the Teifi Valley and the reader sees his home through his London-tuned eyes). Not to mention what people wore, ate, gender politics and what people did for fun. (The two last items may not be entirely unrelated…)

Each novel in the series has a specific aspect of life in the Teifi Valley of the 1850s. In None So Blind, the historical context is the effects of the Rebecca Riots. In Two Minds has Welsh emigration to America as its backdrop, and in the background of Those Who Know lurks the 1847 Report of the Commission of Enquiry into the State of Education in Wales, known in Wales – far less prosaically – as Brad y Llyfrau Gleision, The Treachery of the Blue Books.

I did concerted research on schools in the Teifi Valley area, not to mention educational thought and philosophy in Britain as a whole.

Take the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, for instance. He was very much a radical in terms of his social views. He believed in equality for women, the right to divorce and gay rights. He also campaigned for the abolition of slavery, capital punishment and physical punishment, including that meted out to children. My protagonists, squire’s son Harry Probert-Lloyd and solicitor’s clerk, John Davies, investigate deaths in a less judgemental time.

At the whole-society level, the strict chapel morality we all think of as holding sway in Wales hadn’t yet got people totally in its grip, certainly not in the Teifi Valley. In the early 1850s, when Harry’s just getting going as coroner, there were still a lot of traditions that had been observed since medieval times. Probably the most surprising thing to most people is the tradition of ‘bundling’ or, in Welsh, caru yn y gwely – courting in bed – which was done with parents’ knowledge and consent. Young people had to get to know each other somehow and, for people who worked, that meant after dark. The temptation to get too physical was avoided by putting pillows between the couple but, if temptation proved too much and the girl became pregnant, the young man could hardly deny paternity!

Those Who Know concerns the death of a teacher, his ‘cowshed academy’ and his plans for a revolutionary new school. Why did you set a murder in the midst of such a non-violent setting?

I’m not sure ‘non-violent’ is the right phrase – society was much more tolerant of casual violence. Corporal punishment was seen as parents’ duty and it was accepted that many men routinely hit their wives.

Also, in the mid-1850s, not all children went to school – that didn’t happen until the 1880 Education Act made school attendance compulsory for children up to the age of ten. So, in the 1850s, such elementary schools as there were in the Teifi Valley tended to be either National Schools which were run by the Anglican church or totally independent and unregulated affairs run by private individuals. As readers will see in Those Who Know, all sorts of buildings were used for schoolrooms, from chapel vestries to private houses, converted cowsheds to the rooms behind public houses.

Given the type of men who sometimes became teachers, schools could be very rough and ready. So, setting a sudden, unexplained death in a school isn’t quite as surprising in those circumstances, especially when – as is the case in Those Who Know – teachers are in competition for pupils in order to scrape a living.

Where does your interest in the nineteenth century stem from?

I’d always wanted to write a book about the Rebecca Riots because the set of events is so little known. The Welsh peasantry (for want of a better word) basically spent the better part of a year engaged in flagrant acts of civil disobedience over southwest Wales. Men (it’s implied that the rioters were exclusively men, though I have my doubts, as illustrated in None So Blind) would gather after dark, disguised by blacking their faces and wearing some items of women’s clothing. Then they’d march on an illegal toll gate which was then subjected to a mock trial before being destroyed. If it was a gatekeeper that was being challenged, he would be manhandled and told to mend his ways, or else. Then, before anybody could come and arrest them, the farmers would disperse to their homes.

I’d intended the novel to be a stand-alone, assuming that I’d bone up on enough mid-nineteenth century history to write the book, then scurry back to my beloved fourteenth century. But I fell in love. Not only with my two central characters but also with the time and place. I just hadn’t been prepared for how fascinating a period the early years of Victoria’s reign would turn out to be and how a period of such change was a perfect setting for a murder investigation. Because change gives rise to conflict and conflict can often give rise to murder.

How has the Welsh culture and landscape inspired you as a writer?

History and culture have inspired my books but there’s a wider context for inspiration and that’s to do with getting novels to readers once they’re written.

I know I’m not the only novelist who has found publishers reluctant to take on English-language books with a Welsh setting. Wales is not seen as a sexy location for fiction, particularly in the case of crime. One publisher was honest enough to tell my agent that ‘Wales is a hard sell’.

So, when None So Blind was published, I realised that I was going to have to do something decisive if I wanted it to be a success. The female crime writers’ collective Killer Women had recently been established and it seemed that Welsh crime writers needed a similar organisation, one that would both raise awareness of Welsh crime fiction and provide a support network for those of us working in the genre. I floated the idea with Matt Johnson and Rosie Claverton, both of whom I’d met at Crimefest, and together, the three of us founded Crime Cymru.

In a recent article, in which you discuss the Crime Cymru collective, you stated: ‘We believe we have something unique to offer the world of crime fiction, that the social issues which crime fiction naturally explores have a different flavour in Wales because of our very particular history.’ How has Crime Cymru developed since this moment? Has working together as a group helped to push the recognition of Welsh fiction forward?

Our intention, when we founded Crime Cymru, was to draw in as many crime writers with a Welsh connection as possible (defining as authors born in, living in or setting their books in Wales), to provide regular meetings to share expertise and – collectively – to publicise our work to the British crime-reading public.

Now, Crime Cymru has thirty paid members and a track record of author appearances at most of the major crime fiction festivals in the UK. We have partnered with Cardiff Central Library to run Wales’s first crime fiction festival, Crime and Coffee. The festival ran for three days in June 2018 and 2019. Our members have appeared on Radio 4, Radio Wales, Radio Cymru and in regional newspapers. We were thinking about running our own Crime Cymru festival in 2021 (though that may now need to be pushed back to 2022), ideally in Aberystwyth. We would like to be as inclusive as possible. As well as inviting some headline names from Britain’s crime writing community, we want to showcase the wealth of talent we have here in Wales.

To find out more about Crime Cymru and how to get involved, head to the Crime Cymru About page.

Finally, what message do you hope people take from this book?

Enjoyment. That of a story well told, getting to know characters who draw you into their world, of feeling a sense of connection with another time and place. The time in which we live moulds us and makes us. We might like to think we’re rebellious and non-conformist – Harry Probert-Lloyd certainly does – but you can only rebel against what’s around you, so his rebellion is shaped by the times he lives in. Morals and world-views may change but emotions don’t. In response to the circumstances in which they find themselves, people have always been kind, selfish, greedy, generous, desperate, ruthless, selfless… and they always will be. If that’s a message, then that’ll do me.

Copies of Those Who Know are available to pre-order on Amazon

Issy Rixon is one of this season’s Digital Cultural Correspondent in a new partnership with Aberystwyth University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.