THREE MEN AND A POTATO – Cynan Jones and Tommy Wieringa at Crossing Border

Growing up on the rugged coast of Wales, Cynan Jones, like Dutch writer, Tommy Wieringa, draws deeply on his rural roots in his writing. Both men return more than once to the isolated places of their childhoods as they sit talking with writer and interviewer, Jan van Mersbergen.  The conversation starts with a discussion about the simple act of peeling and chopping up potatoes.  The potato is a staple food in both Wales and the Netherlands. This  humble root vegetable issues from deep within the damp earth of both regions and nourishes both the mind and the soul, Tommy explains. He recalls peeling potatoes from a young age and admits to getting so good at it, that as a teenage boy, he could do it quite well in the dark. Growing up in a large, old farmhouse in the east of the Netherlands, it was just Tommy and his father after his mother left when he was eleven. However, it is the notion of what gets left behind once one has peeled away the skin and imperfections of the potato that is of interest to van Mersbergen who sees in Jones’s lean, unadorned prose something elemental, like the environment in which the Welshman lives and writes.

‘Writing is a boxing match’ – Cynan Jones

One of Jones’s more recent novels, The Dig, focuses on the ancient rural practice of badger baiting and was originally 90 000 words in length. Over time was reduced to just 28 000 words. Similarly, his first novel, The Long Dry, started out as a mere 20 000 word offering and when the publisher asked Jones to expand on it, he found instead that he had whittled it down to just 11 500 words.  Jones explains that, as a writer, one has to trust oneself and one also has to trust the story.  Known for his unusual use of form – no speech marks are used in The Dig, for example, content dictates form for the Welsh writer. He is respectful of both story and reader, maintaining that if one tries to ‘make a story do something it doesn’t want to do, it will misbehave.’ He is also a strong believer in trusting  the reader, describing the relationship between writer and reader as an ‘incredibly intense’ one. It is true that Jones is a writer who expects his reader to commit and work for him. Conversely, he sees his job as a writer as ‘working out where the nourishment is’, asking oneself, ‘What do you want to feed the reader?’.

Both Jones and Wieringa dwell on the physical nature of writing. The award-winning Dutch writer argues that in order to write, one needs to be fit, this is both a physical and a mental fitness. This in turn gives one the confidence and conviction so necessary for a writer. For Jones, ‘writing is a boxing match’ and he admits to feeling as if something is missing, when he doesn’t write. Rather like an athlete who stops exercising and notices the effects. Wieringa describes his approach to writing in a typically short, clear statement, ‘I’m in it for the sentences.’ Viewing himself as someone who writes sentences rather than novels, the Dutchman admits that one sentence leads to the next until a novel appears. However he also points out that once a sentence is written, he might remove it in the editing process but it is seldom rewritten. Perhaps most interestingly, both men provide insights into their creative processes that highlight a common sense of the physicality of the craft of writing.  The elevation of the rugged rurality of their backgrounds as inspiration for their writing, seems to be intimately connected to their notions of masculine selfhood. This has traditionally been situated in the countryside and the fast disappearing way of life that it reflects.     Souwie Buis     2nd November 2018


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