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Penblwydd Hapus to Nanteos:The Dipping Pool. What a first year!

Yes! But first a disclaimer: As a self-absorbed, conflicted, obsessive author, I admit to realising, in the few rational moments available to me, that the current book is not ‘the be all and end all’; that the current writing project is not more important than people’s livelihoods or being forcibly isolated from loved ones and losing one’s health and even one’s life. It’s only a book. (The late and great-in-every-way Jeff Nuttall would shout and swear at me for saying that!).

However, for most of the time I live with an octopus on my head, the heavy blob of its body insulating me from external reality, its many tentacles finding a way to get in and clog up all channels of interaction with the outside world. It wriggles and squirms, pulsates, throbs and squeezes down, especially at night when the light’s off and my head is on the pillow at last. It goes everywhere with me until a book is finished, safely contained within the bars of its cover and out in the world. Then I rip off the creature, inevitably taking a layer of my own tissue with it. It’s a feeling of lightness and eureka at first, but suddenly horribly exposing too. And where’s my purpose now?

The last three stages of a book before publication: finishing the last private draft and taking the courage to let go and hand it in to the publisher; working endlessly back and forth with them editing first then design, blurb, reviews, quotes and marketing, are the hardest for me. I love the research and what I call ‘emergence’ stage, where characters, conversations, locations come as if out of the mist. Then there’s the intense ‘writing islands’ phase, with the research and emergence of new ideas still going on. Then the reshuffling, tying together, filling in the gaps, checking facts and continuity. All this can happen over years and is a highly absorbing but private affair.

By March, 2020 I’d almost reached the handing in to the publisher for scrutiny stage. Lockdown. Plague. Into our house for two came my daughter, whose work as an actor, freelance director and tutor had dried up over a two week period in a series of devastating phone calls from the Arts Council, theatre companies, her agent and the schools for which she was working. She brought with her her fifteenth month old daughter and her furloughed partner, a master patisserie chef. As you can imagine, the situation wasn’t all bad! But, although those 6 weeks in lockdown together were precious beyond anything we could have anticipated, the anxiety over Covid, worries about the family and the disruption of routine were a disaster for the final development stages of the book.

The Y Lolfa office closed and staff worked from home or were furloughed. The major editor was struggling with serious family commitments and a lack of effective technology as she fought with me through draft changes. We resorted to ‘old school cut and paste’ as the editing tools were incompatible. The designer wrestled at home with pre-schoolers. The National Eisteddfod, where we were to release the book, was cancelled. Plas Nanteos hotel closed. All bookshops closed. Outside the sun shone all that first lockdown as my daughter struggled to find some, any work and my granddaughter called for Mamgu, hammering with her tiny fists on my writing door.

Eventually that first period came to an end and we all tiptoed out again, even those of us lucky enough not to have lost someone, shaky and battered. We published and I held the book in my hands for the first time. It was much heavier than I’d expected; much heavier than the first Nanteos book, The Shadow of Nanteos. I was almost proud of it but, as usual, once ‘born’, my books don’t seem fully to belong to me. The birth itself had been so tortuous that there was even a note of resentment in my feelings for that third novel as I held it in my hand.

We had big plans for it. Friends jumped at the chance for a lavish Champagne launch and a weekend house party at Nanteos Mansion ( thank you so much!). Media representatives and academics were coming as well as my indomitable 90 year old mother from Sheffield. We were going to film it for the American ‘fans’ we’d met during tours of the USA with the first Nanteos book. Slowly though, like a cartoon Tom sliding unconscious down a window, it began to unravel. From 80 it became 30; then no big meal afterwards, guests dining in their rooms. No one from England. No alcohol. When we reached 15 only, masked and sitting on chairs 2 metres apart as I read extracts from the new novel from behind a Perspex screen, I pulled the plug.

Waterstones stopped holding author events. Only feisty independents carried on with masked signings for two customers at a time. Even these stopped. But Christmas was by now around the corner. The fire-break closed all the bookshops. They opened up again. Christmas was around the corner, the best time of the year for book sales. Then, with a week to go, everything closed.

This time it was dark, cold and lonely. Outside, committed workers fought to damage limit. I did volunteering, but the main feeling was of listlessness; emptiness. All book shops were closed for 5 months. No readings, signings, book clubs. Except for authors signed to the very biggest publishers, sales are down to the writer being a hawker, a hustler, making, taking any opportunity possible to interest a reader or reviewer in the book. I was bound and gagged.

But enough now! Back to the birthday celebrations for the Covid novel, please! Celebrate the readers, coming through the dark cavern with torches on their hats to rescue me. Lots of people have described how they indulged themselves in reading during the first lockdown but were too listless and fretful to settle down to the journey of a book by the second. The same with the optimistic adventure of life on Zoom – a determined fight back against isolation the first time around, but a stale chore by the second closure. Some did keep on reading, though; thank you! Celebrate book shops working frantically to keep sales going, especially the small ones, some even bothering to change the window displays in their closed shops. Hail book clubs going online. I had some great sessions with readers, both in the UK and the States this way. So too festival organisers with their ‘the show must go on’ mentality – thanks so much for the invites. Much as I love a live audience, I learned to enjoy giving presentations and readings on line with the sessions from an eerily closed Plas Nanteos being the highlight. Every week for 6 weeks over the Autumn, 2020 I dressed in costume and delivered themed talks from one of the rooms in the mansion. Thanks so much to those watching these live sessions online and to Nanteos and all the people who helped set these up. We’ve uploaded them to Youtube now too.

Now we’re open again, thank you to the book clubs, festivals and movers and shakers who are bouncing back to get things live. I’m at Nanteos with a reading and book club lunch later this month; in England as a golf club annual dinner speaker; on video for a Celtic festival in America and at the National Library of Wales delivering a lecture in The Drwm. Thanks to online sales too: To Waterstones, Amazon, WH Smiths; to the furious independents like Siop y Pethau, Siop Inc, Gwisgo, Old Oak Bookshop, Stordy Wyre, Bookish and the Japanese, Dutch, German, Taiwanese , Australian sites offering my books for sale – thank you!

Like memories of a tough labour, the trauma of the Covid novel is being to fade, though. Again the octopus has begun to sulk and fret In the corner, looking up at me, beseeching with his big liquid eyes. Shall I pick him up ...

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