Saturday, 16 May 2020

Writers in Landscape. My interview with Elen Caldecott by Steve Gladwin

This month I'm really delighted to have the chance to chat with Elen Caldecott about her new novel 'The Short Knife', which will be published by Anderson Press in July. Needless to say, this also gave me the wonderful opportunity to read the book and get to know Mai and her world before everyone else - something for which I'm really grateful, as I enjoyed that world, book and characters immensely.

Thanks for thinking of me!

One of the things I’m asking people to do in these interviews is to take a landscape from one of their own stories and imagine we’ve been set down and looking at it. So, tell me, if we were transported back to the fifth century and the landscape of The Short Knife, what is it we would see in front of us.

This interview is happening in the midst of the Coronavirus lockdown, which makes this question especially poignant. In my novel, we join the characters some 40 years after the cataclysm – the end of Roman Britain and the beginning of the Saxon world. So, life has changed forever, though the characters might not have accepted it yet. There was a population drop, probably because of a perfect storm of economic collapse, badly maintained infrastructure and subsequent disease. So, arable fields would be rewilding; roads would be falling into disrepair. But the sound of birdsong would be louder and the character’s awareness of their place in the natural world would be heightened as creature comforts fall away.

West Stow

But the main feature I noticed and which is a thread which runs throughout the book, is the use of language. Now in order to understand all that, it would be good for you to explain how the book came about.

It has been around for a really long time, in the back of my mind. I grew up fascinated by the Roman Empire, especially the empire in Britain. I’m from Wrexham in North Wales, so Chester was really close, which was a legionary city. I wanted to write about the transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England and the time of the Princes of Wales (not the Charles-kind, the early medieval kind). I hadn’t a clue how to do it for a really long time, but then it occurred to me that language was the key. Your ‘mother tongue’ is a complicated idea that holds so much political charge (see all the rage around people not choosing to speak English at all times in 21st century Britain, as if English is in danger somehow, and needs protecting). I imagined a character who is forced to stop speaking her native British (Welsh) and instead has to learn Saxon (English). The plot emerged from that starting point.

Replica Saxon Buildings

Usually in these interviews I don’t ask an author to describe the plot, or repeat the blurb you’ve already got ready in your head in case you’re asked. But this time I will ask you, because all the mystery is yet to come.

Mai has lived a sheltered life until three Saxon travellers stop at her family’s farm. They wreak havoc and she is forced to flee. She, and what’s left of her family, seek refuge with the local British warlord. However, it’s out of the frying pan into the fire – or ‘out of the rain, but under the waterfall’, as Mai might put it.

It’s probably accurate to say that the three main characters may all be teenage girls, but are very different in their attitudes and outlook to each other. Going back to the question of language, what is it that makes Mai, the leading character different.

She loves language, I think. She’s a linguaphile. So, she has a natural curiosity about the changes that are happening on the island – the arrival of the Saxons is both terrifying but also alluring, she’s interested in their culture. She also believes in the power of stories, so she often sees the world through the lens of tall tales and heroes and villains. It makes her naïve, but essentially hopeful.

What are your personal feelings about language, Elen? Its clearly something we need to hang on to and value, not to mention pass those values on to others.

I’m not sure I agree with ‘clearly’, or ‘values’. I think it’s more complicated than that. Just because something is traditional doesn’t make it inherently good. I think more that language is a link to the past, to our forebears, but it is at its best when it’s allowed to evolve – to meet the needs of people who are actually using it. So, I have no time for language academies, or people who insist on the subjunctive, or any conception of the ‘right sort’ of language coding.

Let’s return to landscape and begin with the first one you encountered. Where were you born and could you recollect it for us, and describe what you would see there now.

I grew up in North Wales, along the A5. We moved houses from time to time, but stayed close to that stretch of road. It goes through hills that eventually rise to become Snowdonia. It also passes industrial and post-industrial landscapes. I played on the banks of the river Dee, but I also played in disused quarries, on slag heaps and even at the edges of a Monsanto chemical plant – I thought the cooling towers and green lit-up tubing was glamorously futuristic.

Dinas Emrys 

Did this landscape have a fundamental effect on your writing? Is there a particular landscape you know, that you have taken into your books?

Not in any strict literal sense – I have not yet set a book in my home village. However, I do love to write – and write sympathetically – about the human landscape. I like canals, and roads and concrete towers. I think coming from a place where I didn’t differential between ‘natural’ and ‘human-made’ beauty has made it possible for me to write about urban life with love.

When you were growing up did the authors and landscapes you chose to spend time in change much as you got older?

I moved away from mountains to cities. I love the bustle and anonymity. But my reading taste varies widely – the only place I don’t enjoy reading about is Cornwall, weirdly. I think because it bears the traces of its ‘celtic’ past, in its placenames and so on, but that history has been pushed right to the brink. I find it melancholy.

Now, as people read this, we may or may not be under lockdown. But, even if we no longer are, it will be still very fresh in our minds. It all makes me think about the vast contrast between life in sixth century Wales and our modern spoiled existence. Can you see yourself living happily in that era or in any aspect of it? Or any other perhaps.

Spoiled? It’s true that fewer of us die in wars statistically; across the world there are better rates of infant mortality and life expectancy is higher. But there are still vast rates of inequality. For some people in the world today, subsistence farming, with the ever-present threat of violence, is still very much the norm, as it is for my characters. I don’t romanticise that state of affairs, no. I think it would be a grim life. I’m deeply grateful that the nearest I get to it is via my keyboard.


Mai’s story, is of course, crying out for further adventures. Are you keen to take the story on?

It was such a labour of love – it took a year just to perfect the voice – that I can’t imagine revisiting it at the moment. Never say never, of course, but for now, she’s done.

Thanks, Elen for giving us a sneak preview of The Short Knife.

You’re so welcome! Thanks for giving it such a close, sympathetic read. I really appreciate it.

.Steve Gladwin - Stories of Feeling and Being
Writer, Drama Practitioner, Storyteller and Blogger.
Creation and Story Enhancement/Screen writing.
Author of 'The Seven', 'Fragon Tales' and 'The Raven's Call'


Rowena House said...

I'm looking forward to reading this very much, Elen. The thought and care that went into it are certain to make it a deeply rewarding story to read.

Jackie Marchant said...

This sounds like the sort of book I'll love reading - and the cover is stunning.