Last week I started to get a longing to go to another literary festival. I don’t know where it came from. Actually, I lie. I do. I wanted to anything but edit my novel, but what better way distract myself? As I read through the the programme for the West Cork Literary Festival I couldn’t believe my luck when I spotted A Special Island Event with Cynan Jones & Jon Gower to be held on Whiddy Island. These men tackle similar themes in their books that I do in mine. I felt it was an opportunity to learn from them and get a fresh perspective on my own novel.
I set aside my novel, told myself this was a ‘work trip’, booked accommodation and packed my bags.
Cynan Jones’s latest novel, Cove, is about a man who is struck by lightning whilst kayaking on the open the sea. Consequently, he loses his memory. It is a story of his struggle to remember and his struggle to survive.
The theme of memory is central to the novel. Memories lost, and memories found. It explores how memory shapes our present reality, how the past and the present relate to one another, how objects confirm and reaffirm the memories that we have and finally, how unreliable and fragile our memories are. The novel is beautifully written, and the prose tightly wrought and vivid. As you read you feel the overwhelming intensity of the man’s isolation and vulnerability. The image of the flimsy body of the kayak floating over the vast might and magnitude of the sea beneath him is a powerful one.
My novel deals with similar themes: isolation, memory and the fragility of the mind, but in a different way. Mine opens with young man washing up on the shore of the island, a stranger who has apparently lost his memory. Despite this. the main focus in terms of memories lost, is the slow erosion of memories, and our desperate efforts to anchor and preserve them: through passing them on to others, photographs or attaching memories to objects or places. The need to remember, so as to to prevent the second death of those loved ones that have passed.
An Island Called Smith is a book about an island off the American coast that is likely to disappear due to rising sea levels. The island (Smith Island) is an island with a unique history and culture and is an important habitat for birds and other wildlife. Smith island is in danger of sinking into the sea and being forgotten. Thankfully, that won’t happen because it is now immortalised in this book.
The book captures the colour and the heart and soul of the place. Jon does this through interviewing locals and through presenting the story through the filter of his own personal experience of the island.
We learn about the beginnings of this island community and how it has developed in its own unique way. What would be considered eccentricities have become part of the fabric of the island’s culture. Jon is careful to record facts and figures in his book, but they are not presented in a flat, static way. Anecdotes are woven through to add colour. Names of bird species are clustered together so that they read like poetry.
No two islands that I have visited over the past year have been the same, they really are unique, and that is why Jon’s work to preserve the memory of this place is so very important. We risk losing many more islands to the sea: breaking up tight-knit communities, destroying cultures and destroying habitats due to a lack of action on climate change.
Despite their differences, on all of the islands I’ve been to, the older people share a fear of their community dying out and their culture and local history being forgotten. There is a natural desire in the older people there to prevent that. A human need to be remembered. The excitement and opportunities offered by the mainland are luring young people away in their droves. Neither Smith Island, nor the island in my novel are any different.
Cynan and Jon read from their books. The parts they read out were gorgeous, but learning about the two men, how they write and how they came to writing, was just as interesting to me. Both men hail from Wales. They each spoke about their childhoods in Wales, discussed the influence that the musicality of the Welsh language has on their English prose and the place that the landscape of their native country has in their writing. They shared personal stories, which were in turns moving and funny, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to them.
After approaching them to sign books, I very cheekily, asked both men for an interview. Both agreed, so hopefully in the next few weeks I’ll have something up on my blog.
This was the only event I managed to get to at the West Cork Literary Festival this year, but it was well worth the trip. I’ll definitely be back in 2018. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to explore Whiddy Island before or after the event, but I did make a new friend. I named him Island Cat. Yes, he is a cat, and yes, I came up with the name all by damn myself.
His body was sinewy, he had an angry little face on him and there were chunks taken out of both ears. He looked rough as a badger’s bum, but I was missing my own cat. I needed to get me some moggy love. But was petting him worth losing a finger? Island Cat looked like the kitty equivalent of Vinnie Jones. Despite fully expecting a clawing for my efforts, I tentatively petted him. To my surprise, I found that he was extremely friendly.
We managed to become temporary best buds as we basked in the sun outside The Bank House pub. He was a lovely little fella and I might even find a space for him in the final draft of my novel.