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Cath Barton: 'Family is important in all my books'

A chat with Cath Barton about her novella-in-flash, The Geography of the Heart (Arroyo Seco Press, 2023)

At the heart of this story is Megan Louise Pritchard. Born in the 1950s and brought up in the south of England, she leaves home and her mum as soon as she can to experience a bit of life. Years pass and Megan finds herself attracted away from her busy London life and decides to move to Abergavenny in South Wales where her (mentally declining) mum now lives.

Megan rents a cottage by the river near Abergavenny. She likes the simplicity of her new life and is hesitant to become involved in commitments of any sort. But Abergavenny draws her in. She joins a women’s walking group. She helps create decorations for the local food festival. She starts to learn Welsh.

Encouraged by her Aunt Bronwen, Megan finds a way of supporting her mum while retaining her own interests. She makes an enduring web of connections in the town of Abergavenny, and knows, at the end of the story, that wherever else she may travel, it will always draw her back.

This is such a beautifully written novella-in-flash. Can you tell us how it came about?

Thank you, Sam. I wrote the story several years ago as a submission in response to a call-out by the publisher Weidenfeld &Nicholson for ‘hometown’ tales – they were looking for short works from ‘new voices’ to pair up with those they had already commissioned from established writers. I was not the chosen voice and I put my story away, having no clear idea where else I might send it. It stayed in that virtual drawer for until last year, when I pulled it out, gave it a good edit and entered it for the Bath Novella-in-Flash award. It was longlisted, but did not progress to the shortlist.

At this point I might have set it aside again, had it not been for the generosity of the competition judge, who offered to advise any of the longlistees where they might seek publication for their work. The judge was an American poet called John Brantingham, resident in New York. We had a conversation on Zoom and he suggested Arroyo Seco Press as a possible home for my work. This is how a book set in Wales came to be published in California! Perhaps the publisher being called Thomas Thomas and having Welsh connections was a factor in his interest.

I loved how you interlink the different members of one family’s stories. How did you decide how to structure these in the book?

My writing process is often intuitive, and I find it difficult to say how things came about! One thing I can tell you is that I wanted the reader to hear different voices, and especially Bronwen’s voice contrasting with that of her sister Gwladys. Writing in flash form – fragments of story – makes it easy to do this.

Novellas-in-flash are very much in vogue, and The Geography of the Heart works wonderfully well in the format, but I was wondering whether you ever thought of making it into a full-length novel? Similarly, whether any of the characters may appear in future works (or have done in the past)?

I firmly believe that stories have their own length. Which is not to say that someone couldn’t write a full-length novel about a family such as a one in my book, but it wouldn’t be me. And I don’t plan to write any more about any of these characters. Though who knows when and where one or other of them might pop up again!

How did the title of the book come about?

Originally it was called ‘A Town at the Foot of a Mountain Full of Water’. When I came to revise it to enter the Bath competition I wasn’t happy with that title – it felt clumsy, and it didn’t reflect the story of the family. So I though long and hard and came up with a title which I feel does combine the town (and its surroundings) and the people.

The book is dedicated to those who love walking on the hills. If it’s not too abstract a question, what do you think are the links between writing and hill walking?

I know that for some writers walking is a time when they come up with ideas, or think through problems. I don’t often consciously do so, but I do think that the action and rhythm of walking – especially on the hills, when you often have to concentrate first and foremost about where you’re putting your feet – may well help with the subconscious work that is central to the creative process.

Place is so important in the book. The people are the land and the land is the people. It feels as if Abergavenny is as much the protagonist as Megan. What is the importance of setting, to you, in the book?

Yes, place is always important to me in my writing, and as this was – as I’ve said above – originally written specifically on the topic of ‘hometown’ – Abergavenny was always going to be central, and in specific terms. Indeed, as you say, the town is a central character.

You evoke the sense of the different periods of time passing so well, and with so few details. As a child in 1985, I loved the scruffy hotel in ‘One out, another in’ – my mum used to be so horrified by dust that she brought her own cleaning products and pillowcases when we stayed away from home. I wonder if you feel particularly comfortable writing about the past as opposed to the present, and if so whether there’s a particular time that you like to write about most of all?

I’ve never considered that I write historical fiction, but I suppose in a way I do, because I often write about the past, albeit no longer ago than the last century. I do particularly like to write about the time in which I grew up – the 1950s, 60s, 70s. I think a lot about the way life was for women of my mother’s generation after WW2, when so many of them gave up their jobs to become housewives. That isn’t specifically reflected in ‘The Geography of the Heart’, but features large in two of my other novellas, ‘The Plankton Collector’ and ‘In the Sweep of the Bay’.

A sense of disconnection from others runs through the book – particularly in stories such as ‘Cherry Blossom and Lilacs’ – the way you can be lonelier with others than alone, yet still not want to be alone – could you say any more about this?

Interesting you pick that up. I didn’t set out to write about being lonely in a crowd specifically, but it is something I’ve experienced at certain points in my life, so maybe that’s why it comes through. That’s an example of the subconscious process that I referred to in answer to your question about whether there’s a link between walking the hills and writing.

‘They see things differently now,’ Bronwen says about the younger generation, and it does seem as though some of the reason for the disconnection is the differences between how the older and the younger people live; that they try to understand each other but often misconstrue situations… I’m thinking also of how irritated Gwladys is by being called ‘lovely’ (a word I find incredibly irritating when used as a noun too!). This change seems to be paralleled in the modernisation and changes to the town, with the chicken decorations and the forty cafes as examples of this. I wonder if you were inspired by anything in particular, or any other texts, with these ideas? And whether, although you do make clear that this is a work of fiction, you have seen these changes in Abergavenny and its people?

I’m very conscious of how much things have changed in my lifetime, since I was a child in the 1950s. Just look at the exponential growth of the internet and how much we all depend on computers now! As for changes in Abergavenny, yes, I’ve certainly seen the massive expansion in the number of cafes. But there have always been incomers to the town – since the days well before my time when people living in the Valleys aspired to move here. I think that has helped to make the town a vibrant place that accommodates change well. Of course there are still generational differences, but that will be true anywhere, I think.

I am very envious of your talent to say so much in so few words. I wonder if you have any advice for authors wishing to write very short books?

Thank you. I’d say play around with flash fiction. But if you naturally write at length maybe you’re going to find the shorter forms don’t suit you.

Do you write between genres or not?

I find it difficult to categorise my books. I certainly don’t write romance, or crime or fantasy. I generally describe my work as literary fiction, but two of my previous books have included major elements of magical realism.

How is this book similar or different to what you have written before?

Similar in that it’s a novella. Different in subject and approach. That said, family is important in all my books.

What’s been your favourite reaction to the book?

Someone described it as a love letter to Abergavenny, and although I didn’t set out to write it as such, I’m pleased if people see it that way. I certainly have a great affection for the town.

Photo by Meriet Duncan

Have any of the reactions to the book surprised you?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people I know have told me they enjoyed it.

If the book was to be made into a TV drama, who can you see in the title roles?

We’d have to have some Welsh actors, so I’d cast Siân Phillips as Megan’s Aunty Bronwen. We’d have to have Michael Sheen, too – he could play Rhodri, Megan’s nearly-lover. And I think Judi Dench would be just right for Gwladys – she’d get her bitter edge, and her deterioration. Megan, though, I don’t know!

Sian Philips

What are you working on now?

I’ve got a few writing projects lined up. I’ve just embarked on a sequel to my novella ‘Between the Virgin and the Sea’, in which Tag, one of the main characters in that story, travels away from his home city. He’s dreamt his future, but I haven’t seen much of it yet. I do know that he’s heading north, and I’m exploring what north means to him; it’s a potent concept.

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