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On Being a Writer in Wales: Cath Barton

11 Feb 2024 5 minute read
Cath Barton

Cath Barton

I’ve lived in Wales since 2005, which seems to me like both a long time and a very short time. But that’s the nature of time, I think, contradictory and elusive.

As can be one’s sense of home and belonging. I was born and brought up in the middle of England, living in the town of Northampton until I went away to university at the age of 18.

But I was never attached to the place and certainly don’t think of it as home; now that I no longer have any family there I never go back.

Competition

My first published book though, my novella The Plankton Collector, was specifically set ‘somewhere in the middle of England’, because, for all my negativity about the town where I grew up, the countryside of middle England, and indeed its mores, were what I knew best and instinctively chose to write about.

The book, however, was published in Wales, having won a New Welsh Writing Award in 2017, the AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella.

When I sent off my entry I remember saying to my husband that it wouldn’t get anywhere, because this competition was open to writers in the whole of North America as well as the UK!

That wasn’t because I thought an American writer would be preferred, rather that there would be more of them in the running. And I knew that a lot of Americans have a great affection for Wales.

So is there any correlation between where a book is set and where it gets published? For me the answer has to be a definite No!

My most recent novella is set in the town where I now live and have done since 2005, which is Abergavenny in South Wales.

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.

Flash

One of the forms I toyed with after that was the novella-in-flash, originally conceived (I think) as a novella-length work made up of short pieces which could all be read separately.

I entered work for the annual Bath Novella-in-Flash Award a couple of times, but it didn’t hit the mark. I wasn’t surprised as I didn’t really feel comfortable with the form; it felt contrived.

But the novella-in-flash came to be seen as more fluid, still made up of short sections but without each of them  having to be capable of standing alone.

I pulled out the story I had originally rather clumsily called A Town at the Foot of a Mountain Full of Water, edited it and gave it a better title.

The Geography of the Heart was longlisted in the 2023 Bath Novella-in-Flash competition, 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.

Abergavenny launch of The Geography of the Heart

Curiosity

So, coming back to Abergavenny, I launched the book in the local library in conversation with fellow local author Nigel Jarrett and, as I’d hoped, the event attracted considerable curiosity from local residents.

The story is as much about the town as it is about the members of the family central to it.

And it is, in a way, a gift from me to the town which has, genuinely, become my home, a place where I feel I belong, where I am accepted for who I am.

I now have novellas published in Wales, England, Scotland and the US, but living in Wales and drawing nourishment from walking its hills is now an essential aspect of my identity as a writer.

I’m delighted and proud that I have a pamphlet of short stories forthcoming this year from a new Welsh publisher, Atomic Bohemian.

Last year I was elected to the Wales Steering Group of the Society of Authors. Central to what I see as my role there is looking for ways in which writers in Wales can support one another in the choppy waters of the publishing sea.

Those waters are not contained within national boundaries and nor, in my opinion, should they be, but I do very much hope that publishing in Wales will continue to thrive.

Cath Barton’s novella-in-flash The Geography of the Heart is published by Arroyo Seco Press. It is not available in bookshops but you can get it here, or direct from the author here.


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Sue James
Sue James
14 days ago

So looking forward to reading it.

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