Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Talking Tales Again

I feel I’ve been neglecting my blog recently – mainly because I’ve got a new website, (Dianapowellwriter.com) and most of the news about events, publications etc. is being posted on there.

For a while, I started wondering if there was any point continuing with it, as I didn’t want to simply duplicate what I wanted to say. 

But a couple of weeks ago I attended a Story Search/Workshop organised by the Ancient Connections Project, and that helped me to change my mind, and led me in a new direction just for the blog.

Ancient Connections has been set up specifically to promote links across the sea, between Pembrokeshire and Ireland – from the starting point of St David (bishop of St David’s) and St Aidan (Bishop of Ferns, in Wexford). It also has a broader brief of cross-border arts and heritage. But it is also concerned with communities, the people within those communities, and the discovery of their own, very special, local knowledge about the area. Stories, in other words.

I was totally amazed by the amount of this knowledge among some of the participants, particularly those who had lived in Pembrokeshire all their lives, and those involved in the local history society.
In truth, I felt woefully ignorant beside them.

But something I wasable to contribute centred on the information I’d researched for one of my short stories, ‘Sea Change’.

This was a piece I’d written in response to a submission call-out by Arachne Press for their 2019 Solstice Shorts.

Arachne Press is a wonderful indie press, run almost single-handedly by Cherry Potts, with an incredible amount of energy and hard work. Their Solstice Shorts Festival is a mix of poems, stories and songs, held every year on December 21st(the Winter Solstice), followed by the publication of an anthology.

I was thrilled to have another story ‘Noon Child Unknown’ chosen for last year’s Solstice call-out, ‘Noon’. This year, their subject was ‘Time and Tide’, and they were looking for work about those living beside the water, or travelling over it, to be performed in several venues throughout the country, on the coast and on rivers. Living in a coastal county, and loving the sea, it seemed exactly the right topic for me, and I decided I’d like to write a story set in Wales – Pembrokeshire, if possible.
I started off looking for a story about a seaside settlement, abandoned by its inhabitants, on account of the rising sea levels. Although it would be historical, this would, of course, resonate with the theme of climate change, and what is happening in plenty of places today. Fairbourne in North Wales, is one such place. Another classic example of this nature is from Hallsands, in Devon.

But I couldn’t find evidence of the same situation based in Pembrokeshire, and I was still hoping to make this my setting, even though the Hallsands tale was very tempting.

And then, during my research, I came across a reference to some abandoned houses, not far from the coast, only a few miles away from where I live. True, this wasn’t exactly what I’d been looking for – there was no direct connection to environmental factors – but there were still intriguing elements within the tale. There was little left of the hamlet now, beyond a few ruined stone walls, and a line of white stones leading to the sea. One local belief held it to be a Quaker village, with some talk that the villagers had been driven away – even, possibly, by the poisoning of their well. But whatever the truth of this, it was almost certain that whoever lived there walked along that path, to the coast, and found their livelihood in the sea. This provided the bare bones of my story. I added a sprinkling of myth – well, there have to be selkies, don’t there? And ghosts. And a possible land across the sea, which materialised into America, where the Quakers departed to, with my main character following in their footsteps… or their boat wakes.

So there was history, there was time, there was tide, and I was pleased with my story, and even more so when Arachne accepted it.

But it was particularly rewarding because I had discovered some local history that I had been completely unaware of before. And as I say, I was able to pass on my new-found knowledge to the Ancient Connections workshop, and add another tale to the wealth of stories that Pembrokeshire possesses, from the Prehistoric to the present day.

The story will be read at Holyhead, and I myself will read it at Greenwich. It will be live-streamed, therefore stretching across the world. This corner of Pembrokeshire will be echoed across the airwaves.

And after I’d finished ‘Sea Change’, because I had come across so many marvellous tales of the ocean, I wrote another story, ‘Ballast’, which was also accepted for the Solstice Festival.
I’m also sure that, one day, I will go back to my idea of a village lost to the waves and weather.
More connections, more words, more stories. 

Which is what this blog is going to be about in future – words about my stories, where they come from, how they developed from idea to page. What happened to them afterwards, maybe. Talking Tales, again.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Talking Tales at Llangwm Literary Festival, 2019

This time, a year ago, I wrote about reading from ‘Esther Bligh’ in the open mic event at Llangwm Literary Festival in Pembrokeshire.

Last weekend, I was thrilled to be back at Llangwm, particularly as I was now one of the featured authors. I was taking part in a discussion led by Philippa Davies, along with Chloe Turner, whose collection of stories, ‘Witches Sail in Eggshells’, was published earlier this year. This book, together with ‘Esther Bligh’, deals with dark subjects and strange happenings – hence the event’s billing as ‘Tales of the Unexpected’.

Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Llangwm is a relatively new festival. This is its fourth year, and it has already established itself in the Welsh literary calendar, with a mix of presenters, themes and entertainments. And all set in the picturesque village on the Cleddau estuary, with so many of the locals pitching in, to help Michael Pugh, chief organiser, make this such a successful occasion.

And festivals are new for me, from the point of view of discussion, at least. It’s not so long ago that I was writing in my blog about my nervousness about reading aloud. Now, I am happy to do that, and was quite at ease reading from ‘Esther Bligh’ last week. But talking about my work is a different thing. There was Penfro last year, (see earlier blog), and now this.

I’ve written about my feelings concerning the process for the Blue Nib magazine. You can see it at https://thebluenib.com/diana-powell-at-llangwm-literary-festival/

Why ‘The Blue Nib’? Because their press is publishing my short story collection ‘Trouble Crossing the Bridge’ in December, and I was able to announce this during my interview.

In my blog about Penfro, I said how special that festival was, because of my association with it in a number of ways. Now I also feel that Llangwm is special, because the publication of my collection has been a long-time goal, and this was the first public airing of what is, to me, wonderful news.

Having said that, I think Llangwm would be memorable, anyway, on account of the atmosphere, location and wide appeal. And because of the encouragement and support it has given me as a local author – something I am so grateful for.

So thank you, Llangwm, Michael Pugh, Philippa Davies and all the team. And thank you, of course, Blue Nib!

Friday, 16 August 2019

Woman of West Wales

Recently, I was lucky enough to take part in a project initiated by Emma Baines, of Narberth Museum, archiving the histories of the Women of West Wales. The brief was to pick a woman living in the area, pre-1945, write a poem about her, and make a video-film to accompany it. The finished works would be shown at Llangwm Literature Festival.

This is my contribution.

 The poem is about my grandmother, Eilwen Morgan. She was not famous in any way, but she was, most certainly, a woman of West Wales.

‘Home’ is often the place we grow up in, where our parents were settled longest. For my grandmother, that was Cilrhedyn, in the Cych Valley, the parish where her father was Vicar, until his death in 1933. And she still called it home, long after she had married and had children, and was living in Llanelli, quite a different part of West Wales.

Why did I choose to write about my grandmother? I rather think, now, that she chose me. I’m not a poet –  short stories, a novella, a novel, maybe – but I don’t write poetry. So, at first, when Philippa Davies, writer and organiser, messaged me about attending a poetry workshop, with a view to producing a piece for the project, I said ‘no’. Besides, I was due to be away that weekend. Then, as it turned out, I would only be gone on the Sunday, so I could get there, after all. And I thought ‘why not?’ – an interesting subject with a great crowd of people. If nothing else, a good way to spend a Saturday morning! 

I looked at the Women of West Wales archive on the Narberth Museum site and was amazed by the stories I found there – so much fascinating material for the writer. But as I was a bit rushed, I thought perhaps I would write about someone I knew, someone real to me. And I thought of my godmother, Olive Evans, the wife of the Vicar of Camrose, who was descended from Welsh princes – which is surely famous enough. After all, there was a quarter-page feature about her in the Western Mail, which I’d cut out years ago, and carefully put away. But when I was digging out this article, I came across a school photo of my grandmother, and she was the only girl smiling out of the whole class, something I found intriguing. So I took that photo along to the workshop, as well as the newspaper clipping about Olive.

In the beginning, I found myself writing about the two of them – the Vicar’s daughter, and the Vicar’s wife. They were great friends all their lives, though quite different characters, and I thought I could balance these contradictions in a poem. But as the session went on, my godmother somehow fell by the wayside, and I was writing only about my grandmother, that once-smiling child, almost as if by instinct – which is why I say she chose me.

My grandmother was, in many ways, the perfect idea of a grandmother. She always had sweets for us, gave us sixpence once a week, bought our favourite treats if we went for tea. But she was also an alcoholic, and when she’d been drinking, she wasn’t my grandmother at all. This is how it seemed in our childhood, and I reference this at the end of the poem. The Parma violets and lavender handkerchief were there to hide the drink on her breath, but I always knew there was something strange about her, and didn’t like it one bit.

And as I grew up, I would wonder why she was like this, what had happened to her to make her turn to alcohol for comfort. Of course, perhaps there doesn’t have to be a ‘something’, but there usually is, and it tends to be something secret – as her drinking was to most people. Such things were rarely talked about in those days.

Visiting the Cych Valley had been on my ‘to do’ list since we moved to Pembrokeshire a few years ago, but somehow we’d never got round to it, perhaps because the call of the sea beckoned louder. Writing about my grandmother was the push I needed, and I’m so glad I did. 

It’s often described as hidden, partly because it’s off the ‘main’ road, and also perhaps because it was a subject of boundary changes in the past, which moved it between Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire and back again (further confused by the fact that the closest county town was Cardigan). It is also a tangle of streams, which are very difficult to separate. Cych, Cneifa, Dulas, Pedran.

I wanted to see the church where my great-grandfather preached, and the grave, maybe. But that was something else difficult to find. Where was the churchyard? The church itself? I knew it had been demolished, but surely there would be visible ruins inside a wall or railings. We knew where it should be, from a lot of Googling, and instructions from my sister, Penny, who had visited years before. But we could see nothing.

Then, as I say in my poem, the yews pointed the way. Still, the church was all but impossible to make out, until you were within touching distance, and I had to scramble through brambles, nettles and saplings until I discovered the grave where both my great-grandparents were buried. 

So all these factors coming together gave me the theme of my poem ‘What is hidden’.

Something else about the Cych Valley – it’s called ‘magical’. It features in the Mabinogion as the place where Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed meets Arawn, Lord of the Underworld. Indeed, it is thought to be one of the possible sites of the Underworld, another hidden place, whose entrance is often said to be located where tributaries meet, or beneath yews, or at the Ffynone Falls, to the north of Cilrhedyn. So, again, everything was fitting into the theme, even though I had no idea at the start that this was where the story would lead.

For the video to go with the poem, I was able to combine real footage taken by my husband during our visits, with some old photos kept by Penny, many of which showed my grandmother at her home here, in her younger, happier days. It was fascinating to go through these and re-connect with my grandmother in that way.

I’ve still got no idea what made my grandmother drink. But writing this poem was a pleasure in so many ways – the discovery of the Cych Valley, that re-connection, finding the grave. And it is a particular pleasure to have been involved in this truly worthwhile project, to reveal and share some incredible women of the area with a greater audience. The response at Llangwm was overwhelmingly positive, the variety of the women, poems and films amazing.

Thank you to Narberth Museum, Emma Baines, Philippa Davies and Llangwm festival.

     And thanks, too, to film-maker extraordinaire, David Powell.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

On "Whale Watching"

For a writer, there’s always something rather thrilling about featuring in a competition. It doesn’t matter if it’s a short-listing, a long-listing (I’ve talked about this in an earlier blog), or highly-commended – all of these are an indication that your story has met a certain writing standard, as judged by a knowledgeable reader, or readers. (There’s an interesting article on this subject by Kit de Waal on the Bridport Competition site.)

Earlier this year, I was short-listed for the H. E. Bates prize, for my story ‘Miss Bird Catches a Wave’, which was long-listed for last year’s Yeovil Prize. This is great – it’s telling me that two quite distinct sets of judging panels consider this particular work to be of note. It’s a story I myself think well of, so it’s good to have this external, objective approval.

Another piece I was especially pleased with was one called ‘Whale Watching’. After you’ve been writing short stories for a while, you tend to get a feeling for what’s good, what’s okay, and yes, sadly, sometimes, what is bad (you really shouldn’t have written this; what did you think you were doing…?!) ‘Whale Watching’ I liked from the first stirrings of the idea, through to the final draft. I also liked the fact that it was set in Fishguard, which I would now call my home town. The story centres around a narrator who, as a little girl, witnessed the filming of ‘Moby Dick’ in the lower harbour – a true event, which took place in nineteen fifty-four. The film starred Gregory Peck, and Richard Basehart, and was directed by John Huston, and is celebrated as part of Fishguard’s colourful history, although it tends to be rather over-shadowed by the later ‘Under Milk Wood’, which brought Richard Burton into the many pubs, happily drinking with the locals. Still, you will find ‘Moby Dick’ commemorated in the local heritage centre, and as part on the mosaics on the Goodwick sea front.

Film-making, perhaps more than any other form of arts genre, plays tricks with reality. The camera (which certainly can lie), the editing, the ‘acting’, the props, the stunts – all these fool the viewer. The rumours surrounding this particular filming are legendary. Was there a life-size white whale? One? Two? Three? Did Gregory Peck get swept out to sea, strapped to its flank? Did the coastguard have to be called?! It is hard to discover the truth from … not, perhaps, ‘lies’, but ‘fabrications for the purposes of publicity’. Or perhaps it was no more than poor memory, after the event.
Because memory is something that plays tricks, too. So it is for the narrator in my story. Seeing the filming was the highlight of her childhood, and remained the greatest excitement of her life. She is obsessed with it, as Ahab was obsessed with the whale. But what she remembers is not necessarily what really happened. 

I entered ‘Whale Watching’ for the Chipping Norton Festival short story prize. Despite my feelings that it was a good story, in the end, you never know. Luck has to come into it. And taste. There is such variety in the short story form, it is impossible to please all the judges all of the time. You may just submit to the wrong competition (which is why it’s important not to be too down-hearted if your story gets nowhere, and to keep at it, if you honestly believe your piece has merit.) 
At the beginning of March, I received an email listing the short-listed titles, in alphabetical order. Of course, as mine was called ‘Whale Watching’ it came at the end of the list of twelve, and by the time I reached it, I’d already written myself off, so it was a pleasant surprise to see I had made it through, after all.

Those twelve stories were then passed to judge Nicholas Royle, for his final judging.
Nicholas Royle has written three collections of short stories, and edited twenty anthologies. He is a reader in creative writing in Manchester Writing School, runs his own press, and works as an editor for Salt publishing.

So this is someone who is an expert in the field, both as writer and editor.
Did I stand a chance?

Then, in late March, the ‘winners’ email arrived – the three top-placed stories. And first was Diana Powell. It took me a few re-readings to realise I had actually won. And a few more days of waiting for an email telling me they’d made a mistake, before I fully accepted it.

Besides the actual monetary prize, (which is always very welcome!), the Festival held an Awards Ceremony, in which Nicholas himself commented on the top three stories, and who doesn’t feel happy to receive such praise!?  The word ‘masterful’ is in there somewhere.

Not only that, but as an additional bonus, my story, along with the second and third placed, was read out by LAMDA-trained actor, Karen Jackson. I’ve read my own work before, and I know I’ve improved over time, but to hear your entire story read by a professional is quite an experience.

Below is a short section of a recording from the ceremony.

‘Whale Watching’ can be read in full on the Festival website: www.chiplitfest.com

Thanks to all involved in the Festival, particularly Cathy Evans for organising the competition, and Nicholas Royle, and Karen Jackson.

And thanks, too, to ‘Moby Dick’ and the inspiration it gave me.

And the icing on the cake?  Nicholas Royle says ‘Whale Watching’ will be included in next year’s ‘Best of British Short Stories’. Wow!

Sunday, 14 April 2019


An interesting and varied couple of weeks, after the hibernation of a rather long winter in the depths of west Wales – or so it seemed at times…

March 21stsaw the launch of the Solstice Noon anthology, including my story ‘Noon Child Unknown.’ Sadly, I couldn’t make any of the actual launches (there were three, and there was cake!), but the anthology itself is full of captivating poems and stories, by many talented authors. An especially big ‘thank you’ to Cherry Potts of Arachne Press, for publishing the book – her hard work is much appreciated.

I was thrilled to have my story ‘The Cabinet of Immortal Wonders’ featured in Issue 37 of ‘The Blue Nib.’ This was a story that was short-listed for the 2016 Over-the-Edge New Writers’ Competition, and one that I really wanted to appear in print, so it could be read by others. I was particularly delighted by Fiction Editor Mimi Gladman’s comments about it. Such a great feeling when an editor appreciates your work!

 Then, on Thursday, 4thApril, I was lucky enough to read at First Thursday, in Chapter Arts, Cardiff, in the company of Damian Walford Davies – a debut fiction writer (me) alongside a well-published and distinguished poet. I had a fifteen minute reading slot, which meant I could read more of ‘Esther Bligh’ than usual, and I think (hope) I managed to link extracts that worked well together, and gave a flavour of the book, as a whole. 
I am extremely grateful to Amy Wack of Seren Books, and Leona Esther Medlin (Mulfran Press) for this opportunity in front of a knowledgeable, appreciative audience. And thanks, also, to Damian for his support.

A week later I attended an interview between Gaby Wood (literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation) and prize-winning author Sarah Hall, at Faber and Faber, Bloomsbury. It is always useful to be given an insight into the working methods of a great exponent of the art of the short story form. And although it can be humbling, it can also be inspiring – I came away with some fresh ideas, and a new way to approach a story I was about to give up on. 

Talking of prize-winning… More to follow…

Monday, 14 January 2019

A short review of the year

The highlight of 2018 was, of course, the publication of ‘Esther Bligh’ in June, by Holland House Books… the highlight of my writing ‘career’, in fact! Hence, the novella’s centre place in the photo.

Beneath it are the other journals or anthologies my stories featured in last year. I’m proud of these, too, because I love the short story form, and it’s something I always return to. So it was great to appear in ‘The Dawntreader’, ‘Leicester Writes Short Story Prize Anthology’, ‘The Cinnamon Review of Short Fiction’ and ‘Dream Catcher 37’. Thanks to those editors for liking my stories! And to them, the publishers, and fellow contributors for producing some excellent representations of the short form.

Otherwise, there were a number of readings, mainly of ‘Esther’ in a variety of venues, including the launch (best moment!), Tregwynt Manor, Llangwm Festival, and a Cinnamon reading in London.  

It was a particular pleasure to take part in Penfro festival, as a writer, after several years as a visitor, or competition entrant (see my earlier blog on this).

All of these were greatly enjoyable and, again, I am grateful to all the organisers, with a special thank-you to Seaways Bookshop, Fishguard, for hosting my launch.

2018 also seemed to be a year for long-listing. I was long-listed for the Leicester Writes prize, the Yeovil prize, the Cinnamon Debut Fiction prize, as well as a bursary I applied to.

How one feels about long-listing often depends on the mood of the moment. If, as a writer, you are in one of those ‘dark’ places, when rejection follows rejection, and you are dissatisfied with your work, then being long-listed can feel rather like ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride.’ You may wonder why you are not making the jump up to being placed. Is there something not quite right with your work, which is putting judges off? Will you ever make it further?

But if you are in a positive state of mind, you can be thrilled to get long-listed, decide you must have written a good story – something that made it stand out from the crowd; it was merely a preference of the judge(s) that stopped it getting a prize. Quite often, being long-listed gets the story included in an anthology (as happened with the Leicester Competition), and this is always to be welcomed, helping to get you and your work out there.

And really, it is better to think this way, whichever mood you are in. As writers, we need all the positivity and encouragement we can get – even if it is from ourselves…