Interview: Wendy Jones

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Wendy Jones, author of The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals
Wendy was the first person to do an MA in Life Writing at UEA and is currently completing a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, where she  also teaches. In between writing, studying, and teaching she hosts a radio show on Resonance fm. Her first book, a biography of Grayson Perry, was published in 2006. She lives in London.

The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals is Wendy's first novel, and is a delightful story about love and life set in a small Welsh town in the 1920s.

You can read my review here: The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals by Wendy Jones

Having grown up in Bedfordshire, what made you set your d├ębut novel in the small Welsh town of Narberth?

My family come from Narberth.

Is Narberth a typical rural town for you, or is there a unique attitude or atmosphere to the place?

I think Narberth is unique. It is historically successful and has had a specific identity for many centuries. It’s beautiful and energetic. It isn’t a typical rural town for me. I wanted Narberth to almost be a character, and to stand in for the world, because it is the world for the characters.

You draw the insularity of a small town and its population particularly well, have you experienced this sort of atmosphere first-hand?

Not really.

When writing someone else's culture (both in time and geography) it's easy to slip into caricature or pastiche, how did you set about trying to avoid this?

I’m not sure. Perhaps everyone has points that are easy to caricature, and everyone has a specific individuality – maybe we are not immune from either.

Wilfred is an incredibly likeable character, was he the starting point for your story, or did he evolve from a larger idea?

Grace was my starting point, Wilfred came later but moved into the centre of story.

How do you hope readers react to Wilfred; as the lovable optimist, or as a more complex character, who carries a symbolic role in the novel beyond the pursuit of love and happiness?

I don’t mind how people react to Wilfred, as long as they enjoy his company, as it were.

Wilfred's profession is an interesting choice and offers a wider opportunity to discuss stagnation and mortality, why did you decide to make him an undertaker?

I thought it was egalitarian. Everyone goes through the undertakers. It’s not partisan. And everyone faces death, has to find a way of dealing with it. It seemed a way to explore a wide range of characters and response, without any kind of social censorship, which you find in many other occupations.

It seems that none of the young people in Wilfred Price can claim their lives wholly as their own; sacrificing a great deal of control to parents, the community, or even the country (in terms of fighting wars). Do you believe that this lack of control transcends the novel's setting, and suggests equally that any sense of control the current generation feels is an illusion?

I don’t know. I wonder if most of us belong very firmly in our time, because of lack of vision and an inability to think outside of what faces us on a day to day basis.

The characters in Wilfred Price are all reserved and rarely vocalise their feelings and thoughts. This feels perfectly in keeping with the time and the place, but does the idea of reserve interest you beyond that; in the sense that the pauses in Pinter say as much as the dialogue, or in Henry James's style of showing by concealing?

If everyone had said everything immediately, it would have been a very short story. There are things that we don’t say, can’t say, don’t have the courage to say, or don’t want the repercussions of saying. And I was interested in how what we think in our inner world, how we spin ourselves internally and what happens when we reveal our inner world – what happens when we say our thoughts. I’m not sure what’s inside us is ineffable, but I think it can be very difficult to convey and express.

The book deals with some pretty difficult issues, was it hard to find the balance between writing a relatively light story, and portraying some tough plotlines?

I think a novel has to have meat, but I’m not sure of the virtue in raising miserablism or promoting a cynical approach. I think light is fine, and not a lesser value than depression.

The book is uplifting in many ways, but there is a definite sense of pathos - of futility and stagnation - that creeps into the story, with some ideas and symbolism that would be at home in a more openly existential novel. Is it important to you to transcend genres, and was it a key goal to have the novel work on different levels?

I wanted very specifically to belong to a genre which seemed to me to be literary commercial writing, rather than commercial literary writing. And I thought about if the book would appeal. An openly existential novel might have not been much fun to read, and might have alienated some readers.

Readers will very likely fall for Wilfred Price and his bumbling charm. Do you think he will feature in future projects?

Definitely.

Your first book was a biography of Grayson Perry. It's quite a leap from such a flamboyant character to the reserved Welsh community of Wilfred Price, what inspired such a jump?

I thought that both the biography of Grayson and the novel needed a narrative, something that took the reader along, so they felt very similar. In both I was concerned about what would keep the reader interested.


With writing your PhD, teaching, and radio commitments you must be very busy. How long did it take you to write Wilfred Price?

It took three years to the day from when I started it to when it was published. I wrote in part because I don’t have a telly! That gave me a bit more time than when I used to watch TV in the evenings.

Describe your life during the writing process.

It was very normal, only I would think a lot about my characters, and live alongside them.

Which authors, if any, do you compare yourself to, or aspire to emulate?

I wouldn’t like to compare myself to anyone; I have so much respect for so many writers. I think Sue Townsend, in particular, is extraordinary: she has created a wonderful, funny, moving character in Adrian Mole, who’s no one special, yet very loved and is going to stay around. That’s quite something.

What advice would you give to people wanting to write?

To persist.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on the sequel to The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price. It’s called The World is a Wedding and it’s going to be out in 2013.

You were the first person to do an MA in Life Writing at UEA. What did you get from the course, and would you recommend life writing courses to aspiring novelists?

UEA was a very intense hot house when I was there, and I loved the conversation and the community around it. It taught me that people rarely just become writers out of the blue; they are usually very well educated, very well read and very hard working. I think support – good, reliable support from a good writer – is important in learning to write, and if a person can get that from an MA, then that’s useful.

With the increase in creative writing courses in higher education, there is an argument to say that contemporary literature is becoming increasingly homogenised. Firstly, do you have thoughts on this? Secondly, could the same be said for life writing in relation to chroniclers of one sort or another?

Perhaps it depends on creativity. I think perhaps writing will only become homogenised if its not very creative. The more living, vivid creativity writers bring to writing, the more originality will come with it, I think. Although I may be wrong.

Which authors or novels do you enjoy reading yourself?

I’m in awe of Tolstoy, of The Death of Ivan Ilych particularly. It’s so spare and of itself, without adornment. It’s always inspiring. To be honest, I am inspired and have huge respect for nearly everything I read. I think Marilyn Robinson is wonderful: she describes existential states and feelings that I know I – and no doubt everyone else – has, but couldn’t put into words. She also makes a very small plot deep and gripping.

Favourite word, and why?

I like Cincinnati - it sounds wonderful. I can't spell it and I've never been able to!

Wendy Jones's first novel, The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals is available in print and e-book editions at Amazon now.

Useful Links
The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price on Amazon (UK)

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Review: The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals by Wendy Jones
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