Questions and Answers from Alis Hawkins – The “In Two Minds” blog tour!

Hi Julie  – thanks so much for having me on Northern Reader and for kicking off the blog tour for In Two Minds.

 

1.In the first book, Harry had a personal interest in discovering the killer of Margaret. Why do you think he insists on doing the right thing by this faceless corpse?

 

Harry’s a complicated character and I don’t always think he’s honest with himself about his own motivation. So I suspect that, on one level, the death of Margaret Jones and the feeling of culpability he carries for that is always going to drive him – to a lesser or greater extent – to do right by the dead.

Then there’s the question of not knowing what’s happened to someone you love. In In Two Minds, Harry clashes with Inspector Bellis, who wants a quick, tidying-up inquest and isn’t bothered about identifying the faceless corpse. ‘Somebody, somewhere,’ Harry tells him, ‘is waiting for news of him.’ Those words remind us of Harry’s own feelings in None So Blind – he waited seven years to find out what had happened to Margaret, he knows what it’s like to live in limbo, not knowing what’s happened to somebody you love.

The other – and possibly least admirable aspect of Harry’s determination –  is his refusal to be told what to do by the magistrates or police. His blindness has left him feeling bereft and vulnerable and this, combined with the fear he has always had of simply being made in his father’s establishment image, pushes him into carving a different niche for himself. He’s almost obsessionally determined to steer his own course and, sometimes, the direction that course takes is defined simply by what other people don’t want him to do.

 

  1. John, Harry’s helper, is hoping for a ‘proper’ job as a lawyer, and begins this book being disappointed than Harry only seems to want him temporarily. Is John being overly ambitious, or is that just the sort of person he is?

 

In the mid-nineteenth century, it was possible for somebody like John – a bright lad with no family background of acheivement – to succeed in one of the professions, but many didn’t even try as they lacked the necessarily financial backing.

Having said that, before Harry walked into Mr Schofield’s office in None So Blind and procured John’s services as his assistant, I’m not sure John had necessarily given a lot of thought to his own advancement. As far as he was concerned, he’d done pretty well for himself given that he’d found himself alone in the world, without home or job, at the age of twelve. But working with Harry has given him what Mr Probert-Lloyd senior would call ‘ideas above his station’. John has taken Harry’s talk of equality and advancement seriously and has begun to think that perhaps he can do better than clerking for Mr Schofield. And why not? His mother had always told him he was a bright lad.

This strand in the book has the benefit of arising naturally out of what happened in None So Blind but it also provides a useful element of tension between Harry and John in In Two Minds.

 

3.You have set up some barriers to the investigation – Harry’s poor sight, his father’s opposition, a doctor’s alleged drink problem – will Harry ever get an easy time? Or is that the point of the books?

 

Harry doesn’t want an easy time. If he did, he would just have come home meekly and done what his father wanted – taken over the running of the estate and his father’s seat on the magistrates’ bench. No, Harry wants to be his own man. He doesn’t like or approve of the status quo and the way he chooses to forge a separate identity for himself is never to take the easy, expected way. He is determined to plough his own furrow, even if he has to relinquish the horse and drag the damn’ plough himself!

But, as your question suggests, at a conceptual level, if there were no barriers to his investigation, the book would be awfully dull!

 

4.More of a direct question; do you find the Welsh language element of the book easy to write? The names, the words and everything? It is difficult avoiding anachronisms in two languages?

 

For me, the books wouldn’t be remotely authentic without any Welsh. As a Welsh speaker, it’s both hard and easy to include Welsh language elements  – easy because I know what I’m saying and never need to check spelling or grammar and hard because I have to bear in mind that the vast majority of my readers won’t be familiar with the language and, therefore, I mustn’t put too much in lest it become confusing or irritating.

 

As far as the use of personal names are concerned, the series illustrates a very Welsh phenomenon. In a country where the original way of marking surnames  by patronym – that is, X son of Y as in Dafydd ap Gwilym – had been reduced by English bureaucracy to the modern forms we know. So we get, for example, David Johnes (ie John’s son – which became ‘Jones’) or John Davies (Davy’s son). And, because a few English names predominated, Welsh names having fallen into disuse at that time, the list of indigenous surnames became, and remains, very short.

 

When I was a child the local telephone directory was full of Davies, Evans, Jones, Thomas, Williams, the occasional anglicisation of a Welsh form – (eg Probert (from ap Robert, son of Robert) or Lloyd (from Llwyd – grey or brown) or Vaughan from Fychan (small) and, in those days before the major influx of incomers, few English names. It has, therefore, always been necessary to differentiate between endless David Joneses – or indeed, as in the series, John Davieses. So, farm names, occupations or nicknames were often pressed into use amongst locals. Hence the names of Gwyn Pantmawr, and Dai’r Bardd in the book: Gwyn’s from the name of his home, and Dai’s from the poems he writes.

 

It’s a habit which persists into the modern day and nearly all the farmers in the area are referred to in that way. My Dad, who, with the surname Hawkins, would easily be distinguished from all other local Daves has, nevertheless, always been known to the other farmers as Dave Troedyrhiw, after our farm.

 

You mention anachronisms. Anybody who knows me well knows how seriously I take this linguistic element of my books. I mean, if you’re going to make sure the clothes and food and buildings are right, why not the idioms? One of my elder son’s friends read None So Blind and remarked that she’d liked it but was the phrase ‘softly, softly, catchee, catchee monkey’ really current in the 1850s? My son’s response? ‘Believe me, my Mum will have checked!’

Watching out for them in Welsh is less of an issue as there is so little of the language included in the books. Somebody’ll still probably tell me I’ve managed to get something wrong, though!

 

 

 

  1. Your books have a lot of call on medical knowledge, both for the living and the dead. Does this mean you poring over old medical books, or just summoning it all up from your own knowledge?

 

I’m fascinated by anatomy and physiology and by the social history of medicine. It was part of my studies as a Speech and Language therapist (I’m particularly good on anything above the diaphragm!) so I do have some knowledge but I never trust my memory and am always fact-checking. For instance, I’d come across the story of Phineas Gage, which is recounted in the book, when I was studying neuroanatomy and cognitive neuropsychology but I still went back and checked the details for the book as it’s quite fundamental to Benton Reckitt’s theories.

 

In fact, pretty much everything Dr Reckitt says and does involved a lot of research. For instance, we’re so used to the idea of post mortem examinations, now, that it was fascinating to learn about the wildly different contemporary attitudes .And even more fun finding out what Harry and John felt about the subject.

 

But I also researched the practice of autopsy iself. We’ve become accustomed to the (sometimes erroneous) idea that doctors can to tell virtually anything from the careful study of a corpse, so it was salutory to realise how little was known then. The analysis of poisons was becoming established but not all doctors knew how to do it, or wished to. And Benton Reckitt’s desire to autopsy all and every dead body stems from  a desire – shared by real doctors in the mid-nineteenth century, particularly those who worked as or with coroners – to build up a body of knowledge about causes of death and their signs. In In Two Minds, he’s particularly keen to find out what changes in behaviour arise from brain tumours and this drives some of the plot.

 

I’ve found that an emerging science, like autopsy, is great fun to write about. There are all sorts of arguments and debates to be had about both practice and ethics and you can, quite feasibly, have your character doing things which were right at – or even sometimes beyond – the accepted cutting edge of medicine. Just because a thing wasn’t recorded until, let’s say, 1856, doesn’t mean that somebody wasn’t already doing it in 1851. And Benton Reckitt is just the kind of anatomist to doing something others are too squeamish to attempt.

 

Thanks so much, Julie, for having me on Northern Reader – your questions are always so interesting and make me think about my work in ways I haven’t always before!

 

These Q and As should have appeared as on my original post – but technology defeated me! I have returned to my old steam driven laptop to add this post – I hope that you find it interesting and enjoyable – and that it makes you even more determined to read “In Two Minds” by Alis Hawkins!

 

 

In Two Minds by Alis Hawkins – A Tefi Valley Coroner novel as a fascinating historical read.

 

Wales in the 1800s is a challenging place for Harry Probert – Lloyd, as unwilling heir to his elderly father and battling with diminishing sight. Having returned home from London where he worked as a lawyer, he is once again intent on finding out more about a death which defies easy explanation as acting coroner of Tefi Valley. In this, the second Teifi Valley Coroner novel, the odds seem even more stacked against Harry, as he insists on investigating the death of a mysterious man despite resistance from his father and the other magistrates who would prefer a quiet life. With only his assistant, John Davis for support, he is forced to enlist the help of a doctor with an interesting reputation and learn much about a scheme for would be emigrants. This second novel is an excellent stand alone read as well as a welcome return to Wales. I was honoured to be asked to read and review this book on its publication day.

The book opens with the exasperated Harry asking the reader “Is there any argument more futile than one with an aged parent?”. He is aware that he succeeded beyond expectations in his investigations into the death of Margaret Jones recently, but that does not help him to convince his father that his work as a coroner should continue. His father is only interested in the fact that Harry will in time inherit his estate of Glanteifi, and take on the traditional role and responsibilities of a major landowner. Harry is frustrated by his poor sight, as he can no longer have his independence and legal career in London, and is even dependent on the friendly housekeeper to read letters from Lydia, a spirited friend who is employed elsewhere. John Davis, who is beginning to understand some of the pressures on Harry, is nevertheless unhappy that neither his own employer or Harry appreciate the extent of his own ambition. He is aware of how to help Harry, guarding him from physical danger increased by his lack of sight and using his own judgement to further the investigation into a body which has been found on a beach. More mysteries emerge as the body’s face has been disfigured, and identifying a faceless man proves difficult. As the narration moves between John and Harry, we see how they are aware of the expectations placed on both of them, and just how difficult their tasks will be in a situation where no one is keen to show their hand.

This is a mature book which shows every confidence in being able to establish characters who have their own understanding of their situations, and how the physical setting of travelling by horse amid a challenging rural landscape affects the investigative process. Secrets, lies, pride and other barriers make this far from a straightforward  murder mystery, and I once again learnt much about the legal system of the time. This is a totally absorbing book, as the narrative moves from crime to complicated family situations. I recommend it as a great read of real depth, and a another splendid tale of a man battling on all sorts of fronts to follow what he believes is the correct path. A really good read!    

 

At the moment I have been struggling with putting some brilliant answers to questions I put to Alis about this novel on this post! My chromebook is not cooperating! In the interests of putting this post up today, I will fight on after posting it! Thank you to Alis, and I promise to get the Q and As soon! 

None So Blind by Alis Hawkins – an historical novel reviewed and with author’s answers

Image result for none so blind hawkins

Historical fiction at its best, this is a book set in 1850 featuring a young man with more than his career as a lawyer on his mind. The action takes place in West Wales in a period of social upheaval typified by the Rebecca Riots, and combines a subtle set of social rules with a deviously complex plot. The fight for justice for the death of a young woman is made painfully human as Harry Probert – Lloyd discovers that nothing in this situation is as it seems, and everyone has their mysteries and withheld truths.  I was so pleased to be asked to read and review this story of ‘The Teifi Valley Coroner” which I very much enjoyed in so many ways.

Harry has returned from his practice as a barrister in London with his friend Gus. What he has not told his father, who is a landowner in Cardiganshire, is the real reason for his return following his exile to Oxford and the capital. As Harry says “There is never a convenient moment to discover that you are going progressively blind.” Gus has become his guide and interpreter of a world that he remembers, but cannot focus on except in the periphery of his vision. The shattering discovery of the body of Margaret, his one time love, means that he feels forced to press for an inquest into her death. In doing so he stirs up all kinds of inbuilt prejudices, hatred and terrors of a return to a time of confrontation, when no one feels safe from being dragged into scandal and worse. John is a young lawyer’s clerk who discovers a sympathy for Harry, as he begins to discover the extent of his obvious weakness and less apparent abilities. John has his own secrets as he soon realises that he has been involved in the fear and betrayal caused by the riots of years before, and is surrounded by those who all too clearly remember old hatreds. Harry’s investigations turn up all sorts of strange revelations, including within his own home, and he is striving to conceal his special knowledge and consuming guilt about Margaret.

This book is an exceptional and substantial work of imagination built on solid research. Each character swiftly demonstrates his or her own ‘voice’, and moreover the accent of the people echoes in the reader’s head. While this is a work of fiction it manages to ring true throughout the novel as depicting how people react. The sounds, smells and settings are brilliantly described as Harry struggles to work out the tiny things he is not seeing and the non verbal clues which he can no longer appreciate. The concept of having a main character with sight problems means that the narration is of an unusual quality, and I believe works exceptionally well. I really enjoyed this book, and cannot wait for the next installment in this brilliant new series.

In today’s mammoth post, I wanted to add the questions and answers that Alis contributed. Sorry it’s so long!

  1. The novel is obviously set in West Wales. How much is the place important to you, and did you always intend for the setting to almost become another character?

Getting the feel of the Teifi Valley right was very important to me as it’s where I grew up and where my family still lives; the site of my main character’s family home is less than a mile from the our farm. Added to that, it’s not a well known area. People are often familiar with the beaches of the Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire coast but their knowledge ends there and I felt a real responsibility to represent the area accurately. It’s such a beautiful part of the world but it tends to get overshadowed in the popular imagination by more dramatic landscapes like Snowdonia or the Brecon Beacons but, to me, there is nothing more beautiful than a pastoral river valley.

As to whether I intended the setting to become almost another character, that just happened. I think  there are three reasons for that:

Firstly, as a teenager, I got know the area where None So Blind is set really well on foot, on horseback (astonishingly useful) and on a bike, so I’m able to describe it in much greater detail than if I’d only ever driven around in a car. You notice different things when you’re on foot, or when you have a higher vantage point on horseback.

Secondly, having Harry see the topography through the lens of his partial sight was one way in which I was able to convey how he feels about his blindenss but it also gave me a very different appreciation for the landscape. What does it look like when you only have peripheral vision, what becomes important then?

And, thirdly, in a very real sense, the events which form the backdrop to the murder  – the Rebecca Riots – were brought about by the particularities of the landscape of West Wales. The maintenance and improvement of roads in an area with so many hills, woods, valleys, rivers and streams – not to mention rain – is a huge undertaking; that’s why the Turnpike Trusts, against whose tollgates the farmers rioted, were necessary in the first place.

What Harry calls the ‘tangle of wooded river valleys’ that form the topography of the lower Teifi Valley also gave rise to a very particular kind of society with close-knit and interdependent communities. It is out of these communities that both the independence of spirit and the secrecy necessary to the Rebecca movement were born. Added to that, the farmers and labourers knew their fields and hills and valleys so well that they could literally disappear into the landscape, consistently foiling the metropolitan police and dragoons who were brought in to try and quell the riots. It was very important to me to convey the sense of deep rootedness that is implied in that ability.

As research sites go, however, where you grew up does lacks a certain exoticism – I often envy friends who set their books in sunny places and write off trips against tax as research – but it does mean that I get to see friends and family more often!

  1. How much research did you do on the Rebecca Riots? Do you enjoy the research, and how do you know when to stop?

I’ve wanted to write a book about the Rebecca Riots since I was at school and I’ve been researching the period off and on for twenty years. So, when I decided to write None So Blind it was a case of refreshing my memory and getting certain key facts right – like the timing of the movement of rioting into the Teifi Valley and the dates when police and the army were brought in. Then I could get on with researching the nitty gritty of life at the time as the book grew, researching as I went.

Of course, I needed to know the basics like the details of what people wore –what did the working men of 1940s Cardiganshire wear on their heads, for instance, who wore ‘stovepipe’ hats and what exactly is a betgwn, mainstay of Welsh national female costume; what people ate – I discovered that potatoes and buttermilk were the mainstays of the poor; and what people’s houses were like – appallingly primitive in the case of those at the bottom end of society.

But I also needed to know other specifics:

What stage railway development had reached. As lines were being developed and grand new stations built at an enormous rate, it was really important to get the exact timings right as Harry and John travelled to London.

When did gaslights make their way into private homes? This was a very real question for Harry as he sees better in good light, and it was a huge disappointment to him to discover that though gaslights were catching on in private homes in London, the necessary infrastructure made it highly unlikely that West Wales would be gaslit for decades.

How far can you realistically walk in an afternoon on non-tarmaced roads? Depends on how many hills there are. Duh!

When did people stop building their own houses in the West Wales countryside and start employing others to do so? This was, it emerged, getting well underway in the period of None So Blind as people began to lust after two-storey houses built from stone as opposed to one storey built from turf or cob. Interestingly, most ‘traditional’ nineteenth century cottages in the area date from the period just after the riots, so I found myself making a lot of (somewhat educated) assumptions.

How were contemporary inquests held? This was a hugely difficult one to crack until I discovered the work of Pam Fisher of Leicester University whose papers on the internet – including the intriguingly titled ‘Getting Away With Murder? The Suppression of Coroners’ Inquests in Early Victorian England And Wales’ – were a revelation.

When did people plant and harvest potatoes? A crucial issue in West Wales at the time as a family relying on potatoes as their main carbohydrate only needs a quarter of the land that a family relying on grain as its staple does.

As for when to stop researching, as you probably guessed from the breathless enthusiasm of the list above, I basically don’t until I hit ‘Send’ on the final version of the publisher’s proofs. I’m forever putting new bits in which will need checking, or double-checking things I’d already nailed down, just in case!

So, to sum research up, I suppose I do the ‘grand sweep’ – the broad understanding of my chosen set of events – before I begin a book and then I keep researching minutiae as I write. I know some writers make notes for themselves as they go in the text – eg: [check whether it’s possible to walk from Cwm Cou to Cardigan in three hours] – and then back-fill when the book is done but that doesn’t work for me. Even slight changes tend to change tiny but vital bits of plot, so I work it all out as I go.

  1. When I read the dialogue in the book, I can almost hear the accents! If there was a plan to produce an audio version, would you have a view on the readers being able to convince listeners that a lot of the characters were Welsh?

That’s such a great thing to hear – thank you!

I worked really hard on making the dialogue sound authentic, and on making John and Harry sound different. (though, unless you’re a grammar nerd like me you won’t spot the lengths I went to – eg John never uses passive constructions and I try and keep his use of Latin-derived words and subordinate clauses to a minimum.)

I love writing. Characters talking to each other always drive my stories.

And yes, I have very definite ideas about how I’d want the characters to sound in an audio version. Just to have Welsh actors wouldn’t be enough. It drives me mad on the telly when they have characters supposedly from one area of Wales but whose accent is from a different area entirely. It’s like having someone supposedly from Cornwall sounding like a Scouser! So John, at least, would need to have a south Cardiganshire/west Carmarthenshire accent to be authentic. Harry I’d be able to live with sounding English, though I’d like him to have a bit of a twang, just to acknowledge how he feels about being Welsh.

Don’t ask much, do I?!

  1. At what point did you decide to make Harry blind? Is it so that the descriptions have to be different? How central do you think it is?

What a perceptive question – because, of course, the descriptions do have to be different. Harry’s descriptions are fragmentary, or rely on memory, whereas John can afford to be lazy about what he sees and, paradoxially, doesn’t always describe things in as much detail as Harry.

When I first started writing None So Blind, Harry wasn’t blind. But, pretty quickly, I realised that he didn’t have a sufficiently compelling reason for coming home from London, so I decided that it would be convincing – and, incidentally, a bit of a unique selling point which never hurts! – to make him partially sighted. However, as soon as I started writing in his voice, Harry’s blindness stopped being a plot device and became central to who he is. The loss of his sight gave me an insight into the rest of his personality. How a person reacts to adversity can tell you a lot about them.

His condition is a real one. Today it’s known as Stargardt’s Disease or Juvenile Macular Degeneration. It was important to me to know the parameters within which Harry was working and macular degeneration is relatively easy to work out for yourself. I walked around quite a lot while I was writing the book with both index fingers held over my central visual field to give me a rough idea of what Harry could see. I’m sure the people out and about where I take my walks thought I was highly eccentric!

It was fascinating to realise how much of our lives are predicated on our visual sense – particularly non-verbal communication – and to see how that might stand in Harry’s way as an investigator. That’s why, for some things, he relies so heavily on John. On other occasions, however – and one in particular – his increased auditory acuity, unmasked by the dominance of sight, stands him in good stead.

But I also found that I got caught up very easily in the emotional aspects of Harry’s condition. It was easy to imagine his frustration, his grief, and the way in which, every so often, the implications of his condition would hit him.

  1. What do you think about women’s choices in the novel? Is Margaret always wiser in the world than Harry?

Ah… Harry’s a dreamer. He was really born in the wrong century – he would have been far happier in the late eighteenth century with Thomas Paine, Jeremy Bentham, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft and the revolutionary fervour of the American and French revolutions. Many things seemed possible then – universal suffrage, equality between the sexes, education for all – but that kind of idealism had been trodden down quite a bit by the time Harry came of age.

But, still, he flies the flag for equality and women’s rights, as well as he can – though even he is brought up short every now and again by his own illiberal attitudes.

Margaret, on the other hand, didn’t have Harry’s education and hasn’t read political philosophers. Even the Christian egalitarianism of Nathaniel Howell, the Unitarian minister at her chapel, has to be taken with a pinch of salt as far as she’s concerned. As someone of lower social status with little or no family support, Margaret has to be pragmatic. She tries to live her life to the best of her ability and to take her chances where she finds them. And, within her own very limited sphere, I think she probably is wiser than Harry the idealist. Had she heard him say it, she would have agreed with Harry’s friend, Gus, when he told Harry that, ‘The world won’t alter to suit you, however much you want it to.’

But there are other women in None So Blind who are making choices and making things happen. Esme Williams, for all she is a figure of ridicule to John and a nuisance to Harry, is brighter and a better maker of choices than her husband whom the book shows her running rings around.

Rachel Evans, in weighing up when to tell the truth and when to keep silent, in a context where getting it wrong might see her and her family turned out of their home, shows a moral flexibility that’s beyond Harry.

And then, of course, there’s Lydia…

  1. Without spoilers, where is the series going next if you can say?

The second book in the series, In Two Minds (which will be published in May 2019) begins where None So Blind ends. Given that the series is called the Teifi Valley Coroner, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to tell readers that, by the end of None So Blind Harry has been asked to stand in as coroner for the area. There’s a certain amount of urgency as the current incumbent is dying and a naked corpse has been discovered on a local beach.

Despite his father’s disapproval, Harry grabs the opportunity with both hands as an alternative to the status quo where he is simply squire-in-waiting. However, in his determination to plough his own furrow, he gets off on the wrong foot with the local inspector of police, setting up an enmity which almost derails the whole investigation. 

Harry enlists John’s help once more but, for reasons which will be clear to the reader by the end of None So Blind, things are rather strained between them which makes the investigation more difficult than it needs to be.

As well as Harry and John, In Two Minds introduces readers to a new character who’s going to be a fixture in the series. I intended Dr Benton Reckitt to be a bit player in In Two Minds but he assumed such a life of his own as soon as he opened the door to Harry and John that he became one of the plot’s main actors and his obsession for performing autopsies turned out to be a second, and quite crucial, theme.

As for whether Lydia makes another appearance, you’ll just have to read In Two Minds to find out!