I recently read and reviewed the title The Tides Between by Elizabeth Jane Corbett for the Whispering Stories book blog (if you’re not already following, get on it! It was recently listed as #35 on the top 100 Book Blogs) and was blown away by the author’s affinity with her Welsh heritage.
To celebrate St. David’s Day, I asked the author if she’d answer a few questions for me about her book and not only did she agree but her answers to the questions are even more gorgeous than her book.
There’s nothing that makes me prouder to be Welsh than to hear the perspective of someone who doesn’t take this country its language for granted.
Thank you so much for giving me fresh insight on my home.
About the Author
When Elizabeth Jane Corbett isn’t writing, she works as a librarian, teaches Welsh at the Melbourne Welsh Church, contributes articles to the Historical Novel Review and blogs at elizabethjanecorbett.com. In 2009, her short-story, Beyond the Blackout Curtain, won the Bristol Short Story Prize. Another, Silent Night, was short listed for the Allan Marshall Short Story Award. Her debut historical novel, The Tides Between, was published by Odyssey Books in 2017. Elizabeth lives with her husband, in a renovated timber cottage in Melbourne’s inner-north. She likes red shoes, dark chocolate, commuter cycling, and reading quirky, character driven novels set once-upon-a-time in lands far away.
About the Book
It’s also just been announced that this title has been added to the Children’s Book Council of Australia notable book list for 2018 – well deserved recognition in my opinion!
1) How important do you think fairy tales are in modern life?
I am a librarian and a life-long reader. Stories have ever been at the heart of my experience. Whether novels, films, traditional folk tales, news stories, or specifically religious writings, they help me to make sense of life. I didn’t set out to develop that theme in The Tides Between. I, in fact, intended to write a hot, dry, dusty Aussie immigration saga spanning several decades. But as I read about the early Australian immigration system, a young girl entered my mind. I called her Bridie. She had lost her father in tragic circumstances. I had this idea that a creative young Welsh couple would help her come to terms with her grief.
I knew nothing about Wales back then, apart from rugby and male voice choirs. Some quick research told me Wales also had a strong bardic culture. I read the Mabinogion and a host of other Welsh fairy tales. Wow, like wow! These were my stories (my mum was Welsh), part of my heritage. Yet I hadn’t even known they existed. At which point, my young Welsh couple became storytellers and basically hijacked my Aussie immigration saga.
I’m not sure if you can comprehend this, having grown up in Wales, but I’d never heard the story of the red and white prophetic dragons, or the legend of Taliesin, or the story of King March’s ears, or indeed the story of Llyn y Fan Fach. Discovering them was quite a powerful experience. So, powerful that it infused Bridie’s and relationship with my fictitious young Welsh couple and, as I wrote, Rhys (the young Welshman) came up with these amazing insights, and I thought, yes, that it what I believe, and as Bridie grappled with the circumstances of her father’s death and, indeed, whether fairy tales could have a place in her new adult life, I realised Rhys’s words were unconsciously tapping into my own experience.
So, for example, when he says: ‘Painful it is when the words that once brought comfort lose their voice. It’s not the stories that are at fault. Or that we were foolish to believe. Only that we must learn to see with different eyes’; I am exploring my own evolving relationship with a group of writings commonly known as the Bible. Similarly, when another character reflects: ‘There were no easy answers only love and people who were complex.’ I am speaking out of my own growth in understanding – an understanding that life is not black and white, that some of the easy answers I once accepted are no longer satisfying – and that is okay because love and life and faith are beyond simple understanding.
2) Which of your characters did you identify with the most in the writing of this novel?
I never lost my father in the way Bridie did. Neither have I been forced to accept a new stepfather. But Bridie’s lost-ness and her attempts to grapple with a situation for which there were no easy answers came directly from the heart of my own experience. I wasted a great many years looking for black and white answers to life’s questions, only to discover that there are none. I enjoyed helping Bridie learn that lesson.
My brother asked me, on reading The Tides Between, whether Bridie’s relationship with her mother was based on my relationship with our mum. I suspect, I borrowed some of Mum’s tart, matter-of-factness for Mary. But really, Mum was nothing like her. Though, to be fair, she never married a drunken dreamer, so it is hard to compare. Alf however, on reflection is a great deal like my dad. A kind gentle man, who always did his best. An early reader once described Alf as deeply eccentric man. Which I found quite alarming because his insecurities and social awkwardness come straight from me. As I said above, Bridie’s wonder at Rhys’s amazing stories echoed my emotions. There is nothing like a tortured male hero – but a dark-eyed, Welsh speaking, story-telling, tortured male hero, well, I must admit, I fell little in love with Rhys.
3) What was your favourite fairy tale that you came across while researching for your book?
Oh, no, do I really have to choose! I suspect like all good stories, a fairy tale’s relevance and application grows and changes over the course of one’s life. At least, that is the thesis of my novel – the very reason, Disney, is still so successfully re-telling fairy tales. Each generation, needs the age-old lessons to be written for their own time.
What I loved about the Welsh fairy tales is the way they were linked to a time and place. So, for example, the poet Taliesin was a real, historical figure. As were the Physicians of Myddfai. On visiting Llyn y Fan Fach as part of my research, I could see why they had to weave a fairy around that tiny mysterious sheet of water. I’ve also seen the petrified forests on the beach at Ynyslas, which can be linked to the story of Cantre’r Gwaelod. So, many places and landforms in Wales have legends associated with them. They do in Australia too.
But they are not my stories, they belong to our indigenous peoples. However, when I visit Wales, I experience a deep sense of connectedness to the land and its stories.
4) How did you go about learning Welsh? I know it’s tricky enough here in Wales for adults!
Learning Welsh was a happy side effect of my writing journey. I’d read How Green Was my Valley and realised Welsh people spoke English differently. I thought a bit of research on the Welsh language might shed some light on their sentence formation and certain idiomatic expressions. To my surprise, I discovered there were Welsh classes in Melbourne. I enrolled for what I thought would be one term. But one term quickly became two, then three. Until I realised I didn’t want to stop. I’d fallen under the spell of this ancient language. I never expected to actually speak Welsh. I’d done Japanese in school and had been an absolutely hopeless student. But the Welsh words, the sentences, the little accents over the letters were like a soul-song. It was simply enough to be in their presence.
I finished a first draft of The Tides Between and got shortlisted for a manuscript development award. I also won the Bristol Short Story Prize. Then disaster struck. Our youngest daughter began to work her way through a list of every parent’s worst fears. The running away, the self-harm, the dropping out of school and shoplifting had a terrible effect on my mental health. I couldn’t write. I could barely function. My husband insisted I take a break. We had loads of frequent flyers points. Why not travel to the land of words and stories?
In preparation, a friend recommended I try Say Something in Welsh. I felt so fragile; the idea of doing strange online language course terrified me. But I summoned the courage to try just one lesson. Aran, the man on the podcast, was so kind and encouraging. He told me I was doing a great job, I would succeed. It was like rain on parched earth. Five years of language learning fell into place.
I did Cwrs Haf in Aberystwyth, the following year and have, since, been on a couple of Say Something in Welsh Bootcamps. I also spent seven months living at Stiwdio Maelor, a residential studio for artists and writers in Corris, North Wales. Back in Australia, I am one of the tutors at our Melbourne Welsh classes. I also facilitate the monthly Aussie Sgwrs Skype Cymraeg. A group of us meet regularly to speak Welsh in a local pub. But the short answer to your question is: Say Something in Welsh. I’ve got religion on it.
5) Bonus question: Is there anything you’d like to share about your book that I haven’t asked?
The Tides Between is my first novel. The first piece of fiction I had attempted since a truly deplorable short story in year eleven. I didn’t think about my book’s market, when I started writing. I wasn’t sure whether I could even write fiction. Only knew I wanted to give it a try. It wasn’t until much later, when it was too late to turn back, that I realised I’d written an unusual novel – a coming-of-age story with a strong female protagonist, which also included her stepfather’s viewpoint. Close on the heel of this realisation, came the knowledge there weren’t many books with that mix in the teenage section of the library – let alone ones with embedded Welsh fairy tales and fantasy elements. My book belonged everywhere and nowhere and in today’s cautious publishing market, let’s just say, that was risky.
I finished the final draft of The Tides Between while living in Corris. As I wrote ‘The End’ at the bottom of the page, I wasn’t sure anyone would want my whimsical little novel. But, I can tell to you, on that day, in that moment, with the snow-capped peaks of Snowdonia all around me, it didn’t matter. My Aussie immigration saga had turned into a shipboard novel and been hijacked by Welsh characters. Meanwhile, I’d been falling deeper and deeper in love with a language. I’d failed, on so many levels, yet achieved more than I ever hoped for. I’d found my voice while writing the manuscript, connected with my heritage, and made friends on the far side of the world and somehow in the process of all the reading and writing and realising, I’d found my way home.