Having only read the wonderful Diana Powell’s short stories before (Trouble Crossing The Bridge is her excellent collection), I was delighted to have the opportunuty to read her novel Things Found On The Mountain. Just like her other fiction, it resonates with an undercurrent of something other worldly. We meet Beth, a solitary figure living in Wales. She has a ocnnection with the earth around her but is troubled by her missing brother. With the arrival of new people on the mountain, her attachments become unstuck.
We get vivid imaginings of the natural world lived around us in the novel, to the point where it feels as though the mountain is a living, breathing thing. Diana’s sparse style takes us on a journey that allows us to see the world from another, more magical point of view. It has a delicate, light touch that makes it a beautiful read.
I wanted to find out how she chose her setting, and how she created such a moving novel. Read on to find out more.
The setting is a magical, almost unearthly mountain in Wales. It’s also incredibly important to the story and the main character. Why did you choose this place and why was it such a beautiful place for you?
The ‘mountain’ in question is the Ffwddog ridge, part of the eastern side of the Black Mountains in Wales. It rises above two valleys, one of which includes the hamlet of Capel-y-ffin. And yes, many people do feel there’s something magical about the area, something other-worldly. ‘Ffin’ is the Welsh for boundary, and there is a sense of the liminal about it, not only because it is border country.
As you say, this setting is very important to the story, which is why, in several talks I’ve presented about the novel, I have chosen setting as my main theme. What I’m particularly interested in is connection with our surroundings. I’ve lived in eight different places, for various lengths of time, and the two I connect with are north Pembrokeshire, where we live now, and the Black Mountains, where we were for about ten years – although we were actually on the other side, below the western ridge. These are two very dissimilar landscapes and some people say you can’t love both the mountains and the sea. But I do. But why?
Beth, my main character, connects with the mountain, or mountains, in a visceral way. And, yes, it is hard to articulate this feeling.
It’s a kind of awe, of nature making me feel insignificant. Their bleak beauty… how, when you are on the heights, you don’t think of yourself on a hill of two thousand feet, but believe you are on top of the world – yet find yourself asking ‘what am I in all this?’ But there is also joy – my heart does leap when I’m up there!
It’s the same up on the cliffs, on the coast of Pembrokeshire. So, one of the reasons I chose the Black Mountains (and I’ve also written short stories set there) is that it keeps my other favourite landscape with me. I can have both at the same time! And, as I’m writing a sequel, this will continue for a while, yet.
Although our main character (who I loved) does connect with people, there’s a sense that these don’t last, and that we’re all sort of shifting alongside each other without really understanding. Why did you want to show the relationships like this in your book and how true to life do you think they are?
I’m so glad you loved Beth, because I love her, too! After the death of her beloved brother, Daniel, Beth has no-one who understands her. And then new people arrive in the area – the workers building the reservoir in one valley; Eric Gill’s religious community of artists and craftsmen in the Monastery in the next. Eric Gill is, of course, now known to have had incestuous relations with his daughters, as well as numerous affairs. Normally, Beth would stay away from these newcomers. But the years have passed, the weather that winter is particularly cruel and she begins to feel the need for some kind of contact. But she will have nothing to do with the reservoir workers, because they are destroying her favourite valley. Then she comes across Gill’s daughters, who are about the same age as her and they draw her into life at the Monastery.
But the problem is that these people are nothing like her, especially Gill, who instinctively repels her from the start. She does have a certain connection with the girls and also with painter/poet David Jones, who reminds her somewhat of Daniel. And then Gabriel arrives, an apprentice of Gill’s, whom she falls in love with. And love, of course, is quite a different matter.
Yet she knows there is a profound dissonance between her – together with the other inhabitants of the valley, which was very much a farming community – and these newcomers… including Gabriel.
Gill, for instance, although he made friends with some of the farmers, made little effort to see the place as it was, totally ignoring the existence of the industry involved in building the reservoir, because it did not fit in with his notion of a rural ‘idyll’. And once his new home ceases to suit his purpose, he is happy enough to leave. And Beth only sees beauty in nature, so cannot comprehend why they see beauty in art. Each ‘side’ makes little effort to understand the other.
And so, yes, they just ‘shift’ along – which is a good way of putting it! I think the same thing can be found in many instances where rural areas are suddenly faced with an influx of strangers, for one reason or another – which is often a favourite subject of stories, because of the conflict it provides. But it’s not just the rural, and not just in the past, sadly. We place barriers up (sometimes literally) and continue on our own set paths. And hope, as Beth’s father says, that these new people ‘’ll not last long.’ Whether this is good for Beth… well, I’ll leave that up for the reader.
The ‘things’ on the mountain range from the elemental (water, air), the divine (god) and the human (love, death). How did you create these connections with your setting and how did it shape the story?
I didn’t really have to create them, because they are actually there! The book opens in the past, with Daniel and Beth standing on top of the Ffwddog ridge, where Daniel says ‘everything you want from the world is all around.’ So, in response to her uncertainty, he lists them all, starting with air. And certainly, when you are up there, on the heights, there is plenty of air, with the wind blowing almost constantly.
Then there is water. The Black Mountains have around sixty inches of rain a year, which is why they chose to build a reservoir there. But there are also many springs and streams, leading down to the valley bottoms, where they run into the rivers, together with waterfalls and pools – all of which feature in the story.
Of course stone, rock, is what the mountains are made of. But loose stone does litter the ground, and Eric Gill, a sculptor and carver, did think the Monastery would be a good place to live initially, because it would provide him with material for his work. And it also provides material for the houses and field walls, then and today.
Sheep are obvious – this is, after all, Wales! Sheep can be found everywhere on the slopes and tops of the mountains, going higher than you could possibly believe. Sheep are important to the story, because Beth inherits the role of shepherd, after Daniel fails to return from the First World War. And she believes they have ‘taught’ her the mountain, because she follows their paths.
God is actually fascinating. That magical element of the place could also be called ‘spiritual’, including the religious aspect of that word. For whatever reason, the area, particularly the Honddu, or Ewyas, valley has attracted devout believers, who have chosen to settle there, over hundreds of years. Further down the valley is the ruin of Llanthony Abbey. St David was said to have chosen to live as a hermit here. In time, others joined him, and later the Abbey was established on the holy spot. Then there is the Monastery. Gill was not the first to set up a religious community here. He was preceded by Father Ignatius, a monk, who build the house, after choosing the area for its ‘holiness’. And while he was there, the ghost of the Virgin Mary appeared to his followers, who then erected a statue of her, which still stands in the Monastery grounds, welcoming you as you approach!
Just down the road stands the tiny lopsided church with the equally tiny chapel behind. All these in a few miles of one very remote valley. Quite amazing, really.
As for life and death… well, wherever there are people, you have those, too, with the gravestones in the two cemeteries attesting to both. Gill’s daughter, Betty, is buried there. But also, it is not unusual to come across the bones of sheep, as you walk on the hills. It is, after all, an unforgiving landscape, especially in winter. So… these ‘things’ are very much part of the place. As Daniel says ‘All from the mountain. All being the mountain.’ You can’t really ignore them.
When I’m writing, parts of the story are very clear to me, even though I don’t plan, as such. But other aspects seem to come from nowhere. And that’s how it is with my decision to use these ‘things’, these parts of the mountain, as a way of structuring the novel. Words, or the lack of them, are very important in the novel. Beth can’t read or write, but she remembers these words of Daniel, and that he told her they would always be there, even when he was gone. So this is what she tries to do – hang on to each and every one of them. So to use them as ‘chapter headings’ and base each section around each of them, seemed a perfect way to structure the novel – even if, as I say, I can’t remember at what point I had the idea!
But also, I think it was a good way to keep a light touch, which you pick up on, which chimes with Beth inability to articulate in more profound ways.
What was your route to publication?
You were kind enough to feature my last book, ‘Trouble Crossing the Bridge’, a short story collection, previously. Unfortunately, the publisher of that disappeared. This is, sadly, what often happens with small indie presses and is yet another problem writers may have to deal with. So, with ‘Things Found on the Mountain’, I was starting from scratch again, though I did have a few more successes under my belt, which, it has to be said, is useful for that cover letter, which you usually have to include with your submission.
So I started sending it out, having done some research into what presses might like this kind of writing – this is always important. Many of the publishing houses suggest that you read some of their books before submitting, and, really, this is a good idea, even if you are simply thinking it’s their way of increasing sales. It was mainly to small presses that I sent it – or the beginning of it (the first fifty pages or similar), which most ask you to do, first. And I was pleased that a few asked for the whole manuscript – always a good sign. And most of them did say they really liked it – that I ‘wrote beautifully’! – but none of them wanted to pick it up.
But I have learnt to keep going, in this, as in my writing, generally, because I have come to think it’s a question of a story finding its right home.
I hadn’t considered Seren at first, because it’s Wales’s leading literary publisher and their aim is to publish high quality fiction – I guess I wasn’t confident enough, at that time. It was actually a goal of mine to be published by one of the top Welsh presses – a goal, and a dream, as I very much identify as Welsh. But this book was set in Wales, so I felt it would be perfect for it. So I gave it a go, not expecting much, really. It’s quite a long process, as with so many publishers, so I had more or less given up on it, when they contacted me to ask if it was still available. And, fortunately, it was!
What writing advice would you give to others?
As I say above, keep going, whatever this writing business throws at you. If writing is important to you, if you love what you are doing, have faith in yourself, even when others don’t (all those rejections!). And… follow your own path. Write what you want to write, rather than following themes and styles that appear to be ‘in fashion’ – because, if your work is good, it will be recognised, even though it may take some time. (Which, I guess, means don’t always follow other people’s advice!).
At the actual ‘writing process’ level, if something’s not working, don’t necessarily give up on that, either. Put it away for a while, then have another look, experiment with point of view, maybe, and it’s surprising how the right voice, the right angle to present the story, will come to you. I’ve actually had the opportunity to listen to some top writers, lately, and it was surprisingly reassuring. They all seem to have fallow periods, experience doubt, and have those rejections. So, yes, follow your heart, follow your path – which is rather like what Beth does on her mountain!
Diana Powell is a prize-winning writer of short fiction – both short stories and short novels. She has won, among other competitions, last year’s Bristol Short Story Prize and the 2022 Cinnamon Press Literature Award, for her novella, ‘The Sisters of Cynvael’ (out next year). She has published three books. ‘Esther Bligh’ (Holland House Books), ‘Trouble Crossing the Bridge’ (her short story collection, available on Kindle), and ‘Things found on the Mountain’ (Seren).
She has a website https://dianapowellwriter.com