As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Joshua Jones on the research process behind his collection Local Fires (Parthian Books, 2023).
You’ve spoken elsewhere about the fact that Local Fires was inspired by real events that took place in your hometown of Llanelli, Wales. Before we delve more deeply into the wider concerns of locality, I’m curious to know how you handled real life material. How did you translate real people, places and things into fiction? And were there ethical concerns?
Most characters, if not all, in Local Fires are an amalgamation of a number of people that I knew, or a hotpot of certain personality traits from a few different people. For example, ‘Danny Jenkins’ is a representation of a lot of boys from my school year. Sometimes they’re simply different versions of myself. Absolutely, there’s ethical concerns – for example, on two occasions I write about two unrelated deaths of young people that I knew and were friends with. I talk about those deaths in passing, they’re not focal points in the stories at all. I wanted to build a sense of causality of trauma within these working-class communities, and lack of resources available. Death, addiction, generational grief and anger, politics and economics of post-industrial Welsh towns and the forced disintegration of entire communities are considered to this end.
For a while I got too anxious about doing justice to ‘the facts’. I tried to remember that I only know what I know, and even then, it isn’t truth. It certainly isn’t ‘the’ truth, if such a thing exists. On the day I received my A-Level results, and found out I’d passed well enough to go to my university of choice, I was on my way to meet friends at the local Wetherspoons to celebrate our successes and futures. On my way into town I saw the Park Congregational Church was on fire. It felt like the whole town was there – not fact, but a feeling, which makes for an interesting correspondence. To me, and the character William Williams, it felt like that fire changed everything.
It’s fascinating to hear about that proximity between the characters and yourself, and between the fictional Llanelli and the real Llanelli. In many ways, Local Fires feels like a ‘local’ collection to me, in that it has a rooted sense of place. I think one of the tensions within the collection is the attachment of jeopardy to that sense of place, particularly in ‘It’s Black Country Out There’, a story which deftly reflects the anxiety of a place or community falling apart. Broadly speaking, do you feel local identity has been or is being eroded in the UK? And what is the importance, if any, of local identity as a social or emotional phenomenon?
I’m reminded of that scene from The League of Gentlemen, when two construction workers enter the shop, owned by Edward & Tulip Tattsyrup, to serve them with papers to sign. Some out-of-town company wants to build a new road through the valley. Tulip recoils in a mix of horror and fright, to comedic effect, and says: ‘This is a local shop for local people.’ In all honesty I think that might be one of the earliest forms of media I consumed as a child (years after it first aired) that got me thinking about (hyper-)locality, how that informs identity on a personal level. With the loss of community is a loss of self – and when that community, that place, is jeopardised, so is the identity of the person(s) that make it.
I left Llanelli for opportunity, freedom and self-expression, but in the almost ten years since, I’ve moved closer and closer back to the place – geographically, and in other states. I feel like I am a sponge for the feeling or ‘vibe’ of a place – I can read them better than I can read people. I wear the place like a mask. I’ve been a different person in every place I’ve lived. Living in Wales again I feel attuned to the collective grief of the country, the cultural melancholia of our literature. When writing Local Fires and being such a big fan of Welsh writing anyway (Caradog Prichard, Caradoc Evans, Leonora Brito, Thomas Morris to name a few), I felt like I could tap into that sense of grief and loss with ease. After all, it’s very traditionally Welsh to be brought up hating Thatcher! I remember reading an article considering London as a megacity. Think of how much landmass that includes, constantly oozing outwards to eat up more natural environments in order to build new roads, housing, infrastructure: the amalgamation of local history and heritage into the monoculture city state. I was reminded of the Judge Dredd comics, where the megacities cover most of their country and replace nations as the dominant governing political entity.
On the other side, hyper-localisation breeds nationalism. ‘This is a local shop for local people – there’s nothing for you here!’ Immigration and the rise of European, Asian and Middle Eastern-owned businesses are seen as jeopardising the state of things. In Llanelli, recently, there was a mass protest outside a hotel that had been closed down by the Home Office in order to house several hundred asylum seekers. For months several locals gathered and ‘protested’. Some of them were frustrated at the continued closure of businesses in the area and were looking for an outlet for that frustration, a few people chose it as an opportunity to air their racist, conservative vomit. The plans were cancelled and the hotel could no longer house asylum seekers anyway, because upon inspection the fire service discovered that it wasn’t fit to serve as a hotel in the first place, due to the lack of fire safety measures! Of course, I’m oversimplifying a complicated topic that seriously drove a wedge between the town’s population, but that attachment of jeopardy to a place, and that place’s subsequent falling apart, is misdirected. Government policy and conservative austerity is the biggest threat to local identity. After that, it’s the locals themselves.
But, on a final note, I believe in positive local identity. Stone Club and Weird Walk, for example, are doing an incredible job in celebrating local folklore and mythology across the UK, utilising radio, podcasts, social media as well as publications and in-person events. They’ve made it cool to be into stones, and to be local! Positive affirmation of local culture and beliefs is worthy of remembering and celebrating. Welsh museums and galleries are doing a good job, in my opinion, of highlighting local artists and history, especially identities traditionally missing from those narratives, such as Welsh LGBTQ+/Queer and POC voices.
A persistent theme within the collection is youth and childhood experience, delivered through plotlines around school, family and young friendship. I’m curious to know whether writing about youth had a therapeutic or confessional quality for you, and whether the process evoked any complex emotions. More broadly, what does it mean, or how did it feel, to examine childhood through an adult lens?
I think it’s easier to write about being young when I’m still young. I’ve only just turned twenty-seven, so I’m closer in age to my teenage years than I am to someone in their 50s. Which is a reason why so many of my characters are young people – although, some of the most touching compliments I’ve received in reviews state that I did a good job in creating convincing characters, regardless of age, gender, situation. Writing gives you the opportunity to be a shapeshifter, or more like a chameleon.
A lot of the experiences and real-life events explored in Local Fires happened when I was growing up, or when my parents were in their teen years. The phrases ‘In my time’ or ‘When we were young’ were heard a lot in my household. My parents had affection for the town, when it had a booming drinking culture. That affectionate nostalgia had a strong effect on me, but I have a hard time separating nostalgic romanticism from remembering the past. I remember, sometime in the early 2000s, watching Titanic on VHS with my mum, and feeling bored. I think that encapsulates a lot of my thoughts on the romanticism of memory.
I needed to remember a lot of quite painful experiences so I could write about them, and that was uncomfortable. But a lot of it was only just below the surface, barely a scratch. Experiences of being bullied or witnessing bullies, of putting on masks to fit in, of going through my entire childhood and teenage years without an Autism diagnosis – I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 22 years old. In some ways, my perception of the character ‘Johnny Radio’, an old man looking for his lost radio, isn’t that different from being a teenager or in your early 20s. It’s just as terrifying, life doesn’t get any easier. I like to think there’s a lot of humour in Local Fires too, though. It’s not all doom and gloom.
Speaking to that idea of experience and personal development, one of the most interesting aspects of the collection for me is your treatment of masculinity. I was particularly intrigued by the juxtaposition of the braggadocio and violence in ‘Half Moon, New Year’ and the alternate model of masculinity inspired by Rodin’s The Age of Bronze in ‘The Fourth Wedding’: ‘It was beautiful. It emanated strength, and a fragility, that felt very manly. Or what masculinity should be — vulnerable.’ (Local Fires, p.16). I wonder if you could share your thoughts on that contrast.
Even though, as you say, the masculinity on display in ‘Half Moon, New Year’ is arrogant, bragging, violent, there’s vulnerability within that. Danny Jenkins, at the end of the story, looks to the sky and to across the street and thinks about the past, when it was ‘better’. I was thinking about the vulnerability of realising that you are tapped in a cycle of your own actions. ‘Half Moon, New Year’ is more focused on active, temporal masculinity. ‘The Fourth Wedding’, on the other hand, considers passive, abstract forms of masculinity – of beauty, fragility. I believe that line you quote in your question acknowledges that with strength there needs to be fragility. There must be balance.
In the story, the new husband is arrogant, loud. He proclaims he’s going to take his wife up to their hotel room to consummate their marriage, but he soon falls asleep before he can even get undressed. But in the morning, he speaks to her with kindness, she considers his form beautiful. I think I can fall into the trap of black and white thinking, that people are either kind and good, or they’re arseholes. Writing these stories, considering different forms and presentations of masculinity, made me contemplate my own difficulties with abstract thought, and also how I present masculinity. When I write it’s often because I want to learn something about myself, and I really think I did with these stories.
To close, I’m keen to get your perspective on the short story cycle form. It’s a form I have interviewed several writers on (including Alice Ash, Zoe Gilbert and Jon McGregor), and about which I feel like I am gradually beginning to understand its unique, fertile character. I’d like to know what you feel the short story cycle can achieve that the novel or short story collection cannot, if anything, and how you see a future for the form.
It’s interesting that you ask me to comment on the future of the short story form, when you consider it as a cycle! I think that perfectly encapsulates the short story. While the novel and the poem are always stopping to think about what the form of it means, what is its future, the short story continues to just happen. In that sense, it’s the perfect form to really get to the thick of life.
I would like to comment on the future of short story culture in Wales, though. As do Ireland and Scotland, Wales has a strong lineage of short story writers, and most Welsh writers, whether they were poets, novelists or essayists, were also successful at the short story form – Rhys Davies and Kate Roberts are two such historical figures. In contemporary writing Owen Sheers, Thomas Morris, Deborah Kay Davies and Cynan Jones have also been widely celebrated. Swansea University’s Cultural Institute have worked closely with the Rhys Davies Trust to produce a prize for new Welsh writers of the form, of which Parthian have published the anthologies. Parthian have also published Queer Square Mile, a mammoth collection of queer short stories. Basically there’s plenty of writers in the form, and publishers releasing collections of short stories, but not enough opportunities for writers who don’t have or aren’t ready to publish a collection of short stories yet. There needs to be publications dedicated to the form, like there is in Ireland (The Stinging Fly, Pig’s Back) and Scotland (Gutter, Extra Teeth). We have the writers; we just need to give them voice.
Joshua Jones (he/him) is a queer, autistic writer and artist from Llanelli, South Wales. He co-founded Dyddiau Du, a NeuroQueer art and literature space in Cardiff. He is a Literature Wales Emerging Writer for 2023, and his most recent project is Room/Ystafell/Phòng, a publication of Queer writing & art from LGBTQ+ Welsh and Vietnamese writers, as part of the British Council’s 2020 season in Viet Nam. Local Fires is his first publication of fiction, published by Parthian.
Author photograph by Nik Roche.
Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.