Gladys Mary Coles writes about her novel Clay
Visiting the military cemeteries and battlefields of northern France, seeing the many thousands of graves, was profoundly moving, and made a deep and lasting impression upon me. I wrote a series of poems, tutored courses on the War Poets, and then began planning the novel which became Clay, set during and in the aftermath of the First World War, with a young soldier-poet as my central character. I wanted to depict the distortions war brings to individual lives. William Manderson, half-Welsh and longing for Wales, is sent to the Western Front, returning from the Somme a convalescent from severe gas poisoning.– the novel follows his experiences, the development of his relationships with his adored sister-in-law Elizabeth, brother Jack, and close friend Matthew, a pianist. The characters are each, in various ways, victims of the war, who grapple with altered expectations, struggling to cope and readjust in a post-war world of growing social unrest.
I felt immensely privileged to be creating a fictional war poet, writing William’s poems in response to his experiences, charting his development, inhabiting his mind in journals and letters home. And the locations of Clay – including Liverpool, the Clwydian hills of north Wales, Chester, Boulogne and the Somme area of France – were wonderfully inspirational.
My long-term fascination with the life and literature of the early Twentieth Century was a preparation for the writing of Clay, which required extensive research, an absorbing quest for authentic detail. My imagination was fired by my findings.
I spent weeks in the Imperial War Museum, reading unpublished memoirs, diaries and letters of Great War soldiers, exploring the Sound Archive, Photographic and War Art Collections, also researching in the Red Cross Museum, various Military Museums and libraries – all of this was richly illuminating.
I discovered little-known details which influenced the shaping of my narrative and characters, and found the medical information I needed to convey convincingly the immediate and long-term effects, physical and psychological, of disabling war injuries – a reality acutely relevant today. I also drew on family material, stories about my maternal ancestors, three of whom had survived the Great War, but with serious injuries.
Another source of inspiration was the tragedy of Hedd Wyn, his posthumous triumph in the 1917 National Eisteddfod of ‘the Black Chair’, held in Birkenhead and attended by Lloyd George. Using contemporary accounts, I incorporated this dramatic event (and Lloyd George) into the narrative – for me, one of the most imaginatively challenging but satisfying chapters – and a pivotal moment in the novel.
The title was suggested by Wilfred Owen’s sonnet ‘Futility’ (‘Was it for this the clay grew tall?), clay having many connotations.
I wanted to show my characters in the flux of historical events as they happened – and to let those events speak for themselves. My deepest concern was to say something meaningful about human endurance and creativity, and the complexities of love.
Gladys Mary Coles
Clay was longlisted for the Wales Book of the Year 2011 and is available from Inpress and other online booksellers, as well as from your local bookshop.