Books

Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.
Canongate U.S.

The Earth Hums in B Flat

by Mari Strachan

“A lyrical debut . . . [Strachan’s] light touch keeps the story unfamiliar and surprising, while Gwenni’s uber-precocious narration revels in a love for language and reveals an unspoiled innocence about the world. It’s small, quiet and nicely done.” —Publishers Weekly

  • Imprint Canongate U.S.
  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date June 16, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-1-8476-7192-9
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Canongate U.S.
  • Publication Date June 03, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9767-2
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

When I sang the note to Mr. Hughes he said it was B flat but he laughed when I said it was the note the Earth hummed. He doesn’t know how the Earth’s deep, never-ending note clothes me in rainbow colors and fills my head with all the books ever written. I could stay up here forever without the need for anything else in the whole world.

The Earth Hums in B Flat is a story of dark family secrets unraveled by the shrewd insight of twelve-year-old Gwenni Morgan, a child with an irrepressible spirit living in a Welsh village that is reluctantly entering the modern age. A dreamer with a knack for collecting and piecing together tidbits of information she overhears, Gwenni is forever asking unanswerable questions. From the small bed that she shares with her sister at night she flies up into the starry sky above her village and looks down on the lives of its inhabitants. And when the family that she babysits for is rocked by the sudden, unexplainable disappearance of their patriarch, Gwenni is determined to solve the mystery of Ifan Evan’s whereabouts. Turning amateur detective, she is unaware that the trail will lead her closer to home than she ever imagined.

Told with a breathtaking, irresistible blend of freshness and wisdom, the voice that sixty-two-year-old Welsh debut novelist Mari Strachan has created with Gwenni is vibrant, charming, and full of heart. An unforgettable character, Gwenni’s unique way of seeing the world lends her the ability to make the ordinary extraordinary. A magical novel about the trials of youth, familial duty, and understanding, The Earth Hums in B Flat will transport you to another time and place.

Tags Literary

Praise

“A lyrical debut . . . [Strachan’s] light touch keeps the story unfamiliar and surprising, while Gwenni’s uber-precocious narration revels in a love for language and reveals an unspoiled innocence about the world. It’s small, quiet and nicely done.” —Publishers Weekly

“This is a novel about family secrets, family history, and coming to terms with who people are and why they make the decisions that they do. It’s also about trying to understand what we inherit. . . . Gwenni’s character is by far the best part of the novel . . . [and] there’s a bit of Gwenni in all of us; that trapped inner child trying to understand who we are and where we come from. She’s just a hell of a lot more resilient and free-spirited than most of us are.” —Michele Filgate, Bookslut

“Dark family secrets are at the core of this bewitching debut novel. . . . This is a story about a time and a girl on the brink of change and Strachan tells it with a fey sort of charm as well as a sense of foreboding. . . .Strachan does a masterful job of allowing us to experience the world as innocently as Gwenni does. . . . She brings the period alive with light use of detail . . . [and] manages to convey a real sense of a small Welsh community without clogging the story with endless idiom. . . . Although it deals with the dark themes of depression and madness, The Earth Hums in B Flat is often comic largely thanks to Gwenni’s offbeat interpretation of all that goes on around her. This is a memorable read.” —Nicky Pellegrino, Herald on Sunday

The Earth Hums in B Flat is one of those books that eases you in gently and then floors you. . . . Gwenni is particularly perceptive, with an observant poetic eye for the world around her. . . . Throughout Gwenni’s subtle coming-of-age, her voice never falters . . . [and] her world is so rich and delicate that the reader hopes it won’t fade with adulthood. . . . There’s a linguistic richness throughout the book that is both intensely detailed, and full of the daily life [in a small] Welsh village with all of its idiosyncrasies. . . . The Earth Hums in B Flat reads authentically, and the fictive truth in the story remains consistent and powerful as Gwenni moves towards the end . . . [of] this is a lovely, original, and imaginative debut.” —Magdalena Ball, gather.com

“It would be tempting to label The Earth Hums in B Flat—in which an 11-year-old girl investigates a disappearance in a small Welsh town in the 1950s—as Under Milk Wood meets What Was Lost, but Strachan has a voice and a vision all her own.” —The Independent (UK)

The Earth Hums in B Flat is a richly evocative, warm but unsentimental tale of a child detective struggling to piece together clues about the lives around her. These lives, and the characters who live them, are so vividly drawn and Mari Strachan’s careful unraveling of the secrets they hide is extremely compelling. I loved this novel.” —Catherine o’Flynn, author of What Was Lost

“There are certain books that take you outside the page and become experiential—where you feel the dew-soaked grass on your legs, smell the dank air, squint in the darkened corners of the room, hear the shrill edge in the voices around you. The Earth Hums in B Flat is one such book that transports the reader into the life of Gwenni, its young narrator. Through Gwenni’s innocent eyes we see the world as she does.” —Holly Myers, Elliott Bay Book Co. (Seattle)

“The first impression I got from the book and which grew stronger throughout was—magical. I loved it! It is in the tradition of those Irish or Welsh mystical tales. Aside from the magical quality, the story just sucks you into this world of a north Welsh village with all its inhabitants and their stories and at the center an ordinary family who has an extraordinary child. It’s like a family that has among its dull members an exotic bird and they don’t know what to do with it. When you add the mother’s insanity to the need to not be ‘odd’ it is amazing that this little girl wasn’t squashed at all. . . . Truly a wonderful read.” —Michael Fraser, Joseph-Beth Booksellers (Cincinnati)

“I sat down Monday morning to read The Earth Hums in B Flat and finished it late that afternoon. The first impression I got from the book and which grew stronger throughout was—magical. I loved it! It is in the tradition of those Irish or Welsh mystical tales. Aside from the magical quality, the story just sucks you into this world of a north Welsh village with all its inhabitants and their stories and at the center an ordinary family who has an extraordinary child. It’s like a family that has among its dull members an exotic bird and they don’t know what to do with it. When you add the mother’s insanity to add to the need to not be ‘odd’ it is amazing that this little girl wasn’t squashed at all. I think that some of that has to do with the father being a bit special but we don’t see that fully until the end. Truly a wonderful read.” —Micheal Fraser, Joseph-Beth Booksellers (Cincinnati)

“Gwenni, the 13 year-old main character of The Earth Hums in B Flat, sees the adult and difficult world that surrounds her through the eyes of a na’ve teenager. She is sure she can fly, even outside her dreams, she believes that Alwenna, her best friend, will leave the joy of being attractive to and attracted by boys and come back to her, and she can’t figure out the nuances of the adult language that fly around her. She lives in a tiny Welsh town where, if you pay attention, all the histories and secrets of the townsfolk are well-known. Gwenni’s life takes a particularly bumpy turn when a neighbor’s husband goes missing and no one except Gwenni seems to want to find him. Her mother takes the missing husband’s disappearance personally, becomes abusive and, finger by finger, loses her grasp on reality. As her mother’s turn gets worse, Gwenni’s simple view of her life and world becomes much more complicated and she is forced to walk into adulthood much sooner than she would like. Mari Strachan’s The Earth Hums in B Flat is atmospheric and real and reminds me very much of what it was like to grow up in a small town, with all the beauty and the mold of being young, never, ever expecting that life will ever change.” —Rene Kirkpatrick, Third Place Books (Lake Forest Park, WA)

Awards

Finalist for the American Bookseller Association’s 2010 Indies Choice Book-of-the-Year Adult Debut Award
Longlisted for the 2011 the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award
An Indie Next List Selection (June 2009)
San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Reading Pick

Excerpt

I fly in my sleep every night. When I was little I could fly without being asleep; now I can’t, even though I practise and practise. And after what I saw last night I want more than ever to fly wideawake. Mam always says: I want never gets. Is that true?

Last night began like every other night. I went to bed and changed under the bedclothes so Buddy Holly couldn’t see me, and I laid my pink polka-dot hair ribbon down the middle of the mattress to show which side was whose, and Bethan said, like she always does: I don’t want to sleep on your old side, anyway.

Then, as soon as she was snoring she flung her arm across my face, and when I pinched her she swung her leg across my stomach.

So, it was hard to fall asleep. But when I did I left Bethan to spread herself across the whole bed and I soared into a sky that wrapped me in air as light and warm as an eiderdown.

I listened to the town below breathe its shallow night-time breaths, in and out, in and out, and all around me the Earth sang.

For a while I hovered above the town’s higgledy-piggledy houses. They cling to their streets as if they might roll all the way down to the sea and fall in if they let go. But last night, as usual, none of them let go and I didn’t have to save anybody. I swerved away and rose high to avoid the Red Dragon flapping against its pole above the castle gatehouse, and swooped low over the council houses and across the sands to the sea where the air is always thick with salt that crusts on my lips as if I’d that minute undone a blue twist from a bag of crisps and licked it.

The sea, too, breathed in and out, its breast swelling with each breath until I was half afraid that the Leviathan from the Bible would burst from its depths and shower me with spume. Whales, porpoises, mermaids and mermen, dead sailors, fishes, crabs, tiny shrimps; the sea is forever full of eyes that watch me. I never fly far beyond the shore. If my town were a map the bay would have Here be Monsters written on it in golden ink.

Like every other night, I sped from the sea to drift along the road that winds its way beyond the Baptism Pool and the Reservoir high into the hills behind the town. As I passed above the Pool I saw a man floating in it with his arms outstretched and the moon

Drowning in his eyes. That was not like every other night and the fright plummeted me back to my bed, right on top of Bethan. I couldn’t push her to her own side to make room to lie down so I got up early to practise wide-awake flying.

It’s cold down here in the living room so I fasten up all the buttons on my cardigan. I need to be high up and Tada’s armchair has the highest seat, but the cushion is old and saggy and it’s difficult to balance on it. When I glimpse my reflection in the looking glass above the fireplace I see a scarecrow frowning at me, a skinny arm sticking out each side and red hair erupting from her head. Tada says it’s the family hair, but Mam always says: Pity you have that old family nose to go with it. It’s best not to look in the mirror too long in case the Devil appears in it so I scrunch my eyes closed until I feel the freckles pop on my cheeks. The tick-tock of the brown clock on the mantelpiece is loud and the tap that Tada has mended three times drip-drips in the scullery. Fly, I tell myself. Fly, fly, fly. Slowly, the sounds fade and I feel warm and weightless. I’m just about to rise from Tada’s chair, light as an angel, when Mam’s slippers go slap on the stairs and I fall off the seat.

John Morris opens an eye and squints at me from the other armchair.

“I nearly did it,” I whisper to him. “Really.”

He purrs, then wraps his tail around his face and goes back to sleep.

I pull The Tiger in the Smoke that Aunty Lol lent me from beneath the saggy cushion, blow some Marie biscuit crumbs from the pages, and curl up tight as a fist in Tada’s armchair to read it.

As soon as Mam comes through the living room door she sniffs so hard I can hear the hair clips on her yellow pincurls chatter against each other.

“It smells sooty in here,” she says, “and it’s chilly. You could have made the fire instead of sitting there with your beak in a book.”

“I don’t like lighting the matches. You know that.”

“Don’t be silly, Gwenni.” She kneels down and begins to riddle the half burnt lumps of wood. Clouds of fine ash billow around her. “A girl of thirteen,” she says, and sighs. I uncurl and push my book back under the cushion. “Twelve and a half,” I say.

Mam rams the half full ash pan back into place and crumples newspaper into the grate over which she lays a grid of kindling and three logs. The matches sputter and die but at last the paper catches light and the wood begins to crackle. Mam stands up and shakes the folds of her blue satin dressing gown. The stale scent of Evening in Paris drifts from them with the ash. I try to hold my breath but I feel a throb above my eyebrows, like the ghost of the dripping tap, and the back of my neck stiffens. I rub it with a cold hand, and remember what I saw in the scullery when I got up.

“There’s a mouse caught in the trap,” I say.

“Dead?”

“I think so.”

“A dead mouse won’t hurt you.”

“I’m not afraid of it. I just don’t like touching it.”

Mam takes the empty wood box into the scullery. Through the door I watch her as she crouches by the trap. John Morris follows her and she pushes him away with her elbow, then eases the spring from the mouse’s broken back and picks up the body.

“Nain said she pulled a mouse out of a trap by its tail like that once. It was only pretending to be dead and it swung right round and bit her thumb,” I tell her.

Mam carries the corpse out through the back door and throws it into the bin. “Nasty, dirty thing,” she says and slams the bin lid over it.

She washes her hands under the dripping tap and says, “Bring in the kettle to fill, Gwenni. The fire’ll be hot enough. Your father’ll be wondering where his cup of tea’s got to.”

I take the kettle into the scullery. The green distemper on the walls is beginning to peel and flake, shaping faces with sly eyes and mouths tight with secrets. There are new faces there every day. I try not to see them watching me.

“Mam,” I say, “when I was flying last night I saw something that scared me.”

Mam fills the kettle and puts it on the fire in the living room.

Her hands shake and some of the water slops over onto the logs, making them hiss.

“In the Baptism Pool,” I say.

“Don’t talk rubbish,” says Mam. “And I thought I told you I didn’t want to hear about that flying nonsense again. You haven’t been telling anyone else about it, have you?”

“I asked Aunty Lol if she could remember me flying when I was little.”

“How many times do I have to say it, Gwenni? People can’t fly.”

“But I can remember it. I can, really. You and Aunty Lol were holding my hands and swinging me and then you let go and I just flew along the ground without touching it. Like this.” I crouch and fold my arms around my legs.

Mam grasps my arm and yanks me up. “Stop that. Stop that,” she shouts. Her dressing gown slithers open and she pulls it tight around her and takes a shaky breath.

“Listen to me, Gwenni. It never happened; that was a dream, too. Don’t you dare say anything to anyone about it again.”

“Why not?” I rub my arm where Mam has squeezed it.

“You don’t want people to think you’re odd, do you?”

“Odd?”

“Yes, odd. Touched. Funny in the head. Like Guto’r Wern.”

The kettle lets out a gentle steam, blinding the window, shutting out the rest of the world.

“People won’t think I’m like Guto just because I can fly in my sleep,” I say.

“Dreaming is one thing. Saying you really do it is another. What did Aunty Lol say?”

“She said perhaps I was a witch.”

“You see what I mean?” says Mam. Her knuckles turn white as she tightens the dressing gown’s sash around her waist.

The kettle belches steam in great snorts.

“Fetch the tea tray,” says Mam and takes it from me when I bring it into the living room. The cups and saucers rattle on the tray. It’s early for Mam’s nerves to be so bad. She sets the tray down on the table, then picks up the milk bottle from it and pushes it in front of my face.

“You’ve given John Morris the top of the milk again,” she says.

“He likes it,” I say.

“So does everyone else,” says Mam. “I’ve told you before not to waste it on the cat. I may as well talk to the man in the moon.”

She bangs the bottle down on the tray and scoops tea into the teapot. Two scoops. She lifts the kettle from the fire, holding it away from her to keep the soot from her dressing gown, and pours the water into the pot.

“So, promise me you won’t say anything to anyone about it,” she says.

“About what?” I say.

Mam’s hand shakes again as she puts the lid back on the teapot. “This flying nonsense.”

“Not even to Alwenna?”

“Certainly not,” says Mam.

“But she’s my Kindred Spirit. I want to show her how to fly, once I remember.”

“Not Alwenna. It would be all round the council houses in no time. Cross your heart.”

I make a big cross over my heart. But I cross my fingers at the same time. Alwenna already knows about the flying I do at night. “Cross my heart,” I say. “And hope to die.” I drop down into Tada’s armchair and pull out my book.

Mam slips the knitted cosy over the teapot. “Don’t start reading now. You’ve got to get cracking this morning.”

“Why? I can’t change the beds if Tada and Bethan are still in them.”

“Bethan can do that today. I’ve promised you to Mrs Evans Brwyn Coch this morning to look after the two girls.”

“I hate going to Brwyn Coch.”

“Don’t be silly. You like the children.”

“But I don’t like Mr Evans.”

“Don’t like Ifan Evans?” Mam stops pouring milk into the cups. “He’s a wonderful man. Well respected. I only promised you to Elin as a favour to him.”

“His face is too red.”

“He can’t help his red face, Gwenni. It’s because he’s out in the fields all day.”

“He’s just like those Toby jugs.”

Mam looks up at the three jugs on their shelf above the looking glass. Straightaway, the Toby jugs pretend they’re not staring at the china woman that Mam and Tada were given as a wedding present by their best man who died in the war. The china woman stands on the sideboard and doesn’t wear any clothes at all, not even knickers. When the Toby jugs watch her they forget to smoke their pipes or drink from the tankards in their hands and their fat cheeks turn redder and redder and their eyes grow darker and darker.

“Mr Evans doesn’t smoke or drink,” Mam says. “Chapel deacons aren’t allowed to.”

“Do I have to go?” I say.

“I said you’d be there by half past nine,” says Mam. “Mrs Evans has to go to Price the Dentist. He’s in town this morning, but only for a couple of hours. So hurry yourself.”

“Don’t make me go, Mam.”

Mam lifts the teapot and pours a steaming brown stream into each cup.

“Don’t be silly,” she says. “Now, have your cup of tea, brush that hair and get your Wellingtons on.”

“But it’s not raining.”

“The fields will still be wet after the snow. I’ll take this tea up to your father and wake Bethan. I want you in your Wellingtons ready to go when I come down.”

Mam picks up the biggest cup and saucer, the ones with A Present from Llandudno written on them in gold, and opens the living room door. The cup trembles on the saucer. She looks back at me. “You have to go,” she says.

The door closes behind her and I listen to her slippers slapslapping all the way up to the bedroom.

Reading Group Guide

1. In The Earth Hums in B Flat we see everything through Gwenni’s eyes. How trustworthy a narrator is she?

2. Does The Earth Hums in B Flat explore specifically the Welsh psyche, or do you think the story could have been set anywhere?

3. Which of the two sisters do you think will be the most affected as they grow up by the revelations in the book? Which of them will cope best?

4. Is Gwenni’s flying an escape strategy? Or does she really fly? How does what you think change the story?

5. The ending is ambiguous in several ways. Do you think Gwenni is a highly imaginative, slightly obsessive child, or has she inherited her mother’s bipolar disorder?

6. The diagnosis and medical treatment of mental illness has advanced greatly in the last fifty years. How far forward do you think society has advanced in the way mental illness is viewed?

7. The characters in The Earth Hums in B Flat all speak in Welsh, with only a couple of exceptions. Was this a surprise? How did it affect your reading of the book?

8. How difficult is it for younger readers to appreciate how different life was for children in the 1950s, when children were “seen and not heard”?

9. To what extent does Magda’s illness affect her relationship with other people, especially Emlyn and Gwenni? What part does her innate character play in her behavior?

10. People in the book keep secrets from one another, and certainly from children. Is this a good idea, or is it better always to have things out in the open?

11. The past, in the form of the World Wars and family history, casts a long shadow over the characters in The Earth Hums in B Flat. Is it ever desirable, or even possible, to escape our pasts?

12. How important are books to Gwenni? Is she able to learn everything she needs from them? Is it possible for anyone to do that?

13. Gwenni is reluctant to grow up. Why do you think this is? How do your memories of your life at twelve and a half compare to Gwenni’s reality—were you reluctant or eager to grow up?

14. Gwenni has complex feelings about food. Why do you think that is? Do you have strong memories of the food you ate a child?

15. Alwenna tells Gwenni that her father was considered a saint for having stayed with Magda after the war. Is it true that Emlyn is a saint or is he simply a good, kind man out of his depth in the situation in which he finds himself and therefore ineffectual?

16. The Earth Hums in B Flat has many minor characters who support the main cast. Which of these minor characters is your favourite, and why?

17. Most of the main characters in The Earth Hums in B Flat are women. They seem to be the ones who run things. Was that really how it was, or is it only how it seems from Gwenni’s viewpoint?

18. Gwenni takes for granted the place of the Chapel in her life. Which aspect of Chapel do you think plays the greatest part in her life—the social, the spiritual, or the religious?

19. Reviewers have found The Earth Hums in B Flat both funny and sad. How do these elements work together in the book? Is it an effective combination?

20. In chapters one and two Gwenni falls into a frightening new world. Discuss how Mari Strachan foreshadows Gwenni’s loss of innocence. How does she weave violence into the domestic?

21. Discuss the parallels between Gwenni and Alice in Alice in Wonderland. It’s interesting to look at themes, characters, and motifs. Alice’s adventure takes place in a dream; in many ways Gwenni’s journey has a dream-like quality. Both texts use heavy symbolism. Discuss other characters in Mari Strachan’s text that are paralleled with characters from Alice in Wonderland.

22. In many ways Gwenni and Alyce learn similar things. What does Gwenni learn? What is the significance of the map she makes with Tada at the end of the novel?

23. The death of Ifan drives the plot forward but the novel is about more than a physical death. Discuss the other endings that the author explores.

24. Discuss the significance of the year and setting of the novel. In what ways do they support the themes of Gwenni’s loss of innocence and her search for a place in the world?

25. The fox reappears as a symbol throughout the novel. Ifan enjoys killing foxes. Gwenni wants to save the soul of Mrs. Llywelyn Pugh’s fox fur. Magda throws the fur into the fire. What is the significance of the fox? Does it mean different things or are the meanings connected?

26. Mari Strachan’s characters are compelling because they’re not one-dimensional. Discuss the character of Tada. In what ways (if any) is he similar to Mrs. Evans? Discuss their flaws and your level of sympathy for these two characters.

27. Magda is a complicated character. Discuss her motives. Is it too simplistic to dismiss her behavior as the result of mental illness? Given what we know now about treatments in the 1950s, what level of sympathy do you have for Magda at the end of the novel?

28. There’s something of the Cheshire Cat about Alwenna; the reader warms to her. Do you agree? Similarly we warm to Aunty Lol; how does the writer engage us with this character considering that she is always off page?

29. Discuss how The Earth Hums in B Flat explores the impact of war beyond the moment of battle. Do you agree with Sian’s comment on page 302, “That there was no fault anywhere?” Does a difficult past absolve the individual of responsibility for their present actions? Guto is presented as being completely childlike and innocent. What is his significance in the novel?

30. Discuss the attitudes toward mental illness in the novel. What are the consequences of hiding depression under a euphemism like “the black dog”?

31. The real mystery at the center of childhood is our parents. They are at the heart of our place in the world. In what ways does the text support this view?

32. Discuss the significance of the religious discussions the children have at Sunday school with Mr. Ellis and the Voice of God.

33. The Earth hums in B flat, but through Gwenni’s eyes we see that it hums in other keys. In what ways does the novel explore the beauty of the world and relationships?

Author Q&A

Q: The Earth Hums in B Flat tells a very emotional and particular story. I wonder how this story and the lovely character of young Gwenni came up to your mind. Why did you choose to write a story through the voice of a twelve-year-old girl?

A: When I began to think about The Earth Hums in B Flat I was lucky—Gwenni had popped into my head some time previously as an image of a skinny child with wild red hair balancing on the seat of a chair with her arms outstretched. I don’t know where she came from or why she came. At the time I wasn’t quite sure what to do with her. But, with a book in mind, I took a closer look. It was obvious from the way the child was dressed that she didn’t live in modern times, and the chair on which she stood had seen better days. So, she lived in another age and her family was poor. But where did her story happen? How was it to be told? And what was her story? As I decided on the answers to these questions, and the hundreds of other questions that were generated by the process of writing, the story evolved.

I thought it would be interesting for a reader to see this particular world through the eyes of a child who didn’t entirely understand what she was experiencing, so that the reader would reach understanding ahead of Gwenni.

Q: The novel tells a lot about family relations—between parents and children, between a mother and a daughter, between sisters, between relatives. It seems to me that exploring family relations (in their complexity and difficulties) is a very relevant theme of the novel. Is that right?

A: The dynamics of family is something that interests me very much, and it was one of the themes I wanted to explore in this book. It seems to me that the family is a microcosm of the world. The family is where everything begins that happens out there in the world, for good or bad.

Another theme I wanted to explore in The Earth Hums in B Flat was the effects of the past on the present. Both the Great War and the Second World War still cast dark shadows over the people in the book, and affect their behavior. Gwenni’s family is also affected greatly by what happened in the past within the family. This brings me to another two of your questions, and a third theme for exploration, that of mental illness.

Q: Gwenni appears like a “victim” of a mother who seems not to love and care of her, who prefers the other daughter and keeps on blaming and humiliating the younger child. The mother (Mam) appears in a very negative way. It sounds that you aim to outline a very misguiding parental model. Another theme that you outline in the novel is insanity and mental disorder (and discrimination against mentally disordered people). It sounds that you focus a lot on it. Can you say something about it?

A: I’ve linked these questions because it’s the illness that Magda, Gwenni’s mother, suffers from that is largely to blame for the way she perceives and treats Gwenni. When I was writing the novel I soon realized that Magda was seriously ill rather than just bad tempered and irritable. I knew someone who had bipolar disorder (until recently called manic depression), and I realized that the way Magda was behaving was representative of one of the ways in which the disorder manifests itself. When I researched the subject I found it was a disorder that can be passed down to the next generation, and this gave me the storyline for Gwenni’s grandmother’s suicide and her mother’s behavior, and left a big question for the reader at the end of the book, which is whether Gwenni is a highly imaginative and slightly obsessive child or whether she has inherited her grandmother and mother’s disorder. At the time the book is set this illness was not recognized, diagnosed, or named. All mental illnesses were lumped together as ‘madness’ and the people suffering from them were discriminated against (which still happens today!) because their illness was misunderstood and feared. However, in the book, the people of the town, although they do not understand the illnesses that Magda and Guto’r Wern suffer from, treat the sufferers kindly.Another aspect of mental illness that interests me, with regard to Magda’s character especially, is how much of her behavior can be attributed to her illness and how much to her innate character, or has the illness changed her character? It is all quite fascinating, and takes me right back to the beginning of this answer!

Q: Gwenni, Bethan, Mam, Nain, Elin Evans, Alwenna, Catrin, and Angharad etc., the central and most relevant actors of the novel are women. Women who act, take decisions, make mistakes, bring on the plot of the novel. It sounds that men are mostly “spectators,” they watch and suffer the consequences of women’s acts (like Tada, for example). What can you say about that?

A: This is an interesting question that I haven’t been asked before. I didn’t deliberately set out to write a book where the women are the main characters, and I wasn’t particularly aware that I had done so until I began considering what you say. We see the story through Gwenni’s eyes, of course, and she does tend to see the men and boys as slightly “alien” beings, and to ignore them as much as possible. Having said that, I think that in my experience it is the women who “run” a family, either overtly or covertly. And this novel takes place in a time which is still in the shadow of the Second World War when many women had been left on their own for many years, if not forever, to bring up their children and manage their homes. At that time men didn’t have a part to play within the home as they do now—their part was to go out into the world and earn the money to keep that home and family (although that was beginning to change). I think that in the book the women mostly work around decisions taken by the men or the behavior of the men. Magda and Emlyn’s situation differs in that Magda’s behavior is largely formed by her illness and Emlyn is rather ineffectual in coping with that behavior. I shall have to read the book again with this question in mind!

Q: Working as a librarian, you have been in books throughout your life. Gwenny loves to read, Elin Evans is a teacher and has a big collection of books. In your novel reading, books, libraries seem to play a very relevant role. Is that right?

A: I love reading, and I love the sheer physicality of books, the feel of them, the weight, the smell—so I guess it’s natural for me to make Gwenni a bookish child, and that books and reading play an important role in The Earth Hums in B Flat. Books are the way that Gwenni, at first, finds ideas and information as well as solace, but gradually she begins to question whether books are like “real” life, and whether they can really provide her with all the answers she wants. She is in the school library when she makes two important discoveries—one through the information in a book, and one through her own thought processes. She learns that she has to balance what she finds out from books and what she finds out from life.

Q: This is your first novel. Hadn’t you thought to write a book before in your life?

A: I’ve always written, since I can remember. And I’ve started and discarded several novels along the way—none of them remotely like this one. But the urge to write never seems to leave you, and I decided to do something about it and signed up for an online masters course in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. In following the course I learned a lot about writing generally and about my own writing specifically, and, the most important thing was that I gained the confidence I needed in my writing. The Earth Hums in B Flat was the result, and it took me three years to write.

Q: After the success of this first novel, any plan to write other books?

A: Yes, I am writing my second novel, which is set in the early 1920s.

Q: I know that you spend a part of your life in Wales and the other part on a boat in the Gran Union Canal in London, where you wrote most part of the novel. This novel is set in Wales. But it sounds as if London has been more “inspirational” for your writing. Living on a boat on the canal, how was it? Can you talk about that?

A: I lived on the canal boat because my husband’s work with one of the London universities meant we had to find somewhere to stay there for part of every week. We no longer do that because my husband moved to another university, closer to home.

I liked the canal-boat life, the way it was very minimalist, and it was a perfect “escape” for writing because of how quiet and peaceful it was. But I prefer to be at home, here in Wales, where we live in a small cottage surrounded by a big field!

Q: You also worked at a library in a prison. Can you briefly recall that experience?

A: I worked in a Category A prison where perpetrators of the most heinous crimes were incarcerated. The men who used the library were invariably courteous and glad to have some small element of “normality” in their lives. For me, the work was much like the work in any library. I had two assistants, a male civilian and one of the inmates. The library itself was in some converted cells at the heart of the prison, so I had to be escorted to and from it by prison officers. My work there showed me that to be imprisoned is absolutely not the “holiday” that some people in the UK seem to think it is.

Q: In the novel the Welsh culture is very strong. Characters speak in Welsh. They refer to England as a different world, so to speak. Can you tell something about Welsh culture nowadays? Is it still strong and well preserved?

A: The Welsh language and Welsh culture are as strong and thriving and growing as the language and culture of any country. I wanted to show this in my book, that Wales is not a part of England but a country in its own right, with its own language and culture. Wales was annexed to the English crown in the sixteenth century. But now it has its own assembly government, which has brought a small amount of political independence from England.

Q: On your Web site you’ve got a page called “Reading: A Page for Bookworms” with a photograph of a stack of books. It’s got a real range of titles—from Obama to Watchmen. Are they your books? Was that a random selection or can we get a good overview of your reading tastes from that photo?

A: A bit of a work in progress, that Web site! The books in the stack are mine, pulled off the shelves and from under chair cushions especially for this photograph. They are fairly representative of my reading tastes, which is quite catholic as I tend to read whatever takes my fancy. There are some books there which were on hand because I had/was about to read at events with their authors and had just been rereading them. Maybe my addiction to crime novels is slightly underrepresented! I usually have more poetry books around to dip into than the couple in this stack. Watchmen was a present from my youngest son. I struggle with the combination of words and pictures in graphic novels, and I can’t think why that is—I was very fond of my comics as a child.

Q: Another one on reading if I may: I guarantee our audience will be interested in asking about your influences and your all-time favorites and I won’t spoil their fun. But perhaps you could tell me a couple of things that you’ve read and been impressed by this year in between all the interviews and events you’ve been doing since the release of The Earth Hums in B Flat?

A: The ones that stand out are Pat Barker’s Life Class: no one does this period better than she does with her pared down style, which makes everything so moving, and which I so admire; Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News: I’ve loved her convoluted plots and her clever style since I read Behind the Scenes; and Fred Vargas’s The Chalk Circle Man (this is the first written of the Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg crime novels, though not the first published in English): these novels are the epitome of Frenchness for moi (who knows little about France or the French), Adamsberg is delicious, and the plots completely wacky—fantastique!

Q: I won’t get into talking to you in any depth about The Earth Hums in B Flat, as we’ll save that for the event, but aside from the superbly drawn Gwenni and the unpicking of the local and family intrigues that she delves into, one of the things I loved about the book were the smaller characters who made the small-town Welsh community come alive. Do you have a favorite of those non-central characters and if so would you describe him/her in a few words and why you enjoyed writing that character so much?

A: I loved writing all the smaller characters: each one had a history, although it never appeared in the book, but I guess it informed the character and made that character into a real person. My favorite is the farm-wife at Penrhiw Farm, Bessie Williams, with her soft and scented bosom and her nonstop talking. She’s lived at the farm since she was married and she’s of the same generation as Gwenni’s grandmother. She’s bewildered by all the changes that are taking place and uncomfortable with them. The farm is a little way outside the town and she doesn’t see anybody for days on end sometimes so when she’s in company she can’t stop talking. I see her as the Greek chorus in the book; she has a little speech in each of the three parts where her comments on what’s happening are spot on. I loved writing her, I thought she was kind and caring, and, although her appearances are few, I felt that she played an important role in the book as a comic character and as a commentator.

Q: We sometimes try to playfully theme the nibbles that we serve with an event. What nibbles would your wonderful heroine Gwenni like to see at your event do you think?

A: Gwenni has such a sweet tooth, doesn’t she? I think she’d love a big chocolate cake with lashings of buttercream (my mouth is watering) or maybe biscuits like Mrs. Sergeant Jones’s famous vanilla biscuits. If that is just overly sickly for an evening do with a glass of wine, then I’m sure she’d be quite happy with something made with red cheese. But absolutely NO minced mouse sandwiches, thank you.