Exclusive interview with Owen Sheers, world renowned author, poet, playwright, radio & TV presenter | 21 February 2020
‘Seychelles is aesthetically and ecologically beautiful’
It is with great excitement that Seychelles welcomes world class author, poet, playwright, radio and TV presenter, Owen Sheers, together with his wife Katherine Sheers – an award-winning artist.
Some of Mr Sheers’ most notable works and awards include his first debut prose work ‘The Dust Diaries’ – a non-fiction narrative set in Zimbabwe which won the Welsh Book of the Year 2005. His debut novel ‘Resistance’ has now been translated into eleven languages and was made into a movie in 2011.
He has also published two poetry collections ‘The Blue Book’ and ‘Skirrid Hill’ which won a Somerset Maugham Award. His verse-drama ‘Pink Mist’, commissioned by BBC Radio 4, won the Hay Festival Poetry Medal and the Wales Book of the Year 2014.
Currently, Mr Sheers is professor in creativity at Swansea University and also presents arts and literature programmes for TV and radio (owensheers.co.uk).
Mr Sheers’ visit follows an invitation from the International School of Seychelles (ISS) where he will next week be speaking to the A-Level Literature class about his poetry collection ‘Skirrid Hill’ which they are studying this term. The students will also have a chance to ask him any questions they have about his work.
He will also speak to some of the other students about his novel ‘Resistance’ and will host a screening of his BBC production ‘The Green Hollow’.
Following is the Seychelles NATION’s exclusive interview with Owen Sheers.
Seychelles NATION: Can you tell us a bit about what inspired your earlier years of writing?
Owen Sheers: It started with my sense of islands and my awareness of different cultures. It was by chance that I was born in Fiji but I found this enticing; it was what drew me to Fiji when I was 18.
In my early writing, I was interested in other cultures, places and personalities. My first book was set in Zimbabwe and was based on the views of an outsider. On a smaller scale, being brought up in Wales and thinking of myself as Welsh gave me a different take.
This awareness of small cultures has been a constant throughout my life and throughout my writing.
Seychelles NATION: Some of your work revolves around war, divorce and loss; how would you describe this style of writing and what has inspired this?
Owen Sheers: All of those subjects appear in different forms and in different media, because although I started as a poet, I then wrote the non-fiction book about Zimbabwe ‘Dust Diaries’ and other novels.
In recent years, I’ve been more interested in and have written quite a lot for theatre and films. Those ‘areas’ of shared territory certainly work through all those pieces.
In terms of conflict and war, I never set out to write about these and so it’s been something that has grown quite organically. I think it’s for two reasons; firstly because I find that very often your projects grow out of each other.
I wrote a one-man play about a second World War poet, Keith Douglas, and the second World War got me interested in the plans that Britain had in place for if it had been invaded, and that became my first novel, the idea of what if this had to happen.
I had the chance to interview a large group of recently wounded service personnel, both psychologically and physically wounded. So many of them were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and that became a very important part of my next novel.
But, the main reason I think that conflict has been a consistent part of my work is that it just so happens that the post 9/11 conflicts, Iraq and Afghanistan, have run exactly parallel with my writing life.
Boys who I went to school with in Abergavenny, it was what we call in Britain ‘a proper comprehensive’ – a lot of poorer kids went there and I’m sure, as is the case in countries across the world, especially the poorer boys and men, at 15 or 16, they join the army. The more time I spent with these people, so often I found that it’s not about joining something but leaving something, getting out of difficult situations.
I had friends who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, some of them were fine, a lot of them were not, and for a lot of the ones who weren’t fine, those concentric rings of damage opened out through relationships, families and children.
So you see, you witness first hand from the shadow of conflict and that’s just here and what we know. Even when I’ve been writing historical pieces like that play or like ‘Resistance’ – it’s always been about finding a way to talk about contemporary conflict.
In my second novel ‘I saw a man’ one of the characters is a drone pilot and again that character grew from a fascination of how in some ways we are able to be closer and closer to conflict, in terms of technology, in terms of cameras. Yet physically and psychologically, we’re able to dislocate ourselves from consequences.
In terms of the ideas of separation and divorce, the end of relationships and the movement from childhood to adulthood…I guess one of the joys of writing lyric poetry is that it is only when you look back over 7, 8 years of poems that they reveal to you those themes and the shared territory.
When I’m writing a poem, it’s the individual poem that I’m concerned about. I’m not thinking about how does this relate to that poem. Poetry grows out of personal experience and when I look back over those poems that became ‘Skirrid Hill’ a lot of them have their genesis, they have their starting point with an awareness in the moment of separation.
It could be because of the time of life that I was writing; I wrote most of those poems from my mid to late 20s during the end of a few relationships, and I think those endings of long-term relationships, if we’ve been relatively lucky in life, can be our first experiences of a real emotional violence and upheaval.
Also people starting to die, starting to leave your life, certainly your memories of being a teenager, that transition from being a child to becoming an adult – all of us are experiencing these different concepts of separation. So in that book, it was a product of the time of life I was writing in and I’m here because students at ISS are studying the book.
I’m persistently surprised that it’s stayed on the syllabus, but then I start to realise that maybe that’s why. When I wrote those poems, I was still pretty close to the age of these kids (17/18) who are studying it and to the memories of what it was like to be an 18-year-old.
Now I’m not, it’s very weird; I go into schools and it’s like talking about someone else’s book of poetry, it really is, which is great actually. There’s a lot of very personal things in there and I can talk about them at a distance. I’m always very careful to say to students, and this is true, ‘don’t ever mistake the eye in a poem to be the poet’s because it might be, but it also might not be. We don’t assume the eye in a novel is the novelist.
Poetry is full of moving away and deviating away from historical fact or truth to get close to the motivational truth of why you wanted to write a poem; it’s never just a record of the event. The event needs to speak of something else, it needs to be a vessel to carry something else, some other meaning, otherwise the poem will be flat, it will just be a piece of a reportage.
Seychelles NATION: A lot of your current work is centred on climate change. What is your take on that and what power do writers have to make a difference to such a huge problem?
Owen Sheers: It’s the only human story that matters at the moment. I’ve interviewed a lot of climate scientists for the work I’ve been doing and it’s very sobering. If we don’t act as a species, the planet will be hurt, it will continue but we won’t.
What’s fascinating about it, philosophically, is that once you have studied the science of climate change, it changes your relation to everything, it changes your relation to the future.
I get very emotional about it; I’ve got a two-year-old and a five-year-old daughter and it changes how I think about their future, whether they’ll have kids, should they have kids? Living on an island, if the projected sea level rise happens, which again is based upon us doing nothing (hopefully we will do something) if we do nothing, Fiji, Tuvalu, Kiramba, Seychelles…are they going to be here? Probably not.
Of course, there are other huge issues in the world, poverty, hunger, but actually if we don’t act on climate change, all of those are going to get worse, so I think really it’s the only story.
In the 1960s, a group of elite scientists brought together by the US government, called the Jasons, studied CO2 as a greenhouse gas and they came out with a very simple equation: you double the concentration of CO2, you’ll get between a 3 to 4 degree average global temperature rise of in between 10 to 12 degrees at the poles because of the polarisation effect.
So we knew that in 1960 and interestingly then, it wasn’t a political issue so Lyndon Johnson and the US government took it seriously. In 1989, the oil companies realised they’re about to face serious regulations and wanted to be part of these discussions.
From 1989 onwards, suddenly climate change becomes an issue that is being divided on the political spectrum and to be a republican in America, to be right wing, was to be skeptical, was to say ‘it’s going to be economically damaging’ and we all know where that’s led, and here we are with Donald Trump, still unconvinced and pulling America out of the power support. So that’s my take on it; I’m deeply concerned, worried, alarmed and fascinated.
The second part of the question is interesting; what role do storytellers, artists have? We’ve left ourselves such a small window with which to act.
The primary role has to be strong leadership, government regulations and scientific progress, but the fact that we haven’t acted, for me, is a failure of narrative. So, those groups that came in 1989 and started seedling doubt where there was certainty in conversations, so far they’ve won the narrative.
The drama I’m writing for the BBC at the moment is about a very specific moment when some climate scientists’ emails were hacked and were published online out of context to make it look as though climate science was ‘cooked up’. It was all being manipulated and it was so successful, it knocked back public perception on the need to act on climate change by 10 years.
We now have a 10-year window, hopefully, to act. We would have had a 20-year window. That’s the power of story. So I feel that filmmakers, writers, storytellers, have a huge part to play because it has been a failure of narrative and it’s a huge artistic challenge.
How do you write about climate change in a way that you get a population to demand that their governments act and make good art – that’s the challenge, I think, for contemporary writers and filmmakers now – to capture the imagination, the emotional centre of a population, but do it well.
I’m concerned, but if you step outside of that concern, it’s just fascinating, especially that change in a relationship, humans to the natural world, we’ve been brought up in cultures that separate humans from the natural. The life support systems upon which we rely are the ecological systems. We are part of nature.
When I was living in London, in New York, I’d go back to see my parents in Wales, I’d go walking in the hills, I’d see this farming landscape and I’d feel as though I was reconnected to something that was fundamental, to nature. It’s so interesting how your idea of beauty and your idea of what is essentially changes with knowledge.
I now look at that same landscape and I see an ecologically arid desert; there’s no wildlife, the fields are artificially green, the rain is streaming off those hills because there aren’t any trees. My relationship with the landscape that formed me and that I was brought up in has been totally changed because finally I’m realising that we’re part of the ecological world.
Talking about something positive, all of the adaptations that we have to do will make the vast majority of people’s lives better and that’s the other narrative that we have got to win. We’re told it’s all down to the individual, you’ve got to change how you drive your car, you can’t fly… but you can only act on the climate crisis if it’s a systemic change and most of this change will make people’s lives better, healthier and cleaner.
Seychelles NATION: How did you end up in Seychelles working with the ISS and what will you mainly be doing at the school?
Owen Sheers: I’ve been very lucky; my second poetry collection ‘Skirrid Hill’ has gone onto and stayed on the syllabus so it’s been on various curriculum back home for a while. I think recently it’s gone onto the Cambridge Board.
I’m here because Mr Phil Brown, who is an English teacher at ISS, very kindly wrote to me and the subject line of the email said ‘Possible reading in the Seychelles?’ and I thought that’s interesting. I do a lot of work in schools back home and it was a very enticing invitation.
At the same time, with two small children and it being hard to be away for a long time, and as a family we are really trying to reduce our carbon footprint, at first I said to Katherine that I can’t do the work I’m doing and accept this.
Then, quite genuinely, as I said earlier, it does have to be about system change; you can’t entirely reduce your life so I thought I’ll go and talk about climate change. So that’s how we came here, because Phil very kindly invited us.
I’m incredibly grateful that my collection is on the syllabus because it gives me a continued, ongoing relationship with education. I come from a long line of teachers; my mother was a teacher, my grandfather, and I think it’s such a privilege because otherwise how often do we talk to 15, 16, 17-year-olds? How often do we go into schools? Most people don’t, but this has meant I can and I’m really excited about going into a school here and learning about a different culture.
I’ll be working with the students that are studying ‘Skirrid Hill’ and I’ll also be working with the History students on my novel ‘Resistance’. Interestingly, because most schools don’t ask me to do this and that’s why I’m really pleased that Phil has, I’ll be working with the school teachers as well. I’ll be running some sessions on how to introduce creativity into the lesson plans, giving them a chance to be creative and to do some writing workshops. If you work with the educators then it works because they then continue it.
We’ll be screening one of those film poems that I mentioned and what I’m especially intrigued by is that Phil has said that some of the work based around Wales has been speaking to the children here. Maybe that goes back to that first answer about small cultures, the identity of small communities, maybe that’s that resonance. I’m looking forward to finding out as much from them as maybe they are about finding out about the poems from me.
Seychelles NATION: Do you have any advice you'd like to share to students studying Literature or people who want to pursue a career in writing?
Owen Sheers: Read and read and read. That’s it. You get out what you put in and in some ways you are what you put in as well. Read the history and read what’s being written now because you want to be original and in all art, original is a really interesting word because there are two meanings to it.
One is connection to the origin, so you want to know where writing came from, you want to know the history of writing because you want your writing to speak to it. Original also means unique. At the same time, you want your writing to be only yours, your voice and that starts with reading. You can find your own voice by reading other people’s work out there and finding out what you respond to.
Seychelles NATION: Now that technology is widely embedded in our daily lives, people don't use traditional print material as much; what are your thoughts on this, does it affect writers?
Owen Sheers: Technology is incredible for a writer as well. With the internet, to a certain extent, you can write about anywhere or anytime without having to go there.
I’m still a big believer in, if you can, turn up. In my last novel I had to write a whole load of stuff about Nevada and drone pilots and I did it all; I wrote the first draft just on the internet, watching videos, interviews, but in the end I went to Nevada. I felt I had to go there because you’ve got to see, smell and feel it so it’s a huge asset.
The screen is a limiting place as well and we self-curate on the screen so our world, ironically, can become very narrow. Also, it’s very distracting; you can be reading this, and then that…what I love about reading a book is that you can’t switch stories, it’s exclusive, it’s a commitment.
Increasingly for me, a book is an escape from the screen. We live on the screen. I’ve noticed the difference between reading on a screen before going to sleep or if I read a book. I sometimes prescribe just reading a poem at the start of the day – it slows you down. What we have to be careful of losing at the moment is slow living; slow living is when things happen actually.
In terms of writing, I write everything first with a pen and paper because ideas flow differently and then I very quickly put it on the screen. Then it’s an editing conversation between screen and edit with hand on printed out. The screen is very important, especially with poetry and seeing the shape.
Seychelles NATION: You obviously have a close personal connection with the island of Fiji. Are you seeing any parallels with Seychelles?
Owen Sheers: There’s tonnes; the humidity when stepping off the plane took me back to Fiji, everyone walking on the roads, lots of people in bare feet as well. We went to Beau Vallon last night and that Sunday culture, very Fijian, very nice.
A lot of it is in the natural world, in the ecology. I’ve only been here two days so I don’t know about culturally but on that physical and instinctive level, for me, because I spent my first 2 ½ years in this humidity, I think it takes me somewhere very fundamental, it takes me back there, to being a child.
Seychelles NATION: It’s your first time in Seychelles and although you’ve only been here for two days, what are your impressions so far? Have you tried any of the local dishes yet?
Owen Sheers: I’m hoping to try that tonight, whatever I’m recommended and I’m assuming Creole fish. My first impressions are just that it’s aesthetically and ecologically beautiful.
I’m fascinated that Seychelles was the first country to do a debt for conservation deal, where the World Bank wrote off a certain amount of debt in exchange for making 49% of the country a nature reserve. The world needs to follow that example, it really does.
Obviously tourism is huge here but it’s being done in such a way that you get a real sense of sustainability. We walked on Beau Vallon beach yesterday and it’s sad that I was expecting to see plastic and I didn’t see any. I’m sure there’s some around somewhere but there was no plastic on the beach. It’s sad to say this but that’s extraordinary now.
Seychelles NATION: Do you think the Seychelles will inspire your work in any way?
Owen Sheers: On one level, it cannot because your primary source of inspiration of subject matters is just experience, it’s the sound of the sea, sitting here with you, looking at that palm tree against the sunset, so on some level it will.
That said, to write about stuff, to me, it takes time. Experience has to kind of distill down through you, to a space where you can ‘drop down the bucket down the well’ – but yes, stories of the Seychelles, meeting the people.
If I just came on a holiday, perhaps not, but I feel very lucky because I’m here staying with Phil, because he wants to introduce me to the Seychellois culture, then I think it’s got a much higher likelihood. The same for Katherine as an artist; this can’t help but affect you in some way.
I’d be surprised if it didn’t, especially if I start really getting stories out of people and characters. As a writer, I’m more interested in other people’s stories and how I can shape them and render them.
Of course it would be even more so if I was invited back (laughs). Have to work on that.
For more information, visit http://www.owensheers.co.uk/