Interview with Math Bird, author of Welcome to HolyHell

Math Bird is the author of All Due Respect’s latest release, Welcome to HolyHella noir tale set in the borderlands of northeast Wales.

All Due Respect: Your work often focuses on the borderlands between Wales and England. What sparked your interest in this region and what role does it play in the stories you tell?

Math Bird: It’s a good question. One that has, and deserves, a few answers.  One of the more obvious answers is because I was born and grew up in northeast Wales. I lived on a large council estate on the Flintshire lowlands with the Dee estuary but a stone’s throw away. I moved away, lived in London for a while, and work took me to Europe, China and the US. But I returned in 1999, and even as I write this answer, I can see the estuary from my window, and the sandstone outcrops of the English shoreline on the other side of the water.

But there’s more to it than that: As a kid, growing up in northeast Wales, I was very influenced by the classic Welsh writers such as  Rhys Davies, Glyn Jones, Alun Lewis etc. A group of writers from south Wales, who were particularly successful in capturing and shaping notions of Welsh identity in both the literary and popular imagination. As a young, impressionable, wannabe writer, I tried, quite badly may I add, to emulate them. Writing stories set in northeast wales, using the rich, lyrical prose style of the south. Until, of course, an accomplished writer, and my writing tutor at the time, called me out on that. Since then I’ve focused on portraying an accurate version of the region, blending, and exploring the cultural, geographical, and social issues that affect it within the crime and noir fiction I love. Plus, my writing style is more influenced by American crime writers. For me, borders (in all forms) are a perfect accompaniment to noir and crime fiction. I see lots of great examples in a myriad of crime fiction where regional landscapes allow us to understand a place and the people living in it, unveil the hidden, and eradicate the preconceived.

Finally, northeast Wales, particularly, the Flintshire lowlands has never sat comfortably with perceived notions of Welsh identity (for Wales and England). Culturally and geographically, it’s neither fish nor fowl. Its accent is closer to Liverpudlian than Welsh. In its early history, it was a place of industrial growth due to its close proximity to the estuary, ports etc. English became the official language of trade. The Welsh language diminished. So, with that in mind, arguably most writers writing about this region are by default Border writers. If you want to portray the area the best you can the borderlands are inescapable. I’m a product of it and, as a result, I have an ingrained sensitivity to these Welsh cultural contrasts. And my characters, in some form or other, do too.

ADR: You mentioned that your work has been influenced by American crime writers. Which writers have influenced your work?

MB: There’s so many, to varying degrees.

However, when I was younger, I guess one of the main influences was the venerable, dime-store Dostoyevsky  himself,  Jim Thompson, whose writing made a lasting impression on me. Another significant writer, although not  really a crime writer as such, but a bard of down-and-outs all the same, was Nelsen Algren.

Other influences include, James M. Cain, Donald E. Westlake, Elmore Leonard, and in more recent years, Joe R. Lansdale.

ADR: Welcome to HolyHell’s protagonist, Nash, is a conundrum–an independent thug and thief who’ll do anything for a pay check, but also has this curious moral center. How did he develop?

MB: Like most crime writers I’m interested in conflicted characters, and Nash is certainly that. I imagine every writer wants their protagonists to have depth, and the crime novels that always interest me are where there is more to the characters than just miscreancy and mere thuggery.  Undoubtedly, Nash is a career criminal. He’s no saint. Like most noir protagonists, in his quest to improve his situation he has made many bad choices. But there are other aspects to him. He’s smart; self-educated, aspects which he uses in an attempt to try (deludedly perhaps) to disassociate himself from the criminal world he’s so embroiled in. He’s not a cold-blooded killer. He’s capable of empathy, and, like all of us, he has his ghosts. These aspects are important for the dynamic between him and Jay. They’re crucial for their father/ son relationship to develop, as is Nash’s need to redeem himself. And, on a deeper level, Nash symbolises (as do most of the characters) aspects of the northeast Wales region. Nash is neither fish nor fowl. He struggles with his identity. When we think we know what he’s all about, he, and other perceptions of him contradict that.

ADR: Welcome to HolyHell is your first novel, but you’ve written many excellent short stories, such as those in Histories of the Dead. How does the process of writing a novel differ for you compared to short stories? Which do you find more challenging?

MB: It’s my first published novel. However, it’s not the first novel I’ve written. I wrote a novel as part of my PhD, which amongst many things, taught me how not to write a novel. Not that I’m saying I’ve mastered novel writing—definitely not. But it gave me a lot of scope to flesh out areas and find my own path to navigate the many challenges Novel writing poses. In relation to process, there are so many different views on the differences between the novel and the short story. They are undoubtedly separate forms. However, for me, there are many cross-overs too. I’ve heard it said many times that short stories are all about endings—where something must change. But novels have that too. And short stories can also be plot driven, as opposed to more focus on character and situation. I wrote many of the stories in Histories of the Dead, whilst writing the novel for the PhD and, in novel terms, it didn’t serve me well, because I was approaching the novel with a “short story mind-set”. Wrongly thinking that I could write each chapter as though they were separate short stories, which in many ways you can, but personally, I still needed to learn that they must be written in terms of the wider story and theme, and plotting. There was a wider story world existing in parallel, and if you didn’t pay attention to it, in novelistic terms, it would easily trip you up and drag you into all kinds of mess. That for me, is the key difference in process. I approached Welcome to Holyhell using my own understanding of the “novel-mindset”, keeping in mind the wider world, which in turn allowed me a larger scope for different characters and POV, which would be, for me at least, difficult to do using a short-story mindset. With that said, I’m currently in my own version of the novel-mindset, so returning to short stories at the moment would prove more challenging.

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