I was always obsessed by all things Welsh. My father was from Brecon but it was my mother’s family, all Welsh speaking from R.S. Thomas’ village Eglwysfach near Machynlleth, that really captured the imagination.
My mother was a teacher and Mum, my two sisters and I would decamp to the village for the summer holidays, leaving my father, a geneticist, to work in Sheffield. The village was the freedom to roam, to be out all day – when we were little, in the woods surrounding my grandparents’ bungalow. Later, on the mountains behind the settlement. At that time the language of the whole village was Welsh and the names of the people and places fascinated me. There seemed to be an unbroken line that stretched back beyond memory and wherever we went we met people who were our distant relations, or the little farm or smallholding we passed had been lived in by someone in our family. There were stories attached to every place.
It was at this period that I was taken to visit the wonderful mansion of Nanteos, ‘The stream of the nightingale’. It was an experience that has never left me. Compared with properties like Chatsworth, it was small, intimate enough to imagine oneself living there. The rooms were beautiful, yes, but it was the legends attached – the Grail, The Grey Lady ( Elizabeth Powell who was to become the main character of The Shadow of Nanteos) and her lost jewels that made this haunting mansion impossible to forget.
My first novel drew on the biography of a dear friend – a Jewish girl who I grew up with in Sheffield and who converted to Islam in the 1980s, marrying her Algerian Muslim husband in secret and setting up home with him in Lille at the age of nineteen. It sounds like serious stuff, but I wrote it in a darkly comic style. My favourite summing up of the novel was by Norman Schwenk, Head of Creative Writing in Cardiff who called it ‘The funniest, sexiest book I’ve read in a long time’.
So for the next novel I wanted a different challenge. Nanteos kept haunting me. I wrote the story first as a film script for Film Agency Wales but soon realised with horror how much work (years!) just marketing the idea would be. By now I was thoroughly in love with the house, the period and the characters so I used a Sabbatical in 2013 to write it as a novel. Somehow it has captured the imagination and taken flight, being chosen as Waterstones November Book of the Month within a week of the launch. An early draft made the Historical Novel Society long- list and some readers have said they are now themselves obsessed with the place. As luck would have it, the building site that was Nanteos when I began my research, is now an immaculately restored Country House Hotel.
Although I am a Drama and English Teacher (writing and working with theatre is my ‘day job’’), a real love is writing poetry. I’ve had a lot of work published in collections and in newspapers and magazines and won many prizes. I’ve had one collection published by specialist poetry press The Collective and have a new collection The Grief Garden almost ready to go. I just need to find the time to polish it and seek for a publisher!
I also work for the environmental charity ‘Population Matters’ as head of the Education Group. In those long holidays in Eglwysfach I learned to love what was out there, the constant life and drama of the natural world. Seven billion people and counting require so much…
Finally, I freelance as a creative writing and literature tutor. I have had great fun devising and running courses from Shakespeare through the novel to poetry at all levels – from junior school children, through adults’ weekend courses, to university students.
What next? Well, the National Eisteddfod comes to Abergavenny in August and I’m vice chair of the Drama committee so I will be very busy. A tour of America is planned for the Shadow of Nanteos in October and I’ve started on the next book Nanteos: The Dipping Pool. Related to the first novel, its scope is larger, starting in the year before Elizabeth and William come to the mansion and finishing about three months after The Shadow of Nanteos ends.
Jane Blank: MA (Dist.) PGCE BA (Hons) www.Jane-blank.info