I love reading book series. My shelves are filled with them, from Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles to Poldark via John le Carré’s Smiley books and Earthsea. There is something comforting about being able to follow one story as it winds on through the years, or one character who keeps marching on down different alleys.
But though I love to read series, I’ve never felt impelled to write them. My books have never been written as Episode One of an on-going saga. They have their birth, in my mind, with their end, the conclusion of whatever it is the book is about. So although I leave threads dangling, because no story is ever complete in real life, I have never wanted to continue the story in a new book or take the same characters forward. The end that I wanted to reach has been reached and there’s no more to say.
Perversely, though, I find myself drawn backwards instead, to explore the void from which my characters and their stories emerge. Although endings may be final, a goal reached, the start of a story is inevitably arbitrary, a random moment in the midst of a life or a community. What happened before? Where did my characters come from? What events moulded them? In Shadows, where the central character is really the house that my narrator moves to, I couldn’t resist exploring the mysteries that had imprinted themselves on the old mansion over previous centuries. Long Shadows was the result, a trio of novellas reaching back to the fourteenth century.
Long before Shadows and Long Shadows – well it seems long to me, but back in 2012 – I had written A Time For Silence. In itself it is a backward-looking saga as Sarah, the contemporary narrator, tries to understand the lives of her grandparents in the 30s and 40s in a Welsh backwater utterly alien to her. The book ties up her grandparents’ stories, and there would be no point in taking Sarah’s any further forward as the point of the ending is that she realises endless possibilities lie before her.
But backwards? I couldn’t help thinking about what family or accidental events created her grandfather John Owen. I had hinted at mere facts of the family’s history, but I found myself wanting to explore it all in depth – and to unearth a new heroine from the past. A heroine who does get a mention in A Time For Silence, but so brief, blink and you’d miss it. It began as a short story, but I couldn’t leave it alone and so it has expanded into my latest book, The Covenant, published in July this year.
Through my stoical heroine Leah Owen, it takes the story of the Owens of Cwmderwen back to the 1880s, with a few hints of times even further in the past. Should I take the story further back in a third volume? To the Rebecca “riots?” To dispossession of the family at the time of the enclosures? The French invasion of Fishguard, 1797? I am quite tempted by that one because one of my ancestors was obliquely involved in a slightly more shameful version of the story than the legend of heroic Jemima Nicholas. But I think maybe not. I have dissected the trials and motivations of the Owen clan sufficiently for now.