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Rhidian Brook: ‘You either have a voice or you don’t’

Rhidian Brook

Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Welsh writer Rhidian Brook's new novel, The Aftermath, is a sweeping historical tale set in 1946 Hamburg, and based on the true story of Brook's own grandfather. Here, he reflects on the books that have shaped him as a writer.

When you started to write, which writers did you revere?

When I started writing I was recovering from a long illness. The upside was that I had plenty of time to read; time enough to crack those big Russian novels. Because of the illness I was drawn to novelists who explored the big themes. When I started my first novel, The Testimony of Taliesin Jones, my most revered list would have included Tolstoy (for clarity), Dostoevsky (for emotional daring) and Turgenev (for elegance); with honourable back-up from Graham Greene (visual immediacy) and Updike (for the words).

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Did you imitate any of them?

If only! Well, yes. I tried. Imitation being sincerest form of flattery. But it was helpful trying to work out how writers achieved certain things. Greene's novels had a controlled precision and cinematic quality. There was little fat on his prose but he could conjure an atmosphere in a sentence. Updike's Rabbit tetralogy helped me realize that I could change the tense of Testimony from the third-person past to present. Dostoevsky shows that great writing is often ecstatic and even a little erratic.

What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?

Publishers? I partially jest. I have noticed a change in the way publishers and agents talk about the kinds of books they are looking for. There seems to be greater pressure on writers to deliver formulaic work that is reductive to a one-sentence pitch. The Aftermath benefited from having a clear and startling premise, but not all literature is 'pitch-able' and nor should it be. And I'm sure it's a false economy as it's precisely the un-formulaic originality of first novels that gets them published in the first place.

How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?

People tell me I have a "distinctive voice" but I couldn't tell you what makes it distinctive. I've written three very different novels, but my wife insists they are all very clearly written by me. Maybe it's best not to know. You either have a voice or you don't. The trick is making sure it's your voice and not someone else's.

Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?

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Family likeness has been detected in The End Of The Affair and The English Patient; but The Aftermath's real siblings are, for period, place and the broken nature of his characters, Heinrich Boll's short stories; and for the child's-eye view and the unhinging effect war has on people's psyches, J.G Ballard's Empire Of The Sun.

Which author(s) do you think are most influential today?

When I started writing, English writers (especially male) seemed in thrall to Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. In the last 20 years, writing here seems to have become multicultural and, thankfully, less male dominated. Now there are no towering figures of literature to bow to; instead we have a landscape full of rich and diverse reference points.

Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

Updike rarely produced a dull sentence. He was so sensuous with words and had great rhythm. Hemingway said he strove to make every sentence great but his sentences need the sentences around them to work. W. G. Sebald wrote sentences with long, elliptical cadences and an almost affected syntax that creates the effect of suspending the reader in midair, as if on a tightrope across which only the writer can lead us. (Or something.)

When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?

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I find it hard to read novels whilst writing but I keep a stack of the novels I most admire beside my desk and when I need inspiration will read a random paragraph. It's a good way of demystifying the act of writing: to look at a paragraph by a fine writer and know that they too once had to stare at the blank, white page.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

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