Apr 19, 2015

Welsh Week: An Interview with J. Anderson Coats

1) Could you tell a bit more about yourself?
I own over two hundred books about the middle ages. I’ve dug for crystals, held Lewis and Clark’s original hand-written journal, and been a mile underground. I have a cool surgery scar unrelated to childbirth, I read Latin, and I’ve been given the curse of Cromwell on a back-road in Connemara.
2) You've studied history. How do you use that in your stories?

Historians are trained to be part garbage collector, part treasure hunter, part psychologist, and part microfilm wrestler. Since so much of what interests me hasn’t been recorded or has been lost, I often have to read between the lines of the sources I do have access to and make inferences and educated guesses when there are gaps. I’ve also been taught how to behave myself in Special Collections and the archives.

3) What's your favourite Welsh legend?

I like the story of Bedd Gelert. It goes like this: Prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth had a beloved dog named Gelert. One day, he went hunting without Gelert, and when he came home, Gelert ran to greet him covered in blood. Alarmed, Llywelyn searched the castle and found his infant son’s cradle overturned and blood all over the linens and floor. The little boy was nowhere in sight, and Llywelyn freaked out, assuming Gelert had killed and eaten the baby.
Llywelyn went into a rage and killed the dog on the spot, and only when Gelert was dead did a child start crying. When he searched, Llywelyn found his son alive and well, and also the body of a wolf that Gelert had slain to protect the baby. Llywelyn was grief-stricken with what he’d done so heedlessly, and he buried the faithful dog in a beautiful, peaceful spot that became known as Bedd Gelert - the grave of Gelert. It still exists and there’s a little monument there.

4) Could you tell a bit more about the history of the Welsh language?

Welsh is a Celtic language sprung from the Indo-European family, strongly influenced by the Brythonic languages of the native British tribes. It developed along a chronological timeline like English did (having Early, Old, Middle, Early Modern, and Modern incarnations), and became standardized in written form in the 1580s. The spoken language struggled during industrialization and the introduction of compulsory education taught in English, but Sunday schools taught in Welsh helped keep the language vibrant well into the modern day. Right now, the language is a required subject in Welsh schools, and the internet has connected active communities of learners and speakers worldwide.
In spoken form there are a number of local variants, but for simplicity’s sake these can be roughly grouped into regions: Northwest (Gwynedd), Northeast and Mid-Wales (Powys), Southwest (Ceredigion and Dyfed), and Southeast (Gwent and Morgannwg).

  © Cyngor Bwrdeistref Sirol Wrecsam

5) What inspired you to write The Wicked and the Just?

Medieval Wales doesn’t get a lot of attention despite the fact that it was a complicated, dynamic place. The native rulers managed to resist outright conquest by their English neighbors until 1283, but then the victorious English fast-tracked a series of castles and walled towns to maintain control of the area and the people.
What interested me were these questions: Even when granted a lot of special privileges - including significant tax breaks - how did English settlers live in a place where they were outnumbered twenty to one by a hostile, recently-subjugated population, and how did the Welsh live so close to people who’d done the subjugating, especially given the burdens placed on them by their new masters?

6) Without too many spoilers, tell us about the book.

The Wicked and the Just takes place in 1293-1294 in north Wales, ten years into English rule. Cecily is an unwilling transplant to the English walled town of Caernarvon, and she’d like nothing better than to go home. Gwenhwyfar, a Welsh servant in Cecily’s new house, would like nothing better than to see all the English go home. The ruling English impose harsh restrictions and taxation on the Welsh, and conditions in the countryside are growing desperate. The rumors of rebellion might be Gwenhwyfar’s only salvation – and the last thing Cecily ever hears.

7) How were the Middle Ages in Wales?

It very much depended on when and who you were. Cecily’s Wales was a pretty attractive place. English burgesses who were citizens of the town of Caernarvon didn’t have to pay any taxes, and the rents for the houses and lands were very low. There were all kinds of special privileges attached to being a burgess, too. Gwenhwyfar’s Wales, on the other hand, wasn’t so nice. The Welsh had to make up for the taxes that the burgesses didn’t pay, and they had a lot of restrictions placed on what they could do and say and where they could go. Life in north Wales in 1293 was pretty good. If you were English.

8) In a lot of books Welsh weather has been used as an important element of the story. Has it always been an important part of Welsh history and stories?

The weather certainly played a part in Welsh history, especially before the fall of native government, and there are a number of instances where Welsh princes and barons withdrew to the mountainous interior to let snow and storms dissuade their enemies from advancing. Medieval warfare was very much a summer sport.

9) In your book nothing is certain. Roles can shift. What's the message that you want to give people who are in similar situations?

Be kind, be strong, and do the right thing. We’re all humans in the world, and most of us are trying to do the best we can with what we have.

10) You started writing at a very young age. Is there any advice you can give young people who want to write?

Read. Read widely. Read new books, old books, articles. Read the back of the cereal box. Immerse yourself in language. Listen for how different writers sound in your head. Read in the genre you want to write in. Read outside of it. Read things that are praised and things that are panned. Read. Everything. It all has something to teach you.
Write. Write every day, even if it’s a scribble on a grocery store receipt you pull out of the bottom of your backpack. Give yourself permission to write crap. Everyone’s first drafts suck. Your favorite writer? Her first drafts suck. Your other favorite writer? His first drafts suck. It’s more important to just write. Get it on the page and repeat after me: “It’s a first draft. It’s supposed to suck.” You can fix things in a crappily-written first draft, but it’s impossible to fix what doesn’t exist.

Her book - The Wicked and the Just - will be reviewed tomorrow.


  1. Great Interview! I want to read this book!

  2. Great Interview! I want to read this book!

  3. I loved this book! And thanks for the refresher on the tale of Bedd Gelert. I remember reading that one in a Welsh Lit class in college.

  4. I need to stop reading all your author posts... My reading list is already so big ;)


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