Writers at Work: Mari Ellis Dunning

Mari Ellis Dunning is one of Hay Festival's 'Writers at Work'. The fully programmed week allows selected writers to engage in the main Festival events, to attend masterclasses and workshops with British and foreign publishers, agents and, crucially, with established international artists.  

I’ve always written about marginalised characters, primarily women, and this interest features throughout Salacia, my debut poetry collection. From the opening poem ‘Gwen Ellis,’ a piece narrated by the first woman to be hanged for witchcraft in Wales as she awaits her fate, (recently blogged about by Rhys Mwyn of Radio Cymru,) to ‘Jailbait,’ a piece told by the nameless wife of Curly in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.  Considering this, I was beyond pleased when I saw Pat Barker on our Writers at Work schedule. Pat Barker came to speak to us about her Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 shortlisted novel, The Silence of the Girls. The novel retells the story of Homer’s Illiad from the point of view of Briseis, whose role as a status symbol is at the heart of the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon that initiates the plot of Homer's epic.  We also attended her packed event in the Oxfam Moot tent in which she discussed the book, and the history behind it, with Guardian writer Claire Armistead.

After Barker’s visit, we had an unscheduled addition to the timetable, the hilarious Natalie Haynes, who came to speak with us having been cornered by Tiffany in the party at Booth’s Bookshop the evening before. A classicist, Haynes has written a novel, The Children of Jocasta, exploring the impact of Oedipus’s journey on others around him, which attempts to rescue two of the play's minor characters from unjust obscurity.  She was at the festival following the launch of her new book, A Thousand Ships, an all-female retelling of the Trojan War. Haynes is also a stand-up comedian, and in the evening gave a comic retelling of the Illiad, illustrated by the hugely funny (and quite naughty) Chris Riddell.

Despite being beyond tired, I also went to see Stephen Fry read from a his new book, a third instalment to the Mythos/Heroes series, which include his own retellings of the Greek myths. He read a chapter featuring the story of Paris, the son of Hecuba. Once I’d recovered from the nostalgia of listening to Fry read long passages and imitate characters’ voices - (like most people my age, I had all the Fry-narrated Harry Potter audio books on cassette) - I became fascinated by Hecuba, Paris’s mother, and Helen, his love affair.

I’m currently working on a collaborative project with the immensely talented Natalie Ann Holborrow, (And Suddenly You Find Yourself) - a pamphlet of poetry in the voices of various women, from fairy tale figures (Rapunzel and Gothel) to the women of Greek mythology (Hecuba and Helen.) Natalie is already very interested in Greek myth and has several poems in her collection, including a modern-day take on a traumatised Achilles waiting outside a psychiatrist’s office, but seeing these writers all in one day was hugely inspiring and sparked an idea in me for a poem about Hecuba and Helen - the story is always so intrinsically Paris’s, but what about the mother who carried him for nine months, only to hand him over on his birth, or the woman whose face ‘launched a thousand ships,’ supposedly inciting the Trojan war.

These points are just a brief reflection on one day as part of the Writers at Work scheme - there has been so much more, and there is more to come.  I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be here, to be building such wonderful connections and to be part of such an invaluable scheme.  Keep an eye out for the new collaborative pamphlet between Natalie and myself - I’m sure there’s much more inspiration to come.

Writers at Work is a long-term professional development strategy to nurture Welsh talent, writing in both languages. It runs during the 11 days of Hay Festival Wales. The project gives access to the unique gathering of the literary world at this time and exploits the publishing and creative writing expertise on offer for the direct benefit of professional writers in Wales.