There are some books which come as a lightning bolt out of the blue – books that read so fresh, intellectual, and so authentic to themselves, that you can’t help but feel that reading them is a necessity.
Covering themes such as Queerness, neurodivergence, and working class identity, in a collection of interconnected short stories all set in Jones’s Welsh hometown of Llanelli, Local Fires specificities are so keenly and movingly drawn that they become utterly universal. It is both an intimate portrait of a community and a bracing call to arms, against the political injustices and social breakdowns that have become in themselves universal under austerity.
SNACK spoke to artist, musician, poet, and now author Joshua Jones to find out more about his stunning debut.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat to us Joshua. To start off, tell us a bit about your debut short story collection, Local Fires: what can readers expect from your debut?
South Wales, my hometown Lllanelli, that’s where all of the stories of Local Fires are based. I live in Cardiff now and I’ve lived in Cardiff for about two and a half years. But up until then, I spent quite a long time living in England for university before coming back to Wales. I feel like I couldn’t have written Local Fires without having that distance, that geographical distance, as well as a sort of mental distance. It’s a bit of a cliche; I remember reading James Joyce saying he couldn’t write about Dublin or Ireland without first leaving it. It resonated with me a lot.
It’s [Local Fires is] based on facts or memories from my time growing up there, or conversations I remember, like my parents, reminiscing about when they were young growing up in the town. It looks at topics such as toxic masculinity and being a creative neurodivergent person growing up in a working class, ex-industrial town, and knowing from a very young age, you’re not really going to do what’s expected of you.
The stories are beautifully interconnected, the characters weaving in and out of each other’s lives as they continue their daily errands in the town of Llanelli. Did you approach the structuring of the collection in this way from the beginning, or did they organically flow together? What benefits did you find using this method?
I do not plan [laughs] I treat writing like I treat making visual art, the workings of installation art, where I try to find the balance between going into something with a plan or an idea and then following intuition. I went into these stories knowing that they were all going to be set in Llanelli, and then I was thinking, what does that actually mean?
Rather than just seeing the word ‘Llanelli’ In each story, what does it mean to represent the town in these stories?
A big part of that was seeing the characters come and go in each other’s lives. It is one of those communities where it feels smaller than it actually is. When you look at the strict facts of how many square miles it is, or the population, it’s bigger than it feels. Everyone knows each other, everyone knows each other’s business. So it felt disingenuous to not write that in. I’d write a story where I’d introduce a character for the first time, and even if they were in the background, I’d think, this character is really interesting to me; what’s their story? I had to think of all these connections.
The burning down of Park Congregational Church, Llanelli, in 2015, becomes a touching stone throughout the collection. What inspired you to use this event, as a way of exploring the lack of infrastructure and support within local communities? What impact did it have on you when it happened?
Well it felt like the most exciting thing to ever happen at the time [laughs]. I can remember exactly where I was when it happened as well; I was on the way to the pub, it was the week that I had my A level results, and I found out that I was going to university. So me and a bunch of friends from college went to Wetherspoons – I turned around on the corner, and went, ‘oh… the church is on fire’. Then we went to the pub. It wasn’t until it was on the news that I really unpacked how interesting it was – I mean, the whole town was there!
It was something that connected everyone in the town in the same way that your fiction doesn’t in a way, you might say?
It’s that kind of mentality in the town, like, ‘this place is a shithole… but it’s my shithole’. It can feel like quite a suffocating place with not a lot of positivity. It was something destructive, but in a way it was positive because it brought people together through this powerful event. I really like the folklore around it, there were rumours that these kids had set fire to it; the rumours stemmed in one direction, suggesting the kids had done it on purpose, but then on the other hand, it was just kids fucking around, it was an accident.
There were some people who thought of it with an apathy that permeates towns like that, like it’s a good thing – let it burn. Other people can remember the good old days. It’s one of many churches in Llanelli that are empty, boarded up, with smashed windows.
Why did you want to return to your birthplace of Llanelli, Wales, to set your debut collection in? It features real places and landmarks, such as the Half Moon Pub: how has the reaction been in Llanelli, to having it become the subject of fiction, a kind of psychogeography?
Absolutely. I had a lot of conversations about this during and after the writing of it. I realised you can be traumatised by a place. I think I have that kind of relationship with the town. Quite painful formative years, feeling like an outsider, and I was as then undiagnosed. I wasn’t out as Queer, but I didn’t even know what Queer was, there wasn’t that visibility. So feeling outside of things without actually having the language and the knowledge to express that properly.
From the start, I knew it was going to be set in Llanelli. I was doing an MA in Creative Writing, before that I was mainly in poetry and spoken word, in punk circles. Up until the MA I hadn’t written anything long form. The MA made me give myself permission. I just had to unlock this thing in my head, myself.
When I was there I read We Don’t Know What we’re Doing by Thomas Morris. It was recommended to me by my tutor. Every story is set in his hometown, Caerphilly. Other people were saying this [Local Fires] is something that should be a novel. But I felt, no, I am doing the right thing. This is a short story collection, set in my hometown. Reading Morris really helped, it gave me confidence in my decisions.
Can you also tell us a little about the Queer writing development you’ve been working with on behalf of your publisher Parthain, which brings together Welsh and Vietnamese Queer authors and artists? What’s next for you after Local Fires?
The British Council chooses two cities in a different host country every year. This year was Vietnam, to celebrate 50 years of British presence in Vietnam and 30 years of the British Council offices in Vietnam. I went there for about fifteen days, in Hanoi and then in Saigon, meeting writers at community organisations. It’s an interesting experience being in a foreign country and realising that you are the minority. I really think that more white people should experience that.
Being given an opportunity like this to talk to creative people, about how they exist… it made me reconsider myself, my privilege as a young queer artist. In the UK, we have budget cuts to our funding, but if you want to say something really critical of the government, we can. For them it’s more of a totalitarian state. There isn’t that freedom to be able to express yourself. Almost everyone I spoke to had experienced some sort of censorship, an art exhibition shut down, a self published poetry book burned.
I’m working on a collection of essays at the minute, aiming for publication at the same time next year or early 2025. It’s expanding on themes of Local Fires like Hauntology, melancholia, the problematic nature of nostalgia and how hometowns exist within that.
It’s very inspired by Mark Fisher and W.G Sebald, psychogeographic writers. Local Fires started as a need to exorcise all of these memories and traumas from growing up there [Llanelli], I was really surprised after Local Fires I had more to say about it. I feel I can talk about it with a different focus now.