Sunday, April 16, 2023

Interview with Author Pamela Petro


1. What inspired you to write this book? When I arrived in rural West Wales to do an MA program at age 23, I’d never been there before and yet the landscape looked familiar: it was a view torn from my mind’s eye, a landscape of such fierce clarity—few trees, distant horizons, prehistoric and medieval ruins—that it gave me anchorage in space and time in a way that my home in suburban NJ never had. I had a new, generous, deep perspective on my life on earth….and then I had to return “home” to the shopping malls of Jersey. What a shock! And I yearned not just for Wales, but for the person Wales had enabled me to be. That yearning, I learned, is called HIRAETH, and hiraeth is what The Long Field – Wales and the Presence of Absence, a Memoir – is all about. 

2. What exactly is it about and who is it written for? Hiraeth is a Welsh word that's famously hard to translate. Literally, it can mean "long field," but generally translates, inadequately, as "homesickness." At heart, hiraeth suggests something like a bone-deep longing for an irretrievable place, person, or time—an acute awareness of the presence of absence. I wrote it for Americans because while hiraeth emerges from Wales, it’s a universal human emotion that English has yet to give a name. (The only exact cognate among the world’s 7000 languages is “saudade,” in Portuguese.) We understand it and feel it in this country too, deep in our bones.  

3. What do you hope readers will get out of reading your book? I hope we in the US can begin to have a conversation about hiraeth. For instance: I have a friend whose grandfather came to the States from Italy. He was a great storyteller, and passed down tales of his idyllic village outside of Naples to his children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren. Each one of them longs to go to this village “someday,” but it no longer exists—it became an industrial suburb over 50 years ago. Still, that village lives on in their past and future: an impossible place that brings them sadness, joy, and hope. That’s hiraeth. There are many other interpretations of hiraeth as well. While the book might seem sad, it’s actually quite cheerful! Where there’s loss, there’s absence; where there’s absence, there’s a gravitational, human urge to invent. So I see hiraeth as the catalyst of all creative invention, both artistic and scientific—especially as the ignition spark of Welsh culture.  Ultimately, the word “hiraeth” is a gift to all of us here in America. 

4. How did you decide on your book’s title and cover design? A friend—the Welsh poet Menna Elfyn—discovered that one literal translation of hiraeth is “a long, vast tract of land”—a long field. Because my first attraction to Wales was to the damp, beautiful, rolling ground itself, the title was perfect. A short field is easily crossed; a long field separates. It’s a perfect analogy for the emotion of separation.  The cover design was trickier. In 2021, my publisher in the UK—Little Toller Books--and I tried many options. Finally, I showed them a photo of the Preseli Hills in West Wales—where the stone for Stonehenge was quarried—and an illustrator came up with this magnificent image. I love it!  

5. What advice or words of wisdom do you have for fellow writers – other than run!? How about “read?” That’s another short word starting with “r!” Actually, there’s so much to say! I teach creative writing to undergrads at Smith College and MFA students at Lesley University, and in both places harp on the benefits of creating a writing community and the gift economy: the more writers give themselves to the work of others in their community—really thinking hard about what works, and how to improve what doesn’t—the more their own writing improves. When we’re looking at others’ writing our egos don’t get in the way, and we’re open to change. That’s how learning begins! The more you help others, the more that gift comes back to you in your own work. So find a community, I say, be it in school or out, and devote yourselves to one another’s writing.  

6. What trends in the book world do you see -- and where do you think the book publishing industry is heading?  I’m a little concerned that the more students take to heart what we teach on MFA programs—go deeper, find your own voice, lean into your originality—the less likely new writers are to sell their work to mainstream publishers. Originality isn’t what editors (or marketing departments) are seeking. The exciting voices and the new stories are coming from Indie presses. That’s not a new trend, but it’s accelerating. It took me a long time to sell TLF because 19 corporate publishers turned it down first: they all admired the book, but didn’t think it would sell. Little Toller in the UK, and now Arcade in the US, took a chance. It’s already paid off for Little Toller, as TLF has since been named a Travel Book of the Year by The Sunday Telegraph and The Financial Times, and was shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year Award.  

7. Were there experiences in your personal life or career that came in handy when writing this book? This book is my life. It worked its way out into the world from inside me; my other three books began as external ideas—this one began within, as a need to answer questions and articulate truths about myself and the world around me. It’s all there. My life as a gay woman; the Amtrak trainwreck that nearly killed me; my parents’ struggles with dementia; my life as an American who by going to Wales split the atom of “home” between two dictionary definitions: “the place where one lives permanently” vs. “the place where one flourishes best.” It’s uncomfortable in between, in the long field, but it’s also the most creative place.  

8. How would you describe your writing style? Which writers or books is your writing similar to? I like to tell stories and think about ideas in a way that’s somewhat similar to Rebecca Solnit, but in a breezier, more accessible style and with a lot more humor. TLF isn’t about a funny subject, but many readers have told me they’ve laughed aloud reading the book. I love that! I would put TLF on a shelf with Helen Macdonald’s H is For Hawk; Robert Macfarlane’s Underland or The Old Ways; and Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. I’m sort of the warmer, cozier, American version of those authors.  

9. What challenges did you overcome in the writing of this book? I’ve touched on this above: it was hard to get publishers’ attention and also hard to drag the book out of my heart. When my partner was out teaching at Smith College I’d run up and down the stairs tearing my hair and shouting because it was SO HARD to write. And because I teach, it was hard to find time to write as well. But a small voice in my head kept repeating: be patient, take your time, give the book all the time it needs. I’m an impatient person—I tap my foot in line at the supermarket—but I heeded this advice, and am delighted that I did.  

10. If people can buy or read one book this week or month, why should it be yours? Why should they read it? Because I’ve just come back from my second reading tour in the UK, for the publication of the paperback edition there, and I’ve had amazing conversations with readers. Everyone understands the idea of hiraeth—so many people respond with relief and confirmation. Yes, I’ve felt this, I know what you mean!! Let me tell you my story…It’s been such a privilege to learn readers’ hiraeth stories in the UK, and I know I’ll hear them in the US too. So in a nutshell? People should read my book because they will find themselves in The Long Field.


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About Brian Feinblum

Brian Feinblum should be followed on Twitter @theprexpert. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2023. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester with his wife, two kids, and Ferris, a black lab rescue dog. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s The Independent.  This award-winning blog has generated over 3.3 million pageviews. With 4,400+ posts over the past dozen years, it was named one of the best book marketing blogs by BookBaby  and recognized by Feedspot in 2021 and 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. It was also named by as a "best resource.” For the past three decades, including 21 years as the head of marketing for the nation’s largest book publicity firm, and two jobs at two independent presses, Brian has worked with many first-time, self-published, authors of all genres, right along with best-selling authors and celebrities such as: Dr. Ruth, Mark Victor Hansen, Joseph Finder, Katherine Spurway, Neil Rackham, Harvey Mackay, Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Warren Adler, Cindy Adams, Todd Duncan, Susan RoAne, John C. Maxwell, Jeff Foxworthy, Seth Godin, and Henry Winkler. He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America, and has spoken at ASJA, Independent Book Publishers Association Sarah Lawrence College, Nonfiction Writers Association, Cape Cod Writers Association, Willamette (Portland) Writers Association, APEX, and Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association. His letters-to-the-editor have been published in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Post, NY Daily News, Newsday, The Journal News (Westchester) and The Washington Post. He has been featured in The Sun Sentinel and Miami Herald. For more information, please consult:  



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