We are back with more Yoto Carnegie content! To revisit the shortlisted titles, please click here. Today we have the honour of chatting with Manon Steffan Ros about her shortlisted novel, The Blue Book of Nebo. Following Dylan who was six when The End came, and who is now 14 living with his mam, The Blue Book of Nebo explores human capacity to find new strengths when faced with the need to survive.
What was it like adapting The Blue Book of Nebo from Welsh to English? Why did you decide to change the characters’ names? What about any other changes?
I really enjoy the process of adapting from one language to another- having two languages is like having two voices, and you have twice the amount of words to play and experiment with. I changed the names of all the characters except for Rowenna- I think I felt that I wanted them to feel like slightly different novels, and that Welsh speaking readers could read both versions and have a slightly different experience. I think that language is more of a theme in the English version. There’s more of an examination of what it means to your identity when you speak a minority language, and about the idea that there’s a right way and a wrong way to speak, write or experience a language. The whole purpose, after all, is to communicate, so if you’re using language and being understood, I reckon you’re doing it perfectly!
The book title is very interesting, though those who are unfamiliar with Welsh culture may not have heard of The Black Book of Carmarthen or The Red Book of Hergest? Can you share with us what these are?
They’re books of great historical importance to Wales- they’re ancient, and hold lots of the eldest stories we have here in Wales, such as the Mabinogion. I’m interested in this because I’m tickled by the idea that story books are held in such esteem- these are kept in glass cases, under exactly the right conditions to ensure that they survive. But excellent story books are also to be found for 25p in charity shops. I’m interested on what it is, except for age, that makes a book precious.
You call the end of the world a simple “The End” and many books have a different reason why the world is ending. How did you decide upon your particular setup?
I’ve always had a great fear of nuclear catastrophe. I suffered from years and years of recurring nightmares about it from when I was about four or five. We used to spend a fair few weekends in protests when I was growing up, either with Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) or CND. I guess The Blue Book of Nebo deals with both those issues! Everything I write is somehow dealing with a fear I have, or something or someone I don’t understand. I often write about the very worst thing I can imagine- the fact that I’m handing the end of the world over to fictional characters gives me a bit of distance from it, but allows me to examine it and face it. Writing is very therapeutic!
And great tips on things one should do when an apocalypse is looming! Do you think you would be as calm and well organised as Dylan’s mum Rowenna if The End ever happens?
Absolutely not. I’m a bit of a scaredy cat so I’d be hysterical! Saying that, I do think that humans are stronger and more resourceful than we give ourselves credit for. I hope we never have to prove how we’d fare in such adversity, but the truth is, there are people around the world who are facing climate disaster right now. There are lives being lived right now that aren’t so very different to the ones portrayed in this book.
Since The End, everything became simplistic, and you gave a gorgeous description of how even the Weather felt different. Can you tell us how you thought of this?
Again, this is yet another reflection of my own fear. I always have one eye on the weather! My one great phobia is storms- it feels like a very instinctive fear to me, as if my whole body and mind is primed to flee from thunder and lightening. At the same time, I think it’s easy for us to go days without really taking note of the weather. We can stay in our homes and look at screens instead of through windows. I’m guilty of it myself! I’m pretty sure that we’d take note of every change in temperature and increased rainfall if we grew all our own food- if we acknowledged how reliant we are on weather systems and climate for our own survival. It’s easy to forget that when your food is all bought from a supermarket, but we still need to grow the food now, even before an End!
It was also very interesting to see how Dylan connected more to the Bible than modern stories. Were you worried about including the Bible into your story when the readers might not be religious and thus cannot connect to Dylan?
There’s a slightly different relationship with the Bible and Christianity when you’ve been raised in a Welsh speaking household, I think. A great deal of my generation went to Sunday school, and somehow, Jesus- or Iesu- and the Bible stories didn’t feel separate from the rest of our culture. It was all part of the same thing. It would have felt inauthentic not to mention that, I think, and I was interested in how someone would react to a religious text without all the other societal things that come with it. What is the Bible with no church, chapel, community, hymns, prayers? Again, I think we’re back to the idea of books that are, in one way or another, sacred.