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I Saw A Man: adventures in literature

Owen Sheers has appeared many times in my life. First in my A Level English class, with his poetry ‘Skirrid Hill’ – then on top of a windy mountain in the Brecon Beacons, as my expedition leader shouted through the wind that I should read his book Resistance – “it’s really good, all about these places.” So it seemed fitting that when I first spoke to Sheers about his new book I Saw A Man, it almost felt as if we’d picked up from somewhere we’d left off. Over a crackly speaker he apologised for his daughter crying in the background – “we often don’t get a good line out here.”

Sheers has a career so varied and innovative you’d think it was written itself. From staging his work Pink Mist, a verse-drama about three soldiers in Afghanistan, to screen plays, via radio and film, there isn’t much he hasn’t experimented with (and that includes spending three days in CERN writing an oratorio in response to Haydn, by the way). But now Sheers has turned his attention to a new challenge – a carefully crafted novel which explores grief, loss and desire. I Saw A Man is written with a complex temporal structure, playing with narrative and convention to create a thriller that pulls the reader along on Michael’s journey through his nieghbours’ house. It’s an effective technique, and the real skill is that, on first reading, it seems merely a gripping, conventional read. “I don’t want to show the scaffolding too much,” Sheers says, “if it reads easily, then it’s successful.” Using the interesting technique of immersion journalism to research and structure the book, Sheers admits he dumped the first 10,000 words three times – “it was a bit of a psychological kick in the teeth.”

But, somewhat paradoxically, Sheers is used to trying out new formats and tackling complex ideas. His love for winding the past and present together in his writing can be seen in ‘Mametz’, a staged world war one production where the audience are unwittingly involved, literally coming out of the trenches, and with the actors wearing contemporary uniform. This use of the past as a prism to “examine contemporary situations” surfaces again and again – I discover that the guerrilla warfare in the 1940s novel Resistance was a comment on the Iraq War – completely missed by my 16 year old self.

“It’s the ideas, the concepts and the stories that attract me first,” Sheers says – then you look for new, unique, exciting ways to tell them. This versatility also allows for certain perks – such as becoming writer in residence for the Welsh Rugby Union. I could almost hear Sheers grin over the phone when I asked how much he, as a rugby fan, had enjoyed that commission. However, he reassured me that there were other reasons for the subsequent book, Calon: it was an attempt to bring together physical and intellectual life, to “introduce sports fans to literature, and vice versa.” Always pushing boundaries, Sheers is not only trying to combine sports and literary journalism but also trying to make us bookworms pick up a rugby ball – a major challenge indeed.

Despite having recently become professor of Creative Writing at Swansea University, Sheers is careful to say that he feels his first duty is to himself as a writer. “After I Saw A Man I plan to stop for a while – to let the creative reservoirs fill up again.” However, he is by no means isolating himself from society. He explains how he’s currently spending a lot of time in Aberfan, writing a piece on the 1966 mining disaster there. Contact with the ‘real world’ is vital, he explains, to gain the full spectrum of people’s stories: “It is important to keep the truth at heart and at the centre of your material.” His work is also taking him out along the Gower coast, designing a literary work to exist both online with film-work and in a companion exhibition designed so the visitor can walk the shoreline either way. “It’s going back to basics but it’s also modern,” Sheers chuckles.

I ask him whether he is happy with the title ‘war poet’, and his voice suddenly loses its wry tone. “I never set out to write about conflict,” Sheers says. “it just runs parallel with my writing life”. And it’s true – Afghanistan, Iraq, 9/11 – all of these horrors occurred around the time of Sheers’ publications. The fact that they are tackled in his work reflects not a fascination, but an attempt to analyse the current situation. Sheers wrote a play The Two Worlds of Charlie F as a recovery project for wounded service personnel and their families, and with the leftover material constructed Pink Mist. Drone strikes are prevalent in I Saw A Man because they are relevant to our current lives. “Everyone can write war poetry now,” Sheers says. “We need to broaden our idea of what conflict poetry is. The view is very set, and needs to change.”

This sums up my experience with Owen Sheers – he is shaking up the literary world with new forms and ideas, and is a credit to Oxford (a New College graduate, if you’re interested). His new novel I Saw A Man is fantastic – I look forward to seeing what on earth he tackles next. 

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