Five years ago, Pam Petro was visiting her mother in a nursing home in Connecticut. She’d arranged to meet her mother’s caregiving team for a meeting, but she was early, so she went for a walk. It was a walk she’d done before, around a pond in the grounds, but as she set off, she saw a car parked across the pond’s entrance.
‘Why would anyone park there?’ she thought, but started to walk around the car.
As she did, a voice called out of the passenger window: ‘Are you looking for Pam?’
Pam started – she’d thought the car was empty. ‘Sorry?’
‘I said, are you looking for Pam?’ It was a woman with straggly grey hair and very few teeth.
‘I am Pam,’ said Pam.
The woman was unsurprised. ‘Well, Pam just came by and said she’d be out walking around the pond, picking up rocks. Go on now. If you hurry you can catch her.’
Pam started towards the path. As she got closer to the pond, she could see there were no rocks and no Pam, other than herself.
‘She’s talking about me,’ she realised.
‘It just felt like the world shifted,’ Pam tells me, over Zoom in 2021. It’s lunchtime where Pam is in Northampton Massachusetts, and almost dinnertime for me in Sheffield. We’re both in our bedrooms, and Pam is telling me the story of the story at the heart of her book, The Long Field.
The Long Field is a memoir, but it’s more than that. It’s an exploration of the Welsh concept of hiraeth – the idea of feeling homesick, or a longing for something irretrievable. It could be a place, person, or time – anything, really. But you know you don’t have it, you’re aware of your own longing and, as the longing sinks down into your bones, it becomes something stronger. Hiraeth.
Pam weaves this concept into stories from her own past. Her life as a gay woman, as the survivor of a train crash, as a daughter, teacher, partner, and friend. In doing so, she makes a subject that could seem abstract and enigmatic suddenly concrete: as solid as the ground under your feet, or as a car blocking the entrance to a pond.
‘It was never supposed to be about me,’ Pam says. ‘It was supposed to be about Wales. It was the input I had from agents and the friends that read it – they said ‘Where are you in the book?’ I kept saying I didn’t want to be in the book. I thought that would be the end of it. But then I had the experience at the pond at my mom’s nursing home. It hit me then.’
When the woman in the car told her, quite literally, to find herself, Pam knew she had to return to Wales, write from being there, not from memory. Wales, the town of Lampeter, specifically, was where Pam travelled as a young woman and lived for a year. Though thousands of miles away from her place of birth, Pam immediately felt at home. She became obsessed with Welsh stories, Welsh language, Welsh people. She learned to speak Welsh and travelled around the world with her partner, Marguerite, finding other Welsh-speakers in locations all over the globe. She wrote a book about her adventure, Travels in an Old Tongue, and wrote another two nonfiction books, The Slow Breath of Stone and Sitting Up With the Dead. She’s a lecturer in writing at Lesley University, Smith College, and The University of Wales, Trinity St David. She knows her way around words. But The Long Field felt different. It wasn’t just about writing, or Wales.
‘My three previous books were about determined events,’ Pam says. ‘I did the research and wrote the books. I participated in the events but they were external to me. This book emerged from life itself and from my relationship with Wales. I’ve been thinking about it and trying to write it for thirty years. One of the reviewers of Travels in an Old Tongue said ‘it’s all very well and good, but why is Pam so obsessed with Wales?’ That stuck with me for years afterwards. I started writing an essay about hiraeth in 2010 and it came out in The Paris Review in 2012. The response was huge. People said ‘I know what that feels like.’ That was when I realised this has meaning to more people than just me. This is the project I really need to work on.’
So she’s been thinking about it for thirty years, writing it seriously for seven. The book covers a wide expanse of thematic ground – she writes about her relationship with her parents, her relationships with men and women, her recovery from a traumatic, life-threatening train accident. All intimate, emotional subjects. But perhaps the most intimate section of the book is where she introduces Aled.
Aled Rhys is ‘beautiful, bilingual, bisexual’ with ‘the contradictory appeal of the gods of old.’ He’s an athlete and a poet. He’s also completely made up. Pam created him as a way to keep Wales with her, even when she returned to the States. Though she created romantic sagas about him and his friends, it wasn’t until she was recovering from the train accident in which she almost lost her life, that she retreated further into fiction.
‘I think fiction is a break for both writer and reader,’ Pam says over Zoom. ‘We say we ‘lose ourselves in books’ because we walk away from our own lives and think of others. I think we think of that in terms of readership but it’s also a way of leaving yourself behind as a writer. I did wonder about including this in the book.’ She starts to laugh. ‘I thought, ‘Am I going to come across as a nutcase?’ But I sort of tested it out as an essay, again in The Paris Review, and again I got a lot of responses. It was people, mostly women, writing to say ‘Oh thank god, I’m not alone.’ That felt really good.’
But finishing anything you’ve been working on for thirty years can be difficult, let alone something so personal and exposing. Pam teaches at two universities in spring and one in autumn, so writing time was scarce, every word hard-won.
‘I thought I’d be jumping for joy when I finished,’ she said. ‘I thought I’d run out into the street and pour champagne on my head. But it didn’t feel like that. It felt like I had just caught the most beautiful butterfly I’d ever seen, put it in a glass case, and put a pin in it. It was perfect but it was dead. It sounds dramatic but I was so used to the book living with me and changing as my life changed. To finish it was devastating.’
Because writing is more than ink on a page or text on a screen. Writing demands that you spent a certain, considerable amount of time putting words in order, moving them around. It’s time you spend, every day if you’re disciplined, contributing to something bigger than yourself. This last statement just trips off Pam’s tongue mid-Zoom, but it stays with me for days afterwards. The idea that, even if no one reads what you write, you’re contributing to something, inching your way closer to something important, breaching some kind of gap. Between what? Yourself and yourself? I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like trying to find yourself. That’s hiraeth with words.
This is what it’s like talking to Pam. You start with something funny or flippant – the weather, where you’re both sitting, what you think of Wales – but before you know it, you’re talking about the purpose of fiction, why we make stuff up, how the words we use change who we are. But none of it is hard to follow or intense. Pam laughs a lot and talking to her is fun – she must be a wonderful teacher.
‘It’s no accident I started teaching the year before I started writing this book,’ she says. ‘In a workshop, the moment you learn the most is not when your work is being discussed but when you prepare to discuss other people’s. Then, your ego is not involved and you can see clearly. I’ve learned so much about writing from doing that. As I’ve taught, I’ve become a better writer. Teaching has enabled me to write this book. Could I have written this book before I started teaching? I don’t know.’
Not only has teaching improved her writing, but it’s also affected her relationship with Wales. Pam teaches as part of the Dylan Thomas summer school. Students from the US travel to Wales to study. A lot of them have never been to a place like Wales – they’re from urban or suburban parts of the States – and a lot of them are people of colour.
‘It made me realise I can walk into Wales and not immediately be a foreigner,’ says Pam. ‘Nobody would say ‘You’re not from here.’ But the Black students immediately feel ‘other’. They’ve shown me how white Wales is. Some of the reactions from the locals to the students… it’s like going back fifty years in some ways. That side of it is something I’m not always aware of. That really stood out to me and I wanted to make sure I included it in the book.’
It seems to me that the best teachers turn up to class because they want to learn too. The best writers write not because they have all the answers but because they want to discover something for themselves. Pam’s here, eyes wide, ears open, pen ready to take notes.
The Long Field will be published in September 2021. You can pre-order copies from Little Toller Books here.
About the Author
For ten years, Ellen Lavelle has interviewed writers for The Young Journalist Academy, Nothing in the Rulebook, Newark Book Festival, and her own blog. She’s written for several publications, including The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award Blog. Now an editor at Nothing in the Rulebook, she writes fiction and non fiction, while working as a copywriter for an education company. You can follow her on Twitter @ellenrlavelle