‘When I applied to Hay Writers at Work, there were just 45 minutes until the deadline!’ laughs Wales Book of the Year winner Catrin Kean.

The author of ‘Salt’ – a sweeping love story set between Victorian Cardiff, Barbados and San Francisco – is back at Hay this year to talk about the book at the festival’s annual Winter Weekend. 

For Kean, it feels like coming full circle, given the huge importance she ascribes to Hay’s Writers at Work programme in developing her writing career. 

‘When I won Wales Book of the Year,’ she says, ‘I thought back to being in a queue at Hay to have Tishani Doshi sign a book, and now here she was as one of the judges who had chosen my novel as the winner!’

That encounter with the Indian poet and journalist happened through the Hay Writers at Work programme that allows a group of Welsh writers privileged access to many of the authors, publishers and agents at Hay’s summer festival.

Organised by the novelist Tiffany Murray, it provides participants with tickets to festival events and a bespoke programme of workshops, meetings and talks, allowing writers to develop a project of their own and to gain crucial insight into the industry.

Kean, who was a screenwriter before turning to the novel at Hay, explains that the way other writers talked about a book – ‘as a physical thing that they had sculpted’ – had a profound effect, as did the programme's ten days of immersion in literary life, ‘away from your family, and away from your dogs in my case!’

The first chapter of ‘Salt’ had been attached to her original hurried 45-minute application, and she soon found at the festival other writers and readers were interested in what was actually the story of her great-grandparents. 

The National Wales: Catrin Kean's debut novel 'Salt' won the Wales Book of the Year 2021Catrin Kean's debut novel 'Salt' won the Wales Book of the Year 2021

Kean returned as a Writers at Work participant three times, from 2016 to 2018, and began to meet up with other members of the group who had ‘really gelled’ to cement friendships formed at Hay and to continue the mutual critique vital to developing their writing projects.

The author formed a special bond with fellow award-winner Rebecca F. John, who she describes as ‘a passionate, diligent person’. John ended up editing Salt, which had by then been awarded an advance grant from the Books Council of Wales.

Kean explains, about the literary world: ‘It is about who you know, but not in a nepotistic way – you can facilitate who you know.’

She admits to having become something of a poster child for the way that opportunities for writers are supported in Wales. Having participated at Hay, then funded through the Books Council, she won the main prize supported by Literature Wales. Kean feels her trajectory demonstrates that Wales' literary ecosystem works well to support those with talent.

READ MORE: 

In the acknowledgements page at the back of Salt, Kean also thanks somebody much further back in her development as a writer: her English teacher at Llanedeyrn High School in Cardiff, Miss Calford. ‘She spotted me from day one’ says Kean. ‘The only thing I liked in school was her English classes.’ 

The teacher had provided opportunities for Kean to write, ‘including a school play about Prometheus, which I’m not sure I was really up to’. But aged 14, the writer ‘went off the rails’ and was eventually expelled. 

As soon as she was published, Kean tried to track down the teacher who had done so much to encourage and inspire her, and was sad to find she had died three years earlier. 

For her next project, Kean is taking up the story of Mary, one of the characters in Salt, and will again mix fact with fiction. Kean’s grandmother was brought up in an orphanage in Dublin, despite not being an orphan – and the writer was keen to understand why.

She says: ‘I always felt there was a scar in my family, passed down and down and down. It affected my father, so it was good to uncover it.’

Catrin Kean and J.R. Thorp will talk to Claire Armitstead at the Hay Winter Weekend on Saturday 27 November, 2.30pm.

If you value The National's journalism, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.