The Half-life of Snails - April 12, 2023
Whilst the weather today might be wet and windy, safely indoors we are celebrating the breaking news that The Half-life of Snails by Philippa Holloway is on the longlist for the 2023 Royal Society of Literature (RSL) Ondaatje Prize.
The annual RSL Ondaatje Prize is awarded to a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, which evokes the spirit of a place. To get on such a prestigious longlist is an outstanding achievement.
We caught up with Philippa to find out how it feels to discover that The Half-life of Snails has been longlisted.
Pic: Books on the 2023 RSL Ondaatje Prize longlist.
“This is such a special prize, as it recognises the relationship between people, place and literature – the three things that are at the heart of my own writing practice, research and teaching,” says Philippa.
“Being longlisted therefore feels incredible, and both humbling and thrilling in equal measure.”
It is clear to see that Philippa is passionate about illustrating a spirit of place. The fact that Philippa also undertook extensive research to write The Half-life of Snails, has culminated in a particularly evocative and captivating novel.
Philippa says, “I already had a lot of material to draw on for the Welsh landscape strand of the novel, as I lived close to Wylfa and even did some sub-contracted work there for a few years. When I started writing, I tuned into these places more carefully, asking more questions about my own experiences and responses to Wylfa, and also spending time listening to those around me to find the varied responses to the existing and proposed nuclear power stations there.”
Although Philippa had first-hand experience with the Welsh strand of the story, the research into Chornobyl was naturally more complicated.
Philippa explains, “At first, I was only able to research Chornobyl online or in journals and knew that to evoke this landscape and to explore the specific feelings of being in such a complex area, where radiation is scattered, and the systems of access are so controlled and weighted with history, I had to visit. It took a great deal of planning as I didn’t want to take a commercial tour. I found a guide to take me off the tourist trail and travelled alone to Ukraine and then into the Exclusion Zone with my guide to keep me safe. I kept a journal that noted not only what I saw, and the facts about each village and person I met, but also how it felt to be in such a complex place.”
Pic: The Half-life of Snails by Philippa Holloway
Researching Chornobyl may have taken some planning but writing about the subject was something that perhaps was always inevitable for Philippa:
“I often tell people that I started this novel when I was six years old when the first news of the Chornobyl disaster reached the UK. I knew that something had changed forever in the very fabric of the world. My memories of that time are so vivid, and that unsettling feeling that even though the sky was blue there could be invisible danger in the landscape has stayed with me.”
Since Philippa is also a PhD graduate in nuclear psychogeography, the process of combining fiction with real-life experience is another reason that The Half-life of Snails is so wonderfully put together.
Philippa says, “It was important to me to get the factual information right in terms of representing the real landscape of both Anglesey and Chornobyl – how a nuclear power station operates and how safety drills run, for example, or what technology is used for recording exposure to radiation on a tour. I had the real-life experience of being in a safety drill at Wylfa once, and have delivered plenty of lambs in my youth, so could draw on that knowledge to create characters with authentic physical experiences, and scenes that were grounded in the realities of place and time.
Similarly, the research in the Exclusion Zone allowed me to depict the physical nature of the spaces and how different people respond to the area – tourist, residents, guides etc. But the story is fiction – the characters are not me! The events are fixed in real-time and historical situations, but are fictional.”
Pic: Philippa Holloway, author of The Half-life of Snails
It is now coming up to the first anniversary of the publication of The Half-life of Snails and Philippa shares what it has been like since the Ondaatje longlisted book was published.
She says, “It’s been amazing to work with Parthian on my debut novel – the whole process has been friendly, collaborative and supportive, and so I’ve had a wonderful experience working with my editor and the wider team. Reading wonderful reviews and seeing how well it has been received is a joy, too. Just before the book was launched, the news came through of the invasion of Ukraine, which was devastating, and I spent a lot of time trying to contact and support my friends and connections there, as well as fundraising. Parthian donated all profits from the hardback print run to charities supplying humanitarian aid to Ukraine, which was just overwhelmingly generous, and made me feel like the book could do some good for the people who supported my research. I’ve also been able to use the book to raise money for The Clean Futures Fund, which helps children, animals and residents affected by the Chornobyl disaster and now by the war.”
Philippa also recently did some teaching for Ukrainian writing students and hopes to visit the country again one day. Currently, she is working on new writing projects.
“I’m working on non-fiction and a new novel, but those are on hold as I’m currently editing my first short-story collection for Parthian. The collection explores themes of threat negotiation, ranging from the risks inherent in making a new friend, to a brief encounter with a murderer over the kitchen table. It’s challenging trying to decide which stories should make the cut, and when I’m busy with work I find myself writing short fiction to keep my creative self going, so there are new stories vying for a place all the time. I know Parthian will steer me in the right direction, though, and I’ll enjoy every second of working with them to make the collection the best it can be.”
We wish Philippa the best of luck and we will be keeping our fingers crossed! Pob lwc, Philippa!
You can get a copy of The Half-life of Snails here.
Read more about the announcement of the 2023 RSL Ondaatje longlist here.
Pic: The Half-life of Snails by Philippa Holloway 2023 which is on the RSL Ondaatje Prize longlist