MEMORIES play an important role in the work of Abergavenny-based author Rhiannon Lewis.

At this year's Hay Festival, she won second prize in the New Welsh Writing Awards for a story based on a poignant moment in her past, and her debut novel told the true story of her uncle's departure from Wales to become a merchant sailor – ending up in war-torn Chile.

Now that novel, My Beautiful Imperial, is being turned into a screenplay by Mrs Lewis and her friend Adam Feinstein, biographer and translator of famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

"Everybody who has read the novel says it would make a brilliant film, and I always saw it as a film," Mrs Lewis said.

"Adam read the book and he thought the same thing.

"So when he offered to work with me then on a script of My Beautiful Imperial, I though 'Wow – this is amazing'. Adam is an expert on film and often gives talks and lectures on the subject.

"We're both now working on a script, to turn it into a film, and we already have a first draft."

The story follows Mrs Lewis' great-great uncle, sea captain David Davies, who left his home in Cardigan to sail the world as a merchant sailor.

Captain Davies' voyages took him to Chile, which in 1891 was in the throes of civil war.

He hadn't set out looking for danger, but unwittingly found himself in the thick of the action.

"Of course, he wasn't trained as a fighting captain – he wasn't part of the Royal Navy or anything," Mrs Lewis said.

"It was literally because the entire [Chilean] Navy had defected and left the president without any ships at all.

"The president commandeered my uncle's ship, and [Captain Davies] had to sail the ship then under the command of the army generals as part of the Chilean Civil War."

Researching the book was no easy task, Mrs Lewis said.

"It took me over 20 years to research the book, and the historical novel then is all about his experiences," she said.

My Beautiful Imperial received high praise upon its publication in December 2017, being listed a few months later by the Walter Scott Prize Academy as one of its recommended novels.

"I was really pleased," Mrs Lewis said. "You've got some big names on there – even getting on the recommended list was just incredible.

"I was so thrilled. As a new writer, having just published my first book, you can't get much better than that, really."

Mrs Lewis' enthusiasm for writing began in school – where she said she had regularly entered short story competitions.

And that practice at an early age clearly put her in good stead, for she picked up a prize in the prestigious New Welsh Writing Awards this year for her dystopian novella, The Significance of Swans.

The story follows Aeronwy, a woman who believes she is the last person on Earth.

But the chance find of an old newspaper report gives her hope that her brother may also have survived, so she sets off across Wales to find him.

The inspiration for The Significance of Swans, she said, had come from an emotional memory, shortly after her father had died.

“My brother and I had been to the cemetery to visit his grave, where our mother is also buried,” she explained.

“All of a sudden, seven swans flew overhead. I’d never seen swans flying before.

“It was quite a striking sight and really etched itself in my memory. It was almost like a sign.

“Afterwards, I wondered if I could write a story where the swans were literally a sign of something, and it all came from that.”

Mrs Lewis, who grew up on a farm in Cardigan, now divides her time between Abergavenny and London.

She said her inspiration for writing often comes from memory, experience, and connections to places.

“I spend a lot of time away from Wales and I think the distance can give you clarity about the life you had as a child.

“It’s almost like when you’re too close to something, you can’t really see it.”

As well as working on the script for the adaptation of My Beautiful Imperial, Mrs Lewis is currently developing The Significance of Swans into a novel-length book and preparing the second edition of My Beautiful Imperial.