Robert Minhinnick is one of Wales’ (some would say Britain’s) most eminent writers. Next month we publish his latest novel Nia, the third book in his coastal trilogy all set in the same fictional resort. Ahead of its publication on the 1st October, Robert talks to us about the novel’s themes, its characters and what inspires him.
In Nia, dreams, memory and time all flow into one, leaving the reader to decide for themselves what is real and what is in Nia’s imagination. What about this structure draws you to it when writing and how is it important to the development of your characters?
Frankly, ‘madness’ is a big part of my life, and how it is socially perceived. Schizophrenia continues to play a role in my family, via my mother and her sister, aged 93 and 91. During World War II, my father contracted malaria, in Burma. The result was periodic delirium. My writing tries to explore ‘madness’ and delirium, and relate them to memory and dreams and the very act of writing ‘fiction’.
Throughout the book you touch on themes of the environment and climate change. Do you think it is important that authors use their voice to highlight issues to their audiences, and why in particular are they important to you?
You’re interviewing someone who is co-founder of Friends of the Earth Cymru, in 1984, and the charity ‘Sustainable Wales’, ongoing.
This is your third novel set in the same fictional community, each with interlinking characters but separate, stand-alone stories. How have the community and its inhabitants changed over the course of the series? Will we see any more writing set in the same place?
The fairground is a constant theme. It’s a powerful metaphor, a constant source of drama. I can see it from my attic. I like the idea of a particular family or community being examined. After all, staying/belonging are familiar themes in fiction.
Nia is a book dominated by sunshine, even drought. Limestone Man experienced a suffocating sea-fret. The town’s economic circumstances always play a part, as does its history, and they are very much based on Porthcawl where I live. The street names, for instance, are the names of ships wrecked off the Porthcawl coast.
You take Porthcawl and the Merthyr Mawr dunes as the inspiration for your fictional town. Why did you choose to reimagine that place?
I write about where I live. I decided long ago that I should celebrate Porthcawl and the areas between the mouths of the rivers Ogwr and Cynffig. My writing is one way of achieving this. In Nia, I also celebrate my time in Saskatchewan, and my brief periods in Kerala and Amsterdam. Writing about different places can create an interesting friction – a little like icebergs grinding against each other in the South Saskatchewan river.
Some may say that the structure of Nia is reminiscent of that of prose poetry. How does your long career as a poet influence your prose style?
Originally, Nia possessed chapter names. I dispensed with these at a late stage, as I felt they directed the reader too forcibly. One of my friends is disappointed by the first two novels in that there seems no real ‘resolution’. Of course, I tell him, even death does not resolve matters…
How has your fiction style developed over the course of writing this series? Did the process of writing Nia differ from that of your previous novels?
I’m older. But still wishing to learn. The character of Nia is developed because some years ago the former fiction editor at Seren, Penny Thomas, told me I should strengthen my female characters.
Nia is obsessed with words. What is your relationship with them?
Well, obsessional might be the correct description.
Another blurred boundary between time and place, comes about through the travel stories vividly recounted by Nia’s friends throughout the book. In what way is the theme of travel important to the book, and to Nia’s story in particular?
I wanted to write about Saskatchewan. There are poems actually written there incorporated into the text of Nia. Also memories of visiting Auschwitz, Amsterdam, Kerala and New York. But the editing process removed many references…
Nia’s perception of her life seems unstable throughout: she constantly questions her own sanity and her role as a mother. These kinds of traits can be seen in the lead characters of your other two novels as well. What draws you to this type of character as a narrator?
All my narrators are ‘unreliable’, and plagued by self-doubt, dreams and delusion. That’s why memory blends into delirium. The fairground is an excellent means of depicting this. I look at the eyes of my grandchildren as they encounter the funfair, or ‘the shows’ as we used to call it, and wonder what they see…
At the heart of Nia’s story, is her dream expedition with her friends into the unexplored caves beneath the dunes. Why did you choose to centre the action of your book on a caving expedition, and what is the significance of the trip to Nia?
It’s a fictional expedition, but Nia doesn’t dream it. Yet she experiences many other dreams in this novel about the dunes, their history, flora and fauna. ‘The Shwyl’ caves are based on ‘the Schwyll’ cave system, which provided fresh water for the Bridgend area (including the Seren office) until recently, using ‘the Great Spring of Glamorgan’, which emerges in Ewenni.
Thus, it’s a real place, little known yet fascinating. Perhaps Nia feels intimidated by the travel stories of Isaac Pretty and Skye, and it’s her way of competing with two seemingly powerful personalities, who have returned to her community.