Guest Post: Peter Finch – Walking in a Lockdown

This morning, to celebrate National Walking Month, we have a guest post from avid walker and author of Walking Cardiff Peter Finch. He tells us what walking in a lockdown looks like for him when separated from his fellow wanderer John Briggs and how it is affecting work on their next project.

Walking in a Lockdown

Out, up the hill, it’s always the same hill.  Weave into the road to avoid the next guy.  Smile.  Sometimes they smile back.  Climb.  Runners pass, headphoned, sneaking up behind silently and then zooming on in a rush of huff and sweat.  Advice I’ve read tells me that being laterally near a runner isn’t too bad.  It’s getting caught in the slipstream you need to avoid.  How do I police this?  I’m thinking of adopting a Friar Tuck walking pole.  Thrash it about.  Make myself utterly anti-social but certainly safe.

On the way back down, with the on a clear day splendid views of the city’s high-rise and the sea beyond, I try to imagine myself elsewhere.   Walking the Valleys again. The follow on project to Walking Cardiff.  Writing such a book during lockdown, getting there by Google but pretending it’s real, is akin to studying Macbeth through Coles Notes and never reading the actual text.  Not that we are without some touch of genuine experience.  Both John Briggs, my fellow Valleys wanderer, and I have walked Valley landscape and township extensively together in planned excursion.  We’ve also done this individually in swift half days to scope a place out -a couple of hours rambling Ponty looking for traces of Dr William Price and Iolo Morgannwg and a few more in Ron Berry’s Blaen Cwm checking out the entrance to the Rhondda tunnel and the end of the world streets Charlie Burton painted so well.

We’ve walked these places historically – mine often recalled through fog – a reading with Mike Jenkins at the Imp in Merthyr, as a child accompanying my father to work in Ystrad Mynach,  to one of Harri Webb’s legendary parties at Garth Newydd.  John’s have usually been done through actual photographs.  He’s sent me a great thirty-year spread of black and white coal pits taken across the whole Valley landscape, a detailed set of Merthyr Tydfil done one Christmas in 2014, and then, his piece de résistance, shots taken on a Literary Tour (which, under the auspices of Academi, I organised but, for unfathomable reasons now, did not go on) in the company of Daniel Williams and Nigel Jenkins to look for traces of Idris Davies in the valley top town of Rhymney.

 

Rhymney was the place we were right in the middle of exploring when the virus struck and our ability to walk freely was rudely curtailed.  I’d walked around the centre on my own – found the Idris Davies plaque on the house where he died, seen the Michael Disley statue of the miner and the steelworker back to back over one of Pete Seeger’s Bells of Rhymney and had a cup of tea and a piece of doorstep toast in the café with no windows on the High Street.  Looking later at John’s pics, taken in 2011, that statue looks bright and new.  It looked stained and neglected when I passed.

John had one well up on me.  He’d also visited the actual Davies grave in Rhymney Cemetery and stood listening to Nigel’s sonorous voice recite extracts from Gwalia Deserta.  Idris Davies, the people’s poet, the miner who could rhyme and make memorable our collective fears and aspirations.  His Maggie Fach and 1926 I’d help turn into poster poems, famous throughout Welsh bedsits for a whole generation, back in the 70s.  It was good to trail in his wake.

South of Rhymney station was a place where neither John nor I had yet ventured.  Here was land once occupied by Bute’s great Egyptian-styled Union ironworks but now vacant and worn.  On it  stood the operation of K J Services Ltd.  This presented the world with the greatest assemblage of broken, bust and otherwise abandoned mechanical diggers and JCBs anyone could imagine. Running for miles.  Visible from space.  There’s a YouTube tour, I discovered, and an overhead walkthrough available on Google Earth.  That’s all we have for now as the virus chases our tails.  When it’s dead John and I will visit in person.   For all this virtual stuff, Zoom meetings, Skype chats, Facetimes, Houseparty romps and desk research until my eyes ache you just cannot do without first person.  Don’t let anyone say different.

Peter Finch

28/04/2020

Photographs taken by John Briggs.

 

Walking Cardiff is available on the Seren website £14.99

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Friday Poem – ‘Sea-Front House’ by Anne-Marie Fyfe

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Sea-Front House’ by Anne-Marie Fyfe from her new book No Far Shore: Charting Unknown Waters.

No Far Shore by Anne-Marie Fyfe is no ordinary exploration of coastlines. She combines travel writing, history, memoir and poetry in an intriguing meditation on the sea, the land, and the maps, lighthouses, islands, north, journeys and other things which mark them. In the process, she also looks at the work of a number of writers for whom the coast has been influential including Elizabeth Bishop, Herman Melville and Virginia Wolf.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Far Shore: Charting Unknown Waters is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Check out our Christmas Gift Guide for last minute present buying inspiration! Order online by the 19th December to get your books in time for Christmas day. 

‘No Far Shore’: An Interview with Anne-Marie Fyfe

No Far Shore  by Anne-Marie Fyfe is no ordinary exploration of coastlines. She combines travel writing, history, memoir and poetry in an intriguing meditation on the sea, the land, and the maps, lighthouses, islands, north, journeys and other things which mark them. In the process, she also looks at the work of a number of writers for whom the coast has been influential including Elizabeth Bishop, Herman Melville and Virginia Wolf.

In this interview she tells us more about why she moved away from poetry in this exploration and how the book developed during her journey.

You write that the collection takes ‘no settled form’, and it is written in a mixture of poetry, prose and music. How do you think this enriched the story you were telling?

It wasn’t so much a means of enriching the story, as recognising that unsettledness of form – like the unpredictability of coastal seas – was a way of exploring the story in all its depths. Having published  five collections of often strange & slightly surreal poetry, I’d let much remain beneath the surface. It isn’t just that poetry allows one to avoid explaining – it had also allowed me to avoid exploring. Since I’ve been teaching poetry & creative non-fiction in the US, I’ve been struck by how much hybridity of form, mixing traditions, crossing boundaries, offers certain writers not just a new aesthetic, but precise metaphors for subject matter. And it seemed that, for me, setting out into new forms paralleled setting out into the unknown waters of a deeper narrative.

What commonalities would you say that the writer and sea fearer share? Why do you think literature has such an enduring romantic association with the sea?

I’m not sure it’s specific to writers. So many creatives, whatever their artform, music, film-making, painting, etc, feel the need to grapple with the sea. We have to face its threats & dangers if our options aren’t to narrow down into one safe piece of dry land; & its vastness, its distant horizons have always been somehow magnetic. My puzzle wasn’t just why so many writers are drawn to the sea, or why I’m particularly drawn to those writers, but why so many sea-farers & those who spent childhoods by the sea, went on to become writers.

In the collection, you discuss the idea of ‘journeying map-less’, arriving somewhere without expectation. How much direction would you say you have when you begin writing?

I can answer that with Bob Dylan’s line about No Direction Home, or TS Eliot’s idea that all our exploring will lead us back to where we started and that we’ll know the place for the first time. I guess the book was always going to come full circle, back to Cushendall (where I grew up) after the actual journey (Felixstowe, Orkney, Barra, Hook, Swansea, Martha’s Vineyard, North Haven, Maine, Nova Scotia & on to Cape Breton), after the literary journey, exploring coastal writers’ lives. And, of course, after the emotional journey into my own & my own people’s sea-girt pasts. But I didn’t set out knowing what I would find in terms of ‘understanding’ other writers’ passions, or knowing how my family’s story would fall into place.

No Far Shore is filled with meditations on horizons and edges, which seem symbolic of knowledge and certainty. How do you explain both the thrill and fear that seem embedded in self-discovery?

It’s knowledge & un-certainty really: we know when we’re leaving behind the familiar & trying to map the unknown. The two defining edges are the near edge, shoreline/tideline/coastline, between known & unknown, & the illusory far edge. The horizon appears geometrically straight but actually curves horizontally, as well as falling away from us into the distance & off the edge of the known world. So there is No Far Shore in one sense.  And when I lead workshops entitled Edge of the Depths as I’ve done all along the coastlines I’ve travelled, I’m thinking of both near & far ‘edges’.

As for ‘self-discovery’, in a sense that Joseph Conrad would recognise as clearly as TS Eliot, all voyages are self-discovery &, as with any other journey, excitement & dread are involved.

In some senses it’s been the opposite of write about what you know. It’s rather write because you don’t know! The act of bringing together memory, myth, fact, history, poetic fragments, snatched thoughts, conversations, the act of writing it, is less about retelling & more about exploring.

No Far Shore is peppered with references to mythology. In what ways do you think the sea/or a sea-faring journey reflects aspects of human identity? What can we learn about ourselves from looking to the land and seascapes around us?

In a way all our sources, literary, cultural, historical, local, & family, are what shapes us growing up. So Treasure Island & Greek myth &, say, news reports of a local shipwreck in the years before I was born, stories from local fishermen, conversations on a family car journey, all have equal status: what they all do evidence, though, is the looming presence, since the earliest times, of the sea in our geographic & psychological mindscapes. What we learn from those stories, & from simply gazing at oceans & horizons, is more complex than simply longing, aspiration or awe. Which is what the journey & the book taught me, & is the book’s hesitant conclusion.

You cite Elizabeth Bishop’s value of ‘aloneness’ and write of your own desire to discover that ‘other self, deep down’. How do you think the figurative journey through poetry and the physical journey across the sea, differ in unearthing the ‘other self’? How would you define the ‘other self’?

I’d long cherished Bishop’s ‘aloneness’ remarks as touching on something both positive & negative in my own feelings about coasts, isolation & home. Finding or not finding a ‘far shore’, finding the ‘other self’, is simply the long journey towards understanding oneself: an understanding that I’m sure, for some, could be found simply by reading, writing, & contemplating. But for me that understanding required the physical journey, going back to coasts, headlands & harbours, gazing at islands & lighthouses & horizons that Bishop, Woolf, MacNeice, Melville, Tove Jansson & so many more had gazed upon: the difference between ‘research’ at one’s writing-desk & an actual ‘quest’, an ‘odyssey’ perhaps.

You talk about the ‘lure’ and ‘lore of islands’, that ‘Island is illusion’. How influential is the concept of intangibility over your poetry and prose?

On islands/isolation, of course, I’m playing with words & concepts, & while the idea of the desert island in children’s literature always fascinated me, islands can be isolated from the world & yet be some of the most closely-knit, supportive places to live. Like Barra in the Outer Hebrides where my McNeil family originated. Like North Haven in Maine, where I found one of Elizabeth Bishop’s holiday homes: it’s an island outsiders love for its remoteness, its escape from the busy world (unlike, say, fashionable Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket) and that year-rounders, conversely, love for its close community & family ties.

I’ve lived happily with intangibility & a certain evasiveness in poetry that’s never seemed difficult, just a little strange, perhaps, oblique or mysterious. But this new strategy of combining, around each coastal theme, poetry fragments, observations, reflection, memories, facts & – as you’ve mentioned – myth, creates much more tangibility. It’s an approach that allows the reader many different ways of joining me on the journey.

What was your favourite place to visit during the travels that inspired this collection?

Difficult to weigh up, favourite-wise, the tranquility of blue harbours at Loch Eireboll, Fresgoe in Caithness, Fethard in County Wexford, or Lubec on the US/Canada border, against the magic of a moon-silvered midnight in the Western Isles. But the most important times for me were the nights spent in Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home in Nova Scotia, which were pivotal in my thinking not just about her life, but about my mother’s, and my own.

Although the text predominately explores themes of isolation and solitude, it also demonstrates remarkable ties of connection between literature, people, home and place. Would you say we can only understand our ‘aloneness’ by understanding the ways in which we are connected to others?

The ’story’, the exploration, unfolds to show that a desire for solitude can arise from the need, not to imagine an elsewhere, or a future, but for sufficient remoteness from the world to allow us to recapture, momentarily, a vanished past, to spend time in the imagination with people who mattered to us and whose memory is often lost in the noise & busyness of the world. Oddly that desire to be alone with one’s reflections isn’t inconsistent with the desire, as a writer, to share one’s solitary, personal reflections with the wider world in poetry, novels, or books like this.

You end the collection with a coastal soundscape, which among many things, consists of Morse code and music. What inspired you to end the collection this way? How do the visual and audible aids capture what you were trying to convey in a way that poetry and prose alone could not?

Having set out with a sense that many different literary & oral forms of communication have a place in understanding what makes us who we are, I was also aware that – although Yeats says words alone are certain good – there were other forms of communication jostling for attention throughout the essays/chapters: sea sounds, wireless experiments, songs my mother sang, radio waves, lighthouse signals, Mayday messages, a ringing telephone, even car headlights on a coast road… all part of a visual & aural picture that would bring together the various strands, the interwoven stories, the literal & metaphorical journeys.

No Far Shore: Charting Unknown Waters is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Friday Poem – ‘Driving Home’ by Christine Evans

Our Friday Poem this week is ‘Driving Home’ by Christine Evans, from our regional pamphlet Poems from Snowdonia.

Poems from Snowdonia is part of Seren’s pamphlet series celebrating the spirit of place. The dramatic mountain ranges of the Snowdonia National Park take centre stage here, with their craggy peaks and waterfalls, along with the abundant wildlife, particularly birds like the Red Kite, Greenfinch and Chough. There are also poems set in coastal areas, the beaches around the Dyfi estuary, in Gwydyr Forest, on a hill farm near Blaenau Ffestiniog and in a Bethesda quarry painted by Peter Prendergast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poems from Snowdonia is available from the Seren website: £5.00

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Give the perfect gift: Each of our regional pamphlets come with with an envelope and a postcard making them the perfect stocking filler for your loved ones this Christmas. Other titles in the series include Poems from The Borders, Poems from Cardiff and Poems from Pembrokeshire

Friday Poem – ‘Body Language’ by Tamar Yoseloff

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Body Language’ by Tamar Yoseloff from her new collection The Black Place. You can watch video interviews of Tamar reading from and talking about the collection on our Youtube channel.

The Black Place is a dark and gorgeously multi-faceted collection that eschews the sentimental, embraces alternatives and offers antidotes to cheery capitalist hype. But there is a sort of dark grandeur to Tamar Yoseloff’s view of mortality, one that matches the sublime desert painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, the subject of the title poem. The book’s subjects include Georgia O’Keeffe, the poet’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, and the Grenfell Tower fire disaster.

 

The Black Place is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Join us to celebrate the launch of The Black Place this coming Monday (25th November) from 7pm – Downstairs at The Department Store, Brixton, London. Tamar will be joined by special guests Tim Dooley, Sue Rose, Claire Crowther and Anne Berkley. All welcome. Find the full details on our website.

Friday Poem – ‘Gull Song’ by Zoë Skoulding

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Gull Song’ by Zoë Skoulding from her new collection Footnotes to Water which is a Poetry  Book Society Winter Recommendation.

In Footnotes to Water poet Zoë Skoulding follows two forgotten rivers, the Adda in Bangor and the Bièvre in Paris, and tracks the literary hoofprints of sheep through Welsh mountains. In these journeys she reveals urban and rural locales as sites of lively interconnection, exploring different senses of community, and the ways in which place shapes and is shaped by language.

 

Footnotes to Water is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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An Interview with Alexandra Ford

A forgotten history, a lifetime of secrecy and one woman’s search for the truth.

Alexandra Ford’s debut novel What Remains at the End sheds light on the lesser-known history of the former Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans – the Danube Swabians – and the horrors inflicted on them in the aftermath of World War II under Tito’s partisan regime. In this interview, we talk to her about writing the book, its themes and what she might have in store for us with her next novel.

 

What Remains at the End focuses on the forgotten history of Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans—the Danube Swabians. What first drew you to this topic?

Like Marie, I have a family connection to this history. My grandparents were survivors of the expulsion. And much like Marie’s grandparents, my Oma and Opa, while they spoke a lot about the war, didn’t go into detail about what had happened to them, to their communities. So, in many respects, researching for and writing this book was my own way of grappling with and understanding my family’s history.

What was it like doing research for this book and where did you focus your search? Have you visited any of the places Marie travels to in her own search for answers?

Researching for this book was a challenge. I interviewed my grandparents when they were still alive, but unfortunately, we’re at the point where many of the people who lived through World War II are gone. At least in the English language, there aren’t many written resources available, and the resources I did find were often written and compiled by people with a strong connection to the history. So, they weren’t academic texts, you could say, and there was a lot of understandable emotion—anger, indignation, horror—written into them. Which didn’t always make them reliable sources. But they were human, and they were primarily composed of personal stories as told by victims. Which is what I was most interested in as a writer—that and those grey areas of morality in Western culture.

And yes, I visited pretty much all of the places Marie travels to in her search for answers. I think it would have been very difficult to write this book without having seen Vojvodina and these places where so much horror took place—both for the historical short pieces and for the modern narrative, to understand what Marie would have felt living her experience.

The book shifts between 1940s Yugoslavia and modern day, connecting Marie’s journey with the experiences of her grandparents. What made you decide on this structure to tell their story? Are the historical sequences based on real events?

This book began with the historical pieces. The first one I wrote was the one about Emma Marzluft and her family being forcibly removed from their home. I created the characters and put them into very real, researched circumstances. A number of my stories came in this way. Others drew heavily on personal accounts. Which is a very roundabout way of saying yes, these stories are based on real events, real people, real places, often real details.

The structure didn’t take long to follow. I knew I needed something to balance the bleakness and violence of the historical pieces, something that wouldn’t trap me in the same place as my resources: coming across as indignant or self-righteous, leading me—and readers—down a path that doesn’t differ terribly from hate. The book needed to make room for complication in the landscape, and paradox, if only because it’s arrogant to believe we are incapable of the things other people have done, that we are better. Maybe we’re not. Western culture as a whole has a lot of blood on its hands.

I also felt it was important to show who these surviving victims became and perhaps why their stories have remained unspoken into the present day. So, I knew what I needed, but I didn’t know how to build it. It was actually in conversation with one of my mentors that I realised Marie was my way forward. I told my mentor about my upcoming trip to the former Yugoslavia, my connection to this story, and she said, ‘That’s it. That’s the answer.’ And it was like someone pulled open a window blind and all the light came rushing in.

You often opt to describe the horrors inflicted on Yugoslavia’s ethnic Germans through the eyes of a child. What was it about the child’s voice that made you choose them as key narrators of these events?

Part of this, I think, is that, of the personal accounts I’d heard or read, many had come from people who were children during the war. If they were old enough to be telling me their stories, as my grandparents were, they could only have been children at the time. And sometimes in their retellings, I could hear the childhood language they may have used to describe it all before they grew up. It made sense for me to tell it from that point of view. But also, I find something particularly compelling about a child’s perspective. They can be much wiser than adults. They speak a language more evocative and open than grown up language allows.

What Remains at the End makes the reader consider several moral themes that will be challenging for some: ethnic cleansing, racial prejudice, infidelity. Do you think it’s important to challenge readers by discussing difficult/undiscussed topics?

Absolutely. Where, if not in books, can one wade through these things? I love the space fiction leaves for the reader to think and feel their way through complicated issues. I look for that, as a reader. Life is complicated—both personally and on a macro level. Getting stuck into moral dilemmas is part of what it means to be human. But I acknowledge that some of the themes in this novel are particularly challenging. They were challenging for me as well. I asked myself often if anyone would even want to read about ethnic German victims of World War II. If it was right to tell the story of German victims, if the process of doing so would belittle the millions of victims of the Holocaust. But what I came to, and what I hope readers come to as well, is that it’s important for us to look at our history in its entirety. Because if we don’t look at all the things that have made us, how do we know who we are?

Your book has a dual purpose, firstly to entertain readers, secondly to shed light on a lesser known but significant part of history. Why did you think it was important to bring the horrors of these events to light and why now?

It certainly feels relevant to share this story today. We’re in the throes of Brexit, after all. So much has changed in the decades since WWII, but not as much as one might hope. Donald Trump, the rise in anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, right-wing populism—Western society is swinging the pendulum back toward nationalism and the rhetoric of otherness. I never thought I’d quote Mark Twain, but here I am. He said, and I’m paraphrasing: history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.

Sometimes those rhymes are riddles. Sometimes they’re terrifying echoes. But we have to know the lines that came before to feel the rhyme. And this seems a pretty good time to brush up on our poetry.

This is your first novel, although you have been writing for a while. How did the process differ from what you have done before and how did you find the process? Was it harder than you expected?

The biggest difference between the writing I had done before and What Remains at the End was moving from short forms into writing a longer narrative. I felt comfortable in the world of short and very short fiction, where you have to be super economical with your writing to pack a whole story into a small space. Longer narratives don’t work in quite the same way, so there was definitely a learning curve. Weaving the historical short pieces through Marie’s story was surprisingly one of the more intuitive parts of the process. But I suppose the thing that was most difficult, and definitely harder than I expected, was how long it took to revise. It took two years to write what I felt was a strong first draft—and five years of revisions after that before it was finished. I learned the importance of embracing a book’s evolution and to accept that that evolution takes time. And it needs people. Writing a book is not a solitary journey.

You are currently working on your second novel. Will it be exploring similar themes or are you looking at something different the second time around?

It’s early days for my second novel, so it’s difficult to talk about with clarity. I’ll continue exploring challenging themes, but with a much more acute scope. It will tell the story of two women isolated together in a rundown house—a mother and her grown daughter—as they navigate life, death, grief, and healing from past trauma. I don’t know if it will be a book about forgiveness, but it will be a book about the idea of home, about memory and longing. And about morally complicated people doing the best they can and coming to terms with the possibility that their best isn’t enough for their loved ones. If it turns out as planned, it’ll be a bit of a dysfunctional Marches pastoral. But one thing I’ve learned is that the process of writing a book is full of surprises. So, we’ll have to wait and see, but it feels really good to be writing something new, not knowing where it might lead.

 

What Remains at the End is available to pre-order on the Seren website: £9.99.

Join us for the official launch of What Remains at the End at The Hurst (The John Osbourne Arvon Centre, SY7 0JA) on Saturday 23rd November from 4pm. Alexandra will be reading from the book and there will be wine, cake and a signing afterwards. 

Friday Poem – ‘Bicep to Bicep’ by Mary J. Oliver

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Bicep to Bicep’ by Mary J. Oliver, from her new book Jim Neat: The Case of a Young Man Down on his Luck.

Jim Neat is a coalescing of prose, poetry, documents and photographs in which Mary J. Oliver uncovers the life of her father. Tinged with the tragedy of his partner’s death and an orphaned daughter, it ranges across the history of 20th century England and Canada.

Gathering documents, following leads, Mary traces Jim’s story full circle. She presents the case for the remarkable life of an ordinary man. His family and the people who knew him are the witnesses in his defence. The verdict is this extraordinary memoir.

 

Jim Neat is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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An Interview with Robert Minhinnick

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.

Nia will be available on the Seren website from the 1st October 2019. Pre-order your copy now. 

Robert Minhinnick’s ‘Sea Holly’ series is a set of three novels that follow generations of one family – the Vines – and a cast of characters brought up in the same location, which is dominated by the sea, wild duneland, and a funfair. 

Friday Poem – ‘Severn Bore’ by Catherine Fisher

This week’s Friday Poem is ‘Severn Bore’ by Catherine Fisher which first appeared in her 1988 collection Immrama, and later in our regional pamphlet Poems from The Borders.

Poems from The Borders is part of Seren’s pamphlet series celebrating the spirit of place. Featured poems range from “the spine of the A470”, through Monmouthshire, over the dramatic Brecon Beacons, and also through the Black Mountains towards Hay-on-Wye, towns in Herefordshire and Radnorshire and along rivers, the Wye and Severn.​

 

 

 

 

 

A prolific, popular and prize-winning author of fantasy fiction, Catherine began her career as a poet, and returned to poetry earlier this year with her collection The Bramble King. Her first collection since 1999, it is full of darkly resonant tales ingenious parables, curiously haunted rooms and palaces, and beautifully observed images of the natural world.

The Bramble King is available on the Seren website: £9.99

 

Poems from The Borders is available on the Seren website: £5

Immrama is available on the Seren website: £3.95

Next Wednesday (28 August), Catherine will be at The Poetry Bookshop in Hay-on-Wye alongside our poetry editor Amy Wack to read from Poems from The Borders. They will be joined by Christopher Meredith, Maggie Harris, Rhiannon Hooson, Emma van Woerkom, Charlie Wilkinson, Nicholas Murray, Nicholas Whitehead and Bob Walton. Find out more here.

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