INTERVIEW by Gwen DaviesNWR Issue 95
Robert Minhinnick is the prize-winning author of volumes of essays, poetry and a novel, Sea Holly
(Seren, 2007), which was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize. He has twice been awarded the Forward Prize for Best Individual Poem and twice also the Wales Book of the Year for his essay collections To Babel and Back
(Seren, 2006) and Watching the Fire Eater
(Seren, 1993). His other titles include Fairground Music: The World of Porthcawl Funfair
(with Eamon Bourke, Gomer, 2010) and a book of translations, The Adulterer’s Tongue: Six Welsh Poets
(Carcanet, 2003). His New Selected Poems
] is published by Carcanet this June. He is the co-founder of the environmental organisation, Sustainable Wales, and was formerly the editor of Poetry Wales
. Robert Minhinnick lives in Porthcawl, south Wales. The Keys of Babylon
was published by Seren in 2011. His story from this collection, ‘El Aziz: Some Pages From His Notebooks’, which first appeared in New Welsh Review
90 (Winter 2010), has just been nominated for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2012 which is worth £30,000 to the winner.
: Robert, congratulations on The Keys of Babylon
and in achieving an ACW Creative Wales award to help you write it. May I ask first of all about literary forms. You are a well-established, prize-winning author of literary essays and had been moving, in previous such collections, towards a unique blend of nonfiction reportage, memoir, character-led dramatisation and magic realism. What new freedoms or restrictions did the short story form offer you in approaching this book?
: My Creative Wales award didn’t specify prose, but I always wanted to offer a substantial prose work.
Writers change, that should be no surprise. The Keys of Babylon
offered the possibilities of creating characters who share an impulsion. Also, it provided me with the chance to recreate and understand several different locations. I felt I needed to catch up with my own experiences.
Too much travel is a bad thing. I prepared an ambitious travel schedule for Babylon
but realised what I had to do was recall and reimagine places via existing diaries and notes. In the end I stayed home, wrote and thought.
What I wanted to produce was a book that might be read and enjoyed by as many people as possible. But for me Babylon
is an intensely political book. Maybe the most political work I’ll ever write, although I think I’m becoming more political. My environmental work has always been so. These days it’s as much social as anything else.
A careful reader should discover Babylon
is like a Russian doll – minorities within minorities. Thus Robin (in ‘No Matter how Much I know’ has to explain who the Seminoles are; Rhiannon (in ‘I Say a Little Prayer’) finds gypsies in Amman; there are ‘los Indios’ in ‘In Goliath’s Country’; Fabien (‘The Boy with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Gene’) knows from the Tiete bus station that Brazil is a complicated country; Lloyd in ‘The Dead-Letter Men’ uses the Welsh he remembers his grandmother speaking. And so on. That’s why Porthcawl fairground figures large in the book. A fair attracts particular types of people. Nerys the worldly, capable Lithuanian, and Zuzanna the wonderfully inquisitive Pole, are two such. The fair also supplies the ‘carousel’ image that recurs in the book.
: The settings for your stories include Iraq, Albania, northern Canada; Argentina; Manhattan; Arizona and Brazil. None of your characters are at home; their original nationalities include Polish, Lithuanian, Chinese and Mexican as well as Welsh. Time and again you give an exotic twist to a Welsh or British scene by entering the perspective of a ‘foreigner’, as with Polish Zuzanna describing the drunken Bridgend ‘Roid Boys’ in ‘The Wild Strawberries’: ‘How perfect the steroids have made them seem… He’s down to his jock strap…. In the streetlight he’s like a golden altar’. And you reverse the technique, for example having Macsen, a crumby Welsh film-maker in Baghdad recall a statue from Iraq Museum, Baghdad as a domestic tableau, ‘my mother’s 1950s’ hairdo frozen in Parthian limestone, [its] drapes [her] dressing gown’ (in the story ‘In Those Days There Were Lions in Iraq’ which covers the looting of the museum, both that sanctioned by Saddam Hussein and that ignored by US soldiers in spring 2003 after the city fell). When you planned this book, was it your main aim to turn ideas of the ‘exotic’ and the ‘foreign’ on their head?
: Yes. But everything depends on experience and perspective. Porthcawl or Bridgend might seem exotic or mundane. How could a mall in Saskatoon be extraordinary? What about a restored concentration camp – as seen in both Poland and Lithuania?
Migrants can have remarkable energies. As pathfinders, even trailblazers, they lead the way. I believe ordinary people live extraordinary lives – migrants especially so. Mohammed might be correct in that he’s saving the treasures in Baghdad Museum. Would he have been a fool not to use the opportunity that presented itself?
: In ‘The Tunnel’, set in Dave’s Tavern near NYC’s Port Authority Bus Terminal, Juan says of Midnight Cowboy, which the landlady has on a loop, ‘Everyone in that movie was cursed by their own dream.’ Some of the travellers in these stories are seeking out fantasies, others are escaping nightmares. Although many of your immigrant characters are poor labourers, waiters or careworkers (especially Bridgend’s eastern Europeans), you do throw in some rich foreigners, such as well-connected ‘fixer’ Mohammed (‘In Those Days There Were Lions in Iraq’) whose luxury pad in Poole was financed by crates of Iraq Museum loot. And again you reverse the trick in the same story by portraying the Welsh Macsen as an incompetent do-gooder (all the important bits in his Iraq film got cut and he’s so uninterested in his own nation he wants to be known as Max). When you mapped out your main characters for the collection, how much was it your intention to confound stereotypes about travellers and poverty?
: I tried always to avoid stereotypes. I wanted my characters to be individual but credible. Mohammed is based on a real government guide who took us around. What I did was to wonder what happened to him ‘as it all went to Hell on the streets of Baghdad’ – to quote my poem ‘An Opera in Baghdad’.
As to Macsen – maybe he’s ‘crumby’ but then he’s my age. He’s a version of me. He’s bewildered by politics and what’s happened to the green movement. But don’t blame the greens. Isn’t Macsen’s bewilderment what happens to everyone as they age? Macsen’s arrogant and foolish but he finds a role of film maker that might be real. At last, here’s something worthwhile. Isn’t that what people want? Purpose? To be enthused?
characters are dealing with what middle-age brings. For me, Macsen’s salvation is that he’s still political. Yes, he’s alienated, bitter, resentful. But he believes his film might have a valid political purpose. If it brings him a certain self-celebrity along the way, all to the good. That’s what Macsen has always craved. He’s had this film on tape for years. Somehow he finds the wherewithal to have it edited.
Personally, I regret not doing more with the Iraqi film I helped make. All that work to get there! Then smuggling it out! I held on to those cartridges until the Natonal Express dropped me at the Odeon in Sarn. Then... disappointment. Maybe writing about Macsen was my attempt to attone for this failure. ‘My masterpiece restored’ is how Macsen describes the film, an actual film with real people, such as Umm Ghada who guarded the four hundred dead in Amiriya.
: Despite being a man called Nerys after a river in Vilnius, he is one of the collection’s survivors. Nerys says about time, ‘Funny how your time comes and then passes… It was a kind of in-between period. The end of days.’ Each story in The Keys of Babylon
contains some sort of origin story, sometimes told to the protagonist rather than by them. But this is seldom placed at the apex of the narrative, and the chronology of each is broken up and further distored by the inclusion at the end of the book of a section, Fellow Travellers’, which provides a real-time, same-hour catch-up with all characters. Although much of the material concerns memory, there is little sense (except perhaps in the mind of UFO-obsessive Big Little Man) of that looping quality I personally associate with memory and time (and perhaps traditional forms of short fiction). Rather, both time and memory in this collection shunt back and fore like a freight wagon, with associated metaphors of journeys and decoupling. Tell us about how you approached time and memory in the book?
: Rachel in ‘No Matter how much I know I know I know Nothing’ says ‘I’ve always thought time ran a crooked line... like a river meandering...’. For me, she’s the most interesting character because she has no real memory of her own origins. She has to believe what her New York Jewish foster family tell her and what her imagination creates. As she grows older, Rachel starts to doubt everything she’s been told about herself. At age 70 she finally realises she ‘knows nothing’. Which perhaps is liberation.
Babel figures in several stories as a real place. A man pointed out to me what he said were the last few remaining mud bricks of ‘the Tower of Babel’. So is the tower a myth or is/was it real? He seemed to think I might believe in it. Babel falls, as the Twin Towers fell in ‘No matter how much I know.’ But if Rachel’s husband didn’t go to work on ‘9/11’, how could the dust of the Twin Towers have settled on his shoulders?
What’s real? What can we believe? Memory’s always hugely imperfect. Usually it’s close to fiction. There’s a poem in ‘Hey Fatman’ with the line ‘Memory / is the slipperiest deal we get’.
Add to that the fact that people are always changing, indeed have to change. I started writing when I was fifteen – song lyrics. At nineteen I wrote a prose and poetry ‘novel’ titled The Night Before Winter
. I’ve recently rediscovered it. Maybe fragments will appear in the book, edited by Cary Archard, which Seren will publish late in 2012. After that, I wrote (I think) two full length novels. Perhaps I was a prose writer before I was a poet. Any writer will tell you their fictional characters are as real to them as actual family and friends. I’ve always been a ‘writer’ but I concentrated on poetry because it was easier to publish. Then so many people told me I was a ‘poet’ I started to believe them. But life’s more complex. What I feel now is that maybe I should have spent more time with fiction.
Nerys is a survivor. But how long can he last? ‘Funny how your time comes, then passes....’ Nerys is learning a vital lesson pertinent to all. He exemplifies the tough, possbly dangerous people attracted by a strong economy, as was the UK’s in 2005. Nerys recognises a Nazi tattoo on a Polish worker at a carboot sale in Wales and realises ‘everyone’s coming in’. His character grew from a tool I own and have used: a ‘bolster’. What a weapon it would make, I once thought. So, I had the bolster. Then I attached Nerys to it. That story started with the tool.
: How easy was it to get into the voice of your female characters, Maria, Zuzanna, Rhiannon and Rachel? How important is it that these four, like your male characters, are all rather solitary and childless, considering that exploring a settled extended immigrant community might have brought a different aspect to the book?
: Seren was initially not happy with the female characters in my debut novel Sea Holly
. Nor was my twin sister, who considers the published book’s females thinly drawn. To try to rectify this – in draft stage – I created Nia Vine, daughter of the protagonist, John Vine, and involved her with an older man. I tried to make her real, with her own hinterland.
I consider Rhiannon in ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ as a character who can be developed. Indeed, she might merit a novel to herself. Her childlessness is a big part of her life, as is her wry understanding of the failure of her ambition. She learns to settle for what life delivers. But she still wants to explore it. Her ‘tour’ of the USA is based closely on my last US readings – about 2008: down to the final gig in the Tibetan museum.
As to settled [immigrant] communities, I wasn’t interested in portraying them. I come from a settled community. I live in one. I’ve seen the damage created by settled communities. All my characters turned out to be self-motivated and self-starters. Maybe obsessives. They’re like artists or activists. In fact two or three of them are artists.
Rhiannon, at fifty, is reaching the stage of ‘what’s next?’ That, for a woman without children, has tremendous poignancy. Add ‘failure’ or disappointment as an artist to that (bearing in mind that all artists ‘fail’) and you have a character with real possibilities.
: I enjoyed the satire of that peculiar breed of voyager, the twitcher, in ‘The Dead-letter Men’ and even more so, Lloyd’s post-script section, where The Travellers’ Club in its British incarnation is shown to be narrow, racist, mysoginist and elitist. Anything to add about the over-privileged tourist?
: ‘The Travellers’ Club’ in Pall Mall, London, is where they held the announcement for the Ondaatje Prize in 2008. I’d never been anywhere like that previously. It was crying out to be satirized. But maybe my satire is too mild.
One of the reasons for the birth of the ‘Occupy’ movement and the other non-party protest groups, is the exhausting elitism of British society. But the bird watchers I imagined for the Travellers’ Club scenes were working class and, yes, obsessional. Think: ‘Silvertown Clive’.
Sometimes I’m asked to take ‘travel writing’ workshops. I simply say everyone is now a travel writer. It’s far harder to write about staying home, or where you come from. Many writers fail to engage with this issue. That’s why I’m writing ‘Mouth to Mouth: A Recitation Between Two Rivers’ – prose and poetry about that area between the Ogmore and Cynffig rivers. My fairground book [Fairground Music: The World of Porthcawl Funfair], plus the novel I’m currently attempting, are parts of it. But maybe Zuzanna with her letters to Krakow from York Place, Bridgend, got there first.
: Zuzanna’s voice in ‘The Wild Strawberries’ is full of verve, partly due, I think to your choice of an epistolary format. Did you consider presenting any other stories or indeed the whole book in the form of ‘letters home’?
: I discovered the ‘letters’ format by accident. It was one of the last stories to be written, and it’s a device I should definitely reuse. Zuzanna is inquisitive, feisty, brave. I grew to like her immensely. John Barnie asked me ‘did you deliberately plan to make Zuzanna a royal pain in the ass’? To me, she’s a distinctive, independent woman. But the letters format might mean she over emphasises everything.
She lives in Bridgend at the time of the young people’s suicides, and is perplexed by this. She’s also surprised at some of the alcoholic excess of that area in the last decade – maybe now slackening off. I found her a strong character through whom to explore south Wales. Where she comes from (Krakow) offers ironic and tragic possibilities and these origins link her to other characters in The Keys of Babylon
: My last comments are about techniques used for interlinking your stories (no need to answer, just enjoy!). Plotlines and places do occasionally converge, and certain characters and cameos appear outside their main frame, for example Peevo the Pole. But for me, apart from its very clear themes and morality, the collection’s unity emerges through poetic language of natural phenomena, often landed midtown like hapless tourists. Indeed, pissing Peevo springs back to mind, ‘a urinous gleam from the glass in his fist… a swollen ghost… in his ammonia-crotched Wrangler’s.’ Also in ‘The Tunnel’, nature is handled with tender humour in Port Authority cleaner Juan’s reception of a roadkill hawk meshed in a Greyhound’s grille, ‘“Hey,” he said. “Where you get on?”’ And in the same story, Juan’s colleague Jesus ‘working in the tunnel, picking up garbage. Soda bottles, shredded tyres like crows’ wings.’ However cynical we may be about the American Dream, there’s no denying the beauty and innocence of Fabien’s awakening (‘Fellow Travellers’) in the treelined girls’ dorm of UC Santa Cruz. In São Paulo he’d worn a second-hand shirt bright as a camp butterfly; now ‘there were other students awake now, girls high in the trees wearing pyjamas, girls in little shortie nightdresses up there in the branches, shaking out Golden Grahams or opening tubs of strawberry froyo while a pair of stellar jays dived through the foliage.’ And perhaps The Keys of Babylon should have finished on one of my favourite scenes, a Porthcawl skinny dip whose memory will keep Zuzanna warm through many a Warsaw winter: ‘I’ll remember running naked under the pink Welsh moon, my arse wobbling like floodlights on the water.’
: I said to someone that The Keys of Babylon
is my autobiography. Its imagined places – Florida, Poole, Dave’s Tavern, Wild Horse – are as real to me as ‘actual’ locations. And all its people, including Peevo, with his forty bottles of Budweiser per day, are me.
Yes, this book is full of the poetry of the natural world. Juan sees the hawk in the grille, the moth in the hotel room. But, let’s face it, ‘poetry’ dries up for many (all?) poets. Maybe I’m trying to learn how to keep writing. The move back into fiction might help me stay alive as a writer.
Recently I read a news story about a fifty-nine-year old female bank cashier imprisoned for swindling her friends and church. How awful! is the reaction. But I say, there’s someone I could write about. I’m immediately attracted to that woman. She’s my age and maybe I could create her via Zuzanna’s letters strategy. Suddenly I feel real empathy.
Like many immigrants, Fabien has to be more than brave. He is resourceful and determined. Maybe he’s also lucky. He finds a job, a room, a manager, then Magdalene. Mic is less resourceful. Then he loses Li, and does his luck run out in the hostel fire?
Actual dreams were an issue for certain Babylon characters. Three years after writing that book, ‘dreams’ are now what fascinate me, as time, memory and dreams combine and blend into volatile, ever-changing ‘reality’.
Robert was interviewed by NWR editor Gwen Davies, picture by Lucy Bourke
next interview: Jane Yeh