In the latest of a new series of Q&A’s with some of Wales’s leading artists, musicians, performers, and writers, Nathan Munday talks about his debut novel, and the influences on his work of faith, literature, and Wales.
Where are you from and how does it influence your work?
I’m extremely Welsh – you’ll hear that when you meet me. Having moved around quite a bit, it’s impossible for me to locate my milltir sgwâr. To pinpoint one place with my finger would soon evolve into an exercise involving every digit.
When it comes to writing, ni allaf ddianc rhag hon! Wales is such a layered space. My Dutch wife, Jenna, was drawn to its textured landscape especially when contrasted with the flat, treeless vista of her homeland. No hills there, just dunes, and a very threatening seaside. I’m forbidden to live by the sea because cantre gwaelod is still fresh in her subliminal memory.
Married life began in Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant, the remote birthplace of the Welsh Bible translator William Morgan (c.1545-1604). No central heating, lots of sheep, and floodwater in the second week. For me, that little bangor, that library in the wilderness, captured Cymru. The hearth was illuminated every morning, and I’d welcome people to our shores. I’d tell them of how a shepherd boy mastered nine languages and how the drovers called-in for many a noson lawen. Translating the Scriptures undoubtedly saved the language, but it also meant that Christ could now speak Welsh.
I’ll never forget that special place.
Where are you while you answer these questions, and what can you see when you look up from the page/screen?
I’m in a friends’ cottage in Bosheston, Pembrokeshire. The sun wishes to be excused. Seedlings and flies are serenading in a peach sky. My baby son is watching Captain Mannering on the tv, and a lonely magpie taps its morse code on the driveway.
What motivates you to create?
Homo faber, or Man the Maker, is one of my favourite labels. It means working, creating… imitating the Divine.
For me, creating isn’t this self-centred exercise, but a propagation of beauty as I attempt to glorify God. Sharing and enjoying is important. The Genesis story talks about God surveying his handiwork, enjoying it, and then sharing it. The image we get of the first artist is not a grumpy, fun-hating hermit but a gardener.
What are you currently working on?
My writing often starts with a photograph or a fragment of text. I was walking with my father-in-law recently and, as we crossed from one dijk to another, he told me a story about this character who lived alongside a sloot, or a small canal. Uncle Piet was one of the last of his kind (I won’t tell you what he did – you’ll have to wait for my next novel!) He showed me a photograph and I was captivated. The Netherlands is such a delicate landscape – the sea, like I said, is incredibly close.
When do you work?
Always. Ideas come in the shower and even in the pulpit! I’m training for Christian ministry, so I often find myself in pulpits on Sundays. Writing sermons and talks have a creative element so I’m probably writing more than most.
How important is collaboration to you?
All my works involve elements of real people and conversations. My greatest collaborator is Jenna who is honest and the finest conversationalist.
Whaling, my novel, was born in Nantucket, yes, but it developed on a Tŷ Newydd Course. One day we wrote whilst looking at the whale-ish Enlli and my tutors, Horatio Clare and Jon Gower, advised and steered us. The first page was read-out in Lloyd George’s library. Jon would later edit my book and Horatio interviewed me at Hay.
Who has had the biggest impact on your work?
Back in the 1990s, in the world of Super Ted, Spice Girls, and Tony Blair, my grandfather preacher was my best friend. I found him far more interesting than the above.
His study was labyrinthine with its books and polished parquet. It was the place where I’d peruse the spines and where he’d break from sermon prep to draw with me on the floor.
How would you describe your oeuvre?
I don’t know. I contain multitudes!
What was the first book you remember reading?
Dumas’ Three Musketeers. I may have pronounced the author’s name like that toothless prisoner in Shawshank, but I was gripped.
What was the last book you read?
Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov. I saw him briefly in the Green Room at Hay. Later, I queued for his autograph having listened to him and Angela Rodel on the Wye Stage. His book is excellent. My only criticism is that the translator’s name is not on the front cover…
Is there a painting/sculpture you struggle to turn away from?
Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. I love the Pyrenees, northern Spain, and the borderlands that stretch from sea to sea. Its art lingers on your memory like that landscape. I read Machado’s poetry near his crossing point (look him up) and Guernica’s apocalyptic shriek just reverberates.
Who is the musical artist you know you can always return to?
I listen to Mahler, Muse, and everyone in between. I thought I’d ask Spotify this question. According to the app, my number 1 artist is Frederick Delius, that strange character who squats in my garden mind.
During the working process of your last work, in those quiet moments, who was closest to your thoughts?
Seth Johannes, my little boy. Becoming a father is such a chapter and I have no idea what’s coming next.
Do you believe in God?
Which artist working in your area, alive and working today, do you most admire and why?
Cynan Jones. The Dig, wow, it moved me. I admire his finesse as a writer, and the images he conjured. R. S. taught me the importance of the gap. Jones showed me the benefit of a smaller palette.
What is your relationship with social media?
I’m struggling. There’s an expectation to be literate and devout. I scroll through its feeds and, I must confess, I doubt. I know that if I abandon ship, I’ll be much healthier and happier. That old Nokia is so appealing.
What has been/is your greatest challenge as an artist?
Worry! Writing is wonderful, but exposing your soul makes you feel quite vulnerable.
Do you have any words of advice for your younger self?
The Bible contains these letters between the older Apostle Paul and a younger minister called Timothy. He seems to be a nervous guy, and I get it! In his second letter, Paul tells him not to be ashamed of his faith, to minister faithfully, and to exercise the gifts God gave him.
Horatio Clare, back in 2016, was Pauline in his advice. We were in a pub in Porthmadog, and he told me, “Nathan, don’t change.” He taught me this dance he’d learnt on his travels, and we talked about campfires, ships, and the unexplainable. It was an enjoyable and memorable afternoon.
So, I guess my advice would be in the vein of St Paul and Horatio!
What does the future hold for you?
All things work together for good, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy path. I look forward to meeting the older Seth, finishing my training, continuing in the ministry, and, hopefully, write more novels.
One day, I’d also like a nice VW campervan.
Whaling by Nathan Munday is available now from Seren.
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