Saltire winner Ewan Morrison: “This is probably the best book I’ll ever write”

After a decade of therapy, author Ewan Morrison was ready to look beyond his own personal suffering to create more imaginative work. Nina X, the Saltire Fiction Book of the Year, was the result. Interview by Susan Mansfield
Ewan Morrison PIC: John DevlinEwan Morrison PIC: John Devlin
Ewan Morrison PIC: John Devlin

I’ve got to hand it to Ewan Morrison, he can do atmosphere. He ushers me into his Victorian tenement flat in Glasgow, into a parlour straight out of the 1880s: drapes and candlelight, dried flowers and a tablecloth as thick as a carpet. Melancholy Tchaikovsky filters in from a neighbouring room. I start to wonder if I’m in a story by MR James.

Where I’m not is in a story by Ewan Morrison, who was recently named as the winner of the Saltire Fiction Book of the Year for his fifth novel, Nina X, about a young woman survivor of a Maoist cult. He fetches a candle so I can read my notes and tells me it’s his wife, the American screenwriter Emily Ballou, who loves all the Victorian stuff.

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Winning the Saltire at 51, he says, was “a great and humbling surprise.” “I know it’s my best work, probably the best book I’ll ever write, but it’s great to find that other people could relate to it to the degree that it’s won a prize.” He speaks of growing up in the shadow of the first generation of Saltire winners, Neil M Gunn, George Mackay Brown and their ilk, whom his father David Morrison would invite to the Wick Festival of Poetry, Folk and Jazz, which he ran. “Somewhere there’s a photo of me trying to stick a toy car into the ear of Iain Crichton Smith.”

His father’s death in 2012 was one of a number of factors which Morrison believes contributed to his falling ill with chronic fatigue syndrome shortly after his last novel, Close Your Eyes, was published. When he began writing Nina X, he was “profoundly ill.”

“I would have two-to-three days a week when I would be up and about. I didn’t really have a career or much of a life, so I thought, if I’m going to write, I might as well write for me as honestly and playfully as I can.”

He was listening, at the time, to an audio book of the Tao Te Ching. “There’s a saying that a thirsty man who chases raindrops never gets water, but a man who stands still with his hands cupped will drink. I had given up chasing, I had to sit still by force.” And what fell was a different kind of book from Morrison’s earlier novels, especially the first three, the ones he refers to as “the sex books,” Swung, Distance and Menage. “It came from a different place. It’s a book which has got a lot of compassion in it, and maybe patience. Patience in suffering is a theme of the book.

“The early books were about wild dysfunctional people trying to find who they were through sexual excess and rebellion. They were the books where I was saying ‘I hurt, there’s something I’m trying to solve, and I’m going to share my hope and some of my dark humour about that.’ I wouldn’t distance myself from those books, but I’ve moved on from them. I’ve spent ten years in therapy. I got to the stage I needed to do a more imaginative work, not just caught up in my own personal suffering.”

An idea for a young adult sci-fi novel about an experiment to engineer perfect children took a new direction when Maoist cults started hitting the headlines. Several were publicly exposed around the world, including the “Lambeth slavery” case in London, throwbacks to the 1970s which grew more secretive and repressive the more anachronistic they became.

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Nina X was raised in one such group in which she was known only as “the Project,” a carte-blanche attempt to raise the perfect citizen. The leader, known as Comrade Chen, and the four women around him, kept her indoors, denying her toys, schooling and (largely) love, editing her daily written accounts of her life to strip out any mention of “I”, of banned things such as hugs or chocolate, and of details of any of the more sinister goings-on in the collective.

When, at the age of 28, circumstances bring her out into what she calls “freedom,” she has never been in a car, watched a television or used a mobile phone. Alone in a flat with a cupboard full of ready-meals and a microwave she never uses (having been told they are the work of brain-frying capitalists), her only helpers are Charity Sonia, Case Worker Cas and Social Work Steve, hard-pressed, well-meaning people who have few tools to deal with her very specific set of issues.

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“I got very worried that she wouldn’t make it, that she would be so misunderstood they wouldn’t be able to find a box or institution for her, she would fall between the cracks,” Morrison says. While he communicates to the reader Nina’s warmth, humour and imagination, she repeatedly fails psychological tests. “You worry if she is going to end up going from one form of imprisonment to another.”

Writing Nina, however, was a joy; her voice with its distinctive syntax and her tendency to refer to herself by her first name made the process “inventive, joyful and quite addictive.”

“It was the only book I’ve ever written which was an absolute joy, she had me laughing out loud. I was absolutely distraught when I had to stop.”
Nina is the perfect lens through which to observe the absurdity of the modern world – something Morrison has done in his 2012 non-fiction book Tales from the Mall. Childlike but also astute, she questions its rampant consumerism and endemic loneliness. “I think modern capitalism is an absolute mess,” says Morrison, “really psychologically disturbing. After being left in the flat alone, with a phone and ready-made food for one person, Nina asks Cas if you get a prize at the end of life for being alone – that’s what the modern world seems to be.”

Morrison shows me to the door and back into the world, telling me about his next project, about a man who has lived through a range of experiences, many of them tough, and emerged with a measure of equanimity. Waving from the top of the stairs he says: “I need to remember to cup my hands and wait for the raindrops.”

Nina X by Ewan Morrison is published by Fleet and will be out in paperback in April.