Questions contributed by Alan McMunnigall
Q: In These Demented Lands, the character of Morvern returns. What were your artistic motivations in working with the same character over your first two books?
I don’t want to sound mercenary or anti-intellectual, but I’m not too sure about artistic motivations in relation to Morvern being in the first two books. And I don’t want to sound like a fake Zen guru either, but you can only do what you can do in the moment. It’s really more a case of chance and what came out the mix – and all the chaos back then.
I remember that when I wrote the manuscript of Morvern Callar in 1992-3, I had zero presumption it would get published. That seemed totally rational to me; new writers today are so wired in about getting published and agents and all that stuff; there are all these creative writing scenarios - which is a good thing - but I had no clue about it in my day, though I was of course, quite curious and not without a vague ambition. I got the addresses of publishers from the front of the books I liked. But the whole concept of Morvern Callar was that it was bound to be a rejected manuscript - a sort of nasty, ironic message in a bottle which would be bobbing about, unwanted forever. That was the intent in writing it. An absurd stance - but that’s honestly how I imagined things would go. Then circumstances changed rapidly when I fell in amongst other writers, like Duncan McLean. He told me not to be such a precious idiot and just to send the manuscript off to some publishers. I sent it out to several – it’s not often mentioned, but two well-known Scottish publishers turned Morvern Callar down on the spot. Very quickly it was accepted for publication at Jonathan Cape by the editor Robin Robertson - who had published Trainspotting. As soon as Morvern Callar was accepted grand schemes started to percolate under the influence of my latest tipple: brandy and Perrier I think it was then. The way These Demented Lands came about is that it was originally intended as forming part of a quartet or cycle of novels. When I say “intended,” I mean I dreamed this up while staring out some window or sitting in the corner of some pub. I should also mention that Duncan McLean and I had talked about his own planned-but-never-to-be, trilogy of novels, after his first novel Blackden was published He was going to write this great-sounding novel called Jaw Bone Walk, then another. Understandably, I knew no publisher would ever agree to such a multi-book deal with an unknown new writer like me – even though Morvern quickly became quite a ‘successful’ novel in publishing terms. This was just something I told myself I was going to do to get myself under steam. I do clearly recall experiencing a belief that I was in a position to write whatever I wanted after Morvern’s reception into the bosom of the world, and as Morvern sold more and more, including film rights, I knew I didn’t have to play it safe. I was just puzzling out exactly what to write next. I remember that as usual I was broke – not destitute, but broke – when I should have been working on a new novel in the summer of 1996, I worked instead with Boilerhouse Theatre Company on an adaptation of Buchner’s Lenz. That show toured Scotland under the title: No New Miracles, with the late Peter Grimes - a lovely guy, who I can’t believe is gone so young- in the lead role. I was far from happy with the production – there were certainly no new miracles therein, which is not to place blame elsewhere –all its failings were my failings as its writer. This was quite a mad period for me, with attendant Keith Moon-inspired book touring; the idea of a linked novel sequence must just have given me some type of structure, the hope of continuity and a long term direction at that time. As a reader, I love novel sequences. Reading is a narcotic and I am an addict, so I adore the indulgence of the old roman-fleuve: Duncan McLean and I were of course, very enamoured by A Scots Quair but I was also nuts about Moorcock’s linked Cornelius Chronicles, Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, Sartre’s Roads to Freedom, Nan Shepherd’s Grampian Quartet, Madox Ford’s Tietjens sequence, the Beckett trilogy and so on. So to the best of my recall, in my own daft wee scheme of things, the mighty “Morvern Cycle” was going to be Morvern Callar, then there was going to be a novel where Morvern was a single mum working part-time in an old people’s home during a Highland winter, then there was going to be the apparently unconnected “novel” from Morvern Callar - which Morvern’s boyfriend had written and Morvern had falsely published under her own name. Then there was going to be an oneiric novel, where the pregnant Morvern dreamed or hallucinated that she had died and entered a Hell-like circus-dreamscape, fearing for the welfare of her unborn child. That was These Demented Lands. So much for all these great notions, eh? After writing Demented, I started straight in on what was to become The Sopranos and the whole novel-cycle concept sort of evaporated and got left behind, though it has come back to life with The Sopranos and The Stars in the Bright Sky - and The Deadman’s Pedal which I see as part of an ongoing cycle. Around that time in the early 90s I was also writing fragments of a strange novel set in the Highlands amongst a millenarian Christian sect of young people who have been infiltrated by drugs and a nasty, sexually exploitative guru. This was similarly abandoned - and doubtless for the better - though I occasionally toy with the idea of going back to it. I do feel its spirit influenced These Demented Lands. It was sometimes titled Trend Fault Team 2, sometimes The Far Places.
Q: Do you regard These Demented Lands as in any way a sequel to Morvern Callar?
These Demented Lands seemed to me more like a parallel text - an adjunct to her uneasy unconscious, a fever dream which Morvern was having. It would have been easier for me to have written a straight Morvern Part 2, but I just didn’t want to do that. Or not in a realistic style with the quotidian details of her pregnancy. I was really amazed when These Demented Lands was sometimes reviewed as a piece of realism. I mean, it seemed to me the novel was about people trying to track down pieces of a crashed UFO which have been buried in a coffin – it certainly wasn’t “gritty” social realism. I think some critics came with a strong cultural stereotype about what Scottish writing at that time was presumed to be – a stereotype I was immediately kicking against - though I shouldn’t sound nasty, because from what I recall, the book was very well reviewed - just misunderstood.
One thing I do clearly recall is that when I started writing These Demented Lands its structure was very different. It initially centred on a mixed group of folk in a pub on an inner hebridean island, who talk about novels over pints and drinks; they weren’t as formal as a Book Group, just a disparate collective of four of five people who meet in the pub and informally talk books. The way I used to. But sections of a strange manuscript were being mysteriously posted to the address of this pub – a larger manuscript was building up for this increasingly motivated reading group, a manuscript which referred to a selection of very local myths and apocryphal tales and even referred to the origins of local, freakish landmarks. I was assembling this weird geography of a strange island. I definitely recall that I was thinking of both (for some reason) Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game and (more understandably) Brian Friel’s play, Translations. These characters in the pub were analysing the sections of text as they came in, while at the same time they were trying to work out what was happening in the texts – if these events had indeed occurred in the past or if they were going to happen in the future – was it all fact or fiction? So that novel was quite a curious, strange bit of writing but naturally, very talky. I seem to have lost the draft manuscript of this original opening in a great biblical flood which in 2006 really did destroy a lot of my books and documents in the cellar, coating them in a glorious slime of river mud. I was trying to find that manuscript for the National Library of Scotland, but could not, so I can’t remember now how many physical pages I wrote in this mode. Not that much, sixty to ninety pages, at a guess. But I soon thought the stand-alone texts being sent in to the pub, which constitute what you read today, were more compelling and I abandoned that meta-fictional framing mode. There were too many characters building up in that version, so I was doubtful it was working. Ironic that I got involved with a novel like The Sopranos next, which has loads of characters.
Q: Some readers were struck by apparent differences in the characterisation of Morvern over the two novels. Did you set out to show a different perspective of Morvern in These Demented Lands?
Well I wanted her to seem a little more jaded, perhaps cynical and also, as if she has herself become a curious reader of fictional narratives after her own ersatz publication. She seems aware of textual matters, like punctuation and phrasing, which she comments on. But of course, in a dream we conceive of ourselves in different ways. It is strange looking back on your writing after all this time - of course no novelist can give a perfect list of the books that they intend to write - and then fulfil that list. Balzac tried. Things change along the way. It is sort of a wonderful or maybe frightening adventure: at the end of the day, what will you have come up with, as opposed to what your intentions were as a writer back in the beginning?
Q: The novel features allegory, symbolism, strong imagery, highly descriptive prose and has an overall surreal quality that at times feels like fantasy. Were you consciously writing against/ reacting to a ‘realist’ tradition?
You are right. Without doubt that is exactly what I was doing. It is a pretty bonkers novel. I quite consciously wanted to push against “realism” as a mode of writing for this particular novel and to move into a far more gothic, mythical, surreal style – almost mocking ‘traditional Scottish realist’ subject matter and subverting it with a crazy, dream-like plot. But then I was happy to move back into realism within the text and also in my later novels. I do love realism and all the questions that it throws up. You go right back to Flaubert’s Bovary and you realise how much poetry is in him. He wanted to be romantic, but couldn’t in that novel, compared to say the beautiful Saint Julian the Hospitator – honesty made Flaubert destroy the romantic in Bovary, and you can bring realism right up through Zola and Joyce, through Kelman to some of the contemporary American short story writers, like Annie Proulx or Barry Hannah, Junot Diaz. I think it’s the most challenging mode to write in, the most rewarding one to read, but of course I enjoy lots of different styles: I am a fan of quite a lot of science fiction and of course I am fascinated by historical novels too. In a way all novels are historical novels.
Q: Some critics have described These Demented Lands as an ‘apocalyptic’ work. Would you agree?
I think that’s fair enough. I don’t know if everything I write doesn’t have apocalyptic potential! With These Demented Lands, I do remember I was also thinking in terms of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Miguel Asturias – his novel The President. Both of which seem fairly apocalyptic in tone. I am not saying for a moment that my junk compares to those stellar things (and neither does much from my contemporaries, I might add) – just the thrills those books give you are starting points. You don’t want to emulate the books you admire, you want to approximate the emotions they engender. I seemed to find back in those days that if I started off with the “feel” of another few books in my mind, I soon got something down on the page which felt like my own. By the way, talking of this novel, there’s this band called Maximo Park with a great sad-voiced singer, Paul, and I am a bit star struck because they’ve just done this great song about These Demented Lands, called ‘Leave This Island.’ It’s really gorgeous. It’ll do for my funeral!
Q: How important is the island setting to the structure of the work?
Well setting is geography, and geography is always so very important in any novel – think about the endless wonder which is Wuthering Heights, its highly localized, repeating geography and how it functions. But there needs to be a large justification in cases where the setting almost becomes the story, and that can happen. For instance, two writers who perfectly justify an obsession with specific local geographies are Georgio Bassani and Patrick Modiano –or as much Modiano as I have been able guzzle up in English translation. Now that he’s won the Nobel, I hope there will be far more of his work in English. For these two great writers, a specific urban geography is deeply significant to their work: in Modiano’s Dora Bruder, the highly detailed, specific streets and addresses of Paris become in themselves a framework, a Dante-like map of life and death, as they actually were during the Nazi occupation. These were fatal geographies - for some. Most of these same streets, addresses and apartments are perfectly preserved in Paris today and still hold a massive, horrific historical relevance for Modiano, which he works through in Dora Bruder; he becomes a cartographer of catastrophe. With Bassani, the very specific walled geography of Ferrara and its environs is as much part of his painstaking - and heart-breaking - evocation of a time and place as is the characterization of those young people; the way they are thoughtlessly and naturally integrated into this geography from which the Jewish members will so soon be forcibly deported. It’s a similarly doomed and menacing world for its Jewish population as is Modiano’s Paris. Bassani is building both a beautiful, faultless portrait of a time and place, but also a rigorous testimony.
You can see why the geographical observation is so acute in these two writers. I think novelists and story tellers adore a small island setting because it immediately and conveniently demarcates the limits of the geography; it sets up the simple notion of the drama – either characters want off the island, or something is coming there. Though ironically, is all “British-set” fiction, not also set on an island? But think of all the great novels set on wee islands: Defoe, Capek, Verne and of course Robert Louis Stevenson. The setting of my novel, the landscape this dream is based upon, is the Isle of Mull. That epigraph to These Demented Lands: ‘We went down into the waste…’ comes from a description of Rannoch Moor in Kidnapped and in the same novel, Alan Breck and David Balfour also cross the actual landscape of Mull, in that remarkable orography of their journey, into and through history and then out of it again to something more moving and personal. On the other hand, if you think of Treasure Island, the story seems to have literally grown out of a map of an imaginary island which Stevenson drew with his young stepson. Yet when you read the text closely, you see that the microcosm of the map sometimes becomes a little vague in the macrocosm of the actual story. That’s what I find anyway. The locations have come first, not the story. This interplay with geography is very interesting, I mean Stevenson’s impulse seems to be his need to be faithful to a specific geography, and this happens again and again in his work. But his faithfulness to the map, kind of trips him up! It’s always like this as a fiction writer when you get tied down. I remember deliberately keeping the geography malleable in These Demented Lands, so I could get my characters about easily. That’s always the basic problem of rural settings for novels, if characters don’t have cars, how do you get them about? They are always waiting for trains or buses, or cadging lifts. Even in a dreamscape! So the setting is based on Mull where my mother’s family are from and I spend time there, but of course it is a Mull in a troubled dream, an imagined place, melted by the strange opiate of sleep into something else. ●