Alan Warner & Brian Hamill in conversation, June 2020
In your introduction to Good Listeners
, you talk about the "much-maligned" Kailyard school of Scottish lit. What is it about the Kailyard style that led to it being so maligned, and what drew you to it as a reader?
It's assumed to be sentimental in content. Style, I suppose is slightly different. There are stylistic differences between Barrie and say, the Rev Ian McLaren. Too much to go into, but it’s interesting how they attack a sentence, these people. Rory Watson is a great scholar of Scottish literature ... but he goes so far as to invent a new genre himself, which he calls "sentimental realism" ... and he even includes bits of Grassic Gibbon and most surprisingly, Jessie Kesson ... who I don't find sentimental at all. Rory seems quite touchy about sentimentality and any sniff of it. I find some of the stuff in the Barrie stories tough ... and hugely well-observed as he wrote about a small Scottish world he knew well. Of course I can see how it’s seen as sentimental, but it can be more than that. I find quite a lot (not all) of Scottish crime fiction sentimental, sort of back-slapping and self-congratulatory, celebrating the fact we all - the readership - recognize a real pub. It’s like smelling your own socks. And huge swathes of Dickens of course, though I am a Dickens fan. Sentimentality can be quite subtle actually!
So what was the thinking behind the 'Kailyard with Nudity' idea then? Did you intend it to just be a continuation of the Kailyard style with that particular element thrown in for humour? Or, if the intention was to build these stories into an entire collection, were you going to take your Kailyard stories into some darker (ie, tastier) territory?
It was pretty thoroughly tongue-in-cheek. I just realized that Blind Billy’s Pride
and Sullivan's Ashes
had nudity as a theme. Fairly puerile I suppose. Yet I was colliding that with Wee Scottish Town Life. Slightly couthy. So I thought it was nicely subversive to take a slight Kailyard concept but collide it with definite non-tea-with-the-vicar content. And I suppose we could say nudity is a theme in your story The Red Rabbit
It definitely is in the stage version I've been working on privately.
Aye ... for the National Theatre of Scotland?
No no, Uncommissioned Productions of Partick. We do nude versions of many popular short stories.
It’s a new genre for theatre. It would pack them in. Actually, The Red Rabbit
could make a damn good play …
I feel my frustrated inner thespian ache for the stage at the very idea. But to get back on track – all three of your stories in the book are narrated in the first-person – is this something typical of the Kailyard style, or is it just the medium that you think works best for your short fiction?
Any mode can work. The telling voice of the Third Person is handy for small town stuff as well as it can pontificate. But look at say, Winesburg, Ohio
by Sherwood Anderson. That’s all very small-town stuff, but very sophisticated styles are in use. I always have a weird blind spot about how a story ends up in first or third or second point of view. It’s odd. In this case, I think because the genre might be seen to be of a settled community, the first-person voice draws in the reader to that local sensibility – but that's not a rule. The “I” voice has to be carefully balanced as it has all this local knowledge that leaks out. I mean the voice of the newspaper guy in Blind Billy’s Pride
is a different voice from the narrator in Sullivan’s Ashes
, who is younger and probably a touch more street-wise. They both share a certain world-weariness I note – and a grim sense of humour.
One more thing about the Kailyard and our contemporary aversion for the sentimental, which we must take care not to confuse with sentiMENT (which is something that comes from an emotion) in the Romantic period. I read an interview with an academic and novelist recently, where she was asked what was the last book to make her cry, and she replied that tears were not relevant to literary judgement. If you extrapolate that, you get this dry, hard concept that what literature makes us FEEL is irrelevant. I notice a lot of this ... but what books and art have made me FEEL, emotionally and spiritually, is why I love them, and it is startling to see that coldness so starkly expressed. In most academic spheres we can never discuss how an artwork makes us FEEL. It has to be about what makes us think. Music too. It’s a primary element of the aesthetic. I have been spontaneously reduced to tears by a bass guitar solo, it was so beautifully played and constructed (by Rhonda West, to confess) – how can that be aesthetically meaningless?
I couldn't agree more. It's that kind of mentality which means (in the west) we overvalue these enormous, sterile, dense, and erudite (and usually, but not always, American, male, and white) novels so much, and overlook those books that do what art is supposed to do – engage emotions as you read. I know I’d get more from something scrawled on a napkin by James Baldwin than the latest 500-pager by Rushdie.
Exactly. I think you and I would probably agree on exactly which novels those ones are. Sometimes you fight your way through one of these great honkers of profundity, then you pick up a short story and it can blast right through the girth and symphonic excess of a 400-page novel. I just experienced that when I read that great short story The Bush Undertaker
by the Australian writer Henry Lawson. What a cracking tale. Cuts straight to the human condition without us having to go via Harvard or Yale. All that scorning of the emotional response to a book also diminishes the pain and suffering of characters. If a book makes me cry – like Primo Levi, or Gogol, or a novel by Peter Behrens called Carry Me
did a while back – that is not irrelevant to the beauty and art of the book. It's expression. It's the POINT. You cannot intellectualize that response out of existence.
Aye. I'd suggest that a book may be incredibly well-plotted, intricate, complex, and the writing very polished and well-observed, and highly allusive, but if the only stimulation it can evoke is cerebral, I say it isn’t an example of art working at its highest, greatest level at all. (It’s why I often dislike Borges, but that's for another conversation ... )
It is another conversation, though like you, I find Borges immensely clever but cold as ice as a writer – as I do Muriel Spark. Now I don't want a literary culture of just Little Dorrit
, or Greyfriars Bobby
(though that is an interesting book), full of tearful deathbed scenes. But the emotional in literature is always tricky for the Literature Police, and whatever latest critical theory is in fashion – much as some of it is interesting – can’t just devalue the feeling that a bit of writing evokes. There are lots of wolves dressed as sheep in the old book game.
You mention deathbeds, which makes me think of ways that our fictional characters could end up there – are your stories in this book actually a reaction against that kind of darkness? So much of the best short fiction in Scotland in recent decades has come from a tradition of dark urban tales, involving violence, nefarious substances, social unrest – all the good stuff, really. Your stories in this book are of a different world entirely. Were you consciously trying to take short fiction from/in Scotland in a different direction?
I suppose It All Pours Down Like Silver
is rural dirty realism, yet I get what you mean. There is a sort of affection for the locale in these tales isn’t there? A certain positivity. I guess I might be doing that ... I have been reacting against different things since Morvern Callar
. That doesn't mean you don't like what comes before. A painter might see a painting in reds ... he loves it ... but he wants to use blues himself. It's like that. But enough of my pontificating. Talking of blues and reds, I wanted to ask you about The Red Rabbit
I love the story. You have two characters Wajid and I note, Brian. I don't want to break down the illusion and I don't know how much you use autobiography in your fiction. It’s something that comes up with writers who are starting out a lot. If you’re writing from experience, you must take care not to become a prisoner to: "What really happened" ... writing fiction is about finding the essences of what really happened. I wondered if a lot of this went on in Red Rabbit
? Essences of lived experience, but of course changes and invention to make it into functioning fiction. Some writers do use life experience wonderfully, but some are often terribly handcuffed to experience and can't use it to fictionalize a form, or an essence.
BH: The Red Rabbit
is based, fairly loosely, on my experience of going back to uni. A potted history of my life is that I went to uni as a 17-year-old who'd never had any money and barely been out of Airdrie. As you'd expect, things didn’t go well. This is very similar to what the narrator ‘Brian’ talks about at the start of The Red Rabbit
. By 2009, I had gone back again and got my trusty English Lit degree, and I’d then been working very low-paid jobs in factories and call centres for several years. I scrimped and saved and borrowed enough to go back and do another degree, this time in computing. The folk I made friends with right away was this amazing group of Indian students, some of whom are still good pals. One of them was called Shashir – he was a brilliant guy, quite like Wajid in the story, but not as naïve ...
He's back in India now after dropping out of the course close to the end. I could bore you by going through where the story is exactly true to life, and where it diverges, but that would be fairly needless I think. It’s all based on the reality, but aye, as you suggest, artistic licence is used throughout. For example, I had already (mostly) stopped drinking by then, whereas the Brian of the story appears to be a highly dedicated steamboat.
The relationship between the two guys is brilliantly expressed. Just by not saying too much. And Wajid is a great character as you never try to over-explain him through Brian's narration. As a reader you just accept the sort of casual depravity of the lifestyle they both drift into. And their easy friendship. It's very, very funny as well. The wonderful thing about Wajid for me is that he starts out as seemingly superficial, thrill-seeking, self-indulgent and spoiled, but he is actually deeply sincere. He goes through with his emotions ... with his love, in a committed way. It's why I wrote in the introduction that it seems Brian is the fractious, troubled character ... not the seemingly-doomed Wajid, and Roxi/Nicole. I thought that was such a great shift in the narrative. It was like Chekhov man!
Anton wishes. You know, this story went through so many, many drafts over many years. To start with, about 6 or 7 years back, I can't remember exactly, it was very short. I think maybe just the story of one trip out to a lap-dancing club. I remember my good pal Lewis Gordon (a published writer himself, and currently a member of the mighty Deacon Blue) doing a great edit of it for me a long time ago. I think in earlier versions I was trying to do the cheddary old 19th century Russian thing of Roxi/Nicole as the virtuous fallen woman who gets rescued from the harrowing existence she has known, but over the years the story was becoming more oblique the more I worked on it. Well, more oblique in some ways, and more substantial in others. Roxi/Nicole developed past being a ‘type’ as a stripper/lapdancer – I suppose she still remains a character of mystery, but she gains much more of a real-world presence and a greater humanity than in the original wee story, where she was only seen from a distance by these two idiots. I was always a bit suspicious of writers who would talk about how they didn't actually know certain things about their characters and their motivations, but with The Red Rabbit
I found that this was definitely the case. Is Nicole using Waj or does she really love him? Does Waj actually believe she loves him, or is he using his money to cling to her desperately? Is Brian jealous? If so, is he jealous because he wishes he was the one with a beautiful girlfriend, or because he doesn’t want to share his best mate? A friend of mine also emailed a while back to say this is a great gay love story, because it’s clear that Brian is deeply in love with Waj. He quoted the part where Brian is talking about how Waj looks at you, his brown eyes, etc. Again, maybe I was thinking of this at the time, somewhere deep in the brainbox, I genuinely don’t know. I was just scribbling it down furiously, things bubbling up and onto the page, the way you should do it, and the way I rarely get to now, on account of general laziness and a full-time job and miscellaneous other distractions.
It shows how hard you worked on the story. No stances. No judgement on any character – just life rolling out for us in the surprising ways it can. It is a love story, and the reader can decide. Gripping to the last word.
Well it was crucial to the story that Brian didn't know any more than he actually knows, if you know what I mean? Any more than he could know, in the real-life scenario. It's a first-person narrative, so if he somehow knew everything about Nicole and Wajid and their relationship (and his own feelings), and started (to use your word) pontificating on it rather than wondering about it, then to me it wouldn't be a real story anymore. It wouldn't be like life in any way. It'd be like the kind of fiction I despise, which is what many people consider to be great art, ie: mainly these encyclopedic narrators blabbering on from a great height, with a range and diction that no real human actually thinks or speaks like. I try to be as true to the character as possible, to have their voice and their thoughts out there, like all the many writers I admire do in their own ways. To use the most inane phrase in the English language - "It is what it is."
What it is, is a bloody great story. And I was thinking about the more interiorised title as well.
I don't have any idea why I called it The Red Rabbit
. It's not very erotic eh? I’m sure there’s a place in ‘Twin Peaks’ called Jack Rabbit’s. Maybe this was in the mind somewhere. I like ‘Twin Peaks’. Well, series one anyway. And the film was ok.
I never watched ‘Twin Peaks’. Not a single episode. I am odd like that. Never watched ‘The X-Files’. I didn’t know who Mulder & Scully were for years but everyone was talking about them. Didn’t watch ‘The Wire’. Nothing against those works. I am always drifting off somewhere else. As a club name ... a scarlet bunny ... I think it’s quite a good title! And the legacy of the Playboy Bunny. I mean what was that all about … dressing women up as rabbits? Bizarre.
I was thinking, talking of men and heterosexuality, that your story Good Listeners
, again it clinches that male sexuality … the territorial stuff …
It's interesting you say that. I think the idea for that story came from one time I was watching a wildlife documentary and a big squadron of male animals were all bombing it after this one female. It really looked like they wanted to kill/eat her, but David Attenborough kindly explained they all just had the horn, bad. The female was absolutely petrified. I think they were wolves but can’t be sure. Anyhow, it was one of those moments that brings home what a miserable thing males often are. And I am one, so I can say this with knowledge and confidence. Good Listeners
is essentially that, but set on a bus in Glasgow, and narrated by an oddball, not a 90+ year old naturalist. Plus I travel on buses every day and am endlessly intrigued by overhearing conversations, the wee judgements and fantasies that come to you as you listen in, what you would say to them, etc. I go into tedious length about this in my interview with Janice Galloway
though, so I won't repeat it all here. I’m a semi-pro eavesdropper, and I take this role seriously.
The story is very much intended to be within that existential, experiential tradition where you’re suddenly and completely within the confines of someone’s troubled skull for the duration. I wrote it in a particular, detached way where a lot of the sentences don't have a direct subject at all. I’m told this strikes readers as odd. It was intended to be, because this narrator is not a well fellow. However, my desire for oddness may not necessarily translate into readerly pleasure …
A friend of mine said the story is like 'pervy Beckett'. Having less than a millionth of a percentage of his genius, I will take this, gladly.
It's spot on. And so weird that’s where you got the idea from. It’s uncomfortable and powerful, the way he just moves in after ousting the competition. Typical toxic male. You can be in a club, or I was when I was younger, and you’re just watching men making arses of themselves. We can't help it. You see a guy, a shoe missing, vomit down his ripped shirt, but still he will make a direct line up to a pretty girl. How is it going babe? Ha ha. We can't stop. It reminds me of a poor animal in a ring, one leg hanging off, but still fighting to survive. We are a terrible gender.
Exactly. It's the life force. How grim.
‘Pervy Beckett’ is a back-cover quote.
It's my name on Reddit.
(I'm not on Reddit)
What is Reddit? The Red Reddit. Is it like ‘Twin Peaks’? So The Writing Tutors
– that story reminded me of myself; of how MYSTIFIED I was by writing and writers – I so wanted to break in and "touch" it all somehow. How early on, I was ready to jump on anyone’s advice, no matter how good or bad; whereas what counts is not taking advice but looking at the page … working out how things operate on the pages of a book.
Part of why I want to do these interviews is to try a little to demystify the whole thing for anyone who is interested, cos I was as confused and frustrated and mystified as your hapless Danny when I started out. A very funny story.
I don’t know what Reddit is either really. Or Instagram. I hear these things, I repeat them. It makes you sound as if you know what’s happening. I know what Twitter is, and I like that. That’ll do for me.
Danny in The Writing Tutors
represents both myself when I started going to writing classes, and a particular sub-species of person who was often in attendance at those classes – hence the remark about how he has decided to become a famous novelist, so better start learning something about writing. It felt like some folk were just there to be told how to churn out some hit books and become famous, rather than being very interested in how fiction actually works. I haven’t been to a class since about 2015 or thereabouts, but I’d imagine they’re still the same, and probably always will be. Always infiltrated by a few wannabe celebrity writing stars who continually depress the shite out of everybody else there.
It's true. I guess you get the same in windsurfing and French classes. Plus those who just seem to be there out of vague curiosity. For sure everyone's life has a book in it, but writing it is the tricky bit. That’s why it’s so stimulating teaching Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen for me. Students are motivated – interested – curious. And they have been reading.
Well, Danny is the polar opposite of that. And he represents me in terms of my early confusions – it took a long time for me to come to any sort of understanding of fiction, description, language, and how these relate to each other, to real life and real speech, etc. I was confused by the praise that would be lavished on writing that, to my sensitive, highly-attuned Airdrieonian ear, sounded like a large pile of high-falutin' theatrical thesaurus guff. I think I'm just drawn more to an oral storytelling tradition, rather than a written one. I was reading Richard Ford the other day – whose work I like and admire very much – but suddenly this first-person narrator started babbling on like his mouth was the quill of Victor Hugo, right there in the midst of what had been an actual conversation! Maybe it's what holds me back as a writer, but my conscience just won't let me lean in and turn my narrative character into this removed, sagacious presence who can randomly sweep across time-periods and geographical land-masses, describing and defining things in grandiose style or god-like detail. I love Selby and Kelman and Rhys because their narrators are people that talk. That talk the truth. That don’t wrap themselves within this incredible mastery of literary language that leaves you trembling – aghast with the sheer grandiloquence of it all.
I should actually clarify here – their narrators possess a much more
sophisticated mastery of language than your Henry Fieldings and so on, but it is a mastery rooted in the rhythms, music, humour and subtlety of human expression, and relationships, and not a mastery of … performative erudition, or scholarly eloquence.
Performative erudition is well put. The writer believing: “here comes a big sentence with at least two clever words in it, so I am okay.” We can be led to believe that’s what good writing is. Selby was ahead of the game and you can see he thought carefully about the page, and the way his work communicated on the page. Kelman superlatively so. A whole universe of meaning. Rhys was a remarkable writer. So sad – her brilliant voice crying in the wilderness – done in as a woman and as a writer. I think what she was doing was far finer than, say for instance, D.H. Lawrence, who has these moments of sheer beauty in his prose but then so much uncontrolled wind-baggery. In terms of Rhys having control over her prose, she is a far, far better writer in my book than Lawrence is. It's so hard to convince people that ‘rhetoric’, to use that quaint old term, is not the road to wisdom in writing.
Richard Ford sure does have some lovely, well-formed stories: Rock Springs
, I admire. Still feel The Sportswriter
was very influenced by Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer
; though many aeons since I read either.
Aye, he's great. I forgive Dickie. I went to see him at Edinburgh Book Festival a couple of years ago and he just radiated brilliance. These old grand masters, him and Tobias Wolff, they’re incredible. Still doing it at such an advanced age. I consider that instance I was talking about just a momentary lapse. And I’m sure he’ll be so relieved to know my opinion of him is not diminished..
The other thing I think I wanted to achieve with The Writing Tutors
was, you know, a young guy being presented as suddenly struggling to relate to those he has grown up with, just because he's reading / studying at a hallowed institution for higher learning … I've always hated that kind of fucking claptrap. Do you know what I'm referring to here? The precious folk who magically can't relate to their lowly family and friends anymore because they're operating on a higher level of consciousness, due to going to university. People that write about that sort of piddling crap as if it’s a meaningful dilemma. What utterly unimaginable bollocks. I’ve seen it in various books over the years and it’s beyond irritating. How are you not able to relate to the people you’ve spent your entire life with because you go to uni for a couple of years, and sit in the union a few times slabbering a load of uninformed shite about Dostoyevsky? I hope anybody who ever thinks that way gets the treatment that Danny receives in The Writing Tutors
– dragged into his room and grounded, ie: treated like the daft, arrogant baby he is.
I know exactly what you mean. I think it’s fair to say many, many of an entire generation of grammar school boys in England did that to their parents and class in the 50s and 60s. Fast track to ‘social mobility.’ The regional accent disappears. Took a step away from their class and abandoned it, in case it ‘held them back’. It’s a complex issue that can illuminate a lot of hypocrisy.
Aye. That. Half-witted attempts at social climbing. I remember seeing people wrinkling their noses at the uncouth parents or school friends when their more trendy uni pals were there. Absolutely turned the stomach. Anyway, we digress ... So, Blind Billy's Pride
Yes. The old man and the wardrobe malfunction.
I love in the story that the current edition of the local paper is going to be "as big as cattle-market specials". Such a great detail for showing what a sweet and mundane wee place this is. How close is this to Oban as you knew it growing up? (And did ye ever work at a local paper?)
It's very close to the Oban of the 70s. I had nothing to do with the local paper. Of course The Port Star is fictional, but I do have a romantic view of local papers and journalism and it’s a shame so much is dying out with the internet. I am a romantic sort it seems. I never worked at the local paper. That would have been very outlandish for the Warners. We were a very practical family in one way – eccentric in another. I know what you mean – as a guy who later got into books, did I ever take an interest in being a roving reporter, like the editor/narrator, or like Shutters Stuart in this story (who is also mentioned in The Deadman’s Pedal
), but nah. Certainly not in my early years. I’m not sure I would ever even have thought: Who Writes a Newspaper? But in my earliest years we did live right next door to where the local newspaper was printed. It was still physically produced in Oban: huge rolls of blank paper and old composite typeset presses, big buckets of treacle ink getting tipped on, and this glorious smell! Amazing really. As a kid I would stand in the lane and watch through an open door as the compositors dashed around while the paper got printed. You could see the taut paper shooting through the mechanism. The glistening blackness of the fresh ink. Fascinating for a kid. This would be 1968 or 69. I have a weirdly vivid memory of many things and blind spots on others.
And is a 'Hillman Imp' a real car, or did you make this up? That name is glorious.
It really was a car. I think it was produced, or at least assembled at Linwood? Amazing wee things ... engine in the back; my mate's dad had one. A lot of families had no car at all back then. We did, we were very comfortable, but a lot of my mates from the council estate didn’t, and it was such a life-changing thing for families when they eventually got a car. To go out for a drive on a Sunday for the whole family was a massively exotic thing to do.
Do you think people of small communities still have the kind of solidarity and social responsibility that's demonstrated in BBP
, or is this a thing of the past now? I noticed at one point in the story, the newspaper editor/narrator decries "youngsters wearing earphones". I could be wrong, but this felt like it may have been you speaking via the character. This is something I'll ask more about later, but in some ways is BBP
a paean to a way of life that has been lost now to these earphone-wearing generations?
Ach. It's too easy for an old grump like me to say, trembling on my walking stick, "All sense of community has gone, young man," cos that isn't true. It's still there in lots of small towns and villages, but of course society has changed. People travel much more. Consumerism is hugely up. Oh god. I just sound exactly like my Mum now, but I’m of an age to be actually un-nerved by the way we are all constantly buying, buying, buying, and so much disposable stuff. My family had an electric kettle that lasted from the 1950s to the 1980s. Which travelled from Ardnamurchan, to Tobermory, to Oban. See Brian? I am getting sentimental about a kettle now! I have bought about three new kettles in the last 5 years alone, which keep breaking down. One actually leaked. These very electronic instruments we write on. They are so expensive, and so quickly obsolete. Your new computer is obsolete by the time you have plugged it in at home. I am not saying there aren’t endless advantages to this headlong race into technology consumption, but there is also a cost. We write on the most harmful things to the environment, our noble words about saving the environment! Objects are no longer built to last. Especially electronic ones. There is actually a specific attraction in their ephemeral nature. ‘Time to get the latest model of mobile phone!’ That’s the change in society I see most and it seems a slightly mad race at times. But I am sure people of my age in the 1960s felt exactly the same when they looked back fifty years to their youth, before the First World War. Now nearly everyone has cars. So of course the society and the culture of the West Highlands has changed. But the narrator of this story is already an old man looking back. That was an interesting point of view. Nature remains the same, certain landscapes, a secret waterfall, a view you cherish, but everything else changes. And some great art remains the same for you. It still gives and doesn’t let you down.
The closing moment of the story is the narrator noting that the town unified for a good purpose in this instance, as opposed to doing so for bad. Had you thought of writing a story about the opposite? The kind of community that would behave cruelly or terribly toward an innocent character like Blind Billy?
It seemed to me that was the more obvious thing that could happen. So the way this community always protected Billy from the truth was sweet. Maybe even sentimental, I admit. But for me there would be little fictive point in some bloke telling him a photo of his well-endowed member was seen by nearly everyone in town.
True. Unless Blind Billy was to then become the prime cut of ladies’ man on the island. The Blind Beefcake. That would’ve made for a very different Kailyard nudity tale..
The opening sentence of your second story, 'It All Pours Down Like Silver
', is brilliant – this ominous, Kafkaesque narration, but with some sort of humorous perspective on it too, so it seems to me. It sets up this weird oscillation in the story between the funny exchanges with Angus, and these moments of narrative introspection where the descriptive writing is quite beautiful. Was the intention here that our narrator is a writer, who is coming up with his own rendering of this story?
I am almost certain he wasn't intended to be a writer. I recall the commission was for a book about Scotland's future. Again it’s being uncomfortable about ‘themes’. I get the feeling there might have been a subtext that I was meant to be optimistic and a bit Saltire-Waving. No. So I took a rather non-Tourist Board point of view. I sometimes imagine my narrator has never sat down to write anything before except for this story which we are reading, and they never will again. Morvern Callar
I suppose. An odd position, but one I admire. Like writers who have just written one fabulous book, walked away and never written another one (like Benjamin Constant. Sits down and writes a masterwork. He knew so much about human psychology to write that). It’s a kind of fantasy of course because how, if this is the only thing my narrators have ever written, do they have a bit of style to their writing? Or do they? If I am a rubbish writer and they have no style, then it’s a good, realistic bit of writing! Ha ha! It’s one of the fallacies of narrative. Anita Loos avoided it with Lorelei by leaving in all her spelling mistakes. Loos was pretty cool and it’s hard for me not to like her novel. Apparently it was Winston Churchill’s favourite book!
Or, like the aforementioned Hubert Selby, you can just make up your spellings. Fa krist sake.
Alain-Fournier was another who wrote just a single novel, The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes)
, 1913. Someone was speaking to me about it online recently – apologies to who this was as I’ve forgotten – and my copy got delivered this week. I’ve not long started but I can tell already it’s a beauty.
Actually there are a couple more of those wistful instances in your story – where the narrator laments that the classic old railway station now looks like a Wimpey, and where Tesco has disfigured the local landscape. Was this something particular to this narrator, or is it something that continually depresses and frustrates you?
Ha ha. Here I go again. Kettles. Buildings. I suppose it does. It happened in Fort William, where I imagine this story being set, and it happened in Oban too. And the Victorian school in Oban, which I attended, with all its wooden paneling was levelled recently. I ain't John Betjeman, but when you see the craftsmanship that went into Victorian buildings, it's amazing how easily permission is granted to destroy them ... it’s quite sad ... it’s because their maintenance costs are so high ... all the wood... our time hates wood. It's true. Like with computers and electronics. Everything is plastic and it’s not meant to last. Ha ha. Architecture too.
I’m no John Betjeman either, but I do love the line: “The cabbages are coming now.” What a threat.
Is the importance of the dog, ‘Aleister Growley’, just to allow a seriously good pun, or is old Aleister someone that has significance here, either to the story itself or to you personally? (Never let life get in the way of a good pun, as a wise man said.)
Ha ha. Yes ... I was rather proud of it as a dog name. So I guess it’s just a chance to use a good name. I am still proud of an Indian Restaurant that I named in The Man Who Walks
: Poppadom Preach (a play on the hit Madonna song, 'Papa Don’t Preach'). That was also in my fictional Fort William. Fort William is easing into my artistic life as the film Our Ladies is now set there. Crowley did own a house not too far from Fort William, between 1899 and 1913. Talking of destruction, it recently burned to the ground. All is decay and passing. I suppose Angus the Rasta would be a Crowley fan, you are right in that insight.
I am proud of the predatory cat in a new story I’m writing. The cat is called: Hunter S Thompson. I am also fond of good chip shop and hairdresser names.
My ex-girlfriend was obsessed with that type of pun, used to keep a note of good ones she saw. And used to make up her own. She said if she ever had an Indian takeaway she’d call it: Chapati Leave Me Alone
. Or was it Chapati Get Aff Ma Back
? Not sure that gag would make sense if you don't have my (Lanarkshire) accent. Anyway, the relationship faltered soon after.
I was going to ask you about cats actually – there's a crew of them turns up in Sullivan's Ashes
as well at one stage. Are your nightmares haunted by packs of rampaging cats?
Yes. I didn’t grow up with cats. Now I am enslaved by our two. They were strays, starving on the streets. Later I wanted to re-home them, but they’re still here. Now they control what bloody country we can be in. You can't help it, you fall in love with them.
How true is It All Pours Down
? A lot of it feels very like lived life – the life of a student in many ways. Compulsively buying multiple copies of the same book (as I did/do), watching and re-watching the same post-apocalyptic movies, general and seemingly self-imposed squalor via complete laziness. I mean, what’s more student-anarchic than drinking out of a mug that expresses solidarity with Sandinista while farting over a heaped litter tray?
It’s 100% fiction I’m afraid. Like I was saying earlier about using the essences of real life to make a new life. Lots of little essences all knitted together. I didn't really know if the very melodramatic ending up the mountain would be convincing, so I tried to ground the story in lots of domestic details first. So that the corpse story would seem more credible. Weirdly, around this time an unidentified body was found on a Scottish mountain. A strange, sad story.
The end reminds me of that Carver story, So Much Water So Close To Home
, where the guys on a fishing trip disregard a dead body as it'd ruin their wee excursion. I really liked that your story ended this way, as so often in fiction the narrative pose is that the speaking voice is the one that’s sensitive, judgemental, the eye that’s used to view the base behaviour of other characters. That they left the body implicates the narrator just as much as Angus. Was it important to you to break that automatic identification/sympathy between reader and narrator, to show that maybe the pure, sincere speaking voice is not always the virtuous presence in the story that it purports to be?
You make a good point. I suppose the buried body stuff goes back to Morvern Callar
. Yeah, it is often fun to subvert the virtuous narrator. I felt the same happens in my novel, Their Lips Talk of Mischief
. You sort of feel the narrator, Cunningham, is this very chipper barometer of morality, but in the end, I think he’s the smiler with the knife. And with those guys here, well. They have all that loot. If they reported the body, the cops would get involved. What the hell were they doing up there at night? I like the ambiguity in the Carver. It’s more subtle. And in Morvern
too. I adore that story ‘Boxes,’ by Carver. So good.
We could sit here for a week rambling on about Carver stories. As I almost did when myself and an old friend got to arguing about The Bath
. That's definitely my favourite story of his, but if I limit myself to mentioning just another two, I go for Are These Actual Miles?
and the one about money, Elephant
. I always remember its first line: “I knew it was a mistake to let my brother have the money”. Of course what flows off that first sentence is going to be good!
I really liked in It All Pours Down
when the narrator describes how Angus has this weird use of the word "over". It reminds me of something I discussed with Wendy Erskine
in our interview, as she had a character who always used the term "[he] just turned round and said". I like writing that notices and highlights these wee speech foibles. They can tell you a lot about a person I think. Is capturing a specific character's speech patterns or tics something you try to do in all your fiction?
It's a good question Brian. I have read that interview. And as you point out in it, Flannery O’Connor will pop in those little defining foibles as well – often little else. Probably my use of it is too overt in this story. Normally I would just have dropped that use of speech of the character in there, hoping the reader would notice the tic, but, after warning against the use of rhetoric, I think I wanted to use the phrase…what is it? I don’t have a copy of the story right here with me. The narrator says something like: “He used the word “over” in a geographically non-specific way.” … it’s a line, or something like that, which I plonk onto the narrator just because I liked it. You often have to take care doing what ‘you like,’ rather than studying what a story needs. But yeah, I try to "hear" all my characters in my head. That’s especially vital in a novel when you will be stuck with them a long time and you need them at your fingertips. From first draft to final proof. How does a character really say this line? And why?
I once spent about an hour sitting, writing nothing, trying to decide if a character would reply:
“What about?” or “About what?”
As in, I want to talk to you: “What about?” or “About what?”
It was nothing to do with grammar, it was about what line that character would definitely reply with. I had to be sure. It was a tough one. I couldn’t decide. I got so fed up I eventually made them reply with both: “What about? Eh? About what?” Wish I had done it quicker.
Even if knowing how a character speaks doesn't transcribe it into prose, I like to know for myself. Do they speak soft, fast, pause? I did this in The Deadman's Pedal
for each character. A bit potty, but I KNOW how they each spoke. You communicate with subtlety a great deal about a character, about the drama, just through those pauses. Cut-off sentences. Turns of phrase. Local diction and place names, etc. I love flavour in written English. I have written so many bland sentences, and every one is a crime against the richness of a language.
Flavour is a great term for that. I don’t think I’ve heard it referred to as that before, but it’s perfect. You read Samuel, either Beckett or Selvon, or Janice Galloway, or Bernard Malamud, Earl Lovelace or Renata Adler (I mention those two as I’ve been reading them recently), and every sentence has flavour to it, the language is just teeming with life, on every line, on every page. No sections of flatly-written dirge to drag yourself through, waiting for the next thrill. It's all there, happening right in front of your eyes the whole time.
One of the funniest things about Sullivan's Ashes
is how the local residents don't really know how to deal with the racier aspects of life – an earnest young chap preparing to ask the lapdancer for her autograph, while Cousin John asserts that "strip-o-grams" handle the cold better (?). I'd say this is more of a farcical-type comedy than your other two stories. Was the idea that humour would come naturally from juxtaposing this more remote/sheltered community with particular aspects of the central belt/city life?
Yes. It's a very Mull story. With a few in-jokes. I know Mull a good bit, as my sister was born there, my parents used to live there, and lots of my relatives are still there. It's that sort of a conflict as you say between the so-called louche morals of the mainland, and the island. It is farce in many ways. Like the tales of Para Handy and The Vital Spark, which I am fond of. Neil Munro was from Inveraray, up my way. They were popular stories in the 70s because of the television show, but now are viewed as another sort of Kailyard. They are quite sharp though. In my story, the island is rather mad in its own way ... but bored too, as small communities can be – so a bit of scandal goes a long way. I am writing another few stories set on Mull. I must tell you about my Mum’s sister, Auntie Islay, who lived on Mull all her days. I went on holiday with her and my parents once to the Canary Islands in the 70s. Grand days. A great woman, who sadly passed away not too long back. My sister was very close to her. Well, I was visiting the island a few years ago, and Islay said to me as I came into the farm kitchen: “And how are you, Alan?” I said I was very well, thanks, then she added, “And how are your dirty books doing?” I said they were getting along fine – and they were not mentioned again. I thought it was the 2nd greatest literary compliment ever. It’s downhill, after Mull and my Auntie Islay. I did once have a best-literary-compliment-ever from a French guy, but that’s for another time.
Haha, then I won’t even ask.
Like Blind Billy's Pride
, the title character and the person that the action revolves around in Sullivan’s Ashes isn't really an active presence within the text. Were there any fictional models that influenced this style/format? Do you find the absence of a character can be just as important and enlivening as presence? (Which of course takes us all the way back to Morvern's boyfriend ... )
Good point. ‘Absence is at the heart of all mystery,’ I once read. Source? I’ve forgotten. I think it was the occultist, Kenneth Grant? Well my starting point was having a handsome woman scattering funeral ashes from a white horse on Calgary sands. This came up in a conversation with my sister of all people. That was the starting point. I knew that was what I wanted to work towards. So I had to kill off Sullivan quick to get there. But I had to make it meaningful ... or that we cared ... so I made Sullivan an English bloke who had moved to the island and loved it. I must say, he’s a bit more romantic, fun and entertaining than some residents I’ve encountered there. And I see what you mean, Billy is marginal to the text as well. I wonder? I seem to orbit my characters. Melville does this a lot – and I am huge fan. In Benito Cereno
… which is a remarkable thing, and in Bartleby
. You are sort of looking in all the time, on characters; you are set adrift, the characters are hard to pin down. Slippery. I don’t want to get in to portentous, ‘We live as we dream…alone’ etc. For I have slivers of the optimist about me; we learn a great deal of one another in Love, for instance. Though that can also drive us to be strangers. But I wonder if part of me as a person, as well as a writer, feels the Other is ultimately unknowable? That there is bad faith and vanity in claiming a human can be utterly summed up and expressed. And a lot of really great writing, like Gogol or Kelman, doesn’t try to do this. Characterization is at the heart of writing fiction, yet at the same time, do we ever really, fully comprehend another human? And our complex motivations? My god, do we even ever fully understand ourselves? I feel there is perhaps a self-regard and pomp to a writer who claims: I Know All, in reference to a character. That utter knowledge has to be left to … The Big Man ... who truly sees all ... the one who, it is claimed, knows when every sparrow falls. He might know, blindingly, fully, crushingly, absolutely what is inside of us. If he is with us. Maybe this is why I orbit characters. I am a mere mortal. So you make all your characters a slight mystery – as I did with Morvern way back when.
I don’t think it’s something I’ve ever tried myself, now that I think about it. Centred a story around a character who is (largely) absent. Although I suppose, you could say this about any love story that’s in the first-person, because you’ll only really see things from one angle then, you won’t get much about the other person, outwith their dialogue, which is going to be filtered through the focalizer anyway. Maybe some lingering glances and inner speculations will expose some more to the intuitive reader, and maybe not. That Sabato book is great on this, The Tunnel
. It’s a love story, but you learn virtually nothing about Maria, the narrator’s love interest. It’s a clever perspective for a story because how someone thinks and behaves in that kind of tempestuous relationship, and how they choose to portray the other person, is going to reveal them in such a brilliant way, even if you then don’t get much of the “object” character.
A quick digression – have you ever actually been to Coatbridge Sunnyside (where Zoë in Sullivan
is from)? Coatbridge is attached to Airdrie, my hometown. I'm curious as to whether an Obanite who has lived in Dublin and Spain has ever alighted in good auld Coatbridge, or was it just a name that attracted you from a train map or something like that?
I knew the name from my years working on the railway. I had a hunch it might be less sunny round there than advertised, but it’s quite a quaint wee railway station is it not? I also had a mate from Coatbridge when I was in London who I don’t want to name. He told me a remarkable story I used in that story of mine, which is in the anthology The Children of Albion Rovers
. An interesting book that no one ever wants to talk about anymore, ha ha.
I’ll happily talk about it with you sometime. A great collection. I remember Laura Hird’s piece from it most vividly, The Dilating Pupil
. Brilliant closing sentence that has stayed with me. I won’t quote it here for risk of ruining it for anyone who’s intending to read this soon.
Naw in fact, I will quote it here, because I want to, gives me a reason to take it off the shelf, which I haven’t done in yonks: “He kept running until he got to the end of her street then walked the rest of the way home in blinding sunlight, despising her and her sort.” I mean, that’s just great, eh?
In terms of Sullivan
, this made me laugh like a drain, from near the end of the story: "She was Australian, twenty-two and tanned all over, hair bleached by open skies. She had ridden bareback horses since childhood and fifty quid clinched it." It's the close proximity of a kind of poetic, literary tone, and a wee splat of the grim realities of people. It's something that Beckett does a lot – I talk about a specific instance of it in a short essay I wrote on his story First Love
– conflating these profound moments with a more depressing truth. Is Beckett's humour in prose something you appreciate? It seems to me you're using it in a similar way here – lofty ideals, poetic images, quickly dampened by a dose of naked self-interest. That's life really, isn't it?
The Beckett descent. Yes, yes, you are so spot on ... it's a sort of set-up, with a grand sentiment ... then a slight descent, a cheapening of that conceit, then a sort of final, right hook of bringing it all down to earth. Yeah. First Love
is where Beckett starts to discover that morose but mordantly funny voice. When you read First Love
, you can sort of feel the excitement of his discovery – you can share it – which will carry his work for another 40 years. It's like Picasso's Young Women of Avignon
. The discovery of a style, a way of dealing with the world in aesthetic terms. Basically he discovers a narrative that takes the piss out of narrative itself. That is how I would put it. And it's so funny. Get this – opens with a cracking pun: "Personally I have no bone to pick with graveyards, I take the air there willingly, perhaps more willingly than elsewhere, when take the air I must."
You have to imagine the first clause in an almost ridiculously optimistic tone, then gradually, each declamation drops in tone and especially, in enthusiasm, until the final "…if take the air I must"
is delivered in a near groan of despair. All in one sentence. I love to hear Beckett's prose being read by the wonderful Patrick Magee or Barry McGovern. Great Irish actors and pals of Sam, who coached them on how to go at the stuff. Their wonderful voices do it justice, as SB was of course too shy to ever read himself. You do get some of this stuff, a poetic sentiment gutted by a down to earth retort, in Kafka as well though. It can be even more complex in Kafka. In Willa Muir’s remarkable translations. Scholars are not too good – and it’s difficult – at picking apart what Kafka that Beckett had read, and when. Beckett’s German was good as well, so who knows?
I have some good Beckett stories from people who met him, from Aidan Higgins and Hayden Murphy, and a French journalist I met in Paris, and from my French publisher, the sadly departed Christian Bourgois. Christian's tale is Godot-like. He told me Beckett asked to meet him in the cafe of the PLM hotel, on Boulevard St Jacques, opposite where Beckett lived. It’s a modern, quite bland, large hotel. Almost like a shopping centre. When Christian got there, there were three cafes in the hotel. So time ticked by and he nervously moved location three times! Beckett himself was doing exactly the same thing as he had forgotten to stipulate which cafe he meant. No mobile phones then and hard to picture Beckett with one. They kept missing each other. After nearly an hour they met. Beckett said, "I am sorry. I never said which cafe. I simply stopped moving and knew you had to arrive here some time."
Ha ha, that’s great. Like a DVD extra from a movie of ‘Molloy’.
You know, I have a book called Samuel Beckett’s Library
, written by Dirk Van Hulle and Mark Nixon, two chaps who went through all of Beckett’s literary possessions, his letters, diaries, etc, and came up with theories of what he read and when. It’s quite fascinating. He definitely read Kafka, and said in a letter that he had to stop reading The Castle
because he “felt at home, too much so” (I have just got up and checked it, this is not from memory!). So even the great man felt the anxiety of influence! He goes on to say he was “disturbed” by Kafka’s casual rendering of horror.
By the way, I can't remember if I've mentioned this to you before, but I was actually working at Cargo Publishing (under Mark Buckland and Gill Tasker, Rodge Glass and Alistair Braidwood) when the Elsewhere project was underway (2010? 2011?), and I read Sullivan's Ashes
back then when we were putting those books together. Your story was one of those that actually dealt directly with the theme of "elsewhere". Was Sullivan’s story something you had already been thinking of or working on before this project came about, or did you create something specifically for the project that was your notion of how something as abstract as "elsewhere" could operate in a short story?
Elsewhere … I am always slightly suspicious of themed anthologies. I did one for Faber called ‘Sex & Death’. It was quite a nice anthology, but I don’t know what became of it. Even thematically I was unsure if a story had to contain only sex, only death, or definitely both. This sounds like Beckett too. The history of anthologies are/is very interesting. But I think I already had Sullivan's Ashes
underway in rough notes, so I probably just thought … well to someone like Sullivan, coming from Brighton, Mull would be a kind of ‘Elsewhere’. And because he had died, he had gone off to the Elsewhere. It's a kind of touching tale to me, because despite them being slightly dubious individuals, paying poor young women to do their odd bidding, it is, in a weird way, their wish to respect Sullivan's last wishes which motivates them. It’s about respect in the way that Blind Billy’s Pride
is. They are strangely chaste people of faith for carrying out his ridiculous last wish.
During my conversations with John King for the interview we did for The Common Breath site last month, he told me about this upcoming book, The Seal Club
, which will collect new work by John, yourself, and Irvine Welsh. Can you say anything about the concept behind the book and your contribution to it, or is this all still under wraps for now?
Yes it's a collection of novellas from the three of us. Who needs Led Zeppelin to reform when you have us? Ha ha. I haven't read the contributions of the other gentlemen yet. And as for the title … well as you yourself wittily put it before … perhaps we are all fans of that beautiful song, Kiss from a Rose
? The book will be published by London Books, which is run by John King and Mark Knight. It's a great independent publishing house, putting out really interesting work. New writing and forgotten, or overlooked work. Most of it well outside the fashionable mainstream/conformist line. They did a fabulous sequence of 20th century novels set in London, which have been forgotten or fallen out of print. I hope The Seal Club
will come out before Christmas.
I bought May Day
by John Sommerfield recently from that very line of the London Books Classics series. I haven’t read it yet, but John’s introduction is fantastic. Again, I already know I’m going to like it – originally published in 1936, the story of a Communist uprising in London set over a three-day period. Count me in.
Talking of Irvine there, you and I were just comparing copies of Hubert Selby’s great novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn
. The novel was subject to a ridiculous obscenity trial in the UK in 1968, and I have a nice Corgi paperback edition with an introduction by Anthony Burgess. You have the Penguin edition introduced by Irvine. One of my favourite bands, Last Exit, which my friend Peter Brotzmann was in, is named after this novel as well. Morvern Callar
is actually dedicated to Peter. I know Last Exit to Brooklyn
was an influence on Irvine. Me and my pal Neil Morrison were reading it in Oban, back in 1982, I recall. We also read lots of P.G.Wodehouse though. And we listened to The Grateful Dead a lot, for Jerry Garcia’s lovely guitar sound. I remember going to Edinburgh to see The Grateful Dead in 81 or 82. That was an odd day. I might have seen Echo & the Bunnymen the next day? A weird contrast. I went on to read Selby’s other stuff. People don’t seem to read The Demon
. You mention Selby Jr at the end of Good Listeners
, which was great to see and I know you’ve written on him. What was the connection there?
Before I respond to that, I’ll just say quickly that I also find it odd The Demon
isn’t read or talked about more widely. It’s a sensational novel. Last Exit
are, rightly, considered major books, and although I personally think The Room
is a staggering achievement, I do understand why it isn’t exactly a mainstream favourite. It’s the most twisted, horrifying thing I’ve ever read. And I’ve read the parts of Stormy Daniels’ book Full Disclosure
where she talks about sex with Trump.
But aye, Selby is one of the artists I’ve found most incredible and most inspiring in my life. I won’t blabber on about that too much here, as it’s all given in the essay I wrote about his work and put on the site, 'A Polyphonic Spree'
. I wanted to include a Postscript reference to him, not only because his writing was a direct, technical influence on the story Good Listeners
, but because the particular ‘Bookworm’ interview I cite in the book was so seismic for me as someone working towards finding their own voice and style in fiction. There are so many sections I could quote from it (and do, in that essay), but I’d much rather people just went and listened to it and imbibed his wisdom and his conviction and his fire, and then maybe utilised it in their own ways too.
Ah, again I can’t help myself. This is from what I consider to be the seminal section from it: “what I want to do is put the reader through an emotional experience – of course, what else is there? That’s the important thing… Now, what I have to do then is experience these emotions and try to project, and music is a very inherent part of that, to help somebody experience these things so I have to create… some musical notation because everybody has their own rhythm and I have to make that evident in your own vocabulary, and their vocabulary is part of that rhythm.” The whole piece is just a joy. Silverblatt such a great interviewer, Selby speaking so frankly, so thoughtfully, and with such technical and artistic insight. It’s sublime. Hubert Selby is one of the select few writers I think about whenever I’m settling down to try and write something, so it felt appropriate to mention this in the book.
Well what’s being said there, that ties nicely into what I was saying about the primacy of emotion in writing and in reading. Don’t forget what Mister Franz ‘Frankie’ Kafka wrote in his letters: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading it for?…A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” As I said earlier about that writer discounting emotion as an aesthetic response. We have to take axes to the frozen sea. An emotional response to a book is worth so much more than being able to write an essay about it – though that is a noble response too. But please don’t be made to believe you cannot FEEL. Analysts are uncomfortable about the emotions produced by art, because you cannot measure and quantify them. You can’t control them either. You can’t make someone feel more than they do about a piece of work. Or LESS. And it is mysterious. Just like in a concert, when a great musician, say a jazz musician, is playing, softly but stunningly, and you can hear a pin drop in a concert hall. Miles Davis would do it when I saw him. I have experienced that and how do you possibly quantify that exchange of emotion? How do you define the aesthetic in that context? It’s beyond language.
Anyway Brian, I know you’re always working hard to promote and examine good literature through The Common Breath – you have some exciting things brewing for the future? Also – thanks for all your work on this. It was a real pleasure to do Good Listeners
with you and I hope we can sign some copies together soon.
Yes, a few things in motion just now.
Welcoming Kirsten Anderson and Rachael Fulton onto the team at The Common Breath has been brilliant because it’s allowed us to share the work and really move things forward. Not sure I should actually name these projects until they’re ready to ‘unveil’. There’s a really great opportunity for new writers coming imminently, and then a huge and important project that I’ve been working on for quite a while with one of my personal favourite writers. And some really incredible new artist interviews for the website as well. We’ve had such positive responses to our Interviews section recently – I jokingly said years ago I wanted to create the Glasgow Review, a contemporary Scottish version of the Paris Review, and as time passes, I think we are building towards something quite special there.
Our whole project with Good Listeners
has been a privilege for me, I’m proud of the book we produced. I thank you sir.
A pleasure. ●