Questions contributed by Brian Dunsmore
Q: If you had to go back now and make one change to Morvern Callar, what would it be and why? What would be your own biggest criticism of the novel?
I don’t want to seem as if I am in any way overly satisfied or smug about any of my novels, but I wouldn’t change anything in artistic terms. It always strikes me that a painter would never try to repaint a canvas, or a band wouldn’t overdub and edit on top of an earlier album, so it bothers me when you hear about novelists “revising” their work for a new edition or collected volume or whatever. Poets and composers do it too. I absolutely understand there are always small typos or misplaced commas that pray on the neurotic writer’s mind and deep in the night, many a comma has brought beads of sweat to my own brow. I understand that writers feel their “style” changing, that they would not form sentences or use metaphors in the same way today that they might have thirty years previously. They want to unify things. But I am saddened and feel mildly swindled when I learn that a book you thought was written in – say – 1934, was actually quite substantially tampered with and revised by its author in 1964, with large bits of it cut out or many sentences reformed and other things added. I utterly identify with the writer’s temptation to do this, but I disagree with the act. It seems to me like a sour breach of the space-time continuum. I also believe a certain vanity lies behind the act, the a-historic impulse to literally re-write the past and ‘improve’ yourself. I find old Waugh a snobbish, cold, cruel writer, but it would be churlish to deny his work can sometimes be memorable and impressively written. If you look at an early edition of Brideshead Revisited from the 1940s, it is a slightly different text from later editions which he rewrote. Waugh claimed he was so obsessed with food - due to the wartime rationing – at the time of writing, that he over-stuffed the book with descriptions of eating. But he made other changes too.
Not to try and wriggle away from your question though, I honestly don’t know what my biggest criticism of Morvern Callar would be. I tried to make it as good as I could at the time, as I do with all my stuff. A change I would make is one I have been failing to make for twenty years. Take a look at the book. The epigraph comes before the Acknowledgements – a basic typesetting error. I have laboured in vain to get them switched around whenever there is a reprint, but your publishers don’t tell you when they intend to print up more and I continually miss the bus. When they did a movie tie-in edition of Morvern I did manage to get the epigraph and acknowledgements swapped round but guess what? When the next editions came out – the ones with the sort of rose gold covers – the bloody thing had changed back again! I remember jumping up and down on the spot screaming when I saw that – the perfect image of a non-revising author. I am not saying the book is faultless at all, but that’s the thing that bugs me most after twenty years.
Q: Do you have any regrets about, or were there any pitfalls to, receiving such acclaim so early in your writing career?
I suppose we have to try and be precise and careful about what we mean by ‘acclaim,’ but I get the general idea. I suppose in our world and its media, the choice is a no brainer. Would you want your first novel to be politely acknowledged or would you want it to make a bigger ‘splash,’ and I suppose Morvern, without going too large, leaned more to the splash variety. I do recognize an immediate result of this for me and it is far more subjective than you would expect: you think to yourself, ‘I produced an absolute child of my imagination here, and somehow it has reverberated and been acknowledged in the outer world.’ This establishes the presumption of a weird two-way conduit between your private imaginings and the often vulgar concreteness of the world. It really encourages you to keep on doing this, to free up your imagination and let your fancy take you where it may, as a writer. If there are pitfalls, it’s that the crunch probably comes years after the fact. I am still writing absolutely what I want to write, birthing the obscure creatures of my imagination onto the page, like that recent novel, The Deadman’s Pedal – a novel about guys driving trains in the Highlands of the 1970s. You do think to yourself: ‘Oh man, who would actually want to read this stuff - other than me?’ But amazingly, I know that people actually do like to read and even love that novel - and others of mine too, these sort of private dreams of mine which have been given exposure. That’s a remarkable thing. I have met many readers at book events; sometimes they write to me and without trying to sound crass, it is very moving for me to learn that readers can react - often so profoundly - to my private inner imaginings and indulgences. I don’t want to sound a crawler, but I am ever so grateful to those readers, especially the ones who have bothered to express their thoughts on-line, or even to write me a letter. Believe me that you can feel horribly self-indulgent, like a megalomaniac, as a novel writer. And the book world is one of megalomaniacs. But it is true enough as Keats wrote to Shelly, it’s the monastery of the imagination and you are its monk. Having ‘acclaim’ for a first novel like Morvern Callar sort of marries you to your own imagination very early on, in a very solid way. You feel that you are working as a servant of your imagination, not a readership or a publisher. You think: ‘Well that came from in there, from inside my daft brain box, so everything else can too!’ Now that might not always be the case. As the years go by, your work might not appeal at all to the readers who once did like it, but so it goes; half the fun is letting your imagination go where it wants.
You are probably thinking that I am automatically taking the stance here of a noble, puritanical and upright aesthete, sticking fast and faithfully to my imaginative guns and decrying such crass manoeuvres as say, genre writing – but I am not. In fact I believe I am being slowly corrupted, because to me it is now interesting to think: ‘Well, what would I write like, if instead of pleasing myself and writing about Highland train drivers, or schoolgirls on the rampage – what if I tried to write what I thought people seem to want to read these days, according to the best seller lists – say a psychological thriller? Or a zombie novel! To me - a writer who has always followed the paths of what takes his fancy - that’s quite a revolutionary and exciting thought. But I have so many other books in my head, clambering around trying to get out, I don’t see me finding time to do anything else.
One thing I remember clearly is that after Morvern Callar was published I recognised I had a sort of choice. I think sometimes, faced with that sort of ‘acclaim’ in any art form, you can decide to get all precious and self-important, you seize up and hide away for six or seven years to create your astonishing Next Masterpiece. I do recall rapping myself on the knuckles and making a definite decision to plunge right in and forge ahead with another couple of books. I kind of sensed I might freeze with stage fright otherwise. You sometimes get that with rock bands don’t you? Their debut is so acclaimed it sort of freezes them into a difficult second album complex, they become terrified that their next work might not meet the acclaim of the first and they often never make another good record, or take far too long to do it – I was a bit scared of that happening to me and elected to plunge straight back in with These Demented Lands. On the other hand, this might just have been because I had found there was nothing else in life I could do to make a living – I am useless at everything else. Suddenly I discovered, to my shock, that I could write a book. Now, twenty years on, I am totally locked in to this writing life and it seems there is nothing else I can do?
Q: With the experience and success you have now as a writer, what advice would you give yourself then - before, during and after - writing your first novel?
“Success” is a very slippery concept in the book world, and being asked for advice is like a doctor self-medicating! Obviously the advice I would give my own idiotic self is very different from what I would recommend to other people. I suppose, before, writing my first novel - without trying to make out I am any big shakes - I would say to myself: have just a wee bit more confidence that your writing has some redeeming quality. Because honestly, I can’t tell you how little confidence I had as I laboured away on Morvern Callar over long hours. And it still feels like that with each new novel I write. That’s what happens, you have to work so intensely on something you just can’t see it clearly anymore; you drift offshore and lose sight of it. There again, experience has also taught me that having too much confidence can be an awful thing for writers to have. I have met writers who carry their confidence around with them like a mighty catheter bag, gurgling away down their trouser leg (or under their skirt).
During the writing of Morvern I would have told myself – if I could have financially afforded it - to go for the luxury of hiring a professional typist to do the so-called final draft manuscript, rather than doing it myself. This was in 1993, in the days of the dinosaurs, before computers and printers. I think the first quarter of that manuscript was single-finger-typed with a manual typewriter which rendered capital J’s and B’s half in black ink, half in red, because of the weird mixed ribbon I used. The second half was completed with a bad electric typewriter where the “e” appeared higher than any other letters. And worse, every page was comprehensively caked in a palimpsest of Tippex correcting fluid and then swathes and splashings of Milk of Magnesia: I had discovered several layers of the Milk of Magnesia worked quite well as a cheap substitute for Tippex. Sometimes there was no way you could re-type over a section of the Tippex-encrusted paper, which would audibly snap if you bent the page over the typewriter roller - so I had to type the word separately on another blank sheet, cut out the little rectangle of paper and affix the word in to the manuscript page using clear Sellotape. It was more a work of sculpture than Fiction.
After? Don’t turn up to every media interview already drunk.
Q: Was there anyone in your personal life that inspired a particular character or character name in the book?
I am not trying to be evasive but I don’t really think so. You know it’s a weird thing. There are contemporaries and relatives of mine who come from Oban, the same town I am from, which is basically the town I used as a jumping off point for my own fictional setting of The Port, and in reading Morvern Callar those people will just not recognise it as our town. You know, I have heard this from someone in the town: “Warner, where did you get all that stuff from?” Yet at the same time, people have said, “You got all that spot on pal, it was just like that wasn’t it”? I suppose it’s to do with life experience but also a lot to do with subjectivity. I was reading all that Sartre stuff intensely back then, What is Literature and is it called: What is Existentialism? I was always struck by Sartre’s concepts of subjectivity, which I think came out of Heidegger. Sartre said quite clearly that nothing gets beyond subjectivity. I would now question aspects about that, but it’s amazing how, for instance, people see the same events, locations or historical periods very differently in retrospective. Look at witnesses to crimes, or battlefield descriptions. I was looking one way and some of my mates were looking the other way. All these great conundrums come up with ideas of realism in fiction. You might start out with a detail that is based on someone you knew or saw in a small community like the one I came from, but then you plaster on a few more things that come from other people, then you change something else and it is no longer a portrait of anyone distinct. It’s become fiction. I mean, there might be anecdotes that happened to people in that novel, but they are all mixed up into differing times and places and rearranged and changed. I have forgotten the sources of a lot of the anecdotes. Very few things in that book happened to me, some things happened to other people, lots of other people and a lot of things are made up. I understand why people ask that question about it being based on or a portrait of real individuals. I am not superior to that question myself. I want to know, in the most vulgar way, how much of Cornelius Suttree is Cormac McCarthy, or how much of Adolphe is Benjamin Constant, but not one of my novels, including Morvern Callar, is what I believe is called a roman a clef, when you basically write autobiography and just change the names. It always strikes me as interesting that crime writers are never asked if they have actually murdered someone! In fact the distance between my life and my fiction again sets up the temptation of really writing an absolute Kerouac-like roman a clef, based on my actual life, or a period in my life, as it’s something I have never tried.
You asked about names. Say you take that sequence when Morvern relates the nicknames of all the characters that are in the Mantrap club or disco. Those nicknames serve an obvious narrative purpose to my mind – they make the social setting come alive in a small way, and those names tell us stories about the social environment. I love apt nicknames and it’s true the place where I grew up abounded in them. I guess everywhere does, but on the west coast a lot of people share the same surnames, so there are lots of very inventive nicknames flying about. Most of those ones in Morvern are just made up, some are nicknames maybe I heard in Inverness and Edinburgh or in Mallaig, where my sister lived then, maybe one or two did actually exist but they might have been private nicknames, that just me and my mates applied to certain individuals. I know I deliberately did not use a few nicknames I wanted to, as they were still definite figures about town or would have been remembered. I just thought up a nickname the other day that I am going to use in the sequel to The Deadman’s Pedal, this guy is going to be called The Detonator!
Q: Almost twenty years on, what do you think has become of Morvern herself?
Probably married a Russian arms dealer? That’s the wonderful thing about art forms though. The characters are forever trapped in the amber of their time and setting - in paintings and in movies too. Heathcliff is forever grumping on the moors, Don Quixote is always riding out, across the horizon – every day – and they always will be for us, as long as we still open these books. For me – in her modest way – Morvern is forever moving through the bright shadows of that Spanish orchard, in the last days of her happiness and youth.
Q: Were you unhappy with any of the changes that were made in the film adaptation?
When Lynne Ramsay got on board I recall clearly saying to her that she should do whatever she wanted to, but that’s like telling a ball to roll downhill. Filmmakers will do what they want. When you sell the film rights to your book you pass it over to the people from the Silver Screen – god help you. But Lynne was brilliant, very lovely, very open, no film-biz bullshit, nobody’s fool. She’s from Maryhill. She sent me all the screenplays as she worked on them. She’s a maverick like me, and I do think Lynne is a genius film maker. I really mean that - a genius. Did you see We Need to Talk About Kevin? Wonderful, it was like a tone poem that film. I think she and Andrea Arnold are the two giant poets of British film just now. Interesting the two best filmmakers are women – and a good thing too. What are other folk doing? I mean really? You look at Andrea and Lynne’s stuff and you see so many directors are just making junk. And bad junk, not even good junk. I have wide tastes - for instance I admire Neil Marshall’s films very much. He makes completely different films from Lynne and Andrea, ones that people might try to label junk, but I love them. Neil is totally unfashionable but a brilliant, individual filmmaker. He seems to operate a bit outside of the golden circles of British film as well.
One thing that I hope does not sound condescending about the film of Morvern Callar, I mean it very sincerely, is that it was a film made by women: the director, the co-writer, Liana Dognini, (who tragically, has since passed away) the two main actors: Sam and Kathleen, Andrea Calderwood as a producer, the line producer Robyn Slovo (she is Joe Slovo’s daughter). I trusted them all with the film in a way I wouldn’t have trusted a bunch of leery blokes, like me. Doesn’t mean they didn’t do my nut in now and again, and I know I could drive them mad too - I can be a pain in the arse and difficult about odd little things, but obviously it was a book about young women. I felt that Lynne and company would do the right thing. And they did – that nightclub shot at the end still sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it.
The problem with Morvern Callar right from the start of its film development, was that it’s one of those novels which might seduce the reader through character, imagery and atmosphere but it was impossibly tricky to adapt for cinema. If you don’t use voice-over - and Lynne refused to use voice-over, right from the start of her script writing - you are straight in to a film of images, textures, music and sparse dialogue without that voice of Morvern chipping away at you, which the reader has in the book. So much goes on in that damn novel; it is very condensed: treks out into the countryside, train journeys to-and-fro, (in one, a pre-figuring of The Deadman’s Pedal, Morvern travels up on the engine!), camping trips, Morvern flies to Spain not once but twice, then comes back again twice. How do you show all that stuff cinematically without characters who constantly talk? And here is a lead character who by definition doesn’t say much, in the days just before everyone had a mobile phone. It was impossibly difficult and we all knew it would have to change a lot
I have to admit, Lynne’s film of Morvern Callar is pretty much a “film-on-the themes-of-Morvern Callar,” rather than a very pious and faithful adaptation of the novel. But I would sooner have this film than some strident pop video with a corny voice over. Look at Andrea Arnold’s amazing adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Half the novel is missed out, but that film is still a ravishing, emotionally flooring experience. Once Lynne was doing Morvern without voice-over, it was inevitably going to go somewhere new. That’s what Lynne does, she is too much of an auteur just to do an adaptation, it will become something Ramsay-esque. I’ve watched her work and she is after this essence of truth, of verity in every shot. So she shoots a take again and again and it seems to me, it is sort of when all the theatricality, all the filmic drama is OUT of the shot, when it seems like undiluted reality, that’s the take Lynne uses - the one when it seems totally authentic. It’s a really difficult way to work, difficult for her I mean, but that’s how she does it. Right now I hear she is doing an adaptation of Moby Dick set in outer space. That’s genius. It takes someone from Maryhill to make that! I loved that film of Morvern and it was great fun going up to Oban when they were making it, staying with Sam Morton - who was a whole load of fun - at the Isle of Eriska Hotel, where I emptied the wine cellar. I always say this. If I saw that Morvern Callar movie when I was 21 years of age, I would have had a heart attack in the cinema. That is the film I dreamed of seeing when I was 21. And I’d have gone out and bought the book. It was a French art movie, made in Oban! To think that this somehow came about is still thrilling and it was a long bloody road to get that film made, from the first interest down to my wife and I at the Cannes film festival, drunk. One thing I wanted to say is that the first person to try to make Morvern Callar into a film was this very nice fellow from Glasgow named Ian Madden, a writer and assistant director. Ian was the first on the band wagon before anyone else, but what happened was, the novel got bigger and bigger and Ian sort of got steamrollered over which was very tough on him – he had only been able to pay a very small advance for a limited option period and suddenly I was getting these pretty big offers in from Channel 4 and BBC and all that, which put me in an awkward position, but Ian was the original person to get in there and try to make a film out of the novel and he deserves acknowledgment. I thought he might be able to keep involved but as I already suspected, the film world can be a tough one, with few angels – or the angels that are in it, tend to have broken wings. I recall strolling around with Ian Madden in Glasgow one sunny day, talking about the adaptation of Morvern, then this guy on a big silver Harley, all in black leathers, pulls over, It’s Bill Forsyth who knew Ian. I was well struck by the glamour of Hollywood-on-Clyde. In about 1998, the brilliant American writer Mark Richard – who These Demented Lands is dedicated to, wanted me to come out to live in Hollywood where he was working, but I didn’t really believe it was my scene. I prefer Benidorm.
Another person who was involved in the film of Morvern Callar early on was a great guy, and a very talented director called Douglas Mackinnon, who is from Skye. Douglas was really attached to the film to direct it early on, and fans might be interested to learn that. A very clever man, a thinker about cinema and a lovely bloke. He went on to make a movie with Johnny Lee Miller about the cyclist Graeme Obree, called ‘The Flying Scotsman.’ He directs lots of great stuff, lots of Dr Who episodes, and sometimes whole TV series. Douglas and I worked on some early screenplays of Morvern Callar – I recall us being holed up together in a hotel in Marble Arch at one point, working on a script. The film Douglas would have made would of course have been very different from Lynne’s. That’s the great thing about cinema adaptations. It’s sort of infinite. Another film maker could come along and make an utterly different version Morvern Callar tomorrow. ●