Questions contributed by Lewis Gordon
Q: The narrator in The Sopranos is incredibly fluid - from sentence to sentence fleeting through linguistic registers, and colluding with various characters. Did you find this voice instinctively or was it a challenge to smooth over the joins?
I remember having various impressions about the narrator. Firstly, I believed the narrator was a younger woman from the same culture as the girls, but older than them - in her late 20s, early 30s maybe. The second thing was, I felt she had studied philosophy then suddenly become disgusted with it. As it seems Finn later will. I also felt she sort of disapproved of the girls at the start of the novel, but gradually came to be on their side, as if the narrative voice was won over by the girls. A slow arc of approval developed.
Many people still just assume that the narrative voice is the voice of the author. A lot of the time it is. You might assume that in say Greene, Kerouac – maybe – but it is probably more complex than that. I feel if you give your narrator certain attitudes, even very small, subtle things which are at a tangent, it’s remarkable how it colours the whole narrative. I mean you can take it to an absurd degree. You could say, Okay, the narrative voice is mine BUT, I will pretend I am phobic about the colour blue. Then in your novel you would have all these odd, heightened descriptions of the sky and of the sea, or a character’s eyes and it would give this odd resonance to the narrative.
Q: How do music references find their way into your writing? In The Sopranos there are some great moments with Kylah's musical obsessions and He Loved Him Madly is a perfect soundtrack to Morvern Callar. Do you listen to music as you work?
I guess I am a bit of an obsessional music lover, so I have to take care with my obsession. If music is mentioned in the text I try not to let it overwhelm a narrative. If you mention music, it must serve some sort of function within the story. In Morvern, I thought the careful music lists reflected her methodical, practical disposition, the same way she obsessively details exactly what she eats, what sexual positions she adopts, how often she lights a cigarette and how she coordinates the disposal of her dead boyfriend’s dismembered corpse. I liked the sort of prosaic, methodical menace she exuded and in a way this justified her precision over the music lists.
In The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven, there was no mention of music at all; Manolo was a character I deliberately gave the trait that he doesn’t like music, though I recall, me-being-me, there was a long chapter trying to explain why he didn’t like music, where he described going to an orchestral concert in Madrid and hating it. I edited the chapter out because of course, I was just using it as an excuse to write about music in a book not meant to have anything about music in it.
I am cautious and insufferably fussy about listening to music while I am working. I use CDs playing in my study to tempt myself to the desk, then I let them run out and try not to put a new one on. I have the usual, oft-quoted reason for not writing with music playing while I write – or more accurately, try to write - which I know other writers experience. You think it is your wonderful writing that is dynamic, or emotionally moving on the page, but it’s actually the music that gives your dead prose a lift. You read back your moving sequence and it doesn’t work at all; you recognise it was the music which made you feel those things behind the writing. Music allows you to fool yourself better.
Sometimes as I write I do have electronic music on, or very thinned out music with no beat. Something that I can’t actually listen closely to and which must be monotonous. Some of Brian Eno’s music is great for that. Even when I was a student in 1984 I used to listen to his ‘Discreet Music’ and ‘On Land,’ late at night when my girlfriend was sleeping. ‘Neroli’ and I think it’s called, ‘Thursday Afternoon’ are great. These are pieces Eno made especially for CD and about 70 mins long, so you don’t have to get up every 35 minutes and push the CD play switch again - so that keeps my ass sat at the desk - which is where you want it to be, not circling the room like a water-diviner as I usually am, polishing the picture frames and staring out the window.
Eno’s a bit of a wonder isn’t he? I loved his music from when I was 15 years old and we bought this vinyl double album: Here Come the Warm Jets and Before and After Science, stuck together as a double album for the price of one. You listen to all the stuff Eno did, from Roxy through the early 70s and he broke so many barriers, established so many things far ahead of his contemporaries. More-or less, you hear all of New Wave music in Eno’s first three albums, between 1973 and 75. Anyway, his electronic music is good to write to. Or maybe ‘Great Expectations,’ this track by Miles Davis which is again a long track, very monotonous and very influential – Bill Laswell is cool, a great live bass player, but Bill must have made ten whole albums just based on ‘Great Expectations’! I also have this rare recording, Chitinous by a genius English composer called Paul Buckmaster and his girlfriend Diana Lewis, which is good to listen to for writing – it’s these sort of repeating cycles; he is a talented arranger who used to work with Leonard Cohen and Elton John but he is really far out. I can also write to Messiaen’s thing: ‘Quartet for the End of Time,’ or I can have something by Stockhausen or his sons in the background that isn’t too abrasive. Music you can give your attention to if you wish but you can also ignore. All of this is just to give some atmosphere to my study, because the sound of the study’s demanding silence can be a bit intimidating, especially first thing in the day. I could never listen to the radio – even good old Off the Ball or something like that while working, this would be impossible for a drama queen like me.
Q: There is a cryptic reference to "the St. Tequila's Convent Girls" in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. Did you do any particular research into writing the female dialogue - which forms a huge part of the story - or just write from your own gut, memories and experience?
Being honest, your phrase, ‘gut, memories and experience’ just perfectly sums it up. I mean I can give you some background to the genesis of the book. That was when I was living in Ireland which I did for many, many years and the St Tequila thing is a reference to my wife, Hollie-Lisa and her mates. Hollie at the time, was about 19 and you know, we were running wild around Dublin and Wicklow. Tequila shots were often involved. Hollie and her mates attended an all-girl state convent school in Ireland – and they had mostly just left the school or were even still in it or going up to college or Uni or had jobs in the small town we lived near. There had been a school choir and they would tell me all these stories about it, so it was from hanging out with them I got the idea. I mean The Sopranos shows how completely fictional my work is. It’s a simple fact that while Oban is a starting point for my fiction, there is no way that novel could possibly be set in a realistic Oban. The simple fact is that the Catholic population in Oban is far too small to support a large school that - never mind boys - only contains Catholic girls. There did used to be a small Catholic High School in Oban in the 70s, but it was completely amalgamated into the local comprehensive. There was a convent in town where you could see the nuns in their white habits moving mysteriously around their garden. And when I was a little boy in 1969, a submarine did come to anchor in Oban bay and members of the public could go out to visit it. That section I seem to recall in the novel, comparing the submarine to Jonah’s whale is there because I was so young someone teased me - maybe my sister - that it wasn’t a submarine, it was a whale, and when my father and I went out in the launch to board the submarine I became very afraid that it was indeed a whale and I would have to go inside it. I recall all that quite clearly and I remember the pink ambient light inside the thing, like a huge alimentary canal. I thought it was horrible and oppressive.
I am also very interested in the idea of holy shrines, pilgrimage sites and the commercial exploitation of them which what you might call the subplot of Father Ardlui in the novel. It was a theme I thought might form a whole novel, the blasphemous creation and promotion of a new sacred site. That was how the priest subplot came about. I admit also that of course people had been saying to me “You write female characters well,” so I thought I would take all these elements and invent a female teenage gang, a school choir, going down to Edinburgh for just the day. A whole novel set in twenty four hours. So it is a weird amalgamation. I had to invent a large Catholic population in the Port and give a lot of the girls Irish-sounding names to sort of back up the idea of a larger Catholic community. I mean you could argue it’s all completely inauthentic – it is a total world of imagination, yet with this weird hard edge to it all.
Q: Did you enjoy writing any specific Soprano more than the others?
I don’t recall that, no. I mean it was a bit nutty writing that novel. It was a bit like having six younger sisters and I was locked in a linen closet with them and their voices, going. I mean they all talk. A lot! And I had that in my head for a year. But when I came to write The Stars in the Bright Sky, it was weird the way Manda took over that novel. All that stuff you might raise your eyebrows at when you see writers bellyaching on: “Oh yes, the character just wrote himself” - but it was really like that with Manda, she had just had sort of matured in her levels of obnoxiousness. But I liked her.
Q: The singing competition - the whole purpose of the Sopranos' journey to the capital - happens off the page. Was there ever an attempt to write this scene?
That’s a very interesting point which I had totally forgotten about. As you say, the narrative was pressing towards this flashpoint but I believe it became just too obvious to show it. I was sure by then it would seem that disaster for the choir’s performance was inevitable. It was going to be a car crash choir final, and I think by skipping it, I threw the reader forward in the narrative and sometimes that’s what you need to do, just throw things on ahead. There is also something in the fact that the girls - or at least the sopranos - are so utterly disinterested in the choir competition – they just want to be in the big, exciting city – that they were never in the least concerned about the eventual outcome of the competition anyway. They were indifferent, though probably even they didn’t think it would be quite as awful as it obviously was. The girls are threatened with expulsion from their school not because of losing the choir final, but for changing out of their school uniforms (and losing them) and for getting drunk in Edinburgh. And for Kay vomiting just before they go on. I think that’s why I showed the girls singing in unison right at the beginning of the novel when they are gathered in the square, then we see them singing in rehearsal at the concert hall when they spy the couple making love outside the window. I must have known then that there was going to be no depiction of the final, awful performance and I am sure I never wrote that scene. I guess I felt it was almost a bit corny to show the final shame of the choir. Similarly, I didn’t show the confrontational scene – in some ways for me, the dramatic crux of the novel - when the priest, Father Ardlui, asks the girls to pretend they have had an ecstatic vision of the Virgin Mary. Which, despite their wildness, they refuse to do. Deep down of course, I find this concept very funny.
Your question is very illustrative of what a novel is - and here is a point. In 1998, even before it was published, The Sopranos film rights were auctioned in a Hollywood deal through the big CAA agency and all that. They were finally purchased, not by a studio but because I liked him, by the Scottish film director Michael Caton-Jones. Michael is a very interesting guy who made all these really smart movies, Scandal and This Boy’s Life based on the great Tobias Wolff book, he also made Doc Hollywood and Rob Roy. Mike’s an interesting guy, the son of a coal miner from Broxburn outside Edinburgh, a punk rocker down in London in 1977 who became a roadie in the theatre, ended up at film school and eventually a successful director in Hollywood. All credit goes to Michael, who really stood by his guns against the studios and potential financiers who wanted to change things. Once again it was a very, very difficult novel to adapt and I am not sure we ever got the screenplay right. Alan Sharp, who was a brilliant Scottish screenplay writer and wrote interesting novels in the 1960s, did a remarkable screenplay of The Sopranos. (Sadly, Alan recently passed away). Alan did fantastic things with the structure – the formal problems of how to assemble a movie which all takes place in one day; but I think there were some things that didn’t work about the characters in Alan’s version. Then Michael or a studio commissioned me to take a stab at the screenplay myself. I found it extremely difficult, but I mention all this as it is interesting how in both Alan Sharp’s version and in my screenplay, the car crash choir final scene was always included. Or in other words invented. That shows the difference between the two forms. If you tried to leave out the choir final scene in a movie then the audience would ask the way they don’t in a novel: ‘What happened? Why wasn’t that shown?’ The whole movie would suddenly become about what you did not see back at that choir final. You would have to flashback and you don’t want that fouling the forward motion of the film narrative. I think in my screenplay version of the choir final, Kay projectile-vomited across the shoulders of the others and into the front audience row, whilst they all bravely crashed onward, through Forth Let the Cattle Roam.
Another point if I may. We all dumped the sub plot about Father Ardlui and his nutty attempt to blackmail the girls into lying that they all experienced a religious vision of the Holy Mother. At the time I myself thought – ‘right, the first thing we will junk from the screenplay is this whole priest, pilgrimage, holy vision, sub plot stuff – we don’t need all that.’ Alan Sharp had jettisoned it too. But I think that was a big mistake of mine. I think the dramatic moment when the girls reject Father Ardlui’s attempt to get them to lie is very important. It gives a spine to the story which has been running right through it. It wouldn’t have taken that many scenes to create it – not only is it a moral dramatic crux, we gave up a real font of visual possibilities which we could have had fun with as Father Ardlui himself imagined how it was all going to look. Maybe we could have got some Vatican funding too? By the way, I don’t believe this novel is an attack on the church. It is back to that idea of having themes. I wouldn’t start a novel thinking: ‘As my theme I will attack the church’. I just wanted to tell a wee story about how young people really are, not how the church would wish them to be. I have talked with a few practising Catholics who were open-minded enough to read the novel and they cautiously agreed with me, especially about the final refusal of the girls to lie about the vision. It is interesting that it is this line that these liberated girls finally refuse to cross. It is a novel about wild youth and mad individuals, I don’t see it as an attack on an institution - though I can understand it might offend and be thought of in that manner.
Q: There are so many mini-stories and episodes in the book that spring from nowhere and could surely be fleshed out into great short stories in their own right. The Man and his hash-hunting budgie and the toe-severing incident are just two examples. Does this all crawl from the imagination or do you ever borrow from real life?
I was talking about this a bit in relation to Morvern Callar and the same applies, but you seem to have stumbled on a truth as the toe-severing incident is indeed true and happened to a friend of mine who will remain comfortably anonymous. In fact he is a source of constant inspiration, this fine gentleman. Obviously it’s juggled around a lot and changed. There was no octopus ink, but he did basically perform a naked handstand to try and impress one of the wiser sex and promptly in an uncool way, crashed to the floor and sliced off a substantial bit of toe on a bike part. Despite that scene’s root in reality though, you will notice there are recurring incidents of dismemberments and mutilations throughout my jolly books. It fascinates me in a horrific way, yet I am very squeamish. The budgie thing is completely made up. I am actually extremely protective about animals. Like all dangerous subversives, I’m in the RSPCA. My wife and I did have a menagerie of six lovely colourful budgerigars in Ireland. I used to travel around with them in their big cage in the back of my car, driving from Dublin to Edinburgh. What a bloody racket they made. I am a sucker for pets and I am hopelessly devoted to them, like CATS. I can lose sleep worrying about hungry cats and dogs in the street. I am such a softy. I weep at Eleanor Atkinson’s novel Greyfriars Bobby. ●