Questions contributed by Pat Byrne
Q: The title, The Stars in the Bright Sky, is wonderful – intriguing and unusual. Did it emerge after you had written the poignant section of the book where the title appears, or did the idea for naming the book come first?
I am glad you like the title, but I honestly can't recall. I knew the Christmas carol from primary school, but as for the title. Knowing me, it came later as I rarely have a set title from the beginning of working on a book. I have given my publisher titles for books then changed them, so sometimes you find these titles listed on-line, forthcoming ghost books attributed to me which I never wrote, or changed the title before publication.
Q: There are many references in The Stars in the Bright Sky to people and events you wrote about in The Sopranos. During the writing of the earlier book were you already thinking of a sequel or, if not, what made you decide to write The Stars in The Bright Sky?
I really don’t believe I was thinking of a sequel at the time when I wrote The Sopranos, yet I always think of all my books being interlinked, like a continuum. In The Stars in the Bright Sky there is a reference to a house and an architect, that house and its occupant is also mentioned in my novel, Their Lips Talk of Mischief, it’s also mentioned in The Deadman’s Pedal and there will be much more of it. I feel any character in any book could appear in another one. Morvern Callar is mentioned in The Sopranos.
In answer to your question, I have to be totally honest and say that my publishers suggested a sequel to The Sopranos as part of a two, or three book deal. It made sense from their point of view – The Sopranos had been on the bestseller list for a while and I had no objection. I would be flattered to write a sequel to any of my books if a publisher was going to pay me! I feel guilty though, as it took me so long to write it, and by the time I had, it probably wasn’t the sequel any of us had in mind. In many ways the publishers were very patient. The Stars in the Bright Sky did make it on to the 2010 Booker Longlist, and indeed, it was later revealed, very nearly on to the shortlist. To be honest, I would be happy to go on writing about those girls. I always fancied one of them getting married and having a big wedding novel!
Q: The voice of the narrator varies – sometimes it could be described as lyrical, for example, with the description of the moat: “Something in the moat gurgled pleasingly in the cinnamon waters, which were slicked with long-legged flies and water-lily roundels.” Whereas at other times the style of writing echoes more closely the pattern of Chell’s or Manda’s speech: “Chell hoisted a kettle and let out a hoot”, “Manda had breenged into the bedroom.” To what extent was this variation pre-conceived, or was it something that happened spontaneously when writing?
I know what you mean, Pat, but it probably is something which happens spontaneously in my writing, in that I don’t really see a conflict between the two ‘modes’ of language – if there really are two ‘modes’ here: the “lyrical” and the mode of “speech.” Probably, until as a young man, I read Grassic Gibbon and MacDiarmid’s poetry, and James Kelman, and also I would say, Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes, I imagined a conflict between the way Scottish people spoke, the way I and my family – and especially my Mum’s family, who were farming folk, spoke - the vocabulary they used - and what I thought of as “literary” creation, by T.S. Eliot, and Albert Camus and Christopher Isherwood, and Graham Greene etc etc – probably I felt there was some form of incompatibility of language existing there. Then you see something like Kelman or Grassic Gibbon, and you realize there is no problem – the words we use on our tongue can be as powerful, beautiful and universal as very formal and considered English – which of course can be beautiful and apt and profound as well. I have come to accept I can mix these things together in the same sentence without a problem – and of course spoken ‘dialect’ can be hugely lyrical as well.
Q: There are many hilarious scenes in the book: My favourite was when Manda added the girls’ star signs beside their names on the hotel register; very funny in itself whilst also providing insight into the uninhibited nature of her character. I wondered how much you draw on your own experiences to create such scenes, or if they simply spring from your imagination?
Well, ha. To be very honest there is a very specific reason for that scene where Manda writes down their star signs. It relates to the title of the book, of course but also, when you have a big ensemble of characters gathering in one scene – and here you have six or seven characters in one place at the same time, it is useful to your reader if you produce a List. If you look at the start of The Sopranos, I do it as well, where they all sit along the wall and measure the length of their legs. It’s like a dramatis personae – just to ground your reader and tell your reader in a very methodical manner how many characters are there and what their names are. So it was done for very practical narrative reasons. I’m glad you think it’s funny – I did too. It’s just the sort of insistent, nosey and perhaps nonsense fact Manda would know about everyone. By the way, I am a Leo with a very strong Gemini Rising element – a terrible mix – an indecisive Leo with a split personality.
Q: The book reveals a world where children from a small community share some but not all social mores. The inclusion of Kay, the doctor’s daughter, and to a greater extent Ava, the ‘posh’ girl, highlight the class-driven society we live in and works well to demonstrate tension between the girls. Did you think about the opportunities for creating this tension when you introduced this new character, who had not previously been seen in The Sopranos?
Yes I did think about the dramatic tension, but it’s very like my last answer. I feel a bit exposed in my honesty but it’s again a device. By introducing a character who is new to the hermetic group, it allowed me to show and tell things about the group to my reader, so my reader could learn things about the group that were supposedly being aimed at Ava. Even though this novel was a sequel, I couldn’t assume all my readers had read the previous novel, so in some ways Ava was a device to allow me to have characters explain things to Ava and fill in the reader on certain past events. And of course, it is interesting to throw a new character into the mix – especially a troubled but interesting person like Ava. She was kind of sparky with an unknown, perhaps slightly menacing edge that I liked. But like everyone she is vulnerable too.
Q: Manda is a truly memorable character, whose behaviour is embarrassing and outrageous. Yet clearly her friends regard her with great affection. As a reader I felt repulsed by Manda at times, but was not entirely unsympathetic. Did you find her a difficult character to convey, in terms of maintaining a balance between her believability as a person, and her seemingly natural preposterous characteristics and sometimes absurd actions? Was there a lot of Manda changed or omitted in edits?
I found her easy to convey but you are right – she is so over-the-top I also had to control her and her dominance over the group narrative. But at the same time, I have known personalities actually more extreme than her. Especially when there is a group dynamic – you always seem to get this one character who has to let their instincts to be the centre of attention, spiral out of control. It’s not a gender thing – male groups have it too – probably worse. But at the same time there is something I care about very much in Manda too – she projects this level of confidence and contentment, but it’s such a sham. I feel people do that even more now in the social media age – but underneath are all these trembling insecurities. And that’s okay. Manda is a young Mum and I don’t think she is coping at all, but through all her bluster she convinces herself she is. She’s narrow-minded and bigoted and indolent but all the same – none of us are perfect. ●