Questions contributed by Lynne Maclagan
Q: This was your fourth novel, and the first to have male lead protagonists; the Nephew and the Uncle. In what ways, if any, were you trying to expand your voice as a writer in this novel?
Wow! I never thought about that before…about the lead protagonists finally being of male gender in what was my fourth book. You’re right! Those earlier books all had female lead characters and narrators…I even felt, as well as the main characters, the third person narrative voice of The Sopranos was female. Because of course, the narrative voice which tells a story can be a construct as well. I really did keep up all those female-point-of-view novels for a long time, like people say. I had better do another soon! It’s the influence of Sunset Song, ultimately I think?
However, I don’t believe I was trying to ‘expand’ my voice as a writer in The Man Who Walks. In a way, I was sort of restricting it - was I not - by changing the gender of my characters to a more ‘normalized’ one for a male writer? It’s the writing of human characters in general which is the magic currency of fiction. For me, I have never really believed there is such a huge difference between writing male or female characters, though I do know many others would disagree and that it is an ethically loaded question. Writing any character is difficult and heaped with questions - ethical and artistic.
Take Annie Proulx; she doesn’t seem to cower much when it comes to writing brilliantly realistic male characters, does she? And she isn’t criticized for it. It’s getting the characters right which matters. Is a painter better at painting male or female figures? Would a female painter be better at painting female figures than a male? Or vice versa? I am unsure if that’s a fair comparison, or of any answers to that. I remember Annie gave The Sopranos a great endorsement for the cover when it came out in the United States and we buddied up after that. I spent time with her in Wyoming, which was a right eye-opener, pardner. I mention her/name-drop her, both because she writes outside her own gender and it also was Annie who actually gave me the idea for the ending of The Man Who Walks. I told her my working title, the rough, road-novel plot and she said, in that mordant and wry way of hers, “Sounds to me like that man won’t be walking by the end of the book!” Ha ha. I thought that was divine guidance.
The origins of The Man Who Walks novel are actually quite odd - even quaint, perhaps. In 2000/2001, I was living in central Dublin, as a writer who was in the flush of having a lot of luck. In 1997 I had this short story of mine called, The Man Who Walks - about a wild, eccentric character with a glass eye – published in The Picador Book of Contemporary Scottish Fiction, edited by Peter Kravitz. This was an old, unpublished story I had dug out and given to Peter, as I doubt I had anything else handy, and it’s actually quite a level of recycle because I had robbed the same story before. There is an incident in this old story when The Man drinks whisky from the inside of a fish. Of course by then, I had already used this in Morvern Callar as well. In Morvern Callar, a character called The Hipherean, who has a fresh salmon in a bag – to smuggle it around - pours his dram of whisky into the mouth of the salmon at last orders then once outside the pub, drinks the whisky from the insides of the fish – this incident actually happened in real life and was such a beautiful thing I wanted to use it everywhere!
So that old story, written before Morvern Callar, was the first appearance of this character The Man Who Walks. Back then, and even today, I sometimes get Fan Mail! It’s really nice as I have always written fan mail letters myself since I was quite young, and I have sometimes got replies from very famous figures. And others not so famous but still heroes of mine. It was nicer back then because of course they were hand-written, paper letters – now folk will tend to just try to contact you electronically on the internet. Among quite a few letters, three or maybe even four separate readers, asked me if I had any intentions for my character The Man Who Walks, from that anthology story, to reappear in anything. I was really surprised. They all seemed to think he was a wonderful invention. That sort of stood out for me – had I stumbled on my Pip/Oliver Twist character here, I wondered?
So in a weird way, I simply began to expand out that original story into The Man Who Walks novel as a “request,” for those gentle readers of mine, who had taken the trouble and written to me as fans of The Sopranos and Morvern Callar. The original story appears in full as one of the italicized inter-chapters in the final novel of The Man Who Walks. I dedicated the book to those readers who wrote to me, and if you look at the front of The Man Who Walks, you will see the names of those people who wrote asking for more of that character – though in those days, before we were all on social media, and letters were handwritten in ink, I wasn’t quite sure about the spelling of one of my dedicatees surnames! Oddly - or maybe typically - only one of them ever wrote back after I sent them the complete book. Maybe they had all moved address, or were a bit alarmed I had spontaneously produced a book for them? Perhaps for good reason, as it’s quite a wild and spasmodic book. And fairly bloody obscene in places too, in a mocking, satirical way. Surely that bizarre sex scene between Paulette and the Nephew is a satire of an obscene scene? All the references to Swift suggest that. I was trying to justify the scatological. And clearly Swift, in Gulliver’s Travels, was not afraid in dealing with the scatological – in fact he seems quite obsessed with it, like when Gulliver pees a huge flood. That’s always left out the film versions!
Goodness knows what was going on in my head at the time, but I do know I wanted a wild, rambunctious road-novel-feel to the text.
Q: The Uncle and the Nephew find trouble wherever they go. They don’t fit in with the core of society, and don’t appear to want to. What did you enjoy about writing these characters? And why is it important in literature to explore characters like them?
That is true; in some ways - despite their individual flaws - which are many - The Nephew and the Man Who Walks are very similar and are sort of dumped on by conventional society – and also by the counter culture; be it in the 60s, where The Man Who Walks claims he was (was he???) and does not fit in, or the criminal counter culture of the late 1990s. Yet in a way they are quite representative of a lot of fellows who were and are around in the rural Highlands and in Ireland too. Probably everywhere.
Yes, it is important such characters are seen, and I enjoy writing them; but there is a whole tradition to that in novel writing. Some of the very earliest novels, even back to The Satryicon by Petronius Arbiter, or from Spain in the 16th century, are in the picaresque tradition; about “picaros,” which roughly translates as rogues, or rascals or chancers. Wayward, eccentric individuals, living on the edges of society. The Swindler by Francisco de Quevedo, or Lazarillo de Tormes (we don’t know who wrote this work) and Guzman de Alfarache by Mateo Aleman. You can follow that right on through Defoe, Smollett, Dickens and others, to the twentieth century, to Dylan Thomas’s crazy folk and Samuel Beckett’s characters: especially in the Beckett trilogy: tramps, and back road wanderers – I am a huge Beckett fan. When The Nephew lists his dream library, Beckett is among it. My choice of characters is hardly original. I guess you find these guys in a lot of Southern U.S. writing as well.
Also, I must say that when I grew up in the Highlands in the 70’s, there were still many active and fascinating characters wandering about the land. You don’t want to romanticize their lives and chuck about terms: tramps, pedlars, whatever. But for a young kid, such figures always compel. I remember there was this old guy who would come round every spring. He would sell really well-made tin billy cans and pots, and perfectly hand-carved clothes pegs. He announced his arrival outside your house in the hair-raising manner of just suddenly playing a big set of worn-out bagpipes he carried round with him, which set all dogs and cats of the road howling. I remember my Mum always made a big round of sandwiches for him right there and then to take away – she was such a great, kind woman. And there was another character round Oban who really did march for miles on end around the countryside when we were teenagers. You could drive to the most outlandish places, yet still sight this solitary strider, trudging along the verges. I saw him once, in wintertime, snow on the ground, shortly after I passed my driving test, stepping it out down the road by The Kingshouse Hotel in Glencoe – literally in the middle of nowhere, and he was heading OUT into Rannoch Moor, not the other way. There’s nothing out there! And incidentally this bloke did not accept offers of a lift in a warm, dry car. Oh no. I tried once and he told me in no uncertain terms to be gone.
So characters like that, hermits, were already a source of inspiration and wonderment to me as a young guy, including a lot of the plein air drinkers who hung around Oban railway station, and other kenspeckle boozers from the islands, who were a lot more obvious in those days. Might I risk saying, some colourful characters of the area were even relatives of mine, and I was very fond of them too, but I’ve always been a rather timid fellow, so wild chaps like that fascinated me.
Q: In The Man Who Walks there are many occurrences of animal cruelty or the unfortunate deaths of animals. And as the novel ends, there is a beautiful scene highlighting the importance of our ecosystems. Was this an intentional theme, or was it something more unconscious?
It’s a theme that appears a great deal in my books. It’s in the Sopranos too. What I am trying to achieve is a sort of atmosphere of gothic, apocalyptic horror – like in the opening chapters, where The Nephew sets out in pursuit of the Man Who Walks. The novel opens with him killing rats cruelly in the supply warehouse. Then he recalls as a child, burning rats out of nestings – an event I remember on a shoreline in my own youth – quite horrible – with the rats scrambling out on fire. The budgerigars have been burned allegedly by The Man Who Walks. Then he finds the dying deer on the railway line as he crosses it. There’s the starfish, a dead sheep in the boot of the car later on, the birds dropping from the sky. All those details of the Chinese famine are completely real. That was a crushing famine in China, in the 1950s. Then there is that strange chapter The Empty Quarter, where he describes the human trafficking of young women for the sex industry across the Sinai desert, young women who are treated no better than herd animals and some of whom have died. All of those details are accurate. It’s all sort of like that old blues song, Death Don’t Have No Mercy in this Land. It’s thematically relevant as well though, because don’t forget, essentially The Nephew is being hunted down like a rat as well. We assume it’s the Man who is being hunted, but it ends up not so, that isn’t actually what has been unfolding in the book.
Needless to say, I am a weepy animal lover – though I can be grumpy with kittens that walk over my keyboard and jump on me in bed. Like all dangerous subversives, I have been a member of the RSPCA. You get a lot of this animal pity in Bohumil Hrabal too…and he was a huge animal lover. In fact he died feeding the pigeons from his hospital window - he fell out. Or some say jumped.
Cruelty against animals seems to me like a disruption to the universe – whether it is human cruelty against animals, or the tough cruelty of nature itself, as some old animal limps off to die alone and unloved – even unknown. If someone claims to be unfeeling, ask them to read James Agee’s letters to Father Flye, specifically, the very final letter Agee wrote just before his death, about cruelty to elephants and his ideas about this. It’s a heart breaking letter.
The bottom line is that it can look as if - as a writer - you are trying to get an emotional jolt out of your reader by mentioning these horrible moments of animal cruelty. But these horrible things tell us much about what we are as human beings.Not mentioning distressing acts of animal cruelty in fiction, is like not mentioning violence, or bigotry, or not mentioning the fact that people go to the toilet, it's a sort of censoring of reality. Look at animal cruelty in Cloud Howe, where it is vividly used with amazing power - the slaughter of the pig which turns surreal, or the really horrific death of the old horse which slips on the ice. Those are unforgettable moments in literature as the they move us - or me anyway - to such pity and sorrow - they make us know we should aspire to be better, more merciful beings; to leave cruelty to animals in this world out of fiction, avoids a huge insight into what we are and are capable of as human beings.
But remember what Camus wrote: yes, this world is full of ugliness and cruelty, but true sin would be us adding to that ugliness and cruelty, rather than trying to diminish it. I am no saint in this world, but I will spend a long time trying to get a fly out the house, or use a glass to capture other flying insects. Who could leave a butterfly trapped against a window? I get it about those Buddhists who wont step on ants. I draw the line at any mosquito dumb enough to bite me though.
Do you know Hrabal’s work? A Czech writer - truly fantastic – his writing is both absolutely realistic and absolutely fantastical, at the same time – which isn’t easy. A guy comes to a hotel to sell a salami machine, yet somehow Hrabal makes it sparkling, hilarious poetry. Because I like trains, I discovered Hrabal in the 80s, through the wonderful film adaptation of his novel, Closely Observed Trains, which is a great novel. He has written the great waiting staff/hotel novel of Europe as well, How I Served the King of England. His work is so full of life and celebration. If you have seen Wes Anderson’s movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel...I feel he gathers more than a little inspiration from Hrabal.
With regard to the late scenes in The Man Who Walks about the Chinese famine and the breakdown of the ecosystem. I guess there is a pantheistic element to some of my writing; Morvern among Nature and all that – and of course I am attracted to this. I have always been a walker, rolling around in the countryside and the hills, and you get those senses of communion and peace out there. When the Walkman first came in to my possession, I used to walk for miles in the hills and glens around Oban and in the South of England too, when I was a student in London – but we have all read our Ted Hughes as well. It doesn’t do to romanticise Nature too much. Nature can be unremittingly hostile and inhuman – like the deepest jungle, Andean peaks, or the deepest ocean, or the cold remorseless hostility of deep space. That’s Nature too. What we want is benign, tranquil nature. The idea of people being out of touch with Nature occurs in my work in The Deadman’s Pedal, you have the dam construction and flooding. In These Demented Lands the rugged geography seems central to the strange narrative. It is all there for sure. But in answer to your question, I think it is more unconscious. The way for instance that water and a fear of drowning seem to recur again and again in my work. That was pointed out to me and I wasn’t aware of it. Though I note that by chance I have nearly always lived close to the sea. When I lived in London and for a while in Glasgow, I knew something was odd. I couldn’t put my finger on it for months, then I realised it was the absence of the sea close by.
Q: It’s not only animal cruelty we encounter in this book. The Uncle and Nephew are cruel to each other, and people often behave deplorably towards them too. We see flashes of kindness in the Nephew, such as when he thinks about saving the starfish. And we feel his affection for Paulette and his disappointment when he couldn’t perform upon the opportunity of having sex with her. But for the most part, there’s a lot of conniving, back-stabbing, and manipulative behaviour. Do you feel the Nephew and Uncle are as bad or as mad as they make out? Is any of it an act?
Well, I think they come across as positively benign compared to the Nephew’s uncle, or that guy Colin, Paulette’s husband. That’s why you get that horrible ending to the novel. Paulette’s husband is a maniacal psychopath. Obviously. A very violent man. The Nephew and The Man Who Walks have been set up by his uncle as fall guys for the stolen money. So I don’t think The Man Who Walks and The Nephew are anywhere near as horrible as those other guys. I mean, The Nephew and his Uncle, they are not the kind of guys I would want to go to Tenerife with for a fortnight! I don’t fancy the domestic hygiene arrangements in The Man Who Walk’s House either. But these guys aren’t violent thieves and potential killers, like Paulette’s husband is. I mean, if Paulette’s husband had extracted every detail of what went on between the Nephew and his wife, I have no doubt he would have killed The Nephew. So I see the Nephew and the Man Who Walks as sort of bucolic innocents – in their own way.
I do think The Nephew fancies himself as a bit of a swaggering hardman, whereas that is really just a front and he isn’t really at all, he just seems intimidating to some folk. He is a wide reader and a bit of a thinker as well. The Man Who Walks annoys him and frustrates him, but ultimately I don’t think the Nephew would physically harm him. I think it’s possible - as you suggest - that The Man Who Walks exaggerates his madness when it suits him. I have noticed that genuinely disturbed people can sometimes turn their affliction on and off at certain times which work to their advantage, though I think ultimately they are defined by their illness. And of course there is a comic element to The Man: all that stuff about him not being able to go up the slightest gradient when he has had a drink. I liked that idea. It would totally define your whereabouts.
Q: Ideas of Scottishness and independence are touched upon throughout the course of the novel, which was released just a few years after the Scottish Parliament was established. To what extent was this occupying your thoughts while you were writing?
From quite an early age, due to a super history teacher at Oban High School, I have been interested in the history of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. I think there are two things going in The Man Who Walks; it’s actually not so much ideas of Scottishness and independence, as an awareness of geographical difference and regionalism to do with Highland history. Don’t forget, in the 17th, 18th and even into the 19th century, the Gaelic highlands and many of its people were not really considered part of a civilised Scotland – for many, Scots included, it was still bandit country up there: the wild-west. That’s why I used that abusive Alexander Montgomerie attributed poem as an epigraph. That’s how some Scots felt about Highlanders. And it many ways it WAS bandit country. And I like the idea of The Man Who Walks and the Nephew as sort of early twenty first century, Clint Eastwood bandits - in a comic sense. And the completely romantic continuity of the Rob Roy concept of a Highland Outlaw, at liberty amongst the heather. Like Bonnie Prince Charlie after Culloden too, of course – I am both mocking all that romance, history and tradition, but also acknowledging it too. I think.
In terms of history, after the ‘45 rebellion, the highlands were ruthlessly culturally policed as the Clearances came in. In the later 19th century you had Walter Scott’s romancing of the highlands actually becoming a real cultural force…which is interesting and very complex. And of course you had the horrors of the Clearances and the suppression of Gaelic culture – so all that is simply part of my make up as someone (a non-Gael, though many of my childhood friends were Gaels), who grew up in the Highlands in the 1970s and was aware of some aspects of the history. This doesn’t mean I take a particularly radical view of Highland history and walk around my study, angrily swinging a claymore – but these historical realities are there for anyone who thinks about their own lands, their culture and history, who reads, who stares up at the hills and sees the ghost villages. I do think a lot of old resentments need to be resisted and we all have to move on in this life. I don’t just mean in Scotland either. At the same time, I know my culture and I know who I am. I come from a very specific place and it really is my identity. We are living in an interesting and complex time. To be frank, is there not sometimes a slight feeling emerging, that people who just happen to come from one place, have grown up in that place and generations of their family before them have grown up there – are we not getting in to a strange situation where that might be seen as something people now actually have to apologise for as the world becomes so mobile?
I suppose also in The Man Who Walks, I was raising ideas of the construction of a greater Scottishness or within that: the myth of the Highlands, which is a veritable component of Scottish iconography. That’s why I use those sort of mocking chapter titles. I mean look at them: Highland Clearance, Donald where’s yer Troosers, By the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, Queen Victoria’s Highland Journal, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Flight in the Heather, In the Black Garrison, Once Upon the Time in the West – it was all about quite satirically mapping out an uneasy feel of ‘Scottishness,’ and a region of The West, in the contemporary highlands, where The Man Who Walks takes place. And also how historical sensibility is plastered onto historical sensibility – in the novel a Hollywood film production is doing an adaptation of Kidnapped - a narrative which in a way, mirrors what is happening to The Nephew and the Man Who Walks – so it’s a sort of satire, a cheapening, a subversion. Though you get those odd and gruesome scenes where the Nephew and the film scout visit the real Appin Murder scene, where Colin Campbell was shot, and which inspired Stevenson’s original Kidnapped. And they visit the promontory at Ballachulish where James of the Glen’s corpse and skeleton really was strung up to rot, the bones held together with chains and wires. All that really occurred. I wanted all that macabre stuff to be in there – like in Morvern Callar, maybe – very specific little micro-geographies appear, places that I myself know intimately were used in both books.
So, talking of single identity, in a way I see the book as dealing with one of the many complex Scotland’s which are contained within Scotland, rather than with any overall idea of a generalized Scotland.
Q: The Man Who Walks includes Scottish film references, such as ‘I Know Where I’m Going’. And the Nephew’s desire to be a film extra comes true in a darkly humorous way on the set of ‘Kidnapped’. How much of an influence or inspiration has film had on your writing or your creative thought-processes?
Well interestingly, when I was six or seven years old, in 1970, a Hollywood Disney production of Kidnapped, with a rather miscast Michael Caine as Alan Breck, really did come to film in the Oban area. The machair before the village of Kilmore, south of Oban, as far as Dunach Farm, was dressed as Culloden battlefield. My elder sister was an extra in this film (as a MALE redcoat, with a wig!) and many of the local young men were kitted out as redcoats. Blood-splattered dummies and discarded targes and swords were strewn across the heather – I was seven years old at the time, but I cannot really express what a huge impression all this made on me and my imagination. My sister had her redcoat costume back at the house and I was amazed by it, it made a massive impact on me. I can remember it all very vividly, how excited and interested I was. They were actually filming battle scenes at Kilmore, and I spent a whole day there as a spectator with my pal James, since his big brothers were also extras, and we just loved it all. That memory fed directly in to The Man Who Walks, and also in a personal way that experience made me fascinated with the process of cinema from an early age. A year or so later the film was shown at the local cinema in Oban, and of course everyone, including me and James went to see it – to see the local landscape and themselves if they were extras - and because it was a battle there were lots of local extras. I was so fascinated by the whole process as a kid. This is why it was quite strange for me when the film of Morvern Callar was made in the Oban area and the whole process was sort of repeated for me. Though Morvern Callar is a better film! That version of Kidnapped, which incorporated parts of Catriona is fairly dire. But weirdly, only a few years ago I discovered this Kidnapped on DVD and there is a small documentary as an extra feature which shows them filming at Kilmore and if you pause it and look very, very closely, you are able to spot myself as a seven year old among the spectators! A weird sensation. So in answer to your question, obviously film has had a huge influence on me from an early age.
Q: For sections of the novel, we enter into the mind of the hoarding Uncle through the musings transcribed from recovered typewriter ribbons. Where did this idea come from, and did you feel it necessary to see this character ‘from the inside’ at some stage?
It came simply from noticing my own typewriter ribbons in the mid-1990s. This was back in ancient history, before computers, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I used an electric typewriter. The ribbon was in these cartridges, and you saw a strip of it exposed with the letters of words you had just typed, reversed in mirror image. When computers arrived and you immediately started losing work in them, I thought to myself, if it was a typewriter, you could unfurl the old ribbon and laboriously re-discover what you had written, though it would take an eternity! Ha. So it comes from that.
By ‘seeing from the inside,’ I take it you mean the long flashbacks in London in the 1960s and other places, which The Man Who Walks has written? Well, I suppose it’s more the idea of reliable and unreliable narratives. What narrative we are being told by anyone is a “true” one in this novel? Is all that stuff The Man Who Walks wrote true or are they just fantasy ravings? It is a novel of unreliable points of view. ●