Questions contributed by Brian Hamill
Q: This is an extract from page 93 of the book:
“Give people money and they all end up with identical concerns. Like poverty, money is an illness with classic symptoms.”
Of course this sentiment was created and rendered by you, but when you are writing with a first-person narrator, is it a case of - in the act of writing - thinking of things that you genuinely feel this particular narrator, this unique consciousness, would actually think and that are organic expressions of their own character or individual personality (and so are not necessarily things that you yourself would agree with or have thought of before) - or is it more that you embed such thoughts and theories in the book that have long been your own personal, internal opinions and ideas, and that have been ‘waiting’ in your mind for the right vessel to come along and take them out onto the page?
It’s a good question but it has to be the former. They are opinions that I feel the character would hold or the third /first person narration, if it fits. I mean obviously, if I think I have some bon mots or a witty-sounding line which I seem to be trying for above, I will try to bust some moves on the page and make that lunge for the Book of Literary Quotations, ha ha... I might have come across this line in my notebook and “Hey, where Manolo thinks about money I should use that line I saw in my notebook last month.’ Quite a lot of my stuff comes from lines in my notebooks and from reading Nietzsche at a pretentiously early age, you sort of start to feel it’s your duty to fill your notebook with crushingly original aphorisms and devastating philosophical insights of European significance. Ha ha.
Then obviously you are going to have characters that you don’t agree with at all - bastards or insensitive psychos, but you still have to express their position. They will say stuff that you don’t agree with but that you might feel enlarges their character on the page. I mean, I largely agree with that pithy line about money on page 93. When people are skint they feel the rich should be taxed more, when people have money themselves, they feel they should be taxed less – and it’s perfectly feasible for the same person to hold those opinions as their fortunes wax and wane, those are their concerns and it just says a lot about human nature that that’s the way it is – in my opinion. But of course I don’t agree with everything Manolo does or says. It’s pretty shocking the way he casually calls Ahmed a ‘Moor’ (Shakespearian though) but that expresses Manolo’s initial, brusque self-satisfied view of things . I believe he changes in the novel. I mean, I don’t admire a bloke who hands out McDonalds Application forms to someone begging on the street – but at the same time that is a true anecdote...it’s just such a brilliantly typical Right Wing thing to do, I just thought I could base a whole character on a guy who did this. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes you don’t agree with something someone does or says but at the same time it does show so much of their character. If you begin a story with a male character who just walks up to a random male character on the street, and punches him as hard as he can on the nose then walks away – you have pretty much set that character up. You don’t agree with the guy’s actions but you have set him up.
Q: My favourite narrative strand is the young Lolo’s romance with the two Vietnamese girls, Thinh and Quynh, and the favourite specific part is where they all go swimming and Lolo is saved, unwillingly, by a lifeguard (French, male). Was it a challenge, technically speaking, to write this strand where two of the three main characters did not speak the same language as the third (Lolo) and so were largely mute? Was there any real life inspiration for those two characters, or for the incident with the lifeguard?
Yeah that was a big technical challenge. The Worms is obsessed with language and the rendering of language. It is also in some ways a satire of translation. It is written in English, but the characters speak Spanish and Valenciano, and Vietnamese, but I didn’t allow myself that pitfall of just occasionally quoting an actual foreign word. That seems corny to me. Like in a French novel translated into English, there will be a sentence, “I sat down at the café table and ordered a café au lait,” and you can say…hey hold on. Why is the coffee rendered in French when no part of the rest of the sentence is? Well of course the translator will say it is to develop a little local feel, and atmosphere and in translation, most readers of English actually know what a café au lait is. But it’s something I am suspicious of. In The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven, I think it’s generally words foreign to Manolo, say, English nouns, that he quotes in italics: those English words – a few French - are in italics when they are the actual words Manolo is saying or thinking. So you will get him putting ‘Sellotape,’ and ‘stretch-series,’ and ‘Johnny Walker,’ in italics, because they are words that seem strange and alien to Manolo. Perhaps this is also to do with the rise of Globalised English, as a sort of accepted mode. It is a sort of cheeky attack on it, making it seem that English is the weird foreign language round these parts. Which it is to Manolo. He doesn’t read or speak English. I suppose I am reminded of the conundrum of Indian writers who write in English. The implications of that and some of the technical difficulties – and ethical too – which that throws up for them. That’s a whole other question I wouldn’t want to get into right here, but it is fascinating in Anglo Indian writing.
I wanted the young Manolo, Thinh, and Quynh to be placed in a world almost devoid of language, to take away all the possibilities of dialogue between characters that a writer will normally fill their pages with; so only physicality, infused with sexuality was left between them. The language of their bodies. That’s why there is swimming, learning to swim, eating ice creams, going to the pictures to see Jaws – where everything is transmuted into the images upon the cinema screen, and of course sex and all that stuff with Manolo’s caul, which is sort of gruesome and mysterious, but twistedly erotic. Ha. Poor Manolo, I think his love life starts with an erotic peak and it is downhill from them on! I definitely wanted that area of the novel without dialogue. I wanted it to be like Robinson Crusoe on his island. Crusoe is a such a great novel, but I still think he brought in Friday because he was so frustrated having no dialogue. He had to unload that tension, which had imposed limitation in the novel’s narrative. By the way do you know the novel is not actually titled, Robinson Crusoe? That’s a modern bowdlerisation. And I do find it very funny that Manolo wants so badly to impress these girls, but he’s not the most macho bloke, and he is furiously jealous. Ha ha..
If you impose imitations on yourself as a writer you have to get inventive.
Q: There are several notable typographical/stylistic features of this book – all proper names (and the occasional non-proper one) are italicized, words are underlined for emphasis where emphasis is required (where italics are usually used), space-breaks are used frequently, asterisk/star demarcations infrequently, and each chapter has a title (and there’s no Contents page listing these). Were these features decided on before writing the book, or did you impose them during later edits? Were they intended to show the stylistic preferences of Lolo, as the teller of this tale?
Oh. I so wanted a Contents page and had one in my first draft, but the book was quite long and I was looking for ways to trim it. I wish I had left a Contents page now as I am fond of them. I also had a charter called Ma Jose. That is how the name Maria Jose is rendered in Spanish. But this created a lot of problems for standard English font in a standard English novel. I was sort of “not encouraged” to incorporate that as a proofreading problem. I should have stuck by my guns as it was really a time saving move on the publisher’s part. It made me think of James Kelman’s artistic struggles and how, the moment you start to get creative with standard orthography, you meet a weird sort of resistance from publishers.
These coventions of mine were definitely imposed during the writing. I am not sure all proper names are italicized, I think it is just terms in English. Lots of higher cases are given to things that have local significance. And Manolo will use these oddly emphasised phrases like, Our Model Region. Does he do that? He will refer to the elderly as Old Ones. This is me rendering some of his native language and sentence structure into English, which can sound nicely strange. Of course I was aware of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, where Hemingway tries to render Spanish into English, but Hemingway gets himself into some very awkward-sounding jams, if you ask me.
Q: Lolo is a 40 year old man, with the many memories and experiences of childhood and young adult life behind him, and these are rendered in the first-person. At the time this book was published you were 42 years old, if my arithmetic is correct. Would you say that Lolo feels closer to you, to your own life and personality, than other characters you’ve created that were not so similar to you (in terms of age, gender, etc) such as the girls of The Sopranos?
No. I don’t think so. I do think The Worms uses distancing techniques that push the first person narrator away from its author. Subconsciously I might be doing that, but while the feeling of being in your forties is doubtless coming from my own experience there is no way Manolo is an autobiographical character. Yet at the same time there are traits in him that I find sympathetic and recognise. I certainly used the child of a hotel owner stuff. My own parents ran a hotel in Oban. Now that’s interesting – there is absolutely no similarity between my own parents, and their hotel, between those experiences and what I did with it in this novel. It’s a bit like. Well. It’s a bit like someone who was in the second-world-war writing about the Vietnam war. That might seem an odd comparison but I mean – you know about war and about combat but not THAT war and that combat. Do you see what I mean? His provincialism, his dislike of travel have aspects of me in them but it is more an attitude than anything at all specific. Interesting Manolo can’t drive a car – like Morvern Callar. It’s a way of geographically trapping your character in a micro-geography.
Q: There are continual temporal shifts between chapters. Did you write the book in something approaching a chronological order and then later reorganize and reintegrate the chapters, or did you write some of the narrative strands in full then intersperse them throughout as was appropriate? Or is the order of the chapters just the organic structure that formed itself as you wrote?
I think it was more or less written in temporal order but, many chapters I wrote were later cut out at my own choice and I don’t know if that is to the book’s advantage. I remember there was a long chapter set in the Capital city where Manolo attends a symphony orchestra – and of course, the opposite of me – Manolo does not like music. Sometimes it is quite mysterious. It seems to me if you cut sections of a book out, it affects the rhythm of the book in obscure ways. It’s as if the character grew in a certain now-missing chapter – now they are somewhat changed, but by editing out that chapter, the reader does not share that growth, yet elements of that invisible growth now survive in the later chapters – it seems a sort of a cheat. Do you see what I mean? I know I wrote a great deal more in the early drafts than is in the final novel. But at the same time it still seems to have an inner organisation to me. And I am very suspicious of novels that start to get too long. Longer novels so have to really justify themselves and few do.
Q: I believe it is fair to say that The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven is not as popular or well-known as Morvern Callar or The Sopranos, and did not quite receive the same level of widespread acclaim as, say, The Deadman’s Pedal (despite some strong reviews). Is this something that bothers you, or do you think it’s fair, or is it simply not something that you’re particularly aware of or interested by? I ask this question as a great fan of this novel who does feel it is somewhat overlooked.
Yeah. I am with you on this and for once I will talk my book up rather than being too magnanimous. Writers always feel their books are overlooked, ha ha. We probably feel they should be getting discussed on the evening news. Every night! I do think the book confused people. It was a change, it was not like the strange Scottish surrealism of say, The Man Who Walks, and I think that perhaps threw some of my readers. I think the book was quite well reviewed but I feel critics didn’t know what box to put it in. Because in a way the book is a pastiche of translation, a pastiche of the European novels I grew up reading, and loving and thinking: Oh gosh I wish I could write a European-set novel with men and women who sit talking in cafes. A bit self-indulgent perhaps, but I used to read so many French novels in translation, you know, Bernanos, Nathalie Sarraute, George Duhmal, Claude Simon, Francois Sagan, Radiguet, Tournier, Genet, Malraux, Raymond Roussel, Celine, Modiano, Perec and of course Camus and Sartre, and de Beauvoir, Proust, Spanish author’s too. Like Perez Galdos…his Nazarin is a book I adore. Portugese too, Pessoa and Eca de Queiros. I mention so many because in a way The Worms was my silly wee love affair to all that reading and writing. It’s exotic to a guy from an Argyllshire village – these Euro folk being all continental, with their coffees, cigarettes, bidets and Citroen cars – it really is my taste! I dunno. It’s like being a piano player but you suddenly want lots of accordions on your new album. Ha ha. So The Worms was a genre novel within a genre novel, maybe even satirical in a manner. In some ways it was quite brave of me, I could have gone on doing more and more Scottish realism but I wanted to try something different as a writer. Probably very bad in terms of a career move, the market likes writers always to be the same, but it doesn’t care about style, just theme. I took a risk and I have never been much of a careerist to my regret. I see many writers about me being just that and best of luck to them, it’s smart to sell books.
Another thing. I think this novel was rather ahead of its time and prescient in the way it dealt with global migration. I didn’t try to do it in a big sweeping way – just in individual attention to Ahmed’s predicament as a character. This novel was published in 2006, long before the Syrian refugee crisis and at that time many people, like Ahmed, were crossing (and of course drowning), on illegal pateras (rafts and dodgy Zodiac boats) crossing at night from North Africa to the Spanish mainland, trying not to be intercepted by the coastguard. Almost all of it is organized by exploitative and immoral trafficking gangs in North Africa. I have talked with and spent time in bars with some guys who came to Europe in this dangerous way. I really tried to write that experience - often a horrific and terrifying one – well. I recall working on that night passage sequence quite carefully. Human migration and trafficking is also highlighted in The Man Who Walks as well, in a chapter titled The Empty Quarter. You have this sense in my work then, of people making these journeys, these odysseys, across and through threatening and jeopardy-ridden landscapes and over water.
I wanted Ahmed, who is smart and intelligent, to be a migrant with a clear purpose – no moral vagueness. He isn’t well, he has to get to Europe, not to try to find a better life, or with dreams of a better lifestyle, or to escape the madness of what Somalia was like for a poor person around the time of the millennium. Ahmed has to reach Europe to have a chance of literally living, to try to get medicine. That was meant to be the whole irony of the novel: it isn’t Manolo who is ill and never has been, it’s Ahmed. In the end it seems to me – bizarrely, that Ahmed and Manolo are sort of aligned against the madness that capitalism and its divisions brings to us all. Now, I am not a firebrand anti-capitalist. You might say - I have been failing spectacularly at being a successful capitalist for twenty years, as professional writer, ha ha! So I don’t believe the book is taking some radical political position. I don’t think the book is even taking the automatic, sometimes I feel unquestioning, liberal pro-migrant stance. I am just saying this: imagine being Ahmed. On a clear day, from the North African beaches, he can see the mountainous coasts of Spain; he is ill, he’s slowly dying and he knows medicine, hospitals and the possibility of continued life for him are just over there in Europe. You might call it a hierarchy of need that is in operation for him. We would all want to get over here in his circumstances. That’s how mad the world is. On this side of the line you live – on that side you die. To quote Orson Welles, I have been failing spectacularly at being a successful capitalist for twenty years.
Also, can I ask a question? What happens next at the end of the novel? After saving the young girl, Manolo is badly burned, maybe very badly – that can be dangerous, he is a vain man but his face is badly scarred forever. He also had this mad physical fall down through the disintegrating building from quite a height. Is he internally injured? Ahmed seems to be fading fast too. What actually happens next in this novel? It seems to me Manolo would do every single thing in his power to help Ahmed at that point – they are comrades, existential comrades – but is it possible Manolo dies at this point, not Ahmed - or both of them have little time left in this world and it is all too late?
My memory is that not a single review thought of The Worms Can Carry me to Heaven, as a novel highlighting what was happening with global migration in 2006. Dead bodies were, and still are washing up on the beaches where we want to sunbathe in expensive sunglasses. ●