Your first book was the short story collection Bucket of Tongues
, which was published in 1992. Was the collection something that took many years to put together? Were there any particular writers or books that were a direct influence? What do you think of these stories now when you look at them, almost 30 years later?
Ha ha, I don’t look back at them. I have vague memories of some of them, and the life they sprang out of. It’s not my job to remember them – I finished with them the day I typed the final full stop.
Here’s one thing I recall about Bucket of Tongues
; it had to have 23 stories in it. Why? Because my favourite book of stories at that time was an OUP World’s Classics collection called Twenty-Three Tales
by Tolstoy. It was a wee hardback, published in the 30s or 40s; I carried it everywhere; it was just the right size for putting in a coat pocket and reading on the bus. One of them, by the way, was ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need?’ which James Kelman told me once was the greatest story ever written; I mentioned that James Joyce had said the same thing. I don’t know if that was the considered view of either of them, but you have to read something into it, don’t you?
I think Kromer must have admired that story too. In chapter eight there’s this passage:
They throw a sheet over him and haul him away. All he needs now is a hearse and six feet of ground, and they will have to give him that. That is one thing they will have to give him. And it will not make any difference to him how long he has to wait for it. It must burn them up plenty to have to give a stiff six feet of ground for nothing.
Echoes of Tolstoy, yes. Echoes of his own title too – wait / for nothing
. And that wonderful physicality I mentioned earlier: the alliteration of haul
, and give
. The repetition: they will have to give him that. That is one thing they will have to give him.
The repeated rhyming around ‘i’ on him, him, is, six, will, give, him, is, thing, give, him, it, difference, him, it, it, give, stiff, six.
It doesn’t MEAN anything, all this physicality, but it IS something.
Sorry, I got carried away. You were asking about influences. I’ll mention one more, seeing as you’ve set me thinking about it. Turgenev, and in particular his wonderful collection of stories, A Hunter’s Notebook
, also translated as A Sportsman’s Sketches
, and various similar titles. Turgenev tends to be overshadowed these days, even for fans of 19th century Russian fiction, by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and (the slightly later) Chekhov, but for me he deserves just as much attention. Fathers and Sons
is one of the most perpetually relevant novels; a few years ago I wrote a stage adaptation of it set in contemporary Scotland. (It was never produced, I never quite got it right, but I still like my title: Caledonia Über Alles
If you look at the long story ‘Bezhin Meadow’ in A Hunter’s Notebook
, you’ll see where I got some of the structuring ideas for my long story ‘Hours of Darkness.’ Not that that matters at all – except to this mythical PhD student I keep evoking…
If there’s a theme emerging here it’s about writing as a conversation: a conversation with writers separated by many years or many miles, whether Kromer or Turgenev.
Taban Lo Liyong, the South Sudanese poet and critic, wrote, 'History is the appraisal and reappraisal of past situations, people and their deeds in the light of contemporary experiences in order to guide our choices.' I find that a wonderful approach to literary tradition too. Not so much the biographical details of older writers and their lives, but their work. You might say, ‘Writing is the appraisal and reappraisal of past books in the light of your own experience, in order to guide your choices when you create something new.’
Looking for ‘influences’ is a useless approach to any writer who’s been doing the work seriously for more than a few years. But picking up on that conversation between different writers separated by centuries and continents – that’s a great source of strength.
I think the best explication of the importance of voice in fiction I’ve read is from a section you wrote (entitled ‘Voice, Language & Dialogue’
) in the book, Novel Writing
(2015). This is a short excerpt:
“Certainly, if our writing on the page doesn’t even resemble the way we would – most likely – address a stranger to whom we wish to give information in the best possible manner, appropriate to content, then we are likely to find ourselves producing stylistic errors and passages of obscure meaning, simply because we are working too far outside our comfort zones in terms of voice. We are familiar with the natural way that we express ourselves and are aware that stilted speech in ourselves or others is both unusual and a sign of some kind of tension. The same rules apply on the page, or rather in the musical space our words (should) open up in the reader’s mind.”
As anyone who has read my story ‘The Writing Tutors’
in Good Listeners
will know, the relationship between the written word and the verbal utterance is something I am both fascinated and mystified by. How does the problem you identify here usually manifest itself on the page, and do you think this void between someone’s narrative voice and their own verbal expression is the greatest difficulty faced by the aspiring writer?
Oh, there are all kinds of pressures on a new writer. Nervousness and genuine fear can distort the voice and make us avoid interrogating what we want to say enough to know it deeply and therefore be able to communicate it. Being vague is often rooted in fear – and a kind of fatigue and ‘this will do’ mindset. Translating yourself to be sheet music for someone else’s mind can feel like a very technical, even intrusive process initially. Just as playing the guitar seems odd at first. But you practice – and then it becomes another way you speak. You are your own instrument here, so the work you do on behalf of your reader is intimate and deep – hard work, but very rewarding. We all have a core voice which we can modulate according to our audience and subject matter (and character voice) so we’re working with an inherent skill that needs strengthening and bringing out – not learning a new technique or the characteristics of a novel material… so there’s a long road of personal exploration.
Doing voice work is very helpful – not reciting tongue twisters, but working with a specialist interested in allowing you to sound like you. And reading work aloud to audiences is very educational.
I think many people who write (myself included) are subject to the ‘anxiety of influence’, and shy away from ever consciously writing in a style similar to the artists they love. It was refreshing and even exciting when I first saw you speak quite passionately about allowing sequences of writing by Ann Quin or certain song rhythms and lyrics to filter into your work. I’ve seen you cite Beckett, Trocchi, Burroughs, Robbe-Grillet as artists whose work you admire. Were there any conscious influences at play in the prose of She’s My Witch
? I read recently that Beckett stopped reading Kafka’s The Castle because he was worried about it impacting upon his fiction – do you understand that impulse, or will you always embrace such influences?
I’m always happy to invite other writing and writers into my texts, it makes my work richer and even more intertextual. However with She’s My Witch
I wasn’t particularly drawing on other books. Of course, like many of my novels the title of She’s My Witch
comes from a song, in this case Kip Tyler’s 1958 rockabilly classic of that name. But in the past I’ve done much more than just use song titles, I’ll quite happily lift whole passages and even more from other people’s works and place them in my own books. Given that collage and bricolage are such a huge element of modernist and post-modern culture, it seems like it’s been the most sensible way to approach writing for well over a hundred years. And of course it isn’t just me who does this, for example, Kathy Acker was also famous for it. My ninth novel Whips & Furs was a detourned work with a structure based on Alex Trocchi’s faked fifth volume of Frank Harris’s My Life & Loves. I plundered much of the content from Grant Allen’s Victorian detective work An African Millionaire, but cut it with Victorian porn in the form of The Lustful Turk. These earlier works were then re-written to be the true story of Jesus Christ. I thought that one was better than The Bible!
To give a very different example of absorbing influence, my fifteenth novel The 9 Lives Of Ray The Cat Jones is based on the criminal career of my mother’s cousin and told in the fictional first person by him. For me it was a vehicle to explore the true crime genre and I read hundreds of such books to get the tone right, although I wasn’t literally plundering them to use as text. Ray Jones came up to London from South Wales before World War II and was a cat burglar but his best known escapade was a successful escape from Pentonville Prison in 1958. While character is important in this book, as I’ve indicated what I also wanted to do was explore the fictional nature and ideological construction of the often ghosted criminal autobiographies that have been popular for hundreds of years, from the Elizabethan cony-catching pamphlet on down. Although I call 9 Lives a novel, it is probably a good deal less fictional than many of the supposedly non-fictional ghosted books in the genre it is deconstructing. It also stands out among my novels for being almost entirely bereft of sex scenes but then that reflects an overall trend in the genre it was mimicking.
I don’t really understand why anyone would subject themselves to anxieties about influence. When I’m training for sports I watch what other people do and incorporate it into my routines, so why not do the same with writing? For me it’s the ultimate result that matters not how this is achieved. It just seems really pointless to be hung up on not letting others give you a leg up with your writing and wanting to be ‘original’. Of course anyone genuinely original won’t be understood coz they’ll have to make up a whole new language - they wouldn’t be writing in English or Spanish or whatever language they happened to speaking growing up. There seems to be less anxiety about influence in the worlds of art and popular culture than the literary world.
John Cheever famously said “the idea of authors running around behind their cretinous inventions is contemptible”. However, many great writers have said they don’t always have complete control over their characters; Flannery O’Connor being a notable example. I believe you're in the Flannery camp, as I heard you state in an interview that Anais didn’t want to do what you had set out for her in The Panopticon
. What was it you wanted her to do that she was trying to resist? How do you deal with this as a writer? And how “well behaved” have your other characters been in comparison?
I am not the puppet master. I don’t move them around on the page for my own amusement. These worlds are not my playthings. I don’t like a lot of writing that does that. I find it can carry the author’s presence too much and I prefer the work (to the writers) most of the time. I have tried to be as absent from the process as I can. By that I mean I’ve trained myself to write in a particular mind state that is a kind of channelling but it’s doing so with every bit of intellect you can access, every emotion, each sorrow, all palettes must be used and it is a challenging and disconcerting way to work as there is absolutely no sense of security and you keep putting yourself into that state for years with no idea of what will come of it and in fact, feeling certain you’ll never achieve what you set out to do. I’ve no idea why I’m digressing into second person. I don’t want well behaved characters. I want living, pulsing, erratic, flawed, furious, stupid, ungainly, brilliant, awkward, unpleasant, exciting, thoughtful, rage or lust-filled beings with a pulse
. That’s who I’m looking for when I sit down to a blank page. I've had other writers claim on stage with me that it’s only possible to write if the writer is in control of every single thing.
I don’t write to be in control.
I write to get out of control, especially novels.
I hate it when writers think the way they do things is the only way it can be done. Do what works and don’t question it. If it doesn’t work, change it. Just because someone else does it completely differently doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
‘Write about what you don’t know’ has become more contentious in recent years because of representation. Whether writers should fictionalise the lives of people from different races, or genders, etc. Lionel Shriver caused controversy when she said: “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.”
As someone who is very pro ‘write what you don’t know’, what are your thoughts on this issue?
I always start with a few words that pop into my head and simply see where they take me – most of the time I don’t know if the words will turn into a poem, a story, or even a novel. My approach is Don’t Plan and Don’t Think. I have learned to trust my imagination. Only as I write do I begin to get glimpses of what it is I’m writing about.
Not a method I’d particularly advocate, but I seem stuck with it. I do not want to stay safe and tidy, always within my comfort zone. If it would bore me to write like that, I can hardly expect the reader not to be bored reading it.
It is other people and unfamiliar situations that can be the most interesting, intriguing and inspiring. A YA novel of mine about people smugglers was recently turned down by a publisher who really liked the book but said it should have been written from the POV of the teenage Syrian refugee and not from that of the Scottish kids who helped him escape his captors. I told them that, though I was very moved by his terrible situation, I would find it rather presumptuous of me to write from his POV. Presumptuous, patronising and dishonest. There the matter rests. God might be able to see into every man’s heart, but I’m afraid I have my limits.
These ‘representation’ criticisms, if I understand them correctly, seem rather narrow-minded. How then can anyone write historical fiction, science fiction or fantasy? And so the list goes on. Does this mean that a man cannot have women characters in his novels, and vice versa? A writer living in the Edinburgh Southside can no longer write fiction set in London, Glasgow or Leith even? Where is the line drawn? And by whom? I really find all this a bit baffling and faintly absurd. If this kind of self-censorship became the norm, how could serious issues be seriously debated?
Our lives are surely richer and more complex than is allowed for by any ‘this is right and that wrong’ cut-and-dried dichotomies. And what about empathy? Whatever I try to write, I have my own conscience (artistic, moral, whatever) to deal with. Believe me, there is no harder taskmaster than our conscience.
… all three of your stories in the book are narrated in the first-person – is this something typical of the Kailyard style, or is it just the medium that you think works best for your short fiction?
Any mode can work. The telling voice of the Third Person is handy for small town stuff as well as it can pontificate. But look at say, Winesburg, Ohio
by Sherwood Anderson. That’s all very small-town stuff, but very sophisticated styles are in use. I always have a weird blind spot about how a story ends up in first or third or second point of view. It’s odd. In this case, I think because the genre might be seen to be of a settled community, the first-person voice draws in the reader to that local sensibility – but that's not a rule. The “I” voice has to be carefully balanced as it has all this local knowledge that leaks out. I mean the voice of the newspaper guy in Blind Billy’s Pride
is a different voice from the narrator in Sullivan’s Ashes
, who is younger and probably a touch more street-wise. They both share a certain world-weariness I note – and a grim sense of humour.
One more thing about the Kailyard and our contemporary aversion for the sentimental, which we must take care not to confuse with sentiMENT (which is something that comes from an emotion) in the Romantic period. I read an interview with an academic and novelist recently, where she was asked what was the last book to make her cry, and she replied that tears were not relevant to literary judgement. If you extrapolate that, you get this dry, hard concept that what literature makes us FEEL is irrelevant. I notice a lot of this ... but what books and art have made me FEEL, emotionally and spiritually, is why I love them, and it is startling to see that coldness so starkly expressed. In most academic spheres we can never discuss how an artwork makes us FEEL. It has to be about what makes us think.
Music too. It’s a primary element of the aesthetic. I have been spontaneously reduced to tears by a bass guitar solo, it was so beautifully played and constructed (by Rhonda West, to confess) – how can that be aesthetically meaningless?
… For sure everyone's life has a book in it, but writing it is the tricky bit. That’s why it’s so stimulating teaching Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen for me. Students are motivated – interested – curious. And they have been reading.
Well, Danny is the polar opposite of that. And he represents me in terms of my early confusions – it took a long time for me to come to any sort of understanding of fiction, description, language, and how these relate to each other, to real life and real speech, etc. I was confused by the praise that would be lavished on writing that, to my sensitive, highly-attuned Airdrieonian ear, sounded like a large pile of high-falutin' theatrical thesaurus guff. I think I'm just drawn more to an oral storytelling tradition, rather than a written one. I was reading Richard Ford the other day – whose work I like and admire very much – but suddenly this first-person narrator started babbling on like his mouth was the quill of Victor Hugo, right there in the midst of what had been an actual conversation! Maybe it's what holds me back as a writer, but my conscience just won't let me lean in and turn my narrative character into this removed, sagacious presence who can randomly sweep across time-periods and geographical land-masses, describing and defining things in grandiose style or god-like detail. I love Selby and Kelman and Rhys because their narrators are people that talk. That talk the truth. That don’t wrap themselves within this incredible mastery of literary language that leaves you trembling – aghast with the sheer grandiloquence of it all.
I should actually clarify here – their narrators possess a much more
sophisticated mastery of language than your Henry Fieldings and so on, but it is a mastery rooted in the rhythms, music, humour and subtlety of human expression, and relationships, and not a mastery of … performative erudition, or scholarly eloquence.
There’s a great detail in the story Sweet Home
regarding the peripheral character Dale:
“Last night had been alright but Bucky wished he hadn’t said to Dale to come along. So I just turned round and I says. Most of Dale’s life seemed to have been spent just turning round.”
This reminds me of Flannery O’Connor, where a sense of a character is often expressed not by direct description, but by a phrase they use or a gesture they make. I feel that I can imagine a lot about Dale’s life and personality simply from the knowledge that he over-uses that phrase (and now know more about the focalizing character from his perception of Dale also). How important was harnessing everyday phrases and speech patterns to your writing?
How brilliant that you paid attention to Dale. Generally this whole aspect is so important to me. With Dale, I wanted to create the sense that here was a guy who got on like a total Charlie Big Bananas. I felt like establishing that quickly and that particular phrase did that for me, in my opinion. Just generally, speech patterns, cadences, syntax, rhythms are all really important.
I hate it in a novel where a 14 year old girl has the same speech style as a 55 year old man. I don’t do stylised dialogue nor do I do epigrammatic wit, although I can enjoy those things when others produce it well. Generally I am needing to mess up speech – introduce circumlocutions, non-fluency features, repetition. Years ago I used to work in Whiteinch and there was a guy there who always said things were ‘a Catch 22 situation.’ Thing was, he didn’t really know what it meant and so applied it to anything that was slightly negative. You know, he missed his bus and it was a Catch 22 situation. Somebody nicked his coat and it was a Catch 22 situation. And everyone understood that that was how he used that comment and just let him get on with it. No one would have remarked on it, or said, pal, that’s totally wrong. And so that little phrase became an index of his relationship with everyone else and also his own character. He liked using it because it sounded good. Just generally I suppose, I like the power of quite ordinary words, Buddy Holly lyrics, say. That’ll be the day. Think it over. One day I was in a shopping centre and the woman in front of me had a child in a really nice hand-knit cardigan. I said, that’s a lovely cardigan. And the woman replied, yeah her other granny knit her that. I thought, jeez. I understand a lot about the family dynamic there, through that word ‘other.’
The women in On Black Sisters’ Street
are victims of patriarchal society both at home and in Belgium, and yet they remain stoic, strong and hopeful throughout their suffering. In your activism and public speaking you have discussed negofeminism, which specifically addresses the needs of African women and their ability to negotiate or manoeuvre within patriarchal society. The characters in On Black Sisters’ Street
and in your story collection, Better Never Than Late
, for the most part, do not fully reject or escape from the patriarchal structures that restrict them, despite readers’ desperation for them to do so. Can you explain how negofeminism shines through in your characters and stories, and how this differs from Western feminist narratives?
Negofeminism, according to the Nigerian scholar, Obioma Nnaemeka, is the feminism of negotiation, and it also stands for no-ego feminism. Negofeminism’s belief is that a paradigm shift can occur without the agents of the shift necessarily going into confrontation with the dominant factors and without breaking down the dominant culture. I think that the women of both On Black Sisters’ Street
and Better Never Than Late
understand that this is the more pragmatic thing for them to do: finding ways around patriarchal landmines rather than attempt to detonate all of them
. These are women whose first instinct is survival, whose allegiance is to their community, in which they also find a lot of comfort, and so a complete break would probably incinerate them.
Negofeminism recognizes that (African) women live in societies where individual happiness and individualism (hallmarks of western feminism) are antithetical to how the community works. Nnaemeka often illustrates negofeminism with the (true) story of a woman in some African country who won an award for something and a photographer was sent by an influential magazine to make portraits of her. Every time the photographer sat her down for a picture, she'd rally her many children to join her. The photographer would shoo them away each time, trying to explain to her by gesticulating as they didn't have a common language between them, that the photo shoot was just for her to go alongside the article celebrating her, but it was to no avail. Frustrated, he looks for a translator. The translator tells the woman what the photographer wants, to which she responds that she is nothing without her children, they are her roots and she does not exist without them. Negofeminism is more encompassing, more intersectional (than western feminism). It also accepts, as the women in both books accept, that a certain negotiating with and manipulation (not eradication) of the status quo is needed for success. They do not believe that the status quo can be completely dismantled. For instance, Efe's sense of obligation and Sisi's sense of duty to their families back in Nigeria supersede their desire for their own personal happiness. It is so interwoven with their own sense of self that one could say that their happiness depends on the extent to which they succeed in carrying their families along. The 'I' is not central. The women (I no longer remember which in particular) still want to marry, even if they have to 'buy' their husbands. They would, if they found the right man, put up the money to pay their own brideprice (a radicalism that doesn't rattle the system). They want the respectability of the marriage institution (because their society expects it of women) yet they are independent. Their empowerment comes from making money off men, in a profession that is controversial, even in feminist circles. In Better Never Than Late
, Prosperous and her friends want some independence but are wary of getting it at the expense of their community.
Negofeminism is a practical and realistic route to that independence.
In another interview (from 2006), I read the following statement from you:
“I’m interested in people’s love of music, its development, the social element. Very few books capture this, as they’re generally based on famous figures and/or written by people in the business. The human element is too often missing.”
And this was with regard to your novel Human Punk
. Can I ask, how has music influenced your writing? Is it important to you for your work to be fusing literary language with your musical sensibility?
Music is a massive part of people’s lives, it doesn’t matter what generation you come from or what your tastes are, so rather than it being background noise or a series of references I wanted to make it the soul of Human Punk
. When punk started it was totally different to the other music we were hearing, and the fact it was (for us) about the lyrics took it to another level. The songs said something about our lives and in Human Punk
I wanted to show how the music gets under the main character’s skin and shapes his life. Skinheads
takes the idea on and weaves in and out of Human Punk
, part of a loose trilogy with the repetitive beat of White Trash
In terms of my writing, music has been incredibly important. For many of my generation, it was a bigger influence than literature which, apart from the more classless and exciting American writers, too often felt stuffy and elitist. Punk was our literature. The deeper and more long-lasting influence of music on my writing is in its rhythms, the sound and flow of my words and sentences. That is what makes writing and editing such a great experience.
Popular music has always been more experimental and open-minded, and there are a small number of writers around today prepared to take chances thanks to Bowie and The Clash, and more recently the likes of Tricky and DJ Shadow.
A major part of your life and career has been the teaching of creative writing, having held positions in the subject in North Carolina, Kent, Aberdeen, Orkney, and Glasgow. What drew you to the teaching of writing, and what do you enjoy most about this form of work? What in your experience is more important to the budding writer: a natural talent or a serious work ethic?
First of all, thank you for reciting that Litany of Horror. I don’t mean it that way, of course, but most writers would rather just write. I actually like teaching, but it’s important to teach people who really want to learn, not just the zhlubs who are in the English department because they can’t think what they want out of life. Or, let me put it another way: what I like and enjoy is literature. I decided not to become an academic, but that doesn’t mean that writers can’t talk about literature with people. They often make quite a bit of sense when they do. However, to be allowed ‘officially’ to talk about literature in a university, you have to have a PhD, and I don’t enjoy talking about fiction in that airless way. Many academics seem to have no idea how fiction is written.
What I am very strongly against is the workshop, the primary method by which your money is stolen and your time wasted as a student in a creative writing program. See the remarks of August Kleinzahler on ‘professionalized’ creative writing programs — he said ‘It’s a terrible thing to lie to young people, and that’s what it’s all about’
. A colleague of mine at Kent always referred to us writers as the ‘grey squirrels’ in English departments. He was right, in more ways than one. They paid us in monkey nuts.
Talent and a work ethic are both important. I have certainly seen people with a minimum of talent and a monstrous work ethic succeed as writers (although whether it counts as ‘real’ writing is debatable), but it’s much more satisfying when the opposite occurs.
Whenever anyone asks me where to study writing, I tell them to find a program where there’s a writer that they admire and who they really want to study with. Find out if that writer is capable of teaching. Then try to ensure that the student can work with the writer more or less individually, as their editor. With regard to this intractable position of mine, see Billy Collins’s poem ‘Workshop’
Or you could just approach a writer you like and ask him or her to help you. For money.
A quotation from that newspaper is given in the inner sleeve of my copy of Midwinter Break:
“It is hard to believe that writer Bernard MacLaverty left Northern Ireland in 1975 to take up a job and raise his family in Scotland. His is a voice that is so distinctively from here … He has not lost the true sense of who he is; his accent; his warmth; his sincerity.”
I’m intrigued by the idea of voice and accent in your writing – both that it can so easily be detected by reviewers back in Ireland, and also the implicit suggestion that these could have been lost on account of changing your country of residence. I remember reading Edwin Morgan once remark on the “marked un-Englishness of the tone of voice” of Samuel Beckett’s fiction, despite Beckett not relying on a phonetic representation of speech in his work. Do you think of yourself as working in a distinctively Irish voice in the same manner? Does it strike you as strange that some Irish journalists seem surprised by the “marked un-Englishness” (or in this case, ‘un-Scottishness’) in your work?
I’ve been accused of using ‘an Irish turn of phrase’ but then why wouldn’t I? I’m from Ireland. The last novel has two Irish people in Amsterdam so the writing and thinking and talking will be Irish. The phrase itself, ‘a turn of phrase’ is interesting. English turned on its head? Words brandished in a different order. But this is the way I learned the world. Listening to the speech of those older than me. In the current crisis my mother’d have said, ‘After this virus the world will have to sit on an egg less.’ And my Aunt would talk about bored children under lockdown as ‘lying around with the arses above them’.
It might be something to do with Gaelic constructions. It’s only a couple of hundred years since my family thought in Irish. I have retained my accent. There is no reason why the Irish shouldn’t retain grammar and constructions that make English sound individual and new minted.
I think a similar thing has happened to Jewish writers. People like Malamud and Bashevis Singer write with Yiddish underlying their English. And wonderful it is too.
Despite a successful career as a journalist and writer yourself, I think it’s fair to say that now you’re most well-known as the co-founder/director of Galley Beggar Press, one of the most brilliant and popular independent publishing houses in the UK. What led you to venture into the world of publishing, and what is the particular ethos of Galley Beggar, as opposed to some of the larger, more established publishers out there?
It's kind of you to say my career has been successful. Anyway! In a way, I fell into publishing with my co-director Eloise Millar. We came across a book (The White Goddess: An Encounter
by Simon Gough) that seemed really worth publishing. No one was going to publish it if we didn’t, so off we went… But there we did have ideas at the time that I suppose you might call an ethos. One way of putting it might be that we wanted a publishing house that put the book first and asked all the other questions about how you market it later. We wanted to be led by the love of the writing, rather than notions of how well it might sell.
Or perhaps a better way of putting it might be that we hoped that if we loved a book, and believed in it, other people might too. We didn’t think we had super powers as readers or editors or were somehow better able to appreciate high art than other people… We believed that if we saw something in a book, other people would too. So far, that’s worked out pretty well. I’m not sure if that answers the question about how different we are? I think there are plenty of editors in big houses who have similarly strong feelings about art. But the difference with us is that because we’re so small, we can put everything we’ve got into the books we believe in. Every book we put out is a risk. Which frees us up to take big risks and to do things because we’re passionate about them and because we think they matter.
In terms of the technical aspect of writing short stories, I think the way you open your stories is very interesting and distinctive. Although you’re very different writers, in a way it reminds me of James Kelman, in that the stories never begin with that strict third-person framing of what’s to come – the classic short-story style of starting the story by locating the reader in a setting, or describing the looks or traits of the main character. That type of framing doesn’t really exist in your collections. A perfect example of what I mean is the start of the story ‘proposal’: [typed below as it appears in the printed book]
zeroed through two walls and into her ear, bloomed there like a bomb.
The way his voice could do that, just find her out: through precast concrete and pebbledash like a heat-seeking missile, straight through solid structures. The windows not even open.
Also the story ‘Nightdriving’ which begins in the middle of a sentence, starting off with the word “and”. Kelman’s stories and novels are often like that too, where there is no orientation at all, you are just thrust into the voice, into the action, and need to find your own way into understanding the story. I guess my questions on this are, did you consciously reject that more traditional third-person style when it came to short stories? Were you trying to throw the reader into a stream of life that may initially seem confusing and disorienting?
In reverse order – No. I’d never dream of deliberately trying to confuse a reader. There’s no point. Because they’re much more likely to put the book down then, and not read it. It’d be quite self-destructive. Quite apart from that, it’s not the point of writing. Part of the point of writing is to pass things on and say: This is a perspective from me, what do you think? It’s a conversation. So you have to… it’s not so much welcoming people in as saying: This is here.
Well, stuff does just happen to you. It jumps up in front of you. Yes, I think that’s always there. I think that's there in my life. I’m always looking for the weird things. It’s why I’m a terrible driver to go anywhere with, I’m always looking for stuff happening, and I always have been, and that was just writing it down. I wouldn’t say it was head-clearing. I kind of started that way, I thought it might make me less obsessed about certain things that I kept to myself, which were about human behaviour. I think every teenager must go through that, that bit where they think, Why? Why does that person do that? Why am I so annoyed by it? It’s not even fucking interesting, why am I interested by it?!
Yeah, that thing – I think that’s when you need writing. You need a kind of: ‘I saw this! I wish to witness that I saw this, this happened, and I have no idea of what to make of it! Here you are.’ It’s a kind of sharing, without having to put yourself in the position of dealing with a person. It’s always much further down the line where I have to deal with the person. And it’s never been awful except… almost once…
One of the most startling and brilliant features of This Is Memorial Device
is how well you manage to write and integrate very, very different focalizing styles. The last paragraph of the novel, in the voice of Paprika Jones, is terrifying and wondrous – and completely different in language and tone from the conversational staccato of Claire Lune, from the onrunning verbosity of John Bailey, and the phonetic rendering of Robert Mulligan, aka Steel Teeth. I’m really interested in how you were able to create and sustain all these voices as part of the same work – did you conceive of these characters individually at different times, write their accounts separately, and then compile/arrange them all, or were you able to write the book in a more linear manner, morphing into each new character as you went?
I wrote it from start to finish, in a linear style, I do all my books that way, beginning to end, straight through, without ever having any idea, really, as to where it will all end up. We’ve talked about listening before, it’s basically what I do, I come up with a name, I allow the character to come to me in my imagination, and then I quickly get out of the way, I drop any idea of an internal censor, and I let them talk, have their way, and behave appallingly, if they must, or sometimes just be simply lovely. I am obsessed by rhythm, odd rhythms sometimes, but rhythms none the less, always, and I feel that the best way of ‘describing’ a character is ‘presenting’ them, primarily through their own rhythm, how that manifests on the page, indeed, I would go so far as to say that if you ever feel you’re ‘describing’ something then you have clearly failed to manifest that something completely, and the reader is now listening to your description of something as opposed to coming into direct contact with the thing itself.
I believe that it is possible to transmit objects, places, people, through time and space and to materialise them right in front of you using words. So, yeah, I morphed as I went, but then when I went back to edit I exaggerated the little tics that had come through in order to more completely manifest the character as they wanted to be.
A beautiful moment in the book occurs when Sammy is becoming frustrated and depressed at his treatment by a ‘Medical Officer’, who is noting down his answers to a succession of questions, and he suddenly starts singing Always on my Mind inwardly to himself. It’s then as though the music has buoyed him. How important is music in this book, to Sammy, and to you as an artist? Do you consider your work in prose fiction to have any relation to songwriting?
Sammy has endured years of imprisonment, a married man with a child. I cannot imagine music not being of fundamental importance to him. Music is art. Within art people encounter all that there is, and this is an aid to survival for those experiencing deprivation. Literature and orature are concerned with syntax, phraseology, rhythm, grammar: so too is music.
I know from following your career/output that you are very passionate about poetry - Kelman's great friend, the late Tom Leonard, remains such a crucially important and influential figure in Scotland with regard to literature and more widely to how we think of art, culture, language, and class. Are you a fan of Leonard's work and if so, what do you consider to be his significance as an artist?
For me, Leonard is on his own when it comes to theorising his practice around the politics of language and the pragmatics of localised expression. He is thrilling to read, but even better to read and hear at the same time. He is one of the few poets I want to hear reading their own work. His essays on language, politics and class – for example in his outstanding collection Radical Renfrew – are written with such clarity and purpose. His anger is so well controlled in his best poetry, and it is all channelled at smallness: at the aggressive hierarchies laid down by standard-language makers whether they be in Scotland or England; at the pinched self-importance of people who fetishize and formalise versions of Scots, or trade in their own working-class authenticity (what he calls ‘Bunnit Husslin’). He is a brilliant critic of masculinity too –and is open about the problems of being a working-class intellectual. Nothing is plain sailing in Leonard – every language act is a potential conflict – but also a source of enormous humour and warmth. And like many working-class writers, he is penetratingly brilliant on the damage wrought by standardising education upon the working-class masses. Language strictures and rules can be so violent, can interiorise and demonise entire cultures and ways of being: but ‘all livin language is sacred’ is what we learn from Leonard.
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.
Thank you for reading, and I extend my very sincere gratitude to all of the artists who have engaged with us over this past year. // BH ●