Mostly, what follows is a faithful transcription of a two-hour chat, with the addition of some punctuating marks throughout, and omission of many coughs from the interviewer, bouts of wheezing laughter, and the sounds of the working café behind which very occasionally made the recording inaudible.
As both Janice and myself are quite fond of a blether, the agreed structure for this was to be a series of short recordings, each based on an initial pre-written question, which would then develop into more of a discussion based around that question as a premise, rather than a strict or linear Q&A format. As anticipated, sometimes the literary conversation veered off into the realm of chattering nonsense, but we’ve decided to leave it all in – hopefully, for your enjoyment.
Brian Hamill, February 2020
BH: Your debut novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, was published in 1989, but your first ever published piece of work was a short story, which was included in an edition of the Edinburgh Review in 1986 (*1 - see the References section at the end of the interview), and later collected in your first book of short stories, Blood, in 1991. Had you been writing short stories for a long time before you started on the novel, or were you writing both at the same time? Did you find writing stories helped you to write a novel, or for you were they two very different modes of working?
JG: I started writing stories because I had enjoyed them at school. There was a compulsory element there; there probably still is, where at exam-time, the easiest thing to get people who were studying “English” (put that in inverted commas!) to do was read books in class and they could take the information from that and, you know, pass exams. I was very keen to pass exams coz my mother was very keen I should pass exams, so the kind of hanging on to the sound of the words probably initially came from that – my mother’s anxiety that I should dig in at the school. And since I’d very little else to do at school – well, until I reached sixteen I had very little else to do [laughs] – but I had a brilliant teacher, a music teacher called Kenneth Hetherington, so I’d always kind of written things but usually for songs. It never occurred to me to write a story, because there were lots of them. Why would you? There were so many bad ones as well, you know, why would you kind of … chuck in? And it just dawned on me that… a story came into my head from trying to sort through questions, some of which I had gained from watching the telly, unwisely, and some of which I had experienced from life that just came back and back – you know, there are some questions that just come back to get you because you haveny worked out an answer yet, and that was how I started to write Trick. And it found its own length, I didn’t start by saying “let’s see what a novel’s like”. I’d always written short stories because they seemed … it’s quite a girly answer, this: I thought I’d be more capable of a short story, and I’d come a cropper if I tried a novel, coz it was the family ethos to say “Dont hink yer good at hings” – which goes quite deep [laughs]. So I carried that for a wee while, and it was writing a novel that stopped it. These days, I’ve got half a novel that I don’t know if I will ever finish. The actual writing part seems to be such an ordeal these days that I tend not to do it very often, and I’m writing kind of micro-stories – would be categorized as micro-stories if anybody wanted to categorize such a thing. I don’t think the length of the story is necessarily in the control of the author. I think there’s a kind of author who knows they want to write books – one story, one book. Coz if you write sixteen stories and put them all in the one book, financially you’ll lose out to some extent [laughs]. But that’s me all over! I just wanted to do that, there’s something about the impact of the short story that really excites me, I enjoy it.
BH: I like your biography in that edition of the Edinburgh Review, it’s just: [reads]
JANICE GALLOWAY is thirty. She was born, lives and works in different parts of Ayrshire and her alter ego lives in Glasgow. This is her first published story.
JG: I don’t think I wrote that. I don’t think I’d give away the thirty thing. Janice Galloway is grown up, I would probably have put.
BH: Well, somebody must have superimposed that …
JG: Somebody must have! I bet you it was … No, I don’t want to say. [laughs]
BH: I can’t remember who was the editor for that one.
JG: Was it Peter Kravitz?
BH: Aye, I’m sure it was. I was going through a load of them recently.
JG: I adore Peter Kravitz.
BH: He did some amazing work.
JG: He is completely fed up every time he hears me saying that, yet again. But, he is a remarkable individual. He was one of the first people I ever met who wasn’t in a teaching capacity (a lot of teachers give their all for other people’s children basically, and I admire teachers and I admire teaching when it’s done well – there’s nothing worse than when it’s done badly, especially [inaudible] … it’s such a precious thing to do, to receive the word of somebody else and trust them, to abuse it is horrible). But with Peter, he just had such sensible opinions, and he would never say anything ‘joined up’ – like: I like this story, but I’m particularly interested in this paragraph and, would you be interested in writing a novel? That would’ve made me run away. He said, do you ever write longer stuff or is it always short? Is that because you don’t have very much time? He just led into it as a natural curiosity. There was never any requirement for me to write anything long. And just because he never spoke about it – I thought, I might have a crack at this just to surprise him.
BH: When I was doing some research and looking through those old Edinburgh Reviews, it’s really an unbelievable publication – when he was the editor and at other points as well. It’s so sad that it’s stopped now, the print edition. If you look through those old issues from the 1980s and the 1990s, some of the stuff in it is really incredible. Especially there’s so much of Alasdair Gray and Tom Leonard in those old copies, wee shards of themselves, some of it’s really funny, I found some amazing passages – in one of the editions, 1999, (*2) they asked Tom Leonard what does the new Scottish Parliament means for Scottish writers, and he said: [reads]
“Whether Her Majesty’s Inspectorate lets classroom reps decide on Mars Bars or Curlie Wurlies for the playtime sweetie-shop is something that does not interest me.”
That was his reply. And they printed it!
JG: The thing about Tom is, and this is unprintable, is that he was always high! Without taking any drugs! It’s like a dream situation [laughs], whatever comes into his head just came out – it was part of the exhilaration of being with him, and also part of the terror of being with him sometimes. But that’s such a Tom sentence, you’re going to have to write that one down for me.
BH: I can do, because I took a wee picture of it on the page. I took a lot of pictures when I was going through them. There’s a really funny one with Alasdair Gray – it was his interview with Kathy Acker, 1986 I think, (*3) he wasn’t happy with how he was represented in the transcription, but he didn’t have time to edit it himself so tells them to just publish the letter explaining this [laughs]. He asks if they can incorporate the wee edits he has managed to send, but then seems to lose interest in it and says ‘what the hell’. There’s so much of all those writers left behind in the old editions of the E.R., Gray and Kelman and yourself and Warner and so many more.
JG: Yes and it’s almost a privilege now, that you’re knocked off the roster of writers, so that if there’s an event on and you’re going to talk about the following writers, Jim Kelman is almost never there these days, I’m almost never there these days, it’s like there’s a clearing-house…
BH: The glue factory.
JG: [laughs] Yes. There’s so many writers coming through, it’s extraordinary, with the amount of money that writers can earn dropping dramatically, just crashing. The book itself has ceased to be a sacred object. Which is always was to me, because they were pricey.
BH: And now they’ve got these ebook things that cost about 7 pence.
BH: Were there any particular short-story writers you were reading in your twenties that led you to want to write in the short form, or that you became aware were influencing your own short fiction?
JG: I didn’t think about being influenced, I thought about being fortunate enough to discover pieces of writing, and it was by a route that I now consider… not odd, but old-fashioned, which was that I found somebody who wrote about writing and what it signified to him. I can’t for the life of me remember his name…
BH: Can you remember the book?
JG: Oh, he’s written squillions of them. He’s one of these guys who has book diarrhea, he just keeps bringing books out. (*4) But I only needed to read that one, because there was something about the dignity of it as work – now that’s going to appeal to somebody like me, because, and you’ve probably noticed this yourself, if you’ve lived in a family where the time comes when “you need to be away and find yourself some work”, then it was a consistent sentence, it’s how you were greeted every morning when you woke up. To think of writing as work was a fantastic break thrown in my direction, and it also made me realize that studying for exams was work. Or I could argue that, and I’d get left alone in the living-room. It was just such a terribly useful thing.
What was the other bit of the question?
BH: Well we sort of covered the influence question there, so the other part was: are there any particular short-story writers you were reading in your twenties that led you to want to write in the short form?
JG: I was reading any and all short-story writers, and poetry. It was largely through Edinburgh Review. Again, Saint Peter Kravitz. Thank God for Peter Kravitz. He turned up and made writing normal. As if it was what people did every day. That freedom to meet someone who didn’t find it fey, or pointless, or a stupid thing to do, or would just say “what’s it about? Can I read it?”, you know, just into it as ‘you’re my pal and you wrote a thing’, so they could look at it and tell you it’s rotten. Somebody who talked to you as if you were smart, which I wasn’t used to, at all. I could pass exams, but that proved nothing except retentive memory really. I think I kind of fell in love with Peter, because I felt, not grown up, I’ve never felt grown up, but I felt then it was feasible to be listened to, and for people to actually hear what you said. That conversation of a more adult nature than “so, what ye doin the night then?” might be possible, now and then. It was huge. That was Peter.
BH: I know what you mean with that question, “what’s it about?” – whenever anybody asks me, “so what you doing, are you writing stuff?” “Aye.” “What’s it about?” Whenever you tell them, they always have this look as if they’re trying to work out if they’ve just eaten some bad shellfish. This kind of weird look, as if thinking “Hmm, that sounds shit.”
JG: [laughs] It’s your fault for telling them.
BH: I know. But you can’t make it sound good, can you?
BH: ‘Oh, it’s about a guy who thought he got somebody pregnant’, and they just go quiet.
JG: You don’t talk about it at all, or you make something up. That’s what I tend to do, just make something up. ‘It’s about a woman who’s crossing the Andes, she goes onto a bridge, and it just collapses! And I haven’t really worked out what happens after that.’ And they go away.
BH: Aye. ‘It’s about a guy that turns into a panther.’
JG: [laughs] Tell me more!
BH: It’s called The Trick Is To Keep Being a Panther
JG: I’d buy that. I’m so vain I’d buy that.
BH: Only recently, I read a great interview with you from Edinburgh Review number 101, which was from twenty years ago, 1999, (*5) and in this you said…
JG: Oh my God, you’re going to confront me with something I’ve written.
BH: I am indeed: [reads]
“I want to write as though having a female perspective is normal which is a damn sight harder than it sounds. I don’t think people tend to regard ‘women’s priorities’ as in any way normal: so-called women’s issues are still regarded as deviant, add-on, extra. Not the Big Picture. Women have written a lot of novels of course – that’s the traditional way for women to try and record their truths, in the subterfuge, if you like, of novels. The structures and normal practices of both politics and the law make it difficult for women to speak as women directly because there’s little accommodation for a female way of seeing. I think women’s traditional attraction to fiction is just that – a go at reconstructing the structures. It seems like the place you live in is in some ways a fiction to the predominant culture which is called ‘reality’. Simply for a woman to write as a woman, to be as honest about it as possible, is a statement; not falling into the conventions of assuming guy stuff is ‘real’ stuff and we’re a frill, a fuck or a boring bit that does housework or raises your kids round the edge. That stuff is not round the edge! It’s the fucking middle of everything.”
JG: Quite angry there!
BH: Powerful stuff! My question is: It’s clear that in your own work, the female perspective and experience are the fucking middle of everything, but in terms of the wider picture, have things improved for female writers and, just as importantly, for female characters in the twenty years since you gave that interview?
JG: I think the answer to that is a definite yes. Things have improved. Why they have improved and how they have improved are two things that will clarify what that means. I think there are far more women writers than there have ever been, and I think it’s partly to do with the fact, not to be too much of a downer, it’s partly because the example has been there – certain books by women could make a lot of money. There was an American writer, whose name I can’t remember offhand, who wrote consistently about her sex life. Every book was about her being another character whose sex life was examined in great detail. (*6) It’s a kind of realization that, in part, talking about what you knew didn’t have to be… porn. Talking about what you knew was feasible, provided you took an angle with it that suggested that you were comfortable with it, so that it was possible to speak about this stuff. Then I found it, I got through the requirement to establish, this is women who’ll tell you about this – I used to go to writers’ groups every so often and say, ‘Can I just sit up the back and listen?’, and of course didn’t, I just asked questions and things as well, I’d chirp up, but mostly it was listening to other folk, and some people would come up and say ‘who are you?’ and have a blether with you, always interested for one reason or another. One of the things I found interesting was there were three chaps who consistently wanted to ask if they could help me with my writing. At first I took it as a form of kindness or of trying to welcome me into the group, but it also had a flavour of ‘you won’t really know how to write anything good, so we can show you’. Or, one chap explaining to me ‘no-one’s going to want to read this but women.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s an audience, that doesn’t put me off, that’s great, and maybe some of the men will pinch the book off the women, and maybe they’ll read it too. We really don’t know what the gender divide is.’ It was that kind of presupposition, and I know where it came from, because in a certain sense, I had it too. The requirement I had to speak out about it, to try and combat it, was very much part of the “don’t be afraid of this thing”, it was partly awareness. I think now it is far more possible [bangs on table] to write about anything you damn well like and be female. There’s been a vast increase in lesbian women writers who are out about it – and there always have been lots of lesbian women writers who were out about it. And somehow, I don’t know what it was, it was difficult to imagine yourself in that position – not down to the women but very often down to how they were perceived by newspapers – was to focus on it as some kind of rebellion against femininity, which it wasn’t at all. It was just a kind of odd inside-out time where I was highly conscious that there were roles laid out for me, and I wanted to be very careful not to jump into any of them so I couldn’t get out. Thinking in that way was what brought the writing out, and what made the importance of experience in writing – things that happened to my friends would turn into stories, altered only very slightly, and things that happened to me, things that I saw every day, and I think that’s the way a lot of women at that time were prepared to start. They [newspapers] felt it was some kind of feminist pushback, but it wasn’t really, it was quite an understated pushback [inaudible] … And some of us were lucky enough to meet people who helped us feel comfortable with that. Like Peter, Saint Peter, I can’t praise him enough. But there were people out there who encouraged you, and who said ‘could you send us something?’ because they heard that you write. I remember all that actually starting to happen, and feeling like a difference was being made. I think a difference has been made but it’s as much down to how little writers are paid in this day and age – and how funky or sexy or whatever that writers are, which is in general not very these days. [laughs] But one has the space to write. Nothing is stopping you now.
BH: Also in that same interview you mention that you had “one mind-bending conversation with Grace Paley”…
JG: [sharp intake of breath]
BH: … the very great American short-story writer of course, but the interviewer doesn’t ask anything further about it.
BH: Is this something you can tell us about? Was it a discussion of literature or short stories? Can you even remember?
JG: It was something very simple. I was invited to a festival in Canada. They liked me in Canada. They still like me a bit. Canada has always been interesting for me. And Grace Paley was there. I just didn’t dare to approach her, because I was such a fan. I hadn’t read everything, but what I had read, I’d read sixteen times each, and, er, she saw me hanging about, I think, you know, like a kind of creepy bastard…
BH: Loitering about, staring at her. Staring at her legs.
JG: [laughs] How did you know? It’s obviously something you’ve done yourself, so you’re kind of onside…
BH: It’s all I do.
JG: [laughs] So she kind of delved over and she said, ‘Are you lookin for me?’ And I just remember the diction, the way it just went up and up and UP! It made you look at her, it made you look her in the eye, it made you say ‘oh, em, I, em, it’s just, em, ah, I kind of know who you are and I’ve read some of your stuff and you must hear this all the time,’ all the stuff that people do hear all the time. Ye know, all that gubbins.
BH: So you were that proper horrible groupie fan, just squealing out ‘Oh I think everything you’ve ever said is absolutely amazing!’
JG: No, I wouldn’t take it that far, that’s maybe your style but it’s not mine.
BH: It serves me well.
JG: [laughs] I’ll have to give it a crack before I die. No, it was just an attempt to be sort of, ‘I’m sorry if I’m staring at you,’ more than the urge for anything. And she was going for a short walk, it was just outside but she was walking quite slowly, she was quite elderly, and I walked out with her. She wouldn’t let me carry anything of hers, I remember that.
BH: Did she know your work, did she know who you were?
JG: No, she didn’t have a bloody clue who I was, which made it all the kinder. I had no idea who I was either.
JG: It was just the ease of her. The fact that she thought it was normal to talk about writing out loud. She thought it was normal to say ‘you’ll find your way’. If you’ve got something you need to get out of your system, she said it’s like a sneeze, you want to get rid of this thing, and no matter how many times you think you’re going to sneeze and it doesn’t happen, one day, you will sneeze!
BH: It’s a nice analogy.
JG: I remember her saying that. And from there on in, I felt I wanted to sneeze a lot. It was just encouragement. I don’t think people are necessarily doing that on purpose, but the fact that they do it means every so often they’re going to [slaps hands] hit on something that somebody else is thinking about or is stuck with. It did happen with Grace for me, just the fact of who she was. Shortly after that, a couple of years after that she died, that’s when I started writing for myself because I thought nobody else is going to encourage you like that, somebody important, you know, not like the bloke next door. I’m not interested in that. Yup, that was how it all started.
BH: In the same section where the Paley conversation is mentioned, you note that the person you discussed fiction with most at the time was Duncan McLean. I’m such a massive fan of his collection of short stories, Bucket of Tongues. Would you say he’s the most overlooked great short-story writer Scotland has ever had?
JG: I’m sure there’s more than one. I’m sure there are quite a lot of overlooked very good Scottish writers that, due to being Scottish, have somehow been put into the “other things you could read” category. I don’t think it’s going on quite so much now because long-distance travel has become cheaper, so we can get out and about, and be visible a wee bit more. I don’t even think it’s malice of any kind, I’ve never thought that, I just think it’s “Scotland’s a different country, so you’re writing probably for your people”, it’s a kind of colonial thing, this is for ‘your’ folks …
BH: “Yes that’s ok for the Kirkcaldy
Book Festival, but we’re not going to have it down here.”
JG: [laughs] Yes. But that’s a kind of encouragement, even if it’s just to make you think, ‘well maybe I’ll try to write it … no, I’m not going to write differently at all.’ I think that’s one of the things it started to do. Duncan McLean was part of that, and Alan Warner, James Kelman obviously, Tom Leonard much more impatiently [laughs] – at some point Tom would always air his impatience with life in general. It was just the learning process of: it’s alright to talk to each other, and if we talk to each other and we don’t think ‘what a tosser, thinking they’re a writer’, then it does encourage you. It was peculiarly helpful. It’s not that I necessarily thought that what the men were saying to me was right, it was the fact they were saying it at all, and I said what the hell I liked.
BH: And Duncan’s work is amazing isn’t it?
JG: Duncan is extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary. He’s unexpected. He’s funny, no matter how dark he’s being. You’ve got to love that.
BH: Some of his stories in Bucket of Tongues are ... I mean, After Guthrie’s is the funniest story I’ve ever read. I just can’t believe he never wrote another collection. That collection is stellar. So brilliant.
JG: I think it’s partly because when he went back up north he got married, and Duncan takes marriage very seriously, in a way a lot of men and women have stopped taking it. And he wanted to work with his wife, assist his wife, be part of what his wife did, and to embroider into that the kind of things he was interested in, and that would mean writing much less. He still writes. Of course he does. It’s in his blood, kind of thing.
BH: I’ve got his pamphlet that he did in 2017, for his own publishing set-up, Abersee?
JG: Ah yes.
BH: You knew of this?
BH: It’s great to know he’s still doing it.
JG: Duncan has always had such an approachable manner. When Jim Kelman walks towards you and begins a conversation, you know he’s there. Jim is visible. When Dunc used to walk towards you, you’d wonder if there was anyone here, because he was very quiet and unassuming. The sheer thoughtfulness of the man, waiting to hear what you would like to talk about. That made him lots of female friends, but lots of female friends don’t make you famous. Lots of female friends have talked about him, just about everywhere I’ve been, to say this is someone you should read, especially when in a foreign country. It’s like a recommendation to a stranger, to people in a strange land.
I’m not sure why [he didn’t publish another collection]. Och, I suppose I am sure why, to a certain extent. He was making his life on an island work, by dedicating himself to life on the island, what the island needed, wanted, and what he could do for it.
BH: I didn’t know that.
JG: A very noble creature.
BH: Since I mention Bucket of Tongues, the 1990s did seem like an incredible time for short stories in Scotland – Kelman, Gray, Agnes Owens, Iain Crichton-Smith, A.L. Kennedy, Ali Smith, then a little later Jackie Kay, there was Children of Albion Rovers, Laura Hird – did you feel then that it was a special era for Scottish short fiction? Was that something that inspired you to publish Where You Find It in 1996? And were there any particular collections or stories from some of these writers that you remember loving back then?
JG: It was less to do with the writers round about me, because the story of my life is that I don’t get out much, I get out a lot less than people think, and that’s why I’m quite bouncy and I want a laugh when I do get out, and why I talk too much trivia – because it’s all stored up. And I suppose that was always very much the case, I would never have dreamt of saying to anybody, “I’m actually a writer…” Wow! The very idea! You know, self-aggrandizement on a large scale, and I believe that’s how it would’ve been perceived, so I didn’t talk much about the thing I did, I watched other people who did the thing I did. I didn’t have a lot of money, I didn’t buy books. You tend to wait about in cafes and hope somebody left one. There was a lot of finding books in places like this. My first instinct was not to pinch books, the attraction was that it was normal here to sit and read.
BH: This makes you sound like a wee Oliver Twist, hanging about in doorways waiting to swoop on rubbish people have left.
JG: [laughs] I never picked up rubbish. You’re embroidering to the extent that this is a garment for yourself. This is not of my construction. No, not at all. I was shy!
JG: Elspeth Davie wrote to me and said ‘I heard you’re doing some writing, and somebody (I think it was Grace Paley) told me it’d be interesting to talk to you. Would you like to come and chat?’ And I… I’ve always been very shy.
JG: Yes – but if you don’t hide it well, people walk all over you. It was just something that fell into place. We spoke I think on the phone, because I couldn’t, I don’t know, I just felt unable to talk to her in person because I’d be tongue-tied. And that was my way into things, I wasn’t such a wildly avid reader. I would look for books I didn’t know at the Third Eye Centre – thank God for the Third Eye Centre on Sauchiehall Street! If it hadn’t been there I would never have started writing at all. The place was full of misfits and people that didn’t care if you thought they were a misfit, and people who were writing books… [laughs]
BH: A great trinity of folk then?
JG: And the food was cheap! Come on. What’s not to like? It was brilliant. And folk would occasionally talk to you, which was scary to begin with, and sometimes just kept being scary, but sometimes it was nice, and it was the fact that in there, there was a normality to it, and the people weren’t that different to me. I had this peculiar mythology inside me that people from my kind of background didn’t do nice things, we only had shitty things to do. My mother worked as a school dinnerlady…
BH: So did mine!
JG: I don’t think she ever had a good word to say about it.
BH: My mam was the school dinnerlady at my school. I used to see her every lunchtime.
JG: Ah. Well at least she could see you and you could see her. Now there’s a bonus. Sometimes. Other times it might not be. It was just such a… you felt there were unwritten lines, and to a certain extent, people like ourselves did our own keeping ourselves in line, which is insane, absolutely insane, and I learned that was the daft thing I was doing and not thinking I’m allowed to write.
BH: 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’: [reads – typed below as it appears in the printed book] (*7)
Also the story ‘Nightdriving’ which begins in the middle of a sentence, starting off with the word “and”. (*8) 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?
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.
JG: 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. I had written short stories, well I wouldn’t call them short stories, I did write ‘things’ when I was in primary school. And right up to the end of primary school I was obsessed with writing this kind of stories, I would do it a lot. I’d have hated anyone to read them, because the joy I got from it was me having something and putting it in a box. One day my mother found them, so I burned them all, because that wasn’t the point, and I think it was actually my mother who said: ‘You could sell them.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah! I’ll go down to the candy bar and I’ll just say: Anybody want a story?’ They’ll be like: ‘Fuck off’. And then I’ll have lots of money – yes! I don’t think. You know, I was a terrible, terrible sceptic. Actually there was a place you could do that which was of course the Third Eye, and it was when you saw that a lot of people did this, and they didn’t think it was weird and they didn’t feel embarrassed that no-one had published them yet – because they were doing it for the story. That thing that you get from home, that the point of life is work, to get the work and do the work, and it’s not about you in any way, shape or fashion – that had just kind of blew up for me then. And so I hung about with these people that at one time I’d have thought were chancers, hangers-on, and, er, people who were avoiding work. [laughs] I wanted to be that person! I wanted to avoid work. And I sort of joined in with it. But there was a clarity to it. I never thought I was doing something and concealing it, I just thought nobody would be interested. Peter Kravitz walked up behind me one day and said, ‘Is that a story you’ve written?’ Because I was changing something. Peter Kravitz was the normalizing of me. In the best possible way. Left to my own devices, I was just kind of slightly pissed off, about certain stuff that’s not for you, and you won’t get it, and so I was quite cross at a lot of the world. [laughs] But what a fucking relief it was! To get rid of being cross at the whole world. That’s a lot of being cross. And just to blow that up, and realize I was actually cross and annoyed at my sister sometimes. That was it. And to just do what you want. You’ve only yourself to look to, if you want to change what you’re doing. Just start doing the thing you want to do. And if you get arrested, you’ll maybe have to think again.
BH: What you said about the way that you were brought up, you were made to think it was all about work, not about you, and you just had to keep getting things done, is that why you think your writing turned out the way it was – that rather than somebody, an entity, describing people and things and bringing the reader in, the stories will just start, things are happening, and you, the narrator, is not such a presence?
JG: Well, stuff does just happen to you. It jumps up in front of you. Yes, I think that’s always there. I think that there’s 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?!
BH: I have that feeling every day.
JG: 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… Ok, cut!
JG: Don’t go into all that for Christ sake …
BH: I re-read your Collected Stories recently, and in my two favourite stories in the book, ‘the things he said’ (*9) and ‘peeping tom’ (*10), as well as in the story ‘peak’ which you were kind enough to allow us to publish in thi wurd fiction magazine in 2018 (*11), the stories are very much focused on the peculiarities and ambiguities of encounters and relationships, whether transient or permanent, and on the difficulties people have in communicating and co-existing. There are many recurring issues in your short fiction, such as physicality, gender roles, but this ephemeral nature of relationships struck me as a particularly prevalent and important concern as I read. Do you consider the short form as the perfect means of exploring these problematic aspects of human relationships?
JG: [long exhalation] There’s a lot of stuff in that question.
Partly, I would rather write something short because I think you’ve got time to read something short. Partly, I would prefer to write something short because… my time, at one time in particular, was short, because I was trying to raise my son more or less on my own. Although I had the help of a friend. And it was important just to be able to find the time to get to the end of something, because if you don’t get to the end of something, you get very dispirited. Or I did. The whole point of starting to write is to stop. It’s that strange thing, there’s a bit of you seeking the end of this damn thing, so you can put the television on.
BH: I’m sure I read Samuel Beckett saying the same thing.
JG: [laughs] Yes but he didn’t have the same quality of television that I do. There wasn’t as much to look at. It’s never struck me as a plus to write a long book. I read many more short stories than I read novels. The skinnier a novel is the more likely I am to read it. So much is put into a book, a novel in particular, that doesn’t have to be there – you know, as soon as “It was a warm day in April” I’m like, pffffft, there’s so much I don’t care about at the start of people’s stories! And to take as much stuff out as you can is to me a kind of discipline, it’s the way I like to work, and whatever it is I’m trying to say in the story, I don’t often find out till I’m halfway through, which is a sensation you probably know. By then it has some trajectory, but the ‘me’ in it is still going to keep it brief – nobody is allowed to hog the page! Nobody ever gets to hog a whole page to themselves. And I think that’s just a preference because it means I can get to the end of it, and feel I have accomplished something – that’s to do with my upbringing: ‘Go oot n dae somethin!’ That you could stay in and dae somethin never occurred to my mother. Apart from cleaning. I think that’s kind of stuck with me, and I’ve got it in my mind that if you don’t use an idea when you have it then it’ll fragment and it’ll go. Now I’m at a certain age where things do fragment and go, and I’m less likely to write stuff down as well, just because, I dunno, my focus is not what it was, and I imagine that’s just part of ageing and it’s perfectly normal. At least I hope it’s perfectly normal. But I would always try to keep a story within boundaries. I mean look, you’ve got some books by me there – Jellyfish has got umpteen stories in it, but it’s still a thin book. I think I’d be slightly embarrassed about writing a big fat book, because it assumes something of people … [laughs]
BH: So you don’t see yourself now writing a ‘big’ novel? The thing that I was noticing – those difficulties of relationships that come up all the time, you know, people that just meet, or if they’re already in a relationship but they struggle to communicate with each other, or only have these fleeting moments … so you couldn’t ever see yourself writing something based on a rounded, stable relationship? It seems to be so important in your stories: people trying to relate to each other, but they can’t quite manage it?
JG: I suppose difficulty has always been a subject for me. I’m interested in difficulty. If you have a friend that you go round and see once a month, and their life is always cakes and roses, their beautiful new child, and all the rest of it, eventually you get fed up [laughs], right fed up with them. What makes a good story is something to chew on. And I’ve always put something to chew on in there. It’s just natural for me to chew things [laughs] – that’s horrible, sorry, it’s just natural for me to want to bite stuff and see if it screams, I think.
BH: It’s a sentence that could also apply to a Border Collie.
JG: [laughs] If I was going to be something else I would actually be a Border Collie. It’d be a great thing. Naw, there’s a kind of a curiosity about the world and about how other people live, and if I don’t know then one of the facilities I have is that I can guess. I can wonder how people behave. Watch me on a bus – well, you don’t have to watch me on a bus, but I mean if you did watch me on a bus …
BH: I’d love to. Let’s set that up.
JG: I think we could have great fun on a bus.
BH: I get buses daily, and there is always some skulduggery going on …
JG: Drama is happening all the time! And that’s when it dawned on me you didny have to make things up. Coz I thought, War and Peace? Pffffft. Just write down what you see. I think that’s the only way to write. Write down what you see. Either what you see in the interior or what you see in the exterior, and that’s it. That’s all there is. And that’s hugely freeing. But you want to keep it short, because it’s in pockets. You can say the same thing five hundred times, but say it in such different ways that it’s not the same thing, if you know what I mean.
Ok now, I’m thinking of a very famous Orcadian writer, a solitary Orcadian writer who wrote about, basically island life, he lived in Orkney all his life and that was all he wrote about. I mean he visited places once or twice. Come on, who is that?
BH: A prose writer or a poet?
JG: Prose. I believe he would also write poetry because at one time it was a lot more flexible – if you wrote, you wrote.
BH: Trying to think of the writers I know from that region …
JG: A male writer. He was gay, which we found out towards the end of his life (*12). I’ll find out what his name is.
There’s just something about that mentality, that wants to write a thing down to get it out your head, or to see if you can make sense of it, and it appears to be what you’re doing at the moment with this story, that it’s not the thing you wanted to say to yourself (*13) – if it speaks to yourself then it’ll speak to other people, highly probably. It doesn’t have to, but it might. Just the very idea of that. It’s a human preoccupation, a lot of us just do it through thinking, some of us do it through talking to total strangers on the bus. I’m an addict of doing that myself. ‘Terrible day, int it?!’ And then go into ‘So, how’s your love life?’ kind of thing. And end up getting on to some very strange channels. And people get off the bus quite quickly. I think there is something about human interconnection, about human survival. It’s about how you keep going. I’ve always thought that’s the hardest bit.
BH: This is a wee bit off topic, but since you mention anecdotes that start on the bus, something happened to me on the bus quite recently and I thought, I should write this. So I’m seeing this girl and I was staying at her flat, we fell out in the middle of the night, I flounced out the flat in a huff, went to get the night-bus, got on the night-bus, and there was just me, an old man, and this young couple on it. This wee tiny shrivelled old man who looked about ninety, God knows what he was doing out at that time…
JG: Looking for somewhere dry by the sound of it.
BH: Probably, aye. So me and the old man were sitting down near the front, and the young couple up the back starting having a fight, having an argument. And then there were sounds as if they were kind of … wrestling about with each other, and she was saying ‘Fuck off! Get off me!’ and so on. And me and this ancient man were looking at each other, both thinking ‘Please, please no.’ The guy would’ve pasted the two of us immediately. You could just tell. I was thinking, me and this geriatric are going to have to try and stop this fight, we’re going to get mauled. Then the bus stopped and this woman got on, a big, heavy lady, and she looked up, saw them, and shouted ‘HAW EDWARD! WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!’ Edward. And she went up and sorted it out, calmed it all down, and the wee old man looked over to me and did that gesture, you know, like ‘Phew’, wiping the sweat off his brow and laughing. It was beautiful. An I thought, thank God that woman got on, because otherwise we were toast. You’re kind of compelled to say ‘Er, going to stop wrestling about with her?’ but he’d have beaten us to a pulp, this guy. He’d already gave me this aggressive stare, the death-stare, when I got on, you know that look that’s saying: “You better fucking look away now.” Which I did obviously. Anyway, we got rescued!
JG: She would have escaped though, if you had got involved. At least that’s a plus.
BH: Not for me.
JG: [laughs] It’s an upside for somebody.
BH: So, that happened on the bus. Not that long ago.
JG: Please, could you write a series of ‘being on the bus’ stories? Do you not think that would be magic?
BH: I’ll call it On The Buses
(*14). That’s not been done yet.
JG: [laughs] Don’t! Older people will expect … Oh Christ, On The Buses
! That was the world’s worst thing! My mother loved it!
BH: Absolute drivel
JG: Why do you know … what age are you!?
BH: I know a bit about old telly. Steptoe and Son. That sort of guff from back then.
JG: I blame it on your mum! But then, you sat there and watched it.
BH: I was just sitting there with my copy of Madame Bovary
trying to ignore it all, but Steptoe was on, so I heard it.
JG: [laughs] Is your writing funny like that?
BH: I don’t know really, but if you could’ve seen CCTV footage of me and this wee old man absolutely shitting ourselves that we were going to have to get involved in this fight, that would’ve been funny I think. He was looking at me as if to say “I’m old,” and I was looking at him like “I don’t care mate, it’s both of us or none.”
JG: You should’ve gone together, holding hands.
BH: That would’ve been more intimidating than me going up alone. It would’ve confused him.
JG: [laughs] This is really interesting, for a whole number of reasons. A – what it says about you, B – what it says about the old man, C – what it says about the pair. Somehow it says less about the pair, because that’s what you expect on a bus at a certain time of the night. It’s a thing I do – just go up to folk and say, ‘Stop that.’ It’s the teacher in me. I canny get rid of it.
BH: Had I known his name was Edward, I might’ve intervened. He was maybe not the brute I thought he was. Edward. Not even Eddie. Quite urbane.
JG: I can see very clearly why a man wouldn’t want to be in that position. Because people punch men. You have to think twice before you’d punch a woman.
BH: It looked to me like if I’d went up, the two of them would’ve set about me. You know what I mean? They’re the couple, argument or no argument. I’m just a random idiot on a bus that they don’t know from Adam.
JG: Of course they would. Was this a single-storey bus?
BH: Yes. And there was only us four on it, till that woman got on and saved the day.
JG: Well it’s just as well she did. Otherwise – this is for the future – you take the old man’s hand and the pair of you get off the bus, and then you get on the next bus. I’d just like to share that wee pearl of wisdom.
BH: Or, I could’ve used the old yin as a human shield.
BH: Coz I don’t think he would’ve put up much resistance.
JG: You could’ve thrown him at them.
BH: And shout: “This old guy says you’ve to stop touching her!”
JG: Bloody hell. I mean, that is the essence of human experience. It’s just … life is either a series of dilemmas or a series of delights. Usually it’s both, woven in and about. That kind of thing, I have such a massive appetite for. Will you send me that story?
BH: Well, it’s not a short story! I haven’t written it. I’ve just … it happened. And I thought it would make a good story. The thing is, I do have a lot of stories about being on a bus or working in supermarkets. I need to diversify. Anyway, sorry for taking us off track with my bus anecdote. We can cut all this out later. I’ll re-start it now.
BH: Ok, next question – so there was nineteen years between your second collection Where You Find It in 1996, and Jellyfish in 2015 – were you writing and compiling stories across that entire time, or was Jellyfish all written around its time of publication? Was there anything in particular that made you want to write short stories again? I’d imagine that chatting to me online about including your at-the-time-unpublished story ‘peak’ in an edition of thi wurd magazine was a really energising and inspirational moment in your life.
JG: [laughs] Oh, absolutely it was.
JG: The very fact that there is anybody out there that has the faintest idea of what you might have been doing for the past nineteen years is extraordinary to me. And it’s always a kindness. And what else are you going to do with your stuff, frankly? I think it’s not so much that I’m a lazy writer, but I find so many other things genuinely interesting. If I’m in amongst a group of people, or talking one-to-one, I get so interested in what’s happening that once I go away I have to ingest all of that. I’ll probably write down little bits of things that I want to remember, because I’m at a stage in life of forgetting quite a lot of stuff, and that kind of thing, simply keeping words that are for me to remember things that happened, is very important. Always has been really. It’s quite an erratic kind of life, in some ways. It’s all tended to be in the same place, it’s all tended to be set along the same themes, but violence has always been there to some extent, or madness, people who are not very well, and there’s been quite a lot of fucked-up-ness, and what gets you through that, I think, is making a something of it, and if you can send it out there like a paper airplane, and somebody catches it and makes something of it – it doesn’t quite justify it, it’s not that vain – but it feels like you’ve done something. You haven’t really done very much. You’ve written some words down. And you’ve given them to a publisher and said ‘Could you put that in a book? What do you think? Is there any possibility you could pay me for that?’ and when you’ve done that for long enough, people will eventually respond. I’ve had people who’ve been very kind to me and done that. But in my heart it’s not really about the writing, it’s about trying to … people, I find people … it’s a kind of obsession, partly because of childhood, my father was a drunk, my mother was a kind of helpless self-offering to a drunk, my sister was a complete monster [laughs], an absolute fucking monster! And the people next door were useless, and the people upstairs were my auntie and uncle, who thought mostly what life was about was keeping quiet. Because everything would cause a fight, everything would cause a problem, and it would always be you – ‘YOU! THAT WAS YOU! YOU DONE THAT!’ That was an impression of my sister and it was a very good one. You wanted to keep yourself to yourself as much as possible, and that was a safe way to do it. And if somebody buys that book, it’s their own fault! [laughs] You bought the fucking thing! That was you, you self-inflicted that! It’s a way of communicating with people that contains much less fear than having other people say to me, ‘I’ve written a book and the very thought of handing it in to a publisher is terrifying!’ Hmm. No. Not as terrifying as having real people saying ‘Did you write that?!’ Scary, scary stuff.
BH: I saw you mention on the BBC’s Big Scottish Book Club (*15) that you’d written part of a novel but weren’t sure if you were going to finish it or not. Are you still writing short stories, or thinking of writing any more? Fledgling writers of the short form like myself still face the age-old problem of publishers’ relative lack of interest in collections because they don’t sell so well (which is one of the reasons why I started The Common Breath, made sure our first publication was a book of short stories, and aim to keep publishing new short story writers in future) - *16. Does this situation deter you from writing more stories, and do you see it ever improving?
JG: I don’t tend to think about ‘the future of writing’, it’s far too big a subject for me. And there’s the difficulty of taking myself seriously, when there are so many other people who read much more diversely and much more often than I do in all probability, who could probably answer a question like that. I don’t think it’s something I’m going to stop doing, but I think it may well be something that I stop sending for publication, because that bit of it is actually quite stressful. There’s bound to be a stage sooner or later when people say, ‘We’ve read your stuff sweetheart. Go away.’ And I’m quite nervous of being formally unwanted. I’d rather imagine that I had chosen myself to stay at home and away from things. But that’s also a reflection of the fact that I now work less. And any writers I do know, which are few and far between, they seem to have a lot more now, in terms of deadlines, with the people that they work for, that they hand their work in to, insisting that they need more work consistently. It looks like it’s more of a … if it’s written now, we want it now. Not something that sounds like you wrote it twenty years ago. I like writing things that are done but unfinished at the same time. And I don’t think that’s going to sell particularly well. I never think about that, you can’t think about that. As a writer yourself you’ll know that what you have to do is focus entirely on what that story says back to you when you read it, in cold blood. The next morning. That kind of thing. And if it says something, anything at all, if it says something in a straight line at one point, then it’s worth asking a publisher if they’ll publish it, because that’ll keep you ticking over and maybe get you to write another story. If the publisher is buying your work you’ve kind of got tacit consent that somebody might read it. And that’s as much as you can ever get I think, it’s so volatile at the moment.
Everything comes down to money.
The whole idea of watching Boris Johnson (*17) on the television, and Jeremy Corbyn talking back to him, [sighs] the kind of mismatch there, and the kind of idiot Johnson is, yet he seems likely to be the one who ends up ruining the country – how does that happen? There’s something about British people that is self-hating: Let’s get somebody shit! Put him at the top of the tree, and they will do all sorts of things, and we can complain about it. Is that … ? I don’t quite know, but there’s something self-punishing there.
And I think one of the whole functions of writing is … a human being sitting down and saying, What do I think is noteworthy? What did I notice? What do I see? And if you put it down and other people notice it, it’s as good as a conversation. It’s a start. I’m sure you would rather … you seem quite shy to me. I’m quite shy, although it doesn’t tend to show. And that kind of thing, it’s a way of talking to people. It’s kind of … Can you see this? Can you see this thing? And it keeps me ticking over. It’s something … it’s a lonely kind of thing to do. And when I hear of young artists being pressurised by publishing companies just to get the next book out, [clicks fingers] I think that’s a shame. Because there is probably enough in a book if it was worth publishing in the first place for that book to live for quite some time. I don’t know what’s going to happen to the writing world, it’s not really my business anymore, it’s kind of up to other people what happens. We have never survived without stories, we do it in one way or another, as long as it isn’t all television. That’ll be fine. Is that what you were asking me, I keep thinking I’m going off piece?!
BH: No, no, that was great.
BH: Are you reading short fiction these days, and are there any writers, collections, or particular stories that you’d like to recommend? I don’t necessarily mean things published recently, just things you’ve encountered recently.
JG: Now, given the stage of life I’m at and the kind of person I am, I forget things like that [clicks fingers] …
Chika Unigwe. Her new book is Better Never Than Late
, which I’d have a hard job to capture in one line. Clean, sure work. I met her at some kind of political gathering of artists in various capacities, very few of whom knew what they were doing at there at all, but went for the craic, I think… And Chika was just so approachable and so clear about what she wanted to do.
Luke Sutherland – a musician with a remarkable talent for writing and getting straight to the heart of things. Not a prolific writer (some of us aren’t), just outstanding at what he does.
Barbara Gowdy, who writes in all sorts of shades and looks like a serious-minded angel. Caught her first with We So Seldom Look on Love
in 1992, and Mister Sandman
and The White Bone
... and to cut a long sentence shorter, everything she’s done by now. Latest is Little Sister
, 2017. She’s a very clear writer, a very clean writer.
And Jenni Fagan, who is pitch-perfect, and Alice Thompson who reaches deep for what she has to say and Malachy Tallack’s The Valley at the Centre of the World
, and Heather Richardson, the author of Doubting Thomas
, and so many more … There are LOTS of new writers finally wholly visible in Scotland in particular.
BH: Do you have one all-time favourite short story?
JG: No, I don’t think I’d ever have one all-time favourite story. The whole bliss about short stories is that there’s more room for lots of them, and you can read them quicker than you can read the 400-page novel that actually bores the knickers off you, because 400 pages is too long to tell you one thing. Usually a book will tell you one main thing, and the other stuff is the extra that you get for yourself, which is what’s lovely about conversations with audiences, when you ask them ‘What did you think of such and such a book?’ and what they’ve seen, the construction they’ve made, is entirely different to the thing you have made. It’s important to hold on to the fact that you have a separate vision, and to see it for what it is, one of many, and it’s very clarifying, it makes you feel human, makes you feel like there is a family. [laughs] Makes you think there are people out there that you can talk to and exchange ideas with, even if it doesn’t happen very often. It’s happening today, and it’s been all pleasure for me. You’re probably desperate to get away and get on with, I don’t know, a fag and a pint of beer. I have no idea.
BH: Hmm, I’ll give it another few minutes just since we’re here, see if anything interesting pops up.
JG: [laughs] But this kind of thing, human interchange, that’s what books do.
BH: Well, that’s an interesting … I don’t think many people see it that way.
JG: That is what books actually do. It’s human communication. ‘Anyone else notice this?! Anybody else at all?’ And, if two people buy a book …
BH: [talking into mic] Janice just did a thumbs-up. With a perky expression.
JG: [laughs] Please put all this in. Very important for people to know this stuff.
BH: [coughing fit]
JG: Oh, you have a bad throat. You want a wee whisky or something?
BH: I don’t think they have that in the Mitchell Library, do they?
JG: [points to café bar]
BH: Jeez oh – a bar! What’s happening in the world?
JG: It’s improving.
BH: Why can you buy drink in a library? That's a bit ... odd.
BH: I’ve been at that counter four times today and never even noticed that.
JG: Because it’s Scotland. And it’s the first thing I noticed when I came in. Booze! Not that I drink much. I just like to know it’s there, in case there’s an emergency.
BH: It’s a comfort to know it’s there if you want it.
JG: [laughs] I’ve got a bottle of whisky in my workroom and it’s grown horns, it’s so old. Nobody ever opens it. I imagine it’s mostly all dried up now and what I’m looking at is a shadow of what used to be there, but it reassures me.
BH: That’s nice.
JG: [laughs] Ok, right, shut up Janice!
*1 – Janice’s story ‘It Was’ was published in Edinburgh Review 74: ‘Scottish Philosophy’ (1986), edited by Peter Kravitz.
*2 – The contribution quoted from Tom Leonard was from a feature entitled ‘Poets’ Parliament’, and was included in Edinburgh Review 100, ‘Reconstructions: New Writing for the New Parliament’ (1999). The editor was Sophy Dale.
*3 – Alasdair Gray’s interview with Kathy Acker was also from Edinburgh Review 74.
*4 & *6 – To date, Janice has not yet remembered the names of these two writers.
*5 – Janice was interviewed by Cristie Leigh for Edinburgh Review 101: ‘Exchanges’ in 1999. The editor was Sophy Dale.
*7 & *10 – The stories ‘proposal’ and ‘peeping tom’ are part of the collection Where You Find It
, published by Jonathan Cape in 1996.
*8 & *9 – The stories ‘Nightdriving’ and ‘the things he said’ are part of the collection Blood, published by Vintage in 1992.
*11 – The story ‘peak’ was published in the paperback edition of Jellyfish by Granta in 2019. It had been published previously in thi wurd #3, an issue of the fiction magazine which was co-edited by Brian Hamill and Alan McMunnigall.
*12 – The writer being discussed here was George Mackay Brown. Mackay Brown’s sexuality has been the subject of some uncertainty by literary historians – a summary of this is given by Maggie Fergusson on pages 160-61 of her book, George Mackay Brown: The Life, published by John Murray in 2006.
*13 – This remark is in reference to a conversation that occurred before we began recording, where I was telling Janice that I aim to re-start my novel-in-progress in 2020, as it has gone off in the wrong direction somewhat.
*14 – An abysmal ITV sitcom from the late 1960s/early 1970s, focused on the lives of characters who work on the number 11 bus in the fictional town of Luxton.
*15 – Janice appeared on episode 2 of series 1 of BBC Scotland’s The Big Scottish Book Club, hosted by Damian Barr and which aired on 17th November 2019.
*16 – The book mentioned is Good Listeners
, a collaborative collection by the novelist Alan Warner and Brian Hamill. It was published on Thursday 3rd October 2019.
*17 – A 55-year-old cretin and racist who now works as the Prime Minister of this conglomeration of countries.
Postscript: The Edinburgh Review
The Edinburgh Review was cited multiple times over the course of the interview, so I am taking this as an appropriate opportunity to write something about what that publication was, what its value still is, and what it has meant to me personally as a reader and somewhat unofficial lifelong student of Scottish letters.
For anyone unfamiliar with this publication, the original Edinburgh Review was established in 1802, and passed through four distinct periods, four different incarnations, before coming to an end in late 2014. The modern version of the E.R. began in 1984 with the combined issue 67/68 publication, which had the epigraph: “To gather all the rays of culture into one”. The final print edition was issue 141. The list of writers, poets, critics, stories, essays, poems, features, and excerpts that were published in this period is absolutely endless, it is incredible, and a brief (and highly subjective) compilation of its dazzling artistic highs can tell only a fraction of its story …
In terms of fiction, there was previously unpublished work by Alexander Trocchi (On fait ce qu’on pent in issue #97: ‘Trans(I/A)tlanguage’ (1997), eds: R.A.Jamieson & G.Wallace), an excerpt from one of my favourite novels, Rolling by Thomas Healy (#87 ‘The GulfWatch Papers’ (1992), ed: M.Macdonald), Agnes Owens’ Commemoration Day (issue 67/8 (1984), ed: P.Kravitz), the linked stories Trapped and Trapped Again by Bernard Maclaverty (#120: ‘Causeway, New Writing from Northern Ireland’ (2007), ed: B.McCabe), and some fantastic poetry from the American writer Sandra Cisneros, including the beautiful I Am on My Way to Oklahoma to Bury the Man I Nearly Left My Husband For (#117: ‘El Otra Lado, Poetry and Prose from Latina and Chicana Writers (2006), ed: B.McCabe).
In two issues, #82 (1989, ed: P.Kravitz) and #126 (2009, ed: B.McCabe), James Kelman and Tom Leonard contributed material of a staggering artistic quality – firstly, the extract from Kelman’s novel ‘A Disaffection’ (#82, pp25-38) and Leonard’s poetic sequence nora’s place (39-57), then Kelman’s story Vacuum (#126, pp5-9) and Leonard’s essay ‘The Common Breath’ (pp48-60) were, to my mind, real zeniths for the publication, distinguished even among the many years and many reams of eclectic, amazing work that the E.R. editors were able to publish in the print edition’s lifespan (issue #82 also included an article from a young Muriel Gray).
There were so many, many magnificent essays featured over the years – Alasdair Gray’s ‘Thoughts Suggested by Agnes Owens’ Gentlemen of the West, and an appreciation of it’ (#71, 1985, ed: P.Kravitz), ‘Alexander Trocchi: A survey’ by Edwin Morgan (#70, 1985, ed: P.Kravitz), an essay by Janice Galloway which had the full title…
Women and Namelessness:
Or A Few Tentative Observations On The Way To Answering That Perennial And Profoundly Imaginationless Question:
How Come There Are So Few Women Composers Then, Eh?
… and was included in issue #92: ‘The Diving Rod’ (1994), ed: M.Macdonald. Also Tom Leonard’s passionate review of the ‘The New Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams’ (#85 (1990), ed: M.Macdonald), an 81-year-old George Davie contributing the essay ‘The Importance of the Ordinary M.A.’ (#90, 1993, ed: M.Macdonald), and, continuing in that philosophical vein, a short commentary entitled ‘Afternoons with Wittgenstein’, written by Peter Daniel, who had actually accompanied the great man on lunchtime walks in the 1950s (the end of Daniel’s piece comes on page 55, which also includes an advert for issue 2 of Rebel Inc, featuring Trocchi, Irvine Welsh, and Gordon Legge, and costing £2.00).
In more recent issues, I very much enjoyed Alan Warner’s tenderly-written review of the New Collected Poems of Iain Crichton-Smith (#133 (2000), ed: A.Gillis), Willy Maley at the height of his productive powers with both an essay on Alasdair Gray (‘Fifty Shades of Gray: Empire, Inequality, and Empowerment in Poor Things’) and a review of Kelman’s Mo Said She Was Quirky in the same issue (#136, 2012, ed: A.Gillis), and a very powerful critique entitled ‘A Submerged Population’ written by Will Brady, focusing on the latent racism and racist policies of the contemporary Australian state, by way of considering both a movie called Jindabyne and the famous Raymond Carver story, So Much Water So Close To Home. This was published as part of issue #122: belongin place, New Writing from Australia (2008), ed: B.McCabe. Indeed, many times the E.R. would dedicate whole editions to the study and promotion of literature from other cultures: Ukrainian poets (#86), voices from Africa (#118), the city of Calcutta (#129), Poland (#121), the Caribbean (#123), China (#124), Turkey (#125), Iraq (#127), Czech language writers (#128), and Japan (#129).
It seems that even when the content was bad it was good, as I found Ian Rankin’s essay ‘Why Crime Fiction Is Good For You’ to be, for want of a better phrase, a load of old Rebus, with its unconvincing arguments and frequent inaccuracies – but how great to have issues dedicated to singular thematic or generic concerns, such as crime fiction (#102, 1999, ed: A.Thomson), Scottish philosophy (#89, 1993, ed: M.Macdonald), or the concept of ‘bad’ language in fiction (#95, 1996, eds: Jamieson & Wallace), an issue that was worth reading for the introductory essay alone, which quoted June Jordan, Tom Leonard and Albert Camus in order to confront the validity of its central question. While the single-author editions on Janice Galloway (‘Exchanges’, 2004, ed: L.Jackson) and James Kelman (#108: ‘Kelman and Commitment’, 2001, ed: R.Turnbull) permitted highly concentrated investigations of the work of two of our greatest literary artists (I particularly like the essay ‘In Juxtaposition to Which’ by Lee Spinks in the Kelman volume).
Great writer interviews were another characteristically strong feature, with fascinating interactions between Sophy Dale and Alan Warner (#103, 2000, ed: A.Thomson), in which Warner spoke in some detail about his favoured writers such as Gogol and Kelman, but also introduced many readers (myself included) to lesser-known artists such as Onetti and Roberto Arlt, while in issue #84 Jenny Turner and the great experimental novelist Christine Brooke-Rose recorded a dialogue titled ‘Reclaim the Brain’ (1990, ed: P.Kravitz), Aaron Kelly enjoyed a highly entertaining discussion with Irvine Welsh (#113, 2004, ed: R.Turnbull), and probably my favourite single piece ever included in the E.R., Duncan McLean’s incredible, seminal interview with James Kelman in issue #71 (1985, ed: P.Kravitz).
Letters and reviews were avenues within the Review that could provide humorous or surprising content – I think of the acrimonious exchange between the writer and critic Geoff Dyer and the E.R.’s John McTernan, in response to McTernan’s essay on Dyer’s book about John Berger, Ways of Telling (#76, 1987, ed: P.Kravitz), and James Kelman decrying the planned closure of the Philosophy dept at Strathclyde Uni in issue #83 (1990, ed: P.Kravitz). The brief introduction of ‘condensed’ reviews in 2001 was more light-hearted, and often downright funny, with an anonymous reviewer who wasted neither words nor sentiment on the material at hand – here are two such book reviews in full (both from #106, 2001, ed: R.Turnbull):
“Sayle would seem to be another example of a good comedian desperate
to become a bad writer.”
– on the book Barcelona Plates by Alexei Sayle
“This is a very slim volume with very slender ambitions and almost anorexic achievements. Poorly written, oddly punctuated, and of no interest beyond the anecdotal.”
– on the book Greene on Capri by Shirley Hazzard
Of course serious, in-depth reviews were a staple of the magazine, and Robert Alan Jamieson’s insightful assessment of Bucket of Tongues by Duncan McLean in 1993 (#89, ed: M.Macdonald) is a perfect example.
One of the most memorable moments in the publication’s history was the centrepiece of issue #110: ‘Scotland 1802-2002, figures, ideas, formations’ (2002, ed: R.Turnbull), an extended feature entitled ‘Selection from the Edinburgh Review’ and compiled by Ross Alloway, which gave readers the opportunity to view articles from the original E.R. – these included William Hazlitt evaluating Coleridge’s poetry in September 1816, and Walter Scott writing a review of a cookery book in 1805.
This list is merely my own collation of some of the greatest works in the E.R.’s history, but there are so many, many more. I’m certain that a more informed devotee of the publication could provide a similarly long and formidable catalogue of their own treasured highlights, focusing on altogether different strands and different voices. My only hope is that I have succeeded in providing evidence of the great variety and exceptional quality of the work done by the Review’s writers and editors through the decades, and in doing so, have formed something akin to a fitting tribute.
Since I appeared at the University of Glasgow in the year 2001 as a plooky-faced and dullwitted teenage undergrad (who would very soon drop out and return to factorywork), it was always an ambition to one day have some writing published in the E.R. For the longest time, this seemed hopelessly far away, and light years out of reach. This was a publication that would often feature the greatest prose writers our country has ever produced, Alasdair Gray and Kelman and Jackie Kay and A.L. Kennedy, alongside uni professors, linguists, bloody world-class philosophers, and so on, so forth. It was one of the happiest moments of my existence in early 2014 when, at long last, my short story Mr Summers was included in issue number 139 (the story remains available via the still-running Edinburgh Review website). It is unquestionably the story publication I am most proud of. If I achieve nothing else in the writing world, I am there, I always will be there, a tiny, irrelevant, utterly sub-standard, but very proudly present part of a magnificent literary tradition.
That the print publication ceased a mere two issues later was a tragedy. A very genuine tragedy for arts and culture in our country, which is now a profoundly poorer place for its absence. This is not hyperbole. There is not and will never be another publication to match it, and it is gone. I feel this very keenly every time I visit the level 9 annexe in Glasgow Uni library, which houses a large quantity of the back issues. Last weekend, I opened a copy off the shelf at random (issue 73, 1986) and found a cracking short essay by Brian McCabe commemorating the career of an artist whose work I admire very much, the great Jewish American novelist and short-story writer, Bernard Malamud (1914-1986). Where can we encounter work of this calibre now? Registered students may be able to find a drier, more academic take online via Project MUSE or equivalents, but what about the rest of us, the un-matriculated but impassioned masses? And what avenue is there to encourage folk to still be (voluntarily) putting pen to paper in order to write and record feelings and responses and analyses of such major authors from other times and places?
It is a very small solace to know that the final print edition, the 141st, was a spectacular one, including a tribute to the great Agnes Owens, and contributions from James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Alan Warner, Peter Kravitz, and Janice herself – just some of the most pivotal figures in making that publication what it was, creating and enshrining the tradition of the modern Edinburgh Review through their continuing and wonderful artistry and commitment. If it had to end, it did so gloriously, in a fashion thoroughly befitting of its bloodline. A note of credit must given to the editor at that time, Alan Gillis, and his team (including Jennie Renton and Lynsey May).
Our libraries that contain these back issues will continue to be a priceless resource for the generations and the centuries to come. Its value to our literary landscape and heritage simply cannot be overstated.
13th January 2020