On The Snout :

A conversation about Waiting for Nothing with Duncan McLean






"I walk out. Wouldn't even give a hungry man a cup of coffee? Can you imagine a guy like that? The bastard. I'd like to catch him on a dark street. I'd give him a cup of coffee, and a sock on the snout he wouldn't soon forget." ( – chapter 1)






Questions on the novel...
TCB:
How did you first come to read Waiting for Nothing, and how did this project to re-publish the book come about?

Duncan:
I’ve always been interested in the fiction of the USA in the mid-20th century. You asking about Kromer set me wondering why, and I think it goes back to me aged 14 or 15, randomly picking up a copy of Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast, and being blown away by it. I looked at it again recently and it strikes me now as a work of appalling self-mythologisation and self-aggrandisement, disguised as a modest memoir of a young writer’s life: Hemingway invented humble bragging. But when I was 14 I was of an age to be impressed by it. And one good thing, even now, is that it recommends lots of other writers. So as well as Hemingway’s own stories, it led me to read Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson. And from there I fanned out into Flannery O’Connor, Tillie Olsen, Edward Dahlberg and many more from that era.

There’s a bookmark in my copy of Kromer from a second-hand shop in Charing Cross Road, and I’m pretty sure I bought it when trawling around those places with another West Virginian writer, Pinckney Benedict. His collection, The Wrecking Yard and mine, Bucket of Tongues, were published by Secker & Warburg at the same time in early 1992, and we did a reading tour around the country to promote them. Livi Michael was on that tour too, with her novel Under a Thin Moon – but I don’t remember bookshop-crawling with her.

Maybe I found the Kromer, or maybe Pinkney found it and told me to buy it, but either way I did, and I read it, loved it – and forgot about it for 25 years. In fact, when you first approached me the name rang no bells. It was only after about three pages of that copy you sent me that I went, Hold on! I’ve read this! And I hunted through some boxes of books and found the one I bought in 1992. I was pleased to be reminded of it, and am delighted to see it being reprinted in this new edition. It stands up much better than A Moveable Feast.

As for how the project to republish came about, the credit for that goes to The Common Breath. You asked me if agreed it was worth reprinting and I replied enthusiastically. And I suggested one or two other writers from the same period who I thought deserved being brought to the attention of readers in the 2020s. So here we are with the first in what we both hope will be an exciting series.

TCB:
What would you say is great about this novel – what are its qualities that has made you and The Common Breath produce this new edition?

Duncan:
I’m always looking for physicality in narrative. I don’t mean that it has to be describing or relating physical actions, but that the language of the narrative is aware of its own physicality – it’s materiality you could maybe say. For me, seeing that is a sign that I’m looking at a book by a serious writer, an artist, rather than somebody just slapping the words down to tell a story or make a point. Of course serious writers CAN use that materiality of language to tell a story or make a point, in fact I’d argue that bringing that art to bear means they can tell better, richer stories, and make more telling points. But if that awareness of language as a physical thing – chunks of air chopped up and shaped by the teeth and lips, arrangements of ink or pixels – if that awareness isn’t present, then I’m just not interested. Life is short: I’d rather spend it reading good books than bad ones. Every bad book you read is a good one chucked over a cliff.

So, go ahead and read the first paragraph of Waiting for Nothing. See what I mean? Repetition, alliteration, assonance, sentences of varied length, rhythms that concertina in and out. It’s all there. Kromer knew what he was doing. (He did something different in almost every work he published, which again shows he knew what he was doing.)

Aye, the novel bears unblinking witness to a terrible time in history. It stands comparison with John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie and Dorothea Lange. It’s a gripping read – horrific, humorous, humane. It feels contemporary, more than many books published six months ago. But none of those are what make it great, for me.

The language makes it great, and what the language creates makes us keep reading even though it’s often painful to do so.

TCB:
As you explain in your introduction, this book is Tom Kromer’s only completed novel. How do you view him as an artist in terms of his innovations and achievements, set against the period in which he wrote? Should he be regarded alongside major writers like Steinbeck, Faulkner, Stein, Hemingway, Hurston, and Fitzgerald?

Duncan:
Waiting for Nothing should certainly be read alongside work by those folk. It stands up as well as anything any of them created. As for Tom Kromer as an artist, well, it’s hard to say. Hard for me I mean.

I read as a reader, and as a writer. I don’t read as an academic or a critic. So I can’t tabulate Kromer’s achievement in a methodical way, and compare it to the work of those others. Maybe someday someone will do that. For now, the important thing is to get Waiting for Nothing back in print, to introduce it to a new generation of readers. Maybe one or two of them will end up writing PhDs proving how innovative it is compared to what came before. If they do, fantastic, but my reaction to it is more personal, more visceral you might say. I reread those first three pages after 25 years and – bang! – I was hit on the snout. I kept on reading. I was drawn in. I wanted to know what happened to this guy, I wanted to understand the world he was living in. Hell, I might learn something about the world we’re living in.

TCB:
Why is it important for small presses like The Common Breath to be finding and re-publishing works like Waiting for Nothing, as Rebel Inc did in such prolific and brilliant fashion in the 1990s?

Duncan:
There are good people working in the big publishing houses, but inevitably the need to create money trumps everything. The most important mission of the corporate publishers is to make a profit for their shareholders. Good editors game that system to sneak through less commercial works, under cover of the latest Rebus or Potter. But to get something really quixotic out there, a challenging new writer or a valuable but obscure reprint, it has to be someone not motivated by the need to make profit. I’m sure you want to cover your costs with The Common Breath, but I’m also sure you don’t have to give an annual report about your shareholders’ Return On Investment.

I salute you and your willingness to throw money out the window.


Your career in writing...
TCB:
You were involved with an incredibly important small press even before Rebel Inc came into being – your own Clocktower Press, which started in 1990 and published work by Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, James Kelman, Janice Galloway, and many other great writers. Did you realize at the time that something special was happening in literature in Scotland, and that so many of the writers who submitted work would go on to become major artists?

Duncan:
I mentioned earlier that I read as a reader or writer, and not as an academic. I think I have to say the same again here. I don’t spend a lot of time mulling over my past, so I don’t have any ready answers for you.

Was the Clocktower Press important? Not in terms of sales of booklets, as there were only 300 of each printed, and I never sold more than about half. Not in terms of reviews or press coverage, as they were only ever mentioned by Douglas Gifford in Books in Scotland. If they were important, it was because they gave up-and-coming writers a confidence boost early in their writing lives. Not so much Kelman and Galloway, who had already published a fair bit by the time I twisted their arms for a contribution, but certainly Irvine and Alan who you mention, and also James Meek, Janet Paisley, Alison Flett, Shug Hanlon and Simon Crump. Others like Leila Aboulela and Ali Smith weren’t in the original booklets, but I was happy to include them in the anthology Jonathan Cape put out in 1997, Ahead of its Time. Aye, big publishers can do small ones a favour sometimes!

Did I realise that these people were great writers? Yes, I can honestly say I did. From the first glimpse of Warner’s stories that appeared out of nowhere – a collection called Three Way Sex – to early versions of what became Trainspotting, it was obvious to me that these were original and powerful literary works. I didn’t feel the need to prove it to anyone else, I just knew it straight away. What I didn’t foresee at all was that those two, and quite a few others Clocktower published, would go on to such wide acclaim: big sales, film versions, foreign translations, academic studies. You have to remember, back in the early 90s, being a successful writer in Scotland meant you only needed a part-time job to subsidise your writing rather than a full-time one; or maybe you could be like Iain Crichton Smith and – woo hoo! – retire early from your teaching post. Actual financial success of the kind Welsh and Rankin and Rowling have stumbled into wasn’t dreamt of but beyond reach – it never even occurred to anyone.

(I’m only going on about that because so much of Waiting for Nothing is about money, or the lack of it. And so much of Kromer’s life was about that too.)

Finally on this topic, I should say that I remain convinced that other folk I published like Brent Hodgson and John Aberdein are pretty much as original and powerful as Welsh and Warner. I’m just waiting for the world to catch up.

TCB:
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?

Duncan:
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 hearse, and give and ground. 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.

TCB:
Your second novel, Bunker Man (1995), was called an “exploration into man’s darkest heart” by the American writer John Dufresne, who admired the way the book confronted “evil – its banality and its unimaginable horror.” Was your intention here always to focus on a far darker side of humanity than you’d dealt with previously, or did the character and the story just lead you on into this kind of territory?

Duncan:
You’re asking me to analyse my own work, which is really not something I like to do. It’s not even that I dislike it, just that I don’t think about it in that way. One thing I will say about Bunker Man, though, is a cautionary tale about political context. I was writing that in the early 90s, when the government was implementing Care in the Community – i.e. closing down specialist hospitals and homes and turfing out thousands of people with serious mental health problems. It was also the time when Neighbourhood Watch schemes were mushrooming all across the country – with the consequent rise in profiling of innocent victims, and even vigilantism. And it was the time when the Prime Minister, John Major, could say something like, ‘Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less.’ It appalled me in 1993, and it still does, that a political leader should call for less understanding and more condemnation.

Bunker Man was a political novel responding to those three forces, and to violence towards women in particular. (I’m starting to feel uncomfortable at the sound of my voice ‘explaining’ a book I wrote nearly 30 years ago – either its readable now or it isn’t: nothing I can say makes a difference. But I have started this line of thought, so I better finish it.) Now that those political contexts are forgotten – not because they’re in the past, but because they’re so ingrained in our society as to become invisible – it seems like the book is about, as you say, ‘humanity’s dark side.’

So it’s a cautionary tale for writers in that sometimes the stuff you write is read far way in place or time, and the original context that seemed important to you, is unknown to the reader.

Nonetheless, that conversation, those connections, are invaluable. Especially for writers – or for human beings – who find themselves at odds with the prevalent ideology of their own place and time. If you can draw strength from writers that have gone before, fantastic. But you have to be aware – and the original writer should be aware – that you are appraising and reappraising the work in the light of your own experience, meaning you might read it very differently to how the writer ‘intended’ and expected.

TCB:
In recent years you’ve been producing work, by both yourself and others, via your new publishing venture, Abersee Press in Orkney. Can you tell us about the output to date from Abersee, and how you see the future for the press?

Duncan:
Abersee grew out of a very similar feeling to the one I had in the late 80s and early 90s in Edinburgh. Namely, that there was a striking number of new writers rising up, attacking the staid orthodoxy around them, producing good new work, but finding it hard to get published. Or, if they could get published, it wasn’t in a context that made it apparent they were part of a wider tendency.

So I started to publish booklets of new work, very similar in format to the Clocktower Press ones of 25 years earlier. I‘ve done five so far, a mixture of poetry, fiction and essays. Mostly the contributors are Orcadian, writing in their own language about their own place and time, but I’ve also edited collections which involve writers from New Zealand and Shetland. Their experiences throw light on Orkney’s situation.

It’s a great regret that the pandemic of 2020 has stopped me releasing any new booklets this year: I had two more or less ready to go, and three more in development. But lack of money and time this year has meant I’ve had to press pause on all of them. Maybe next year.


Closing questions...
TCB:
Are you working on any fiction projects just now, or do you intend to in the near future?

Duncan:
I always have one or more short stories on the go. Sometimes I finish them, sometimes I don’t – or not straight away. Whether they amount to anything, only time will tell. I read an interview with Jim Kelman a couple of years ago in which he talked about painters’ studios, and how they invariably had canvases stacked against the wall in various stages of completion. Kelman compared this to writers with their stacks of paper – drafts, versions, half-finished stories – and that certainly rang true for me. Nothing’s abandoned, it’s just not finished yet.

TCB:
Waiting for Nothing aside, what are the best books or stories you’ve read in recent years?

Duncan:
At the moment I’m particularly enjoying the work of Sonallah Ibrahim, who is well known in his native Egypt, but not much elsewhere, despite having been translated on and off since the 1960s. As I said at the start of this, I read as a reader, not as an academic, so my responses are personal and largely intuitive. I can’t place Ibrahim in the context of the development of 20th century Egyptian literature. But I can say that every novel I’ve read by him is powerful and persuasive. The Committee seems at first to be a variation on Kafka, and then turns stranger and funnier. Ice is reminiscent of Knausgaard or Kelman. Beirut, Beirut (so bad they named it twice) is a gut-wrenching account of time spent there in 1980, when it’s being torn apart by civil war, and violence and atrocities are around every corner. In light of the recent disaster in the docks, which brought to the fore political corruption and resultant human suffering, it seems to have achieved a new relevance and power. And I hope the same can be said of Waiting for Nothing. ●



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