The Sound of his Voice:  

Ron Butlin, interviewed by Rachael Fulton  







Interview conducted in July 2020.







RF:
You have an extremely impressive writing biography spanning awards, international prizes, fellowships and huge praise from other great writers and critics, but how did you originally embark on life as a writer? After lives as a barnacle scraper and valet, when did the poetry career path open up? And how did this eclectic CV influence your poetry and writing career?

RB:
I hitch-hiked down to London when I was sixteen and lived there for a few years. As a highly-poetical teenager I wrote soulful lyrics for some friends who had a pop group. At one point the band was given a spot on the Tony Blackburn TV show, wearing tartan mini-skirts and with dry ice blowing about their knobbly teenage knees. These two and a half minutes of stardom was to be the band’s high-point. Say no more.

Once the band broke up I continued writing lyrics which I then began publishing as poems. I returned to Scotland for a while to become an easy-going student who enjoyed daylong conversations in the street about Kant, afternoon hash-cakes on the roof and all-night parties (see my novel Billionaire’s Banquet). After uni I travelled very widely and lived in Paris, Toronto, in the hills above Barcelona, the Far East and even spent time on a commune so far out in the Australian wilderness that I had to learn to ride a horse to get around (see my novel Belonging, where I situate the commune in Spain).

By then I was writing and publishing. Like most of my generation I took the future totally for granted, i.e. assumed there would always be one. My philosophy studies and my writing were not undertaken in the hope of finding job-security for life – I took my life for granted also. My God, how things have changed!

RF:
I’m fascinated to read that you don’t plan your writing, and I love that The Sound of My Voice was a short story that kept getting longer and longer, rather than a meticulously planned novel. You’ve said in a previous interview that you are a “fully-paid up member of the write-about-what-you-don’t-know school” – did you have no experience of alcoholism in your life before you created Morris, no hazardous drinking around you at all? It’s such an incredibly vivid and realistic portrait of a high-functioning alcoholic.

RB:
Sadly, it is almost impossible to be brought up in Scotland and not see heavy drinking and alcoholism. Like most teenagers and twenty-somethings I enjoyed going to pubs and parties and getting pretty drunk pretty often. When I lived in Paris I discovered wine. Nowadays I enjoy a couple of glasses of wine with dinner, every dinner. But that’s it, more or less.

I had a friend who was once a burgeoning alcoholic. He lived an almost double life – emotional chaos in private, status and success in public (he had a high post in the civil service). Gradually, as the novel shaped itself, I realised I was remembering a visit a few years previously when I saw his chaotic life up close. But he is not Morris, and the story is not his, nor anything like it. As I wrote, the novel took on a life of its own.

I didn’t write the chapters of The Sound of My Voice sequentially, but in dozens of separate unrelated sections. Every few days a new section would begin suggesting itself. Eventually, when there seemed to be no more new sections to come, I gathered all I’d written and started over again – rather like having lots of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, except there was no picture to keep me right! Then I explored how the pieces might fit together, changing details as I considered and reconsidered them. Only when I was getting near to what might become the finished picture did I really have any idea what the novel was about. That moment of realization was truly exciting!

RF:
‘Write about what you don’t know’ has become more contentious in recent years because of representation. Whether writers should fictionalise the lives of people from different races, or genders, etc. Lionel Shriver caused controversy when she said: “The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.” As someone who is very pro ‘write what you don’t know’, what are your thoughts on this issue?

RB:
I always start with a few words that pop into my head and simply see where they take me – most of the time I don’t know if the words will turn into a poem, a story, or even a novel. My approach is Don’t Plan and Don’t Think. I have learned to trust my imagination. Only as I write do I begin to get glimpses of what it is I’m writing about. Not a method I’d particularly advocate, but I seem stuck with it. I do not want to stay safe and tidy, always within my comfort zone. If it would bore me to write like that, I can hardly expect the reader not to be bored reading it.

It is other people and unfamiliar situations that can be the most interesting, intriguing and inspiring. A YA novel of mine about people smugglers was recently turned down by a publisher who really liked the book but said it should have been written from the POV of the teenage Syrian refugee and not from that of the Scottish kids who helped him escape his captors. I told them that, though I was very moved by his terrible situation, I would find it rather presumptuous of me to write from his POV. Presumptuous, patronising and dishonest. There the matter rests. God might be able to see into every man’s heart, but I’m afraid I have my limits.

These ‘representation’ criticisms, if I understand them correctly, seem rather narrow-minded. How then can anyone write historical fiction, science fiction or fantasy? And so the list goes on. Does this mean that a man cannot have women characters in his novels, and vice versa? A writer living in the Edinburgh Southside can no longer write fiction set in London, Glasgow or Leith even? Where is the line drawn? And by whom? I really find all this a bit baffling and faintly absurd. If this kind of self-censorship became the norm, how could serious issues be seriously debated?

Our lives are surely richer and more complex than is allowed for by any ‘this is right and that wrong’ cut-and-dried dichotomies. And what about empathy? Whatever I try to write, I have my own conscience (artistic, moral, whatever) to deal with. Believe me, there is no harder taskmaster than our conscience.

RF:
What was the general response to Morris (of The Sound of My Voice) as a character? Do people mostly love or hate him? Or pity him? The book is so darkly funny, and he is unfortunately charming despite his awful behaviour and treatment of others. I shouldn’t like him at all, because he is awful.

RB:
Like many complex characters, Morris is his own worst enemy. He makes life hard for himself and for those around him. He has a certain charm, unfortunately he himself falls for it, thereby adding to his problems, and to everyone else’s. How many of us really know who we are and even where our best interests lie? I’m not sure that I always do. It is this lack of self-knowledge that is exploited by others, especially advertisers and less honourable politicians. Don’t get me started!

RF:
The opening paragraph is extremely powerful, but I want to ask about the way in which the issue of rape is dealt with here. Although the event is later expanded upon, the opening page renders the victim as a faceless girl. I wondered about the choice to do this, and the decision to use second-person narrative, so that the reader is aligned with the perpetrator, the troublesome alcoholic?

RB:
The description ‘rape’ is a bit of an overstatement. With a girl he has only just met, Morris has arrived at a party in a friend’s flat to be told that his father has died. He goes into a state of total shock. Hence the lack of detail at this stage. As you say, the event is expanded later when he takes the girl Sandra back to her bedsit where she becomes very real indeed and Morris remains very clearly still in shock.

The first line of the book that came to me was: ’You are thirty-four years old and already two-thirds destroyed’. This is like the DNA of the entire novel: not only the information it contains, but also the voice. But in the second person? I remember being surprised and rather nonplussed. But mostly intrigued.

As the writing of the novel progressed I tried occasionally to reset it in the more usual first or third person. There was nothing particularly wrong with either, but, quite simply, they didn’t feel right. I write more by instinct than by thought and I believe that thinking too much and too soon, often gets in the way of creative work. Only when I was approaching the end of the narrative did I grasp why the narrative might be in the second person. Even now I’m not a hundred percent sure. Whatever, the second person is what the novel demands.

It never occurred to me that this could be seen as aligning the reader with Morris. I can see that for some readers it might happen that way, and for others it doesn’t. That is fine by me. We each bring our own imagination to bear on any novel, story or poem we are reading – and this is where creative magic really takes off. There are as many different versions of my novel as there are people who read it. I regard the reader as my collaborator as, once again, the book is brought to life, and is slightly different every time.

RF:
Irvine Welsh is a huge fan of the book and resurrected it to a new edition by mentioning it in an article, but he read it as a very political novel, which wasn’t your intention – what was his reading of it, and how did that make you feel? Have there been other instances of your work being interpreted in ways you didn’t anticipate?

RB:
I was surprised and intrigued by Irvine Welsh’s reading which was first published in the New York Village Voice. There are almost as many interpretations of a book as there are readers of it. If the novel is being read honestly and is not being wilfully misinterpreted, I am delighted the book is being taken seriously. With luck, I can learn from my critics. Welsh gave me a completely new way of looking my novel, and it not only made perfect sense but shed new light on it. For this and for his constant support I am very grateful. One of the book’s first reviewers managed to devote 600 words to retelling the plot, while failing to mention the novel was written in the second person. This reading left me un-intrigued and totally baffled.

RF:
In Ghost Moon, we find another exploration of unknown territory: a woman’s struggles in her young and old age. How did you get into the mind of an unwed, pregnant woman cast out by her family? Did you find it difficult to portray her experiences as a victim of misogyny, injustice, and sexual assault?

RB:
Set in the early 1950s in Edinburgh, Ghost Moon is the story of Maggie’s struggle to survive in a harsh and often bigoted society, and to bring her child into the world. Maggie was my mother, the child myself. My mother’s being thrown out onto the streets by her family, the bare fact of it, is what gave rise to the novel. Almost everything else in the book is fiction. I wanted to celebrate and pay tribute to my mother’s courage and determination.

As you can imagine, the scenes of her final time in the care home were difficult and painful to write, as were the scenes of misogyny, injustice, and sexual assault. The novel, however, demanded them. The book has been highly praised and was nominated for the international IMPAC Literary Award 2016.

RF:
The poetry collection Magicians of Edinburgh has many depictions of the capital, some loving and some harrowing, that span your life and experiences there. Which period in time was Edinburgh at its most inspiring for you, and which events or landscapes brought forth the best poetry in yourself and others? What’s your favourite poem about Edinburgh that you didn’t write?

RB:
Though born in Edinburgh, I left before I was two. My childhood was spent in a very small village in the Borders. Despite having lived in London and Paris, and now in Edinburgh, I have never felt at home in cities. When I became Edinburgh Makar / Poet Laureate, I was forced to confront my sense of not-belonging. As a result I wrote an entire collection about the city and became a more public poet. The first time I found myself commissioned to write on a given subject, I protested (to myself, at least), ‘I am expected to write to order? My creativity cannot be turned off and on like a tap!’ Then I found it could. Mind you, I got off to very good start – the Malt Whisky Society of Scotland asked me to write a poem in praise of whisky. How hard is that? Naturally, I had to do a lot of research . . .

I still continued to write non-commissioned poems, of course. Indeed one has gained a degree of celebrity in Scotland. I wrote a very funny and wildly satirical poem in Scots, protesting to Edinburgh Council about the year-after-year delays and spiralling costs involved in constructing the new tram network, touching on inefficiency and possible corruption. I was heralded by the Evening News as ‘the voice of Edinburgh’. The poem was republished in newspapers and online. Letters were written, comments posted. The poem was even set to music and sung by a choir. I fully expected to be un-Makared. Instead, I survived and was re-appointed to serve a further three-year term of office. In my final year, one of the poems I had written – ‘The Electric City of Heck’, which explored my sense of not-belonging – became the inspiration for an entire arts festival, Hidden Door 2015. I felt very honoured and deeply touched.

Edinburgh has been celebrated in poetry by the some of its finest poets. Even a small handful such as Walter Scott, Robert Fergusson, Norman MacCaig and Stewart Conn write wonderfully about the city and I would recommend their poems to anyone. I’d like to give a special mention to Robert Garioch whose poetry in Scots is a total delight. In particular, his Edinburgh poems have a verve, satiric wit and bite that few poets have matched on any subject and in any tongue.

RF:
Are you working on new books of poetry or prose at the moment?

RB:
I have just completed a YA adventure novel where a trio of kids take on eco-criminals. I am very impressed by young people’s response to the climate crisis. If our planet has any future, it will have its youth to thank, not its politicians. Boris and his party’s ‘green’ credentials are risible, his government’s post-Covid regeneration plans downright dangerous. If Nature has any message for mankind it is – wake up, or perish.

I have started on a new novel, The Music Man (working title). My wife, the writer and poet Regi Claire, said that the early sketches suggested a sequel to The Sound of My Voice. This was news to me, but I can see that she is right. Anyway, I’m going with that. No spoilers (as I’ve not written the book, I still don’t know the plot!), but safe to say we find Morris struggling. His world, like everyone else’s, is falling apart. At least, he realizes it, which puts him that much ahead of the game. The novel will certainly involve the climate crisis, alcohol and music. Lots of music. It will be political (Thanks, Irvine), dark and not without humour. Many critics found The Sound… powerful and moving. I will do my best to make this sequel a worthy follow-up.

RF:
We haven’t had much opportunity as yet to ask for recommendations from poets – can you tell us some of your favourite poets, collections, and poems?

RB:
Scotland has produced several world-class poets: Edwin Morgan, Norman MacCaig and Ian Crichton Smith, and, in Scots, Robert Garioch and Hugh McDiarmid. Their works include some of the finest poems I know. Contemporary Scottish poets really shine particularly, thanks to such trail-blazers as Liz Lochhead, Brian McCabe and Andrew Greig, in the world of Performance Poetry. Neu Reekie! and similar enterprises are simply fantastic!

Some Transatlantic poetry is awe-inspiring. I’m thinking Wallace Stevens, Margaret Atwood, Mary Oliver. And Emily Dickinson forever!

My wife is one of my favourite poets. She has just been shortlisted for the 2020 Forward Prize (Best single poem). Fingers crossed, please. ●















Ron Butlin is a novelist, children's author, opera librettist and a former Edinburgh Makar / Poet Laureate. His work has been widely broadcast and translated, winning prizes in the UK and abroad. He lives in Edinburgh with the novelist and poet Regi Claire, and their dog. //// w: www.ronbutlin.co.uk //// t: @RonButlinMakar ////