Q1) The book most influential for you as a young person
As with most writers I’d imagine, I was one of the kids that the librarian sensed a bit of a need in and gave as many extra cards to as they could get away with, so I went to the library after school most days and got out a huge amount of books. The only one that I took out over and over again though was a book called Masha by Mara Kay set in 19th century Russia. The main character was shy and that resonated. I loved the melancholic drama of Russia, the sense of place and the social history around serfdom etc and still would love to speak Russian. A new flatmate once gave me a present of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and said somewhat ambiguously I think you have a Russian soul and I put this down to repeat readings of Masha in the 70’s. The first adult books that I owned (and still do) were a Penguin set of Jean Paul Sartre’s The Roads to Freedom trilogy that I got on offer for £5 in John Menzies in Hamilton when I was 17, as part of my things to leave home with. I’d come across Sartre through reading the music papers rather than at school and although I really didn’t understand what I was reading, it felt like some kind of threshold and statement of intent to have these three books whose covers also introduced me to Picasso, on my first independent shelf. The book that was most influential though and I’m sure one that recurs constantly in Scottish Fiction Friday is the Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway. I read it when I’d just been kicked out/dropped out of university. I went to Oban to stay with a pal who was working outside there to try and delay telling my family and I read The Trick is To Keep Breathing on the bus on the way there. I hadn’t quite finished it and I remember walking into Oban from Lower Ardentallen reading it, completely inappropriately dressed for the location/weather, being a total mess on pretty much every level but something clicking and thinking at some point if I don’t get run over, I will be okay. It was the first book I’d read that was both Scottish but formally different in a dryly funny and dark off kilter way that felt true and interesting to me. As a young woman it basically told me on some deep level that I could be myself and I knew then that I would at some point write as myself and that I would be alright. I’ve met Janice since and I think I was probably a bit scarily intense about how much this book means to me even thirty years later.
Q2) The book that gets you through hard times
I don’t generally re-read books and so I don’t pick up a book to get me through hard times. I am, however, a big believer in muscle memory and so if I were having a hard time I’d be more likely to put a record on that would either lift me up or let me wallow to the maximum. All good books are about rhythm really I think and that stays with you. I’d be listening with memories of books that have stayed somewhere within. Books that almost break you like the Road by Cormac McCarthy (although I perhaps perversely found one page laugh out loud funny) or The Wall by Marlen Haushofer. Or Ice by Anna Kavan which I came across in an American bookshop when I was living in Cologne in 1990 and again something in it pulled at me and gave me a sense that my way of seeing or feeling was okay and gave me an energy to carry on. I love the dreamscape intensity of Kavan in the way that I love the philosophical frenzy and craft control of Clarice Lispector. I started with The Passion According to G.H. after the Scottish writer Martin MacInnes told me my writing reminded him of her and honestly I think that’s the biggest compliment I’ll ever be paid. So I carry that with me.
Q3) The book that most disappointed you
I think the reality is that a lot of books are unfortunately mediocre and being successfully published is now a complex balance of luck, marketing, contacts, and review/festival opportunities so I’m wary of hype and books being talked up by certain networks as it often leads to disappointment. I tend to avoid it by sticking with publishers that I trust to follow their interests whilst having an element of punting on the unknown, so people like Influx, Tramp, Stinging Fly, Galley Beggars, Blue Moose, The Dorothy Project, And Other Stories. I’ve yet to be disappointed by any of their books or with the Fitzcarraldo list. I think that great publishers can have such a big influence, I travelled to new places like Morocco when I was younger on the back of books I read from Payback Press for example, and that’s what books should do, expand your outer world, and pulse your inner one. I think the present culture of only reviewing positively and staying quiet if the book isn’t great is quite a cruel one really. As both a writer and reader I’d much rather have an honest overview than some silent judgement left hanging in the air. I used to love the passion and sheer gallusness of music journalism in the 80’s and I think you can learn a lot from understanding why someone doesn’t like something, sometimes it even makes you actively want to seek out the source or other works referenced. I think we mute unthinkingly on social media and I think it’s cruel and cowardly when you can just unfollow and I feel the same about book reviews, silence is not a fitting response. It’s interesting, if I told you what books had really disappointed me recently I’d probably be a literary outcast and there’s an inherent problem in that, it’s why I also feel quite strongly that we shouldn’t be encouraging or seeking the endorsement of books by serving politicians. Promote literacy and access to books, yes, promote politically or personally supportive writers, no. I think it’s a burgeoning practice that has a lot of implications with regard to both inclusion and artistic freedom. Disappointment is a hard thing to gauge because so dependent upon expectation levels that can influence it either way, I do my best to avoid it. It’s probably why I also don’t re-read books.
Q4) Name a book with either a brilliant opening or a brilliant ending
I’m not sure I believe that the opening or ending of a book has to be brilliant. Someone once told me a that the first page of a novel should encapsulate all that it’s about but I don’t agree, I think it’s okay to meander and repeat and return and to disrupt the rhythms. That said I think that Doireann N’Ghriofa’s A Ghost in the Throat has a brilliant opening in “ This is a female text” short and deceptively not simplistically to the point. I like books that aren’t obviously written to be beautiful or clever but that quietly subvert with the realisation that they are, or ones that unexpectedly or suddenly immerse you. So I enjoy the openings of Carson McCullers, for example, who almost defies you to want more than she’s giving you. In the Ballad of the Sad Café she starts with “ The town itself is dreary” and she carries on emphasising the boredom and I love the bravado and quiet radicalism of that, and really love her writing generally.
Q5) Your favourite character from a novel
I find it really hard to answer questions like this because even with books that I love I’d struggle to articulate the plot or the character, I’m always left more with the general feel of the book, it’s layers of feeling or mood. I think I probably experience them more as songs that I don’t necessarily remember the words to but will happily sing along to years later. If a character has red hair though I’ll definitely give them some extra attention as one of my ongoing obsessions/projects is how natural red heads are depicted and responded to. Most of the famous female redheads aren’t naturally so, and so they enjoy the interest without the formative negative experiences that being redhaired can bring. This is my very roundabout way of saying that I love Janet Frame’s writing which I came to after seeing the film of her autobiography, An Angel at My Table in the early 90’s. Faces in The Water by her is one of my favourite books. I have a really beautiful teal Women’s Press edition that I read in April, 1994. It’s written as a memoir but is fiction although much of it comes from Frame’s own experiences and I love that wonderful blur. The main character Estina Mavet exists between madness and sanity, observation and being, fact and fiction and she’s complex and that is all you need to know.
Q6) Next on your 'to read' pile is...
I’m in the last month of a postgraduate masters in experimental filmmaking at Glasgow University at the moment (dropouts can find other ways) so I’m currently panic reading things like The Feminist Phenomenology of Childbirth, however, as light relief I’m also reading Marguerite Duras’ Wartime Notebooks and when I’ve finished that I’m going to be reading Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami. I used to always read books from countries I really wanted to go to as a kind of affirmation of intent and interim alternative so I’ve read quite a bit of Japanese fiction as I’ve still not been there. I would love to go still, especially to do an interdisciplinary residency.
Q7) Your favourite poem
It’s perhaps sacrilege to say this as I write them at times but I don’t have a favourite poem even though at different points poetry has meant a lot to me. I still don’t really know why but about 14 years ago I gave away about 12 boxes of books, including most of my poetry books. The only one I actively wish I’d kept is a pale lemon edition of John Donne. I also gave away all my Arden Shakespeare’s and I do regret that. Around the same time I accidentally also got rid of all my letters, photos, and mixtapes and actually I think the poetics of the mixtapes and the memories and thought embedded in their composition mean much more to me. I may well change my mind again at some point but I never actually sit down to read poetry now unless it’s by friends or given to me as a present. I much prefer writing that is inherently poetic. There is such a huge amount of mediocre poetry churned out online and in pamphlets that it always feels disposable to me now. I prefer to see poetry around me, see it, hear it, and occasionally write it.
Q8) The greatest book you've ever read
That would be The Bone People by Keri Hulme. I have very few ambitions when it comes to writing other than to follow my interests and learn stuff but I would love to meet Keri Hulme and speak to her about the writing of this book. In fact I’m actually quite surprised I’ve not already sent a deranged email. I had a piece in Issue 2 of Losslit about 5 years ago and you have to choose a book to add to their alternative canon of loss. and I chose the Bone People. I said:
“It’s a novel that is equally brutal and beautiful in confronting loss, destruction and healing. Its rooting in the landscape of New Zealand and the Maori culture underlines the different levels and forms of loss and reclamation. I’ve chosen it because it is the only book that I’ve experienced on a physical level to the point where I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get to the end even though I knew I had to. Reading it becomes a uniquely personal meditation on your own experiences of loss and hope, and she manages to blend the physical, emotional and artistic with such beauty that it leaves an imprint whereby even 20 years later I can physically feel it”.
This is still true, it’s a book that I felt profoundly changed by reading, physically and emotionally in unison. I still find it incredible that she was able to write something so altering. ●