by Ali Smith

Why Interview Writers?

September 4, 2009 | by Ali Smith

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Why Interview Writers? – Ali Smith


AFTER MORE than twenty years of in-depth interviewing of Scottish writers for the Sound Archive she first began to create in the mid- 1980s, and after editing and publishing exactly twenty, in all, of these good lengthy interviews, Isobel Murray has decided that the latest volume, the fourth in the unique series Scottish Writers Talking, will be her last.

Scottish writers, talking. What are interviews with writers for? Reader curiosity? Critical information? Information we need? Information we really don’t need? A session with an understanding therapist? A mini-bullfight, or seduction? A question of critical authority? The notion that a writer will be best able to explain or supply some correct ‘answer’ to his or her work? “The purpose of the interview”, Murray says, specifically, at the outset of her 1984 interview with William McIlvanney in the first volume, published in 1996, “is to get Willie to tell us something about what he’s writing for and what he’s writing about…. [C]ould you try to say what, at the moment, you feel you’re trying to do, writing your books?” McIlvanney puts it succinctly back to her: “The author’s awareness of what he is doing, is by no means perhaps the best awareness”.

But it soon becomes apparent to any reader of this series that these interviews, taken together, have helped map and form the elusive landscape we now take for granted. When the project began, in the mid-Eighties, there was no such thing as the Scottish literary renaissance soundbite we’re now so used to, and the talking of Scottish writers was an idea still so unusual that Murray’s impetus was a primary urge “to record and preserve the voices and opinions of Scottish writers” which would otherwise be lost; consider the project’s “minor negative impetus”, as Murray wryly put it in the Preface to Volume 1 – the fact that the Penguin Writers At Work series of Paris Review interviews had managed to feature “French, Irish, Russian, Danish, Chilean, Colombian, German and other writers” but not “a single Scottish writer”.

From shy George Mackay Brown in 1984, then, rocking as far back as he could get in his Orkney rocking chair from Murray’s microphone, to Murray’s flagging-up of the prolixity of Janice Galloway’s website information at the beginning of the 2002 interview with Galloway, times have changed, and Murray?s work is undoubtedly one of the reasons that things have changed. What hasn’t changed over the years is Murray’s own technique with her “victims”, as she jokingly calls them. “I’ve been doing this rather unreal exercise obviously”, she says to Mackay Brown, her first ever interviewee, “of reading or re-reading fairly quickly through your work, and one is struck not only by characters you return to, we’ve mentioned them, but certain images or certain ideas that seem absolutely unerringly to feed your imagination”.

All four volumes focus on this proper nourishment. Text-led, unshowy, Murray’s interviews follow their nose in an intelligent, instinctual, unforced meandering (where these days press or publicity interviews with writers tend to have an ulterior motive or want to force a story), always the opposite of overweening. “Everybody has his rights to have his reticences”, says Mac- Caig in 1986, and then, because invited so openly and intelligently, happily holds forth, giving one of the really outstanding interviews in the series. MacCaig died in1996, and here he is, alive again, in Scottish Writers TalkingVolume 1, talking about his mother who arrived in Edinburgh from Scalpay as a girl, speaking only Gaelic. “Well she had no English when she came, I don’t know how old she was when she met my father, but by that time she had accumulated more than enough English for several people…. Oh, she could run circles round Professors of Sanskrit and leave them gasping!”

why interview?

“I’ll tell you whit I hiv got, and that’s naething to do wi’ boasting nor anything, a very good visual sense. That is what I do naturally possess. I can see it like paintings like you know. Yes I do”, Jessie Kesson says, brought out of herself in the same volume; across all four volumes the transmission of live voice on the page is almost unbelievably sensual. Across all four, a conversation- length of several hours with each writer, plus the openness of Murray’s questioning, almost always produce answers way beyond any prepared response an interviewee might have. Very few of her interviewees preserve a sleight-of-voice. “I like to let our writers talk at leisure, revealing themselves and their preoccupations generously”, she writes; from start to finish the literary range has, itself, been dizzying. Volume 1 (just last year reprinted by Kennedy and Boyd, who also publish the new Volume 4), featured George Mackay Brown, Jessie Kesson, Norman MacCaig, William McIlvanney and David Toulmin, writers from the east, west, north, south, citified and rural, right across class; and the latest volume, in a whole other conjugating of Scottish literary expectations, features fairly recent interviews with Jackie Kay, Allan Massie, James Robertson and Ian Rankin, and a fascinating interview with William Watson from 1987. Read all four volumes and it’s like attending some huge, baying, robust book festival: adding to this mix above Iain Banks, Naomi Mitchison, Iain Crichton Smith, Bernard Mac Laverty, Alan Spence, Janice Galloway, John Herdman, Robin Jenkins, Joan Lingard and me.

“Are these the twenty Scottish writers of the century you think are most important?” Murray asks in the little interview she conducts with herself in the Preface to the final volume. “Oh dear no, it wasn’t that ordered”. These interviews came about much more humanly; partly by intent, partly by circumstance and opportunity, in a garnering of not-very-luxurious grants and a steady juggling of her own considerable workload. She saw no point in featuring “well-covered already” writers, and also made good use, for instance, of writers in residence visiting the University of Aberdeen, where she was until her recent retirement Professor in English and Honorary professor in Scottish Literature.

Perhaps one of the real secrets to the success of these interviews is their sense of communality. This comes partly from the fact that these interviews are more communal than you’d expect, full of and open to friendly connections; MacCaig’s is, at one point, a four-way conversation which includes his old friend Iain Crichton Smith, who dropped in for supper; more usually, as MacCaig puts it, along with Murray and the writer “there’s a philosopher in the room”, with many of the early interviews attended by Bob Tait, Murray’s “husband, co-interviewer and sound technician”, and the editor, from 1967 to 1973, of Scottish International, who’d already worked with and supported many of the interviewees. Take, for instance, his approaching of a young unknown called Alan Spence after a reading in the early seventies to request if he might publish what he?d just heard him read; he paid him £18 for it, which, as Spence notes in his own interview with Murray nearly thirty years later, “was an awful lot of money (L) – I could live for a couple of weeks on that!”

That L in brackets is another connective force, Murray’s signifier for the sound of laughter, and the interviews, right across the board, light up with the synaptic flash of these recurrent (L)s. Something else they all have in common is Murray’s tendency to ask everyone, in a way that manages to be both particular and open, questions about the same three areas: a little background biography, then a bit of religion/politics. The latter two, according to Ian Rankin in the new volume, are “inextricable” with notions of what “made Scotland the country it is, and made Edinburgh the city that it is”.

At a timely point in this new volume, Murray herself tells her interviewee about Naomi Mitchison, in interview back in 1984, at the age of 86, commenting on the dangerousness of all religions, no matter the creed, which “tell you exactly what to do”. It’s instructive to think how much has shifted in our conception of local and world religions since Iain Crichton Smith recorded his interview in 1986 and desperately, but with a customary sweetness and open nature, focused on the buckling ‘dictatorship’ of Presbyterianism and the crucial distinction between free person and Free Church, thankful, he said, to Kierkegaard for the lesson that “one should try to be an individual”.

Volume 4 opens with a bristlingly individual interview with Jackie Kay, whose upbringing in a Communist household topsy-turvies all the old unsayables and rebellions. “At the age of eight, I decided I’d gone religious, and made my Mum come to the church, and joined this choir, and made her come to the church three weeks in a row. I used to say the Lord’s Prayer out loud in the house! (L) … If I’d had a chance, I’d have rather been exposed to Catholicism. More colourful and rich, and there’s all that guilt thrown in, and you get a wee wafer (L)”. Allan Massie, in a very welcome interview, (as Murray notes in her introduction, “Massie is widely respected as a novelist, but often omitted in surveys of the ‘Scottish scene’”) can actually say, untrammelled, “I can almost feel a nostalgia for the austerity of Scots Presbyterianism”. James Robertson (who endearingly reveals that as a youth he wrote a lot of Westerns) has the luxury of his generation, here the luxury of curiosity: “We are living pretty much in a post-religious age, or post- Christian age, and you wonder what effect that has on the way society conducts itself. Personally I would like to believe that we don’t need religion, but I also worry sometimes that maybe we do”.

The earlier volumes of Scottish Writers Talking reveal the pervading Scottish influences, one way or another, on pretty much everybody interviewed, of Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley Maclean. Robertson, who did a crash course in Gaelic just to be able to read Maclean’s poems, and who at an important emergent point was awarded a residency in MacDiarmid’s Brownsbank, is, Murray’s unforced contextualisation suggests, a quite literal example of a generation of writers actually inhabiting the space made by those who influenced them. It’s what you might call a Neil Gunn moment; the Celtic snake with its tail in its own mouth, the future held in the house of the past.

“It’s almost like a physical thing, a house, the house of fiction. It’s got to have a door, (L) and you’ve got to be able to get in. You’ve got to be able to see out of it: that’s really important, that you’ve got to be able to see out of it. And sometimes there can be an extra wee room, a surprise room, that you didn’t know was there. (L)”. That’s Jackie Kay talking; it’s Massie and Kay who speak most eloquently in this new volume about the writing process. Massie refers readers to Nabokov’s lectures, where Nabokov “says at one point that the novelist is three things: he’s a story-teller, he’s a teacher, and he’s an enchanter. And I think that’s what the novelist should be”. Kay, in her interview, is effortlessly all three. “We should really re-evaluate what being a writer means”, she says. “Being a writer doesn’t necessarily mean writing a book; or writing a book right away. It means observing people and observing things from really early on, and looking at the world in a certain way”. She is also fascinating about notions of Scottishness, something satisfyingly absent – because so very all-pervading – in the earliest of Murray’s interviews, but looming large and separate, almost like an extra person in the room, in the interviews she has conducted over the last eight years. “I do believe that nations actually hand their people, particularly their imaginative, creative people, heir own obsessions … a collective unconscious”, Kay says. What Murray’s four volumes make clear is that literary Scotland is a collective, immensely versatile, often cosmopolitan consciousness, or a vital, wide-open book. Kay’s interview is one of the highlights in the series, along with Massie’s, MacCaig’s, Crichton Smith’s, Mackay Brown’s, Kesson’s, and a brusque, surprisingly energetic, sharply entertaining interview with Robin Jenkins from 1985. “I would cut my throat rather than write a lifeless sentence”.

There was a time, not so long ago, when few people knew about or rated Jenkins; Murray has always been one of his champions, and here again the series is a revelation of a powerful interconnectivity: a love of Kesson’s work surfacing in what Janice Galloway says; the image of George Mackay Brown meeting Edwin Muir in Orkney just before Muir invited him to study at Newbattle; the vision of McIlvanney signing Rankin’s copy of Docherty, in 1985 with the words “Good luck with the Edinburgh Laidlaw”. It’s Galloway who says, in Volume 3, in an interview that displays the force of her articulacy, “the fact that we’re all there for each other has now become just a commonplace”. A glance at Murray’s own biographical route in her mapping of the sparking connections over the last twenty years shows how very ‘there’ she’s been for writers; these interviews sent her off on several missions, reprinting and introducing long-out-of-print work by Mitchison, lecturing on, introducing works by and drawing crucial critical attention to several of her interviewees, and even being invited by Kesson’s daughter, after Kesson’s death, to write what became her great biography of Kesson. The Scottish Writers Talking interview in August 1985 was the first time she met Kesson.

Not that Murray would want me, or a critical piece about the series, to get personal, “the last thing a good interviewer can afford to be”. But I’m going to. I studied under Murray at Aberdeen for five years in the early Eighties, pre new-literary-renaissance, when her Honours course in Modern Scottish Literature was the most oversubscribed and exciting course on the whole syllabus, and my own interview with her in Volume 3 is itself helplessly personal – and all the worse and, yes, I suppose I have to admit, the better for it. I’m going to coin a word to sum up the presence that acts as the binding force for this wide-open book of voices: iriscible (adj), a fusion of iridescent and irascible. Murray is an open vision, contains the whole spectrum, and brooks no nonsense. “That book falls to bits: every page falls out”, she complains to Jackie Kay at one point about one of Kay’s publications. She takes James Robertson to task about what she sees as random decision- making about who to quote and how much, in his edition of Dictionary of Scottish Quotations. She pushes him about his female characters. She challenges Mackay Brown about the notion of shared elemental rural roots: “I haven’t got any…. My parents bore me in a city, and they were born in a city, and …”. “I get so angry with a woman like Caitlin Thomas, Dylan Thomas’s widow”, she tells Galloway, “who called her autobiography Left-over Life to Kill”. And when Rankin says “You can’t get away from archetypes”, she replies, straight away, “Oh yes, you can”.

She works hard to clear up old mistakes or press misapprehensions, and she honours all sources with exact kindness. She worries, in that first ever interview with Mackay Brown, about the effect on him, and on her own students, of reading Gerard Manley Hopkins’s wrenchingly dark late poems: “I find the late sonnets very distressing, and I find myself lecturing on them to 18- and 19-year-olds hoping they won’t understand them”. And she is endlessly hopeful, and the interviews are endlessly open-minded and open-eyed. “We’re not talking, really, because there’s not enough time or tape, about all the books that weren’t fiction that you were writing up till about 1989” she says to Massie – and then goes on to talk, in detail and at length, about these very books.

How can this open road of a series, this open exploration, come to an end? “There are so many interesting writers out there, it is hard to stop. But with any luck I may have set a precedent, and someone else will take up a microphone…”. Let’s hope, if someone does, they do it in the crucially generous tradition, with the twenty-twenty long-sightedness, and with a bit of the wisdom of spirit, of Isobel Murray.


Scottish Writers Talking Volume 4
Edited by Isobel Murray
Kennedy & Boyd, £12.95
pp316 ISBN 1904999883

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