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The SRB Interview: Candia McWilliam – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Candia McWilliam

October 28, 2009 | by SRB

CANDIA MCWILLIAM WAS BORN in Edinburgh in 1955. Her father, Colin McWilliam, was Assistant Secretary for the National Trust for Scotland and editor of The Buildings Of Scotland series.

In 1971, she won a Vogue writing competition, going on to work for the magazine between 1976 and 1979 after graduating from the University of Cambridge. Her first novel, A Case of Knives (1988), was joint winner of the Betty Trask Award. Her second was A Little Stranger (1989). In 1993, Granta recognised her as one of the Best of the Young British Novelists alongside AL Kennedy, Will Self, and Jeannette Winterson. Debatable Land (1994) won the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Italian Premio Grinzane Cavour for the best foreign novel of the year. Her most recent book, Wait Till I Tell You (1997), is a collection of short stories (all of her books are available from Picador, priced £6.99). She’s a judge of this year’s Booker Prize. COLIN WATERS caught up with her during the Word Festival in Aberdeen earlier this year.

Scottish Review of Books: You’re in Aberdeen to read your contribution to the Little Black Dress anthology, which reminds me of something about clothes in your first novel, A Case Of Knives: “There is something so civilised in their necessariness, when it is made beautiful, that I am suspicious of those who dismiss them.” And yet people do dismiss them. Why is it that we now regularly see serious writers musing on football and pop, subjects formerly dismissed, but so rarely on fashion?

Candia McWilliam: I suppose this may sound a bit chicken, but pop music is valid because youth is so admired simply in itself. Football, another matter that is allowed to be written about, is valid for obvious reasons: because everyone in the world understands it – except maybe for me. Fashion for some reason relates to girls and gays, who aren’t mainstream. I think that to be uninterested in how things appear is to deprive yourself of a whole area of perception and jokes. And also what humans do with the paraphernalia of daily life, it’s interesting. We have to eat and we have to cover ourselves. How we choose to do so is interesting. Not in a consumer way; it shows something we can’t control. It’s psychological. Even in a uniform you’ll see there are minute gradations of difference, not simply to do with ranks. Men in suits, for example, might be legible to each other through the number of buttons on their cuff. All that’s interesting because it’s a language. And anything at all that’s susceptible to be interpreted as a language, I’m gripped by.

SRB: While on the subject of fashion, you won a writing competition at Vogue Magazine when you were fifteen.

CM: It’s interesting because in the 1920s Vogue had Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley working for it and it was tantamount to a patron of intellectual writing. In ignorance I entered the competition. I had no idea what I was doing. I was a Scottish girl at an English boarding school where the magazine was forbidden. This was during Edward Heath’s premiership when there was an enormous strike, so we only had electricity for three days a week. I did my entry to the Vogue talent competition, which had to be typed, in handwriting by candlelight. I won and was asked to London. I wore my first stockings and high heels and a dress for church on Sun day, and I sat between Marina Warner in hot pants and Lord Snowdon. I got a telegram, that was how archaic it was, saying that I won. It was a tremendous accident, a punt, so I had no idea of the world I was going to. I was just a tall Scots girl in pigtails.

SRB: And you later went to work at Vogue?

CM:The prize for the competition was an enormous amount of money, £50. I think now it’s £1000. I always feel about competitions that they are so random, why not send something in, why not set your paper boat afloat and see what happens? The other prize was a job, and after university I went to work for Vogue. And I was no good at all. In retrospect, I suspect I couldn’t really deal with London. A number of things happened. The magazine had a magnificent, Jean Brodie-like editor who I hope might still be alive, Miss Beatrix Miller. We called her Miss Miller. We used carbon paper and copy had to be glued down with a gum which was made from the feet of cows. I was violently allergic to the cow gum. So I vomited a lot. In addition, it was important to be thin, so I just stopped eating. There was competitive thinness. It was largely young women who had, no offence to them, a private income. As I had been at St George’s School for Girls, then Sher-borne School for Girls. then Girton College, Cambridge, for girls, then Vogue, I was in another intensely feminine society with all the virtues and difficulties of that. And I wasn’t good at that. It was a privilege to have worked there, but I didn’t take advantage of it. I was so frightened I stopped going in.

SRB: I was interested in jobs writers have before writing and how it affects their prose later. After Vogue you became a copywriter like Salman Rushdie and Fay Weldon.

CM: The great thing about the advertising agency at which I worked was that one of the bosses, who was also the only Liberal member of the Greater London Council, had a Robin Hood approach to advertising. There we were during what was revving up for the Eighties and we had a number of glamorous accounts such as Gucci, but the ones we were excited about were the charities we handled like Action Aid. So in a way it’s false to say I was working in advertising. But of course I was fiddling with words. At Vogue and the advertising agency – which had a beautiful name: Slade, Bluff and Bigg – there was a discipline and a thinking hard about what things actually mean. And jokes! I love that. Because English is so ambiguous a language, it’s thrilling trying to pleat as many meanings as possible into a word. Advertising and fashion copy both do make that demand of you. I was also doing little things for the TLS at the time. I had always known that I wanted to write. I knew consciously from the age of four.

SRB: Newspapers often describe you as ‘Anglo-Scots’. I’m never entirely sure what that means unless it’s merely a synonym for posh.

CM: I quite minded it. I think they must mean that I live in England. It’s very difficult, well one must never complain and never explain because it sounds touchy, but the reason I live in England is that my children were and still are at school there. I would fain live in Scotland. I always make that plain. I think too there is a gap created by my voice. Again I would think it patronising and peculiar to put anything other than the way I speak into my voice. I can do it! But that would be making a mockery. When they say ‘Anglo-Scottish’, that’s their perception; if you were to cut me in half, there’d be a touch of Irish in my blood and the rest is Scots. I was born in Scotland and feel sometimes on sad days a bit unaccepted by whatever Scottish writers are – not those I know and love personally. In England there is absolutely no understanding that I’m a Scots writer at all. The posh thing is simply not so, but I don’t want to sound like Douglas Hurd saying his father was a tenant farmer.

SRB: There used to be a preconception lingering from the 1980s that the Scottish novel was gritty, working class and urban a la James Kel-man. That’s changing now though occasionally one wonders when writers like William Boyd are senselessly left off these ‘Best of Scottish’ lists. Do you think something of this has affected the reception of your work in Scotland?

CM: I don’t want to waste my head thinking in such clichés. Also, I revere James Kelman; I’m not going to classify him and I’d hope he’d do me the honour of not classifying me. I hear Scotland deep in William Boyd’s voice. I hear Scotland in my syntax very vividly. I can only work with the head I was born into and it feels wholly Scots. Anglo-Scots – I think it doesn’t exist. Anglo-Irish and Anglo-Indian, yes, they existed, but not Anglo-Scots. A flabby idea gets loose and accretes to itself all sorts of rubbish, mostly from cuttings, and then you’re stuck. God knows what it’s like for actually famous people with a completely erroneous Doppelganger in the press. I remember the year that my second novel came out, I can say this now, it’s so far back in the past, I had a meal with Edmund White, who was then sitting on the Booker Prize judging committee, and he said my second novel wouldn’t be considered as someone on the panel had declared about me that as the mother, wife, and daughter of dukes, why should she have anything? Absolutely extraordinary.

SRB: Reviews of your books were often split. There was the famous criticism that you’d swallowed a thesaurus. There is a strain in British criticism that appears uncomfortable with a use of language that goes beyond the workaday, seen again recently with the extraordinary reception to John Banville’s The Sea. Some seemed to think he shouldn’t win because he used the work ‘flocculent’. What are people afraid of?

CM: Possibly different places with him and me. I do think The Sea was wonderful, by the way, and he’s a great writer. The novel about Anthony Blunt was great. What I feel is that the language belongs to all of us. As a Scot, I am made of language. Reading, thinking, talking, listening. We possess the language, each of us. I don’t have more of it than anyone else. I never use a word in order to clobber a reader. If the word is the right word, it will suggest itself to me. Its context will reveal it to the reader. I use language to include not exclude. At the time of my first novel, the unfavourable reaction seemed to be that a ‘bird’ could use language so. As for the ‘thesaurus swallowing’ tag, I’ve said it again and again – I have never possessed a thesaurus. A thesaurus is predicated on an untruth, that such a thing as synonyms actually exist. If you are trying to be an exact, poetic writer, they hardly do. I’m not using language as self-adornment. I’m uninterested in my own ego as I write. Of course I was astonished when John Banville won the Booker Prize and there was pure meanness and envy, it seemed to me. There’s a hideous term loose and it is ‘the literary novel’ and it is used as a term of condemnation. Of course there’s no such thing, as any novel that sets out to be literary will be pretentious, which is the great unsaid word. I just like language like I’m tall. I’m not tall to be above other people, and I don’t try to learn more about the language to be above other people. The language is to connect.

SRB: There’s an element of nostalgia in your work, nostalgia in its original sense, a painful homesickness. How do you stop that tipping into sentimentality, the curse of the Scottish writer?

CM: Homesickness is such a plangent word. As we get older we get homesick for things that can’t be retrieved. My sovereign remedy against sentimentality is that one simply need go to the appalling Visit Scotland ads. Actually for me, they’re wonderful, I get suckered by them. Very frequently Scotland’s self-presentation couldn’t be satirised. It’s so undermining of what is serious, beautiful, dignified, intelligent about our nation. I saw an ad in The Scots-man for Hebridean holidays with ‘iridescent scenes’, iridescent spelt wrong, and ‘castles seeped in history’. It punches you how physically beautiful the country is, and how painfully I’m reminded of how I miss Scotland when I return. I probably write about homesickness more than I was aware of. Only now has it made me wonder whether I shouldn’t do what everyone seems to be doing, which is write a memoir. It’s homesickness for parents I barely knew. One of them died so young and the other I sort of exiled myself from. But I might contend, and this isn’t a bid for universality, that all of us are homesick, and homesick for love, by which I mean attachment and connection. All of it, the years sitting alone in a room feeling for the right word, is vindicated when your nerves touch someone else’s nerves, your head touches someone else’s head, writer and reader.

SRB: As a writer though you must recognise how useful homesickness is for you?

CM: That’s entirely right. Everything uncomfortable is useful and every experience is useful. It doesn’t mean that if you have had an uncomfortable experience that you’re a writer. You can use experience to go hard – which is toxic and useless – or to go fluid and make something of it, make art, and to empathise with others. To simply listen better.

SRB: In Debatable Land, the character Alec is doubly homesick, not simply for Edinburgh, but an Edinburgh that doesn’t exist anymore.

CM:Yes, and that’s because he’s an artist so he’s incessantly making and remaking, and he can’t really be at home anywhere except in his art. Which I suppose is the sadness and the consolation of anyone who tries to make something with their mind.

SRB: Alec is terribly upset by the various renovations of parts of Edinburgh.

CM:That must be transmitting the concerns of one Colin McWilliam, my father. As I walked round Aberdeen with my hastily purchased disposable camera yesterday morning, I couldn’t stop myself taking photos of architectural details. My father spent his whole life working for the buildings of this country and what they embody. He came to this country and got a passion for its architecture and for saving it. It’s impossible to believe now, in these self-conscious heritage-trail days, that much of Edin-burgh was being knocked down then. I was jealous of those buildings; I thought, why won’t he pay attention to me. And here I am now – he died in 1989 – and I am enacting his obsession.

SRB: There’s another line in Debatable Land about the moral link between the streets and the people.

CM: I really feel it. I was brought up by a dedicatedly socialistic father who believed in the moral purpose of beauty. Edinburgh was one of its expressions. The benediction that living somewhere comely offers its inhabitants. Edin-burgh is being poshed up now. I was a child in a place called Puddocky that was a haunt of flashers, and now very smart people live there. Dad wrote a book called Scottish Townscape that I didn’t read until years ago, and it’s about the morality of housing. I think he was probably ahead of his time. Public housing could not be more important, and things are happening now. Where the Scottish and Newcastle buildings were, decent public housing is going up. But my God, could we not have worked that one out for ourselves? People prefer to live where they feel connected and you can’t just jizzen it up with fancy colours. Lovely Tesco blobs of distracting primary shade.

SRB:Your Edinburgh….

CM: It’s only a partial portrait. It’s a city endlessly susceptible of being written about, and I’m sure I haven’t got to the bottom of it. I would not say ‘my Edinburgh’ – horrible expression by the way – is any realer than Irvine Welsh’s Edinburgh or Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh. They all exist.

SRB: In the early Nineties you worked with Stanley Kubrick on an early draft of Eyes Wide Shut. The film concerns a respectable doctor discovering hidden depths to himself, his wife and the town he lives in. You made an ingenious suggestion, sadly not followed up, that he set the film in Edinburgh.

CM: I thought that the famous doubleness of Edinburgh – let’s not say duplicity; I find that ‘fur coat and no knickers’ stuff too easy – would make it a wonderful setting. In Edin-burgh, you start to recognise faces in the crowd and they start to become a part of your quotidian drama. Other people’s routines become legible to you. It is a city of stories, it writes stories, and it spins the light. The ancient past erupts into it with the hills and the sea. So Edinburgh shows the fragility and the desirability of proportion and civilisation.

SRB: In your introduction to the Penguin edition of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, you use the word ‘technician’ admiringly several times. What exactly do you mean by ‘technician’?

CM: Someone who is fully conscious. Of every single comma. There is a comma in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, a sort of proleptic comma in that it signals to the reader that she is a psychopath. It comes when Miss Brodie says, “Who is the greatest Italian painter?” Sandy says Michelangelo, and Miss Brodie replies she’s wrong. “The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.” Being a technician is knowing what you’re doing. Poets have to have it. It’s a fallacy that novelists don’t have to have it, except for the very, very greatest, animal novelists, like Dickens.

SRB: An ‘animal novelist’?

CM: Yes, the power comes through you. It’s geyser-like, like Hardy, who lived it. I obsessively read Hardy’s poetry.

SRB: I’ve always thought people underrated the humour in Hardy.

CM: Isn’t it odd the way that people – it makes me so sad – are boundlessly complicated, but it seems easier to describe things as limitedly as possible in order to pack them away, which is de facto to dismiss them. What you say about Hardy and humour, of course it’s true, but people don’t want to say that. They want to say: “Tragedy. Spelt ‘affectingly’ wrongly. Coincidence. Right that’s Hardy.” It’s lazy.

SRB: There’s a thing you said that “Every child costs two novels”.

CM: No. I’d be very happy to refute this but I’m too late. It’s in several dictionaries of quotations now, and it’s the only quotation under my name. I never said it. What I said was that about two infancies-worth of effort goes into a novel, which is much less snappy and rather truer. Of course I never said it because implicit in it is a deep disliking of children. And the crown of my life is my children. It was a journalist – I bear her no animus – who précised my remark. Subsequent to it I got the most awful letters from people saying what a pain their children were. I thought, Madam, you are lucky to have children.

SRB:Why so few books so far?

CM: Horror and fear. And a paralysing high standard, with a powerful instinct to self-sabotage. The horror and fear relate to publicity. I find that all but unbearable. The business of being photographed and ‘biography’ is excruciating. It’s a question I ask myself so often as to further paralyse myself. I read enormously. That to a degree gets in the way, particularly if I read him to whom I am addicted, Henry James. I read James and think – why bother? Well, no, that’s a joke, but I do have a distaste for publicity. I’m aware that there is a pact with publishers that you’ll do it, but I’ve become ever shyer as I’ve grown older. I love performing, I love reading to audiences and meeting them. The business of interviews and reading them afterwards is one I find absolutely terrible, inexaggeratedly terrible, especially when it has reference to my private life. It’s like escaped gas, you can’t contain it; these awful things are out and they aren’t true. The other thing is something I used to see my father do and was nothing but self-destructive. Dad, if asked to do something he didn’t want to do, particularly if it didn’t pay, felt an almost suicidal urge to say yes. The more I don’t want to do a job, the more likely I’ll do it. This isn’t boasting, it’s confessing – I have done an enormous amount of unpaid sorting out of other people’s books in the past ten years. Maybe it’s to do with this thing I had as a child that I should be a doctor, because it would help. And maybe the impulse turned me into a book doctor, I don’t know. Whatever it is, I’m rather regretting it now as I am that much closer to death and I badly want to produce a lot before I die.

SRB: And now you’re judging the Booker Prize.

CM: I accepted the job of judge because I’m serious about fiction, about its moral place, and I want to put my shoulder to the wheel. I also thought I’d kick-start myself. It’s not that I’m not seething with novels, and I’ll do anything to commission. I love working to commission. The BBC recently asked me to do write a story about a foodstuff. Then they helpfully said there’s this novel by Proust wherein there is a cake, etcetera. So that was very helpful. And I wrote a story with great pleasure about Moffat toffee.

SRB: A few years back you read a poem at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about having a drink problem. In our confessional age, people often make public declarations. But I thought that for you, as a shy person, what was more important wasn’t the crowd but doing it in Edinburgh.

CM: Well, of course, though I’m not sure there was much of an idea. I had no chilling premeditation. It’s very interesting. Whatever one does in these situations, one is busking, unless one has developed a really energetic meta-persona, and as you might have gathered by now, I don’t have one. I’m fantastically unsafe and unguarded and vulnerable. I didn’t know this about myself and alcohol, that it was killing me. When I did discover that, I took steps not to take it into my body again. I wrote a long poem about it but I think my fiction is saturated with people having difficulties with alcohol. I wrote the poem I wasn’t trying to smuggle out a message in a bottle at all. It was just there as this enormous, very Scottish difficulty with intense discipline and the need then for relief. I could-n’t bear this image at loose of a posh glamour puss when I knew I was a bookish, very unhappy girl who couldn’t sort things through unless intellectually.

SRB: It must be very strange to have this Doppelganger at large in the press. That you can’t control how people perceive you.

CM: People get over-attached to you or get you wrong or use you. What was shocking about when I read that poem at Edinburgh was that the poor freelancer who wrote that review was taken up by the machinery of the newspaper, she was chewed up and abused. Her review was turned into a ‘Shock! Horror! My Drink Hell by Ex-Countess’-style story spread across pages two and three.

SRB: Are you enjoying judging the Booker Prize?

CM: I’ve always enjoyed reading. And it is an honour. And this sounds rather plastic, but I really like the judges who I know and expect to like the ones I don’t. I feel very lucky. It’s a bit of a burden to take notes while writing; I’m naturally a vandal who writes in the margins. Look at this [she holds up a collection of essays on Henry James]. It’s a palimpsest. But, yes, it’s a privilege.

SRB: And a lot of responsibility.

CM: I was looking in the Oxford Times to see if they needed an extra hand at the check-out at Marks and Sparks, so I’d rather do the Booker.

SRB: “If we were able to comprehend other people, we would not be able to use them to our own ends,” one character thinks in Debatable Land. That’s what the project of literature is about, isn’t it?

CM: And forgiveness, amnesty, attachment, love, imagination. How about this for serendipity? I finished re-reading The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie this morning, and I picked up my comfort blanket, Tony Tanner’s essays on Henry James. Now I in no way identify with Henry James, I simply love him. He was misunderstood, and it sends you mad to be misunderstood, which is what we were touching upon when we discussed publicity. I found this quotation, in Tanner’s book, from Conrad who makes this wonderful alleviating phrase that clears through all the nonsense people said about James, how he was spinning nothing out of nothing, that he was over-rarefied. And Conrad says, “He was the historian of fine conscience.” If you have a capacious consciousness, you love to think and apprehend and observe and process. I don’t want to die because I don’t want that to be extinguished and I long to transmit that to others for their pleasure. And at its most capacious sense and in its most Scots’ sense – for their enlightenment.

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