by SRB

The SRB Interview: Alan Warner – Extended Version

August 10, 2011 | by SRB

Alan Warner has been at the forefront of his generation of Scottish novelists since his debut, Morvern Callar, served notice of his talent. Morvern Callar is narrated by its eponymous heroine, a young woman who deals with the suicide of her boyfriend in a memorable and unexpected fashion. The novel was set in “the Port”, a fictionalised version of Oban, the town he grew up near. Warner was born in 1964 and spent his childhood in the hotel his parents owned and ran. His interest in reading wasn’t ignited until he was fifteen when, in a fit of boredom, he bought from the local John Menzies three novels whose covers suggested a sexual dimension to their plots: The Graduate, The Immoralist and The Outsider. He moved to London, where he studied at Ealing College, before returning to Scotland and Glasgow University, where he wrote a thesis on Joseph Conrad and suicide. After leaving education, he spent some time on the Spanish rave scene, before working in a series of blue-collar jobs in Scotland: train driver, musician, bouncer, and bar man. When Morvern Callar was published in 1995, he found himself reluctantly bracketed with Irvine Welsh and his peers as a “drug” or “rave” writer. Since then he has written five more novels, including These Demented Lands (1997), which won the Encore Prize, The Sopranos (1998), The Man Who Walks (2002), The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven (2006), and The Stars in the Bright Sky (2010), which is a sequel to The Sopranos. Currently, he is writer in residence at the University of Edinburgh. Colin Waters interviewed Warner by email over the course of a week in late July, a hectic period for the author spent calming the nerves of creative writing students submitting their final pieces. He spoke about airports, Antonioni, and what might have been in the novel Morvern falsely claims authorship of.

Scottish Review of Books: All of your novels have been structured around a journey or journeys of some sort. Is that because it’s makes for a pretty flexible plot device or do journeys themselves speak deeply to something in your imagination?

Alan Warner: Perhaps its something to do with the small town origins? Of author and characters. The fear of claustrophobia for myself and for the reader. When I started to write I was fired up to prove – to myself at least – that a novel or novels could be forged out of the community I knew. It really was very important to me to try to force the social reality I knew into the novel form. Also, in Oban when I grew up you were always traversing the countryside in a very real way. As children, gangs of us would walk many miles through uninhabited country, playing at soldiers and commandos. Then as adolescents we used to walk the most outlandish and fabulous distances to and from country dances. Fifteen or twenty mile walks home as a teenager were not questioned. I think that moving through landscapes – the physicality of it – became for me, perhaps sadly (laughs) a concept of drama itself! Those journeys to a small village guy like me really did seem like huge adventures and doubtless this has sunk in my provincial psyche.

SRB: Place is obviously important in your novels. Some critics I’ve read say Ballard and Kafka were an influence on the airport-bound-setting of The Stars in the Bright Sky. I wondered – is Antonioni an influence on that novel, and perhaps earlier ones? The Passenger is mentioned in Morvern Callar and some of the events of that film are echoed in your debut novel. I also think – correct me if I’m wrong – the narration of your debut has something of the tone of an Antonioni movie.

AW: I think you are right but I’m not too sure about the narration in Morvern Callar. I don’t admire all of Antonioni’s movies. Blow Up and Zabriskie Point seem particularly bloated and sluggish now. But the first half of L’Aventura and The Passenger specifically – which I found a haunting thing. That strange sense of characters vanishing into landscapes or suddenly escaping their identities is surely there in Morvern Callar – if that doesn’t sound too grand? It always seems if you compare your own work to that of great artists, you are claiming an equality. I’m not. I am sure there was a much bigger influence of Camus on the narration of Morvern Callar. Oddly you tend to think of L’Etranger/The Outsider, but I recall reading that earlier version of the same book, published as A Happy Death. I was reading that again and again in my youth. But there is also a Scottish pragmatism in Morvern’s narrative voice – a sort of practical, getting-on-with-it, no nonsense approach to life – no matter how strange or disturbing what she is narrating might be. I find that voice a very Scottish thing. And of course there is an element of satire in that; of attacking the ability of “commonsense” to deal with these events. I believe I was crashing Scottish commonsense into the surreal to see what particles would result from the collision! I also recall Morvern Callar being compared to Rohmer’s films which I also used to watch and enjoy – that Cartesian logic, slowly working out as figures swapped partners for perhaps more suitable ones; always struck me as ingenious – if cold! Going back to The Passenger, I don’t mention that according to my recall, Morvern watches that haunting, gruesome cinema verité scene in that film of a real execution – actual footage of another forgotten political victim shot on a beach. She is clearly un-nerved by it. Doesn’t she wind back the tape and watch it again? Something about her boyfriend’s self-execution seems to be at work and I believe a certain revulsion Morvern feels toward the horrors of this world around her. A horror I share.

SRB: Still on the subject of place – airports are recurring features of your plots. Gatwick is the setting for The Stars in the Bright Sky and there’s a holiday resort of sorts based in a converted airport in These Demented Lands. An incident in Morvern Callar where she gets drunk in an airport bar waiting on a delayed flight prefigures The Stars in the Bright Sky. What is it that excites your imagination about such places?

AW: The way they take their place in a geographical topography fascinates me; they lurk outside great and small cities, their alignments and architecture dictated by runways and prevailing wind. They are functional but sometimes ostentatious: like some teapots. They are huge presences but very specific and for all their huge self importance they fall useless when you are not using them. In The Stars in the Bright Sky this is the state the girls keep falling into and out of. The airport around them becomes highly significant when they are about to travel, then deeply incongruous when they are not able to travel. Airports are portals to a promised transformation one moment, then horrible communal detainment areas the next. I wonder if there is a reflection of modern capitalism there?

SRB: How do you use Scots in your work? It’s not a straightforward phonetic transcription like Kelman, is it? You mix English words with vernacular and, I think, Scots spoken rhythms. How did you arrive at that style?

AW: I use it with both feet in realism but I like to let one stray onto the fanciful now and again. Sometimes I make characters repeat phrases just for my joy at the sound of it. Much of it is simply listening to the Argyllshire west coast Scots and trying to use that. Of course when I was eighteen I was very impressed by Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Synthetic” Scots in those early poems of his. I was very struck by the concept that nobody actually spoke like that, yet each word had a wonderful history and by combining them together in short poems, this huge and very complex power was created. I mean in the shorter lyrics of Sangschaw and Penny Wheep. Before A Drunk Man. It was like a new language. It was very exciting to me to think you could synthesise language to your own pleasure. There was the Beckett Trilogy as well from which you get a huge feeling of liberation regarding narrative as well as language. Then there was Kelman. In the mid-eighties I would have been reading everything by Kelman, Beckett and McDiarmid at the same time. Trying to work them out. And Kelman seemed and seems very alive and immediate. Those concrete scenes (rather than “chapters”) in The Busconductor Hines. Some tender and beautiful scenes between husband and wife, others very funny and sharp between working Glasgow men. All so very vivid; so measured and perfect. As a young guy you were reading Hemingway’s early stories as well, so you could connect that very directly to the crafted and careful word placement in Hines. Beckett, Kelman, MacDiarmid and I should say Emily Bronte too. Very different worlds but the same skill and attention to what was actually on the page. To qualify though, The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven of course was written in a strange English with no Scottish influence. In that novel I was thinking of Spanish sentence structures forced into English to make them seem strange. Nothing new in that; Hemingway was doing it in 1940.

SRB: In Morven Callar, you write, ‘The hidden fact of our world is that there’s no point in having desire unless you’ve money. Every desire is transformed into sour dreams… There’s no freedom, no liberty, just money.’ Am I right in thinking that money, what it can do for a person, how it oxygenates the class system, is a theme that still interests you? For example, in The Stars in the Bright Sky Kay tells Ava, ‘I think you can afford any failure,’ after Ava describes how ‘There are two sets of drug laws in this country. One for the rich and famous and one for the people in the housing estates.’

AW: I am not sure it is a theme at all so much as an inevitable trope of writing about contemporary society. Especially in such a socially divided Britain – which is becoming more divided. The drama exists in the class difference alone. There’s nothing to write! (laughs). Also these are views expressed by characters – and characters don’t necessarily express themes, or of course, the author’s views. In the first quote by Red Hanna – Morvern’s foster father – he is essentially expressing the process of Thatcherism – that there are few societal goals and achievements remaining for people – apart from cars and houses and the things we fill them with. Values and experiences of solidarity and happiness outside of that are diminishing. Of course he’s an old socialist who has seen almost all he believes in withered away. He and his wife Vanessa have fostered Morvern since she was little. They’ve taken in other female kids too, who Morvern mentions. Kids who have been sexually abused and their stories have – I believe – traumatised Morvern in some deep way. So I find Red Hanna and his wife very admirable in many ways. They practise what they preach despite their faults. There are dramatic and plot reasons why he makes that statement as well – since later in the narrative Red Hanna is suspended from work for drinking in a pub “on duty”. His words are prophetic as he is going to see his own full pension threatened. But it’s also wildly irresponsible of him that Morvern’s foster father has a sexual relationship with Morvern’s best friend. I do think Red Hanna is cracking up at this point and I do think Lanna does things just to test Morvern, but it seems to me Morvern is betrayed again and again by those closest to her, which adds to this terrible loneliness she seems to embody.

SRB: You were saying that when you first started writing you were fired up by wanting to see the life you’d known growing up represented in fiction. Was the fact that it hadn’t been seen until then an oversight, a book waiting to happen, or was the omission cultural or political? If it was political, should I take it as read that something of the same thing goes on today? I’m thinking of the paragraph you wrote that concluded your recent review of Ross Raisin’s Waterline: ‘There is a sly, unspoken literary prejudice at work in Britain today, and it is not against how the novel is written, nor what happens in it. The battleground consists of who the novel can be about, with a reluctance in a certain readership to accept that profundity can be found in working-class as well as middle-class experience.’

AW: I wonder now if the “oversight” was largely personal and familial? It always stuns me how invisible literature and specifically Scottish Literature was to me, until one or two specific days when I was aged 15. And I’ve never known who to lay that at the feet of other than myself. It feels pompous and self-important to be pointing fingers and moaning about the majority culture of the late 70s, the programming at the BBC, etc. I wanted for nothing as a child in an affluent household. But my parents had both left school at age 15 and there was no history of reading or art or further education in any branch of our family or relatives. Everyone was a grafter. Except me. We didn’t have many books in our house and certainly no fiction – that is true – but we did have some books and it was me who didn’t read them, nobody else. I’ve talked before in interviews about how, shortly after I started to read a great deal – when I was 15 and 16 – I saw a first copy of Lanark in an Oban art shop and actually turned to my friend and stated, ‘So is there actually a Scottish person writing novels today, in Scotland?’ How could that happen in a culture? How did I grow up in a vacuum like that? I guess that was my Oban in 1980/1; culture and art was not on everybody’s lips! I had presumed novels were an art form which only happened elsewhere and had died out in Scotland around the time of Walter Scott. What a very curious but genuine assumption. On the other hand, I could argue this was because local bookshops were stuffed with Scott and not a single work of modern Scottish literature or otherwise; not even Compton McKenzie or Buchan. It was only when I reached Glasgow independently when we went to rock concerts that I found a wonderful surfeit of books. Ach well. I can’t lay the blame of my cultural impoverishment on the stock-taking policy of John Menzies newsagent. Fifteen is a good age to discover the whole world has a literature. I might have been turned off at some younger age.
What was it Melville wrote about whalers before Moby Dick? ‘Theirs was an unwritten life’? There are still so many unwritten lives and I greedily and expectantly wait for writers to bring these forth. When I spy men in harnesses working at the top of electricity pylons, I immediately want to read a great novel about these guys. Novelists are going to emerge in disparate and unpredictable ways, geographically, culturally, ethnically. We can’t make a demand that so many novels must emerge per-hundred square miles or per-thousands of our population! Yet simultaneously, I would argue that in Britain today there is an overpopulation and overexposure of what I would call the Oxbridge novel. I think the definition of an Oxbridge novel is extremely obvious.

SRB: You’ve written two “sequels” of sorts now, although they don’t feel particularly like sequels. Taking the first one, These Demented Lands, which is a “sequel” to Morvern Callar – or is it? The Morvern who appears here has a distinctly chattier tone, less “blank” (or perhaps I should say “practical” following on from your earlier answer). Is it the same Morvern? And why kill off a character (as The Man Who Walks confirms) you and her readers were clearly fond of?

AW: I am very fond of These Demented Lands. I wanted to do a novel completely outside social realism at that juncture. Morvern Callar had been a “big success” in publishing terms and I think I was perversely looking for my own Reichenbach Falls moment for the poor lassie. I was being kept up late with too many telephone calls from film producers! When I sat down to write it, I clearly recall saying to myself: ‘Alan, you can go anywhere and write exactly what you want, so just let rip.’ That’s exactly what I did. That novel seemed to just come out of my dreams. Of course it is surely clear it is set in some antechamber to Hell? Thus the glaring references to Golding’s Pincher Martin. But many critics seemed to take it not as a fever dream (possibly a dream Morvern is having, safe in her bed, pregnant?) but as a work of pure realism! I think that dreamlike quality accounts for Morvern’s more proactive nature. I am very heartened as there is a fine Irish writer called Sean O’Reilly who once told me reading These Demented Lands just freed him up to realise he could proceed writing his own stuff with no need to be bound by hard realism. It’s odd. I can’t believe I’ll write in that manner again but I’ve learned you never know where you will be stylistically – if you are blessed enough still to be breathing – ten years further down the line.

SRB: Going back to Morvern Callar, there are a good number of unanswered questions in the book. Unanswered and even unraised by Morvern. I don’t want to rob the book of its mysteries, but I wondered if we could hover over one or two of the more intriguing aspects of the plot. The book for example she claims credit for. Would one be right in deducing that the reason she gets away with it is that the novel is in some way about her, which is also why the unnamed boyfriend also tries to cut his hand off; some sort of extreme authorial guilt? On which subject, many of the stories that feature across your “Port” novels have the feel of great yarns told in the pubs. Have you ever felt a throb of authorial guilt over borrowing from local myths and stories?

AW: I’m jumpy that there is something pejorative about the term, “pub yarns” – and also I believe it’s a chicken and egg scenario. But to answer the first part of your question, I agree. One imagines the novel Morvern’s dead boyfriend has written isn’t about pylon repair men. Those publishers (I’d never met a publisher then) seem to accept without question that Morvern is the author. Possibly a certain wryness seems to be apparent in that mysterious, unseen work? You are correct, it must have some “female perspective” – which is of course, doubly ironic. I also have the feeling the boyfriend’s novel is rather beautiful, in some subtle way. It is pretty much apparent that Morvern doesn’t bother to even read “her” book which I think is wonderfully arrogant. Or has she read it at some later date outside the temporal scope of her text, and she has been deeply moved? Are we now reading the text she has written in response; is it a form of correction, a search for grace and redemption, a guilty true confession in reaction to the conceit of His fiction? Because it’s obvious we are reading a text, with pasted-in maps and illustrations which Morvern herself has written down and knowingly epigraphed. Has she too become a reader? I recall the actress Samantha Morton, who played Morvern in the film version, told me that when she auditioned for the part, she read the opening sequence of the novel, ‘As if it was a confession to the bloody cops.’ I thought that was very interesting. But for me it’s a definite written text. I think Morvern Callar is a very angry first novel. It is a subversion of the “first novel” concept, because of course I wasn’t confident enough to believe it might ever get published – like Morvern’s boyfriend seems to be. I think Morvern Callar grew out of those insecurities and that cultural isolation in a very smart way which still surprises me today. It is very much a “manuscript found in a bottle” which was designed to be discovered long after my own demise. A first novel about a ghost first novel which is appropriated by a cold and sometimes chilling voice, hostile to pretence and to artifice. Of course all my sly moves were left-footed when the bloody thing was quickly published!

I’m concerned your suggestion about the severing of the boyfriend’s hand is straying into The Symbolic Use of Colour in the Work of Marcel Proust territory. I have had a hundred academics tell me how I was playing with concepts of the Death of the Author – and I guess they are correct. The boyfriend died for sure! I wanted the boyfriend’s suicide to be very savage and without doubt, thus the very decisive, violent attack on himself which seems to suggest a real self-hatred which is sad. Is he guilty about his own privileged upbringing and this is why he passes all his money on to Morvern? Suicide has always disturbed me and I have lost friends to it. But to be pedantic, is it not his left, non-writing hand he has almost severed, with the weapon in his stronger right hand?

Pub Yarns. I do solemnly confess, too much of my life was once spent in pubs and I still convince myself there is a noble literary tradition attached to this. I hardly drink at all anymore but I believe that I’m using fiction and imaginative tales in the FORM of a pub yarn or a local myth. I think it is that roving, versatile structure I am attracted to. I have used tales and stories from family and from friends; things that have happened to me, to others, all mixed up with invention. I find as years go by I forget the sources of many of these anecdotes. Many are invented, some I believe happened to so-and-so but actually happened to such-and-such – and even more bizarre, I genuinely have believed certain things have happened to me whereas I’ve been corrected and they definitely happened to someone else! Such are the dangers of too many pubs and a fantastical if meagre imagination. But there’s something else more significant.

Since my parents ran a hotel, as a kid I spent long summer holidays with a Gaelic speaking family on Uist and Barra. I am the last type of personality to claim membership of some kind of ersatz culture here. We did not cluster round a two bar electric fire swapping fabulous stories of the islands. (Though Tales of the Toddy was one of the few books always sitting in our house – and I later read it with delight). But among the adults on Uist and Barra there were drams and tales swapped at night – in English and Gaelic – and we children often listened with absolute fascination before we were sent up to bed. I used to have a wee bit of childish Gaelic that has since been nudged aside in my storm-tossed mind. Often tales were translated for my benefit alone, as I was the only non-native speaker there. So I have heard stories from an early age from Gaels and a good few of them put shivers up my spine. Also, my mother’s family is a very large farming one, of brothers and sisters and cousins galore on Mull, and tales would and still do fairly fire round the scullery there. In a completely unpretentious way, my mother, father, sister, uncles and aunts were often relating wild and very funny stories and I was exposed to that long before I was a reader. It’s inevitable this was a big influence.

SRB: I wanted to ask a question about the narrator’s voice in your novels, the ones with a third person narrative. The voice narrating appears in parts older than the girls. There are a couple of nostalgic statements that begin ‘Once…’ in The Stars in the Bright Sky: ‘Once upon a time, people looked and evaluated the face of a stranger, nowadays they first noted clothes, handbag and your wristwatch when you got to the top of the queue in MacDonald on a Saturday night’, ‘Once, architecture spoke of permanence and a future; here it was always ready to do a runner, like those huge moulded warehouses which now lay across this part of the kingdom.’ The girls themselves are generally un-nostalgic except for their shared schooldays. Similarly, the voice, as it was in The Man Who Walks, breezily refers to authors of classic fiction: ‘old Heraclitus of Ephesus’ (‘old Art Schopenhauer’ and ‘wry Suetonius’ in TMWW). But then there are parts that are closer to free indirect speech which capture the girl’s excitability. How did you hit upon that voice? Is the narrator, as Muriel Spark suggested narrators should be, a character in his (her?) own right?

AW: Absolutely. The narrator is not for a moment “my” voice. In The Sopranos for instance, I am convinced the third person narrator is actually a female voice, whereas in The Stars in the Bright Sky it is a male voice for sure – but not me; he’s a sort of jaded metaphysical student who is conversely wearied by the characters but also protective about them. In writing a novel told in close focus and pulled back to third person, I am not just discovering the characters, I am discovering the tone and moral position of the narrator too. I could never write a third (or first) person novel in “my” voice, in the assumption of a rationality, a unified personality, presuming a certainty that has evaporated. The 19th century novel assumed a rationality and reason which has been destroyed by the 20th century novel. After reading Kafka, Beckett and Kelman, a third person “voice of god”, or worse, Alan Warner, would be impossible for me. And the voice of god which remains is limited, it only has finite access, its signal is breaking up – but most importantly it is not an “improving” voice of moral superiority as in much 19th century fiction. In The Sopranos and I feel The Stars in the Bright Sky, the narrative voices might assume a superiority over the characters initially, but they are finally won over by the characters, who perhaps are in many ways more admirable than the initial narrator.

Interesting you mention Spark. That author who seemed so uncomfortable and touchy with her Scottish identity. One Scottish-set novel out of all that she wrote. It has struck me that critics have never once – to my recall – mentioned The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means as possible “influences” on The Sopranos – or The Stars in the Bright Sky. I thought that schoolgirl/young lady group milieu would be obvious. That to me displays a social class distinction in criticism. Of course we need to be careful about the term “influence”. I think The Sopranos is more a vociferous objection and reaction to the Brodie novel. Allowing much that was repressed in Spark to break free. Alas, I take little pleasure from Spark’s work generally, though Girls of Slender Means is my favourite. I find her to be an immensely cold and cruel writer. She reminds me of Hitchcock who is also a cold fish. Surely Hitchcock would have made an interesting adaptation of The Drivers Seat? Seems to me James Kennaway was a far more supple, versatile and skilled writer of the 1950s and 1960s (and Tunes of Glory a better movie adaptation than Brodie). But Kennaway has been bafflingly lost to the Scottish consciousness in a way the rather superficial and unexamined cult of Jean Brodie has not.

SRB: The Stars in the Bright Sky strikes me as a portrait of an unsustainable way of life. The amount of luggage alone speaks of a society with too much for its own good. Is that something that concerns you? Or is it merely a wry observation?
AW: Maybe it is just youth, the vanities and the uneasy innocence which are – of course – unsustainable?

SRB: ‘They all waited to see what would happen next.’ Touch of Godot there? Is The Stars in the Bright Sky essentially a Beckett-esque comedy? Is Beckett a recurring influence? You mention him in The Man Who Walks.

AW: Absolutely. I recall vividly my first reading of the Beckett Trilogy. Novels so full of hilarity and distinctive voice; Beckett wasn’t the first, but he perfected the destruction of the whole concept of narrative in the novel. He attacked the prime function of the novel as a “story-telling” medium but instead of a nihilistic, destructive act, this comes across as a triumphantly generous creative breakthrough. His aesthetic says, ‘To hell with all these bloody stories… I could tell this one or that one but to hell, instead, here is a human voice, tender with suffering.’ It’s almost a definition of the English novel of the 1940s to early 1960s that Beckett and Joyce were denied and not taken on board as influences. I believe the TLS never reviewed Ulysses. Then when Beckett and Joyce do start to become influences on the English novel it is awkward. An odd fusion of sensibilities. You get things like Bridgit Brophy’s (she was Anglo-Irish) In Transit, which I read of course, because it’s about an airport! I’m sure Brophy is about to be “rediscovered” in London, the way Elizabeth Taylor was some years back.

Beckett is so wonderful because his struggle has given us so much as writers. There are whole spectrums of possibility we can draw from his work. I made another pilgrimage to his old apartment on the Boulevard St Jacques in May, and I posted a single flower through his letter box.

SRB: Do you think independence would benefit or disadvantage Scotland’s writers?

AW: A non-textual question! I’m always suspicious that Scottish writers should have any more special priority given to their opinions that Scottish plumbers, farmers, shop employees or indeed the mighty PYLON REPAIR MEN! These are very interesting times for old Scotland and anyway, what do we mean by “advantage” or “disadvantage” for writers? It is fascinating to see the status quo uneasily squirming at the possible implications of Scottish political independence. What convulsions are beginning for unquestioning Anglo-Scottish/unionist mind sets? Post-election conditions have flipped the dialectic so that for the first time, rather than Scottish independence, it is the unionist, Anglo-Scot position which has to begin justifying – if possible – itself. You can feel the uneasiness. I find it all very interesting; and it will be.

SRB: You’re currently the writer in residence at the University of Edinburgh, lending teaching support to creative writing students. What’s your take on creative writing? What lessons do you stress to young writers?

AW: For many years I’m not sure I understood what “creative writing” was. As someone who grew up with a huge sense of privacy and insecurity about my own attempts to write, I was always amazed that other folk had the nerve to “come out” in public, so to speak. To admit they were writing and trying to achieve something with it seemed almost wrong in my odd view. I was very much from the teeth-grinding, solitary bedroom typing school. In some way I regret a lot of that loneliness and isolation and I now feel it’s a very positive thing that people can gather together and announce they are writing. Sounds bland, but it can be a good thing to be in a supportive network of other scribblers. I never found that community until the earlier 90s in Edinburgh, around the time of Irvine publishing Trainspotting. That was more pub based culture than University of course!

My advice to students is what it always has been: Read, read and read and define to yourself why you like some stuff and not other stuff. You’ll find all your answers come from other books – books of fiction and short stories and poetry – not from me or Creative Writing manuals!

SRB: I believe you have two books already completed. Can you talk about them yet?

AW: One is published in April next year by Jonathan Cape. It is called The Deadman’s Pedal. It’s about a kid, just a child really, up in The Port in Argyll in 1973. He’s only fifteen and sixteen in this novel. I find those years very dramatic and interesting and moving. For young people; society is trying to demand fifteen-year-olds abandon childhood imagination and move into this world of adulthood and employment (or unemployment). Hormones are active, and in many ways the decisions and events of those years – for kids who don’t go to university – define the rest of their lives. This kid, Simon, drifts into a job on the railways in the early 1970s and he manages to get mixed up romantically with two very different girls of his own age. It’s also a novel about social class placement. I’ve tried to write a kid from the sort of artisan middle class, a girl from the council house estate and also Anglo-Scot characters from The Big House, and I’ve tried to do it objectively. I see it as an ongoing story. In a sense all my novels form a sort of nexus but this one is a straight ahead Sequence. I’ll write the next section soon.

I’ve another novel under my desk here, called Their Lips Talk of Mischief that I’m editing and I’ve started another. It is like a curse. I have to keep writing them.

From this Issue

What’s Left?

by Ian Bell

An Orcadian’s Conversion

by Jonathan Wright

Follow, Follow

by Adrian Searle

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