by Alan Taylor

The SRB Interview: Alasdair Gray

March 28, 2013 | by Alan Taylor

Alasdair Gray, who is 78 and lives in Glasgow, is a writer and artist. Initially, he was best known for his drawings and paintings but with the publication of his novel Lanark in 1981 that changed and he was feted for the creation of a Glasgow Ulysses. Over the next four decades he produced a profusion of literary work, encompassing plays, poems, essays, novels and short stories. His most recent book is Every Short Story (Canongate, £30) which includes seventy-three previously published stories and sixteen new ones.

Normally, Scottish Review of Books interviews take place face-to-face but Gray was too busy on the dates proposed by the editor, Alan Taylor. As an alternative Gray  suggested an email exchange which, he hoped, would ‘save time and eliminate mis-understandings derived from recorded voices.’ The result is the shortest interview with an author the SRB has yet published. It is also the only one in which the questions take up more space than the answers.

Scottish Review of Books: Your new collection, Every Short Story,  covers more than sixty years, which a remarkable span of creativity. What was your motivation? A sense of completeness? A desire to bring between covers stories that are can only be found in disparate collections? Or to show how your work has developed and matured over that period? In a sense a portrait of the artist throughout all stages of his life?

Alasdair Gray: All these three.  

The first story, ‘The Star’, is illustrated with a picture of a boy in shorts sitting on a ledge in a bathroom window gazing out on a night sky. It’s as if he has the world on his doorstep and that he is about to embrace it, if not through travel then via his imagination. Of course Glasgow is a port and was then – the 1950s – still a place where ships were built. Did you ever think you’d get on one and sail away?

No. Evacuated from Glasgow like many others in 1940 I had experienced life on a farm near Auchterarder, in a Scottish coal-mining village, and in a Yorkshire market town.  On returning to Glasgow after the war I found it so big and strange that getting used to it was a big enough job without trying to start again somewhere else.

You say in the Endnotes to Every Short Story that your parents never praised your writings and drawings to discourage ‘exhibitionism’ but that you nevertheless knew that they approved of them. Could you described what your parents and your early home life were like?

I have done this so often in so many writings (chiefly Book One of Lanark) that it would be wearisome to do it yet again. 

A stack of interviews on my website also covers that ground in many places.  The tersest answered questions by Christopher Swan and Frank Delaney in 1983.

Riddrie Public Library was your ‘second home’. Yet even some  writers now think such places anachronisms and argue that they have outlived their usefulness. What’s your thoughts?

I disagree.

Your early reading seems to have been dominated by fairy tales and fantasy literature. ‘Fabulous tales,’ you write, ‘free us from immediate, everyday suffering but also prepare us for it.’ How?

By telling us nightmares that we recognise. Some teachers and bullies are as real to children as wicked stepmothers and ogres, some adults are as liberating as good fairies. Magic gifts can also liberate us, if rightly used. Imagination is the most powerful. Dr Sam Johnson and Sam Coleridge were very different poets but both approved of fairy tales for children.

You’ve lived in Glasgow almost all your life. What’s your perspective on it? Has it changed for the better? Is it a more cultured, civilised city? The most frequently quoted passage in Lanark is the one in which Duncan Thaw asks: ‘What is Glasgow to most of us? Imaginatively, Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world. That’s all we’ve given to ourselves.’ Are these views to which you would subscribe?

That quotation is the view of an 18 year old art student in the 1950s when Glasgow was still one of the world’s most productive industrial cities. I was not aware of how artistically productive it had also been because the publicity we got from the best London news papers and the BBC never referred to it. It is bad that Glasgow, like other Scottish and English cities, no longer exports useful things to other lands. That artistic products are now noticeable as issuing in Glasgow and other parts of Scotland pleases me, because I earn my living by them, but Glasgow was happier for it’s inhabitants when most had jobs they could be proud of. 

Lanark appeared in 1981. I recall being at the launch at what was then called the Third Eye Centre. What’s your recollection of it?

Cheerful.

I’ve always thought one of the most moving – and prescient – passages in Lanark is when Duncan submits a story for the school magazine and it’s rejected by his teacher on the grounds that he had tried ‘a blend of realism and fantasy which even an adult would have found difficult.’ On the one hand this seems to be a criticism of the timidity of teachers and, one the other, a comment on publishers distrustful of work not easily pigeon-holed.

You may be right.

Have you ever considered writing genre fiction? A thriller, say, or sci-fi? Or a western? Or, now I come to think of it, a Fifty Shades of Gray?

No. Most of my longer novels mix several genres, but I’ve seldom wanted to concentrate on one.

Much of Endnotes is concerned with the business of making a living. It seems that you lurched from days of relative plenty to a near breadline existence. Of course, until relatively recently writers had to have a second job, which used to be the norm….

You are right.

The writers you tend be associated with are James Kelman, Tom Leonard, Agnes Owen, Liz Lochhead, with none of whom you seem to have much in common artistically. So what do you think binds you?

We were first connected by meeting each other because of our Glasgow Hillhead, Art School, University extra mural department and other local associations. I think our writing has a lot of Scottish realism in common. 

The novel seems now to be the dominant form. But at the beginning of your career all the major Scottish writers appeared to be poets: MacDiarmid, MacCaig, Morgan, etc. 

Did you know them? Were any of them an influence? 

I talked to the three you mention, admired the work of all and like most Scottish writers was most influenced by McDiarmid. I have said that 1982 Janine owes a lot to A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. 

A year and bit from now we’ll have the chance to vote for independence, which is something you’ve long been in favour of. Recently, though, you were taken to task for an essay you wrote, in which you descried the influence in Scotland of cultural colonists, who, you argued, know little of the country’s culture and who’re only using it as a step on the career ladder to greater things. In hindsight, do you regret anything you said?

No. I am not responsible for sound bites by which a journalist whipped up misled reactions to my essay, ‘Settlers and Colonists’, which the reactors had not read. 

Are we living in the early days of a better nation or at the fag end of a pipe dream?

I have never smoked a fag in a pipe and dislike either/or questions. Life is too many-sided for Hegalian or Marxist dialectics.

For you, art and literature are often coupled. But rarely is music mentioned. Do you listen to it? Were you to go on Desert Island Discs what would you choose? 

I listen to it. A lot of stuff called Classical and also Folk.

Could you describe a typical day in your life?

No, because any routines I set up keep getting changed.

A few years ago, you allowed your secretary, Rodge Glass, to write your biography. Have you read it?  

Yes.

When you look in the mirror, what do see?

Something too familiar to interest me.

Have you realised yourself?  

No, because I have never known what myself is.

Have you achieved what you set out to do? 

I have achieved many things I set out to do.

What’s your legacy? 

Whatever people notice that I have left behind.

And what’s next on your agenda? 

I am translating Dante’s Sublime Comedy very freely, and am almost half way through Hell.

More subway murals?

I doubt it.

Or more short stories?

Perhaps.

Finally, were you to interview yourself, what question would you like to ask?

None I could answer.

 

From this Issue

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by Joseph Farrell

Thatcher in the Raw

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