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The SRB Interview: Kirsty Gunn – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

The SRB Interview: Kirsty Gunn

September 14, 2013 | by SRB

Kirsty Gunn was born in 1960 in New Zealand. She was educated at Queen Margaret College and Victoria University, Wellington, and completed an M.Phil. at Oxford University. Her first novel, Rain, was published in 1994. Her second novel, The Keepsake, followed in 1997 and the short story collection This place you return to is home appeared in 1999. Featherstone was published in 2003 and in 2007 The Boy and the Sea (2006) won the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award.

Soon after came 44 Things, a collection of essays, memoir and meditations. Her most recent novel, The Big Music, is moulded on piobaireachd, a classical composition for the bagpipe. It was published in July 2012 and shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Gunn is currently a Professor of Writing Practice and Study the University of Dundee. She lives in the north-east highlands with her husband and children.

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Nick Major met Kirsty Gunn on a bright morning at Edinburgh International Book Festival. She was on her way to Melbourne, Australia, to give a lecture as part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference. Dressed in blue check shirt and blue jeans, she had a red bag slung over her shoulder and an armful of papers. They found a shady corner in Charlotte Square to sit, drink coffee and discuss her work. Her demeanour was assured and steadfast. Her voice full of the eloquence and energy recognisable from her writing. She spoke of an intense commitment to art.

Scottish Review of Books: You’ve come down from Sutherland?

Kirsty Gunn: Yeah, plucking heather out of my ears.

And you’ve lived there all your life?

No, not at all. I’ve had a very complicated life. I have a house in Sutherland very close to a part of Scotland where my father’s family are from, the Gunns, and a part of Scotland where my husband has been fishing since he was a boy. And in fact when we first met our conversation fell on this very particular little road and how much we loved the highlands and as the conversation went on the road came together. The road he was talking about and the road I was talking about was the same road. We both know this part of the world very well and so it’s magical for us now to have a house in exactly this area, off this same road.

What’s it like?

It’s right up in the hills. North-east, inland from Brora. What they are now terrifyingly calling ‘wind farm country’. The area, because it’s so beautiful and so remote, has been deemed a red zone for the development of wind farms and it’s absolutely dreadful to see what the plans are for these beautiful empty hills of ours. This place of unspeakable beauty with a plangent sense of aloneness is being made busy with the turbines of industry and economy and private gain – and it’s got nothing to do with bringing down our electricity prices.

This idea of a particular aesthetic to the landscape is important to your work. It is inhabited by individuals who are isolated and find a beauty in and connection to the land. Is that a fair assessment?

Yes. I was talking about this with China Miéville recently – about the concept of the uncanny. He was talking about it in terms of science fiction and fantasy novels. The idea that you would take a very strange idea and find a home for it by creating this genre. But there is another kind of uncanny which is the sort of sentence that needs to find a home in a particular kind of narrative. I think what you’ve defined there is that my sense of the uncanny is often located, or the metaphor I have for that, is an individual in that empty landscape and kind of unhoused there so that the place itself, the enormity of the landscape, becomes the home or the place that’s inhabited. So it’s a very clear theme throughout all the work. And that sense of place is normally what I begin with when I start a book. I have always had a very clear sense of where a book is set and what it looks like there. For a very long time, years before I wrote The Big Music, I knew I was going to write a Sutherland novel. I knew I wanted to make a highland novel.

The Big Music has a recursive structure and the characters express a yearning to return home, except they know home is not a place of comfort. I’ve noticed it in your short stories as well. Where does that come from do you think?

I’m never interested in thinking about the link between the life and the work. I’m always more interested in the work. But to press that idea about where home is, it’s a very complicated answer for me in terms of my own background. Born in New Zealand, living in London, Scotland very much home…but so are other places…it’s like this notion of home and homelessness all at once. I was introduced once at a festival in New Zealand as having a liminal status.

Of being in between places?

That’s a very good place for a writer to live in. I think the artist – let’s make a distinction between the artist and the writer because there are of course many different types of novels, different kinds of fictions – but the artist needs to be unhoused, un-homed, needs to exist in this other place that allows one to constantly create a home in the work. Kundera talks about that – making the books out of the rubble of home.

You talk about the complications of belonging in Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence. You don’t want a false sense of belonging. You don’t want your belonging to be a result of government propaganda. 

Art has no passport.

Do you have a political allegiance to any party or credo?

No. I love the thing that Woolf said: the writer’s home is in the empty page. And that’s very clear to me. To make the work you make it new. It’s my whole kind of modernist aesthetic. The place where the work and the artist lives is the place that’s made.

That brings us back to The Big Music. It reminded me of the great modernist novels: James Joyce’s Ulysses; Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is similarly structured on the rhythms of music. Could you talk about the structure of The Big Music? 

My father’s a piper and so I know about bagpipe music and for a long time I’d known there were very beautiful things about the piobaireachd form that I wanted to investigate in fiction because the form of the piobaireachd is very lovely and it’s very clear. You have these movements and these movements do certain things.

Could you give an overview?

There’s the Urlar, which is the ground, in which you lay out your themes and your major musical ideas. And then there’s the development of the Urlar, a Taorluath, which is a leaping off away from the ground, a leaping off into something unknown but also with elements of that ground at your feet. Then you have the Crunluath, the Crown, and this is where all those themes that have been traversed in those earlier two or three movements are lavishly embellished and made rich and the full expression of them is developed and shown. Finally there is the Crunluath A Mach, which means a kind of reflexive thing wherein the musician and composer expose the makings of the whole work. And then you return to the simplicity of the Urlar. So this is a fixed structure and all piobaireachd is very grave important music. It’s Ceol Mor, which is Big Music. It’s not only music that’s made to be outside. It’s for big occasions, it’s for laments and salutes and formal public occasions. As opposed to Ceòl Baeg which is small music, the fun music of dances and céilidhs – the sort of music you hear on street corners being played by buskers. I always knew I wanted to explore that huge scale which is inherent in the form and I knew I wanted to make a highland novel that had all of my endless interests in invented spaces and imagined space. And although the book is very real, in the sense of having real places and real place names, it’s also a made up place. To return to that modernist prescription of the thing that is made: the world of The Big Music is made and it lives between the covers of the book. That’s the place that’s real – it’s not a version of Sutherland.

The two are a part of each other.

They look at each other.

There are long appendices at the end of the book. I can imagine people thinking: why are you giving me this?

I’ve never wanted my books to seem like any other books. I’ve always wanted them to feel strange and new. I loathe that thing about being compared with someone else.

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But you had must have formative influences.

The modernist tradition. Mansfield and Woolf, Chekhov and the Russians. Everybody has a formative tradition. That’s quite kind different from being…

From expressing your own voice.

Yeah. That’s what I’m looking for as a reader. Aren’t you? I don’t want to read endless versions of the same thing and now that we’ve got films – which they didn’t have in the nineteenth century – neither do I want to read endless books about things happening one after the other. I don’t really believe you can get inside people’s heads and expose them. There are a few writers that can do that but on the whole people can’t do it. And then you’re left with ‘what happens next’ stories and we’ve done that and we’ve read them ad infinitum. I don’t want to read those sorts of books.

It’s interesting you said we can’t get inside other people’s heads. Reading The Boy and the Sea seems to contradict that. 

My books are about praxis. They are about what happens. This happens and that means that another thing will happen. And we have points of view and we have narratives that show certain feelings that might pass across a character but to get right inside, to show those fine fluttering gradations of feeling and change and psychic underpinning, I think is the work of genius. From my own reading I can really think of about four writers.


In English recently it’s only William Maxwell. Great American writer. But the point is that none of that detracts from the project. This all goes back to the way the novel is in thrall to a particular idea of itself and with that comes this notion of characterisation. Yes, there was a time to explore character…think of Tom Jones. Fielding’s job was to explore the many different kinds of people in society and how they might be. But to really get inside someone’s head and show what it was to be that person is a very different job from showing who they might be.

If someone hasn’t read many experimental novels and they’ve just read Ian McEwan-type novels obsessed with the psychological development of character, The Big Music might seem quite strange.

‘Experimental novel’ suggests something that is somehow uncertain or not tried which privileges the status of that other kind of novel. Woolf didn’t use the word novel. She called her works elegies. And I myself resist the word novel because of the association it carries, which is to do with its connection to the marketplace and its status in society as a commodity bought by the leisured middle classes. That is the history of the novel. There is that kind of writing and we all enjoy it. There are versions of it for all kinds of reasons but there is another kind of fiction – not experimental but that is also clearly itself – which has its own status. And that is fiction that is art, made to explore the boundaries of its own self, to explore the relationship between content and form, to explore the status of the reader within the work. None of this is experimental in the sense of what that word suggests to the general reader. It’s very rigorous and it’s tested on the rocky shores of Modernism upon which Woolf and Joyce and the rest of them all marched. It’s very very real. The sadness in our culture is that kind of fiction is so marginalised. When we talk of fiction we think of the very traditional novel and by that I mean the basic mimetic model of telling a story and pretending that it’s real – making something that is like something else and then pretending that the made thing is the real thing. And there’s another kind of fiction that is about the reality of the words on the page and our relationship with that.

The sort of art you’re talking about requires readers to sit down and work at it. There’s a sort of reading culture, exemplified by the deck chairs around here, that sees reading as a leisure pursuit. 

A version of the entertainment culture and that business of the reader being in a very passive position spoon-fed all this content – sitting back and passively taking it on.

People often see me and they’ll say: what have you done all day? If I tell them I’ve been reading they’re often confused. 

There’s a great Bill Hicks joke about that. A waitress comes over to him and says: what ya readin’ for?

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Yeah. What are you reading for?

One of the things I do at Dundee University is turn people on to reading. I don’t really believe you can teach writing. I don’t believe in the concept of creative writing classes. What I believe you can do is turn people on to full reading. That phrase of Eliot’s about something that’s fully written? Well in the same way: to fully read with all your senses open and for there to be a sense of terror about the enterprise. Because god knows what could happen! And for a while that might be apprehending, might just be sensing, it might years before you know what the meaning of that reading is. But to have all your senses alive to the implications of the text – that is my job at Dundee as far as I can see it. And to turn people away from the idea of the commodity that has been purchased and known about and is part of the capitalist economy, towards something that is dangerous and anti-social.

I’ve attended creative writing classes. One of my old lecturers taught that we should write-to-sell first and only when you’ve secured an income can you write what you want. That struck me as a strange and horrible thing to do to young aspiring writers.

It’s a wicked thing to embed in a literature degree.

How do you write? Is it a disciplined endeavour?

Yeah, because if you wait until the time is right or the idea to come or the confidence to hit then you might be waiting until doomsday so what you do believe in is the routine. What you do believe in is that the page can be covered in words and those words can be revisited and set right. So yeah there is a routine and the last book took a huge amount of time to write because it was very complex and because I had lots going on. My children were very young when I started it and I took on the job at Dundee. So my life was very broken and I had to come away from the book to do short stories. My book 44 Things begins with my husband saying to me: ‘when are you going to get back to The Big Music?’ But the routine is everything and that thing of the discipline of sitting at the desk. And you carry on doing it and even when I was working into years six and seven, working away every day for hours and thinking: ‘no one is going to publish this’. There’s just this kind of inevitability about the routine that makes the book. It’s like tending a machine.

It must be frightening to want to be an artist and know you have to live from your work.

You can’t make that sum. Some people have been very lucky and have been able to make exactly what they want and they are able to achieve some success from that which means they don’t need to do anything else. But for most of us making the art and making the income are two separate things. Who writes about this really well is Lewis Hyde in his book The Gift. So, no, from the beginning I made that a very clear distinction. I don’t have any expectation that the two things are going to match.

The Big Music was published in 2012. What’s next?

I have a collection of short stories coming out next year. These are stories that I have been publishing in little magazines but there are some new stories as well. That’s next November. But I know what it’s like to get to that phase in your life and think: how many more hours are there going to be in the room on your own, away from the people you love? When my book came out and I held it in my hands, The Big Music, my husband asked me: ‘was it worth it?’ That’s a hard question, isn’t it?

And you couldn’t answer that?

No. The artistic impulse is strong and it takes you up and it’s hungry and it takes time and it needs to be fed and all of that is time away from thinking about your family and being with your family and friends and our life around us.

So the art has an antagonistic relationship with your everyday life?

It must. If it’s not part of the world, in the sense of the economy of the world’s needs, it’s this other thing that’s sitting outside it all the time. So if we return to this capitalist model: all the time I’ve spent writing my books is time that I’m not looking after my children, therefore someone needs to be doing that job. It’s time that I’m not earning money to buy things in a capitalist society, which itself is a hugely anti-social act. And on a more profound, important note it’s time away from people and places you love. Everything about the work is in opposition to the status quo.

Is that an intractable problem?

It’s part of my sense of myself as a feminist. The number of times I’ve said: ‘I need a wife!’ If I had a wife in the way that so many male writers have the privilege of a closed study door and then be able to step out of that quiet place and re-enter the home and the world and to have that re-entry facilitated by a wife? I emerge from what is never a closed space. For a long time I wrote at the top of the stairs. I write in a room where the door is open and it must be open and it should be open to my family. But when I emerge from that space I emerge into a world in chaos and then I must as a woman manage that and traverse to the professional space and manage that. So, intractable in the sense that certain feminist issues are intractable. But one wants to think: no. One wants to think one’s life is a constant engagement with these things.

Have you always had that sense of being a feminist? 

I grew up in the seventies and everything was happening, definitely in New Zealand. But by the time I was a teenager I took all that for granted, what women deserved. I didn’t think about it until the birth of my children and then the whole thing flared up again and I realised that it had never gone away at all. And then all the issues I thought were sorted weren’t sorted. I remember I fell on Adrienne Rich and I’d kind of read Rich when I was seventeen at uni and thought: what was she making a fuss about? We’ve done all that…being very blasé..and then I came back to her and it was like food.

The birth of your children was the re-birth of your feminism?

Yeah, because then I thought: we’re completely different. Up until then I thought men and women were the same and it’s all about a discussion. And then there was the moment of realisation: absolutely not! And the minute you have children you realise how extraordinary the maternal force is and you realise how society regards that activity. That was when I came raging back into the discussion. And of course teaching, university life, keeps the fire bright. It’s often the case that I’m the only woman in the room during meetings. I’m a professor so I’m right in the heart of the church of patriarchy.

Aren’t universities meant to be progressive places where everyone is on equal terms?

You see it with the students. They are. But, no, it’s the power structure that leads to a white middle-aged man at the top. Although Dundee is more advanced than other universities I’ve come across. Part of the huge pulse of The Big Music – and none of these things are willed – but what emerged in the writing of the book was the power that comes from Margaret and yet in so many ways she’s inhabiting a traditional female space – she’s the housekeeper. Yet everything about her character, that female principle, enlarges and enlivens the emotional landscape of the book. Her life is propelled by love and ultimately nothing could have happened, the book wouldn’t have come into being, the story of John wouldn’t have come into the light, if it hadn’t been for Margaret’s daughter Helen. So that enlargening energizing procreating feminine principle is at the heart of this book of fathers and sons.

There’s a wonderful line in The Big Music: ‘the history of women in these places is a quiet story, quietly told.’ It reminded me of what Woolf said, that literature has been dominated by white patriarchs for so long it’s time to tell the women’s story, and you need a new way to tell it. 

Yeah, the idea that the stories that need to be told don’t need to be of kings and queens but there can be these other stories that have their own imperative.

Talking of doing things differently, you had a unique way of launching The Big Music. You launched the book at Dundee University?

The book is real. The place of the book exists between its covers. The world of the book is in the words and everything that’s told about it is real and so that’s part of what we wanted to bring to Dundee. There was an archive of papers and domestic artefacts and objects from The Greyhouse and notebooks that were brought together to be an exhibition and my sister created a beautiful banner which was the history of the Sutherland pipers at The Greyhouse, but also the names of the women who were associated with those men. She used wax and pigments and fragments of Sutherland tartan and we had a film that was made by a colleague at Dundee and my father had composed music and the actor Brian Cox came together in this film. So Brian read sections of the book against the background of my father playing the music. We had this lovely interdisciplinary event. So that was a lovely way to launch the book – out on to the sea. We had a piper who played ‘Lament for Viscount of Dundee.’ He played it outside because of health and safety. We were piped out to the foyer where there was the exhibition. But pipes should be played outside.

If anyone wants to listen to good bagpipe music what’s the best approach?

It’s the sort of music that should be heard live. The best place to go would be to contact the Glasgow College of Piping or the Piobaireachd Society in Edinburgh or London and go to a concert. Or the Highland Games always have piobaireachd competitions and the standard is always good.

In The Big Music bagpipe music is associated with a specific landscape. Do you need to go to a particular place to get the full experience of the music?

No. You can hear it anywhere.

Do you speak Gaelic?

No. I wasn’t brought up with Gaelic.

Do many people speak Gaelic up there?

God no. Absolutely not. Especially up in the north-east. It’s Viking territory. But very few people speak Gaelic. It’s a whole separate project – it’s great but it’s got nothing to do with The Big Music. There are Gaelic place names and concepts that infuse the book as they do with everything in Scotland but it wasn’t a sort of modus operandi.

We were talking earlier about where you write. What’s your writing process? 

I write on a computer. But I do the first draft by hand. I work in tiny increments. I’ve always done this with all my books. I don’t sit down and write the whole thing. I write in sections which I polish and refine and have finished and have put there and I do another section. And there’s a sense of arranging and rearranging about the sections. And once I have the whole there is a degree of re-writing.

That makes sense, especially considering you’re not overly concerned with plot. The Big Music is subtitled Selected Papers.

It was my editor’s decision to have Selected Papers because there is a sense of them being a selection from a much larger collection of papers. And it’s true, there’s much more material than what’s included.

Will that extra material ever see the light of day?

I don’t know. I have that with all my books. I have that with Rain.

The Boy and the Sea and Rain are very slight. The Big Music is the biggest by far. I guess there was no rationale behind this largess?

Only in the sense that I knew in my waters, as it were, it was going to be, because it was going to be about piobaireachd. Those other two books are about a kind of tremulousness and a kind of frailty and an adolescent sense of becoming. They are about how you imagine and understand things, as much a sense of the form of them, the overall shape, as the words that make them up. I’m going to be talking about this in Melbourne. They’ve asked me to talk about style and content but really what I’m going to talk about is form. I don’t think form is given nearly enough attention.

The Boy and the Sea and Rain are very difficult to explain to people. The publisher’s blurb on the back imposes a plot on the books, which I guess they had to do. 

Publishers will always do that. On my paperback of The Big Music the front line is: ‘the story of fathers and sons and a culture in peril’. It’s this business of what a novel is, sitting in the shop.

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What would you do if you had full authorial control over this?

I did with the hardback. I was very firm about the hardback. Because I had a very clear sense that the book had to have about it the tradition of High Modernism I didn’t want to have anything about it to be tricksy. I wanted it to be very formal. What publishers do is they say: ‘we want you to be very involved in the whole process of the cover’ and the next thing you’re called into a meeting and they say: ‘we’ve got a cover we all really like’. And there was this awful moment when the cover for The Big Music was laid out and I just went: ‘no!’ It’s an unattractive moment. But then it went through various versions. But I love how that hardback looks. It’s done well and Faber published it carefully and they put money into making it a very beautiful object. They had a small print run. The paperback is doing a different job. They’re my publishers, they know what they’re doing and that book has to sit alongside big-selling novels in the marketplace and so of course they are going to say ‘a story of fathers and sons and a culture in peril’.

You’re about to leave for Melbourne to give a lecture. Could you give us a preview before you go? 

I just think people don’t address form. People address the content of a book and the way it’s written – the words and the voice – but people don’t address form, which is the kind of raison d’être of the whole project. Form is the mother of style and content. If you don’t have a sense of form the style can be completely unhoused. Most books I read I don’t rate because there’s no consideration of form. I’m now referring to a book that’s done fantastically well, critically and on the tills: it’s a book about a woman set in the nineteenth century who is deemed to be insane and is locked away on her own, completely uneducated, and writes her journals. Now I immediately have a great big gaping question about the form of such a project: how can an uneducated woman write lengthy letters and journal entries that come garlanded with the language of her educated author? There’s no sense of form. There’s a story but there’s no sense of the overall raison d’être. To my mind form is the beginning of everything.

People might be confused between form and style.

The first question I ask myself about any work of fiction is who’s telling the story and by what authority? If that question can’t be answered there’s no sense of form about the project. It means it’s been made up of disparate ideas that have been yoked together. The great stuff has a sense of its overall unity of shape and purpose and there’s a rigour in the bringing together of the content and the way that content’s been expressed in that overall project. Again, there are some very successful writers who have taken on the world of childhood and have not authenticated that project with a sense of form, i.e. how would that story then be told if it’s by someone who has a very limited sense of the world, perceives and apprehends the world in very different way to the adult writer?

Is it about an author inhabiting the characters as much as they can?

No. It’s about the author thinking about where all of it comes from. If I’m going to write a book about piobaireachd that is about its own making, that is about how this particular piobaireachd comes into being and that I want to have at the centre of that book an old man who is at the end of his life, whose never expressed himself emotionally or intellectually and only culturally through his music, how can I give that man voice and gravitas and emotional range while expressing things from his point of view? How do I make all of that as authentic as though he had really lived and was telling the story? I don’t want to use indirect narrative. I don’t want to cheat the reader in that way. So I thought about it and I knew it couldn’t be told as a narrative shape…because that would presuppose a narrator moving that character through the landscape of his life. I couldn’t expose him if it was clear there was an author pulling his strings. So I thought about this idea of papers being found that were about his life, some of which were written by him and some of which were gathered together by someone else and the person who would do that would be someone who knew him very well and someone who inhabited that landscape and knew everything about it and was thoroughly authorised to tell that story. That’s a sense of form.

When I was reading The Big Music there are voices that almost slip into one another. I couldn’t help but think: how do you write that and ensure it doesn’t come across as utter chaos?

I wanted that to be part of the reader’s journey and to have these questions come up and for you to debate them rigorously as you’re reading. Where’s this come from? Is this real? That opening was real. I’m talking about Gavin Wallace [Creative Scotland’s [portfolio manager for literature who died earlier this year] later and it’s absolutely true. Gavin was a lynchpin in this book, in the way that he provided inspiration that encouraged me to apply for a bursary, which enabled me to write the book. And all these people I name at the beginning are all real people – my father’s real – but that’s a bridge that then takes us into this fiction. And those bridges between the real and fictional are constantly being crossed and what I want is that with each crossing the real and the fictional come together. Because in actual fact reading is real. If you read stuff that’s been properly made it’s as real as anything that’s happened. Everything in War and Peace is as real as anything that’s happened in my life.

The Big Music

Kirsty Gunn

Faber, PP472, £20.00, ISBN 978 0 571 28233 3

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