Geography is people – William McIlvanney, ‘Growing Up in the West’
Recently I was invited to join a growing group of Scottish writers over at McVoices. The man behind the initiative is one Brendan Gisby and I thought it might be a good idea to learn a bit more about him:
JIM: So, tell us a bit about yourself, Brendan.
BRENDAN: Thanks, Jim. There’s not a lot to say, really. I was born in Edinburgh halfway through the 20th century—I like saying that, by the way: it sounds much more interesting than grey, rationed 1950. I was brought up in a large, poor family just along the road in South Queensferry (the Ferry) in the shadow of the world-famous Forth Bridge, and that magical old bridge happens to feature in a lot of my writing. I have three grown-up children from my first marriage. I lived and worked in business in and around Edinburgh up until my retirement a few years ago. I now live in splendid isolation in the wilds of Perthshire with my long-suffering wife and muse, Alison.
JIM: When you retired you decided to devote yourself to writing. This isn’t something new for you is it, a hobby to keep you out of trouble?
BRENDAN: It’s a cliché, I know, Jim, but I’ve always wanted to write. After I retired, I discovered manuscripts and wee stories of mine secreted all over the place; it seems that I had actually been writing any time there was a break from the demands of family and business. Then, once I was totally free, the stories just spilled out of me; it was as if a dam had burst. Writing is not a hobby, therefore, but it does keep me out of trouble. Mind you, just thinking about the alternatives—golf, fishing, sailing, bowling (FFS)—makes me cringe. I’d rather be back working!
BRENDAN: Sorry, Jim, I lurched into socialmediaspeak there. It’s one of the more popular abbreviations they use on Facebook and Twitter. Like OMG, but ruder. It stands for For Fuck’s Sake.
JIM: I did not know that—about the FFS—but, no, I get what you mean. I’m not officially retired but I’m effectively retired. The last two jobs I had burned me out—twice, but the second time was the worst. People talk about burnout the way they talk about the flu. No one has a touch of the flu. I had the flu once and it floored me for a week. And it’s the same with burnout. It took me years to recover from my last breakdown. The amazing thing is that all the time I’d been working myself into the ground—I have no one to blame for what happened to me bar myself—I was writing and by the time I started thinking about self-publishing I’d already got quite a back catalogue which I’m working my way through one book at a time. I should’ve caught up with myself by about 2020 depending on what I get written in between.
BRENDAN: I had just finished re-reading Ulysses when I set up the website. Like every other author, I was looking for something different, something distinctive for the site’s image. So I chose the name of Blazes Boylan, together with a picture of 1920’s Dublin. Coincidentally, those choices also reflected my roots, my mother having been born and bred in Eire.
I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading Ulysses, by the way, much more so than when I was a young buck. Having entered the brave new world of authorship a bit late in the day, I had been hearing an awful lot about creative writing rules—“adverbs are like weeds” and such tripe—so it was very refreshing to be reminded that Joyce broke every single rule going at the time. I could relate to that, because breaking rules is what I had always done.
Joyce is a particular hero, of course. When I was immersed in business throughout all those years, I found little time for reading. But I did manage to keep up with the output of William McIlvanney. I did, and still do, admire the precision of his writing. And I try to emulate that precision in my own writing. What about you?
JIM: To my shame I actually gave up on Ulysses although I did watch Bloom recently. I struggled with it too. I’m a Beckett man myself but only from when he parted company ideologically with Joyce. As he put it, “[Joyce] was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.” McIlvanney, however, I do have a lot of time for, as a man and as a writer. Although you’d be hard pushed to see his influence in my own work he was an early hero of mine.
You write memoirs, novels and short stories. What sort of writer would you say you are? I ask this because so many writers these days feel they need to be a certain type of writer and have one eye always on the demographic. I can’t personally get into that mindset. I’m a writer and that’s the end of it. Writing’s like chocolate or cake. Who doesn’t like chocolate or cake? You might not like cream in your cakes or nuts in your chocolate but everyone likes cake and chocolate. I’ll read a book on anything if I think it’ll be a good read.
BRENDAN: My attitude is very much akin to your own, Jim. I’m a writer, period. So far, I’ve had one very enjoyable foray into the realm of fantasy through The Island of Whispers—a sort of Scots take on Watership Down. Mostly, though, I tend to be grounded in realism, writing about events I’ve actually experienced with characters based on people I’ve known.
JIM: I actually struggle with realism, not that my books aren’t set in the real world, but I’ve never felt drawn to plunder my own life for stories or even to tell stories. I have a couple of friends who write nothing but autobiographical stuff but that’s not me. In fact in my most recent work I have one of the characters say something along the lines of, “I’ve no time for memoirists, people with their heads stuck up their own pasts.” That said I wouldn’t be the man I am today without the past I’ve had so I’m not saying it was all pointless; I just don’t feel the need to relive it on the printed page.
BRENDAN: Well, I’ll begin with McStorytellers. It’s a website dedicated to showcasing the work of Scottish-connected short story writers. It’s now well into its third year. I set it up as a kind of protest against the samey, twee short stories I was fed up reading on other websites—you know the kind I mean: tales of middle-class characters in middle-class settings (usually somewhere in Middle England) with impossibly clever endings. I wanted to create something more edgy and irreverent, something more Scots, as an outlet for my own stories and those of other, like-minded writers.
The site has developed from that cheeky wee cock-a-snook into something of a phenomenon. To date, it has published for free in excess of half a million words in close to 400 stories by some 60 contributing writers, or McStorytellers, including your good self, Jim. And it receives more than 10,000 page views per month. The site is also a publisher in its own right, having published my own work and work by a number of regular McStorytellers. It recently announced its 22nd publication.
McVoices is also a website, but a much newer venture, having only been launched towards the end of May this year. I’m a co-architect of the site along with author and playwright, Cally Phillips. Cally has been very busy with, among many other things, the preparation for the second Edinburgh eBook Festival (see below), so I’ve been left in charge for the moment.
Anyway, McVoices does what it says on the tin: it’s an online community of Scottish-connected authors of eBooks who have come together to shout at the market with a bigger collective voice. The community is made up of 18 members at the moment, with more to come. Each member has their own profile page on the site, their own books page and their own blog. And those blogs form the heart of the community. Viewership of the site is already exceeding that of McStorytellers. Another phenomenon in the making, I hope!
JIM: The emphasis here is very much on Scottishness although not all your members live in Scotland. How important do you think a national identity is in writing? Is, for example, Tartan Noir really any different to Scandinavian Noir or Mediterranean Noir?
BRENDAN: All the members of McVoices, like all the contributors to McStorytellers, either were born in Scotland or have a strong connection with the country. Much of their work is what I would call quintessentially Scottish: in other words, the writing is usually powerful, often emotive and invariably shot through with that wry, dry Scots sense of humour. Those three attributes are immensely important, in my opinion. Collectively, they are what separate Tartan Noir from any other kind of Noir.
JIM: I think the humour is especially important. The image of the dour Scot is so far off the mark. I’ve suffered from depression all my life and I said to my doctor once, “D’you know something? My humour actually improves when I’m depressed. Have you ever heard anything like it?” Of course he hadn’t but it’s true. My roots lie in the north of England—my parents hail from Lancashire—and northerners are much the same. I’m a big fan of deadpan humour whether it be Les Dawson or Chic Murray. It took my wife—Carrie’s from California—a long time to get used to our humour—to an outsider we must come across as aggressive and abusive—but she’s been here for sixteen years and now gives as good as she gets.
Talking about nationality, I could have a sex change op but I’d still be stuck with that pesky Y-chromosome. Do you feel nationality’s similar to this? I’m thinking of the large ex-pat communities who are often more passionately nationalistic than those who live in their native country.
BRENDAN: It is among the large majority of ex-pat Scots; that’s my experience, Jim. But that nationalistic passion is also rising rapidly internally. More and more Scots, me included, are now thinking with their hearts. The flame of independence has been lit, and I don’t think it will ever be extinguished until independence is achieved—however long that takes.
JIM: I avoid talking about politics, Brendan. My father said to me years ago, “Y’know, Jimmy, no one votes a government in, only out.” And he’s dead right. But I was reading Orwell a few days ago and in his essay ‘Why I Write’ he said that one of the four great motives for writing was Political purpose. He clarified what he meant by ‘political’ as “Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” That I can relate to. I’m not sure that has to be a Scottish purpose though. I don’t think what Scots are clamouring for when it comes to independence is that different to a hundred different ethnic groups whether they be Basques or East Turkestanis. The thing is though, in this global village that we’re all a part of it seems to me that nationalism’s fighting a losing battle against creeping homogenisation.
BRENDAN: I don’t think that applies in Scotland, Jim. The way I see it, it’s not remotely about Scotsmen wanting to wear kilts and wave the Saltire. It is less a quest for nationalism here and more a desire to be separated from an Old-Etonian-dominated Westminster rule.
JIM: We may well achieve that but I still think that Scotland and England, too, come to that, will all be swallowed up eventually in the “one tongue” the Bible talks about in Genesis. Assuming we don’t blow ourselves up or do something else daft that wipes us off the face of the planet before that happens. Whether that tongue will be international English or Nadsat or Newspeak who knows?
What about dialect though? Although I’m a Scot—I was born in Glasgow and have lived all my life in Scotland—I don’t have even a slight Scottish accent and yet I still find the need to write in dialect on occasion. It can make life hard for our readers—I remember the first time I sat down to read A Clockwork Orange with my finger wedged in the glossary at the back—but I think a lot is lost ‘in translation’ if you like when the rough edges are smoothed out for a global audience.
BRENDAN: I believe firmly that in any story or novel the dialogue of a Scots person speaking in dialect should be represented that way—not just a wee bit, not half-and-half, but exactly, warts and all. And I encourage that approach in the stories submitted to McStorytellers. In my latest novel, The Burrymen War, every single piece of dialogue is written in dialect, swearwords included, because that’s how the characters actually speak and curse. If that puts people off reading the novel, well, too bad.
JIM: We’re both clearly fans of McIlvanney but when I reread Laidlaw a wee while back I felt he pulled his punches when it came to how Glaswegian his characters were unlike Irvine Welsh who tends to go a bit too far the other way; I struggle to read him and I’ve lived all my life here. My main reason for choosing to write in dialect is because of the effect Tom Leonard had on me with ‘The Six O’clock News’; that poem bowled me over the first time I read it and it still impresses. The truth doesn’t have an accent or to put it another way the truth doesn’t care about accents. There’s a nice video of the poem over on the BBC website which I think’s just wonderful considering the subject matter. Do you know the poem?
BRENDAN: I do, Jim, and it really does convey everything I feel about dialect, except much more pithily.
JIM: McStorytellers concentrates on the short story format. I was looking at an article in The Guardian where Rachel Cooke wrote, “In the Fifties, John Updike was able to keep his family by selling just six short stories a year.” Reminded me of the mother in The Railway Children: “Whenever an Editor was sensible there were buns for tea”. Things have certainly declined since then. I know a lot of writers view short stories as a stepping stone to bigger things and mainstream publishers certainly shy away from writers who focus on the shorter forms although the short story is far from dead. Was there a reason you felt it needed a leg up or, like me, do you think the short story might have found its true home here online?
BRENDAN: McStorytellers was born out of my own love for the short story form. I agree that through sites like McStorytellers the web provides a natural home for short stories. However, I think the epublishing revolution has also given short stories a considerable boost, with a growing number of writers, including me, finding it very easy to publish collections of their work. The collections may not sell, but they are there for posterity!
JIM: I’d hate to see Posterity’s to-read shelf. I actually came late to the short story. I wrote nothing bar poetry for the first twenty years, then I wrote two novels back to back, had a break, started a third, got stuck and then very much out of the blue sat down and wrote about forty of the buggers and I’ve only written the occasional bit of flash since. I’m a poet at heart. If I never wrote another sentence in prose it wouldn’t kill me but I’d be lost if I couldn’t still write the odd poem.
Moving on. The Edinburgh Festival—or really these days we should say ‘festivals’—are on their way again and for the second year there’s an eBook festival. How involved are you with the Edinburgh eBook Festival?
BRENDAN: The Edinburgh eBook Festival is the brainchild of Cally Phillips, who manages the whole operation virtually single-handedly. It was launched last year to much acclaim. The 2013 event promises to be bigger and even more successful. As in 2012, McStorytellers will be hosting the daily Short Story slot at the Festival. Each morning, it will showcase one of a dozen stories that have been submitted to the site as part of its “Being Scots” competition. Then an anthology of all 12 stories is planned. It will be the third McStorytellers anthology, by the way.
JIM: What about Scottish poetry? Any plans for a McVersifiers?
BRENDAN: Not my scene at all, Jim, I’m afraid. Maybe some other brave soul can take that one on. Maybe they already have!
JIM: I don’t know of any site that focuses solely on Scottish poetry although there are a number of Scottish-based webzines out there. I would rather my poems appeared wherever. I think just as a site like McVoices can attract readers there’s also the danger that it will put people off, people who think we wander round in kilts all day shooting at wild haggises.
I know a lot of writers don’t like talking much about their current projects but what does the immediate future hold for you writing-wise?
BRENDAN: I do have another novel planned, Jim, which I don’t mind talking about. I feel it’s about time I drew on my escapades in business to get a story out there. It will be called The Percentages Men. I hope it will do for the market research business in the UK what Mad Men has done for the advertising industry in the USA. Yeah, well, that’s the dream, anyway. The only thing is I need some space to get on and write the thing—space away from McStorytellers and McVoices and all the other McStuff going on. Maybe I’ll emigrate to England. Aye, right.
Brendan is the author of three novels, three biographies and six short story collections. You can see the full list on his Amazon Page here. If you want to sample some of his short stories then click here and scroll down a bit. There’re about thirty to pick from.