I’m a lucky auld sod. Over the last year or so I’ve got to interview some of my favourite writers, such as Andrew Collins (see Edinburgh Exchange: An Interview with Andrew Colli…), Rodge Glass (see Edinburgh Exchange: An Interview with Rodge Glass), Alan Bissett (see Some Things Mean More Than Cars and Girls: An Inte…) and Doug Johnstone (see Whisky, Blood and Rock n’ Roll: An Interview with …) and have been able to ask them questions about their writing, but also about wider issues such as the importance, and future, of writing in modern Scottish culture. Some of these thoughts have been rattling around my head for years and to be able to put them to such a range of writers has not only been insightful, but exciting. I can now add to this list Kevin MacNeil, a man who is, in my humble opinion, one of the best writers at work today, both in the form of his poetry and prose.
There is something about the Lewis born and raised MacNeil that sets him apart from other Scottish writers, and it is not simply geographical, although I have a hunch that has something to do with it. It is in his writing. He writes with the care of a poet, with every word considered and deliberate, and that was obvious from his debut novel The Stornoway Way (a review of which you can read here indelible-ink). The result of this is not overcomplicated or unnecessarily showy writing, it feels quite natural. His fiction is subtly layered, and gives further insight with each reading. His most recent novel The Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde was one of the best novels of last year (see Dr Jekyll and Mr MacNeil…) and his forthcoming anthology of Island poetry, The Islands We Sing, is shaping up to be a hugely important publication. Thankfully he took time out from a very busy schedule to indulge me and answer the following questions:
SWH: As a writer from the Isle of Lewis who has also lived and worked in Scotland’s larger cities, it strikes me you are in the unusual position of being both outside and inside the mainstream of contemporary Scottish writing. Do you agree that your background gives you a ‘different’ view on Scottish culture and how do you view the state of Scottish literature currently?
KM: I do. I was born and raised in Lewis, I’ve lived in Edinburgh (twice), Skye (twice), Glasgow (twice), Sweden, Germany, Shetland and I now live (happily) in London. I’ve never been part of a writing clique. I’ve never attended a Writers Group, far less studied towards a Creative Writing qualification. I learned the hard way and, all these years later, I concede that there was merit in this.
When I first started writing seriously, I regretted not having a group of like-minded peers. I began publishing work in literary magazines when I was a student at Edinburgh University and I simply didn’t know anyone at that time who was my approximate age and writing with the uncharacteristic determination and all-or-nothing attitude I had.
I had good friends, some of whom critiqued my work, but I yearned for something like the companionship the Beats had, or at least the positive elements of it – friends discussing the flaws and successes of each other’s latest writings, talking through the practicalities of getting work published, swapping books and ideas, crashing on each other’s floors – that kind of support. I had nothing like that.
Being from an island, this felt somehow inevitable and, with hindsight, almost appropriate. Add to the isolation the fact I was too insecure to do public readings. I had to find my own way, albeit with the occasional enlightening, crucial, never-forgotten chat with Andrew Greig, who was Writer in Residence at Edinburgh University at the time. He mentored me through my early attempts at writing. The first time he read my work – I wrote poetry exclusively at the time – he said: ‘Kevin, these poems are an intriguing combination of real, original talent and cloudy nothingness.’ I still smile at that piercing, humbling, beneficial praise-within-limits; it’s very Scottish – encouraging, but not overly so. I had a lot to learn and Andrew knew it and I knew it. He understood instinctively that I wanted tough and honest criticism, not the ego-friendly sort.
I was practising zazen, zen meditation, regularly. I gained immensely from Andrew’s diamond-sharp wisdom. His office was on the 8th floor of the David Hume Tower in George Square. A number of years later I would find myself occupying an office there, teaching on the Edinburgh University Creative Writing Masters. I’d come full circle, karma-like.
So – yes, I’ve always felt both inside and outside the mainstream of Scottish literary culture – part of it, but also very much separate from it.
Nowadays I live in London, but I always have an eye trained on the North.
SWH: While your fiction is distinctly individual, there are aspects that you share with other Scottish writers. I’m thinking particularly of the prominence of the ‘damaged individual’ in Scottish literature. Both ‘The Stornoway Way’ and ‘A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde’ have protagonists who could be described this way. Why do you think Scottish writers, and readers, are drawn to such characters?
KM: In most literary contexts the damaged individual makes for an inherently fascinating protagonist – partly because we are, all of us, damaged. Damage is part of the human condition. This is not just about fallibility and existential doubt. We are born into fragmentation. We’re fallible, and that’s how it is. What then can we do about it? We can explore what it means and, as I’m increasingly inclined to think, we can offer positive ideas on how to improve our situation.
There are solid historical reasons as to why characters from my part of the world might feel culturally slighted – and this certainly has a psychological effect on the remotely engaged individual in society – but wallowing in the past offers little in the way of active solution.
In terms of the traditional Scottish method males use to deal with their sense of damage, this was something I wrote about in The Stornoway Way. In some cultures, people will take out their most enduring frustrations on others, ie externally, whether through ugly violence or fear-mongering or some other kind of demonstration. In the Highlands, men tend to repress or at least internalise their problems and subsequently they will try to ‘escape’ the problems by anaesthetising themselves through, for example, alcohol. Which, being a poisonous depressant, is more likely to exacerbate than extinguish a problem. I wanted to show in The Stornoway Way how this attempt to resolve such damage only leads to a dead end.
In A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde I accepted that the problem of damage is a larger, more existential issue and thus I had to address it at root level. The notion of damage stems from the fact that we cannot be continuously happy in ourselves when the self is so fluid, so inconsistent. This very dynamism in our nature – the fact that we are always changing in reaction to our ever-evolving circumstances – is useful for writers as it allows for meaningful character development. But if we are honest with ourselves – as novelists must be, for all that they tell lies for a living – human life is marked by transience, dissatisfaction and frustration. We are born into this without knowing why.
As science and your own experience frequently demonstrate, there is no such thing as a fixed, unchanging self. You are in flux, changing physically and mentally. All the while your body is ageing. And you are now experiencing this very moment for what is (self-evidently) the first time.
I’m now turning my thoughts to how we can reconcile ourselves to these apparent problems and repair that sense of damage within a literary, but practical, context.
SWH: In both of your novels there are surprising, and quite brilliant, endings. The final section of ‘A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde’ in particular had me reading the book over again to see if I could pick up clues as to what was to come. When you write a novel, or even a short story, do you have an ending in mind? Or do you start at the beginning with no idea of your destination?
KM: Both novels had clear premises, which lead quite naturally to the conclusions they contain. I did have endings in mind when I started writing the novels. I feel more secure if I know where I’m going to end up when I start writing a story – this is especially true when embarking on a novel.
I plan my novels like going for a long bike ride. I have a decent map, I’ve trained hard, I’ve packed well and I know I might get lost or make a few detours as circumstances necessitate, but ultimately I know where I’m heading. The challenge, and fun of it, is getting there in one piece.
I seeded many ‘clues’, images, phrases and ideas in Method Actor. It’s a novel full of echoes and allusions – to itself and to Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. (Incidentally, whereas the premise of Stevenson’s story is that man is not one, but two, my premise in A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll & Hyde is one of interconnectedness, of interbeing; we are all not two, but one. Overarching duality and multiplicity is unity.) Perhaps because I began my writing life as a poet, I like the idea of embedding subtleties so that readers will feel compelled to read the novel (at least) twice – and find fresh insights on each reading. As Borges said, ‘I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves.’ I wanted to write the kind of novel that repays re-reading.
SWH: Could you talk about the forthcoming anthology of Island poetry ‘The Island’s We Sing’?
KM: I’m very excited about These Islands, We Sing. Despite the fact that the Scottish islands have produced, by anyone’s standards, an inordinate amount of high quality poetry, there has never been an anthology with a remit wide enough to include poetry from any of the Scottish islands but exclusive enough not to encompass writing from the Mainland or from writers who merely made fleeting visits to the islands. This anthology – of 20th and 21st century poetry from the Scottish islands – is extraordinarily strong.
These Islands, We Sing features writing from the major twentieth century figures such as George Mackay Brown, Sorley MacLean, Iain Crichton Smith, Hugh MacDiarmid and the great contemporary poets such as Jen Hadfield, Anna Frater, Alex Cluness and Christine de Luca. The overall quality is ridiculously high – the book could have been as long as a shelf if that were in any way practicable! It’s intriguing to reflect on the similar yet different experiences of poets on different islands, indigenous and incomer alike. Publication of the book ties in with the Year of Scottish Island Culture and I think it’s fair to say that the poetic contribution the Scottish islands have offered Scottish and European culture has been disproportionately great and disproportionately overlooked. Editing the book was hard work, but it was an absolute joy – there are so many thrilling poems in there.
SWH: Literature from the Highlands and Islands, whether in Gaelic, Scots or English, is finally getting critical and academic recognition. Do you have any thoughts as to why this is, and is there still a way to go before such recognition is a fair reflection of the literature of the area?
KM: Does literature from the Highlands receive, or has it ever received, sufficient critical and academic recognition? Perhaps not. A prophet without honour, et cetera. I’m actively trying to do something about this issue – editing books such as These Islands, We Sing, editing the two large Iain Crichton Smith volumes Birlinn published a few years ago, teaching writing workshops in the Gàidhealtachd, writing my own books, reading work by other Highlands and Islands writers when I’m asked to read at festivals, writing occasional critical features for newspapers, and so on. There is a long way to go yet and we must guard against parochialism or tokenism. It’s a fight worth fighting.
SWH: Finally, could you talk a little about your play ‘Sweetness’ and other current projects?
KM: Sweetness is a play I adapted from a novel (Hummelhonung) by the wonderful, innovative Swedish writer Torgny Lindgren – who is rightly revered in his home nation but is less well-known elsewhere. I wanted to raise his profile in Scotland by writing a play based around his dark and funny and profound book; his novel sizzles with a vibrant humour; and this humour is always tied to ideas about real life, especially life as it is lived in ‘marginal’ places, where everything can seem simple but is actually intensified and magnified. It’s in the neglected margins that the most central truths often occur; they’re just not widely recognised as such, for self-evident reasons.
Doesn’t make them any less true, though.
The plot, which is well suited to a Scottish audience, develops in delightfully dark and unexpected ways, teasing and entertaining and surprising as it goes. There is profundity beneath the morbidity and the hilarity; the triumph of the story is that the journey through sadness and death and truth and fate and memory is a journey of beauty and resonance. I love Swedish literature.
As for my own work, I’m currently writing a new novel, which is very different to anything else I’ve written to date…
Scots Whay Hae! and Kevin MacNeil 10/5/2011
I always like to leave you with a little extra so here is a little music for you. This is a clip of Kevin with ex Astrid and Reindeer Section musician Willie Campbell at Belladrum in 2009 with Optimist Dies in a Half Run Bath: