Some Things Mean More Than Cars and Girls: An Interview with Alan Bissett…
As has been discussed regularly on these pages it often appears that great writers arrive in groups, inspiring each other to greater success. This is often idealistic rather than realistic, and is usually to help critics and journalists talk about movements and collectives instead of engaging with an individual writer’s work. Having said that, it doesn’t harm a writer to be seen as part of such a group, certainly the support and inspiration that is to be found in the company of like-minds is not entirely myth, and if such labelling helps writers to get published and read then it would be churlish to over analyse the phenomenon.
However, sometimes the most interesting writers are those who manage to survive and thrive between such times as they tend to be the ones who inspire the next generation. Put simply, if there are only one or two writers to read, then everyone who loves to read is reading them. With that in mind, say hello to Alan Bissett.
Call me hypocritical after the first paragraph, but there does seem to be something in the air at the moment, with novelists and poets finding ways to be read and heard. I have been to more literary events this year than any time since Glasgow was crowned City of Culture in 1990, and more often than not Bissett is either taking part or supporting from the sidelines. He isn’t a man to sit at his desk in the belief that his audience will find him, he goes out spreading the word, and it is this attitude which has inspired writers as much as the fiction itself.
If, as Gorgeous George O’Dowd once claimed, time is a clock of the heart then sometimes it makes your heart sink. Polygon have released a 10 year anniversary edition of Bissett’s debut novel Boyracers, and when my copy popped through the door the only thing I could think off was ‘didn’t I just buy this’ (you can read my thoughts on the novel here indelible-ink-boyracers). Then, in a rare moment of empathy, I thought how must the writer be feeling at this landmark. So I thought I’d ask him. He kindly answered this and so much more. If you’re interested in all the things that Scots Whay Hae! looks at then this interview is essential reading and should send you out to get some Bissett on your bookshelf:
SWH: Your debut novel Boyracers has just had a 10th anniversary release. If the past is a foreign country how did it feel to revisit the Falkirk of Alvin’s, and your own, youth?
AB: It was strange. Not only are you inhabiting writing that’s ten years old, writing you feel you’ve moved on from, but it’s also clear that the thoughts and feelings which created the book belong to a younger man. So 35 year-old me was inhabiting 24 year-old me who was inhabiting 16 year-old me. And this was a world pre-recession, pre-9/11, a more innocent time, as the phrase goes. It was like opening a series of Russian dolls into the history of your own thought. But I was pleased to discover there was a truth and essence at the centre of the book which I think survives pretty well. Teenage readers still enjoy it for a reason.
SWH: I recently read the novel for the first time since its original publication, and what struck me is how confident the writing is in terms of style. Starting sentences with no capitals, having Alvin’s thoughts about his home life interject in the action, or using song lyrics without the need to explain where they are from. It expects, justifiably, a level of knowledge from the reader. When writing, to what extent do you have a readership in mind, and has this changed over the years?
AB: Thank you, but I actually don’t think it is confident in those things. I think like a lot of young people it is merely projecting confidence. Some of the experiments in that book work and some of them don’t (which is why I’ve rewritten it slightly for this edition). The explosion of Scottish literature in the Nineties which made me want to write about my home culture – the likes of James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway, Alasdair Gray, Alan Warner, Ali Smith, Gordon Legge, etc – was one of formal experimentation anyway, so that energy was likely to find its way in. I was conscious of wanting to push this in my own direction, though. I wanted speed and restlessness and flashiness to be the bywords for the writing. Scottish novels, even the best of them, always came over as rather dour and adult, because, quite frankly, everyone tends to be at least in their thirties when they’re first published. I was 24, and so wanted the book to feel like youth itself, with all the quickness, colour, sound and light of it. So the readership I was presuming was one who were familiar with dialect and experimentalism – as these were all the rage at the time – but also who knew what it felt like to be young at the turn of the millenium. Now I don’t presume anything about a readership, I just write what wants to be written in the way it wants to come out. Boyracers was absolutely an attempt to speak to my generation, though.
SWH: Although it is obviously a Scottish novel in terms of place and patter, it has an American feel to it. It reminds me of the novels of S.E. Hinton or an early Bruce Springsteen album. Who, or what, were the influences when writing Boyracers, and how do you view them now?
AB: Yes! Born To Run transposed to a Scottish industrial town is exactly what I wanted it to feel like. I actually made a list of the primary influences at the time in case I was ever asked this. They were: Born to Run, Goodfellas, Gregory’s Girl, Trainspotting, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, Swingers, Spaced, Generation X, No Logo, Catcher in the Rye, American Psycho and American Graffiti. If you stick all of these in a blender out would come Boyracers. Now these strike me as the very obvious influences of a 24 year-old, but you go with what you feel at the time. The very fact that I even wrote down what these influences are is kinda in-keeping with the pop-culture, list-making Tourettes the book displays. I was in that zone.
SWH: What I find refreshing is that your teenagers are not supping Buckie, huffing gas and looking for trouble, a myth which Scottish culture, particularly in film, seems only too willing to perpetuate. Did you feel any pressure to conform to Scottish cultural stereotypes and what do you feel about the portrayal of young adults in Scottish culture?
AB: The portrayal of young adults, whether in film, onstage or in print, barely existed at the time in Scotland. Gregory’s Girl and Douglas Maxwell’s plays were the only things up to that point that had depicted contemporary teenage life, but there were no books. Since then we’ve had Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen and D.C. Jackson’s work for the stage, but there are still no books! And while it’s not that I don’t think poverty should be depicted onscreen – it absolutely should, and I don’t necessarily think that doing so means an artist is resorting to cliché or stereotype – sometimes that kind of material does come to dominate depictions of working-class life. There’s an energy about being a teenager, of whatever background. I did grow up on a housing scheme and while there were obviously kids swilling Buckie and taking drugs (a lot of them actually) me and my friends weren’t. They were just lads who had jobs, liked a drink and the patter, wanted a Rangers game and a shag at the weekend, and communicated in film quotes. So to write anything else would’ve been inauthentic.
SWH: In the Afterword to the revised edition you mention that you re-edited the novel. Why did you feel the need to do this and what did this process change?
AB: Well, basically, I still love vibrancy of the book, but going back to it ten years later I discovered how messy it was. I really didn’t know a lot about craft back then. Some of the experiments with layout and sentence structure were hit and hope. And there were thousands of exclamation marks. Forests of them. Most of them adding nothing, but were a lazy way of saying LOOK AT THIS PROSE! There were also basic errors of plotting and chronology. I realised that by taking a little bit of sandpaper to the sentences I could retain the spirit that the book was created in, but achieve a greater clarity of meaning and make it a smoother reading experience. You’d have to sit down with a copy of each edition and compare things sentence by sentence to notice the difference, and who’s going to do that really? So I figured it was a necessary and safe change to make.
SWH: You also mention that you devoured Scottish literature when at University. How do you view the current state of Scottish writing and how do you see it developing?
AB: Scottish writing is going through an interesting transition period just now. The writers who came through in the boom time of the Eighties and Nineties are international names and have fairly secure careers, but very few younger novelists have achieved their prominence. The reasons for this are as follows: i) By the turn of the millennium novels about the Scottish working-class had become unfashionable in London again; ii) the High Street bookselling culture has changed for the worse, and iii) Scottish Crime fiction has eclipsed everything else.
The last one, of course, is nothing to worry about if you’re a writer or reader of Crime fiction, and we are blessed with some of the finest novelists in that genre in the world. But it does mean that more non-generic, challenging or radical forms have been pushed back into the margins. Who knows, maybe that’s where they have to go to refresh, but no-one wants to be writing in the dark forever.
The demise of independent bookshops, and the dominance of certain chains whose homogenous stock is controlled by the South of England, mean that Scottish writing – unless it’s a saleable brand such as Crime – is seen as being something only for Scots again, so won’t be stocked in the 3/2s in England. So dialect writing? Forget it. Inevitably, this influences the choices which publishers make and the marketing spend they’ll use on Scottish books. This is despite the fact that the likes of Suhayl Saadi and Mark McNay both wrote incredibly powerful and ingenious dialect novels, but the tide of fashion in the Noughties had turned by that point. How can you reduce ethnicity to a fashion! In the Noughties, only James Robertson has managed to carve out a space where he can continue to publish serious, ambitious novels in the Scottish idiom and still be commercially successful. Only one in a whole decade. In the Eighties and Nineties there were dozens. That tells its own story about how capitalism has defeated Scottish literature. I’ve managed to chart a course through, but it’s very hard work and I’ve had to reinvent myself constantly.
However, I can see things changing again. Journals like Valve, Gutter and Fractured West have sprung up, publishing literary fiction. The live literature scene, exemplified by Discombobulate, Words Per Minute and The Golden Hour, is exploding. You go to these things and it’s all people in their twenties, which is hugely encouraging. Cargo, a publishing company run from Glasgow by 23 year-olds who grew up online, are finding innovate ways of getting new work out there, including e-publishing and cross-fertilising with music. Rodge Glass’s The Year of Open Doors anthology, published by Cargo, has been a lightning-rod for this generation. And there are novelists like Sophie Cooke, Ewan Morrison and Kevin MacNeil who are capable of doing even greater work if they’re given the opportunitey to grow. So on the corporate stage, Scottish literature is having a hard time, but at the grassroots level there could be a renaissance afoot.
The stakes are high at the moment. The country is being run by absolute fucking bastards, and Scottish writers, quite frankly, need to put their teeth in.
SWH: My last question is purely to prove, or otherwise, a long held theory. The final words of the novel are ‘YOU ARE NOW LEAVING FALKIRK’. Are these related to the final words in American Psycho, ‘THIS IS NOT AN EXIT’, which is perhaps my favourite ending to any novel?
AB: Yes! It’s my favourite novel of all time. Bret Easton Ellis is all over Boyracers. But it’s an also a nod to the final shot of the film Muriel’s Wedding, fact fans.
Alan Bissett and Scots Whay Hae! 3/5/2011
As a wee extra here is The Rebel On His Own Tonight, the collaboration between Alan and Malcolm Middleton from 2007’s The Ballad of the Books album:
You can buy Alan Bissett’s books from The Birlinn and Polygon Book Shop and Amazon, or you could take a trip to your local bookshop since the sun’s out, and if you’re lucky enough to have one. The Ballad of The Books can still be bought at Scots Whay Hae’s Local Shop