- Alistair Braidwood
Talking Malls: An Interview with Ewan Morrison…
Despite such preconceptions Morrison is concerned with relationships rather than with any desire to titillate. He writes with an honesty about human communication and psychology that many of his male contemporaries find hard to manage. Just think how many modern Scottish novels there are which concern protagonists who are either isolated individuals or same sex ensembles, usually male, unless you are Alan Warner. Many of those are among my favourite novels, but there is a sense that boys stay in one corner while the girls are in the other. If there is sex in these novels it is often there to laugh at, or to belittle or humiliate, at least one of the characters involved. Often in Scottish fiction sex is used as a weapon, and a violent, destructive one at that, but for Morrison it is just one aspect, if an important and fascinating one, of what binds individuals who come together. This is not exploitation it’s exploration.
Morrison’s latest project is Tales from the Mall, which comes out next year with Cargo Publishing in every form available, and what I had read of it intrigued me so I asked him if he would answer a few questions. What follows is one of the most interesting interviews about the future of the writer and publishing that I have read in years:
SWH: Could you tell us about your project Tales from the Mall?
EM: Tales from the Mall, will, next year, be released as an interactive enhanced ebook and app. It has nine short stories by myself (all named after retail outlets – Gap, Borders etc), and about twenty anecdotes and confessions, told to me by mall staff in the many malls I visited in Scotland and retold by myself. It also has factual history sections on the growth and demise of shopping malls globally and about how they work. Tales from the Mall also includes short films made by myself, colour collage images and audio. It’s a book of fragments and is an attempt to do something a bit like Walter Benjamin’s study of The Parisien Arcades – the foreparents of the mall – in his incomplete opus The Arcades Project. Of course Benjamin wasn’t a writer of fiction, but a sociologist and a philosopher, but what he advocated in his writings was an abandonment of ‘the novel’ and a return to the ‘folk tale’. Tales from the Mall is an attempt to tell the folk tales of the malls in my country ( what might seem an ironic proposition as many believe that malls are destroying our indigenous culture). As such the way I write had to change, I’ve become more of a listener, than a maker. This shift feels important to me, the times we live in don’t need any more makers; there’s already too much a clamour of the me, me me – listening and recording feels more urgent. The stories I authored myself, were more about listening to reality than imposing a style that I could call ‘me’.
Previously, I’d been increasingly including factual elements in my novels – Menage had around thirty-five pages of ‘historical analysis’ and I was developing a dissatisfaction with the limits of ‘the novel – its ability to comment politically on the present. As a recent example of this I think Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is a terrible failure that really shows up the limits of the novel, a lot of which stem from its history, its model. All of the political points Franzen tries to make in the novel, have had to be filtered through the characters, so they become rants or preachy speeches, mere dialogue; at best they are structural problems that characters have to deal with, but the novel does not sustain this. Freedom is ultimately a study of some American characters who did some interesting things in their otherwise generic American lives. We are asked to either like or dislike them and we filter the politics and sociology through our empathy with them and the minutiae of their limited choices- they seem blind to their own times and the author cannot fill in the gaps to tell us why, because the characters keep getting in the way. It is a hugely ambitious novel that is also the end of that kind of novel in its towering failure. The contemporary novel just cannot achieve what non-fiction can achieve in giving us analysis and insight into our time. I site here, Dave Eggers abandonment of the novel in terms of the documentary books Zeitounand What is the What. And Also David Foster Wallace’s challenge to the novel in his essay E Unibus Plurum, urging for a more insightful and honest depiction of our present day and its politics. Foster Wallace and Franzen were buddies and I see Foster Wallace’s suicide and Franzen’s failure in Freedom, as testament to the abandonment of the challenge that they set themselves.
The above were all texts and ideas that I was worrying over as I wrote Tales from the Mall. I had, at the time, been more thrilled by the essays of Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton and wanted to do a really in depth research into what had previously for me been only a vague abstract background to my writing – namely consumerism. I was also frustrated that so few writers were willing to tackle consumerism head on. There being a notion that it was the terrain of the vulgar masses and not the subject for ‘high’ literature. I grew up among the vulgar masses and was also troubled that the city I live in Glasgow, has passed from being a post industrial city, towards having the seventh biggest retail avenue in the world – Buchanan Street. And this seemed also to have gone undocumented, perhaps because writers did not like that turn of historical events, the ideological conquest that it represents.
So I set off to find out about how consumerism worked in Glasgow (as a microcosm of the new Global economy), by doing interviews with shop workers, mall workers and consumers. In the back of my mind was this troubling and quite fatalistic quotation by Jeanette Winterston: ‘How many exciting novels could be written about the sort of lives that most of us lead these days, anyway?’ In a way, she was right, novels are about epic journeys, the fight between good and evil over decades, the struggle within an individual – and consumerism in this light is just banal; as consumers we are barley even given the tools we require to be individuals. Consumerism doesn’t give us the material for novels or the material, hopes and long term goals to lead lives that are worthy of writing novels about.
But still, consumerism must be the most important subject in the world. After 9/11, George Bush said ‘Do your duty as American’s – go out and shop.’ I thought, well to hell with the novel then, lets see how life is really lived in the mall and if there are any wee stories worth telling within it. To my joy I found that there were many short stories of short struggles between individuals and the corporations that increasingly govern us. As one of the characters says in one of the stories ‘That’s my day at work, it’s no fuckin’ War and Peace, but that’s that.’
SWH: Tales from the Mall sees you return to the short story form. What are your thoughts on the merits of that as a form of writing and how it is received?
EM: I started out my life as a writer of short stories with The Last Book You Read and Other Stories back in 2004, and the form was a really joyous discovery for me after struggling for years to get feature films and TV projects off the ground – always coming up against the same barrier with commissioning editors – that my writing was too dark or sociological or sexual or sceptical or not mainstream enough – could I just not lighten up and maybe adapt my self to the needs of a mass audience? Those kinds of comments. I really dropped out at that point and religiously studied every story by Raymond Carver, and also the collection Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips. These books were revelatory and beautiful, and simple. The ethos of the short story, with Carver and Philips, as I saw it, was that you could have a flash of a moment, of true feeling and true expression, without worrying about fitting it into a larger narrative, whether this be the proscribed structural needs of the novel, or the much greater narrative that surrounds us all – of having a life story, a life project – to be a novelist, or a baker or a dentist or a CEO. I could write without worrying where it would lead ‘career wise’. And that was very freeing for me. As a result that first collection of stories is something I go back to again and again. I can’t bear the way that much of it is written in many of the stories, but I look at it and say ‘how free I was then’. It also hit a nerve with people and when I get an email out of the blue or someone comes up to me and asks me about a story I have to apologise and say ‘I’m sorry that was then, uhhm, I really don’t know what to say about those stories now.’ But I am glad that they touched people.
It really annoys me though – the lowly status of the short story in the minds of publishers – they don’t sell as much as novels etc, etc. Can’t you write a novel on the same themes instead? etc, etc. I’ve been asked this a few times. But I would say that many of the most powerful writers in the 20thcentury have created their best work in the form of the short story and the novella. I sometime pick up Heart of Darkness or The Outsider or The Fall and think – Christ, only a hundred pages but what an impact that had on the world. The case of Camus is crucial. I picked up The Rebel last year and was stunned to find that, within it, there was a prediction of, and a justification for, suicide bombing. Little more than a hundred pages, written in 1951.
I’ve really studied the short stories of Lorrie Moore over the last three years and You are Not a Stranger Here, by Adam Haslett (Pulitzer Prize Finalist) was also a revelation. It’s embarrassing but I keep having revelations with short stories and the same cannot be said for novels. In the long run, with the changes in digital publishing, I think things will swing in favour of the short story, over the novel.
SWH: The interactive aspect of Tales from the Mall is striking, with links to videos on your own YouTube channel, instructions how to use, and indeed abuse, a mall and, as part of the (G)host City series of audio recordings in Edinburgh during the Festival, you can download your story ‘Gravity Guy’. Do you see such interaction as important in the future of publishing, or is just something that you are interested in?
EM: I see interaction as the promise of dialogue and debate and not as virtual gadget waving. A lot of digital technology empties the content of what we take in, it just becomes the thrill of connection. Increasingly superficial. Jean Baudrillard was right twenty years ago – ‘Communication for communications sake becomes the empty form with which technology seduces itself.’
Having said that I have these skills from working a decade in Arts TV, making TV programmes on Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, AL Kennedy – sometimes making dramatic adaptations of their readings for the TV, and it came to me that I could do the same for my own writing, give it a go at least. So I stared making short films, and this tied in very nicely with the stories I was hearing in my mall research. Rena the Cleaner is one that people seem to like and it was true story from a mall in Glasgow. I’ve ended up with about ten short films now, and some animations, and I still have more to do. I thought that including the films and the research in the ebook would make it feel more alive, like you were reading and watching my thinking and learning over a period of time.
I’m bringing Tales from the Mall out in late Spring 2012 with Glasgow based publisher Cargo. I’ve been impressed by their ability to combine digital ebook innovation with promoting the work of indigenous Scottish writers. From early this year till the end of next year Cargo will have brought out two major texts which other publishers may have not have seen the value in the groundbreaking Moira Monologues by Alan Bissett (from his play) and the collected essays of Tom Leonard. This is an important, perhaps the most important thing that a Scottish publisher can do just now – to connect the generations and create dialogue between them. This is ‘interaction’. I feel there is a tendency among the older generation of Scottish writers, Kelman, Galloway, Gray to view the emerging generation as depoliticised, as a kind of threat to what they have achieved – indeed we have grown up under Thatcherism, privatisation and the legacy of every-man-for-himself and sometimes us younger writers do look like little entrepreneurs with nothing to join us other than personal ambition – but I hope and believe that connections, such as Cargo have made with Leonard will pave the way for a real debate about the politics of Scottish literature and actually get the generations talking to each other. We are ultimately in the same boat and I’m happy to say that the new generation is becoming increasingly politicised and drawing connections with the past. There are other moves afoot that are furthering this end, like Neu Reekie and the work of Kevin Williamson and Bella Caledonia and also Gutter Magazine in Glasgow. Interaction in Scottish literature would be for all of us writers to talk and fight and write damning and offensive letters to each other like we used to in Chapman and Edinburgh Review, rather than all sitting at our solitary screens, clicking away.
SWH: Following on from this, you appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival on the 20thof August as part of The Guardian Debate entitled ‘The End of Books’ . Can you give a brief recap for those of us who couldn’t be there as to your thoughts on the matter? It’s a fascinating and evocative debate.
EM: In short I think that what we have known so far as publishing has around twenty-five years to continue it’s existence and epublishing and digital ‘interaction’ will bring this about and to and end. Mainstream publishing will die out when the baby boomers do, taking the paper book and probably the novel with it, at least the literary novel. I didn’t realise this until I was asked to do the Guardian speech – on a subject no writer would want to believe in, let alone be the person chosen to represent the negative side of the argument. The facts though, after a month of research piled up and the future trajectory of the book became clear to me. In a simple sense it will take a superhuman inter-generational effort to stop books going the same way as MP3s, and Quicktime movies. i.e in the future all these things will become free digital ‘content’. And writers need to be paid. The future of publishing is already here, the old mainstream is quickly shrinking; bestsellers include an novelisation of the computer game Assassin’s Creed and the works of James Paterson, written by committee. Just check your local Asda. Writers in the future will have to work in the garret, we’ll return to the 19thcentury. In fact, I would advocate that writers go even further back to before the printing press and make handcrafted editions of a 100 and sell them to the art market for prices like that commanded by Damien Hirst. Either that or try to get a tie-in with a computer game.
SWH: Your novels, Swung, Distance and Ménage, seem to me to be books which are ripe for big screen adaptation. They remind me of some of my favourite ‘romantic’ films which are often about unconventional relationships that turn out to be heartbreakingly poignant. I’m thinking Harold and Maude, Secretary or Sex, Lies and Videotape. Have you been approached to have anyone adapt one or more of your novels? And do you think that these are legitimate comparisons?
EM: I’m flattered to hear that as all three of these films have a big influence on me. In fact Menage is really Sex Lies and Videotape revisited. I remember weeping my head off when I saw that film. It looks really staged now and self consciously postmodern. That’s something I’ve had to struggle against in my own writing. But yeah, oddball characters who try to make something of themselves in a world of prescribed values that they pretty much despise and which they have to ultimately accommodate themselves to – pretty much sums up all that I’m about – both in terms of the themes of my books and my own goddamn life. Thanks a bunch for exposing that!
The good news is that I’m working with Scottish director David Mackenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe, Perfect Sense, You Instead) and we’re close to the final draft on Swung– the movie with his company Sigma films. We had a go at the script three years ago and it floundered but I’ve learned a lot about script writing since then and judging by the recent response we seem to be on the right track. We’re close to the point where the project has a life of it’s own, beyond me, and I really look forward to that. It will be really strange and wonderful to see this story about dysfunctional Scottish slackers trying to find themselves through swinging amongst the canon of Gregory’s Girland Whisky Galore, but in a way they explore similar themes. Swung is really just a comedy of manners about life in Glasgow in the age of the internet.
SWH: Finally, what are you up to next?
EM: Right now I’m polishing up my next novel, which will be out with Jonathan Cape in July 2012. It took many years to write and I’m not sure if the industry will still be there to support me (or anyone else for that matter) writing something like this again. Close Your Eyes is about a woman who, as a child, grew up in a hippy commune in the highlands in the 70s. I was the child of hippies but the book is based on three years of research that I did (on and off) by living in and visiting communes in the UK and Europe. The history of the highland commune is intercut with the story, in the present, about the protagonist’s search for her mother who vanished in 1982, and her inability to be a mother in the here and now. Like Tales from the Mall, it mixes fiction with social history, but the edges are completely blurred in a dream-like way. I’m indebted to Janice Galloway’s The Trick is To Keep Breathing, Kelman’s How Late it was How Late and Ron Butlin’s The Sound of My Voice, for teaching me how to write in a subjective voice that still has some sociological insight imprinted within it. I think there’s something in that which is particularly Scottish. And indeed, I rarely read an English novel written after Dickens, preferring the Scottish, the Russian and the French (perhaps it is something to do with the Auld Alliance and the revolutionary spirit). The new novel might surprise folk who know my other books as there’s nothing psycho-sexual about it and very little to laugh about. But maybe I am becoming more serious and melancholy as I grow older, maybe, at last, I’m becoming more Scottish, and actually quite proud of it. Scots Whay Hae! and Ewan Morrison 22/08/2011
Here’s a Tale from the Mall for you to satisfy your curiosity:
You can find out more about Tales from the Mall and all things Ewan Morrison by going to ewanmorrison.com His début collection of short stories Last Book You Read and Other Stories, a terrific collection, can now be purchased as an ebook from here LAST-BOOK-YOU-READ-ebook
Here is a short version of his argument from the Guardian debate at the Edinburgh Festival with lots of interesting links are-books-dead-ewan-morrison
All things Cargo can be found at cargopublishing.com