Full text of an interview published in The Herald, January 2008
Can you describe your background, and upbringing, for me?
I first saw the light of day in a nursing-home on the South Side of Glasgow. My father was in advertising. (I've noticed this has become a trendy 'father's occupation' for American writers. It's a word job: choosing the minimum number to create the maximum effect.) My mother had worked at The Herald; her father had been a War writer on the same newspaper, and Financial Editor of a rival publication.
My parents were living on the new frontier, in East Kilbride, and that was where I grew up till was 12. In the early 1950s the New Towns were exciting places to be. The population was a commendably democratic Scottish mix: overspill glad of a new start and also young idealistic professionals beginning their careers, medics and scientists and so on.
I always thought of ourselves as modern people. We had white walls when it was still rare, and sleek Scandinavian furniture. What I wanted to be was an architect. I saw the Coia Practice buildings every day (re-discovered brick, exciting concrete); and I read everything I could lay my hands on about Oscar Niemeyer's shiny dream city in the jungle, Brasilia. (Now, apparently, Brasilia is a tarnished version of its not so old self, reverting to wilderness.)
When I was 9 I started school in Glasgow. An all-boys' institution, quite traditional. Three years of teaching by redoubtable spinsters, who inculcated notions of public service and self-discipline (which occasionally developed into smugness in some), before we were handed over to the senior school. My class was always one-quarter Jewish. [The elderly rabbi seemed to be under the impression that I was one of his: 'So, why aren't you at shul?'] While others were digging the Stones and the Doors, I was listening to 'Funny Girl' on Saturday afternoons in Giffnock.
Was your family what you'd call bookish?
Plenty of newsprint anyway! But we always had lots of books about the house. They were for reading, not for show. (I'm mystified when I'm in houses and you may see a tidy pile of magazines but no books or very few. Books surely equate with curiosity about the world.)
I've seen journalist Craig Brown refer to 'Look and Learn' - do others remember? - it was a weekly magazine which, just as the title said, was about studying the world and learning about it. (I've noticed how, on 'University Challenge', I fare quite well with the picture-round questions - it must have been an aid to visual memory.) I read that for years, from the first ussue. I need to deal with information in a static form like that - for me, the computer screen encourages you to be too restless, never settling for long enough in one place.
I bought paperback Puffins with my pocket money. No, I wasn't reading Dostoievsky at 10: Rosemary Sutcliff, Arthur Ransome, a good historical novelist called Cynthia Harnett, the French adventure writer Paul Berna. E Nesbit too - but the stories of children in those curiously dysfunctional Edwardian families of hers, on the dusty outskirts of London: not the Amulet books, because I lacked then and I lack now the fantasy gene.
When did you first have an inkling that you might become a writer?
Funnily enough the first stories I ever wrote, two of them, appeared in The Herald when I was 17. I don't remember ever thinking, that was what I wanted to do. As I've said, I really wanted to be an architect; and while I could do page after page of line drawings of buildings, I couldn't do 'conventional' school art to save my life. I suppose it was reading a writer like Susan Hill which enthused me for trying my hand. After that it became an available means of self-expression. I was a little put off by the reactions of people who read the Herald stories: not that they didn't care for them (or they didn't say so to my face), but that they presumed I must have based it on 'life' (the tedious answer is that you don't, you MAKE IT UP) and how peculiar and perverse to turn your mind inside-out like that and make it all public. On the other hand, my parents have always been entirely supportive of me doing whatever it was I chose to do with my life.
You have lived most of your life in Glasgow, yet, as your Carnbeg stories, and other fiction, shows, you are particularly drawn to small town life. What is the fascination?
I'm irredeemably urban, I suspect. But what smaller communities do in a writing sense is concentrate actions and motives: a case of living under a bell-jar, where everything is magnified. Not necessarily to the individual's benefit. I lived for a couple of years in a picture-postcard town in Dorset, which was a quite different place beneath its appealing surface: what those living there couldn't discover about you, they simply invented. It was clear that those who didn't fit in, who didn't subscribe to that modus vivendi, would be 'eased out'.
Carnbeg is a small town, yes, but it's also a resort town: it's a place where some take holidays, and others pass through. It has become home to incomers. For me it's a venue allowing me to write about the locals, but also about the city types - and more to the point, suburban folk (the forgotten majority in Scottish arts life) - who show up here, for their myriad reasons.
Some have commented that you do not fit into the hard-boiled or rough school of modern Scottish fiction, especially Glasgow-born fiction. Has this implicit criticism in any way hampered you as a writer, or do you feel liberated at not being pigeonholed?
It bothered me at first - irritated me, that is. I felt I was being told that the characters I was writing about were less real than other writers', and by implication I was a bit less real too. Aren't all lives equally valid, though? Busy journalists get lazy, and go for the easy caricature option - so that the misapprehensions were self-perpetuating.
But psychiatrist Anthony Storr has written about the strength of the Ego in 'creative' sorts, and I just persevered. (Unless you're a Buddhist, you have to accept you've only got one life: so get on with it!) It was really a 1980s problem, and lasting some way into the 1990s. There were a handful of arbiters deciding who was in and who was out, who among us wrote - ahem - 'vital' books and those who didn't. But minds have opened up since then. (Or I hope they have. I do worry about any putative Scottish Academy, and the criteria for elevation to that pantheon.)
You can only write out of your own experience - so that what results must be your own unique take on life and no one else's.
So, 'liberated' finally, not 'hampered'!
What writers have influenced the way you write or see the world?
Simenon has a wonderful grasp of human psychology. He's the Master. He's forensic in his clarity, his lack of sentiment. (Sentimentality is the awful Scottish flaw, to be resisted at all costs.)
In terms of how one sees the world, a very few writers come to mind: Borges (life as a kind of circular daydream), Virginia Woolf and Colette for the way that feelings become all and forging a vocabulary to describe them.
Susan Hill, long ago, seemed to be thinking my thoughts fractionally ahead of me thinking them. She was able to inject into ordinary situations a miasma of menace - while writing simply and straightforwardly, as if nothing were wrong.. Daphne du Maurier had that same uncanny ability to be writing out your might dreams for you, locating fears and anxieties that lie just beneath the level of consciousness in us all.
I'm happy to write visual prose, which puts moving pictures in front of you. I think I owe as much to auteur film-makers as to writers - the ones I first went to see at the old Cosmo Cinema in Rose Street, Truffaut and Bergman and Antonioni - and to those peerless photographers who congregated in Paris after WW2, the great humanists, like Kertesz and Ronis and Brassai and Izis.
Borges apart, those have all been European sensibilities. (Perhaps, even in Buenos Aires, Borges's was also.)
The older I get, the more I admire the lighter touch - and the subtle, sometimes quite introverted humour of certain writers affiliated to the New Yorker: Thurber, Bemelmans, Perelman, E B White too. A generation or so later followed Garrison Keillor. And, after him, David Sedaris.
I don't consciously imitate anyone in how I write - I hope not anyway. I'm really a story-teller, I deal in narrative, so while I try to be literate I'm not taken up with finding arresting comparisons or startling images or using words which will send readers to the dictionary. The WHAT of the writing means more to me than the HOW. Too often, I feel, style in fiction wins out over substance. Writing for radio, where you have to immediately engage and then go on holding the attention of your listener, is a fine discipline. (Keillor is proof of that.)
A lot of fiction strikes me as very programmed. I prefer to make it seem that my stories were floating about in the ether anyway, and that I just happened to be the person who got to them first and wrote them down. Or another way of saying the same thing - stories should seem to have written themselves, and the author's role in it all is invisible.
The relatively recent past seems to infuse your work and your imagination. What is it about the past, and its connection to us, that piques your interest?
I write about the past because I'm interested in how people see their own histories. Do they colour it a bit? - - do they choose to go into denial? - or do they accept it, the bad as well as the good? For that reason, I'm working with and within the span of memory. That might take me back to the 1920s, but usually it's some period closer to now.
Time adds texture. I was born in 1953. It fascinates me to look at photographs of a time when I was alive, but which I was just too young to remember. What I do recall are sounds and smells. I have a no better than average memory for so-called important things, and a developed memory for what you might think is trivia. Women sounded different in those days, for instance - the persistent clack of heels on pavements, the sibilants of shiny materials and nylons: all that. Writing is about creating atmosphere, evoking a mood through an accretion of throwaway details. (Say, the soot and smoke in Glasgow, even in the mid-60s. The blackness of the buildings, so that from the height of a 10 year old the city-centre resembled Gotham City of the Batman films.) Simenon was a master of it - just look at how economically he sketches in the weather of the day, and that sets a mood, and seems to affect the actions of the characters he's writing about.
Scottish male writers are, of course, not meant to admit to these sensual impulses.
A psychiatrist would have to explain the need to order the world in this fashion, which was in me when I was sitting up in a pram observing the flux of activity going on around me.
Are you nostalgic for the past?
No, I don't hanker for the past. If I'm nostalgic for anything, it's for a state of affairs before mobile phones - and phones with built-in cameras - ruined the writer's opportunity to make characters mysterious! I like mine to retain a degree of enigma - so that even I don't know everything there is to know about them; they should have the capacity to surprise us.
How and where and when do you work?
I write in longhand. If I write quickly, what results is very hard even for me to decipher after three days, so I do try to type it on to my laptop. I don't care about the kind of paper or notebook, or if I'm having to use a stub of pencil: anything will do. I can correct on a computer screen. (Unlike most writers, I find I write shorter rather than longer on screen: the delete button is very handy.) But I THINK more comfortably writing on to paper.
If writing's going well, nothing will distract you: the house could be falling down and you wouldn't notice. I've always enjoyed working in cafes, although it requires the right conditions: people not too near you, not too loud - unless there are so many that all the chatter cancels out. I drink too much tea. W H Auden drank at least 2 dozen mugs a day: I'm not quite up to that. My tastes have become commoner with age: I used to go for more rarefied blends, the Formosa Oolongs and and Keemuns, but now absolutely any concoction will suffice. Organic, however, does tend to leave me a bit calmer.
I feel that some writers don't have a great regard for their characters, and probably don't like people very much. There does seem to be a high proportion of divas (of all sexes) floating round book festivals. People are endlessly interesting, even the ones who have acquired social masks (what are they hiding?). You have to get out there and study them - on public transport, I would suggest. I never did have the taxi mentality - in true presbyterian fashion, they were for in extremis - so that sort of social apartheid I've noticed in other writers (it equates with self-importance) I have no tine for. That prejudice aside, I hope I have a decent respect for 'people'. Those with the most to offer a writer as subjects are often the ones who do without the trappings of 'success', and go out on a limb to do what they feel they must.
I think I must be a sympathetic listener. I wouldn't directly use anything I was told - but inevitably that will suggest a scenario you then go about creating in fictional form.
I used to always need the mornings to write. Of late I've been working in the evenings, and on well past midnight. I seem to be closer to my own thoughts now when I'm sitting in a pool of lamplight. I like working to music, which helps shut out other distractions: on the whole something neutral and unobtrusive. Jacques Loussier's jazzed-up Bach or Baroque with his trio is perfect.
One of the things that 'went' with this literary career was my back, so I'm limited as to just how far into the mornings I can keep sitting at my desk chasing inspiration.
What can Herald readers expect from your Carnbeg stories?
I hope they can expect the unexpected. Readers will have entrusted me with their time - something they only have once (an overriding obsession, as you can see) - and the very least I can do in return is try to entertain them. If they feel inclined to go back to the beginning of the story and start again, that would be the supreme compliment.