Alasdair Gray's Answers to Several Questionnaires

Questionnaire 1
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Glenda Norquay and Carol Anderson
January, 1983

Cencrastus Edinburgh


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Lanark was hailed as a masterpiece, but you have been writing for some time - could you tell us about your other work, for television, radio etc? And what importance do you see these media having for Scotland?

  I attach a list of plays, libretti and documentaries, all but five of which were originally commissioned or suggested by other people. Though sometimes badly produced I am pleased with them as scripts, and want them published one day. You may borrow them, if you like. Some are extravaganzas, some realistic, some based on historical events. I recognize no particular theme linking them. My male characters are sometimes egotists who bluster and bounce beyond their emotional resources, but they are not fools. Others are self-contained men who inhibit themselves from fear of bounce and bluster. My favourite character is Socrates in The Gadfly who did none of these. I have a line in heroines who are tough-minded without being callous, (I think), and I don't pit them against nonentities. In Agnes Belfrage, Dialogue, The Loss of the Golden Silence, Sam Lang and Miss Watson, the sexual encounter is painful but exhilarating, the parties retreat from each other intact, perhaps having learned something useful. My characters are stoics resigned to loneliness because I think everyone is essentially that. (PS Stoical loneliness is only a tragic state if it has turned callous or hopeless. If it has not, then it is the best foundation for co-operation, and even love, between people of different sexes, classes or cultures.) As to the importance of TV and radio in modern Scotland, the grammar of your question does not make it clear if you ask about the present broadcasting systems, or these systems in a conceivable future. I gather that at present Scottish broadcasting is not imaginative in much of its drama or investigatory in much of its journalism. The best work seems to be in sound documentary - Hamish Wilson's great collage of voices of Clydebank Blitz survivors, Billy Kay's anthologies of voices from Scotland's recent past. Here is evidence that poverty need not make us second-rate and unadventurous. 
Q2Do you feel that Lanark achieved that imaginative recreation of Glasgow discussed by Thaw as a problem in the novel?
  I don't know. But my character Thaw did not see the creation of Glasgow art-works as a problem, he saw it as a goal. The problem is getting time and money to do the job if you believe you can. The problem is poverty - the usual human problem.  
Q3To what would you attribute this failure in Scottish art and literature - is it a lack of subject matter? - or do you think that writers and artists have been using forms inappropriate to a Scottish context, ie have been unwilling to experiment? 
 The failure you refer to in this question is, I take it, the failure of the greatest density of living Scots to produce, between Galt's Entail and Archie Hind's Dear Green Place, an interesting, imaginative account of themselves. Surely the cause is a combination of poverty and unimaginative education. At present good writers are appearing in Glasgow whose education and nurture were ensured by the post-war welfare state and social security system, the National Health Service and education grants. These writers (Kelman, Leonard, Lochhead etc etc) are tough, sensitive and well-read. They know the rich resources of international literature, so they use them. 
Q4An important consideration for any writer is the audience he wishes to reach; do you write for a Scottish audience primarily, or for a British or international audience? And do you feel that awareness of a potential readership in any way determines what and how you write? 
 I do not agree that an important consideration for any writer is the audience he wishes to reach. Writers who seek to persuade a limited class - commercial writers and propagandists - must think in that way, but I am sure that the stories and poems which the world has not yet allowed to die were written by folk who believed any ordinarily educated, sensible soul would enjoy them if they skilfully verbalized what they thought important. I want to be read by an English-speaking tribe which extends to Capetown in the south, Bengal in the east, California in the west, and George Mackay Brown in the north. This does not preclude me from using any words of Scots origin that I please - dunt, docken, eerie, glamour, canny etc, or bunnet, polis, ya prickye, if I feel like being Glaswegian. The Indians have also given words to the English language, though at present I cannot remember any. Most English words were originally used by illiterate Celts, Germans and Scandinavians. To these an international civil service of priests added some long Latin words and a clan of bullyboy Norman invaders some posh French ones. In the past century the main additions to our vocabulary have been devised by scientists and technicians. Words stay alive because we find them useful or entertaining. An element in entertainment is surprise. One of the riches of English is the chance it gives to surprise the reader by putting a plain simple noun or verb, sometimes a strongly local one, into an abstractedly posh-sounding sentence, and vice-versa. When a writer is using English dramatically - not necessarily in a play, it can be in a story where several speakers are quoted - the verbal colouring (if his characters are not bound to one social class in one emotional state) will be tinted with idioms which vary from Biblical to the Johnsonian, from American film-commercial to local cockney, Oxbridge, or Glaswegian. And this is simple realism. Any writer in English anywhere - if his range of reading is sufficiently wide - can take an exciting but generally unfamiliar word he heard in a nearby street and, if it is useful to him, make its meaning and nuance understandable to a reader in a different English idiom by the context in which he marshals it. Burns did this two centuries ago, and English literature took to him at once - if by Eng. Lit. we mean the acclaim of his fellow poets and every really intelligent reader. Scott and Hogg and Galt came soon after. Edwin Muir's frequently quoted formulation of the Scots writer's predicament into a double-bind choice of, write Scottishly and you'll be sincere but neglected by the world-as-a-whole, write for the English world-as-a-whole and you must discount the source of your emotions - seems to me nothing but a huge failure of nerve, a cowardice in the face of our best examples. MacDiarmid was one such example. He spoke of all the things he believed, using all the language he could master, local and historical, scientific-technical, political-polemical. One literary idiom was outwith his ken - the dramatic. Burns, Scott, Hogg, Galt could dramatize, find language for, people not them. MacDiarmid could only make poetry from the drama of his own lonely intelligence. But that intelligence, that poetry is still big enough for us to have worthwhile adventures inside. It is very queer that a small nation which has bred so many strongly local writers of worldwide scope still bickers and agonizes over the local/international doublebind. Perhaps it is our way of drawing attention to ourselves while plucking up courage to say something entertaining or useful. The foregoing diatribe is too long an answer to a short question. The short answer is, that I assume that things which excite and depress me sexually, socially, intellectually, politically, will have a similar effect on others, so if a story moves me in a certain way as I write it then the reader will be similarly moved. Put it another way. I am essentially the same as other men, women and children, so if I am careful and I talk honestly t o myself they will be able to hear me. This may be a delusion, but it saves wasting time on degrading public-relations work. How would you describe your function as a novelist in Scotland? And do you see your exciting fusion of graphic work and literature, (even the experiments with typescript in Janine) as breaking new ground, a novelistic equivalent of Scottish experiments in concrete poetry? I try not to see myself, except in my work, where the object can be improved by editing and grafting. And I break as little new ground as I can, because it's back-breaking work. My fusion of words and graphic art is very old fashioned. All children's books do it. Nothing new there. Typographical word games are as old as typography. Rabelais and Laurence Sterne and Lewis Carroll entertained me greatly with their typographical ideograms, so when telling a certain story (Janine) in which a man in a nervous breakdown suffers severe audio-hallucinations of a paranoid-schizophrenic sort, I realized that a typographical chorale ensemble would be a good amusing way of combining all my most self-contradictory and deeply felt obsessions - sex, politics, religion and the groans of the poor old body burdened by these. After which, what a relief to have some pages of blank paper - perfect peace at last. But others have done that sort of thing.  
Q5Do you view yourself as a political writer - in the sense that both Janine and Lanark contain critiques of society and direct political comment? And do you believe that novels have any direct effect in highlighting political issues, or bring about change in society? 
 I know there are philosophies and psychologies of the mechanistic or behaviouristic or fatalistic sort which assume that human thought and feeling is irrelevant to action, especially sums of human action described in history books. Since I am not a predestinarian I believe that every book soothes or upsets some idea the reader lives by. This has political consequences, which is why bully-boy governments enforce censorship. You will agree that the King James Bible, Marx's Das Capital, Mrs Beaton's cookery book have been influential upon folk who wanted extra passions, ideas, sensations to soothe or alter their lives. A collection like the Bible is particularly useful because you can soothe yourselves with stoical fatalism in Ecclesiastes, stimulate yourself erotically with the Song of Solomon, get revolutionary fervour from Isaiah. The revolutionary potential of the Bible was why popular translations of it were banned in catholic times and why an English protestant government - one which had authorized a splendid popular translation - strove to supplement it with an officially imposed prayerbook. But books don't cause political change, though some have speeded it up by giving a brisker circulation to some current hopes and fears, or by linking into one picture events which folk hitherto looked at separately. Books work by putting our lives into a clearer light - if they are good books - or by imposing a mirage between ourselves and our lives - if they are bad. I am writing a book just now which contains several bad mirages of a sort which have haunted out libraries since the abolition of judicial torture and executions for witchcraft. These are shown along with the local Scottish and late industrial-technical world they mislead us from. If the book has a political message it is, "You like nightmares because your life is diseased. Wake up and live differently." But I may be talking only to myself. 
Q6Related to the political content of your novels - do you see Scotland as illustrative of more universal issues, or do you feel that your interest lies in the peculiarities of the Scottish situation? 
 Scott Fitzgerald started a (good) story with the words, "Describe an individual and you may end up with a type; describe a type and you are likely to end up with - nothing." Whoever describes life convincingly must do so in concrete particulars, so of course Scottish material does not inhibit me - it is the most available, and much that happens here is very likely what happens in Chicago, Zimbabwe and Kensington. A proper understanding and presentation of Scottish peculiarities will firstly, be handy to ourselves, and secondly to other folk, if our language is as skilfully exact and arresting as we can make it, while acquiring and begetting a temper that gives it smoothness. (So that it slips easily into other heads.) Only ignorance or timidity has made some Scots think they are limited by their culture in ways which leave the Irish, the Jews and the public school English comparatively carefree and uninhibited. Did you find Lanark difficult to follow, and how do you think critics will react to Janine which, initially at least, appears very different? Many years ago I wanted to write a novel and a book of short stories and a book of plays and a book of poems and a book of essays. The material for these books has accumulated steadily, so when Canongate took Lanark, and decided it would succeed, and wanted my next book too, the short stories needed only a few months' work for the text to be available. But there was one story I wanted to include, a story of two or three pages, the first personal narrative of an ageing alcoholic but self-contained Scottish professional nobody or everyman. As I tried to finish it for the short-story book it got bigger and bigger. It is still getting bigger. I don't know how the critics will react to Janine, but I can speculate. The initial reaction to Lanark was "Gloomy, but impressive." The reaction to Unlikely Stories, Mostly seems to be "Playful, but serious." The reaction to Janine, among the perceptive, will be "Shocking, but accurate." But since the first two books have received a queerly unanimous chorus of approval there ought to be a change of tone among the slightly less perceptive. This will do the book good, if they lose their tempers and denounce it. The intelligently imperceptive will put people off the work by saying that the political diatribes make it too boring for sustained attention, and that pornography is better handled by Mickey Spillane or Pauline Reage.  
Q7Do you think that the self-proclaimed "pornographic dimension" of Janine will overshadow its political or literary value - that it might be open to the popular misconceptions that beset Lolita? And did you intend that the pornographic fantasies be read merely as analogies of wider issues involving sadism/passivity/masochism? 
 Any large book will lead to misconceptions. An author should not take these personally. The pornographic fantasies are intended to be read as pornographic fantasies, the political diatribes as political diatribes, Jock's autobiography as Jock's autobiography. Altogether I hope they will show a man starting to make sense of his life and his society.  
Q8Janine moves away from the external narrative and the culturally aware, educated hero of Lanark, to the first person narration of a fairly narrow-minded, unsympathetic character; were you aiming for a greater degree of alienation in your reader, or did you see yourself as closer to a working-class consciousness through such techniques? 

Before answering your question I would like to qualify parts of it. Lanark has two heroes, Lanark and Thaw, and only Thaw is educated and culturally aware. Lanark is uneducated, highly inhibited, and has only one sympathetic trait: a desire for ordinary sunlight and love which makes him indifferent to all the forms of authority which obscure these. Thaw is even less admirable. His only sympathetic trait is a desire to be an artist. Apart from this he has no social virtues, is unkind to his sister and parents and friends and everyone who wants to help him. I am sure Jock only strikes you as nastier than Thaw because you are young writers, and therefore identify more easily with a young painter than with a middle-aged technician. But I do not regard my Jock as a narrow-minded man. He is meant to be one whose life is narrower than his knowledge and passions. As a supervisor of security installations he draws the salary of a suburban bank manager, he is at home in arms depots, nuclear power stations, government and business premises, bonded warehouses, factories etc and KNOWS HOW THEY WORK. He is at the exact centre of our society, one of those key men who link the lesser skilled industrial workers to the managers and money-men who make the decisions. He is far more truly middle class than parasitic arty-cultural types like you and me. Our industrial society depends on these men, but because most folk don't notice they are in a class of their own they don't notice it themselves. What struck me as a weakness in Lanark was the untypical nature of the hero of the realistic section: an artist, yes, another bloody artist, the least typical member of any community. That Scotland has not much use for that sort of decorator tells us something about modern Scotland, but not enough. I started writing 1982, Janine as a short story because I thought I did not know enough to make someone who was not an artist, a student or a woman seem real for more than two or three pages. After the first page I started wondering about my lonely alcoholic friend's sex life, because in my own experience, not five minutes of waking life passes without some sexual reflection. And then I saw that Jock, of course, must have a sex life that is all fantasy, because in the present time he has nothing else. And I realized I could put in his head the starts of three or four sex-fantasy novels I had began writing on some earlier occasions when I felt unusually lonely and incapable of getting better work published. I had wearied of these productions long before bringing them to anything which could be described as a climax, because by its nature pornography eliminates most of the tensions which make believable climaxes possible. But by adding the Janine adventures to Jock's life he suddenly became solid to me, because a man who restricts the intuitive and sensual part of his nature must be haunted by these dreams. Don't pass a final judgement on my man till you have read the end of the book. The social and sexual alienation of him is not incurable. I want to show that. But to regress to the early creation of 1982, Janine, as soon as Jock became sexually identifiable he became socially so too. I knew at once he was an electrical engineer - a man of power. A neglected power-man. A man trapped in an emotional short-circuit. And I suddenly discovered I had a wider range of scientific and technical knowledge than I had hitherto noticed, just as Jock discovers he has a wider range of poetic and literary knowledge than he hitherto noticed. Finally, regarding 1982, Janine, I will quote a poem by Alan Jackson which I want printed on the cover, if Alan gives permission.

Certainly the remedy's inside the disease,
and the meaning of being ill
is to bring the eye
to the heart.


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