Alasdair Gray's Answers to Several Questionnaires

Questionnaire 2
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The Editor - 'Why Writers Write'

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Describe briefly the characteristic first inspiration for your novels. Do they start with an image, a character, a situation or event in life or what?



My novels had no characteristic beginnings. The first novel, Lanark, happened thus: as a child I wanted to become famous by holding a lot of people's attention with a printed story. By my early teens I wanted it to be the story of an adolescent like me who broke away into a larger, more exciting, sexier world. I read Tillyard on the epic when I was nineteen or twenty, which persuaded me that the story should be an epic. When I felt able to start writing it at the age of nineteen I was in my second year at art school, and knew that the first parts (now Books 1 and 2) would be a portrait of a Glasgow artist as a young man: that this artist would fail in everything, go mad, commit murder and suicide. I intended the story to contain the epic descent to Avernus, with a heavenly glimpse at the end, as an interior tale told to Thaw by a queer stranger at a drunken party - only when the readers finished Thaw's last chapter would then recognize that this mad narrative would now be the future of Thaw after death. In later years, however, the after life world of Unthank/the Institute/Provan became so bulky that I decided it should enclose the Thaw narrative instead of vice versa. All that I originally intended to have in Lanark, is in it, but also much more that I gathered during and between writing. My main worry while on the job was that life might not teach me enough to let me describe properly some of the best and worst that can happen to a man. This is why I had to be forty-two before Lanark was finished. 1982, Janine was conceived as a short story. I was staying in a hotel in Dumfries in the late sixties (as a travelling lecturer in Art Appreciation) and while drinking quietly in the lounge bar without conversing, it occurred to me that from the other customers' point of view I might be any man - their talk identified them as farmers, salesmen etc - I did not identify myself at all. I thought of the first line of a story (This is a good room) and the end where he foresees himself next morning, looking very ordinary to those who do not know that for him waiting on a train is a great balancing act, like walking a tightrope. I decided that one day I would write a two or three page inner monologue by a dull man who had no love of his life, refusing even to think of it, but nursed an alcoholic feeling of potential superiority to all things. In 1981 I was finishing stories for my Unlikely Stories, Mostly collection, and set out to write this one. It started growing, absorbing materials I had never thought to use in fiction - political diatribe, pornography and casual anecdote. After a while I started splitting it into chapters, but with each chapter I kept thinking the next would be the last. The novel as it stands has the start and finish I planned for the story, but was never intended. I only intended to write one novel: Lanark. The Fall of Kelvin Walker was written as a television play in 1966 and broadcast in 1968. I twice tried to make a novel of it when times were hard, hoping to produce an easy popular book which would help to support me while writing Lanark. These efforts were inept until 1984, when I wanted out of a contract to provide my Scottish publisher with another book of short stories for which I had no ideas, so I dug out my last Kelvin Walker novel attempt, made it good and readable, and gave it to them instead.






Do you work out a detailed plan before you proceed?






I always started work with a plan in my head, which might be added to or turned inside out but was never discarded. I only write down details before I started.






Do you carry out detailed research before the first draft?






I didn't draft my work, but added detail to detail until it was finished, rewriting the whole thing more concisely whenever I was unsure how exactly to continue. The only research was during work: asking friends about things I did not know: like how a good technician thinks and uses his senses.






If setting your novel in a particular region do you make a special effort to go/return there?












Do you make notes when travelling?






I did when I wrote fiction.






Of what ?






People, overheard conversations and ideas.






Do you write longhand, use a typewriter or dictate?






I write longhand.






Do you make regular use of an encyclopaedia, thesaurus or dictionary?










Do you prefer long uninterrupted periods of creation (eg several hours, days, weeks)?












Or do you work for short periods with frequent interruptions (eg meals, persons from Porlock, other work)?






Also yes.






Do you listen to music while writing?






I can't remember. It seems unlikely. If I write with music on I cannot be really listening to it.






Say briefly what kind.






If I did it would be as classical as the radio provided.






Do you drink tea, coffee, soft drinks or alcohol while writing?






No, I stop for them.






Do you prefer a particular time of day for writing?






When working hard I did it any time of day, otherwise I had to start early.






Do you welcome discussion of your work in progress?






Yes. I read it aloud to people because this let me hear what was wrong with it - if my tongue had trouble saying a thing I knew it was wrongly written. I read Lanark and 1982, Janine to friends a chapter a time as I wrote them and also handed out typescripts of work in progress. Of course I preferred my hearers to praise what they heard or read, but discussion was inevitable, and some suggestions folk offered were good ones and adopted. Jim Kelman indicated ways of shortening Lanark's first chapter. Philip Hobsbaum helped improve the poem in "Five Letters from an Eastern Empire".






What process of revision does your work undergo? Little, moderate or substantial?












Are you influenced by other arts? By music, painting, drama or any others?






Of course! But everybody is influenced by what they enjoy and whatever else occurs to them.






Do you have an agent?






For plays and some non-fiction jobs.






Does he influence your writing?






No, and they're shes.






Do you value and follow the advice of your publisher's editor?






Yes, five per cent of it.






Do you think publishers are: Unwilling to take risks with experimental writing?






I cannot complain.






Too interested in purely commercial aspects?






Yes, but in this world we all are.






Mean, generous or reasonable with their advances?






One of my publishers is mean, the rest ordinary. I doubt if any are generous.






Do you involve yourself with the publicizing of your novels (eg signing sessions, lectures, radio/TV)?












Do you keep yourself informed of the current state of the literary scene?












How do you do this?






I read the TLS about twenty times a year and the Sunday Observer ten or twelve times a year, and take Scottish literary quarterlies: Cencrastus, Edinburgh Review and Chapman.






Do you regard literary prizes as a healthy part of the literary environment?






Yes and no. They encourage public interest in modern writing, which is good; but do it by pitting books against each other like antagonists, which is very bad.






Do you think this is a flourishing period for the novel?






Novels flourish, but not many novelists.






Do you think the novel is of central cultural importance today?






I don't know.






Does the status of the novelist today please you? Cause anxiety? Is it a matter of indifference?






The status of well-known novelists pleases me. I'm anxious about some of the others.






Do you regard the academic study of literature as important for the practice of writing?






Yes, that also.






Do you think creative writing courses are of value?






They would vanish if nobody valued them.






Would you like to think that your novels influence the way your readers lead their lives?






I like to think my books make readers happier and more knowing about their lives, hate to think they depress and confuse.






Do you think many gifted writers languish in obscurity today?












Do you value letters from your readers?












Do you read reviews?












Do they influence your writing?






Only when they contain useful ideas.






What are the most important changes you would like to see in the status of the writer?






I don't know.






With reference to Lanark and 1982, Janine could you describe in general terms the book's origins, gestation and publishing history with special reference to length of time taken in writing; the influences in its composition; its publishing and reception by your audience.






The origin of these books is described on page one. The literary influences on them are thoroughly summarized in their epilogues. The publishing history is as follows. When Lanark was half finished in 1971 or 72 an agent, Francis Head (dead, alas) got Quartet Books to pay 75 for the first option on it. They rejected it on completion in 1976 because of its length. (Two other London publishers had offered to print it if I'd split it into two books.) In 1977 I offered it to Canongate of Edinburgh. In 1978 they took it. In 1981 they published it. In 1982 I wrote the first half of 1982, Janine then ran out of money. I asked Canongate for an advance so that I could finish the rest. They tried to raise the advance by showing it to an American paperback firm, who weren't interested. I then gave it to a London agent who failed to get a publisher for it. So after six months I got it back and on the advice of a man I accidentally met (the historian, Angus Calder) I sent it to Cape, who offered me an advance of 1000. This enabled me to finish it in 1983. The critical response to Lanark was wonderfully friendly - most reviewers thought it as important as I did. I expected 1982, Janine to be execrated but read. It was generally welcomed. I keep getting word that a great diversity of readers enjoy my books. I am very lucky. PS Some publicity for Lanark said I had been ten years writing it. The publicist who said that seems to have worked by subtracting the year when Quartet bought the option, from Canongate's publication date. I was twenty-four years in the writing of it: but did not spend twenty-four writing it. I don't know how long I took in hours - probably much less than a year of them.











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