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You write as you paint, forcefully. Your imagination compels your readers to forget everything and inhabit your world, unwilling to leave it when the novel is over. Do feel any kinship with William Blake in the way you associate your gift with the desire of unlimited power over other minds? One of your heroes (Duncan Thaw) actually states he wants this.
I've loved Blake's work from the age of thirteen or fourteen. I do not want unlimited power over other minds. I want the limited power of entertaining them. I would not - if I could - force people to read my books in schools or universities. That would make too many bright students hate them. Thaw was an unhappy adolescent so liable to fascist fantasies.
first novel, Lanark (1981), turns the nightmare into overwhelming joy of life,
dystopia into the most desirable of worlds. Was it your intention to shock or
to charm? Fact is that you succeed both ways, which is really rare.
A long story cannot hold a reader's interest if it lacks surprising developments. Shakespeare, Dickens and Dostoevsky keep providing them. Raymond Chandler advised crime writers, if the plot had become predictable, to have a stranger with a gun burst in through a door. Of course if the surprise is too shocking for readers they'll stop reading. When writing the pornographic parts of 1982, Janine I was deliberately shocking myself. Though I think it my best novel I cannot now reread it - I'm back to being as old fashioned as I was before imagining it.
The starting point of intensity in your novels is either death itself or a lethargy that precedes it. The exit of the novels, on the other hand, is a final victory over and above death, into a mood of jubilation. Love of life is stronger than the dark colours and images you use. You have described the death of death. Would you describe yourself as a utopic or dystopic writer?
I don't like describing myself as a writer at all, nor do I like describing my books. That is the critic's job. I like how you describe my work, but any other favourable description would please me.
One major feature of the Desperado writers is the imperious requirement that their books must be reread in order to be properly grasped. Rereading enhances the enjoyment of the carefully confusing text. Nothing is clarified, but everything is experienced. The end is more than an explanation, it is a shared experience of the unuttered. Do you expect the reader to approach your novels as puzzles or do you think of yourself as a clear writer of hard facts?
The only puzzle novels I know are whodunit crime stories, and if the characters and setting are of interest, the solution at the end always spoils the book for me. Life has no simple, single answer or solution to its problems. Only the crudest religious or political propaganda suggests otherwise.
Loneliness is the one common feature of all your characters. Not tragic but reflexive loneliness. Your sensibility is always in hiding. What do you expect from your readers? To respect your isolation (which is only apparent, since the author's love of life pervades even the most terrible tragedies) and give up probing, or to unveil your hidden compassion, which you hate to make visible?
I try to remove my ego or personality from my books by splitting it between all the characters, though Duncan Thaw was given more of it than others. When writing in the third person I aim for a quiet, unemotional voice, whether describing what I think comic or pitiable. These events are sometimes both, and authors are wiser not to tell readers what they ought to feel about what the book gives them.
You are a realist but you also come close to science fiction, to dark projections of fears into the future. Actually, your unsparing realism enhances dystopia to a strength of imagination that Orwell and Huxley could not afford. What matters most to you? This undefeated imagination which creates a new world, or the statement of a warning against a dark future for mankind?
Nothing you find in my stories seems to me more important than anything else you find.
Is style important to you? You create new words (such as Unthank, Provan, Lanark). I could anagramate Lanark into carnal, which would make your imaginary world burst with physicality. On the other hand, novels like 1982, Janine start with physicality and lead to fantasy. Do you set great store on the word as such, in this process of switching from body to word?
The names you mention are names of places in or near to Glasgow. I enjoy enriching a text with suggestive names found in Scotland or in foreign literature. But my prose (with the exception of "Logopandocy") mostly depends on short simple words.
Another Desperado feature of your novels is their alogicality, if I may call it that. You do not defy logic, you simply ignore it and create your own rules for the narrative, the same as your novels create their own order of overwhelming details. What is the main thread of your beliefs, the golden rule of your imaginary world, of your defiance of logic, commonsense, common expectations?
The main rule of my narratives is to put convincing people into realistic or fabulous situations and show how they deal with them. Most of my people act very sensibly, I think, however odd their circumstances.
You are deeply in love with your text as you write, and the reader is educated to love the ugly side of reality. You create a new sensibility, you devise an alchemy which changes whatever is fear, loneliness and darkness into a desirable fate. When TS Eliot and James Joyce started the Stream of Consciousness, this was their discovery, but you take it much farther. The Desperado no longer fears dystopia, he inhabits it with delight. In view of this description, do you think you could be considered a Desperado (my way of avoiding the term Postmodern)?
Emerson said many people's lives were lives of quiet desperation. Certainly Jock McLeish's is. But Thaw only finally despairs at the end of Book 2 and Lanark never really - his prayer to get out is answered. If a Desperado is someone driven by despair then I may be one, because my art is a way of avoiding it. I don't mind being called one, though most folk think me cheery and harmless.
What you write is, on the whole, a dystopia of old age. Your most desperate images of "dragonhide" are actually the tenderest description of a body growing old. You use harsh words and terrifying images, but they all hide a more than vulnerable tenderness. Lanark shouts, "I want out!" You shout that, too, when you part with both realism and innovation, to join the Desperadoes. Where would you place yourself in the contemporary literary landscape, where do you feel you belong?
Dragonhide is (I thought) an exaggeration of eczema I had when an infant and adolescent. The chapters describing it in Lanark were written when I was thirty-four or thirty-five, though I was forty-five when the book was published. The writers I feel closest to who still live are Kurt Vonnegut, Günter Grass and Marquez.
You are a compulsive painter and a compulsive writer, and your heroes are compulsive ageing creatures. In the process, they fall prey to bitter emotions, which they experience willingly. Do you deliberately enjoy confusing, then subjecting your readers? Do you mean your novel to be a puzzle that the reader will reshuffle till the final image emerges? Is this attempt at imagining the unimaginable?
I have never wanted to confuse readers: only to interest and surprise them. I can only do that if I interest and surprise myself first. I assume that emotionally I am like most people, so what entertains me can entertain many. But I can never know exactly how it entertains them.
Lanark could be associated with quite a number of books: Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, Dante's Divine Comedy, Kafka's Trial, as well as with books by Sartre (the feeling of nausea), Wells (free flight of the imagination), Swift (see the Houyhnhnms), TS Eliot (the end notes). The desperado novel feeds on literature. The desperado spirit is an exacerbated awareness of past texts. You frustrate the readers' sentimentality, but gratify their literary "dragonhide", their love of déjà vu. You work magic with your emotions and words. Are you aware of your dominion of your readers? How do you usually plan to relate to them.
I cannot know what power my stories have over readers because many react differently to them, even while being entertained. Others find them repulsive or pointless. But your question suggests a more hectic creative process than I am usually aware of. When a new idea dawned for a book I used to note it down and, sometimes years later, set out to make something public of it - usually a short story or a play. Some of these swelled up into novels because they stimulated or attracted other ideas that seemed surprising yet natural parts of them. The thought that the work was becoming astonishingly bigger was exciting; but ensuring smooth transitions, keeping the parts convincingly together, needed a lot of steady work which I found soothing because I could forget my SELF when doing it: just as a musician would play very badly if he mostly thought of how he seemed to the audience, instead of the sounds he made.
You novels are a crucial reading experience, they change the reader. When you end Lanark with a poignant "Goodbye", the reader feels he has to go back and reread everything in a better way, since he knows better now. That means you change the whole idea of reading. The way takes the reader from the appalling to the enthralling side of one and the same experience. His very power to articulate or understand what is articulated is placed under a huge question mark. Why do you never answer that question at the core of your literature? Would you accept the statement that you reject explanations because you are an enigmatic desperado at heart?
I do not know of any question at the core of my literature, though many people
in them ask or answer questions. Lanark wants to know what he should do with his
life - Sludden, Munro, Ozenfant, Noakes and some others give answers he mostly
accepts for a while. Only the simplest political or religious propaganda answers
big questions in a way everyone is meant to believe forever. I can't. Chekhov,
asked what his plays were supposed to convey, said they meant, "My friends, you
should not live like this." If my writing has a deep meaning, it cannot be deeper
than that one. I fear, Professor Vianu, that my replies to your questions show
me similar to many other writers. My Scottish writer friends (I have many) find
me a bit too talkative but cheerful and not at all enigmatic. Like me they are
Socialists who grew up with no faith at all in single party dictatorship and the
USSR system, and have no faith in competitive capitalism as a ruling system. Like
me too they are not members of churches, but have no strong anti-religious prejudices,
though religious and racial prejudices, alas, flourish in Scotland too. The new
Scots parliament, however, is still free of them, apparently, so we can hope.
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