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AUTHOR'S NOTE: This interview occurred when I was in London to publicize The Fall of Kelvin Walker, and tape recorded. The transcription of the recording was, like most impromptu speech, muddled, repetitive, and wrong about dates. My answers here have been corrected, neatened and arranged more logically.
Alasdair Gray is one of my two favourite writers in English-speaking countries (I won't say England). Just very briefly and simplistically, one of the reasons why I admire Alasdair's writings so much is that in a novel such as Lanark he does just about everything. He takes what is usually a popular genre or mode - that of fantasy - and turns it into a vehicle for politics, for descriptions of very personal lives in Glasgow and in Scotland, where he ventures into social realism as in the story about Thaw and just does the unexpected. At the same time he has a structure in which you always are aware of a mind that is rigorous in its method of asking questions so you have all this simultaneous with a feeling mind that explores in every way the heights and depths of the imagination. Such venturing is rare in the novel and rare in the "British" novel, although I'm not quite sure that he's a "British" writer. It seems that Alasdair works in genres and that something like Lanark takes the vehicle of a fantasy novel. Kelvin Walker is a sort of essay on morals, but it disguises itself as a comedy of manners and the reason it is a comedy of manners, or a comedy of errors, is because each character has national characteristics which are played against ideals in what is a very, very funny novel. What I really want to know is generally how do you make your novels, at what point does the structure appear?
did you start writing?
I was probably nineteen, in 1954, when I decided I knew enough about my first novel to start writing that and found I was not mistaken. During a summer holiday from art school I wrote the first chapter of the Thaw section almost exactly as it is now, apart from adjectives and adverbs which I later cut out. I finished it twenty-four years later but I didn't spend twenty-four years writing it. I was doing lots of other things. There may have been a year or two in which I didn't write any of it at all, but I usually thought of it when standing at bus-stops - it was something to do with my head. I wanted the book to describe some of the worst and best things that can happen to a man, and sometimes thought, "Maybe I will never experience enough to properly describe some of the worst and best things. What if I never marry? What if I never have a child?" Et cetera. But these things happened, so Lanark contains some convincing realities. The 1982, Janine novel wasn't intended, because I only meant to write one novel and one book of short stories; but when writing what I thought my last short story it began to swell. It was based on a thought I had had in the 1960s when I was a lecturer in Art Appreciation for the extra-mural department of Glasgow University. I often went by train to places like Dumfries, had my hotel accommodation paid for, and went to a hall where I spoke to people about Van Gogh and Gauguin. Afterwards in the hotel, not being conversational with people I don't know already or haven't been introduced to, I often sat in a corner of the bar parlour hearing folk talk about their work as farmers or as auctioneers or salesmen. I thought, "Aha! They don't know who I am because I'm not talking. Little do they know who this is. Actually I don't know either - I might be anybody. But I hope I'm more important than they think." I then imagined - I suppose I was conceiving myself at a distance - I imagined a man with a smug sense of being potentially greater than everybody, a sense he maintained by being nobody, by being alcoholic and REFUSING TO THINK ABOUT HIS LIFE. I had no idea of this man's sex life or working life because these things didn't interest even him. All that interested him was his potential, which the world would never notice. Later that evening I lay in bed and imagined him lying in bed foreseeing himself next morning on a station platform waiting for a train, and nobody else on the platform would know that for him just standing waiting for a train was a balancing act equivalent to a tightrope-walker on a high wire: only he would recognize the miraculous strength and self-control it took for him to stand still and seem ordinary while waiting for a train. I thought - I didn't like this man but felt I could put him into an interesting short monologue. When I began writing it in 1982 however, the monologue swelled up by taking in matters I had never intended to use in a book, for I agree with James Joyce when he says that great art should not move, that only improper arts (propaganda and pornography) move us, but true art arrests us in the face of eternal beauty, or truth, or something like that. But this particular story started discoursing of improper things: sex fantasies I had meant to die without letting anybody know happen in this head sometimes, and political diatribes. Anyway, it kept getting bigger and bigger until I had to divide it into chapters, and with every chapter I wrote I felt that the next would be the last. At the start I never thought he would try to kill himself, but by the tenth chapter I found him so obnoxious and he was so obnoxious to himself that I thought, "He is going to kill himself and quite right too." So I rewrote an earlier part, planted a bottle of pills on him that he could resort to and then I thought . . . next chapter he's done for. When I came to describe him actually taking the pills I thought, "What happens now?" What usually happens when people try to take an overdose of pills? They usually sick them up. But what after that? Must he then, in the interests of realism, return to his dreary, alcoholic, prosperous job - his life-in-death? And I thought, "I've made him a miserable bugger and put him through a load of pain, even though he's put others through it as well. Couldn't I give him a little light at the end of the tunnel? That would be a change." So I made a novel I had not foreseen.
Just let me interrupt for a second. Is it true you really agree with Joyce about things not moving, because your books are full of sexual fantasies and political wonderings?
My excuse is that I put these things into a personal voice. In Coriolanus, Shakespeare has put a tremendous, strong, right-wing justification of elitist government into the mouth of one of his characters, one of his more decent aristocrats who realizes that in order to manage the plebs you have to pretend to be one of them, even though you're not. You mustn't just bully and disdain them. He tells the parable of the belly, and explains it in a very clear right-wing speech which is probably what Shakespeare and most of his audience believed was a justification of aristocratic government. That political speech is artistically proper because it is uttered by a forceful character in a believable place at an interesting moment of social tension. I hope the things that happen inside my man's head are sound art for a similar reason. And I tried to make my man as different from me as possible, I did not want another bloody artist as a central character so I made him small and neat where I'm rotund and messy. I made him a scientist, a technician, somebody whose inventive skills were not aesthetic but practical. I had him start manhood with his best moment of sexual and social fulfilment, and his pleasure and possibilities from then onward taper to nearly nothing - my life has travelled the opposite way. But by making him wholly opposite I produced a negative self-portrait.
Have you ever worked with a woman as a main character?
Only in some plays, but always she's been seen in relation to a man. I haven't the insight to imagine how a woman is to herself.
So how was Kelvin Walker constructed? Did that start with any political idea?
It started as a television play broadcast nineteen years ago. The idea of it came from a time when I sometimes wrote and performed little cabaret turns, at first for art-school shows and then for CND concerts, so I always had my eyes open for an odd situation which could be caricatured. The oddest situation occurred to me when a television producer in London was in a position to make films about anyone who he liked and decided to make them about obscure friends who he felt OUGHT to be famous. So he made one about me. I was living on social security at the time and got a telegram saying "PHONE BBC. REVERSE CHARGES." I did so and Bob said, "I want you to meet Huw Wheldon at quarter to twelve on Thursday morning at Shepherds Bush, to discuss this film about you." I said, "No, on Thursday I have to sign on at my labour exchange at ten past nine." Bob said, "Ah, but you can take a taxi to the airport," and I said, "I cannot afford to take a taxi," and he said, "We'll book one. It will collect you at your Labour Exchange and when you get to Heathrow look for a man with a sign saying Herz Cars and he will drive you to Shepherds Bush." I enjoyed the huge social derangement of being made to feel rich and famous, neither of which was the case. It became easy to fantasize about a young Scot in sixties London. One thing about being Scottish is London in those days was a sense of removed pressure, the freedom of feeling that because no Londoner understood me, I might, with a bit of push, become (here it comes again) anybody. In most communities people's potentials are limited by their relations' and neighbour' knowledge of them. I did not fantasize about abandoning my wife and son - that would have been too personal. I fantasized about a young Scot who arrives in mid-sixties London with a gigantic euphoria caused by one fact - his father isn't near him. His father - like many men of strong faith - uses his faith to crush people under him, especially his children. But faith isn't an issue in England and Kelvin cannot be much embarrassed by anything people say or do to him there because his Dad is the only thing he really dreads. I wrote an imaginary interview between this youth and a businessman he fails to impress - I conceived it as a cabaret turn, and then imagined another scene for him in a Soho café in which he greets a girl with the words, "Do you mind if I engage you in conversation?" And suddenly the scenes suggested other ones, became an evolving play, a play about an outsider (outsiders were popular in the late fifties and sixties) Making It To The Top by dint of nothing but glibness. But when he reached the top I began to think, "What a nasty person he is." He was only likeable as somebody with nothing going for him trying to climb to the top of the ladder. Of course, when a success he becomes as exploitive and greedy as the people he's joined. So I thought, "I want to knock him down. Aha! Bring his father back. That'll cut him down to size."
In your other novels you make a point of listing the influences which helped to produce them. Were you influenced directly by anybody's writing in Kelvin Walker?
I've just remembered that in writing The Fall of Kelvin Walker I was influenced by a play by Donleavy called, I think, Fairy Tales of New York. It was printed in some small, international American literary magazine in the late fifties. I remember reading a scene in which this young man, in an interview with a businessman, talks his way into quite a top-level job simply because he's got a way with words. The young man is slightly naive and the great big businessman is also naive, but he doesn't know it. As for the main form of the plot, it is very much like Synge's Playboy of the Western World, though I didn't notice that when writing it. But as Leavis says, "Probably most inspiration is unconscious reminiscence."
How does you artwork fit in with your writing?
I don't think it does until it's finished and I design the resulting book. When I came off the Labour Exchange as a result of getting the Kelvin Walker play taken, I couldn't support myself by writing for radio or television because I only got a commission once or twice a year, or less. But I got occasional portrait and mural commissions, and so with the two I was able to do both. Nobody strongly encouraged me to concentrate on either. I couldn't have lived by just one of them.
Has it been hard for you to make a living as a writer? Has it been possible?
It wasn't possible at first. The only paying job I was fit for after art school was schoolteaching. I luckily married a lady who preferred her husband at home even though it meant not bringing much money in. A respectable Scottish wife would have probably kept me teaching for years by being nice to me. I would come back from a day of teaching in a state every teacher knows, tired out and only able to talk in short phrases of single-syllable words for a couple of hours afterwards. Of course my wife, who had been feeling lonely a lot of the day, would say things and I would say, "Hmm, yes," and she would say, "Why aren't you talking to me?" and I would think, "I'm working like this for you and you won't even give me peace to recover from it." And at last I told her that aloud and she said, "Well if you're doing it for me then you had better stop because I don't like the result." So after two years I got work as a scene painter, and when I lost that job I lived on the dole and by art for a while. My wife disliked many things about me but she never complained about our poverty. I was lucky in what other people thought a miserable marriage. It wasn't really. Then after my wife and I parted, I came to rent a big tenement flat and sublet rooms to friends. That helped. For the last two years I've had hardly any money worries.
But didn't it gnaw at your writing at all, any economic concerns?
There were actual phases - particularly stages in the writing of Lanark - in which there were certain chapters when I stopped writing, saw the domestic situation I was in and thought, "I don't want to face this world, let's get back to the hellish one I'm imagining.
Did you feel that you were alone or did you feel that you were supported by a community of artists?
The only professional writer I knew before the age of thirty-five was Archie Hind, the author of the novel The Dear Green Place, which came out in the late 1960s. He and I knew each other, but you can't have a community of just two. The community which supported me was an aunt I could always run to for a meal and friends I could borrow a fiver from, and Archie and his wife Eleanor were part of it. And around 1972 or 73 I came to know Liz Lochhead, Tom Leonard and Jim Kelman, who lived near me in Glasgow. We baby-sat for each other, read and criticized each other's work. No doubt we were, or are, a mutual admiration club, but we HAVE made some admirable things. Through a writing class run by Philip Hobsbaum, I met other writers and poets, one a journalist, one a lawyer who became very helpful friends indeed.
FROM THE AUDIENCE
the point of view personally liking, there's a girl called Jill in The Fall of
Kelvin Walker whom I like very much. She's a not very clever, slightly upper-class
English woman, but her instincts are all decent. I think she's the nicest person
I've written about. She was copied from a nice person. I can identify with all
of them, but I don't need to like them because I don't need to like myself. I
find myself interesting, though not likeable, but that doesn't bother me. I've
a VAST toleration for myself. Sorry, it's impossible for somebody to talk about
themselves without mentally wanking in public. I don't think I'm going to write
any more fiction. I'm fifty-one. Almost certainly I'm going to get more complacent
the more money divorces me from real suffering. (Thinks . . . Thank God.) I'm
pretty sure that I'm not going to write any more fictional works.
Your writing seems to me to contain a lot of anger. Do you agree?
You might be right about the anger, but when actually working, I feel quite calm. Therefore, in presenting anger or any other emotion, I feel outside it, which is required in order to put it down. When writing I am busy finding ways of stopping this being a boring activity. I keep wanting to surprise myself by a development and therefore thinking, "Aha! Good heavens, could he do that? Yes, of course he could," or something like that. No, I'm not conscious of anger while describing it. If I start talking about the things I don't like in contemporary social and political society, my voice goes up and I become intense, become repetitive and realize that a tape-recording is unwinding from my mouth and I have heard it before. I try not to get angry because as soon as you start yelling at people they naturally start doing it back AND nobody learns. No ideas are communicated.
Your books use a lot of eccentric typography. How did that start?
typographical mucking about started in the epilogue to Lanark, which is especially
addressed to critics of the novel's pretensions. I wanted it to contain every
academic device starting with footnotes, then remembered there was such a thing
as marginal notes and thinking let's have that, that's not usually done, hence
my index of plagiarisms. My next book, Unlikely Stories, Mostly, contained "Logopandocy",
a story about words, which I doubt if one in twenty readers can be bothered with.
I put in many illustrations, hoping that when folk came to stories that bored
them, they would find it entertaining to look at and hop over and try somewhere
else. "Logopandocy" pretends to be written by Thomas Urquhart, an actual Scottish
knight who translated Rabelais into English, had many linguistic theories about
the origin of language, and who was so mad keen on words that he invented them
and multiplied them in a way that was common in the seventeenth century - it wasn't
regarded as bad practice. I had the notion of his diary becoming partly a double
entry ledger with his profits on one side, losses on the other. Then I got the
idea that he starts to get obsessive about something, gets angry and intense,
and therefore in this column that was quite easily spaced, the print gets bigger
and larger and larger and the column which goes on about the injustices done to
him gets larger and larger and starts to squeeze in the column in which he lists
the good things. I don't type myself, but I have friends who do so I drew a plan
of the way I wanted it typed, and got it typed that way to show to the printer
it was possible. Then in 1982, Janine I had a man talking inside his head, talking
and remembering and fantasizing in many different voices, one of them the voice
of his God who interrupts him in brackets, questioning the assumptions by which
the character moves, saying "Why?", "How?" and "You weren't happy". I came to
imagine my man taking pills and falling into a fever in which the voices crowding
his mind become simultaneous. On one margin the voice of his body complains of
the feverish temperature he's condemned it to, while in the middle his deranged
libido fantasizes and alternates with his deranged conscience denouncing him for
having such fantasies. On the other margin, in very small print, the voice of
God tries to tell him something important, tell him he has missed the point of
living in a voice he can hardly hear, because it is not thunderously denouncing,
to correct him in gentle, sensible words which become a quotation from that great
e e cummings poem which starts
In all your novels God comes in and you seem to identify with him, sometimes he is the voice of reason . . .
Yes, God usually arrives in some form or other, but the God changes depending on who believes in him. The God in Kelvin Walker is just an exaggerated form of himself. I tend to approve of the Jewish notion that it's wrong to think of God as having any character, as it will always be an idealized, and therefore idolized, form of the thinker. This process is described in The Ruling Class - I forget who wrote it but it's a great film. The hero is an English Earl who discovers he is God when he notices that while praying he is talking to himself. Absolutely logical. And insane. But I will toy with insanity and say, "God is the character of the universe minus myself," and like many others I feel God - feel in harmony with the infinite and the eternal - in rare moments of highly privileged smugness. Quite a lot of leisured people feel that among lakes and mountains. They don't always call it "God" or "The Eternal" or "The at-oneness" because that kind of language is not English, but however it's conceived, all the definitions of God have a sort of truth. God is one of the most popular characters in fiction. You've got to believe in even the rotten forms of him, just as you've got to believe in Iago or Mr Pickwick.
It seems to me that the voice of God in your stories is always the voice of reason.
I think that if you have a God you'd better keep it reasonable. But I suppose some people need unreasonable Gods to get out of a situation that their reason is insufficient to embrace.
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