In Search of an Authentic Voice

It’s pure dead brilliant to welcome fellow Scottish writer, David Ross, to discuss a topic which I’ve often ranted blogged about – using regional dialects and accents in writing. It’s a route I chose to go down when writing Talk of the Toun so I’m chuffed to bits to share David’s take on the issue in his guest blog post. 

oo‘Too sweary…and far too Scottish’

This is perhaps my favourite of all the reviews I’ve yet seen about my debut novel ‘The Last Days Of Disco’. It’s not a favourable one by any means, and its minimum rating of one star was clearly given reluctantly. But I came to view it as something of a badge of honour. And I had seriously hoped it might be a cover quote on the new book ‘The Rise & Fall Of The Miraculous Vespas‘.
kkkThe books of other writers which have stayed with me longest are all inextricably rooted in their context, as I hope mine are. The characters are the key to how the story develops, and their believability is absolutely crucial. How they speak is central to this. Imagine any of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown-based books with Jimmy Rabbitte or Imelda Quirk’s dialogue appearing in a more standard English. It would be ludicrous. It would sanitise the characters, robbing the books of their unique vitality and life … in fact, it would remove their very soul.
jjI have written only two published books. My perspective on the subject of writing in a regional dialect is not only coloured by this, but also by the acknowledgement that I didn’t write the first with the aim or expectation of having it published at all. I think this is an important distinction. There was never a conscious choice to tone down accents as a result of any external pressures. I was also largely unaware of the received wisdom that regional dialect was something of an impenetrable barrier for most readers. Although I did recall the Booker Prize controversy over James Kelman’s ‘How Late It Was, How Late’, it preceded my own writing attempts by almost 15 years.
about-davidrossMy preoccupations as an architect – my alter-ego does that for a living – have always been about people. The concerns of architecture are relatively universal: the need for shelter, for buildings that help to heal, teach or inspire. The only things that influence different responses are context and people. I approach writing in much the same way. Context is very important to my writing, and the way people interact with their environment and with the people who share it with them is primarily what the books are all about. In the same way as it would feel false to have invented fictional ‘towns’ which are obviously amalgamations of specific places, I can’t imagine softening the authenticity of the language simply in order to broaden appeal.
My two books (and the other three that are currently in progress) are really about ordinary people, their hopes and dreams in the face of pragmatic fears of likely failure. Both completed books are set in the early 80s … in the days before technology changed the way we communicate with each other. Again, I think this is significant. My memories of the Ayrshire of the early 80s are principally to do with things said and the funny and direct way in which they were said. We spoke a lot, and with unique expressions and profanities that you often wouldn’t hear less than an hour’s bus journey away. I acknowledge that this might be an obstacle for some in terms of their emotional investment. Especially if their own experiences were formed by totally different, and perhaps more cosmopolitan, environments. The final book in the ‘Disco Days’ trilogy takes place largely in the present day, and this time the locations include Shanghai and San Francisco. The principal characters speak differently in this one. But not because of any desire to smooth the rough edges of the previous books. They do so as a consequence of the international and cultural influences they’ve adopted in the thirty years since they were teenagers who had barely travelled beyond the boundary of their Ayrshire roots.
CawYuT4W8AA6t2lAn analogy with foreign language cinema might help reinforce a point. Regardless of how brilliant a film like ‘City of God’ is, I appreciate how the English subtitles aren’t for everyone; that perhaps it’s necessary to work harder for the undoubted joys that are gained. But the Brazilian film’s story isn’t parochial, it’s universal. And the local rhythm and timbre of the vernacular dialect is a really beautiful thing. If this ethnicity can be properly and appropriately harnessed, it invests a level of believability to great writing. And if the reader believes absolutely in the sometimes complex and contradictory authenticity of the characters, the freedom that can give the writer is exhilarating.
Ultimately, it comes down to who the writer is actually writing for. Worldwide mass market consumption is perhaps unlikely to come from a series of books set in a very specific regional time and place like early 1980s Ayrshire. But I wrote books that I would want to read myself, as opposed to ones that I may have wanted an entire English-speaking world to read. This may seem like an unlikely paradox but I’d just rather be The Ramones than The Stones, if you get my drift. And I’m extremely fortunate to have the support and patronage of a London-based publisher who encourages me in this regard, as opposed to insisting I find uncomfortable compromises that won’t alienate potential readers.
For those who remain doubters, I can only paraphrase Morrissey. Hilary Mantel may be well be on your side, but you lose…because Kelman, Doyle, Irvine Welsh and Helen MacKinven is on mine.

*blushes* at the wee mention – thanks David for a post which struck a chord with me and I’m sure many other writers keen to create realistic characters. 

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My 2015 Reading List

images (4)Last year I listed the books I read in 2014 and it was a surprise to me to learn that from the total of 43 there was a gender bias in favour of women writers with me reading only 15/43 male writers.

cf91fb2755776eb65c8bc0f392dddd42I was interested to see how 2015’s list compared.

I didn’t make a conscious effort to read more male writers and I also felt I hadn’t read as many books this year (before and after my own book launch, ma heid wis mince, and I found it hard to concentrate on reading) so haud me back, the figures were almost identical to 2014’s stats! This time the total was 13/44 male writers – women win again.

I finished all of the books on the list apart from one book, a huge best-seller which I was very late to the party in reading (what’s new? trailblazer I am not!). I might struggle to find anyone who agrees with me but I abandoned it out of boredom and not feeling engaged with the characters.

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John-John Wisdom is one of the most memorable characters I’ve met on the page.

images (2)All others on the list are well worth a read but if I had to choose my top read of 2015 (which is really hard!) then I’ve got to thank Naomi Frisby for recommending Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers. This book appeared on my radar as I expressed an interest in writing using regional dialect and it blew me away with its powerful prose.

You can read more of Naomi’s suggestions for other books using dialect and accents in her excellent article for Fiction Uncovered. Need more recommendations? I rate Isabel Costello’s suggestions featured On The Literary Sofa and I also follow A Life in Books for more ideas for 2016, as well as being swamped by book reviews on the fantastic Book Connectors group on Facebook…

On the X Factor, they announce the results “in no particular order” but here’s my list in the order I read the books.

 

  1. Us by David Nicholls
  2. Baracuda by Christos Tsiolkas
  3. The Love Song of Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce
  4. The Fields by Kevin Maher
  5. Academy Street by Mary Costello
  6. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (abandoned)
  7. The Humans by Matt Haig
  8. Rise by Karen Campbell
  9. The Vacationers by Emma Straub
  10. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  11. Mixing the Colours anthology by Glasgow Women’s Library
  12. The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester
  13. Elizabeth’s Missing by Emma Healey
  14. A Book of Death and Fish by Ian Stephen
  15. We Are All Called to Rise by Laura McBride
  16. A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale
  17. The Last Days of Disco by David Ross
  18. The Good Son by Paul McVeigh
  19. Find Your Thing by Lucy Whittington (non-fiction)
  20. Sane New World by Ruby Wax (non-fiction)
  21. Haus Frau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
  22. Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers
  23. How To Make A Friend by Fleur Smithwick
  24. Alight Here: An Anthology of Falkirk Writing
  25. 4a.m. by Nina De La Mer
  26. Island of Wings by Karin Attenberg
  27. As Easy As A Nuclear War by Paul Cuddihy (short story collection)
  28. The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal
  29. Outline by Rachel Cusk
  30. The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink
  31. Jellyfish by Janice Galloway
  32. Dead Babies and Seaside Towns by Alice Jolly
  33. The Rocks by Peter Nichols
  34. The Vigilante by Shelley Harris
  35. The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah
  36. Ridley Road by Jo Bloom
  37. Truestory by Catherine Simpson
  38. The Reel of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
  39. Paris Mon Amour by Isabel Costello (publication date TBC)
  40. The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley by Jeremy Massey
  41. The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer
  42. Fishnet by Kirstin Innes
  43. The Beautiful Game by Emma Mooney
  44. Stop What You’re Doing and Read This – 10 essays (non-fiction)

Did you have a favourite book in 2015? How many books did you read this year?images

 

 

The Birds That Never Flew – Pure Dead Brilliant!

I’m chuffed to bits at the prospect of being published by ThunderPoint later in the year and it’s an honour to be in the company of one of their other writers, Margot McCuaig.

Margot with the great new cover featuring a metaphor from the novel.

Margot with the shiny new cover featuring a metaphor from the novel.

As well as being a novelist, the multi-talented Margot is highly successful at writing, producing and directing documentary films. She also freely shares her knowledge and skills with other women writers as a mentor in the fantastic WoMentoring Project. Before I signed my publishing contract, she graciously offered me advice and guidance and her thought provoking blog posts never fail to make me reflect on what it means to be a writer.

I couldn’t wait to read Margot’s novel, The Birds That Never Flew (TBTNF),  the contemporary Scottish dialect used throughout, the exploration of dark themes and the use of dry humour is the same style of writing I enjoy reading and writing. TBTNF was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize in 2012 and longlisted for the Polari First Book Prize in 2014 and has been relaunched at Waterstones in Argyle Street,  at an event hosted by the bestselling Scottish writer Sara Sheridan.

Margot signing my copy of her book.

Margot signing my copy of her book.

It was great to hear Margot discuss her work and as a feminist, her desire to write about strong female characters. I was also interested in her use of Glasgwegian dialect which she feels, like me, is essential to make the dialogue sound authentic. The writer, Naomi  Fribsy wrote an excellent article on the issue of using regional and cultural accents in writing and I’d advise anyone interested to read this piece. (beware, Naomi recommends her favourite novels written in non-standard accents and this meant I added to my tbr pile again!)

Buddha Da by Anne Donovan is one of my favourite books and I can’t imagine it written in any other way and another book that I also rate highly is Push by Sapphire, a stunning credible voice.

When I was looking for a publisher, this was the response from one publisher, ironically based in Edinburgh.

“The Scottish dialect in your novel flows effortlessly and was appreciated and understood by the Scottish members of the team. But readers unfamiliar with Scottish dialect found the novel too demanding and challenging.
We suggest that you submit your novel to a publisher more focused on publishing Scottish novels.”

I LOVE books that make the characters sound real and don’t know how that would that be possible if the writer didn’t use their natural speech? Do you agree?

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