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. 

Advertisements

James Kelman – Voice over Narrative

download (1)Readers of the blog will know that I’m a frequent visitor to book festivals all over Scotland. This summer, I went to the Edinburgh International Book Festival to see one of my literary heroes Roddy Doyle. I loved his novel Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha and because I had tickets to see James Kelman at the Linlithgow Book Festival I assumed that Kieron Smith, boy would be a good starting point for my first taste of his work. I desperately wanted to enjoy the book but after 100 pages I was struggling with the stream-of-consciousness monologue and craved a conventional story arc.

Kieron-Smith-BotyI understood what Kelman was trying to achieve in Kieron Smith, boy with his clever use of language to create an accurate character study and I admire his intellect as a writer but as a reader I’m not ashamed to admit that I wanted to be entertained by Kieron’s antics as I had been with Paddy’s.

And yet although I put the novel aside for now, I was keen to see the man behind the headlines as Kelman is renowned for his controversial views and there was an uproar when he won the Booker Prize in 1994 and one of the judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, denounced the book as “a disgrace”.

download (2)After reading from his latest novel, Mo Said She Was Quirky, the audience at Linlithgow got an insight into the passion that drives Kelman to write honestly about the disenfranchised underclass who receives little attention in contemporary fiction. He aims to “cleanse language” and get rid of needless description to concentrate on action and movement.

An audience member asked how he responds to the critics who often slate his work. His answer was, “ F**k them!”

It was a heart-warming reaction for me on a personal level after just receiving some negative feedback on my last novel. It is clear that Kelman is not a people pleaser and he immediately shot up in my estimation.

downloadHe left me gobsmacked again when he told the audience that he is currently working on seven novels and around hundred short stories, not to mention essays! He advised any writers to see themselves as artists and to use their computer as an artist would treat their studio by having lots of art work at different stages in the creative process. This was interesting for me as I’ve always operated on the ‘one-thing-at-a-time’ mindset believing that by doing that I’d have 100% focus on a project. As I’m currently editing my novel, I haven’t continued to dabble in writing short stories at all but maybe I should be more flexible and this would enhance my creativity.

Listening to James Kelman was a privilege. He is a fascinating writer and even within a short time slot he made me think of how value laden individual words and phrases can be. His example was that in Glasgow, at five foot nine, he’s classed as a “big” man in Maryhill but a “wee man” a mile up the road in Bearsden. And he asked us to think about what the description “pretty girl” really means? We all have different interpretations of beauty and these examples of using language with care will help inform my word choice for my novel’s main character.

I plan to give Kieron Smith, boy another go with a more sophisticated outlook and with a better knowledge of the genius behind what appears a non eventful story. James Kelman doesn’t have a reputation for writing easy-to-read books and this is not necessarily a bad thing, since often the most rewarding fiction is the most demanding.

As a reader, do you like a challenge? As a writer, do you have many projects on the go or several?

Meet my Writing Mentor- Karen Campbell

This week, as a change from me blabbing on about my ‘writing’ experience, I thought it would be a welcome break to hear from a professional writer (who just happens to be a good pal too) and has been there, done that, got the T-shirt and wore it out!  This guest interview is a first for my blog (and possibly the last as I don’t have any other author friends to ask!) and I was able to grill chat with Karen Campbell when she stayed at my house after speaking at Falkirk library as part of their ‘Write Good Murders’ author visits.

Karen and I met 18 years ago when I worked at Glasgow City Council and I wanted to go job-share after having my first son. Karen was my other, some might say, better half. We made an odd-looking couple for the years we worked together with Karen being slim and 5 foot ten without heels and me, being anything but slim and a mere 5 foot nothing.  Despite the fact that we worked on different days, we became close friends and when Karen left the Council to become a full-time writer I followed her progress with envy  pride.  She is an award-winning Scottish writer of contemporary fiction and so far, her novels have been inspired by her time spent as a policewoman in Glasgow’s notorious ‘A’ division, but her fifth novel, due to be published in 2013, breaks away from the police series.

Karen has been my unofficial writing mentor for years now and (because I’m so generous) I wanted to share some of her words of wisdom with you.

Karen, you did the MLitt at Glasgow University; do you believe that creative writing can be taught? Or have I just wasted £3,400+?

When I started the course, I thought we’d get sessions on ‘how to write a novel’ and ‘ideas for plot’ and all that kind of stuff – and I remember feeling quite confused when that didn’t happen. We seemed to be learning by osmosis – listening to established writers talk about their craft, working in small peer-led editorial groups, and so on. Very quickly though, I realised the MLitt was more about giving you the space, inspiration and, crucially, confidence to find – and use – your voice; the voice you already had, but that needed coaxed out of you.  A special mention has to go to my tutor Prof Willy Maley, whose enthusiasm and attention to detail is brilliant. Many writers in Scotland have cause to thank him, I reckon.

What advice would you give other wannabe writers like me who are just starting out?     

Don’t try to second guess the ‘market’. Write without constraints and without hesitation. Let your mind take you anywhere it wants to go, write middle chunks of stories, do the end before the start, have characters talk to their dead grannies if you want. Just let it flow – you can tidy it up & shape it afterwards. To me, plot is less crucial than character. If you create convincing, interesting people, a story can arise simply from how they spark off each other – in any place or any situation.

Was your journey to publication easy peasy?

Absolutely not. I did a 2 year degree, finally secured an agent towards the end of that, then it was another eighteen months at least  – and many, many knockbacks – before I got a publisher. In the interim, I kept writing, kept sending short stories out to magazines etc, and got bits and pieces published that way. But it’s incredibly hard to keep the faith when you’re sending your ‘child’ out into the world, and folk keep sending it back, saying ‘your wean’s a bit ugly, isn’t it?’

Your new novel, ‘This is Where I am’ comes out next year and is a departure from your successful police series, why did you decide to tackle a new subject area? 

It’s not really a huge departure – I’m still writing about social issues, still writing about Glasgow – it’s just the people in it aren’t cops this time. I’d only ever planned to write 3 or 4 books about the police, and with each one of them, I’ve moved further away from my own experiences anyway. My new book is about asylum seekers & refugees – in particular, how removed the face you present to the world can be from the real ‘you’ inside. When I think about it, that’s exactly what the police books were about too.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m about two-thirds through a novel set in Argyll. It’s about standing stones and wind farms and has a cast of thousands, which I’ll need to whittle. But I’m letting them all have their say at the moment, before the cull begins.

Are you a plotter or a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser?

Ah – as you well know, I was the brains behind our partnership (yeah, right, whatever you say!), so it may surprise you to learn that I’m definitely a fly-by-the-seat kind of girl when it comes to writing. You can plot backwards as well as forwards, filling in gaps or tightening up threads as your story emerges. Often, it’s only when you’re drawing to the end of a piece of writing that you truly ‘know’ what it’s about.

How many drafts do you do before you send a novel off to your agent/editor? 

I tend to edit as I go, then do a final sweep for continuity, pace and so on at the end. So it’s technically a second draft that I send, although it will have been revised as it’s being written.

What is your best writing tip?

Don’t wait for inspiration to strike. If you’re struggling, give yourself a word count to hit every day & make yourself sit down & do it – even if you’re just writing about the emotion you’re feeling at that moment. From that, you might only get a phrase or a piece of description, but you might get something brilliant.  Exercise your creative brain like you would any other muscle. I once got a whole short story out of the gungy feeling of picking meat off a chicken.

And your worst writing habit?

Oh, procrastination, like many writers. I can faff for Scotland.

Best moment in your writing career so far?

When an agent, then an editor, said they believed in my writing. These were professional people, who – unlike your mum – didn’t have to say they liked it. My new book is coming out with Bloomsbury, and that’s been a huge thrill too, to move to such a prestigious publisher. Just saying the name ‘Blooms-burry’ – I get pretty excited about that.

What book do you wish you’d written? 

Of books read recently-ish, I’d say ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell –brilliantly inventive structure.

Who is your favourite writer, alive and dead?

Loads – Jane Austen, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, AS Byatt, Virginia Woolf, James Kelman, AL Kennedy, Janice Galloway.  I love writers who make language sing.

Do you have a writing routine?

Not really. I tend to write in the day rather than evening. At the moment, my best stuff seems to come in the morning, when I’m still a bit dopey. Don’t know what that says about me…

What book(s) are on your beside table right now?

‘The Gate at the Stairs’ by Lorrie Moore & ‘Black Mamba Boy’ by Nadifa Mohamed, which my lovely agent Jo sent me.

What’s the weirdest question you’ve been asked at a reading?

Well, the most recent wasn’t so much a question as a comment from a nice old gent who’d been nodding & staring intently at me for most of the reading. After, I was told he thanked the organisers & said he’d been ‘much taken’ – by my cleavage…Which, let’s face it, isn’t what it used to be.

Thanks Karen!

You can buy Karen’s books here and as Mrs Doyle would say to Father Ted,”Ah go ongo ongo ongo on……” 

I’m a Published Writer!

This week I celebrated turning 21 again and received lots of lovely gifts from my family and friends (and a joint present of a box of Radox salts from my teenage sons- they really know how to spoil me!) But my best present (sorry boys) was seeing my work in print for the first time! Woo hoo!!

I wrote a short story, ‘Talk of the Toon’ which was inspired by my gran- a real life heroine! When she was a young mum, she saved the life of a drowning boy and received an award from the Royal Humane Society for her bravery.  My story is included in the Telling Tales of Heroes Anthology and means that my name is alongside established writers as well as other novice writers. I’m sure my gran would’ve been chuffed to bits to see her namesake in print.

The anthology was launched as the finale of the Lomond Writers’ Gathering which also included the presentation of a Lifetime Achievement Award for Agnes Owens.  The evening included tributes to Agnes by James Kelman, Alasdair Gray and Liz Lochhead. It was really inspirational to hear about Agnes’s writing career. Like me, she was a late starter in taking her writing seriously and like me she comes from a working class background without writers and artists in her circle of influence. Agnes’s writing is about the lives of everyday, working people and the little tragedies within relationships and Liz Lochhead described her work as “genius”.

Alasdair Gray is well-known as being unconventional and his flamboyant speech was certainly entertaining as he ranted that despite Agnes’s work being highly esteemed by her fellow writers, her books have not received the critical attention they deserve, perhaps because Agnes is neither an eccentric or a glamorous celebrity and is simply an 86 year old housewife living in a poor Scottish town. Agnes signed my copy of Agnes Owens- The Complete Short Stories and told me to “stick in with my writing”.

It was a great event to be part of and thanks to the anthology, I’ve achieved my aim of being published but the event generated my next goal- to conquer my fear of giving a public reading.  When I arrived, the organiser asked me if I would like to read my story but I completely bottled it! I was star struck by the literary legends in the audience and I was completely unprepared for my first ever public treading. The irony is I’ve got over 20 years of experience in public speaking from my work as a Training Officer.  But delivering PowerPoint presentations is not the same as reading out your writing and I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t take the chance to read aloud. My mum was disappointed in my failure to grab the limelight, “But you used to be a Reader at Mass every Sunday!” Yes, but reading out a letter from St Paul to the Corinthians when you are twelve was far easier for me than sharing my own words. But I’ve got Agnes now as inspiration for my apprenticeship in writing.