The Man Who Loved Islands: The Origins of the Story

I’m delighted to host a piece from a fellow Scottish writer, David Ross, whose latest novel, The Man Who Loved Islands is out now.  This is David’s third published novel and I was intrigued to learn about the background to his books.

The Man Who Loved Islands marks the end (perhaps) of a Trilogy of stories spanning from 1982 right up to the present day. The three books are all fundamentally about ordinary people chasing their dreams, sometimes legitimately and sometimes not. In 1982 – when The Last Days of Disco was set – I was about to turn eighteen. I experienced a mix of emotions that are hopefully represented by the two principal characters in that book (Bobby Cassidy and Joey Miller). Those remembered emotions are the catalyst for my books.

During the writing process, it was essential for me to reconnect with the times, the vibes and the memories to stage the plots authentically in a way that the reader could identify with. This isn’t just about pure nostalgia for the sake of it; it’s about creating a believable context where the reader can empathise with the characters, by having some personal perspective on the factors that are shaping their stories.

Music places a major part in that process for me, and I’ve written at length previously about the impact that it has on my writing. For this piece, I thought I’d share where the idea for The Man Who Loved Islands came from.

When I was a around six years old, there were three television programmes I was obsessed with.

The first was a truly bizarre American programme called ‘H.R Pufnstuf’. My entrepreneurial father had swapped our budgie and its cage for a loan of a colour TV to watch the 1970 World Cup Final between Brazil and Italy. Such an experience was virtually unheard of in early 70s Glasgow, and in any case, he hated the bird. An opportunity to get rid of it as part of a bizarre pre-Bosman style transfer deal was too good to miss. It was called Joey – the budgie, not the telly – and his failed attempts to get it to talk were the justification for its permanent ‘early bath’. I missed Joey; well for about the first five minutes of a match apparently being played in some footballing technicolor Oz.

But the real bonus, beyond that unforgettable game, was in subsequently watching Mayor H.R.Pufnstuf and the other residents of Living Island try to help young Jimmy (played by English child actor Jack Wild) who had been shipwrecked and led to their remote island, escape the clutches of Witchiepoo. She wants to steal Jimmy’s talking flute (yes, you read that correctly…) to add to her collection of magical objects.

Now ‘H.R.Pufnstuf’ has come under fire for claims that it contained hidden recreational drug references. For example, H.R. was thought to be an abbreviation for ‘hand rolled’, while ‘Pufnstuf’ was inexplicably thought to mean ‘Puffing Stuff.’

I ask you…is there no innocence left? Don’t take my word for it, judge for yourself:

 

The second was black and white re-runs of ‘The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’. This was a French children’s programme based on the Daniel Defoe novel. It was horrendously dubbed but, for me, it was compulsive viewing in the mid-70s. It had memorable theme music and the opening titles are as familiar to me now as they were then. Perhaps you recall it too:

Both programmes are, in different ways, about solitude and the complex and contradictory nature of that; the loneliness and the opportunity that it fosters. In The Man Who Loved Islands, Gary Cassidy craves this solitude but for reasons that he doesn’t, or cant, fully understand. The book is essentially about regrets and fears and the irrational logic that solitude must surely be the only answer. But as Joe Strummer once said: ‘Without people, you’re nothing.’ That, ultimately, is the book’s central message.

The third was a series of Laurel & Hardy films, and especially, ‘The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case’ which ran at the minors in the local Cinema when I was young. The Laurel & Hardy films were (are) timeless and they too represent the naïve, but ultimately fruitless ambition displayed by Bobby and Joey who are also fans as they set out after their goals. In The Man Who Loved Islands, the films also play a part in reminding them of the depth of their friendship when in later life, that seems irreparably broken.

The theme tune of Robinson Crusoe certainly took me back! And the themes of all three books are ones which I’m sure will strike a chord (sorry, couldn’t resist the poor pun!) with many other readers too. Thanks to David for this interesting guest post and all the very best with your new novel. 

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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. 

Literature, Location and a Landscape Artist

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Live anywhere near Falkirk? Then get yourself to this exhibition!

Whenever there’s an exhibition on at the Park Gallery housed within the magnificent Callendar House in Falkirk, I make a point of going along, especially if there’s a walk through talk by the artist. Of course, these events are a hit or a miss but as they’re all free, it’s worth taking a chance.

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Ruth articulated her art with passion.

This time, the exhibition was Three Rivers Meet showcasing the work of Scottish landscape artist Ruth Nicol. Going along to hear Ruth describe her art was a gamble that paid off as it was a superb insight into her fabulous work and the inspiration behind her series of paintings.

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Moffat’s group portrait is an imaginary vision of the major Scottish poets and writers of the second half of the twentieth century gathered around the central figure of Hugh MacDiarmid.

The stimulus for Ruth’s work was Alexander Moffat’s painting ‘Poets’ Pub’ featuring seven great Scottish poets: Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Morgan, Norman McCaig, Sorley MacLean, George Mackay Brown, Robert Gairloch and Ian Crichton Smith. A copy of the painting hangs in the corridor of Stirling University outside one of the rooms my MLitt class met so I was very familiar with the scene. But I’d never considered the location of the poets in relation to their work. Ruth’s impressive landscape paintings depict the various parts of Scotland that were home to the poets, including Glasgow and Edinburgh as well as more remote settlements such as Plockton in the Highlands and Langholm in the Borders.

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Too hard to choose a favourite but Ruth’s painting of Stromness, Orkney, home to George Mackay Brown blew me away!

The paintings are of epic proportions and define the relationship between the physical locations and how it reflects the social, economic and political context of Scotland. This body of work is even more pertinent considering all of the paintings were completed during 2014, the year of the Independence Referendum and self-reflection.

As I stood back to take in the immense scale, I was able to appreciate not only Ruth’s amazing talent as a landscape artist but also how the environment informs literature. The paintings surge with energy and Ruth has created a powerful connection to Scottish art from the past and present.

Do you find that local landscapes inspire your writing?