Alan Warner : The Sopranos : Existential Ecstasy

Zoe Strachan talks to Alan Warner about French intellectuals and the chemical generation genre

ZS: Your story ‘After the Vision’ was in my opinion the best in the Children of Albion Rovers anthology produced by Rebel Inc. It says it was taken from something called The Far Places. Was this a novel? It seems to have similarities to These Demented Lands.

AW: Yes, a section of a novel and parts of a linked series of short stories called, believe it or not, Trend Fault Team 2, about Highland kids who were into rap music. I might rework some of these stories sometime. These Demented Lands came from some other area of my storm tossed imagination.

ZS: These Demented Lands was a little bit different from your other novels, it was more surreal and included illustrations. Did you think of it as a chance to be more experimental with your text?

AW: Well, the illustrations you mention are already in Morvern Callar, the map Red Hannah draws for Lanna, for example, or the road sign. I enjoy breaking up the language that way and it sort of takes the reader out of the delusion of the text into another delusion!

ZS: Morvern Callar attracted lots of “Highland rave” type comments. Do you think there is a point these days in distinguishing between Scottish and other writing?

AW: It’s like Duke Ellington said about music . . . there is good writing and bad writing and those are the only two types.

“I don’t think you can base a whole literary movement on writing about nightclub life and ecstasy use”

ZS: And do you think that the chemical generation genre has run it’s course now? Were you pleased at being included in that whole thing?

AW: That was something invented by an editor called Sarah Champion [music journalist and editor of the 1997 anthology Disco Biscuits, which included a short story, ‘Bitter Salvage,’ by Alan Warner]. I mean I think you can write a good story about a nightclub but I don’t think you can base a whole literary movement on writing about nightclub life and ecstasy use. What bothered me about it is it was getting to be more about the writers than the writing, there was something egotistical and silly about it, “Look, we go to nightclubs but we are writers,” so fucking what. I’m interested in great books not the social life of writers. On a personal level I used to take ecstasy and go to Edinburgh Zoo. It was much better than a rave, cheaper admission, prettier girls, colourful parrots and there’s even a little licensed bar there. No bouncers either, just kangaroos.

ZS: You’re currently working on a novel called At a Fair Old Rate of Knots. How would you describe it and when do you think it might be published?

(Later) Travelogue from the point of view of a homeless guy who has no choice but to travel, and a critique of past Highland/literary/historical landmarks. It could end up with a shootout at Culloden battlefield! The title is now The Man Who Walks. I don’t have a clue when it’ll be published.

ZS: You’ve said that you really got into reading with authors like Alan Paton and Andre Gide. Who or what else inspired you to start writing, and who’s work really excites you (intellectually or otherwise) at the moment?

Then: Camus (see below), Sartre (ditto), Michael Moorcock, Nietzsche, Herman Hesse, JG Ballard, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, the music of Holger Czucay

Now: Same writers and Mark Richard, Annie Proulx, Juan Carlos Onetti and the music of Holger Czucay.

ZS: Morvern Callar sometimes reminds me a little of Camus’ Mersault or even Sartre’s Roquentin, particularly in terms of her connections with other people. Were you self-consciously trying to explore existential concepts or styles of narration?

You’re spot on, Nausea, The Roads to Freedom trilogy and Camus’ work were awful important to me, especially Nausea and The Outsider. I think Morvern Callar is an existential novel . . . and one that taps into the absurd, that whole opening sequence. I think Morvern is outraged at the absurdity of death, the fact she has to jump over the body to get to the sink, the fact that she suddenly needs to take a crap, even though the man she loves is dead there in the midst of their (former) domestic bliss. The whole absurdity of having to get dressed and put on makeup though he’s dead. I think it metaphysically outrages her which is why she reports it so exhaustively and perhaps that’s why she walks past the phonebox. She’s rebelling against the absurdity of death, in that way she’s heroic I think.

“I see writing as an existential act, an axis between how you live your life and literature”

ZS: There’s quite a few university courses now on creative writing as a discipline. Do you think that this is a good thing or does it run the risk of reversing some of the democratization of literature which has occurred recently (perhaps particularly in Scotland with Canongate and Rebel Inc), and putting literature back into an academic context?

Well I feel guilty about my suspicions because many good writers have come out of those workshops, especially in the U.S. where there seem to be millions of them. But I’m secretly appalled by the concept, I think writing is so intensely time consuming and private an activity there shouldn’t be much time for gurus and classes to attend in universities. I don’t think writing can be taught . . . you can be given pointers . . . be told to read certain books etc. but the only discoveries the writer makes are going to be solitary ones on the page. I see writing as an existential act, an axis between how you live your life and literature, the idea that you can institutionalise that scares me. It’s also a matter of time, it might take you ten years to find your style, the idea that a uni professor of creative writing can bring out the old stylistic KY jelly doesn’t convince me.

ZS: Do you think writers have a specific role in society to educate or agitate or produce art, or are they just doing a job like anyone else?

I think intelligence should be legalised, I think, as the poet Robin Robertson says, writers write for the void. I feel I make lonely cries and sometimes someone hears me, a writer can only follow the needs of the creatures of their imagination; if writers are going to write to formulas, be it the 19th century English novel or Soviet socialist realism (or Chinese) they will be doomed to artistic failure though they might flourish with royalties.

ZS: A. L. Kennedy recently brought out a book of poetry, and Irvine Welsh made that record. Have you considered forms other than prose with your writing, or been tempted to a complete change of medium?

AW: Well I mess around with oil and acrylic painting on large canvas. Abstract stuff. I’ve done a few on empty cigar tubes and I collect out of date credit cards so I’m going to paint on top of them. I’m doing one on top of Airfix models I’ve stuck to the canvas, I melted all the Airfix models into eerie shapes with a blow torch. I reckon they should sell for millions. I’m interested in other forms of writing. I’m working on an original screenplay and I publish the odd poem.

ZS: Do you think that in the future people will have stopped reading books, that attention spans will have decreased so much that everything has to be in visual and auditory fragments? Or that everything will be virtual and interactive?

Nah, you don’t have to switch books on or log on, the tactile immediacy of a book in your greasy palm will never die. That doesn’t mean people will read good quality literature though. I don’t think the book is under serious threat, but literature is. People have been sounding the death of the book for too long, when cinema became huge in the 1950’s people predicted the end of the novel but movies actually lead to more novel reading. I think the “dumbing down” in culture is worrying . . . the appeal of channel 5 and all these tits and canned laugh game, the idea that “art” is just for pretentious wanks etc. etc. . . All that worries me. But virile art forms survive all kinds of upheavals. Even with a dying readership people would still write novels and some of them, great ones.

ZS: And are you working on the script for the film of Morvern Callar, and do you think it’ll translate well to a visual medium?

AW: I think Lynne Ramsay and Michael Caton Jones are the most exciting filmmakers to come out of Scotland since Bill Douglas so I’m over the moon they’re each adapting one of my novels. Lynne is still working on her screenplay of Morvern Callar in between her busyness with the international success of Ratcatcher which is surely one of the greatest films ever made in Scotland. Alan Sharp, the Scottish novelist and Hollywood screenwriter (Rob Roy, Night Moves, Ulzana’s Raid) is working on The Sopranos for Michael. Lynne and I will probably do a bit of work together on the final screenplay, dialect and that, but I really Lynne’s vision, she’s a real artist and I just want to go with her vision of the film not mine. She’s even said she’ll let me in on the editing so it should be exciting but with someone of Lynne’s integrity you’ve just got to let them make the movie they want.

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