The first time I meet Alan Bissett he’s wearing gold shoes. They have a backstory that is a combination of Cinderella and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. This is probably the best introduction I can give to the kind of writer Alan is both in person and prose – charming, stylish, and very Scottish. Alan was in Melbourne for the Emerging Writers’ Festival as its very first international guest, and his most recent novel Death Of A Ladies’ Man sold out the festival bookshop. Before he jumped on a plane home, I interviewed him on writing process and whether one can ever be anything other than ‘emerging’ as a writer.
The Emerging Writers’ Festival is largely an exploration of writing craft and process. Do you have a particular way in which you compose your novels? Is there something that never fails to inspire you?
Reading other people’s novels never fails to inspire me, especially if they’re better ones than I’m capable of writing (hello, The Slap, which I just finished). But I’ve realised that I have no consistent writing ‘process’, as all of my novels were composed so differently. Boyracers tumbled out in a mad, energetic rush; The Incredible Adam Spark took about four years of trial and error, with no plan attached (which meant I wasted about 90,000 words of prose that the public will never see); and the whole story of Death of a Ladies’ Man appeared in a blinding flash. But this turned out to be deceptive, as the first draft took about five months, while the redraft took three years! So when I start a novel I have NO idea if it’s going to be a piece of cake to write or endless agony. The book is the boss, and sometimes it is demanding and sometimes it is sweet. You just know when you’ve got there. That’s the process.
You’ve said previously that you like to write books that ‘people can dance to’. What do you mean by that?
I like the prose to have rhythm, style and energy. Boyracers was supposed to feel like pop music. Adam Spark was supposed to feel like the speech of a hyperactive child. Death of a Ladies’ Man was supposed to feel like being on cocaine. In all three I was going for flash and kinetics. I’ve never really been capable of writing prose that just sits there on the page, functionally telling the story. So I guess that’s what I meant by reading my books being like dancing.
You published your first novel Boyracers at 25. How did you begin as a writer and what advice would you have for emerging writers?
Do it now. Now. Not later. And – to paraphrase John Connor in the first Terminator film – don’t stop, ever, until you are dead. Oh, and get yourself a peer group. You can’t underestimate the importance of feedback. Sometimes we just don’t know that we’ve written a piece of shit.
Are there areas in which you still see yourself as ‘emerging’? Do you think a writer is ever fully ‘emerged’?
Well I’m definitely still ‘emerging’ beyond Scotland. Places like England and Australia have only just become aware of me, although in Scotland I’m now described as an ‘established’ writer. But no writer is ever fully ‘emerged’ because we should be constantly evolving. My goal, once upon a time, was just to get a short story published. Then it was a novel. Then it was another novel. I did not see myself, further down the line, writing, performing and touring my own one-woman show, put it that way. You’ve never fully ‘ made it’, you’re only ever just at the next stage. It’s a constant process of transformation. That’s what is so exciting about being a writer.
Melbourne was declared the second UNESCO City of Literature (Edinburgh is the first). How does what you’ve experienced of the Melbourne literary scene compare to Scotland– in particular your home town Falkirk?
Well, Falkirk is a very small place compared to Melbourne, so there aren’t too many opportunities for a writer there. But I draw my inspiration from there, because I grew up there and the language is important to me. That said, it is only 25 minutes from Glasgow and Edinburgh in either direction, both of which have strong writing scenes. Melbourne, quite frankly, is on fire culturally. Glasgow is too. Most of our greatest contemporary writers – Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Janice Galloway, Liz Lochhead, Tom Leonard, A.L. Kennedy – incubated their talent in Glasgow. It’s a poor city, economically, which is probably why the culture has such a ferocious edge to it. I find myself inspired by the city, and the grassroots vibe there now is very exciting, as young writers are really energising the live literature scene, stylishly cross-fertilising it with music, comedy, film, live art, fashion, etc., and using social media to spread the word. That really reminds me of Melbourne.
But Scottish literature is in a far more marginal position in comparison to English literature. The south of England is so dominant culturally and financially in the UK that places like Glasgow (and, say, Manchester in the North of England) have thriving arts scenes despite London, not because of it. Opposition breeds good art. But it does mean that a Scottish writer has to work five times harder to be recognised than, say, a writer who lives in the south of England and went to Cambridge University. The struggle is greater, but that’s what gives Scottish writing its edge and power too, and why our nation’s literature is so imbued with class politics and has a completely different identity. The contemporary Scottish novel has contained the struggle of a whole nation to be recognised.
— Alan Bissett’s new novel Pack Men will be out August 2011.