‘What was that I was saying about loneliness?’ – Valerie O’Riordan interviews Alan Warner, author of The Stars in the Bright Sky

Valerie O’Riordan (VO’R): Full disclosure before we start – I’m a huge fan, and The Sopranos is one of my favourite books. It’s manic and tragic and hilarious and unforgettable.  The Stars in the Bright Sky is very worthy successor; I’d really missed the girls. First question: how long had you been planning a sequel?

Alan Warner (AW): Hi there. I nearly always think about sequels. It’s like having one more drink when you know you probably shouldn’t. I’m not so sure sequel is the correct word. It’s more like a sequence. In a manner of speaking, stories and characters never end, they can extend on and on. If they die you can write a ghost story! There’s always some sort of closure but even the death of a character reveals living witnesses.

The Sopranos in 1998 was a “bestseller,” I suppose. It sold modestly well and all that. About ten years ago, when I signed a new book deal with my publishers I had mentioned I’d like to re-visit the girls again at some point and they were very keen on this, which is understandable, as The Sopranos sold well. So it became a contracted book. However, I think my long-suffering publisher thought I might get round to it a bit sooner. Perhaps for many years it seemed a bit obvious to me and now I have a distance on it. Other books came first. I work slowly – it’s not that I’m lazy, just a slow worker

VO’R: Any chance of rounding off the trilogy?  Kylah could always have that solo career…

AW: Well, how about them getting stuck coming back, under a cloud of volcanic ash!

VO’R: Several of your novels revolve around the same small highland port town, and peripheral characters recur too – Creeping Jesus is one that always makes me smile.  What is it about this location that inspires you?

AW: Well, I grew up in, and near, the town of Oban in Scotland and of course that and the landscape has been an influence. But the Port has become an absolutely distinct place in my own weird imagination. It is not just “Oban” with the names changed: I’ve garbled the geography and the inhabitants to suit myself, so it is a strange Darktown of my own dreaming.

VO’R: You’ve set The Stars in the Bright Sky in Gatwick airport.  I loved the fascination and excitement that the girls display when stuck in this most banal of locations.  What was your motivation in setting it there?

AW: I don’t like flying but airports are curious places. If you are not flying anywhere your presence in an airport has a slight tension; and the atmosphere is insuperable. I did end up spending a great deal of time in Gatwick, changing planes and over-nighting. I’d arrive back from Japan and there you were: Gatwick. The ultimate in the quotidian. I’d wander around, go from terminal to terminal. I think Security were fairly dubious about me. So it must have started to infect me. It was only for a short time I thought of sending the girls on holiday and I soon had a hunch, No. They are not going to get there, that’ll really wind them up! A few years ago I was stuck in an airport for 12 hour when the plane broke down and that kind of clinched it. They do get out the airport for day as you know! I also wanted the book to be more prosaic, more everyday. And longer. It had to be a long book. In some ways there is an element of satire but against the novel form itself. You have this banal place and this banal situation that just extends and extends. There’s no escape for them or the reader!

VO’R: There’s been a beautiful film adaptation of Morvern Callar, and I hear there’s one in the works for The Sopranos.  Any news on that?  

AW: I love the movie of Morvern Callar too. The lady who made it, Lynne Ramsay is a remarkable film maker. In the real sense of that over-used word. Her first feature film, Ratcatcher is a wonder as well. She seems unable to shoot a scene that doesn’t have some kind of affecting reality and emotional honesty to it.

I don’t think I told anyone at the time but I recall with Morvern I set out to write a book about the loneliest girl in the world. That’s all I wanted to do. I think it’s quite a heartbreaking book, even if I say so myself. I mean she’s so lonely. I find it quite flooring. I don’t re-read my books but I re-read that one a while back and I was shocked. This lonely beauty, going her own way. I hate to sound bland, but it’s the saddest thing – loneliness.

Anyway, I fear the film of The Sopranos has gone the way of all flesh. The Rights were bought in Hollywood through the production company of Michael Caton Jones, the Scottish film director. Alan Sharp – a great screenwriter from Scotland who worked in Hollywood through the 70s – wrote a great screenplay. Then Michael had me write a screenplay. Then there were great difficulties raising the finance. Michael has filmed in Scotland on large budgets (Rob Roy) so I don’t think he was ready to do it on a complete shoestring. Then these things seem to get placed in orbit and go round and round.

VO’R: Music is very important in your work.  If you had to quickly choose a soundtrack for this novel, what would be on there?

AW: I know what you mean. Music is sometimes mentioned in my novels. (Not in The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven). But I’m not sure what you mean by ‘ important’ though. Novels are not music. The music that is relevant is that which is mentioned in the text. If it’s not there, it’s not relevant. A reader need not know the music anymore than a reader of Death in Venice must have visited Venice… but it would be an added bonus if the reader did know it. I don’t want to be awkward though, I do see what you mean. How about Leaving on Jet Plane (or not!) by Peter Paul & Mary. Music for Airports by Brian Eno?  – which although I like, has never sounded very airport-y to me!

VO’R: Your dialogue is superb.  Have you ever thought of writing a script for stage, screen, or radio? 

AW: Is my dialogue any good? I’m not so sure. I try to make the characters alive. They don’t talk in elegant and thought-out sentences like all these middle class prats you come across in so many novels. So elegant and concise is the speech of some of these characters, in some of these novels, you would think they shit bronze sculptures.

VO’R: What started you writing in the first place?

AW: Reading: the worlds within worlds of reading.  There is a secret life of reading none of us talk about enough. When we go away from the world and sit and turn the pages. What a precious and over-looked wonder it really is.

VO’R: You live in Ireland : do you think there’s any similarities between the Irish and Scottish literary scenes?  The media often lumps you in with other Scottish writers, like AL Kennedy and Irvine Welsh – do you think that’s relevant to you, or is it simply reductive?

AW: The Irish have a robustly healthy crop of great writers for a smaller nation. It’s really remarkable. I’m a pretty shy fellow and tend to keep to myself – so I don’t really know what the “literary scene” is in Ireland. I once saw Roddy Doyle on the Dublin metro but I was too shy to say Hello. I love books. I adore them, but I’m not too furious on Literary Scenes. Ireland is not my country, I’ve lived here twelve years and I feel like a welcome guest, but I don’t want to pontificate in this context.  This might be the result of for most of my younger life, enduring the pontifications of certain English critics and commentators on Scottish writing!

I’m happy to be considered a Scottish writer. What else could I be? You can have writers in one small country all writing very differently. I think that’s healthy. Irvine, AL Kennedy and I are very different writers. In a way EVERYTHING other than reading books is reductive!

One thing I will say is that a literary scene SHOULD actually include some writers, but I notice in Scotland there is a nice little bureaucracy getting built up, full of these sort of ‘administrators of literature,’  all on salaries – and they are very good at forgetting to include any actual writers in many of their outlooks and activities. In fact, I sometimes wonder if any of them have ever met a writer. Things are said and done in your name, but nobody ever calls. What was that I was saying about loneliness?

Shed a tear for me, my friends, and genuine thanks for your interest in my work.

The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner is published by Cape and it’s in stores now!

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