‘For me contemporary realism suddenly seems a very new, exciting and fresh style to work in’ – Bookmunch Classic Interview: Alan Warner, author of Morvern Callar
Peter Wild (PW): The biographical note at the beginning of Morvern Callar refers to a short story collection you were working on but – now, five books in – the short story collection has yet to materialise. So. I was wondering. Do you write short stories really, really slowly – or has that particular venture been shelved?
Alan Warner (AW): I hardly write any short stories though I have just completed one – the first in years. I have several others up on blocks – where they can remain. I like to read some very good short story writers so it is very daunting . It is a completely different art form from the slightly more forgiving, large canvas of a novel. It’s interesting how some writers are very much novelists and some very much short story writers and some supermen/women, can do both. Something in the creative or limiting genes I suppose.
PW: I am sort of interested in the speed with which people write. I read somewhere (I think I read somewhere) that you regard yourself as a slow writer. So I’m wondering – how slow is slow? I know Paul Auster considers it a day well spent if he finishes 100 words. Where do you stand on a scale of one to Paul Auster?
AW: Auster makes it worth it. Let’s think of Anthony Trollope in contrast though. He used to start writing at 5.30 in the morning before he went to work at the post office. He set himself a target of 250 words every fifteen minutes which he timed meticulously with his watch! He was capable of handing in 10,000 words in a week which is around 40 pages but once, he handed in a week’s work of 112 pages! I’m more of the Scott Fitzgerald school. What was it F Scott said, “A bottle for a paragraph, but a crate for a chapter”!? You have productive days and off days. I’ve got 800 words on a very good day. But just the number of words written in a day is a fairly meaningless indication. There is the re-writing and adding and subtracting and cutting – the discovery of secret rhythms and sentences which leap, make spaces and hollow out the flow of ideas (or lack of!). As you write you create the mysterious breaths and pace which an extended bit of prose takes on and which stamps the novel with its dimensions and its architecture. As well as the daily writing, there is the overall tapestry you are creating which exerts its own pressure over all the pages and makes new demands upon them. This is why I can often find whole pages or even chapters I have written have only been mere scaffolding to get me somewhere. I know Michael Ondaatje has told me he works in this way also – writing far more than just that which ends up on the final printed page. Therefore of the 800 words I write on a good day, most will vanish; maybe only 150 make it to the page and perhaps I’ve hauled a sentence out of that and placed it elsewhere or reformed every single sentence within those few paragraphs. It’s not so much the word count; its Hour/Day/Week/Month/Year-Burn. Writing, for me, is horribly time-consuming. But that’s because I’m thick as two planks and ignorant; still, Trollope needed to get out more.
PW: Morvern Callar was made into a great movie starring Samantha Morton. Which means it’s one of those rare rare things – a great book made into a great movie. Obviously my perspective is different to yours. So I have to ask. What did you make of the movie? And just how weird is it seeing the world you’ve dreamed up paraded across the big screen?
AW: I liked that movie very, very much too. The director, Lynne Ramsay, is a real artist – every scene she shoots so beautifully has this degree of authenticity and truth to it. The young ladies were great in it too. The young lady who played Lanna – Kathleen McDermott – was discovered by the casting director in an argument over a parking place – she wasn’t an actress at all but was wonderful in a major part. It was the kind of movie that in the 1980s, when I was 21 years old, I would have had a heart attack of joy over if I’d seen it at the cinema. French-like movies weren’t made in Scotland twenty years ago (apart from Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch and Bill Douglas’ Trilogy). Both on the set and later in the dark cinema it was an eerie experience seeing scenes that had played in my imagination and been frozen there, then performed almost as I had originally seen them in my head. That said, I feel the film became at times an exploration on a theme rather than a faithful adaptation. I would have preferred some things from the novel, which were cut out, kept in. The usual writer’s gripe, I know. I think they would have strengthened the second half of the movie thematically. In Spain they filmed an amazing night swimming sequence which was sadly cut. What about those nightclub scenes at the end though? Chilling. And crystal sound through the film – a nice palette of colours.
PW: Your second novel, These Demented Lands, takes up with Morvern Callar again. When I first read the book I remember wondering whether they both were in fact one longer book that an intrepid agent / editor suggested be broken into two shorter books – or whether Morvern, as a character, was just so interesting to you that you couldn’t let her go. (And if the latter was the case, are you done with her now or can you see yourself frequenting her door – as it were – sometime in the future)…
PW: Neither my editor Robin Robertson who is a writer himself (a fine poet) nor my agent would interfere to such a huge degree. People at readings and in the odd letter, were asking for a continuation but since I was fairly perverse in those days, I killed Morvern off . These Demented Lands was – to me – obviously set in Hell. But few picked it up despite the references to Pincher Martin. The book was reviewed as if it were a work of social realism. I’d like to go back to frequent the door of those girls from The Sopranos much more!
AW: I was going to say that The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven feels like a bit of a departure from your previous books – but then the same could be said of every book you’ve written (The Sopranos is a departure from These Demented Lands, The Man Who Walks is a departure from The Sopranos). Is it important to you to challenge yourself with every book you write?
AW: Yes. I’m glad you see The Worms… as something of a continuity. I like to be make it awkward for myself from book to book but it’s not a credo. I just feel the worlds I’ve left behind, which I’ve previously imagined so intently are like deracinated wastelands in my imagination and I have to move on to new things when I come to write again. After a few years the wasteland seems to sprout weeds and I’m more ready to go back places again.
PW: I read that you recently bought a Spanish apartment with your wife, that your father once owned a hotel and that you yourself were once (and still may be …) a bit of a hellraiser – all of which informs The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven, to a greater or lesser extent. Do you agree with James Joyce on the subject of ‘Work it all in’?
AW: I’m very suspicious of making too much of autobiography in a writer’s work. If I wrote about my life as it is, my books would involve thrilling and numerous trips to computer shops and the answering of emails and climax with the monthly compiling of Irish VAT returns. Very Hell-raising! Writers work on the page, and their characters maybe come alive there.but their characters are not them. You search forlornly for biography on all my pages. I think Jack Kerouac is a good example of the folly of trying to work it ALL in. You get the dross as well as the brilliance. You get the writer’s self important conviction that everything which has happened to them must be of interest to the reader and must inform his or her characters. I love the narrative of jokes and pub stories but don’t want to be a writer of just anecdotes – though anecdotes strung together have informed the picaresque novel since the 15th century. My novels are a collage of things that have mainly just been imagined, a few might have happened to the author or to acquaintances, have been read about – but all must be subsumed to the overall Style of the novel. It is the novelist’s Style we should turn our attention to – not the life. How has the Style been arrived at and how does it work? Or is there any original Style at all to talk of? Remember how Ezra Pound categorised all writers: the Inventors the Masters or the Diluters, I think it went. Because some things wont fit and just have to be left out – I adore Joyce but I think by Finnegans Wake, and with its style, it was easy for Joyce to work in all in..!
PW: Manolo Follana, the narrator of The Worms…, often mentions his difficulties with language. The limitations of language feels like one of your great themes. Would you say that was true?
AW: Well Follana is (here’s real autobiography!) like me, a most dreadful linguist so he has his own very specific struggles with the limitations of language. I’m not sure I have anything so grand as ‘great themes’ but I agree with you a distrust of language – verging on disrespect ! – (my editor would certainly vouch for my disrespect with regard to basic spelling) is certainly there in all my books. As you work through language you become aware of its power and failings. Look at the Newspeak way language is abused by just this Government: “Job-Seekers,’ (Why not “Career Seekers”?) ‘Social Exclusion,’ ( = if you are poor you’re not a part of society) ‘War on Terror,’ (any war is by definition, terror itself) ‘The International Community,’ (All rich countries especially UK/USA/ Big Business) ‘Civilian Casualties,’ (= mutilated children) – all to slyly construct a world view which limits and denies reality. Great writers (I don’t include myself) expand our world and confront realities and truth; they can find the bon mots and the perfect sentences which break through our daily confusion and form myths worthy of our continued attention. Look at Constant’s Adolphe for instance. What a nakedly powerful (and moving) understanding of the heart of mankind he displays within the most rigorous and perfect style.
PW: Furthermore (furthermore to the previous question), Manolo tends to rubbish other languages but specifically English and the novel – the reader is to presume – has been ‘translated’. Taking this (alongside some of the more ‘arch’ chapter titles, like, for example, ‘Last chapter. Titled: Last chapter.’), I was wondering how ‘playful’ a novel you regard The Worms… to be (especially when considered alongside your previous novels).
AW: ‘Playful’ seems too frivolous a word to me. Isn’t it ironic as well? It’s a deliberate textual approach. All the time you are aware there is an ideological entity called ‘English Literature’ and importantly, a contemporary idea (which is almost always wrong) about what great literature is. As a writer you are in a relationship with that misguided ideology and I like to think – in my small way- I’m kicking against it.questioning it..taking risks. It’s a thankless task leading more often to misunderstanding and loneliness than anything else but it’s the way I must go. Britain is such a class based society a stench of the Buckingham Palace garden party always manages to cling to literary respectability today and I can’t take that respectability seriously. I fear it. In Ireland, until recently, writers managed to maintain a delicious sense or disrespectability – effortlessly helped alas, by their financial poverty.
PW: Okay. Last but not least. Have you settled on what your next project will be? Anything you can tell us …?
AW: After mentioning ‘social realism’ earlier, saying this is the mode These Demented Lands was interpreted as by current critics (our Town Councillors of Literature, as I call them), I’m working on a novel that is the most ‘realist’ thing I’ve written. It is about a contemporary marriage, parenthood and a powerful love affair. Five or six books in, or whatever, I’m excited about this because the stranger landscapes of my earlier books have never been like this for me – for me contemporary realism – no more surreal, outlandish set pieces -suddenly seems a very new, exciting and fresh style to work in. I’d also like, as I said, to go back to those girls from The Sopranos years down the line and have a look at them as young women rather than girls. I have a wild idea where I’d like to place them. I’m also working on research – reading, note-taking and a bit of travelling, towards a historical novel I want to attack one day.
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- July 16, 2014 / 7:25 am