TBR: I first noticed your name among the line-up in Kevin
Williamsons anthology Children of Albion Rovers, 1996, published by Rebel
Inc. The anthology features six new writers to emerge from Scotland in the 90s - Irvine
Welsh, Alan Warner, Gordon Legge, James Meek, Paul Reekie and yourself. Quite the dream
team. I know youd appeared in Rebel Inc magazine (1992-1995); is that how you ended
up among the lads in Rovers? That must have been a fun experience.
LH: I first started writing short stories after going to a Rebel Inc reading in
about 1993/4. Irvine Welsh was reading from his soon to be published book Trainspotting.
It was very accessible in a way that writing had never seemed before. The ethos was that
everyone should have a go. So I went home, wrote my first short story and sent it off to
Kevin Williamson a couple of days later. He accepted it for the magazine and asked me for
more, at the same time suggesting other places I should send work to. I kept writing, and
had a few stories published in magazines and did my first few readings. Then Kevin started the imprint through Canongate, and asked me to
write the novella for Children of Albion Rovers, and soon after commissioned my
first short story collection.
Children of Albion Rovers was very exciting to
get involved with. Id read and loved all the other writers work previously so
was delighted at being in a collection with them. I was pretty star struck and shy to
begin with. First time I met Alan Warner, Gordon Legge, Paul Reekie, James Meek was in a
flat in Edinburghs New Town for an interview with a journalist from Rolling Stone.
It was a strange situation to suddenly find myself in, having a month or so previously
been the quiet girl who worked in the office. It was very exciting. Then a group of us
went over to read at the Crossing Border Festival in The Hague. It was a fantastic few
days. We met Lou Reed in the hotel reception. He said, "How are ydoing?" I
nearly fainted. The time in The Hague really broke the ice between the writers, and since
then Im not so shy.
TBR: After publishing over sixty Rebel Inc book titles,
including a follow-up anthology, Rovers Return, Kevin Williamson seems to have
given up publishing and is focused on the Rebel Inc Coffee Shop in Edinburgh - a
Dutch-style coffeehouse where you can buy cannabis and smoke on the premises. Hes
obviously campaigning to relax the cannabis laws. Hows all that going? Can we expect
to see more Rebel Inc titles in the future?
LH: The Coffee Shops not been launched yet. Kevins still working on the
small print I think. Its all a bit hush-hush. Hopefully, if it takes off, hell
be organising readings and events there as he always had a real flair for things like
that, aside from his talent as an editor. Keep my fingers crossed that he will return to
publishing one day. I probably would have given up years ago if it hadnt been for
TBR: Youd published extensively in small presses and
magazines and then came your collection Nail and Other Stories. That collection is
a marvel, the voices so fresh and memorable, the plots original and imaginative. Your
protagonists range from a 12-year-old boy to a dead lesbian to a jilted woman out to
torment her ex. I think, too, of the middle-aged male school teacher in "The Dilating
Pupil" from Rovers, who gets seduced by a 16-year-old student. Are some
characters easier to get down than others? Have you ever wanted to create a character, but
couldnt get the voice? Any types you wouldnt attempt?
LH: Most of my stories start with the characters. I do a lot of background on them
before I even think what theyre going to do. Sometimes the stories come from
developing the character. I think once you get into their heads, its fairly easy to
work out what theyd say and how theyd behave. I like writing all sorts of
characters male, female, old, young. The most enjoyable characters to write are
real monsters. Loved writing Angie in Born Free. She was such a bitch at times.
Only problem is, you sometimes dont leave the character at home when you go out. You
keep them in your head and imagine how theyd react in different situations you find
yourself in. This is ok when its a decent character, but when it a nasty one, it can
make you a bit crazy. Some characters Ive written I think are stronger than others.
I think Jake in Born Free could have done with a bit more work. Others you
dont want to let go of when the story is finished. Id like to spend more time
with Angie one day. Theres not really any type of character I wouldnt attempt.
The more difficult something seems, the more creative you need to be.
TBR: Would you attempt, say, an American teen as a central
LH: American writers have always had an enviable knack of doing that brilliantly
themselves. But thats not a proper answer. If I had a good enough idea for a story
that called for a teenage American character, Id have a bloody good try.
TBR: Your novel Born Free received praise from both
critics and the public. Set in west Edinburgh, it portrays a working-class family of four
- mum, dad and two teenagers that the Guardian reviewer described as
"the kind of family social workers spend their lives shoring up against its own
valiant endeavours to tear itself apart." The narrative is divided into chapters told
from the different points of view of the family. (I love mums remark that marriage
is only good as preparation for terminal illness.) The 15-year-old teenager, Joni, is
determined to lose her virginity by age 16. Where might we expect to see Joni ten years
down the line? And what about mum (Angie), whose slide back into alcoholism is so
effectively portrayed - where might we find her?
LH: I have a skeleton and the first few chapters of a sequel to Born Free. I
know where it ends. Its all there. So I cant really answer that question
without giving away the plot. Not sure when Ill actually get round to writing it.
Cant decide whether I should do the four viewpoints again, or stick to one
character. I enjoyed getting into all four of their heads, but feel it doesnt really
stretch me as a writer to write in that format again, much as Id like to. Everyone
seemed to have a character they liked best, so I wouldnt be sure which one to use if
I was going to write from one viewpoint.
TBR: At the moment you have a story in Serpents Tail
anthology, Strictly Casual: Fiction by Women on Love. Your female protagonists are
such welcome voices. Often,
as with the character in this anthology, theyre a tough and raunchy breed:
theyre hard drinkers; they fuck; they make no apologies. I dont often see that
in American fiction these days, where the women, if they overstep a line of some sort,
arent so open and in-your-face about it, and may even be burdened by angst and
LH: I grew up around strong women. Scotland is very matriarchal. Also, I dont
really think about gender when Im writing. It can get in the way sometimes. Both men
and women can be strong, or vulnerable and weak.
TBR: You sometimes conduct writing workshops with adults and
with secondary school kids. I notice you even worked on a film project (Billy No Mates)
with school kids in Liverpool. Do you enjoy working with teens?
LH: My role in the Billy No Mates project was as a script consultant. The
children had been working on an idea for the film at summer school. Through discussions,
brain-storming sessions etc., we developed a script from their ideas and in their own
words. I took notes during the planning and wrote the script based on those. The kids then
went on to direct, produce, film and star in the film. It was shown with five other films
that had been commissioned at a premier in a local Liverpool cinema and we were all taken
there in stretch limos. I was overwhelmed by the childrens enthusiasm and kept
in touch with their teacher all the way through filming, keeping up with the little dramas
along the way. They are all going to the NFT in London tomorrow, where the films
being shown as part of Liverpools presentation to be European City of Culture 2008.
It was amazing to be part of such a successful project.
Working with kids/teenagers can be very unpredictable
though. Ive been involved in a few workshop situations with teenagers that
werent so successful. Im not very good at asserting my leadership with kids. I
can get walked all over. To be honest, I prefer working with adults. Billy No Mates
was just a particularly great group of kids.
TBR: Your web site is fun to explore. I like the recipe
section, which includes how to make haggis and stovies and mushy peas from scratch.
Whats the word on Scottish food? When I asked Michel Faber, he simply advised
visitors to bring their own.
LH: Been enjoying getting people I know to tell me their favourite recipes for [my
website]. I try to get over a little of the personality of the person in the recipe as
well. Always had an idea of doing a cookbook with ordinary people in it. The website gives
me a means to do that. Scottish food does have a bad reputation, but there are some
excellent Scottish cooks and restaurants Gordon Ramsay, Nick Nairn, etc. We have
fine beef and fish (whats left of it.) Over the past few years, Scottish men have
been getting more involved in cooking which is a good thing. The men were always in charge
of the soup-making traditionally, but now theyre asserting themselves a bit more in
the kitchen. I think Scottish food gets its bad reputation from fast food (ie chip shops.)
Every country has its own form of fast food though. Nice of Michel to give us such a nice
TBR: Your writing expresses a strong sense of place, evoking
the sights, sounds and smells of urban Scotland. In the short story "Routes,"
for example, we follow an unwanted, street-smart laddie as he relates a memorably
bittersweet bus trip, all alone, to the outskirts of Edinburgh and back on his twelfth
birthday. You say you begin a story with emphasis on character. The plot and the setting
then follow naturally?
LH: I start with character, every time. Get to know the character and the story
almost writes itself. Setting I develop as Im writing. "Routes" was
particularly easy to write as I used a bus route I used to use to go down to my
friends house in Musselburgh. It was easy from that point on to imagine and develop
all the different points on that journey.
TBR: Would you be comfortable writing about a setting
wholly outside your personal experience?
LH: I would feel uncomfortable if it wasnt something I could do at least some
form of research into. Again, it would depend on the idea. If there was a specific place
or time I became interested in (in my case usually temporarily obsessed), I would, knowing
me, glean enough information to form some kind of picture in my mind, and then let my
imagination develop from there. This said, I do like writing about Edinburgh, because it
is around me; I know it so intimately and I would never run out of different aspects of it
to write about. Some of the finest books ever written have been by writers writing about
the place they live in, be it New York, St Petersburg, Paris, London or anywhere. At the
heart of it, every human beings motivations and needs are pretty much the same,
wherever you are. Having said that, for a year or so now, Ive had an idea for a book
about the original Scottish settlers in Nova Scotia, but that is a few years off.
TBR: There are several good T.V. programs coming out of
the U.K. these days, which Ive had the opportunity to see on video: the political
satire of Bremmer, Bird and Fortune; the half-hour monologue Marion and Geoff;
and The Book Group, set in Edinburgh. Do you have some faves and have you ever
considered writing for T.V.?
LH: I was absolutely blown
away by Ricky Gervais' The Office, last year. I think its one of the
funniest, most intelligent and touching shows the UK has ever produced. It even makes Fawlty
Towers pale into insignificance. I dont tend to watch much TV though. I usually
wait till series come out on video then watch them in one sitting. Dont like having
to wait a week to find out what happens. Im too impatient. Do enjoy the programmes
you mentioned. We seem to be going through a particularly good time in British comedy.
Its had its dark times over the years. I missed a few of the Book Group, but
was enjoying it and will buy the video in the next week or so.
Ive been approached by a number of production
companies, agents etc over the years asking if Im interested in writing for
TV/films. At the moment Im contracted to write two more books but I would love to
write screenplays at some point. My main passion has always been films rather than books.
Ive been asked to come up with a synopsis with a view to people finding funding for
me to work on a project, but dont feel I should dip my toe in till I fulfill my
current obligations. On the other hand, writers I know who have moved into writing for TV
all seem to have some sense of having sold their souls. It can be a depressing and
cut-throat business when the authorial control they took for granted goes out the window.
TBR: Can you tell us what youre working on at the moment?
LH: Im currently finishing my new short story collection. Ive started
about five different novels since Born Free but cant find one I feel happy
enough with to settle on. As I said, Ive got a skeleton of a sequel to Born Free,
but think I should write a few new things before I develop that. I am very easily
distracted from writing.
Off the cuff . . .
- two spots in Edinburgh off the tourist track that youd
recommend to visitors
The Water of Leith runs for nearly 18 miles, right through the centre of Edinburgh.
Its incredibly beautiful and like being out in the wild. You have no sense you are
in the middle of a city when you are walking along it. You can walk from its source in the
Pentland Hills, right down to the seafront. My dad used to take me fishing in the Water of
Leith when I was young. I have lots of memories of it over the years. On the way, you take
in the Modern Art Galleries, the Dean Bridge (walking under that is amazing), and any
number of the many pubs you can make a slight detour to.
And staying on a watery theme, I love the Firth of
Forth. It has so many different characters Cramond (where you can walk out to the
island and get stranded), South Queensferry, underneath the Forth Rail Bridge, with
incredible views of both bridges, Leith Docks, Portobello (the more traditional seaside
part), etc. Its also a great stretch of water for fishing, with Edinburgh on one
side and all the lovely fishing villages of Fife on the other. When I fly into Edinburgh I
always feel incredibly proud as the plane comes in over the Forth Bridges.
-favorite U.K. daily newspaper
I swop around depending on my mood, and on what they have in them on specific days. Also
read a lot of news online. So much comes up that never seems to end up in the newspapers,
- most overrated classic or contemporary novel
Have a few contemporary ones, but Id prefer not to name them.
- a few favorite literary characters from well-known fiction
Jock MacLeish from Alasdair Grays Janine (1984), Jean Brodie, Alan Warner
when hes in the heads of teenage girls, Patricia Highsmiths Ripley.
- three or four current films that you recommend
City of God is one of the best films Ive seen in years. Everyone should see
it. It moves at an unbelievable pace and is extremely powerful. Watched a film called L.I.E.
over the weekend by the director of Six Foot Under, starring Brian Cox which was
excellent and reminded me of My Own Private Idaho. Talk to Her is absolutely
fantastic. Almodóvars work just gets better and better. Also thought Ivansxtc
was very powerful and unusual.
- Scottish football
My dad was an avid Hearts supporter so I probably have most affection for them. Any of the
smaller teams who manage to give Rangers and Celtic a run for their money are ok by me.
- favorite new music
Im more into my nostalgia I think. Still trying to replace 25 years worth of vinyl
- Edinburgh versus London
Spent three years studying and working in London, and visit it at least once a year. Think
its an incredible city with so much colour and diversity. Its size can
sometimes overwhelm me though, being from somewhere as compact and accessible as
Edinburgh. It still shocks me though, that the bars shut at 11 on weekends. Ill
never get used to that. Edinburgh is my home. I have a love/hate relationship with it but
its in my blood and I feel very lucky to live here.
- advice to George W. Bush and Tony Blair
Since when did either of them listen to advice?