TBR: Buddha Da was shortlisted for the Orange Prize
this year. There was much media coverage on the six authors [the other nominees, besides
Donovan: Shena Mackay, Valerie Martin, Carol Shields, Zadie Smith and Donna Tartt]; you
appeared together for a reading at Hay on Wye and at the British Library. Can you tell us
what that experience was like? It was quite an intense media whirl and you were all
competing for a £30,000 award.
AD: It was wonderful being on the short list; a real honour to be with such superb
books and to have the opportunity to meet the other authors.
Four of the short listed authors were there: Shena Mackay, Valerie Martin, Donna Tartt and
myself. As most people will know, Carol Shields is very ill and unable to travel but her
daughter Catherine came to represent her at Hay. (Anne, another of her daughters, joined
us in London and read at the British Library and it was a delight to meet both of them.)
Sadly, Zadie Smith was also unable to be present due to family illness. The readings were
chaired by Kate Mosse (novelist and co-founder of the Orange Prize). Kate has tremendous
charm and professionalism, as well as being extremely knowledgeable about the books.
The atmosphere at the readings was wonderful - really appreciative and attentive
audiences. And when you read at Hay you are given a white rose and six bottles of
I also had a brilliant four days, being treated like a princess. The festivities started
with a party on Saturday 31 May at Cabalva, a lovely country house near Hay, and on the
Tuesday evening the award ceremony took place in a marquee in Lincolns Inn Fields
which had a red carpet leading to it. After a brief introduction to each book, the writers
went on stage to get their (orange) flowers from Sophie Dahl and hand-bound editions of
their books - a wonderful memento of the event.
Then it was announced that Property had won and Valerie was whisked away to be
interviewed. All that was left for the rest of us to do was party! Micah Parris was
singing and there was music and dancing till late.
One of the best parts of the whole experience was meeting the other writers. They were all
very friendly and good fun and we got on extremely well. And the way that everything is
organised is very inclusive and relaxed. It was also a great experience to read in front
of different audiences.
Back on the train on Wednesday with my flowers and book and lots of happy memories.
(Cinderella has now figured out how to use the washing machine and make a cup of tea and
can find her way around without a car arriving for her, so all is back to normal!)
TBR: Jimmy McKenna, the central character in Buddha Da,
is a typically working-class Glaswegian housepainter and decorator, who likes his bevvy
and the "footie"; he has a good solid marriage and a daughter. It seems so
unlikely that a man like Jimmy would develop an interest in Buddhism, but we believe it,
unquestionably. Where did you get the idea of the Buddhist angle? Have you practiced
AD: Over ten years ago I did go to meditation classes. I was initially drawn to
meditation as a way of being calmer in my day-to-day life, rather than any special
interest in Buddhism, but I did learn about Buddhism as well. Later, through a different
route, I went to some teachings by lamas, as well as reading more about Buddhism.
Ive never been a practising Buddhist, though.
Buddha Da started with the voice of Anne Marie, talking about her da, and it
wasnt till she came out with the bit about Jimmy becoming a Buddhist that I knew he
was going to do this! I think that often happens when youre writing - the
unconscious, or the things that have been on the back burner in your mind, take over. I
hadnt been consciously thinking about the meditation or Buddhism but here it was. I
also think thats one of the most interesting things about human beings, the way in
which we will be or can be drawn to things (sometimes a person, or place) that seem
unlikely on the face of it, but actually make sense when you look back on your life.
At the start of the book Jimmy is one of these characters who is amazingly outgoing,
always joking and carrying on. Of course his family are used to him being like that, but
after all, hes heading towards forty, his father has died a year or so before, and I
wanted to show him developing the interior part of himself. The initial attraction for
Jimmy was the lamas and the peacefulness of the centre. And for all that they seem very
different from Jimmy, I think there is a deep bond. Jimmy has a huge heart, hes
instinctive, he is a big presence. And actually being present, in the moment, in your
body, is crucial to mindfulness. I think that the humour also fits well with Buddhism.
TBR: There are three strong narrative voices in the novel -
Jimmy, his wife Liz, and their 12-year-old daughter, Anne Marie. Jimmys
("Das") slow conversion to Buddhist practices affects each of them
differently, causing their lives to change. Each alternately expresses their personal
feelings, attitudes and reactions during this time of tumult. Did one particular voice
prove more challenging than the others? Did you compose the novel as we read it; i.e.,
with the alternating voices? Im also curious to know how you achieved three such
distinct voices; thats quite a difficult task and you accomplish it beautifully.
AD: Thank you! Making sure that the voices were distinct, while keeping them all
from the same area, was one of the most important things for me in writing the novel.
Anne Marie's voice came first. Ive written a lot of first person narratives from the
point of view of wee lassies - they seem to come to me. And at first I didnt really
know it would be a novel - I thought I was writing another short story. But then I
realised it had to be Jimmy's and Liz's story too so I had to think about how to narrate
the novel. I was keen to keep the immediacy of the first person narrative but knew that it
was crucial to make all three voices sufficiently distinct.
I suppose really what I did was to try to be as much as possible in the skin of each
character before writing as them. I did write the sections of the novel mostly in the
order they are in, though I added a few sections after it was more or less complete.
I've written a lot from the perspective of female characters but with Jimmy I needed to
find a different way in (not because I felt that his feelings were necessarily different
because he was male, more that he inhabits a different physical space). I thought about
what age he was and what music he'd have liked when he was younger, then spent a lot of
time listening to my old punk rock tapes! This helped me to feel his energy.
That's also why he is a painter and decorator. At first I wanted to make him an
electrician as I thought I could get a few 'enlightenment' jokes out of it but though I
knew I could research being an electrician, I didn't think I could feel it. I've had lots
of experience of decorating ( not as a professional!) so I knew what it felt like to paint
or strip wallpaper. It also led to his painting the Buddha on the wall, which was a real
The other thing I did was to give each of the characters a different dominant sense so
that when I was that character then I concentrated on their way of viewing the world.
Jimmy of course is visual, while Liz is more aware of the sense of smell and is also very
sensual. Anne Marie's dominant senses are hearing and voice.
So I suppose you could say it's the method school of writing!
TBR: Part of what brings the characters so very much to life
is your use of the Scottish vernacular; specifically, I should say, the "Glesga"
dialect as opposed to "Embra." It may look a bit daunting to the non-native at
first, but its easy to get into (only the word "messages" gave me pause,
but I got it!) Can you give our readers a few examples of Glaswegian dialect as opposed to
the Edinburgh dialect of Irvine Welsh, Laura Hird, et al?
AD: Thats quite a hard question as Im used to hearing Glasgow voices
every day and Edinburgh only occasionally so I dont know which words cross over the
east-west divide - also as language changes some words are used by older people but not
younger ones. Theres also a difference in the rhythms of the speech as well as the
actual word used. Ken (know) and bairn (child) are east- coast
words. Wean (child) is west By the way and but at the
end of a sentence are typically Glasgow.
TBR: I liked the fact that Jimmy, now in his thirties, had
come of age in the early eighties. He still has a fondness for punk rock and still wears
Doc Martens. Is this part of his character based on a composite of a certain kind of man
his age or did you have a particular model in mind? How did he develop?
AD: I think there are lots of men around who are of a similar type to Jimmy and
its one that has always fascinated me. Theyre really outgoing - if you meet
them at a bus stop or they come to fix something in your house they want to know your life
story and will happily tell you theirs. They seem to have no shyness or embarrassment;
theyre just themselves and there is a genuine warmth about them. So I suppose
thats the starting point.
But the interesting thing about characters is to go below and explore the other parts of
them. On the one hand, Jimmy is like that, but like all of us, he has other sides. Often
we get into a familiar role with family or friends or workmates, and when we start to
change, or to express a different part of ourselves, it can be unsettling for everyone.
TBR: Anne Marie is a sharp and talented young girl, with a
great singing voice. One suspects she could go far, and yet she is limited somewhat by her
environment. Where might we find her in ten years time?
AD: Touring the world, I hope! (Maybe with Nisha, though I suspect for Nisha the
singing may be less of a vocation - I think shell do something else amazing -
discovering a cure for a serious illness maybe.) I see Anne Marie as having a kind of
Björk/Sinead OConnor quality to her voice - deeply moving and exciting at the same
time. It would be awful if she didnt go on and develop that in some way. Anne Marie
has already shown she has enormous determination as well as talent.
And of course the experiences of Jimmy and Liz, have paved the way for Anne Marie to be
who shes meant to be, to have both the confidence and the common sense to be able to
fly high yet know when its time to land on the earth. I dont think shes
limited by her environment - I think having had a stable and loving upbringing in a warm
extended family (not to mention close friendship) is a great foundation.
TBR: In your short story collection, Hieroglyphics and Other
Stories (Canongate, 2001), you begin by using the voices of little girls, then move to
those of adult females (often mothers of young children), and end with voices of old
women, with one male voice along the way. Each and every one is thoroughly convincing. I
especially marvel at how well you capture little girls. In the title story young Mary is
dyslexic, a condition that goes unnoticed both at home and school where shes
considered "daft." But Marys sense of humor and pluck see her through.
What was the origin of that story and how did it develop? I know youre a teacher.
Had you heard of cases such as Marys?
AD: Im not teaching now but I was a teacher and had taught quite a lot of
pupils who were dyslexic, some very badly. Nowadays (though things are not perfect) there
is a lot more recognition of the condition and more help available, but in the past it was
not well understood. Sometimes the parents of these children were also dyslexic and would
talk about their own experiences at school.
Since I have always loved reading and writing, I kept thinking how awful it must be to be
dyslexic, especially since at school you spend your whole life being faced with print. And
of course if you come to school speaking in a way some regard as undesirable, thats
likely to make things even more difficult. There are still those who (maybe even
unconsciously) equate accent or class with intelligence or ability. So I put myself in the
position of that wee lassie and the voice came.
Again, its the method school of writing! Ive never even been remotely dyslexic
but I have difficulty remembering strings of numbers, like phone numbers and car
registrations. Sometimes if Im dialling a number Im so slow that the phone
goes dead before Ive got to the end of the number. I imagined what it would be like
if my way through the world had to be through numbers rather than words. But thats
the starting point for the character - after Id done that Mary took over and she is
a lot more cheerful and grounded than I would be in her situation.
TBR: What was your very first published story and had you
submitted others before that? Can you give new writers some advice on how to get started?
AD: It wasnt actually the first into print but "Hieroglyphics" was
the first story I ever thought really worked and it was the first accepted for
publication. It was also the first story I wrote in Scots so it has a very special place
Id previously sent off a few stories, to New Writing Scotland and a
competition. One ended up being completely rewritten years later - I think it showed I had
the idea and a bit of spark but had not developed the technique to work it through. The
other is languishing in my computer somewhere - dont think itll ever work.
I think the important thing is to keep writing, to keep trying things, but also eventually
to put an end to something and send it off, otherwise you may be endlessly polishing.
Sometimes the cut-off date for a submission or competition can be a good deadline.
(Im assuming here that the new writer is starting with stories or poetry, rather
than a novel, which is a bit different.)
Send your work to suitable magazines, anthologies, competitions. Dont be scared of
rejection - it happens to everyone, even after they start getting published (and its
not personal, though it can hurt). Sometimes it just means your piece wasnt right
for that place or that editor on that day, or compared with the other pieces sent in.
Sometimes the piece itself isnt right and when you get a distance on it youll
see why. Maybe youll be able to rework it and maybe youll just let it go. But
keep the old drafts somewhere - you may be able to use parts of them in the future!
Sometimes a writing course or a writing group can help give you feedback, confidence,
someone to talk to, or a space to write - but everyone is individual and you need to do
what suits you. And most writers are great readers too.
I think the best advice I ever had at the start was not to censor the first draft of
anything - get it down on the page and you have something to work with. You can be as
critical as you like later!
TBR: What are you currently working on?
AD: Im writing a new novel, which I started last year. Im also about to
start on the screenplay of Buddha Da. A company called Wasted Talent have taken the
option out on it so this is the next step in the process, which I hope will lead to a film
Off the cuff . . .
- Glasgow versus Edinburgh
Glasgow is home and I love its energy and warmth. But I hate the litter! And we seem
to get a lot of heavy cloudy days compared to Edinburgh, even when its not raining.
Edinburgh always seems to be brighter, and has more air. But Im always a visitor -
have never lived there and am usually just through for the day, in the nice bits, enjoying
- ideal weekend
In Italy - maybe Lucca. The city walls are wide and flat, like a road but only bikes
and pedestrians are allowed. You can hire a bike and go round them - its a great way
to spend the morning. Id maybe go round a few churches too, then spend lots of time
sitting at a cafe, just watching.
In summer in Scotland it would need to be by the sea, somewhere fairly deserted, sitting
on a rock, just watching the sea and the sky. Or in the winter, at home, reading a good
book with a cup of tea.
- a few favorite fictional characters
Catherine in Wuthering Heights
Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song
Anne Eliot in Persuasion
Janie in The White Bird Passes (Jessie Kesson)
Ellen in The Camomile (Catherine Carswell)
Magwitch in Great Expectations
George Eliots characters are wonderful too - too many to say.
- some favorite films
How long have you got?
Its A Wonderful Life (Capra) has to be my all-time favourite. Lost count of
the number of times Ive seen it and it never pales. (And the bit where Mr Gower hits
him round the ear still gets to me!)
And some others in no particular order:
Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close (Wim Wenders)
Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder)
Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsey)
Missing (Costa Gavras)
Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies)
Orphans (Peter Mullen)
Almost anything by Ken Loach
The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice)
The Draughtsmans Contract (Peter Greenaway)
Nanook of the North
Dont Look Now (Roeg)
Anything with Cary Grant and/or Ingrid Bergman in it - maybe Indiscreet
Canongate Books versus the Bertelsmann conglomerate [Canongate, Donovans publisher, is a small, independent
publishing house in Edinburgh that published Life of Pi, last years Booker
Award winner; it is also noted for having launched Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, Michel Faber
and Laura Hird, among others.]
Dont know about any other publisher but Ive always been very proud
to be a Canongate author and felt I was in the right place from the very start. I think
that Jamie Byng [the man behind Canongate] is a visionary and he sets the tone of the
whole enterprise. He is passionate about books as well as being amazingly knowledgeable.
The people who work at Canongate are all extremely enthusiastic and dedicated. The
attention they give to producing and promoting books is wonderful. They deserve the
success and recognition they have had in the publishing world.
- if Buddha Da were to be made into a film, who would you
choose to play the three lead characters?
I wasnt thinking of it as a film as I wrote it, but afterwards thought it would
really work as a film. So heres my dream list!
Douglas Henshall is my ideal Jimmy. Ive seen him in Orphans and in some
things on TV and think hes a great actor. I think he looks perfect for Jimmy, has
great presence, and could do the manic bits as well as the sensitive, meditative side
convincingly. Peter Mullen for his brother John. A brilliant actor and director.)
Theres a wonderful actress I think could be Liz but I cant remember her name.
Anne Marie - I know shes out there somewhere in Glasgow. There were some amazing
children in Orphans and in Ratcatcher.
And maybe Lynne Ramsey or Peter Mullen could direct it!
- three things youve yet to do in life of the non-writing
The main one really has to be - visit Barcelona!