issue 35: march - april 2003 

 | Short Story The Happening

Laura HirdInterview with
Laura Hird

by Jill Adams

Laura Hird lives and works in Edinburgh. With her short story collection Nail and Other Stories (Rebel Inc, 1997; short-listed for the Saltire Society Literary Awards 1998), she was swiftly recognised as one of the hottest literary talents on the Scottish scene. Her novel Born Free (Rebel Inc., 1999) was shortlisted for the 2000 Whitbread First Novel Award. Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines in both Britain and abroad.

TBR: I first noticed your name among the line-up in Kevin Williamson’s 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 you’d 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. I’d 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 Edinburgh’s 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 y’doing?" I nearly fainted. The time in The Hague really broke the ice between the writers, and since then I’m 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. He’s obviously campaigning to relax the cannabis laws. How’s all that going? Can we expect to see more Rebel Inc titles in the future?
LH: The Coffee Shop’s not been launched yet. Kevin’s still working on the small print I think. It’s all a bit hush-hush. Hopefully, if it takes off, he’ll 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 hadn’t been for him.

TBR: You’d 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 couldn’t get the voice? Any types you wouldn’t attempt?
LH: Most of my stories start with the characters. I do a lot of background on them before I even think what they’re going to do. Sometimes the stories come from developing the character. I think once you get into their heads, it’s fairly easy to work out what they’d say and how they’d 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 don’t leave the character at home when you go out. You keep them in your head and imagine how they’d react in different situations you find yourself in. This is ok when it’s a decent character, but when it a nasty one, it can make you a bit crazy. Some characters I’ve written I think are stronger than others. I think Jake in Born Free could have done with a bit more work. Others you don’t want to let go of when the story is finished. I’d like to spend more time with Angie one day. There’s not really any type of character I wouldn’t attempt. The more difficult something seems, the more creative you need to be.

TBR: Would you attempt, say, an American teen as a central figure?
LH: American writers have always had an enviable knack of doing that brilliantly themselves. But that’s not a proper answer. If I had a good enough idea for a story that called for a teenage American character, I’d 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 bornfreetwo 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 mum’s 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. It’s all there. So I can’t really answer that question without giving away the plot. Not sure when I’ll actually get round to writing it. Can’t 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 doesn’t really stretch me as a writer to write in that format again, much as I’d like to. Everyone seemed to have a character they liked best, so I wouldn’t be sure which one to use if I was going to write from one viewpoint.

TBR: At the moment you have a story in Serpent’s Tail anthology, Strictly Casual: Fiction by Women on Love. Your female protagonists are such welcome voices. Often, as with the character in this anthology, they’re a tough and raunchy breed: they’re hard drinkers; they fuck; they make no apologies. I don’t often see that in American fiction these days, where the women, if they overstep a line of some sort, aren’t so open and in-your-face about it, and may even be burdened by angst and guilt.
LH: I grew up around strong women. Scotland is very matriarchal. Also, I don’t really think about gender when I’m 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 limo’s. I was overwhelmed by the children’s 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 film’s being shown as part of Liverpool’s 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. I’ve been involved in a few workshop situations with teenagers that weren’t so successful. I’m 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. What’s 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 (what’s 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 they’re 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 plug though.

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 I’m writing. "Routes" was particularly easy to write as I used a bus route I used to use to go down to my friend’s 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 wasn’t 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 being’s motivations and needs are pretty much the same, wherever you are. Having said that, for a year or so now, I’ve 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 I’ve 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 it’s one of the funniest, most intelligent and touching shows the UK has ever produced. It even makes Fawlty Towers pale into insignificance. I don’t tend to watch much TV though. I usually wait till series come out on video then watch them in one sitting. Don’t like having to wait a week to find out what happens. I’m too impatient. Do enjoy the programmes you mentioned. We seem to be going through a particularly good time in British comedy. It’s 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.
       I’ve been approached by a number of production companies, agents etc over the years asking if I’m interested in writing for TV/films. At the moment I’m 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. I’ve been asked to come up with a synopsis with a view to people finding funding for me to work on a project, but don’t 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 you’re working on at the moment?

LH: I’m currently finishing my new short story collection. I’ve started about five different novels since Born Free but can’t find one I feel happy enough with to settle on. As I said, I’ve 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 you’d recommend to visitors

The Water of Leith runs for nearly 18 miles, right through the centre of Edinburgh. It’s 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. It’s 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, it’s worrying.

- most overrated classic or contemporary novel

Have a few contemporary ones, but I’d prefer not to name them.

- a few favorite literary characters from well-known fiction

Jock MacLeish from Alasdair Gray’s Janine (1984), Jean Brodie, Alan Warner when he’s in the heads of teenage girls, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley.

- three or four current films that you recommend

City of God is one of the best films I’ve 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. Almodóvar’s 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

I’m more into my nostalgia I think. Still trying to replace 25 years worth of vinyl with CD’s.

- Edinburgh versus London

Spent three years studying and working in London, and visit it at least once a year. Think it’s an incredible city with so much colour and diversity. It’s 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. I’ll never get used to that. Edinburgh is my home. I have a love/hate relationship with it but it’s 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?

© The Barcelona Review 2003

See Routes and Of Cats and Women in TBR archives.

Be sure to visit Laura Hird’s website   It’s fun, you’ll get a feel for Edinburgh, and it includes an FAQ section with advice to new and emerging writers.

This interview may not be archived, reproduced or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.


 tbr 35           March - April 2003 

-Short Fiction
      Alexei Sayle: Barcelona Plates
      Laura Hird: The Happening
      Barbara Lefcowitz: Medea, The Girl from Albania, The Walking Tree
  picks from back issues:
      Des Dillon: The Blue Hen
      Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: Buried in Shit
and Stars and Losers

      Gretchen McCullough: March 2003: Letter from Cairo

      Sue Thomas: Spivak

     with Scottish author Laura Hird

     All About Books
      Answers to last issue’s Graham Greene quiz

-Book Reviews
      Adios, Muchachos by Daniel Chavarría
     Strictly Casual: Fiction by Women on Love, edited by Amy Prior

-Special Links
      writers speak out on the issue of war

-Regular Features
      Book Reviews (all issues)
      TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)

Home | Submission info | Spanish | Catalan | French | Audio | e-m@il www.BarcelonaReview.com