issue 37: july - august 2003 

 | excerpt from Buddha Da | short story Hieroglyphics

Anne DonovanInterview
Anne Donovan

Anne Donovan’s prize-winning short stories have been published in various anthologies and broadcast on BBC radio. Her collection Hieroglyphics and Other Stories came out in 2001. This year saw the release of her debut novel Buddha Da, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize; both books published by Canongate Books. A resident of Glasgow, Scotland, Donovan often employs the local, working-class dialect in her writing; as she says, it provides "a more direct line to the heart, you get closer." Her work is noted for its compassionate portrayal of characters who live ordinary lives. As one of her characters says: "These folk that talk about the happy medium have got it all wrang. Life has its extremes, whether it’s winnin the lottery or lossin yer family in a car crash, but they’re no the hard part. It’s the rest of it." And it’s "the rest of it" that Donovan captures so movingly, and always with good humor. See Hieroglyphics from issue 20 of TBR; and read chapter one, a delightful self-contained piece, from Buddha Da.

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 champagne!

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 Lincoln’s 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 Buddhism?
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. I’ve never been a practising Buddhist, though.
cover of Buddha Da, first novel by Anne Donovan
Buddha Da started with the voice of Anne Marie, talking about her da, and it wasn’t 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 you’re writing - the unconscious, or the things that have been on the back burner in your mind, take over. I hadn’t been consciously thinking about the meditation or Buddhism but here it was. I also think that’s 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, he’s 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, he’s 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. Jimmy’s ("Da’s") 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? I’m also curious to know how you achieved three such distinct voices; that’s 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. I’ve 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 didn’t 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 gift.

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 it’s 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: That’s quite a hard question as I’m used to hearing Glasgow voices every day and Edinburgh only occasionally so I don’t know which words cross over the east-west divide - also as language changes some words are used by older people but not younger ones. There’s 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 it’s one that has always fascinated me. They’re 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; they’re just themselves and there is a genuine warmth about them. So I suppose that’s 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 she’ll do something else amazing - discovering a cure for a serious illness maybe.) I see Anne Marie as having a kind of Björk/Sinead O’Connor quality to her voice - deeply moving and exciting at the same time. It would be awful if she didn’t 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 she’s meant to be, to have both the confidence and the common sense to be able to fly high yet know when it’s time to land on the earth. I don’t think she’s 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.

Hieroglyphics and Other Stories (Canongate, 2001) by Anne DonovanTBR: 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 she’s considered "daft." But Mary’s sense of humor and pluck see her through. What was the origin of that story and how did it develop? I know you’re a teacher. Had you heard of cases such as Mary’s?
AD: I’m 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, that’s 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, it’s the method school of writing! I’ve never even been remotely dyslexic but I have difficulty remembering strings of numbers, like phone numbers and car registrations. Sometimes if I’m dialling a number I’m so slow that the phone goes dead before I’ve 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 that’s the starting point for the character - after I’d 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 wasn’t 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 for me.

I’d 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 - don’t think it’ll 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. (I’m 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. Don’t be scared of rejection - it happens to everyone, even after they start getting published (and it’s not personal, though it can hurt). Sometimes it just means your piece wasn’t right for that place or that editor on that day, or compared with the other pieces sent in. Sometimes the piece itself isn’t right and when you get a distance on it you’ll see why. Maybe you’ll be able to rework it and maybe you’ll 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: I’m writing a new novel, which I started last year. I’m 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 version.

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 it’s not raining. Edinburgh always seems to be brighter, and has more air. But I’m always a visitor - have never lived there and am usually just through for the day, in the nice bits, enjoying myself.

- 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 - it’s a great way to spend the morning. I’d 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 Eliot’s characters are wonderful too - too many to say.

- some favorite films

How long have you got?

It’s A Wonderful Life (Capra) has to be my all-time favourite. Lost count of the number of times I’ve 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)
Brief Encounter
Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsey)
Top Hat
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 Draughtsman’s Contract (Peter Greenaway)
Nanook of the North
Don’t Look Now (Roeg)
The Leopard
Anything with Cary Grant and/or Ingrid Bergman in it - maybe Indiscreet

Canongate Books versus the Bertelsmann conglomerate
[Canongate, Donovan’s publisher, is a small, independent publishing house in Edinburgh that published Life of Pi, last year’s Booker Award winner; it is also noted for having launched Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner, Michel Faber and Laura Hird, among others.]

Don’t know about any other publisher but I’ve 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 wasn’t thinking of it as a film as I wrote it, but afterwards thought it would really work as a film. So here’s my dream list!

Douglas Henshall is my ideal Jimmy. I’ve seen him in Orphans and in some things on TV and think he’s 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.) There’s a wonderful actress I think could be Liz but I can’t remember her name. Anne Marie - I know she’s 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 you’ve yet to do in life of the non-writing variety

The main one really has to be - visit Barcelona!

© 2003 tbr

excerpt from Buddha Da (tbr 37)
short story Hieroglyphics (tbr 20)

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 tbr 37           July - August 2003 

Short Fiction

Emily Carter:  WLUV
Anne Donovan: Anne Marie
Todd Shaddox:  The Hidden Art of Scatology
J. Michael Slama: Volatile

    Picks from Back Issues

Nicholas Royle: Trussed
Helen Simpson: Wurstigkeit


Anne Donovan


Literature-to-Film - the sequel
answers to last issue’s Literature-to-Film

Book Reviews

Buddha Da by Anne Donovan
Glory Goes and Gets Some by Emily Carter
Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Nineteen Eighty by David Peace
Six Easy Pieces by Walter Mosley
Dummyland by Steve Aylett

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