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by Graham Thomson

 Alan Warner
Scottish writer Alan Warner is the author of the critically-acclaimed Morvern Callar (1995), hailed by The Independent on Sunday as "an instant classic." Warner was also Britain's only representative short-listed for the international Dublin IMPAC Literary Award. He has been published in numerous anthologies, including Rebel Inc., Children of Albion Rovers, New Scottish Writing, Disco Biscuits, and Ahead of its Time. His latest novel, These Demented Lands (1997), is a semi-sequel to Morvern Callar (both novels published by Jonathan Cape, UK). MC is currently being adapted into a major film by the BBC.
Not a great lover of giving interviews, Warner agreed to do a postal questionnaire for TBR while on holiday in Alicante.

What did you enjoy reading as a child? Were you a devourer of books?

AW: 'The Topper', 'Splodge', 'The Good Luck Engine': a wizard puts a toffee as a placebo into the boiler, thus fooling the engine into taking a seaside special (the good luck engine thinks it's a magical pill). There was a "bad-tempered diesel", a mayor who was a bumble-bee and a diamond mine. In a deep Freudian way I reckon that's why I ended up on the railways and had some good acid trips!
      The Richest Sparrow in the World: a heart-rending Czechoslovakian book, beautifully illustrated, which again featured trains. A sparrow gets locked up with a mountain of grain, but realises there's more to life than that, and is released, transfigured.
      Little Black Sambo, though I was later busted outside the South African embassy in London.
      Then 'Action' and 'Commando' books. 'Action' was a weekly violent comic. I liked 'plane 'Commandos' best. All-time faves - 'Flashpoint', and another I can't remember but moved me to tears.
      When I was 10, Jaws. My dad bought it at the airport on the way to an apartment in San Juan (Alicante). I kept reading it, but he didn't think it suitable, so one night with 40 Dunhill and a bottle Johnnie Walker he sat down and read the entire book to me, expurgating all swearwords and sex scenes. The only time he ever read to me in my life. It was one of the most moving, thrilling experiences ever - his Yorkshire voice, my collision with language - and I decide to become a writer (though I don't know it yet). I get my own copy of Jaws and re-read sections each day, fascinated by the swearwords.
      I was never a '2000 AD' pseud. I certainly never "devoured" books till I was around 15 and found this thing, Literature, in Oban.

BR: Did you have a train set when you were a boy?
AW: No, but my pal's dad did. I thought it odd for a man to have what I considered a toy, so he took me up in the loft to see it (he wasn't allowed to play on it). I thought it was stunningly beautiful. It had all the qualities of perspective, depth, miniaturization. I was later to love in Renaissance and mediaeval painting, Caravaggio, etc. The same hellish qualities as Canaletto's sinister work.
      I think the realist tendency in model railways is interesting, and I harbour an unfulfilled desire to construct a "subversive" psychedelic train set with non-existent Mad Max rolling stock and dinosaur landscapes.
      Incidentally, I believe (like Beethoven!) that all art originates in play.

BR: Checklist: Bunyan? Lautréamont? Dickens? Dostoevsky? Melville? Conrad? Herbert Read? Mervyn Peake? Maurice Blanchot? the Beats? Burroughs? Salinger? Pynchon? the Strugatskys? Nick Cave?
AW: Bunyan: only in extreme abridgement at primary school in Connel. But the abiding imagery is there in Callar, though of course Morvern would make no literary reference. There are Lilliputian shadows in a new story, 'Car Hung Upside Down', in Jonathan Cape's forthcoming Clocktower anthology, and I always think of Swift as more of an influence.
      Lautréamont: a convulsive and poor artist. I stand by Camus' opinions on him. The surrealists created his reputation.
      Dickens: I'm a sucker for his sentimentality, yet Edwin Drood, and his terrifying story 'The Signalman' (again railways), are masterly. I'm suspicious of his appropriation by the English bourgeoisie, re Leavis and Hard Times. He also wrote hack stuff terrible style, like Walter Scott.
      Dostoevsky: so much superior to Dickens. Karamazovs and C + Punishment + Idiot, but haven't re-acquainted myself with Raskolnikov for so long. Some awful translations around. On the look-out for new ones.
     Melville: a true master. Benito Cereno I read and re-read. So surreal, so haunting. Moby D. is the challenge to all writers today. Such a funny and tragic work people overlook the humour and the sexuality (Ahab's castration by whale). He wrote the same book again and again. It is my dream that The Outlying Stations, my long novel, will be a Moby Dick of railways.
      Conrad: I've read everything. His work falls off, and Victory is the last reasonable stuff. H. of Darkness of course. Some sloppy writing in Lord Jim.
      Herbert Read: The Green Child and his anarchism. Some of the poetry is interesting. Never an influence. I met his son recently, who wrote some careful novels in the seventies, then complete rubbish. Distressed to find he was a high Catholic Tory with a column in the Daily Mail!
      Mervyn Peake: I read everything when I was reading Moorcock. The perfect antidote to Tolkien, but I was never that involved, though I almost got down to writing a screenplay of Gormenghast with David Bowie in it! Now I understand it's going to be a rock opera by Can's keyboard player.
      Blanchot, the Beats and Burroughs: hold no interest for me. Kerouac's art was tragically disorganised, the author always before the work. There is lyrical beauty in Lonesome Traveller. Burroughs had a good voice, better on record. I've never read a word, though J. G. Ballard considers him a master.
      Salinger: I always preferred Raise the High the Roof-Beam, etc. So well written.
      Pynchon: I liked Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow, but too clever for me.
      Strugatskys and Nick Cave:!!! I haven't read Mr Cave's novel. I last saw him duetting with Kylie Minogue, so I'll never read him.

BR: Chef Macbeth - Brotherhood - Aircrash Investigator: what are the cardinal sins - cynicism, greed, complacency, despair?
AW: I think Aircrash Inv' is a good man, but we all must carry our cynicism and despair if we are to walk in the world. Brotherhood and Macbeth are murderers.
      As a man I think murder and cruelty score badly against you, also the despair that makes you add to cruelty and ugliness.

BR: Are you a life-long fan of Bob Dylan? Do you really like Can, Czukay, etc.? Indie boy? Hendrix or Dylan singing Watchtower? Or even XTC!?!
AW: No. A pal had Desire, which I liked in 1983. I just started listening to him in about 1995. It's the Biblical universality and the mystery of the words I love. The voice, too. Can are my favourite band for me, Future Days is beauty. Czukay is, with Lee Perry, very close to the only Mozart we have. Listen to Movies. Dylan comes off best with Watchtower, but I love Hendrix, especially Band of Gypsies and Electric Ladyland. He was an electronic musician.

BR: Were you brought up religious (re Apocalyptic/Manichean/redemptive strands, particularly in Demented Lands; the Gospel according to Mary Shelley? - Santa Maria reza para nosotros)?
AW: No.

BR: Do you have any millenarian/Aquarian beliefs, expectations, hopes? How old is your daughter?
AW: None. What a load of old nonsense (though I like Julian Cope!). I do believe in pre-birth memories, 'cos I had them. Eh, I don't have a daughter. I've no kids. I'm down here having a holiday with my wife Hollie and pals. Hollie eats her steak real raw.

BR: Is there in any sense a "real" model for Morvern (prole outsider/holy innocent)?
AW: Of course. There are girls trapped in deathly jobs all over he world. Morvern exists okay, she was a girlfriend.

BR: Did they take you to see The Wizard of Oz when you were a boy - or on the box?
AW: I've never liked it. Dad took me to see Jungle Book in Oban. "I guess I'm not in Kansas any more" - I used to say that when I took an E.

BR: There's far less commodity fetishism in Demented Lands than there is in Morvern: did you read a lot of Ian Fleming when you were wee?
AW: Only Goldfinger, in search of good cocktail recipes. Dad took me to see all the Bond movies.

BR: Do you know Roddy Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors? Have you anything to say about the fact of male writers using female 1st-person narrators?
AW: It seems to me as much a construct, no matter what gender the character is. I mean, I'd like to write a book from an animal's PoV one day. I haven't read Roddy's new one, but several girlfriends have praised it. Roddy's a big Morvern fan, so I'm embarrassed only to've read Commitments. One day!

BR: Do you write, have you ever written, when you were up on something? If yes, what? and was it a good experience?
AW: No. I think good writing is about lucidity.

BR: Who are you reading these days?
AW: (Re-reading) John Berryman, Collected Poems
Alejo Carpentier, Los Pasos Perdidos
Roddy Lumsden, Yeah Yeah Yeah
Don Paterson, God's Gift to Women
(two great Scots poets)
     My masters are Sam Beckett, Camus, William Faulkner and Juan Carlos Onetti. Your Spanish readers might want to know I consider him one of the giants of the 20th century, certainly doing things in 1937/38 way before Beckett and Camus. I had the honour of talking at an Onetti conference at St Andrew's University last year. He towers above the flatulence of Llosa and the turgidity of that oaf, García Marquez. Asturias is a neglected master. The Brazilian João Guimarães Rosa will also be recognised one day as a great. I have a deep admiration for Spanish/Hispano-American writing - Juan Rulfo, Neruda, Villon. I would value Fortunata & Jacinta above all Dickens. Octavio Paz I like, but Onetti's dangerous vision and reductive style seem only paralleled by Beckett to me.

BR: Do you read much "theory"?
AW: Yeah. How to insert Tampax.

BR: What are your feelings about printed paper v. electronic media?
AW: Well, computers are good for writing screenplays, but I don't own one, and I associate e-mail with mobile phones and fucking yuppies. I like Sega, but only 'cause it keeps the TV off, and I've only got to the end of Sonic I once.
      I have to side with the tactile, greasy-paged joy of a paperback in your jacket pocket - I don't think printed matter will ever be threatened. I know this is for an electronic magazine, but you need a book to learn how to work a computer. I don't see why there need be antagonism between each medium, they should help each other.

BR: Are you happy with the election result in Britain? Did you vote? Have you ever seen politics as a means of positive change?
AW: Well, it's interesting. Liberal triumphalism is as revolting as any other. Hopefully a centre-right party will make things a little easier for the disenfranchised and poverty-stricken. I'm a trade unionist, out to better the work conditions of people, so I find it hard to support a party that's abandoned core beliefs that the majority of its supporters in Northern England and Scotland still believe in. I'm afraid New Labour may be a party of nihilism.
      I voted SNP in a Central Edinburgh constituency 'cause the MP was a slimy Labour yuppie who'd once complained about his photocopy costs!!
      I think the multinationals and technologies dictate so much now, governments follow them. I don't see how my homeland, Argyll and Bute, will be affected, e.g. rural housing/poverty, rural services, etc.

BR: Scorgie tries to get into a flat at 194 Woodlands Road, in Glasgow's WestEnd parish; I once lived at that address, in a flat known as "the House of Fun", with Robbie Kelly and Tommy Udo; it struck a chord with me - what's the significance for you?
AW: My pals Julia + Lynn lived beside Tommy Udo. We laughed at his name on the door. I came down from Oban on weekends and would stay there in a mouse- and drug-ridden squalor. We were always chucking vacuum cleaners down the stairs. There was some conflict when a party was on and Udo wouldn't let us in. Maybe it was you!! Anyway, a swastika was painted on the door overnight! I was staying the night. I remember Tommy, he had a funny walk, sort of flipper. I'm told he's a big shot at NME now. Lynn's a catwalk model in New York, so he should have let us in!! Hey! I remember. The water was out in our flat, so Lynn had gone in to crash the party, but she was stoned and was openly holding a bottle of shampoo. Tommy smelled a rat.

BR: It's not hard to see the AW of Alpha Whisky as your own initials, but what about HC - Hotel Charlie? (I half-expected Morvern and Skyline to fly away in a reconstructed Alpha Whisky at the end of Demented Lands); do you usually "plan out" your stories in advance?
AW: Hotel Charlie's my wife, Hollie. My stories are planned.

BR: What are your drugs of choice? Have you stopped smoking? Linkwood or Lagavulin/Bowmore (my personal favourites)?
AW: I don't use any drugs just now. Bloody Marys correctly made with lemon juice and Tio Pepe. Linkwood 15 year-old is best, the 25 year-old is totally over-rated. Torres Mas La Plana Reserva. Havanas are so cheap in Spain I'm smoking two or three a day, but I'm off cigarettes, thanx. Do you like Laphroaig? I can`t stand the stuff, it's like chemicals.

BR: Urban v. rural / islands v. mainland (Hebridean Ibiza): do you find it easy to go back to Oban? How have people there responded to your work - and your fame?
AW: I love the place I'm from, which is the village of Connel, not Oban. Everyone has been great up there. The Tourist Board is a bit pissed off. I feel I let everyone down up home by not taking that IMPAC award, but it did go to Javier Marias.
      I don't think I'm famous. Irvine's famous. I'm not. I wouldn't like to lose anonymity. I want enough money to go on writing books, but I don't like the attention.

BR: Do you see any affinities with any of the Central Belt writers such as Welsh, Kelman, Williamson, Legge, Meekie? Or affinities with anybody writing now?
AW: I don't think there are too many affinities. I admire Jim Kelman's work so much, and some of the prose in Greyhound, 'The Burn', changed my approach forever. Like so many great writers, though, I think Jim's in a bubble in Scotland. The austerity of some of his work recently I don't get on with, but he has a new collection coming out soon so let's see. Bus Conductor Hines, Disaffection, Chancer: well, it's just great art, and he's a noble man. Irvine is my pal, but I don't think our writing is connected at all. I haven't read T'spotting since it was in manuscript, early '93. (Incidentally, Morvern Callar was written by then, and accepted summer '93. I wasn't influenced at all by Irvine.) Ecstasy made me laugh and laugh, but he's done a different thing to me more funky, direct, perhaps deliberately disposable. Irvine is a generous, kind man.
      Gordon Legge's In Between Talking About The Football is a tremendous book, just reissued.
      The writers I feel close to in Scotland are Jeff Torrington, James Meek's Drivetime (not McFarlane Boils The Sea) and John Burnside's beautiful poems and Duncan McLean's prose.

BR: Is there a Scottish literary Renaissance? Can you hack any of these labels - "chemical generation", "tartan lit.", "BritFic"?
AW: You're right. I can't stand labels. The best I saw was "Is ScotLit the new BritPop?".
      There certainly is something going on in Scotland. In the first 6 months of this year we've got two fantastic collections of poetry: debuts from Robin Robertson, A Painted Field, and Yeah, Yeah, Yeah from Roddy Lumsden, and a stunning second collection from Don Paterson. I know another cracking debut poetry collection is due from Tracey Herd. John Burnside's put out another - and a wild, dark novel, The Dumb House.
      Also we have Rebel Inc publishing, doing great Euro classics and others. I've just done an intro for Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl, and we have Payback Press doing classic neglected American black fiction all bubbling beneath Irvine and that. It's ongoing. I don't think it can all be defined. Wait till 2010!!

BR: Are you a prolific writer? Nabokov, Anthony Burgess, etc. had a very "professional", disciplined practice, producing a set number of pages every day; Do you consider yourself a "craftsman" or a "visionary", or both, or something else again?
AW: I try for 5 pages a day. If I seem prolific it's only because I was writing alone, in a closet, before I was published. I began writing, certainly on a weekly basis, in 1981. I actually work very slowly and rewrite hopelessly. "Craftsman" would be a great compliment.

BR: Are you happy with the work you've had published so far? Do you see yourself as evolving (gradually or swiftly) in a certain direction?
AW: No way. I read Mark Richard or Cormac McCarthy and feel like giving up, but I want to get better, to learn, to become mature. I feel my true work hasn't even begun. I saw my first three books (The Sopranos to come out next spring) as about youth, madness, dissolution, despair, hints at transcendental joys. My next three, Morvern part III, Oscillator and Outlying Station, are works of repair, of order, casting off perversity, despite their pessimism. Novels of maturity should explain the origins of earlier obsessions.

BR: Has the BBC filming of Morvern been a happy experience? To what extent were you consulted or involved in the production?
AW: Film is going well, principal photography in September. We were delayed while independent money came in, plus my slow, poetic, successive screenplays. Trainspotting it ain't.

BR: I'd love to see a screen adaptation of Demented Lands (maybe with Iain Cuthbertson as Brotherhood, Pete Capaldi as Aircrash Investigator, Craig Ferguson as Scorgie, Dennis Hopper as Nam the Dam, my wife's wee sister Judith as Morvern); your own choice of cast? The soundtrack is a wonderful resource, is it not? Favourite films?
AW: My favourite film-makers are Buñuel, Welles, Fellini, Antonioni, Tarkovsky. I hate so much modern film-making. I like Claire Peploe and Agnes Varda, tho' Saura the Spaniard is great, but young screenwriters can learn how to tell a story from Buñuel + Eric Rohmer. Bergman too.
       Your cast for Demented Lands made me laugh. Some low-budget crew want to do it! But I said no.

BR: You seem to like Spain; had you been here - and learned Spanish - before giving Morvern her surname? What is it about the place? The sun, the groove scene, the Marian cult? In Morvern, for example, you give two angles on "a Balearic island" - ClubMed Thatcher youth on the piss contrasted with simple dignity and piety in a transcendental natural setting: a bit of ambivalence? Please tell.
AW: Spain, I like and dislike things, but the Homeresque landscapes and sunsets obsess me. The light, so different from the Highlands, and of course the Costas are partyland and sometimes me + Hollie like to fiesta.

BR: The Spanish translation of Morvern has just come out, with the title Cara quemada; any comments?
AW: Publishers are like record companies: philistine bloodsuckers on art who need put in line.

Warner signature
Love, Warner.

© The Barcelona Review 1997
© photo: Waynt Wisar