I first came across Doug Johnstone and Alan Bissett when I worked in the library service. I happened to start by reading second novels by both of them (The Ossians by Johnstone and The Incredible Adam Spark by Bissett), although this wasn’t deliberate and technically The Ossians was Johnstone’s first novel, it just came out second.
At the time I thought maybe I liked these books because I could relate to them; they were about things I recognized. Johnstone’s book is about a band touring the edges of Scotland, which starts off in Edinburgh – I live in Edinburgh and all my flatmates are in bands. Meanwhile Bissett’s is about a lad with learning difficulties living in small town Scotland – I grew up in small town Scotland worked for a while with kids who had learning difficulties. Having read more of their stuff, though, I know I’d have enjoyed them even if they hadn’t happened to appeal so specifically to my experience. This is because the quality of the writing is high, and because they are both doing something a bit different.
Rather than giving them an event each, the book festival decided to put the two men together last night to chat about their newest books, Smoke Heads (Johnstone) and Pack Men (Bissett).
Smoke Heads, Johnstone says, is “Whisky Galore meets Deliverance… except it’s not at all, it’s more Sideways with whisky instead of wine meets Deliverance. But that wasn’t a catchy enough line to go on the cover.”
Pack Men, meanwhile, is about sectarianism – more specifically the 2008 UEFA cup final that resulted in riots in Manchester. It’s also a sequel to Bissett’s first novel, Boy Racers, although he hastens to add that it doesn’t matter if you’ve not read that one. “Literally thousands of people haven’t read that book,” he admits, so he designed Pack Men to work as a stand alone book too.
Chair person Peggy Hughes (who some of you may know better as @ByLeavesWeLive of the Scottish Poetry Library) asked about the difficulties in writing about things that are part of their lives – Johnstone is a whisky enthusiast like the men in his book, Bissett was in Manchester to see that football game on the day of the riots. Is it hard to write about these real things without straying into the realms of reportage?
“There is an element of craft,” says Johnstone, “without being wanky about it. But if you’re going to write a novel you have to be obsessed with the subject matter, you’re going to spend two years of your life working with it.”
Bissett adds that there are lots of layers of fiction on top of the real events. “It’s the same process as memory,” he says. “When you’re telling a story about something that happened to you, you’ll make it more interesting, you’ll edit it, you’ll present yourself in the best possible light. Your story about the event then becomes the memory of it, but it’s not the most accurate version.”
Do you dislike your characters, Peggy asks, because a lot of them are pretty horrible.
“Yes,” Bissett replies, “but you can’t just leave it at that. I mean Cage (one of the characters in Pack Men) is a total sectarian bigot, when you first meet this guy you think he is absolutely awful. But there are other aspects of humanity elsewhere – that’s 3D characterization. You can’t just have a moustache twirling villain.”
“Who’s interested in reading a book about nice people?” Johnstone adds incredulously. “I love Roddy (Smoke Heads), I think he’s hilarious, but I wouldn’t want to hang out with him, of course not.”
One audience member wants to know what the attraction is about extremes in Scottish writing – our authors are always writing about the fringes of society or the worst excesses of crime and readers love it.
“With Boy Racers I was interested in the attraction of it to young men, when most people think of it as dangerous or annoying,” says Bissett. “But that behavior isn’t extreme to them, or to the characters in the book, it’s normal.”
“I write, as I think most authors do, because I don’t see the world I’m interested in in the fiction I’m reading,” says Johnstone. “Even someone like Irvine Welsh is writing about pre-devolution Scotland. We need people posing questions and showing where we are now.”
Would you ever want to write a book in an English voice, asks someone else from the audience.
“I don’t think I’d feel comfortable,” Johnstone replies. “And there’s plenty of good English novelists doing it, so why would I
bother? I did actually write a book with some Icelandic characters, but I then had to run it by some Icelandic people to check I wasn’t being a dick. You have to be careful because you don’t want to end up being insulting or stupid. I read a book recently by a guy whose first novel I really enjoyed, he was from Yorkshire and it was set in Yorkshire and it was good. The second novel was entirely Scottish characters, set in Glasgow and London, and he just got the voice wrong. He didn’t get the Glasgow voice. The book got really good reviews south of the border, and pretty bad ones here.”
“I’ve wondered about writing about the experience of English people living in Scotland,” says Bissett. “Because all the English people I know are really aware of the fact they are English people living in Scotland – but if an English person wrote it you know the reaction they’d get, it’d be like ‘oh I see, so you dinnae like it here…’”
Smoke Heads is currently out on general release, whilst Pack Men comes out on September 1st – although if you’re in Edinburgh you can buy a copy in the Book Festival shop right now. You’d be hard pushed to pick a better pair of examples of contemporary Scottish writing.