Allan Sillitoe interview

Book and Magazine Collector, May 2008

It’s almost fifty years since the publication of Alan Sillitoe’s acclaimed debut novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Subsequently used as the basis for a classic movie, starring Albert Finney, it became one of the most popular books of its era. Over intervening decades Sillitoe—now eighty-years-old—has achieved the tricky feat of consolidating his literary status whilst sustaining a prolific and diverse output.

Just after Christmas, I visited him in the spacious Notting Hill flat where he and his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight, have lived since well before that part of London became so affluent. He greeted me with a firm handshake that belied his age and slight physique. Once the preliminaries were out of the way, he led me to his orderly study where I began by asking him how, despite his father’s illiteracy, he developed such a passion for literature.

Like a lot of people, I suppose I owe it all to a few very good school-teachers who instilled in me a love of reading. Of course the Bible provided one of my earliest literary experiences. That introduced me to what you might call fine writing.

I quickly became a great fan of adventure books by writers such as Conan Doyle and Alexandre Dumas. I loved The Count of Monte Cristo and the Sherlock Holmes stories. I used to borrow lots of these from the local library. Before long, though, I wanted to own my own copies. First, I had to scrape together the money I needed to pay for them. I’d often do this by collecting old bottles which could then be returned to shops in exchange for about a penny each. I’d always find a way of raising the money I needed to buy books.

All collectors lust after certain items. For you, what was the first book which inspired that feeling?

Oh, it was Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. Fantastic stuff—or, at least, I thought so then.

As a child, did those boys’ adventure stories inspire you to try your hand at writing in that genre?

“No, I was simply a voracious reader at that age. I’d spend hours foraging through the books on display in this large bookshop in the centre of Nottingham where I was brought up.”

Have you become someone who finds itimpossible to walk past a secondhand bookshop?

I’m afraid so. I always have to go in and see if I can unearth any gems. I don’t like the way that the internet has, for book collectors, removed the thrill ofthe chase. It’s no fun if you can just type in the name of a book and buy it there and then. I suspect that the internet has helped to push up prices and make it harder to find bargains.

Every so often I enjoy pottering along the south coast of England, stopping off at the bookshops I find in each of the towns. There’s a particularly good one in Eastbourne. People from the North andthe Midlands often retire to that part of the country. When they die, their collections end up being dispersed round the local secondhand bookshops, so that’s where I’ve found a great many of my horde of books about Nottinghamshire. The entire lefthand side of the bookcase opposite is taken up by that aspect of my collection. It covers everything from a regimental history of the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry to topographical books. I find old maps and guidebooks fascinating and very beautiful. I love the covers of the Baedecker guides. I’m also keen on those little Ward Lock guidebooks.

 What’s the star exhibit in this part of your collection?

It’s Robert Thoroton’s History of Nottinghamshire [published in 1797]. It cost me much more than I’d normally want to pay, but I’d have been tortured by regret if I hadn’t bought it. I’d probably never have found another copy.

Do you and your wife have periodic culls of your collection?

We used to do that. The trouble is, as soon as we’d get rid of a book we’d discover that we needed it. I often had to purchase replacement copies of books I’d just sold. In one case I bought back my old copy. It cost me a quid more than I’d been paid for it. I suppose you could view that extra quid as a storage fee.

Other than through your book collecting, have you maintained a link with Nottinghamshire? 

I’ve been going back on a regular basis for years, mainly to visit my family. I like the way I can put on my flat-cap and stroll into a pub and no one will recognise me. 

I haven’t lived in Nottingham since I was called up for military service during the latter stages of the war. I ended up joining the Fleet Air Arm.

Were you relieved when the Axis powers surrendered before you went on active service?

Not at all. I was bitterly disappointed. Like so many people at that time, I wanted to bomb the hell out of the Germans.

I didn’t leave the RAF until quite a few years after the war had ended. At one point, I worked as an air traffic controller atan Air Force base—an extraordinary responsibility considering how young I was.

After a stint in Malaya, I was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, which led to me spending months in a military hospital. To keep myself occupied I began reading my way through the world’s great literary works. By the time I was discharged from the RAF, I’d read most of them,including a lot of classsical literature in translation.”

Which writers have, you feel, best captured the rhythms of military life?

“I suppose that Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the obvious book. Recently I re-read The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer. I was impressed by how good that is, too. I’d read it soon after it came out, and I was curious to see whether I still admired it.”

What did you do after you left the RAF? 

“I was fortunate enough to be given a pension which enabled me to travel round France and Spain where I learnt the languages—something I’d always wanted to do. I eventually settled on Majorca. By then, I’d met my wife. Appropriately enough, our first encounter had been in a bookshop.

When the two of you became parents, I presume you must have read books to your son. Did that introduce you to any children’s books that you’ve grown to love?

Two such books spring to mind. I first came across both The Wind in the Willows and Alice’sAdventures in Wonderland that way.

Were you lured to Majorca by the presence of Robert Graves?

No, not at all, though we soon got to know him. I used to show him extracts from my writing. He was very encouraging. He urged me to write a novel set in Nottingham. In fact, I was already working on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Living in Majorca helped me to see Nottingham with greater clarity. Before I’d joined the RAF, I’d worked in three factories there and I’d come across several blokes like Arthur Seaton, the character at the centre of the novel.

Was that your first attempt at writing fiction of that length?

Far from it. I’d already written about six or seven unpublished novels. And I’d also penned a lot of the short stories which later appeared in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.It took many years for me to discover that good writing is transparent writing :prose that communicates its meaning clearly and serves to tell a story. Before that, I’d been producing a lot of purple prose, which served to obscure whatever story I was attempting to tell. Maybe this whole process of discovery would have been quicker if I’d gone to university.

 D’you still have the manuscripts of those unpublished novels?

I sold them to an American university. To be frank, I was relieved to see the back of them. Along with masses of other old manuscripts, they took up anenormous amount of space in our flat.

Going back to your debut novel, can you recall the excitement you felt when it was first published?

Very clearly. I remember showing a copy to my dad. Though he couldn’t read, he was extremely proud of me. Just because I’d had a book published, he assumed I’d never have to work again. In a way he was right, because I’ve never had to work in a factory or in those sort of jobs again.

Some writers who’ve had hugely successful debut novels have grown to resent those books—books that have distracted attention from their later work. Have you ever felt that way?

Quite the opposite. I feel nothing but warmth towards my first two books. Even now, they still bring in a decent income. Itg oes up and down but it’s never dried up.

Are you surprised at how expensive first editions of your debut novel have become?

Yes, I am. I only wish I’d kept more than one copy out of an edition of 4,000. I don’t even have the proofs, which I chucked away years ago.

Your early novels are often bracketed with those of other provincial writers who emerged during the 1950s, among them JohnBraine, Kingsley Amis, William Cooper and John Wain. Did you read their  books at the time? If so, did you feel you had much in common with them?

I read Amis’s Lucky Jim and Wain’s Hurry On Down around the period they came out. But I wasn’t living in England at that time. I was still in Majorca, so I never felt as if I was part of a movement. In any event, when I was working on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning I was, without wishing to sound immodest, aware that Arthur Seaton was unlike any character I’d read about. I realised that I was writing something new.

When I was living in Majorca I didn’t tend to read much English fiction. For the most part I was reading stuff by theAmerican writers who were beginning to make a name for themselves, writers suchas William Styron and Norman Mailer. I was also reading novels by Sartre and Camus, notably L’Etranger.

Did you read those French novels intheir original language? 

Sometimes. But I mostly opted for English translations because I could read them quicker that way.

Until the other day when I looked up Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner in Halliwell’s Film Guide, I didn’t realise that you’d adapted both books for the screen. Did you enjoy the experience?

In some respects I did. I’d never previously written a screenplay. Mind you, theproducer, Harry Saltzman, reckoned that my first novel was so cinematic thatyou could just give it to the cameraman and tell him to shoot each scene. But the director, Karel Reisz, realised that we needed a proper script.”

How did you like working with Reisz?

He was a lovely man who had great sympathy for the material.

Did you find it hard to comply with the inevitable requirement to discard large sections of your novel?

Not in the least. I knew enough about films to realise that the story had to be streamlined. We also had to take into account the absurd censorship of the period. Portraying a woman who had an abortion was regarded as risky. So was swearing. You just couldn’t write dialogue that reproduced the way people really spoke. Not that I’m in favour of dialogue which contains endless swearing. A few judiciously placed swear-words here and there will usually do the trick.

Nowadays the script’s language and subject matter wouldn’t have created a problem. But you’d be wrong to assume that censorship isn’t imposed on current English writing.

Present-day censorship is more subtle and sinister, isn’t it?

Very true. It’s all about so-called political correctness. I find it appalling that there are so many things you’re not allowed to say. Publishers expect you to exercise self-censorship. And if you don’t do that, editors will usually do it for you. That said, I’m lucky to have a supportive editor.

The whole business of political correctness isappalling. I’m a great fan of Martin Amis, who stands up against that sort of bullying. He’s someone who relishes a good controversy.

Perceptive though he is, he does have a fondness for sweeping and combative remarks. That reminds me of one of his early essays, which features a line about how novels with brilliant titles are invariably second-rate. In support of that argument, he cites Hangover Square: not my idea of a second-rate novel.

He’s certainly wrong about that. But I think he’s been quite courageous in the way that he’s spoken out against political correctness.

If you’d written your first screenplay now, would the finished product have been very different?

I’d like the film to have been akin to Rocco and His Brothers, that epic Italian movie, directed by Lucino Visconti.

Has the experience of screenwriting, of trying to tell a story with the utmost economy influenced your prose fiction?

I’m not really the best person to answer that. Ever since I first got into print, I think that my literary style has had an emphasis on its dramatic content. I must have picked up some of that from reading Dickens whose books, Bleak House being a perfect example, are frequently very cinematic.

You mentioned that you’ve written a stack of unpublished novels. Like most screenwriters, d’you have a comparable stack of unproduced scripts?

I don’t really regard myself as a screenwriter, though I did once have an offer to go to Hollywood to work on a script. I’d have been paid a great deal of money, but I knew that the job wasn’t for me. I’d just have been one of a team of about a dozen screenwriters.

Getting back to your question, I only have one unproduced script. That’s for an adaptation of a short story of mine. The story, which is part of a collection published during the early 1960s, is called The Ragman’s Daughter.

As someone who has worked within an unusual range of literary genres, including not only screenwriting but also travel writing and children’s fiction, does it take a while for you to decide on the genre best suited to express an idea?

Fortunately I always seem to know which is the appropriate genre for an idea. The two things—the genre and the initial idea—are closely connected. Having said that, when I began work on A Start in Life, I intended it to be a long short story—around the 7-10,000 word mark. Yet I couldn’t seem to stop writing it. I just carried on until it reached its natural conclusion, by which point it had turned into a novel.

I see that A Start in Life has just been reissued by London Books, complete with a new introduction by D.J. Taylor.

I met David Taylor in Ulster. He’s a very good and immensely hard-working writer.

A while ago I re-read A Start in Life in preparation for a sequel. I was pleasantly surprised. There were things I’d have done differently now, but in the main I was happy with what I’d written.

So you’re not one of those writers who would like the opportunity to revise his published work?

If I wasn’t still writing, I wouldn’t mind doing that. As things stand, though, I just don’t have the time, because I’ve lots of new books I’d like to write.

Have you read the two other novels so far reissued by London Books?

I’d read Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City but James Curtis’s The Gilt Kid was new to me. I think they’re both extremely good books. Well-worth republishing.

Along with these earlier novels, your book offers a portrait of a long-gone London. Which novels, d’you think, best portray the capital?

Hard to say without having more time to consider the question, but I suppose you’d have to include Dickens on any such list. Our Mutual Friend is certainly a book that’d make an appearance on my list. It offers a vivid, densely populated portrait of the city during the nineteenth-century.

Since the days when you wrote A Start in Life, has your method of constructing a book changed?

Not in the sense that I like to tell a story and to work my way from the beginning to the end. I sometimes think that I’dlike to write a book with a less traditional structure, but that just doesn’t suit me.

As far as the more practical end of novel-writing goes, I don’t tend to go in for much preparatory work. For some novels, I’ve used a few notes. For others, I’ve simply gone ahead and written the book. Occasionally, though, I’ve had to do research.

You have to be very careful how you deployresearch in a novel. At best, the facts will make the setting more plausible. On the other hand, there’s a danger that your background reading can lead to your narrative becoming clogged with unnecessary detail.

Searching the British Library catalogue under your name, I came across a number of academic studies of your literary career. Have you ever dipped into them out of curiosity?

I’m aware of some of them, but I’ve never read any of them. At the moment an academic from the University of Ulster is working on a biography of me. When I first met him and he told me about his project, I suggested he should wait until I’m dead, but he wanted to go ahead right away.

Having a stranger poring over your life must be an odd experience.

It isn’t too bad, though it does make me feel as if I’m some sort of literary relic.

Reproduced by kind permission of Warners Group Publications.

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