Alan Warner interview 

Book and Magazine Collector, May 2006

Along with Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner was in the vanguard of the Scottish fiction boom of the 1990s. Since the release of his debut novel, Morvern Callar, he has established himself as one of Britain’s most distinctive novelists. Like the author of Trainspotting, Warner was often depicted in magazine profiles as a hard-drinking literary bad boy, that image reinforced by publicity photos which usually carried a hint of truculence. I had trouble reconciling this with the genial forty-something who greeted me in an old-style London snack bar. Over coffee and a sandwich, I asked him whether books played an important role in his childhood.

Not a great deal. But I remember my childhood books and especially their illustrations very vividly. I read comics which I liked a lot, comics such as Action, a particularly gruesome comic from the mid-1970s. I was a big fan of the Commando books, too. I’ve since re-purchased some of my favourites. 

I read some genre fiction as a teenager, but I wasn’t a huge reader until suddenly at the age of fifteen when I started with Penguin Classics and, for oft-needed relief, bursts of science fiction: Bob Shaw, Michael Moorcock, Robert Anton Wilson, J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Norman Spinrad.

For many writers there’s a moment of revelation when a specific book makes them aware of the power of literature. Was that true for you and, if so, what was the book?

I recall three specifically: Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton which we had to read for school. I dutifully read it, faltering and a little bored at first, then suddenly when I got to the end I found my hands were shaking and a great feeling of outrage and emotion welled up in me. I was shocked. I didn’t realise a novel could affect you in that way.  

I was smitten, and in our local bookshop I bought The Immoralist by André Gide. Again, when I got to the end I was shattered by the sadness and melancholy pain of it. Then I read The Outsider by Camus and that was it. I was a Penguin Classics junkie for the rest of my life.

Looking back on my adolescence, I admired quite a few books that would make me cringe now. Does the same apply to you?

I'm not so embarrassed about it but I have a soft spot for Jaws. I went on holiday with my dad and he bought it at the airport. I must have been about ten. I kept reading it and he didn’t approve as the book contained adult scenes and a great deal of creative swearing. I was fascinated by the shark sequences and the Quint character. Dad kept hiding the book around the hotel room but, to his annoyance, I always found it. One night, exasperated, he sat on the hotel balcony and read a highly expurgated version to me — just the scenes involving the shark — and he cut out all the swear words. It had a big effect on me, my father reading out that book.

At what age did you make your first stabs at writing fiction? 

I wrote bad poems from the age of fifteen onward. I recall writing a dialogue on a pier between two fishermen, but then I didn’t seriously start fiddling with prose until I was in my late twenties.

Young writers tend to be extremely imitative. In those early attempts at fiction, was there someone you were imitating?

I remember writing a lot of letters to friends in the style of Michael Moorcock. I recall trying to imitate William Golding, too. But I soon fell into poetry. My stuff was a dreadful pastiche of Hugh MacDiarmid, Johnny Rotten and John Milton.

From the 1990s onwards, there’s been a boom in creative writing courses in Britain. Had they been around during your literary apprenticeship, would you have taken advantage of them?

I doubt it. I was intensely shy about being a closet writer — I’m still shy about it. I don’t think I could have endured sitting in a room with the bristly egos of other aspirant writers, all sharing my qualms. I’m sure it's a good thing for people but I’m a bit of a loner, I’m afraid.

Was the process of writing Morvern Callar a tortuous one?

When isn’t it? I call my study ‘The Torture Chamber’ — stolen from James Baldwin, I think.

Like your other work, Morvern Callar is written in a style every bit as idiosyncratic as that of, say, Henry Green. Did your style evolve out of a distaste for conventional, supposedly transparent prose?

I'm glad you’re familiar with Green — a very interesting and neglected writer who does the upper-class stuff in a far more fascinating way than the usual suspects. As I like to say, the literary tradition I come from is the one called, ‘All the Novels I Have Loved’. There was Kelman. There was Kennaway. There was a lot of Beckett, but there was also Sartre and doubtless the Commando books too.

When I first read your novels, I remember discerning faint echoes of Camus’s work. Was he someone who influenced you, or is that link fanciful?

I read everything of his early on, and still re-read it. I’m not for a moment comparing myself with him but I think I identified with his work because he was essentially provincial, stuck in an out-of-the-way place, physically distanced from Parisian culture. Presumptious as it might seem, all those early essays: The Minotaur, A Stop in Oran, Return to Tipasa and A Short Guide to Towns Without A Past were very important for someone like me, living in the geographic peripheries on the West Coast of Scotland and feeling very isolated.

Did you feel at all self-conscious about writing from the point of view of a woman?

No more so than for any other character. You work and re-work the page so intently that there isn’t really mental space for self-consciousness — just what seems to work.

At what point did the royalties from your work allow yourself to write full-time? And how did you earn a living before that happened?

I managed to scrape by straightaway and was very lucky. I got about £4,000 for Morvern Callar and managed to get a mortgage on a one bedroom flat in a working-class area of central Edinburgh. 

I soon got some money from the film world. Various production companies wanted to adapt Morvern Callar. With the critical success of that first novel, I got a deal for two more books.

Previously, I had all sorts of jobs: supermarkets, dry cleaners, I was on and off the railway a few times and I ducked in and out of college in London and at Glasgow Uni’. To be honest, I’m bone lazy and I’ve tried my best to avoid a single honest day’s hard work all my life and I seem to be getting away with it.

The fear of returning to a day job remains and probably spurs me on. It’s with guilt that I see a lot of my friends — plenty of them smarter folk than me — drag themselves to work. I know how rare and lucky my position is for a writer. So much of it is a lottery and I know much finer writers than I who make no money from their work.

I have to say — just to survive from my royalties alone would have been a great struggle. I was utterly subsidised by our darling friends from the silver screen, so I’m not a good example of a novelist making a living from novels. I’m also advantaged in that my wife and I don't have children to support.

I later received much higher advances from my publishers as I suppose my reputation was elevated but it’s very difficult for contemporary novelists to survive from royalties alone without having some kind of hit and it’s impossible for poets to make a living. I think the worrying demographic is that increasingly a smaller and smaller group of writers have big hits but beneath that, there is no middle market that can support a novelist. In Britain — a society of 60 million — 5-15,000 is accepted as good sales on a literary novel. At most, before tax, £4,000-5,000-a-year is going to the writer, probably spread over two years.

Novelists are more often than not disappointed by film and TV adaptations of their work. Were you pleased with Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Morvern Callar?

I loved that film. Wonderful performances, beautifully shot and great sound. Lynne Ramsay is an artist. Every scene is infused with vivid reality and authenticity.

How involved were you in the production of the film?

Lynne kept me very involved, which was good of her. She showed me all the script drafts and we talked a lot. She wanted me to meet Samantha Morton early on. You could see Lynne was very curious how I would interact with a possible Morvern.

Lynne was in quite a difficult position. On her previous feature film, Ratcatcher, the producers had interfered with a shot at the end to try and sweeten the dark ending of that beautiful film. I think she was very protective that nobody — me included — would interfere with her vision. I respected that. 

I should think you’d like Bill Douglas’s films?

I'm a huge fan of the Bill Douglas Trilogy and Comrades. The tragedy is that, at the time of his death, he was struggling to gather finance for his movie of the great James Hogg novel, Confessions of a Justified Sinner — maybe the most astonishing and strangest Scottish novel ever written. It’s a very complex, modern work, though it was published in 1824. It would have been remarkable if that film had been made.

Is screenwriting an area of writing that you’d like to explore?

Well it’s a very difficult art. The art of precis and summary, really. Very different from the novel. It has to be collaborative. It’s very concerned with structure and, in some ways, very limiting. I’m not a natural at all, but every form of writing fascinates me.

Moving on to another genre, I remember that you contributed a short story to The Children of Albion Rovers anthology. Are you particularly keen on the short story form, and who are the practitioners you most admire?

I write very few. It’s a completely different art form from the novel. I admire so many: Mark Richard, Tolstoy, Annie Proulx, Breece d’j’ Pancake, Duncan McLean, Denis Johnson, Barry Hannah, Junot Diaz.

I gather that you’re no great fan of promotional book tours and that side of the literary life. Was there a time when you felt differently?

Well to be honest I’m very shy and have always felt that way. I don’t think I’m the best advert for my own work. I find readings difficult — I sometimes think the work can get lost amongst it all. It’s important the emphasis remains on the writing and not on the author.

My characters are always very different from me: schoolgirls and Spaniards. My voice doesn’t sound right reading those characters’ stories. At the best of times I absolutely hate the sound of my own voice — a sort of clipped, spoiled drone. I’ve begged radio programmes to use actors but they won’t because of the cost. I suggested to my publisher we send a bunch of actresses dressed as schoolgirls to the bookshops to do readings from The Sopranos. You can imagine the extended pause that was greeted with.

The novel is about the solitary, isolated act of reading and the subjective wonder it involves. I don’t want to appear surly or difficult. I just always have a slightly uneasy feeling about using myself to promote the books, though it’s part and parcel of contemporary publishing. I know some writers who absolutely refuse to do readings and I sympathise with them, but haven’t taken that position at all.

You quickly became bracketed with writers such as Duncan McLean and Gordon Legge. Did you feel resentful about this regional categorisation and the way in which Scottish writing was being sold on its novelty value?

Well, that was a very happy time and I am proud to be associated with excellent writers like that. It was a phemomenal time in Scottish writing: ‘the Trainspotting Years’, I guess you could call them.

It’s inevitable that the media will try to dumb down and simplify complex cultural issues. I supppose we’ve all moved on to different places. What’s interesting is that there’s been a definite and swift reaction against that literary movement in Scotland. I think the voices in those works were saying things certain people do not want to hear or examine.

Your novels are very painterly in their descriptions. Are you interested in the visual arts?

I am. I studied Art History at college as an element of my course and I went to Glasgow University as an Art History post-graduate but I wasn’t happy with it as a course so I changed over to the Literature department.

I was in Madrid recently and saw Goya's Black paintings for the first time in the flesh. He was doing stuff that the surrealists only got to in the 1930’s. I’ve always been struck by Julio Gonzalez’s sculptures as well. I try to visit the main gallery whenever I make it to a city now — keeps me out the pubs.

Continuing this visual art theme, the first editions of your novels have been strikingly produced. Is that an aspect of the books with which you’ve been involved?

I was for the first two — Morvern and These Demented Lands. The cover images used for the first editions and paperbacks were my detailed concepts. My editor Robin Robertson has contributed to these covers a lot.

I wasn’t too sure about the colours on the cover of my latest novel, The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven. Too bright, I thought. I’ve noticed the increasing influence of the marketing people in recent years. I think they have power to veto anything slightly too tasteful.

Would you consider yourself to be a bibliophile, or d’you simply consider books as tools, valued for their contents rather than their beauty as objects? 

I do value books generally for their contents. I’m not too materialistic about them. My attachment to books is cerebral. I’m happy with a well-thumbed paperback. That said, I do appreciate a nice first edition or handsome dustjacket. All my gems have come from twenty-five years in the secondhand bookshops. I’ve some nice Becketts from the 1940s. And I have an autographed first edition of a Patrick Kavanagh collection.

I adore secondhand bookshops. But finding gems is getting rarer now. I notice Oxfam have brought in valuers from the book trade.

On the surface, your new novel appears to be a radical departure from your previous work. D’you regard it as such?

On the surface maybe, but I think it’s a continuation of the unsympathetic male characters in These Demented Lands and the Spanish environments of Morvern Callar.

Tell me something about the writing of The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven 

It’s strange. After writing a book it’s like having been through a trauma. I recall very little of what was written: when or where or why decisions were made. It’s such a time-consuming and involving process. It’s like being in a mild trance. 

Your question leaves me thick-tongued and silent. I can hardly remember anything from the old torture chamber.

Where did the book’s beautiful, poetic title come from?

My mother said it on her death bed.

The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven uses Spain as a backdrop. Did you find the change of setting refreshing?

Yes. Ten years ago I could not have imagined I’d have set a book outside my own fictionalised region. Of course I have many other books I dream of writing which are set back in that region.

Like your previous books, The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven has an air of spontaneity.

Oh dear. Does it? I re-write and re-write. I suppose the main character had to appear casual in his environment, so perhaps that’s an excuse. I don’t care for grammar and correctness and all that complete hogwash. What a load of tripe is talked about ‘correct English’. My writing comes from spoken language — a kind of punk writing, I admit, but it frees you from conventions.

A mutual friend mentioned that you’re now living in Ireland. What prompted that move?

Family. When I met my wife, she had to return to Ireland to attend University. We’ve been there since 1997.

Are you a fan of Irish writing?

Very much. I’m an awful Dublin literary tourist as well. I linger outside the former addresses of Joyce and Beckett, Moore and Kavanagh. I lie low on Bloomsday but the rest of the year I’m out and about. Chemists mentioned in Ulysses are still operating chemists. Door-knockers Joyce mentioned are still on doors. So much of old Dublin is still preserved but, alas, that’s changing.

There are some wonderful contemporary Irish writers, too. Eoin McNamee, Sean O’Reilly, Dermot Healy, and the great dramatist Conor McPherson.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve been doing some interesting — for me, at least — things. I’m working on a novel about what I would call ‘contemporary realism’. It’s a novel about parenthood, marriage and a powerful love affair. It’s very exciting for me to be working this way, quite strange and challenging to be writing about what is ‘normality’ for most people. 

I’ve also been doing reading and planning for an historical novel I want to write and probably never shall. I always have a few things on the go until one takes off and gets all my attention.

Reproduced by kind permission of Warners Group Publications.

Using Format