It was kind of muggy over Edinburgh for the 13th day of the Edinburgh Book Festival yesterday. Would it rain or wouldn’t it, the question was on everyone’s lips.
I’d arranged a half day from my day job in order to take in some great Scottish writers, so after a quick turnaround back at the house, I headed up to Charlotte Square for some literary rollicks.
James Robertson with Irvine Welsh
For my first event I made my way to the RBS Main Tent for the only time of the evening. A packed house welcomed Scottish author James Robertson into its bosom this evening, to be interviewed by cult Scottish author, Irvine Welsh.
Robertson began with a reading from an intense passage from his new novel, And The Land Lay Still, a passage which immediately pricked up my ears when he explained it was about mining disaster.
Set in 1950, it had been inspired by the Knockshinnoch mining disaster in which 13 men died in 1950, after they attempted a new method of drilling out from the shaft. Unfortunately they drilled into a peat bog, which then flooded and the ground collapsed in on them trapping the 108 miners underneath.
Robertson’s reading was intense and clear, evoking vivid images of what Scotland was and wasn’t at that time. Next to Welsh who was chairing, who isn’t perhaps known as being the greatest orator in the world, but who hosted the event admirably, Robertson put most Scottish authors public reading skills to shame.
Robertson explained that he “always thought there was a great modern Scottish novel to be told through fiction, that couldn’t necessarily be found in the history books.” That said, however, he also admitted that “it was extremely hard to write this kind of book because of the balance that must be achieved between fact and fiction.”
Moving the discussion into the here and now, he said: “When does now become history? The poll tax is history to anyone under the age of 21. History happens really quickly.”
But the romance of any Scottish chat especially given the type of novel written by Robertson, inevitably turned back to the landscape. “The wild land of Scotland still resonates deeply with people,” he said. “Its fascinating the pull places where you can actually touch the land have on us.”
As far as identity goes it’s a massive question for any Scot looking at the separation from England right up until devolution a decade ago. “I believe we Scots,” he said in closing to a mesmerised audience, “we’re much more conscious of our Scottishness than we were 30 years ago.”
As to what “Scottishness” actually means, he wouldn’t be drawn.
Next up was Louise Welsh, an author I greatly admire but who I’d been too shy to actually interrupt in a restaurant last week to say hi.
Over to Peppers Theatre for this one, where I discovered that Welsh wrote in the query letter for her first book that, “my favourite novelists are Robert Louis Stevenson, Muriel Spark and William Burroughs.” It was enough to make her agent sit up and pay attention then, and to this day it’s this remarkable taste in authors that provides the unique mix that gives the special author that we now have in Louise Welsh.
Reading from her new novel—still a work in progress—she enthralled the lucky audience that had come to see her with a glimpse of the novel to come.
Her new book looks as though it’s going to be as hard to pigeon the as the others. “Most people feel happy to read genre fiction,” she said. “I’m happy to be read on the top deck of a bus.”
And her new novel, she assures us, “will force us to examine where our own prejudices lie.” It’s powerful stuff from one of Scotland’s highest impact writers. “I’m a storyteller and nothing else really. I like strong characters, strong narration and a great plot.”
So how does Welsh create such memorable and well-rounded characters in her novels? “I always look backwards to see where a story has come from. A book will be in my head for up to two years so I have a clear view of them all, what they wear, talk like, etc.”
As for what genre she’s writing in, it’s the least planned element of her writing. “When I sit down to write, I don’t worry about genre. I think about plot and characters.”
Welsh took time to look back on the positive effect her previous career as a second hand book dealer may have had on her work, and it appears to have given her an amount of perspective: “Our lives are similar to those of books; we’re here and then we’re not.”
When asked about her thoughts on McIlvanney’s recent comments about being unable to find an English publisher, Welsh said: “It’s not my perception there is any Scottish prejudice from English publishers. I think Scottish literature is on the up and I hope in the near future we will hear more from Polish or Asian writers in Scotland. There’s a lot to look forward to.”
David Leslie & Alexander Shannon
Alexander Shannon has led a remarkable life. To quote the man sitting next to him on the Peppers Theatre stage this evening, journalist David Leslie: “For Shannon to have emerged from a life of poverty and crime like this, is a remarkable achievement.”
So what is Shannon’s story?
Hailing from the east end of Glasgow, he spent years in care homes struggling to survive. He married his childhood sweetheart on his 19th birthday and soon after signed up for the British Army, finding himself on tour in several locations notably the Falklands, Northern Ireland and Bosnia, where he became an expert at covert operations. “I felt safer in South Armagh in 1988 than I do in Glasgow today,” he said with some seriousness. “At least we knew who the enemy was back then not like the young teens you get walking around with blades that’ll do anything for their next bag of heroin.”
On his return to Glasgow as a civilian, he wound up becoming heavily involved in the criminal underworld, using the skills he’d amassed in the British Forces to work for drugs barons and assassins. It wasn’t until his wife gave him an ultimatum that either things change by him rejoining the army or he would lose her.
Shannon chose the army, where despite being questioned over brutal killings and accused of a triple murder attempt, his dedication to succeed and break out from his mould as a criminal brought him high accolades and a series of promotions.
In his book, The Underworld Captain, Shannon pieces together his story, claimed by David Leslie the journalist who helped him publish it as: “The best piece of pro-army PR you will ever read.”
Shannon’s book was censored in its entirety by the Ministry of Defence when they first saw it and it’s little wonder with the content it contained, but over time Leslie managed to convince them that Shannon had a story worth telling, seeing it as an inspirational piece of work that “if it could persuade just one youngster from a similar background that there is hope, that if you want to succeed and break away, you can—because I’ve proved it—then it will be worth it.”
Leslie, who has spent a career writing about Glasgow’s gangster culture, said: “The Glasgow underworld is a very active place—very dangerous too.” And he explained that criminal minds tended to flow through families: “In Glasgow in the 80s, if your father was a criminal then you became a criminal. It’s like a family career path.”
Now training to be a psychologist, Shannon hopes to be able to apply his new skills in aiding soldiers and footballers. “They’re one in the same,” he said. “None of them have ever grown up mentally.”
But if there’s one thing that Alexander Shannon is certain about it’s this: “The army saved my life.”
2011/12 Year Plan
There is one large piece of work that’s been going on in the back ground these last couple of weeks, but which has intensified and become more focussed since I published my 2010/11 Annual Work Review a few days ago – my GDR plan for next year.
What struck me most when I weighed up my highs and lows was that overall, I had a very successful year in terms of getting done what I wanted to be done. I find myself in a healthy position with a decent (but improvable) rate of short fiction publications, the amount of poetry work I have achieved, the state I have got my WIPs into, and the amount of people I have met throughout the course of the year.
And so my thinking has started to move towards really upping my game in terms of making further strides in long fiction, and to making a concerted effort to really get my name out there into those places where it can do most good for my career. I have so much poetry on the go, it’ll pretty much take care of itself!
As I ponder the next year and the goals I am going to set myself, I do so from an enviable position and from a place where I know I have to focus further and really begin to push myself well out my zones of comfort. Basically, more of the same, big chap!
I’ll be ready to publish my 2011/12 GDR Plan on Monday. Why do I publish it? So I can’t lie to myself if all you guys know about it, of course!
I skipped my usual morning coffee yesterday before going to the day job in favour of spending time with my new iMac. I feel like giving her a name; it’s more like having a new pet in the house as opposed to the coldness one often feels when getting to know a new Windows machine. No more sharp edges, chilly metal and stuttering, freezing software programs—my writing den is now my Elysium.
I’ve been asked to resubmit my Trees for Life submission but this time in a bigger size. The framer came back with a requirement that 6”x9” be the standard size, hence the reworking. Shouldn’t be too much of a problem, though.
I registered for a new Savvy Authors Course: Advanced Dialogue Workshop. I took the intermediate one last year and when I saw this one available I jumped at it; Devon Ellington is such a great teacher. Also, with it being right off the back of the book festival I figured it was the perfect time to push myself further and develop my crafting skills.
Book Fest Media
Catch up on all my reviews and articles on my sister site, the (Unofficial) Edinburgh Book Festival Blog
For visual enjoyment of the Edinburgh Book Festival, click over to my constantly updated photograph feed at flickr.com/colinthewriter
Ciao for now!
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