Interview: Duncan McLean
—originally published in The Porch—
Not many people study Scottish literature, not even in Scotland. It might seem a little strange that I, a graduate student in Texas, am so enamored of Scottish literature. What is possibly more interesting, however, is a Scottish writer who has written a travelogue about his adventures in Texas researching Bob Wills and Texas Swing music, entitled Lone Star Swing: On the Trail of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. That writer is Duncan McLean, who has not only written about Texas, he is also one of a group of contemporary Scottish authors who have put Scottish literature back on the scene. McLean has written two novels, Blackden and Bunker Man, as well as worked on a plethora of play productions and interviews. His collection of short stories, Bucket of Tongues, won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1993.
It is perhaps McLean's involvement as co-founder of Clocktower Press that makes him even more relevant to readers and creators of small-press literature. Clocktower Press started with McLean and a friend making copies and selling their own writing, and it eventually published writers like Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner. Clocktower Press's role in establishing a Scottish literary scene was invaluable, and McLean's reason for creating it lies along the same lines as the creation of most small-press endeavors: to get literature that is not being published out there to be read. I met McLean in Glasgow, and we discussed Scottish literature and Clocktower Press over a couple of pints, but we didn't have enough time for me to interview him properly. This interview was conducted a few months later via email.
If you gather nothing else from McLean's astute (and sometimes comical) answers, remember his advice, "Steady the buffs!"
KH: Many small-press endeavors seem to be quite similar to what you were doing for Clocktower Press. You said that the point was to get published, at least more quickly for those of you who were being accepted, but you also said that it was about "a cultural intervention." How much of it was to succeed as a writer, and how much of it was to get your message out there?
DM: How else do you measure success as a writer except the extent to which you "get your message out there?" If the question assumes things like money, fame, awards to be measures of success, then I would oppose that assumption. Those things may be signs of success as a business person, or as a career builder. But success for a writer is in perseverance, in finding a voice and letting it speak, and in—no, not "getting a message out there," but—getting a story out there.
KH: Many groups seem to start much like you and James Meek did: work-shopping and reading each other's works out loud. In my experience, some groups start this way because they do not get this at their universities—not at the level they need or from people whose opinions they respect. Do you feel that having a writing community helps you as a writer?
DM: I suspect there is a stage in learning to write akin to apprenticeship in any trade or craft. During that time, you need good teachers and mentors, and you need to study and practice a lot. It's also useful to have a peer group of people at roughly the same stage of development as yourself. You can discuss the techniques you're learning with them, compare results, perhaps, and certainly get off your chest worries and insecurities about the difficult skills you're trying to master. As you get to grips with the technical issues of writing, and especially after you've spent a few years actually writing seriously, I feel there is less need for the close community: you've learned the craft, there's no excuse not to go out and do the work now. Of course, it's still good when you bump into people you went through a lot with years before, and if they've persevered in the same business, then you'll be able to assume a lot of common ground—like butchers or airline pilots. But you wouldn't expect pilots who've been flying for a dozen years to sidle up to an old friend and say, "Remind me, what's the altimeter for?" Certain things can get taken for granted after a while, the community loosens up.
KH: How do you feel about Creative Writing programs at the university level? Alan Warner mentioned that he did not think that there was some magic formula that an instructor could teach you to be a writer, yet he has said that his studies were not completely in vain. You hold a Master's in English, so you definitely know Academe, but do you think a university can produce a successful writer? Or is it unnecessary?
DM: When I was applying for university, twenty years ago, I would probably have signed up for a creative writing course if I could have, as I have known since I was a kid that I wanted to "be a writer." But there was no such thing in Scotland in those days, and only one in England (which I hadn't heard of at the time). Now there are three or four in Scotland, but I've never taught at or even visited any of them, so I don't actually know much about them. (The first time I visited the USA in 1995, it amazed and amused me that, as soon as I mentioned to anyone that I was a writer, they'd ask "Where do you teach?" That had never happened in Scotland. In fact, I don't think it would now, even. There just isn't that link between creative writing and university-level education that seems so completely taken for granted in the USA.)
So back in the early '80s I followed what the Scots frequently boast about as a unique course in our education system: a generalist one that included psychology, philosophy, language/linguistics, drama, English literature (which ended up as my major subject)—hell, even one year of Scottish literature! (One year was the most you could do in Edinburgh Uni in the 1980s.) (See George Davie's writing, especially The Democratic Intellect, for background to the theories of generalist education, by the way.) There was no creative writing element in what I studied, then: there was an extensive programme of reading, plus a lot of "close reading," as it was called. And just at the end of my time, there was the first appearance of "theory"—i.e. the whole post-Saussure school, down to Lacan and Derrida (who I met in a lift in Glasgow once, and had an extensive conversation with: he said "Which floor?" and I said, "Second, please"). I have to say it was my generation of students who were very keen on theory at that time in Scotland; we thought it was pretty darn revolutionary and important. (The teachers were on the whole ignorant of it, or paid lip service; a few were hostile.)
When I came to write fiction seriously, a few years after leaving uni, I found I'd forgotten most of the theory I'd ever read. And what I did remember didn't help me write at all. The most useful part of my time at university was probably the second-hand book stall outside the student café, where I bought literally hundreds of books over the years for a few pence each. The broad acquaintance with a spectrum of literature I was getting in my academic studies was broadened and deepened ten times over by that bookstall.
Going back to your question, I think a prolonged immersion in great, good, and mediocre literature from all over the world is an essential part of learning writing skills. University can be a good place to get that experience, but there are certainly other places that would be as good: prison, hospital, desert island!
So, "Can university produce a good writer"? It can help. And there are quite a few good writers now who have even studied creative writing at uni. I don't think there's a great one yet . . .
KH: I have found that many writers tend to shun academics, yet you are sort of a hybrid. Do you think that knowing theory helps or hinders your writing? Alan Warner said that he would like to break down the walls between the ivory tower of writers and the readers. Do you think these ivory towers still exist?
DM: I drifted into the first question while answering the above one, didn't it? At the risk of sounding a bit pompous, I don't think writers should shun anyone, no matter what their job: I've met more than a few academics who are amusing, stimulating company, willing to stand their hand. What more can you ask? On the other hand I don't think it's good for a writer to constantly surround themselves with academics. The only worse thing would be to surround yourself with other writers.
As far as the second question goes, I have to say I'm a long way from any university—ten hours in a ferry, to be exact—and I can't see the ivory towers from here.
KH: I know that you and many of the other writers who were part of Clocktower Press have gained a reputation for FPP (fucks per page). How do you feel about this type of criticism?
DM: It's not criticism—in the sense of literary or artistic criticism. It's social criticism—a complaint about etiquette, about good manners. As such, it's irrelevant to me as a writer, and I take no notice at all.
Jim Kelman expressed a very clear philosophy on this subject way back in 1984, in an interview I did with him in the student newspaper when I was 19. (It's been collected in an anthology called Nothing is Altogether Trivial, edited by Murdo MacDonald, and published by Edinburgh University Press about 5 or 6 years ago. A great anthology, which captures a lot of the lively intellectual scene in Edinburgh in the decade from about 1982 onwards.) I don't think I can improve on what he said there. Tom Leonard is great on this subject too: "All living language is sacred / fuck the lot of them." And Alison Flett-Kermack, who was published in Clocktower, and now her first full collection is out—Whit Lassyz ur Inty—highly recommended!
KH: How important do you feel the movement was for people outside of Scotland? You said in Ahead of its Time, "The effect was to send folk off to listen to themselves—and to their families, friends and workmates—and start from there." How much of the writing was intended for other writers writing in Scotland, and how much was intended for others? Who was your target audience?
DM: Aaargh! Your questions are too difficult! They have so much wrapped up in them that I would need a hundred pages to answer each one properly! For instance, your use of the word "movement": can I accept that word as an accurate description of me and a few other writers writing a few books? Do I really understand what you mean by "movement?" And "intended?" Can I remember what I intended? Did I actually intend anything at all? Wasn't I just having a laugh, telling stories instead of singing songs for a change? As for "target audience," I honestly don't think I thought in those terms at all. But if I didn't (it occurs to me), why the hell did we go to the trouble of printing the Clocktower booklets and posting them out and occasionally even selling them? Surely that was an attempt to make contact with an audience?
Ach . . . maybe I'll come back to this one.
(30 minutes later.) Okay, I'm back, let's see. Hmmmm. Why did we write? Why does anyone write, or commit themselves to any kind of artistic activity? The roots of it must be in childhood, I think. Something about the need to control the world? Or to escape the world? A mixture of attention-seeking and wanting to avoid real human beings in favour of spending time with imaginary ones? Ach, maybe I'll come back to this again.
(22 minutes later.) Hmmm. Nope.
KH: When I met Carl MacDougall, he told me how he had just finished a television series for the BBC on Scottish writers. We discussed the resurgence of Scottish Literature and if it would last. Do you think this is just a "flash in the pan," or will any of these writers be read in the decades to come? Do you think including them in the canon that they were, in a sense, writing against is contradictory?
DM: We're back in more comfortable territory now, as I can pontificate about actually existing books rather than trying to recover or fabricate thought processes from 15 years ago!
I don't think resurgences last; I don't think movements or schools last either. Was Tolstoy part of a resurgence? Was Lu Xun a member of some literary school or other? (Probably "yes" to both, but it doesn't matter to the non-academic reader, does it?) But of course books last. Will any of the Scottish books of the past few years be read in 2050 and beyond? Definitely they will! Jim Kelman's best stuff, for sure. And all of Alan Warner's. And some of Alasdair Gray. Trainspotting, too, of course. And probably everything by Janice Galloway. Hold on, what am I doing here? Just listing my favourite authors of recent years!
As I've said a couple of times, I really live and work a long way away from academics, and anyone who would know or care about literary canons. I'm not saying it's not a worthwhile subject to be analysed and argued over, it's just that it's a long, long time since I've rehearsed any of those arguments. As a writer—of fiction, not academic criticism or history—I really don't have to worry about all that stuff! You do it if you want to, but I would much rather read and think about what happened when the non-swimmer mussel farmer fell overboard, or when the school bus broke down on a snowy day, or when the farmer got drunk at the horse sale and left his kids to drive the ponies home.
I'm not affecting an anti-intellectual pose in saying this. I genuinely do believe that it is my job to think about that kind of thing . . . stories. (It also suits the way my brain works.) And it's an academic's job to think about canons and resurgences and theory. Good luck to you!
KH: How much do you think Clocktower Press has contributed to these Scottish writers being included in the canon, if at all?
DM: I think Clocktower gave encouragement and support to a dozen or so good writers who were otherwise finding it hard to get much response. And some of them have told me that the support was important to them, for a while at least—as was the sheer fun of that type of publication—and so it helped them to persevere with their writing. And some of them wrote great stuff . . . which is now in a canon. Apparently.
KH: When you aren't writing novels and short stories (or searching for Bob Wills in Texas), you seem to have been deeply involved with theater. Do you see theater as merely another genre in which to speak in your own words—as you've expressed about writing?
DM: My first serious writing was songs, sketches, stand-up comedy, street theatre, and more legit plays. This was at university and for a couple of years after. (I wrote about this at tedious—for me—length in the intro to my book of plays. Hmm, a theme is emerging: it seems I don't like going back and raking over the coals of past activities. . . .) I've never worried too much about the differences between writing for performance and for the page (although I am aware they are different in lots of ways.) The fact that my fiction is very much based on "living language," and that it tends to be dramatic (like Turgenev, say) rather than didactic (like George Eliot, maybe) means that I've found it relatively easy to move back and forth between fiction and drama.
When I think back to my own writing, I'm generally pretty unimpressed with it. I was going to say that I don't like many of my plays now, apart maybe from the short ones like "Rug Comes to Shuv" and "I'd Rather Go Blind"; well, that is true, but then I don't feel 100% happy with much of my fiction either.
KH: How related is the written script and the performance of a play?
DM: You couldn't have the play without the script. But on the other hand, you can have a hundred different performances starting from one script. The theatrical experience can be radically different even though the words are more or less—or exactly—the same. The best analogy I can give is a very unoriginal one: I think of my scripts as being like music: the director and actors come along and interpret the words, like Charlie Parker, Sam Cooke, Cecil Taylor and Bob Wills all play the same notes on the page—but come up with wildly different results!
KH: Do you think looking at a script, as literature is incomplete without the performance? Is the performance ultimately more powerful than the script alone?
DM: If you're a careful reader, I'm sure you can imagine your own performance in your head. But a real live performance with good actors should strike sparks in unexpected places—because real live unpredictable people are involved. So I wouldn't say reading a play is "incomplete," but I do think it is a different, and usually less rich, experience than seeing a performance. How much does the performance change the meaning of the text? Ah! One of those tricky words again! Does a text have a meaning? "A" meaning? One? Maybe it has lots of meanings? Or none at all: maybe meaning is something that individual words or gestures have, but that a performance of a play—containing tens of thousands of words and millions of gestures and movements—can never be reduced to.
KH: Not having seen Blackden on stage myself, how do you think the novel transformed on stage? Was any of the meaning changed or lost?
DM: I'll do you a deal: I'll answer the first question, on condition I don't have to get mixed up in the second one. Shit . . . I think I'm going to have to break the deal: the first part is difficult to answer, too. I'm not trying to be clever here, but I suggest you read the novel as well as the play, then tell me how you think the former got on when put through the blender to become the latter. You really want my opinion? Em . . . well, I can remember that I went along to my first meeting, with the theatre who wanted to commission me armed with several exciting ideas for new plays, but they insisted that they wanted an adaptation of Blackden. I argued, but they wouldn't budge. I think that, this being at the time when Trainspotting was starting to take off as a successful play (and maybe even a film—I can't remember the sequence exactly), they wanted to do something similar themselves. But they can't have read Blackden itself; otherwise, they would have realised that it is about as far from Trainspotting as you can possibly get! So why did I accept a stupid commission? Probably because I needed the money, and also because I relished the challenge of finding ways to translate story that goes on inside one character's head into something much more theatrical. Well, I managed to make it into something slightly more theatrical, at least: four monologuing characters, like stand-ups, or pub yarners. And, the bit I liked best: the central character, the central consciousness, the narrator, the dominating figure of the novel . . . doesn't appear in the play at all! Ha ha ha ha. Ha,
KH: Do you have plans to continue writing more plays or eventually writing screenplays for full-length motion pictures?
DM: It's funny the way you ask the question, as if those two activities were naturally and almost inevitably linked! Like asking, "Do you have plans to continue driving a car, or eventually flying a space rocket to Jupiter?" or "Do you have plans to continue eating toast and tea for breakfast, or eventually roasting a whole ox over an open fire and cutting a slice off with a sabre, and tea?" The next thing I'm going to write is, as it happens, a short play for a theatre in Portugal. And I hope to do more plays into the future, though if I had to choose one or the other, fiction would probably win out. As for screenplays, well, I don't know. Our daughter is 5, and at school here, having a great time. I wouldn't take up any writing commission that disrupted her life. So I guess a lengthy spell in Hollywood is out!
Krystal Hart holds a Ph.D. in Literature with a specialization in Contemporary Scottish Literature. Having formerly worked as a researcher for Spirit Magazine and an editor for The Porch, Krystal is now searching for that elusive tenure track position where a girl with a Texas drawl can teach Scottish literature to students who care. In the meantime, she teaches part-time at the University of North Texas and slaves away in her corporate position in the burbs.
copyright © 2008, Krystal Hart
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