Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Neil Gunn

I first encountered the work of Neil Gunn some eight years ago.  Although critically acclaimed in his lifetime, Gunn’s contribution to, and influence on, the first half of twentieth century Scottish literature has to a certain extent been eclipsed by the work of Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
Gunn was a socialist and committed to the cause of Scottish nationalism at a time when both were unfashionable, causes which, many of you will have gathered, I have more than a little sympathy for.  He was also, as the excellent Whisky & Scotland: A Practical and Spiritual Survey proves, an early proponent of malt whisky at a time when single malts were virtually unknown, no doubt aided by his years as a Customs & Excise officer.  His time at the Glen Mhor distillery afforded him ample opportunity to write, and is surely my dream day job.
Gunn, along with contemporary Hugh MacDiarmid was part of the Scottish Renaissance - a movement that sought to take Scottish fiction “out of the kaleyard” and into contemporary themes free from the romanticised and flowery tales that had come to typify Scottish literature.  Despite all of his novels being set in the Scottish Highlands, Gunn experimented continuously with style and subject matter, his later work being particularly influenced Zen Buddhism.  In many ways this was to be his undoing.  Despite the commercial and critical success of novels such as Butcher’s Broom and The Silver Darlings, Gunn defied the expectations of his publisher and readers by more metaphysical tales such as The Serpent and The Green Isle Of The Great Deep, the latter a dystopian warning that pre-dates Nineteen Eighty-Four by five years.  As sad as it might seem inevitable, this led to a dwindling interest by both Gunn’s agent and his public, resulting in such a poor reception to his spiritual autobiography The Atom Of Delight in 1956 that he never wrote another full length work up until his death in 1973.
Perhaps somewhat perversely, while many readers expect, even demand, that their favourite authors produce a variant of the same book or at least return to favourite characters in order to continue their story, it is the diversity of Gunn’s novels that has made him both a favourite and an influence on my own work.  From the rich prose of Highland River and Sun Circle to the more simple and heart warming text of Young Art And Old Hector, Gunn explored the human condition and all its drives with a knowing nod to the Scottish character.
It was through such works that I first began to experience a shift in my own perception, the acknowledgement of something of worth within my own heritage and culture, the ability to tell a story in my own dialect and set in the land in which I grew up.  More than this, I came to challenge myself and remove self-imposed limits on my writing, enabling me to write stories that previously I might have considered beyond my means.  For this, more than anything else, I will always be indebted to Neil Gunn, regardless of any future direction.  This is why the books I write may not always be in a genre you wish to read, feature settings you are familiar with, or deal with subject matter with which you might readily associate me with.  What they will be is written to the best of my ability in order to tell the stories I need to tell.
Like the song says, ‘You can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.’
Don’t think of this as hubris so much as kindly dictatorship.

For those wishing to investigate the work of Neil Gunn, I have listed some of my personal favourites.  Others are perhaps better known but these one’s resonated particularly strongly.

Sun Circle
Young Art And Old Hector
The Green Isle Of The Great Deep
The Silver Bough
The Well At The World’s End

Sunday, 2 September 2012

More Stories About Drugs, Sex & Violence

With a second short story collection under way, I thought this was a good opportunity to say a little about the stories in the previous one: More Stories About Drugs Sex & Violence.
The collection comprises thirteen stories written over a sixteen year period that covers almost every aspect of my writing.  I’ve tried to provide some insight into them below without giving too much away for those who have yet to read them.

The use of the second person in the narrative is a direct homage to those old adventure games books that originated in the eighties, where you navigated through the book by turning to various numbered sections.  Depending on your choices, you either won or died!
In line with the choice of the second person was the decision to write in as gender neutral a voice as possible.  Despite being the oldest story in the collection, having been written in 1996, it holds up remarkably well.

The Dog Trainer
The setting and much of the early dialogue relating to dog psychology are lifted directly from a session I had with a dog trainer after re-homing a dog that turned out to be aggressive.  Somewhere during the process I started to wonder what would happen if you applied the same process to a human.  I suspect I have rather too many thoughts like this.

The concept behind this story started as something of a joke, someone setting out to commit every specific type of murder, and swiftly turned far more serious.  Is it too fantastical?

Death & Taxes
A reproduction of the composition piece I wrote for my English O Grade.  Proof, were it needed, that my humour has always been black.  For those that may be interested, I received a B.

Charlie Says
For want of better term, a more literary examination of the concept behind White Vampyre.  I later attempted to turn it into a novel with no success.  Some of the material from that failed attempt was then used in a second failed attempt to turn Tracks, another story in this collection, into a novel.  One of these days I will complete a novel about Aberdeen lowlifes based on my time in the city.  Honest.

One of several pieces in this collection originally written for a competition.  In this instance the brief was a modern updating of a myth.  I chose Leda and the swan from Greek mythology.  Didn’t win.

Inspired by an advert for a company offering to turn human cremation ashes into diamond via an industrial process.  The character of Wayne swiftly took on a life of his own, becoming far more unpleasant than anything I’d first imagined.  Had a different twist when I first conceived it.  You’ll have to take my word for it that his one works better.

Two Minutes
Another competition piece and the only flash fiction in this collection - 500 words on the subject of time.  I suspect the racist language at the beginning may have queered this with the judges.  I considered removing it for the submission but it is entirely justified for the character and self-censorship is a slippery slope for any writer.

The Mythographer
This one arrived out of nowhere, starting with the title which sounds like something J G Ballard might have used.  Any resemblance to an ex member of The Libertines is entirely coincidental.

Down The Rabbit Hole
The most light-hearted story in the collection.  Besides the obvious references to Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard Of Oz and 70’s British Children’s television, there are a number of references to Tori Amos lyrics in the text.  I do this sort of thing far too often for my own good.

Another story that seemed to arrive almost fully formed.  This one manages to feature all three on the collections title themes along with a generous helping of black humour.  I like to think it attempts to make some serious points along the way.

Another Nail In My Coffin
In large part inspired by the excellent charity anthology Off The Record, where each story was inspired by a classic song.  The title comes from Nail In My Coffin from The Kills Blood Pressures album.  The two, however, have little else in common.

The Killing Of Joe Fly
Competition - the body in the library.  Hard boiled detective fiction with a twist.  Also didn’t win.