18 - Alan Bissett: Novelist, Screenwriter, Playwright and Activist
My guest on this episode is renowned author, screenwriter and playwright Alan Bissett. If you don't know him from his excellent prose and theatre work then you may know him from how active he was for the Yes campaign during the 2014 Scottish Referendum.
But to me, he's a novelist first and foremost. He'd probably disagree with that, yet that's how I got into his writing so I guess that'll always be my perception of him.
When I began studying Scottish Literature in first year of university, I was motivated (in no small part by some weird sense of cultural nationalism) to spend the time away from the course texts and to absorb other Scottish writers. Trainspotting is a book we're all familiar with, and naturally that happened to be the only Scottish novel that I'd read going into uni and the relatively older age of 24. That book then turned up as a course text in my first year because, well... why wouldn't it?
Re-reading it, and realising I had access to a huge library and a vast reservoir of Scots literary knowledge, I spent my time in between essays, exams and course texts pulling as many different books as I could from between the stacks of the Glasgow Uni library. I devoured Kelman, Crichton Smith, MacCaig, Gray, Spark and then moved onto more contemporary authors like Bissett, Louise Welsh and Robertson among others. Boyracers was one of the first contemporary novels I read.
I went on to read Pack Men, as it was his most recent at the time, and then Death of a Ladies Man. Welsh was important to me because it demonstrated that people could write in Scots and "get away with it"; Kelman was vital to my literary development because it was the first novel I read in Glaswegian, and it contained characters the likes of which I'd met in my own scheme when growing up; but Bissett was more relevant, largely in part because I found it easier to identify with teenagers from Falkirk than I could with twenty-something heroin addicts in Leith or a blind guy in Glasgow. As I look back on that period of voracious reading, I now know it was because the community he depicts in Boyracers, and later again in Pack Men, is so similar to ones I know.
This podcast is a very cerebral chat. I hope you don't find it too dense. Highlights include:
Creativity always seemed natural, he kept coming back to that when he was young
Came to realise writing was a career when he was doing a PHd
Being shortlisted for the Macallan Prize is when he realised writing was a thing
Coming from a TV household with no creative family
You only start to realise the themes of your writing when people start to talk to you about
Scottish writing and the themes of identity of community, and how those mainly seem to come from writers who are not from the landed gentry
How Alan finds this to be more powerful and valuable than writing about rich people having drawing room affairs
The object of growing up is like to get out of your community and how that leads to a sense of guilt when you do
How current writers that he’s been working with seem to reflect the difference in community now than in the generation before – Boyracers was filled with hope, but it’s hope that the current generation of teenagers don’t feel
There’s a generation of young theatre makers like Steph Smith, Catrion Evans, Kiron Hurly, Gary McNair, Rob Drummond and Nick Green who are doing politically explicit work
The radical spirit that theatre had in the 70s with John McGrath etc feels like it’s coming back
Yet it’s harder for Scottish novelists to be political because of the global competition
It’s very difficult for political novels to get through
How Late It Was, How Late was prophetic about the struggle people face with the DWP now, despite it being written in the mid 90s
People want to escape reality instead of experience or read about what people actually feel say and do
American cultural colonisation is greater than ever despite the narratives of big media franchises like Game of Thrones or Marvel films not being culturally specific
Our obsessions with these universal cultures mean that local cultures – their stories, dialects, art – are slowly being erased and neglected
But that’s not to say we should protect our cultures by allowing them to remain untouched, rather there should be cultural spaces where local culture still exist – we must preserve minority culture
It’s difficult to know what our default cultural tastes would be when entertainment is controlled by media conglomerates
The artist’s that feel that they have some kind of social responsibility at least signals that they are willing to make a stand that’s bigger than just them as an individual
We get caught up in the rights of the individual above all else and it’s not surprise because that’s capitalism but we have to perverse the work that we do
Moving to writing plays is as much about the economic reality of writing novels and how difficult it is to pay bills as a full time writer when it takes a long time to write a book
Many novelists are stimulated into over production because of the fear of having their livelihood taken away from them, Alan can’t work like that
There’s also an energy in Scottish theatre that wasn’t quite there in Scottish literature
Theatre is more immediate but a novel is more powerful because of the mental experience is deeper
Yet a play can react quicker to current events whereas a novel takes time
The full scale demolition of masculinity in Death of a Ladies Man
The alpha male pursuit to anoint great works of literature
And how that pursuit can be destructive, and the way that has affected the mental health of many great writes, such as James Joyce
However ambition is required to power you through being creative
Yet a lot of female writers have a completely different mindset, which often makes them better writers
The Caledonian Antisyzergy and the dual identity of Scots which is reflected in referendum result
The referendum was Scotland finding out what it is was – Scotland doesn’t know what it is or what it would spring towards whilst it’s still part of the union
Alan finds that interviews aren’t fun anymore because they talk about politics…
So we make it fun by talking about Marvel
And the seemingly infinite expansion of franchises
We have a shared love for blockbuster moves despite them being more disposable than ever
Alan’s favourite film is Jaws and compared to current CGI films, it feels so handmade
The shift in the 70s in blockbuster films which shook everything up in terms of how big budget films are made, and how that shift would not happen now because of CGI
We agree Marvel Studios are good at retaining artists’ singular vision in a big budget blockbuster setting
Disney used to feel like a benign company that used to make kids films every year, and now they seem to run Hollywood
There are, however, more nourishing forms of entertainment
WHY ARE ADULTS WATCHING KIDS FILMS?! And whey to complain about them when they’re not FOR adults?
Society aims to keep us in a state of permanent adolescence
Some Scottish Literature chat – James Robertson is a genius, he’s so far ahead of every other Scottish author. Also, Louise Welsh, Kirsty Logan, John Niven, Sophie Sexton, William Letford, Richie McCafferty, Laura Marney, Rodge Glass, Zoe Strachan are all people to watch
Also James Hogg – Confessions of a Justified Sinner is ESSENTIAL literature
Lots of show notes here. Apologies for the length of the post. I hope you enjoy the episode! Featured Music Intro: Voodoo Puppets – Electric Chair Blues (used under CC licence, you can check it out here).
Suede - The Next Life Pink Floyd - Comfortably Numb Martyn Bennett - Move
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