Alan Bissett is a novelist, playwright and performer. His latest novel, Death of a Ladies’ Man (2009), will be released in paperback in May by Hachette Scotland. There is a double-bill of two of his plays, The Ching Room and the Moira Monologues, at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow from 9th-13th Feb. Bissett himself will be starring as ‘Moira’. He also helps with the splendid reading series, Discombobulate (where literature and comedy collide) in Glasgow. Alan read at The Golden Hour in January 2010.
WHAT BOOKS/ALBUMS/MOVIES ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO THIS YEAR?
I’m a big fan of Goldfrapp, so I’m very excited about their new one, Head First, which is going to be ‘a bit Eighties’. Peter Mullan, one of my great cinematic heroes, has a new one out this year called Neds. And as for books, welll we have a bonanza due now that J.D. Salinger is dead. He had about fifteen novels in the safe, only to be published after his demise. That’s BIG news for a Catcher in the Rye fan.
DO YOU KEEP UP WITH THE GLASGOW/SCOTTISH MUSIC SCENE AS MUCH AS THE NAME DROPPING IN DEATH OF A LADIES’ MAN WOULD SUGGEST?
I must admit, things are so busy now I’m not going out to gigs much, but I certainly was when I was writing that book. I usually try and catch up with what the following bands of muckers and comrades are doing: Burnt Island, Maple Leaves, Zoey Van Goey and Y’all is Fantasy Island.
DEATH OF A LADIES’ MAN IS EXTREMELY PLAYFUL WITH NON-LINGUISTIC FEATURES SUCH AS PAGE LAYOUT AND TEXT SIZE, EVEN CONVERTING TO SCREENPLAY FORMAT AT CERTAIN POINTS. HOW DO THESE ELEMENTS AFFECT YOUR PERFORMANCE WHEN GIVING A READING? EQUALLY, HAS THE EXPERIENCE OF LIVE READINGS, BY FOCUSING ATTENTION ONTO THE SOUND OF LANGUAGE, HELPED TO SHAPE YOUR WRITING AT ALL?
Obviously it’s very difficult to reproduce formal experimentation for the page live in a reading. For the book launch in the Arches I did actually act out a screenplay scene, with my girlfriend playing Nadine, and the ‘screen directions’ being read out. That’s the only way I could make that work. And yes, I’d say that when you perform you get much more of a sense for pace and the flow of the writing, how the ‘voice’ can hold or lose audience attention, which translates for sure into the way I write.
YOU HAVE GIVEN A LOT OF READINGS AS SUPPORT FOR VARIOUS BANDS AROUND SCOTLAND. HOW DID THESE READINGS COMPARE WITH YOUR AVERAGE BOOK STORE READING, WHERE THE AUDIENCE HAVE COME SPECIFICALLY TO HEAR A NOVELIST TALK?
It really depends. Almost every time I’ve done it, the audience is completely respectful and quiet, but that’s usually been in fairly intimate venues to small crowds. But I did once read at a gig in the ABC, with the likes of Sons and Daughters and Teenage Fanclub on the bill, in a cavernous space to an audience of about 1000 who were there to hear rock n roll. I was just performing into a wall of noise. I gamefully carried on, but it wasn’t fun.
IN A GUARDIAN ARTICLE CONCERNING JAMES KELMAN’S COMMENTS AT LAST YEAR’S EDINBURGH BOOK FESTIVAL, WHICH CRITICISED THE ATTENTION THE SCOTTISH LITERARY SCENE PAYS TO “MEDIOCRE DETECTIVE FICTION AND MIDDLE CLASS WIZARDS“, YOU TALKED ABOUT SCOTLAND’S “ENORMOUS, BRISTLING, EXPERIMENTAL TRADITION“. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THESE PERENNIAL KIND OF CONVERSATIONS CONTRASTING LITERARY AND GENRE FICTION, AND HOW DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN RELATION TO THAT EXPERIMENTAL TRADITION?
To be quite honest, I am utterly fascinated by that debate. I grew up in a household without books, on the same diet of pop-culture that everyone did, and had a consciousness partly shaped by Marvel comics, Star Wars, MTV, Britpop and Tarantino. But I also studied English to Masters level and can say that without question my mind was expanded by what we might call great literature and intellectual discourse. So I’m quite schizophrenic in my position here. They’re not entirely mutually exclusive, of course – there is a porous element to both – but I am fascinated by the way that power flows through these contrasting spheres. Is pop culture merely a false, commercial form of corporate imperialism, or is it determined by the masses themselves? Are some artforms actually just better than others? Who gets to decide? What does it mean to be ‘alternative’ in a world ruled by the marketplace? Is there any such thing as ‘authentic’ cultural values? Is elitism a virtue or a vice?
These questions are at the heart of any response to an artwork. You have to interrogate them before you even interrogate the work itself. Avatar is clearly innovative and groundbreaking in all sorts of way, but by prioritizing spectacle to such a degree, does it make our culture more weightless?
To bring it specifically to Kelman – I’m broadly in support of his view. While it’s absolutely not a comment, for me, on Crime authors themselves – who are writing passionately within a genre for others who are passionate about it, and that’s a good transaction for me – I do think it’s the case that Crime fiction has taken over Scottish literature. It gets a huge amount of attention on shelves, at festivals and in the broadsheets – because it’s supported by massive bookchains and supermarkets – and that makes it more difficult for those of us who aren’t writing in that genre to break through. Scottish literature in the 80s and 90s was on fire – you only have to look at the names of Kelman, Leonard, Lochhead, Gray, Galloway, Smith, Welsh, Warner, McLean, Kay, Butlin, Banks – who were utterly fearless. These were the people who gave me a real sense of what it meant to be Scottish and working-class. Without them, I’m only half a person. That’s absolutely a tradition I want to keep alive. Unless the younger generation find those same reserves of energy and will to pass on then a really significant Scottish culture will be crushed. There seems to be signs of that happening, with things like Gutter magazine, Cargo Press, Two Ravens and the spoken word scene (hello, Golden Hour!), but I really don’t think the Crime genre is the place where Scots are going to discover a renewed sense of purpose about their nation. No disrespect to those writers, but as good as they clearly are, that’s just not their remit.
THERE SEEMS TO BE A LOT OF POP CULTURE WHICH FILTERS THROUGH YOUR NOVELS. ODDLY, I WAS READING AMERICAN PSYCHO AROUND THE SAME TIME AS DEATH OF A LADIES’ MAN , AND SAW SIMILARITIES BETWEEN CHARLIE AND PATRICK WITH THEIR SENSE OF DETACHMENT AND ABSORPTION OF POP CULTURE AND DRUGS ETC. WOULD YOU SAY THAT MUSIC, FILMS ETC. ARE AS MUCH AS AN INFLUENCE AS OTHER LITERATURE ON YOUR WRITING? DESPITE THE CROSSOVER, ARE THERE ANY EFFECTS THAT ONLY LITERATURE CAN ACHIEVE? FINALLY, AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, WILL THERE EVER BE A DEATH OF A LADIES’ MAN FILM THAT I CAN SCREEN AS A DOUBLE BILL WITH AMERICAN PSYCHO AT MY FLAT AND WHO DO YOU THINK WOULD WIN IN A FIGHT, YOU OR ELLIS?
Well, American Psycho was an enormous influence on me. I think it’s a brave, visionary masterpiece that absolutely blew open the doors on what it was possible for fiction to do. And I can see the thematic connections you’re making: Charlie Bain and Patrick Bateman, to a certain extent, inhabit similar worlds on either side of the Atlantic. It’s difficult NOT be influenced by pop-culture when it’s so omnipresent. While my characters speak that language – I mean, my friends and I can virtually communicate with each other in film-quotes alone – I think it also has to be really examined for what it is. We can be trapped and cattle-prodded by pop-culture into a false, perpetual state of ‘enjoyment’ and stimulation; very large corporations have a financial stake in making sure we are. I think that’s dangerous. So it’s an influence that has to be resisted as much as it’s consumed.
As for the fight, well Bateman has done things to people in those books that still make me feel sick. So there’s no way I’m going nose-to-nose with the man who created him!
Interview by Niall Henderson.