Alan Warner: 'I’m addicted to rereading a Brian Eno biog'

The Scottish novelist on the difficulty of writing about rock music, why there’s nothing wrong with monotony, and a lost opportunity with Irvine Welsh and Billy Connolly

Alan Warner, 57, is the author of nine novels including The Sopranos, about a group of Highland choirgirls, which was adapted into the Olivier-winning stage play Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour. Its sequel, The Stars in the Bright Sky, was longlisted for the 2010 Booker prize. His new novel, Kitchenly 434, is set in 70s Sussex and narrated by a rock star’s deluded butler. Warner, who grew up in Oban, spoke to me on Zoom from Edinburgh, where he had recently been self-isolating on arrival from his home in Spain en route to the University of Aberdeen, where he teaches creative writing.

What led you to write an English country house comedy?
I’d been working on a longer novel involving the building of Scotland’s coastal defences in the second world war; it’s giving me a lot of trouble and it was nice to just not deal with Scotland for a bit. I do that thing of having three books on the go at once so that all my eggs aren’t in one basket: I do it out of insecurity – it’s a weakness, I don’t think it’s good – but I feel if things aren’t going well in one book I can move to another. I wanted to write about rock music but it’s hard to write about – few have done it well and so I was looking for a weird tangent to come at it from. In a freakish way, this is my most autobiographical novel: all Crofton does is hang out on his own in the house, listen to old records and read books.

And yet the story becomes excruciatingly tense…
Yeah, I’ve always thought there’s room for boredom and monotony in a book if it heightens the tension. Crofton’s elusiveness as a narrator does get sinister when two teenage schoolgirls turn up at the mansion and disrupt his exceptionally dull life. You can see potential disaster – we all have that narrative in our heads now – but while I needed that jeopardy in the book, I also wanted to defuse all that sexuality stuff. This is a book about a guy who does the right thing.

The critic Frank Kermode said he couldn’t understand your 1997 novel These Demented Lands. Are you less keen on stylistic experiment now?
My novels settle down a bit after The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven; in terms of technique, Their Lips Talk of Mischief could have been written in 1896, which bothers me. Probably there’s an element of me just getting older and crap, but it’s easy to underestimate The Deadman’s Pedal, which is composed of long filmic sequences in a vérité style that I don’t think I’d have been confident about if I hadn’t experimented previously. James Kelman was still an influence there. Way down in the new book there is an anti-novelistic Samuel Beckett thing going on, but it’s fairly welcoming. The trouble is, so many influences are swarming round me all the time: I adore Kelman but I adore PG Wodehouse as well. How the hell do you harmonise Wodehouse and Kelman? That’s what I’m fighting out.

What’s going on with the film of The Sopranos?
It’s ready. It’s called Our Ladies. I think it’s fantastic, but with Covid the industry is in limbo. Michael Caton-Jones took 20 years to make it and it might take 20 years to release! He had lots of opportunities to get it made if he moved the action to Los Angeles but he always said no, we’ll make it in Scotland and it’ll be faithful to the book.

What about Irvine Welsh’s film of The Man Who Walks?
The financial crash scuppered that one. It was all lined up – this was September 2008 – and then suddenly a queue developed outside the Northern Rock building society in Edinburgh and the investors ran for the hills. Billy Connolly had agreed to play the title role. Irvine met him with a first draft script at the Prestonfield hotel in Edinburgh and they walked round a suite in circles trying to prove their different ideas of how The Man Who Walks should walk. I wish I’d been there.

In 2010, the body of the MI6 agent Gareth Williams was found in a bag in his bath. On a table in his flat was a copy of your first novel, Morvern Callar, in which a corpse is dismembered in a bath and put into a bag. What did you think when you saw that?
It was very sad. The poor man died under very mysterious circumstances. It does kind of bring it home that your books are out in the world; I remember a headline in the [Evening] Standard – “grisly thriller clue to spy death”, something like that – and it’s fantastic in terms of mystery to think you’re implicated in such a headline, but the connection was tenuous. Even if the guy read it, what happened seems more sinister than the grisly disposal of a suicide in Morvern Callar.

Which writers do you recommend to your students?
Some of them might be writing science fiction, so I put them on to Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny. Some of them might be writing fantasy – there’s a whole post-Harry Potter generation coming through – so I direct them to Mervyn Peake, who they’re always delighted to discover. I still recommend Duncan McLean’s collection of stories Bucket of Tongues, which was such an inspiration to me; Irvine too. Each story has its own style and rhythm; there’s such a variety of experience in it. But it’s out of print – you can’t set it, otherwise the class struggles to find 30 copies and you end up paying £17 a go.

What have you been reading lately?
Besides the proofs of my own bloody book, which is horrible, I’ve been reading David Sheppard’s biography of Brian Eno, On Some Faraway Beach. It’s my third time; I’m bizarrely addicted to rereading this book in the evenings. Eno’s life seems to have a certain tranquillity and order, much as some of his music does, and I find it very comforting.

Kitchenly 434 by Alan Warner is published by White Rabbit (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Contributor

Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

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