Andrew Drummond Interview
An Abridged History has an endearing central character in Alexander Kininmonth: what made you choose to tell the story through his eyes?
I strongly identify with Mr Kininmonth - a rather optimistic, determined, yet helpless, man angry with a world which - despite the enormous potential of the human race - is intent on going to ruin. So his words are more often than not also my words: which, of course, made the book very easy to write. Writing in the third person is something I have never quite mastered, in any case!
What kinds of research did you do while you were writing the book?
Firstly, selfless expeditions to the very farthest reaches of Scotland - the Ullapool area, Jura, Tweeddale, even Glasgow, to refresh my memories of the lie of the land. The landscape has a central part to play in the book, for Kininmonth’s troubles are caused partly by the natural elements with which he has to contend. Secondly, reading in the newspaper archives, or in Valuation Rolls, to find people or validate actual events - more than once, I was looking for some "hook" on which to hang a further adventure of Kininmonth, and was astonished to find exactly what I wanted in the newspapers of 1897 or whatever. And thirdly, reading up on technical matters - railway-building, the life of navvies. But much of the research-work had already been done years before I started writing the book - into the religious radicals for example: one reason for writing the book was simply to weave together my knowledge of rather obscure people and events.
Can you describe your latest project?
I have a "later" project and a "latest" project. My second novel, which will be published by Polygon in March 2006, is set in the same era as An Abridged History, and has as its theme "Language": its power, its ability to unite as well as to divide. Once more, the central character becomes embroiled in events over which he has little control. Obscurantists will be delighted to learn that Rosslyn Chapel makes a brief appearance. Mavisbank House has a very central position, as do smokies. Railways are mentioned peripherally, and have no bearing on the plot.
My latest project is set in the 1740s; it will be rather different in style, and with a central character more supernatural than human. More than that I cannot reveal!
The tone and speech patterns of the Victorian Age are beautifully captured in the novel: how much did you immerse yourself in that world while writing?
In truth, not that much. Whilst I greatly enjoy the works of Dickens, for example, I was not deliberately trying to imitate his style or that of any other Victorian writer. The "voice" or tone, just came naturally to me - somewhat over-elaborate and pompous, somewhat windy, as suited the central character. Having said that, I find the writing style of the Victorian era - as presented for example in newspapers - hugely entertaining, since the language strongly reflects the moral attitudes of the period.
Who or what have been your strongest influences in your writing?
While I read a modest amount, I tend to "re-read" these days, rather than read new work - which no doubt means that I am missing a great deal. The authors I most enjoy are Dickens, Hogg, Sterne, Jose Saramago, Peake, early Michael Innes, Zola, Rabelais, Villon - some for their style, some for their ideas and plots, others for their passion and desire for social justice. I can’t say for sure whether any, or none, of these have influenced my style or intentions; if anything at all inspires my writing, I have to say that it is a desire to share some of the accumulated lumber of four decades and more, passing on slightly obscure knowledge, to remind 21st century readers to look occasionally behind the curtains and under the sideboards of history - there is much to admire there and much to learn.
An Abridged History is your first foray into novel writing: what kinds of writing have you been doing up till now?
Almost exclusively short-stories, written either for my children - a canon of work enjoyed by them until they became disenchanted teenagers - or for my wife, or simply for my own amusement. The Abridged History grew out of a short story that refused to lie down and die, growing limbs here and there until it became obvious that I had to write something lengthy; and then a second volume, and a third... Having written two novels now, I find it slightly difficult to go back to the short story.
In my distant youth, I also translated a couple of works from German (letters from Marx and Engels, and the autobiography of a German Trotskyist), and wrote a number of articles about the radicals of the German Reformation for academic journals.
Readers will be curious to know what aspects of An Abridged History are based on reality: are you prepared to divulge that?
The short answer is, self-evidently: all of it ! The central story, which is the building of the railway from Garve to Ullapool really was mooted in the early 1890s and received Parliamentary assent; and, as Kininmonth says at the end of the book, "The proof is there on the ground - any man may purchase a ticket to travel upon it." All the places in the book are real; many of the names of the people involved were lifted directly from the Censuses or Valuation Rolls of the period. And some episodes are also based on historical reality; while others are not. Sometimes the more bizarre events have a factual basis; sometimes I dreamed them up.
One of the principal themes of the book is the power of knowledge and the weakness of ignorance - how historical fact may be manipulated by some to control people who have no means of verifying the truth. That is also one reason why the adverts and book-catalogue were placed at the end of the book - some are real adverts and book-titles from the 1890s, others are not…