The Scottish Review of Books Interview with Janice Galloway
This article first appeared in Scottish Review of Books Volume 5 Number 2
JANICE GALLOWAY was born in Saltcoats in 1955. She studied Music and English at Glasgow University, going on to work as an English teacher throughout the Eighties before quitting education to concentrate on writing. Her first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, was published by Polygon in 1989. Taking as its narrator a woman suffering a breakdown, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing went on to win the MIND Book of the Year Prize. A short story collection, Blood, followed in 1991, with Galloway’s second novel, Foreign Parts, the story of two female friends holidaying in France, appearing in 1994. With the exception of a second short story collection, Where You Find It, in 1996, Galloway did not publish a book again until 2002, when she revealed her ambitious fictional account of nineteenth-century pianist and composer Clara Schumann’s life, Clara. Her most recent book, This Is Not About Me, was published last year. It is a dark memoir of her childhood growing up with her mother and domineering much older sister in a fatherless household. Today, Galloway lives in Uddingston, home of the Tunnocks Tea Cake, where Colin Waters met her. “Bring a pineapple”, she suggested as an alternative to a pink carnation and rolled-up copy of the Times of old. After Waters identified himself with the aid of tropical fruit, they repaired to a cheery hexagonally-shaped café that looked out onto a cemetery.
Scottish Review of Books: Let’s start with the latest piece of work you’ve had published, a short story, ‘Almost 1948’, which appears in Spirit Of Jura, a collection of work inspired by the Scottish Book Trust’s Jura Malt Whisky Writers’ Retreat. Your story fictionalises a moment in the life of the writer who is most associated with Jura, George Orwell. This Orwell reminds me of another artist you’ve written about, Clara Schumann, in as far as this Orwell is seen balancing his art, running a house and raising a child. It would be interesting to see what moment a male writer would select to dramatise. Something in Spain, no doubt, or dossing around in Wigan.
Janice Galloway: Or shooting an elephant in Burma. The reason for the choice was partly straight logistics. That was the time in his life he was living in Jura, so partly that. But I was most interested in that stage because it is a more vulnerable stage in his life. I’m interested in people’s vulnerability and what they do with it. Some people can turn it into a weapon, some use it as a survival tool – a way to tune in to how to react. Ultimate vulnerability, the fact of approaching death, can make some people’s clarity, their vision or purpose, rise to be more than they ever imagined before. Some people have no idea that their vulnerability is a gift, and they wither away and die without ever having grasped a sense of meaning at all. I find vulnerability, what we are vulnerable to and why, how we respond to it, brings out the person.
SRB: I suppose the other thing is, Orwell’s TB made me think of your short story, ‘Blood’; the blood in his mouth echoing the schoolgirl whose mouth overflows with the stuff after a visit to the dentist.
JG: Sure, but what’s really at the bottom of it – I’m going to psychoanalyse myself, rather than have someone else do it – is that I’m interested in the visceral. We are human beings, bags of bone and blood and viscera. I get sick of creative artists – or pop stars, celebrities, footballers – being talked about as if they are somehow not ‘normal’. As if they are ‘not like us’. The vacuous end of celebrity – I wish that was me up there, then I’d be special too – is deeply corrosive. It’s important to look back at creators and see them as people having to find the answers to the same questions, in the end. There’s a kind of writer who seems to believe in the ‘specialness’ of celebrities: that achievement of whatever sort somehow makes them apart from ‘ordinary’ human concerns. I guess this relates to the fascination I have with vulnerability we spoke about a moment ago – it’s not financial or sexual success or indeed, excess, that defines us at all: it’s our common weakness and how we attempt to rise beyond it – how we reach out to others rather than how we separate from them – that seems to me to be what is most engrossing. What is most moving and telling about a human being. Orwell wasn’t interesting because of his derring do, or his success as a literary icon. Writers per se are not interesting at all. The interest is in seeing what, at certain times of his life, makes him most resemble us at our weakest, and how he deals with those moments. Like Clara or like the bleeding girl in ‘Blood’, who is trying to play Mozart. How they fail, how they rise. Their aspiration I take for granted. It’s a given. Next to that aspect of what they are trying to offer out to the world at their boldest, it’s their response to the everyday, the absurdity and difficulty of being human behind it all, that resonates.
SRB: And this is something that concerns you, what other writers, filmmakers, artists have left out? The physicality of human beings?
JG: One of the things about comedy that is important is that it points out the division between what we are and what we aspire to. Every day catches you out. Every time you catch sight of yourself in the mirror, you think, Christ, is that what I look like? Women are constantly confronting that. When you hit thirteen, an age when you want to look interesting to boys, you start bleeding. Bleeding and sweating and growing horribly tender chest-lumps that stop you running without the whole lot going like jelly. Just at the age boys wish to appeal sexually, they break out in face-fur, pimples, eczema and uncontrollable erections. We’re ridiculous, all thinking I can be the only one in the world this has happened to and it’s my horrible secret [laughs]. That’s the fascination in ‘Blood’: we leak, we ooze, we bleed. Yet the life up here [taps head] contains none of that. If you divorce both parts, and focus only on this bit [taps head again], you’re concentrating on aspiration. Now the gap between aspiration and comic human reality is absurd, but also heroic. That we keep bashing on. We are meagre, oozy, monkeys with ideas above our ability, but we still reach. There’s a horrible line written originally, I think, in Sanskrit that states for a man to retain his purity he has to remember a woman is a bag of blood, bone, and pus. That strikes home.
SRB: It’s not something you’re going to write on a Valentine’s Card, is it?
JG: “To my favourite bag of blood, bone, and pus”.
SRB: It’s twenty years this year since The Trick Is To Keep Breathing. What advice would you give to that younger incarnation of yourself as she was about to embark on her literary career? Or, indeed, any young writer?
JG: Right. For my sins, and for three years, I taught on a creative writing course at Glasgow University. I find myself cringing even using the phrase “creative writing course”. Some students came because they want “to be a writer”. And what’s in their head somewhere is The X Factor: a race with glamour at the end, learning tricks that will turn you into JK Rowling. And it’s all fucking mental. They want you to let them in on the secret – how it’s done. As though I would know. As though anybody does. I want to be a movie star/ I want to be a genius. Ho hum. As though these things are active career choices. Now, I want to act/ I want to use my mind – that’s a different ball game. Now and then you’d meet one of those – someone who want to communicate to others, not gain something for themselves. It’s rare though. Like hen’s teeth. Then there are the last lot – those who are keen to write as obscurely and convolutedly as possible to prove something to themselves about being ‘too good’ for this world. Aspiring to be a lonely and misunderstood genius is a daft aspiration. Writing’s gift is to reach out.
SRB: Prejudice against whether or not a course can teach creative writing is often dismissed as romantic and snobbish. Are you saying that in fact you can’t teach it?
JG: You can teach voice – how to sharpen a voice or enrich its scope. But someone has to have a voice, or at least an idea of what they have to say in it – to begin with. A singing teacher, for example, can teach you to sing in your own authentic voice as clearly as possible, but they can’t give you what you don’t already have within you. They can’t make your voice beautiful if it’s raucous, can’t make you Bryn Terfel if you’re Joe Cocker; can’t make you the magnificent Annie Lennox if you’re the execrable Katherine Jenkins. But they can help you tone the voice you already have inside. Too many people want a fancier, bolder, different voice to their own, and they can’t really be helped as they would wish, except to do pastiche (there’s The X Factor again). It’s those who are courageous enough to want to know themselves that can gain something from a mentor. Who can learn to do something authentic.
SRB: It’s interesting we should have raised the issues of literature, fantasy, and celebrity. Growing up, your household wasn’t particularly bookish. In fact, your mother seemed to think reading was antisocial, while she herself, as you write in your memoir This Is Not About Me, only ever read celebrity memoirs.
JG: There was a golden time of women reading celebrity biographies – especially of other women – I guess because they wanted to know how the hell they escaped! At the same time, they were greatly reassured, in an odd way, by knowing someone like Doris Day, the Golden Girl of Hollywood Musicals, had been beaten up by her husband. Maybe it helped settle them with their own hardships – even the rich and glamorous didn’t ‘have it all’. Fame today is so reductive, and against most people’s experience of reality. Hence the importance of writing about the ‘ordinary stuff’.That’s the drive for me: an attempt to say this is something we all do, and this is the essence of what life is. Overcoming this stuff – the absurdity, the moral dilemmas, the routine requirements of compassionate living – that’s the mark of a man, not a Mach 3 Gillette razor.
SRB: Listening to you there, I found myself agreeing but also wondering how we might define the ordinary. You wrote the libretto for an opera, Monster, that drew on Mary Shelley’s life and her first novel Frankenstein, whose plot one struggles to describe as ordinary. How do you reconcile the two?
JG: Well, we all go beyond the notional ‘everyday’ every day! You aren’t just who you are here and now, for example. You’re on all sorts of levels. Do you dream? The whole Mary Shelley story is tied to a dream from which she drew the inspiration for Frankenstein. It’s so easy to make a Romantic myth of that, so what I wanted to do with Monster was to say, this wasn’t Romantic at all. This was her subconscious mind putting some of the awful realities of her young life into order. All her life she faced critics who insisted, “Mrs Shelley is no creator, she merely captures something in the contemporary ether” – in other words being near such giants as Byron and Shelley somehow made the book spontaneously appear. That happened to much women’s work from this period: if a woman writer was attached to, or even on friendly terms with, a man who had ideas of his own, she did not have her own thoughts, but somehow caught his. Like measles. She was just receptive enough (one critique of Mrs Shelley calls her a ‘conduit’) to catch a man’s infection and therefore couldn’t help writing a spotty book. I thought that was not only reductive and dismissive, but ludicrously myopic. The story of Frankenstein, which seems fantastical, had happened to her but at another level. She had ‘killed’ her creator [Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died giving birth to her] then she ‘killed’ her baby [her first child died not long after birth]. She’d lived the full circle of the Frankenstein story but in another way. Byron and Shelley had their monumental ideas on the famous night at the Villa Diodatti, of course they did. But Mary with Frankenstein created the most physical idea of all. It was birth-inspired. I think that is both ordinary and extraordinary. The ordinary is so often extraordinary. Talk to kids at the bus stop. I do, I’m the most awful old lady these days. You go to the bus stop and there’s a boy there drinking cider or a girl in hardly any clothes throwing up, so you go over and ask whether they’re alright. And sometimes you get a lot of abuse, sometimes embarrassment or simply being ignored. But other times you get the most astonishing life stories. They’re drunk and young and vulnerable – and they open up. We’ve limited our notion of people so much, of what they contain. Like Whit- man, we contain multitudes. So I by ‘ordinary life’ I’m not talking kitchen sink drama. Kitchen sink is the telly’s horribly simplified version of ‘ordinary’. Our lives are actually extraordinary all the time.
SRB: What was the genesis of This Is Not About Me? I read that originally it was to be about other mothers and other childhoods.
JG: I started writing bits of this book many years ago when I was comfortable enough to deal with the subject matter by telling myself it was about other people. Originally it was about a woman having her first baby who realises she has never thought about her own childhood. Her memories kept coming out as memories of mine, and I thought, “This is no good. This isn’t allowed”. You need to develop a certain amount of confidence as a writer; a way to get past fear. The biggest fear with me is of writing badly – a fear that comes, in part, from reading other writers’ books about how they write! – and it’s sometimes crippling. So you need to school yourself through that, past self-consciousness, and allow that ‘voice’ I was talking about earlier to just surface and say what it has to say. You cannot allow yourself to become hidebound with rules not your own, fear of judgement, fear of not knowing “what this one is” and therefore whether it will even be published (more on this later). I’m a nervous writer. It takes a lot of nerve for me to admit: “This is me buckling myself down for three years to pursue these people and pictures in my head, and if they turn out not to be interesting, I’ve wasted three years of my life”. That’s a lot to take on. So when the woman in the book I was trying to write kept turning into me, I stalled. I’ve never found myself interesting, so because the character and her memories kept turning into me, I thought I must be doing something wrong. I tried it in a third person voice, the voice of a little girl, but it felt wrong and limiting. So I turned to first person, and felt, this is kind of me, but I’m watching her. It was writing me as a fictional character, enacting my own memories. I guess it’s as close as it’s going to get to being me, but it still has the protective edge of fiction and room for creative play. That voice shifted and moved along as the birthdays racked up, but it never settled down into one thing – memoir or fiction – and in the end, I allowed myself not to worry about forcing it. I kept pushing myself to make it one thing or the other, fiction or memoir, and in the end I asked myself, “Why are you doing that?” Marketing, I guess. I thought I’d get a hard time from marketing people. And I did.
SRB: So this “protective edge”, it manifested itself, for example, in the titling of your book as This Is Not About Me?
JG: Absolutely. It’s a private in-joke in a way, but it’s also true. I don’t think that book is about me, it’s about that period in history, about childhood itself, about confusion, child-rearing, the hiddenness of most people’s lives then – another ‘normalcy’. Childhood was different then. Family dysfunction did not exist as such: it’s more or less just what everybody was. Things were not parents’ faults: they were always your fault. Funny thing, I hadn’t noticed before I started to write it that I never talked about my family to my own son. Or not much. They all died before he was born so I didn’t see the point. I thought I’d bore him. I hadn’t even shown him photos. And when I did, the back-grounding was missing. The way to contextualise. I told him his granny was a clippie, a person who collects fares on a bus – and he couldn’t imagine it. He envisioned quite a posh job, like an air hostess. So I tried to explain better and found all sorts of cross-references needed explaining as well. Cinema usherettes, for example. The coal man. So I thought, well, if you’re going to live that period to show him, live it on paper. So, in some ways, the book is really about that tranche of Scottish history, when we were being taken over by rock ‘n’ roll, the big love affair of the west coast of Scotland along with gangster films (they still call women “doll” round here, while men are “guys”, like in the Bernstein musical) – forms of working class life I suppose. I remember my mother being amused by the term ‘Swinging Sixties’. “What Swinging Sixties?” she’d say. “There was no Swinging Sixties round our way”.
SRB: Why change the names of real people in This Is Not About Me? By doing that, did you feel you’d given yourself licence to use your imagination more when it came to rendering events from your past?
JG: Many writers take that for granted. And so they should. Nobody asks a poet “did that happen to you?” It’s a daft question. Poetry may still assume its artistry – by the skin of its teeth perhaps, but it may. Novelists, and writers of prose in general, are more often called to account for some notion of veracity provable by scientific or documentary means. As though what they do is not related to art at all. As though art does not make its own demands that render the veracity a matter of feeling and texture and detail. People no longer read in the way that they used to, I think. The awareness of underlying texture, deliberate underlying structure and artistry of telling, is almost alien to readers these days. Reading is not taught in the way it used to be, so assumptions about what ‘reality’ might be come more from television. ‘Real people’ (i.e. not actors) ensure ‘reality’, no matter how oddly they behave and despite the presence of cameras. This is extended to writing in that if you write a book about someone who had/has a ‘real life’, the assumption is that verbatim, camera-roll ‘truth’ is somehow what one ought to expect. A reader from a previous generation would probably be clearer on the idea of a ‘version’ of something that happened. That none of us see neutrally I take for granted; all we have to make sense of people is our own experience, own imagination. There seems, however, to be a current notion that everything is anecdote, everything is yellow journalism or it’s in the realm of fantasy – it’s magical, surreal or ‘entertainment’, i.e. not serious. By shifting the characters’ names by one letter in This Is Not About Me, it gave me the licence to make them the characters I saw as a child, instead of requiring that I be a policewoman with a notebook of direct quotations, loci and timings. I was nervous about being judged on the basis of standard memoirs – why are there no interior thoughts, adult reflections on the child’s life, hypothesising about where this leads? Why? Because the important thing was not to thrust my own garbled Penguin paperback conclusions on people, but to let them feel what it was like to be there. The goal of a novel, in part, is to allow direct sensation, an entering into the book’s reality. So I didn’t want to stomp all over it in my adult shoes, making tread-marks. I wanted to write it with that novelistic goal. It’s not fictionalising, it’s methodology. It’s very hard to describe, we don’t have the words for it. To say, this is in fact what I saw and it’s as truthful and down to the wire as I can get it through the skin.
SRB: Researching this interview, I read interviews you’ve done in the past, and it’s striking the number of times you’ve had to point out that your novels are the product of your imagination. And that’s fair enough, critics should be sophisticated enough to realise that. But did you not worry when you began writing your memoir that it might licence critics to look through your previous fictional works and make correlations? For example, the unpleasant sister character Myra in The Trick Is To Keep Breathing is similar to Cora in This Is Not About Me, who is your real sister Nora.
JG: No, all I’m doing is writing the books. What readers extrapolate from my books is something over which I have no control whatsoever. I’m not giving people permission anymore than a stand-up gives hecklers permission to heckle simply by coming on stage. I only hope readers do something with it that is meaningful to them. Sometimes critics can tell you something you hadn’t seen yourself, they can be good teachers. But they have to read fucking hard and with good intent before that happens.
SRB: What place do photographs occupy in your imagination? This Is Not About Me begins with the narrator inspecting a family photo, while Foreign Parts is interspersed with the character Cassie’s descriptions of photos depicting her romantic misadventures.
JG: They’re proof. Those people really were there (or in Cassie’s case, her proof that these ‘misadventures’ happened and have a pattern). They can be jigsaw pieces and forensic data. They are also, if you’re lucky, revelatory of more than they intend to be. I find absolutely everything ephemeral. You know the way you can stare at a headstone, read the names, run your fingers round the lettering, and you still can’t believe those people were there. Doesn’t work with portraiture. There’s something idealised about portraits that suggests more than the fleeting. That’s their job. But there’s something meagre, something transient, something transparent about photographs. Their almost throwaway nature, yet their ability to capture a moment that is lost forever immediately after. It’s going to pass, this love of photos, because photos are, paradoxically, too common. You can take millions of photographs and you can delete millions of photographs without thinking and without regret. We ditch the mistakes, the ones that make us look fat or cross-eyed. We control now, rather than surrender to the camera.
SRB: Cassie has that line prompted by thinking about photos: “You don’t remember just by telling yourself you should, by sheer act of will. You don’t get to pick and choose. The same way you don’t get to forget. Memory. A bastard really. A complete bastard”.
JG: So it is. I would say “that’s me at my Proustian best” but written down it would look unironic.
SRB: I take it you agree with Graham Greene’s notion that childhood is a writer’s myth-kitty or resource, from where everything else flows.
JG: Childhood is where you make sense from. The first four years are the ones that matter. They colour your entire life no matter what you end up doing with it. That’s where you find out why you’ve ended up in the job you’re doing. Where you find out you’re depressive, why you have insomnia, why you don’t want to have children, why you do want to have children – the whole thing is there, submerged, waiting to be found if you look deep enough. It’ll surface despite you even if you don’t. The whole repository of how you interpret the world is there in childhood.
SRB: It does seem at times as if every writer had an unhappy childhood.
JG: No, it’s not an unhappy childhood they have, it’s an observed childhood. Pursuing the idea that you need an unhappy childhood to be a writer turns writing into a neurosis, a reaction to bad treatment. It’s to do with confidence. I think writers are people who want a warning.
SRB: A warning? In what way?
JG: They keep their wits about them and their eyes open. By and large, writers – or so it seems to me – are apprehensive people. By nature and preference, they watch, weigh, compare, connect and observe. The very fact of being a writer can make people view you as slightly suspect, like you might be an off-duty CCTV camera. That’s a misunderstanding of what the watching is for. I think the watching comes from a need to keep you sure of your surroundings; keep you aware of where things are in relation to each other, who is doing what.
SRB: Well, your mother did think that reading was antisocial.
JG: Writers and readers are analytical, not anti-social. They’re just looking at you. I’ve lost count of the number of people who will say, at a first meeting or informal party, “I hope you’re not going to put me in a book”. People sense they’re being observed, I guess. It’s habit and sheer interest – it’s not predatory! There is a kind of person – my husband is one – who doesn’t need to do the keen observation thing because they’re not scared of what’s coming. They are surer of the world, perhaps. Whereas I want to see what’s coming. Just in case.
SRB: So the imagination is first sparked as a safety measure, in the sense you’re trying to cover all angles?
JG: Kind of. I always know where the door is in any room. That’s probably to do with being thumped as a child, but is also has to do with a certain temperament, a temperament that is open to vulnerability in others and in the self. I look for the quiet retreats.
JG: Yes, a big surprise [laughs]. I’d no idea that was what he was working on.
SRB: Both novels have similar subjects but both took different routes stylistically to realising their visions. How did you happen on or develop the voice that narrates This Is Not About Me. Although it restricts the point of view to yourself as a child, it’s not a child’s language entirely is it? Would you have found ruthlessly narrowing the point of view, as Kelman does, to that of child’s too restricting for what you wanted to do?
JG: That’s Jim’s option because he’s writing fiction. He writes his fiction thoroughly voiced, thoroughly from within, as a clear and deliberated technical choice. Had I chosen to write This Is Not About Me as direct fiction, the language and the approach would be different. I suffer from tremendous literalism. I’ve already said that the book is sort of about me and sort of not about me, so having put me there to then obviate me and not have me there (on the grounds that I don’t do fiction that way) would have been terribly artificial. The command of language that I have as an adult, therefore, has to be there somewhere, but not out of my character’s mouth. She’s a child. Where it must surface is in the deliberately crafted bits where it’s quite clear that the adult – the author – is controlling what is happening now. If I’m writing a novel, I have to be invisible: it’s how I do novels. I’m in the way if you can see me at work in a novel. Whereas with memoir, despite the provocative move of having called it This Is Not About Me, the trick is I have to acknowledge my perspective, at the same time. That was the hardest thing about writing This Is Not About Me, because as a writer of fiction I’m not usually allowed and don’t want to. I like keeping out of the way.
SRB: If Clara is a historical novel, it’s not like a historical novel by Sir Walter Scott or closer to our time, Sarah Waters. It’s like history from the inside, an interior historical novel. You avoid the mainstays of the historical novels like the set pieces preferring instead a terse lyricism of the sort you don’t normally see in that genre. Is it fair to say you were trying to see the period through your characters’ eyes rather than through eyes of history?
JG: Definitely. Almost nobody, it seems to me, has asked what even so visible a historical figure as Clara Schumann might have thought. There is a guest appearance in the book by Mendelssohn’s wife, who he married when she was 15 years old. And finding her opinion on anything is as near as dammit impossible. Clara was taught to self-conceal early by her father. He trained her to use a ‘for posterity’ written style that gives almost nothing deeply personal away save stock responses. On her death Clara left a lot of writings, but she assiduously avoided letting the reader into what she was thinking except between the lines, almost by accident. I had to read as much as I could and begin constructing a plausible psychology from those white spaces between, from decoding her behaviour as recorded by others as well as by herself, from listening to her favourite music and from her actions. Clara had to be a novel; there was no way I could say what I wanted to in a straight biography, even if wanted to write one. My territory is psychology: giving her away unawares i.e. allowing her actions to imply her motivation and feelings, had to be embedded in the telling. Occasionally, I could allow her to be seen via someone else in the room – Mendelssohn, say, pressing her to play, or engaging in the huge fun of being a member of the audience or a critic, thinking, “Who do these Schumanns think they are, her dressed up in that dowdy frock and him saying nothing?”
SRB: And speaking French in a heavy German accent.
JG: I guess that is informed by being Scottish! It was great fun, actually, hopping from head to head. You’d feel your whole body language change. You’d be sitting at the computer keyboard and suddenly straighten your back, toss your hair back, realise I’m writing Liszt. You can allow yourself to be your vision of that character, take on their shapes and mannerisms to get them as near to what you see as possible. Doing that, I saw what people who write traditional historical novels get out of it. Being Wieck, Clara’s father, was marvellous fun, thinking things you’d suppress in yourself but allow in the service of rendering a character. Those other perspectives were the mesh to catch the plot in; the rest of the book was a single psychology weaving through. And her vision of Robert, his of her, of course. You do that in a relationship, though, don’t you? Try to see what the other person must see when they look at you, make yourself into what they need. I had huge sympathy for Robert Schumann, and tried to look through his eyes because Clara tried to. Of course, there are things he does in the book that Clara could have no idea of, like in the childbirth scene where he is downstairs boozing, terrified. I had to leave her alone in that scene; you’re not thinking a lot when you’re giving birth [laughs] so her perspective would have been impossible to replicate! So things passed, naturally, to him. I hope I had sympathy for everyone in the book. It puzzled me enormously when some reviews reported Wieck as a ‘monster’. He’s not. He’s overbearing, yes, but he is a product of a recognisable psychology and therefore rational within those boundaries. That’s human, not monstrous! Same thing happened with This Is Not About Me – some people saw the father or sister as ‘monstrous’. I refute entirely that this judgement is being made in the text. Most people are trying their hardest to live well. We want the world to work, to be rational, we want our children to grow up right – Wieck certainly did. They just went the wrong way about it. Genuine ‘monsters’ are few and far between. But we’re in the age of exaggerated judgement. Have you seen how much airtime TV devotes to people who are fucked up in some wise? Freaky Eaters? Me And My Small Penis?
SRB: Two more questions. Are you working on further volumes of memoirs?
JG: I’m supposed to be, but I haven’t started yet. Not really. I’ve just finished a whole slew of commissions. I write so slowly, you have no idea. I finished them yesterday, so this is me about to start volume two in more earnest.
SRB: And which of your books was the most difficult to write?
JG: The slightly arch and expected answer is that they’re all hard when you’re writing them. The hardest in terms of research was Clara. I had to spend three years on German social politics, on nineteenth-century childbirth techniques, nineteenth-century music. They used to teach women to play piano side-saddle! [laughs] I tried it. I read Schumann’s favourite authors, the most terrible, purple prose of Jean-Paul and my German is terrible. Schumann’s father was the first disseminator of Walter Scott in Germany, from his publishing house in Zwickau. I don’t want to sound like George Galloway, but respect is very important. That these people had a real life needs the respect of decent chronology and detail, so you find out every damn thing you can. This Is Not About Me, once I’d tumbled to changing the names and not caring about genre, was more straightforward than I thought it would be, but hard because I was making up new, scary rules for writing it. It also encountered resistance – “Is it a memoir or a novel? Could you make it one thing or another?” – from a marketing perspective (marketing!) but it survived somehow. You only have your own voice, after all, your own true voice, that is. One does not have a choice over that. It would be pointless me thinking, “Well, I’ll just rattle off my Botswana lady detective books and then I’ll have pots of money”. This idea that one can pick or choose according to marketing criteria is terribly narrowing. Voice, you see. I could kid on I was Britney Spears if I pushed myself, but I’d feel like Jo Brand doing Britney and be twice as self- conscious. Frogs need to sing like frogs, not nightingales. That’s their talent. Their openhearted gift.
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- Foreign Parts
- Paperback - Vintage
Foreign Parts is a novel about love, mortality and travel. Two women drive each other round the bend as they journey in Normandy on a holiday that tests the limits of human affection and the territory of a woman's life.
- This Is Not About Me
- Paperback - Granta
One of Scotland's greatest contemporary writers turns her focus, in luminous prose, to her Ayrshire childhood in the 1950s and 1960s.
- The Trick Is To Keep Breathing
- Paperback - Vintage
From the author of Foreign Parts, Where You Find It and Blood comes the story of Joy, a heroine struggling for order and meaning in her life. First published in 1989, this novel won the MIND/Allen Lane Book of the Year.