Interview with Martin MacIntyre
BooksfromScotland.com talked to Martin MacIntyre about the challenges of writing in English and Gaelic.
Your first collection of stories, Ath-Aithne, won the Saltire Society First Book of the Year in 2004. What kind of difference did winning make to your writing career?
Martin Macintyre: Having written poetry and prose for some years, winning The Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award in 2003 helped confirm that I was actually a writer and that my work in Gaelic and English was considered to be of a particular standard. Since then, I have prioritised writing, certainly above all other arts activities, in my daily working life. On receiving this encouragement and affirmation with a collection of short stories, I felt then that I should have enough confidence to try and write a novel. Gymnippers Dicidain was written in 2004 and published in August 2005.
In a wider context, and more importantly, my individual success in The Saltire Award served as a crucial validation of the comparative quality of Gaelic language prose writing in a national arena. For the first time ever, contemporary Gaelic fiction could share and mingle assuredly with it's English and Scots language counterparts. The success of The Gaelic Books Council's Ùr-Sgeul series, in such a short period of time, has been remarkable in this respect.
The story collection will come out in English in 2006. What kinds of issues arose when you did the translations from Gaelic?
Translating Ath-Aithne to Re-acquaintance was a very interesting process. Essentially I wanted to produce an English version of each story which retained as much of its Gaelic essence and sensibility as possible, but which at the same time would be palatable and engaging for the non Gaelic (non Scottish even) reader. Issues, such as the extent to which immediately understandable cultural references and mores should be explained or spelt out, were often present. Also questions of register shift between Gaelic and English and differences in register between characters provided challenges. On the whole the more modern stories demanded less soul and idiom searching, but with these stories the appropriate English vocabulary often had to be much more specific especially as regards the current technology era.
The novel, Gymnippers Diciadain, moves away from the traditional settings and themes of Gaelic literature: how conscious are you of breaking new ground and attempting something new?
I am aware that Gymnippers Diciadain in its setting, story-line and in the lives of many of its characters does ask the reader to empathise with a rather hectic contemporary urban world of family dysfunction and childcare stress and that this is perhaps new ground for Gaelic writing. However I felt that this reflected a reality which would resonate with many readers and was an appropriate approach to telling the story of the two central characters of the novel. I hope readers find this approach exciting and liberating and that their confidence in Gaelic as a valid creative medium in which to voice the complex concerns of a modern world are strengthened as a result.
Gymnippers Diciadain features a wide range of differing characters and lives, as does Ath Aithne: how much does that reflect your concerns as a writer?
I think it does. As a writer I am intrigued by the differing and contrasting lives of a wide variety of types of characters and particularly by the apparent cultural and social contradictions evident between and within characters and their families. Feeling, as I do, a sense of belonging to at least two definable Scottish cultural groups I am also aware and sensitive to, I hope, issues and feelings, which arise at their internal and external interfaces.
How does your work in the oral form of literature, as a Gaelic storyteller, inform your writing?
I love telling stories in Gaelic and English, particularly to children. When I'm in good form, I feel as if a spell is being cast and for the duration of the story there is only the world of the story. That's all that matters. The need to transport the listener to another imaginary place or space is of paramount importance here. Hopefully some of that magic either through rhythm, music, pace, language or character development finds its way onto those daunting blank pages. Traditional stories also provide a wonderfully rich resource of language, idiom and use of language. All of these can be useful tools in particular stories in order to create or change a certain mood or atmosphere.
Your family background in South Uist obviously influences the novel through one of the main characters, DJ, who has sought to deny or ignore his Gaelic roots: do you see identity as being a typical concern in Gaelic writing?
Identity is definitely a perennial theme of Gaelic poetry, prose and writing for theatre. The challenges of reconciling traditional island/highland or family/village identities and values with those of a modern/city existence are often explored. These are clearly ever-changing. For DJ, prior to meeting Caroline, his Gaelic identity is so inextricably linked to South Uist that his separation from home for over 25years has locked away this vital part of his being in a seemingly impregnable chest of sorrow. Through his relationship with Caroline, he finds a way back to Uist, but is also made to consider the concept of a wider Gaelic identity. Caroline is, from the outset, more overtly engaged in modern Gaelic politics and development, but through DJ she discovers and grows emotionally as an adult Gaelic speaker. She is allowed to make amends for some aspects of intergenerational cultural loss and to grant her late father enhanced status in her life.
What kinds of books did you read as a child and how have they influenced you in your writing?
I think when I was quite young I read the usual kind of stuff. Bit of Enid Blyton bit of Tolkein, the odd classic. In secondary school I was fortunate to be introduced to works by Scottish authors such as Walter Scott, John Buchan, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, James Hogg and Iain Crichton Smith. I enjoyed reading their novels although they all have such different styles. I liked the Scottish-ness of their language, rhythm and storytelling. This applies also now to my enjoyment of Alan Spence, Irvine Welsh, James Robertson and Ian Rankin. I do of course read and enjoy other British and international authors. Most recently Gerard Woodward. I am, though, quite a Scottish writer in my approach but hopefully open enough to convey the universality of most situations and dilemmas.
What differences in your voice‚ and vocabulary have resulted in you having learned Gaelic formally rather than being a native speaker?
Most native speakers of Gaelic are much more comfortable speaking the language than reading or writing it. Often the gulf between oral proficiency and written literacy is significant. As a learner of the language my experience was quite the reverse. Perhaps for the first six years of my acquiring fluency, I could read much more easily than I could speak. As a result of being able to read well and write in Gaelic I have had access over the last twenty-two years to a wide range of styles and vocabulary in both poetry and prose. I'm sure I draw on this reserve in my own writing. Over the last twelve years I've been fortunate also to hear a lot of natural Barra and Uist Gaelic being spoken to and around me. I know I draw on this language also in my writing. I listen often to Radio nan Gaidheal and have many friends with distinct Gaelic dialects. This has helped me imbue my stories with the correct feel and the give the characters real voices.
What would you like to see coming out from the Gaelic writing scene in terms of genres, new forms of writing etc?
While it would certainly be interesting to read a Gaelic thriller set in Florida or a political satire which made no reference to the Western Isles Council, the setting and subject matter are, I feel, of lesser importance than the freedom with which the author approaches the work; however conventional or orthodox it may appear on first examination. Writers should be free to write about what they care about. I would however like to see Gaelic fiction emerging which has not been heavily censored at conception or later passed through a stereotypical or emotionally restricting sieve.
What are you working on at the moment?
I've written first drafts of a short film and a first play and am currently researching a new novel.
- Add to BasketAth-Aithne - Paperback
Whether in Aldershot, Uist, Glasgow, Nicaragua or elsewhere, the characters are brought to life with intelligence, passion and humour. Love, war, death, passion, belonging, identity, uncertainty, desire, tragedy and joy are just some of the themes running through these 18 short stories.
- Add to BasketGymnippers Diciadain - Paperback
The two main characters in this Gaelic novel meet most Wednesdays while their respective children are in the gym. Their understanding of one another's lives, and feelings for one another, slowly grow.