4am Interview with Nina de la Mer
I was really impressed with your control of language and dialect, particularly Cal's Glasgow dialect and vocabulary. Although you are originally from Glasgow, you haven't lived there for many years, so how did you get the language so authentically believable?
Thank you, that makes me very happy as I was keen to get the Scottish dialect just right. As a modern languages graduate, I think I have an ear for language, so at some points it was just a matter of ‘translating' into Glaswegian. Otherwise, the Glasgow dialect and vocabulary are based on what I remember hearing around about me as a child, particularly the funny turns of phrase used by my late granddad and my uncle George. I also used various online and book sources, and my East Kilbride born and raised mum checked the manuscript for me too (despite certain misgivings she had over the swearing!).
With 4a.m.'s setting of the rave and drugs scene in the early 1990s, were you worried about comparisons with Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting? I seem to remember that Manny and Cal had different opinions of the book...
Yes very much, though I do think while they share things in common – the Scottish dialect and the drugs, for instance – there is more to separate them. Trainspotting is well known as a brilliant example of an episodic novel, whereas 4 a.m. follows a traditional linear storyline; it was always my intention to tell a strongly plot-driven story. Thematically 4 a.m. may be similar to Trainspotting at first glance, but where Irvine Welsh's characters are out on the margins of society, Cal and Manny are still stuck in that tension of raving to extreme levels, but all the while trying to hold down jobs and living acutely regimented daily lives. I suppose Cal's reaction to Trainspotting in 4 a.m. was a deliberate device to try and highlight these (to my mind at least) key differences in the two novels to the reader, as well as to acknowledge the debt to Welsh.
Have you experienced army life yourself? How did much did you research into life at Fallingbostel in Germany, and into the conflict in Bosnia?
I've no direct experience of life in the military. In the early 1990s when the book is set I spent a year studying at the University of Hamburg for my modern languages degree. One weekend I met a group of soldiers raving on Hamburg's Reeperbahn and we soon became firm friends. 4 a.m. is very loosely based on their experience, but I also spent many hours leafing through books about Army life, browsing Army social networking forums, and speaking to former soldiers in order to research the military aspects of the book. Exploring what is often a closed world and system proved very interesting, and at times threw up obstacles along the way. Regarding the conflict in Bosnia, Les Howard's fascinating book Winter Warriors was an invaluable source. Les also very kindly provided me with further information about the conflict in relation to an Army chef's duties out there.
Without given too much of the plot away, given that Cal and Manny had similar army lives but very different outcomes, would you say that Manny's eventual fate was inevitable? Did you consider different endings for Cal and Manny?
Funnily enough I did plan different endings, the reverse of the current outcome for each lad in fact. But in the end I wanted to give each one the ending I felt was most fitting. Particularly given that one theme in the novel is the question over the pre-destiny of human existence and whether optimists always come good – and vice-versa for pessimists. With that in mind, I'd say yes, both lads' fates were inevitable...
Reading the novel, it seemed to me that his experiences of combat in Bosnia really helped him grow. Did the army make a man of Cal?
That's a great question; something I'd not considered! I think though, it's more that all of Cal's experience around the time the book is set – first love, Army life, taking drugs – and his difficult relationships with Manny and Iain, work together by some alchemy of growing up to bring about his coming of age. But you're right, it's after his time in Bosnia that all of this comes together and we see him in a more adult light.
In the back pages of the book, you are critical of the army's attitude to drugs, especially compared to their attitude to alcohol. Could you expand on this?
I think that in throwing together a large group of very young men and subjecting them to a strict hierarchy (of which they are lowest in the pecking order) and a regimented lifestyle, the Army understands that its soldiers need some form of release. What's odd is that when that release is alcohol, even when it results in fights and anti-social behaviour, the Army seems to turn a blind eye. But when its soldiers are spaced out on hash or high on E, which don't lead to aggression, the punishments (discharge, jail etc.) are draconian. Perhaps the Army prefers its soldiers fired-up rather than ‘loved-up'?
What are you working on now? Do you think you will ever return to Cal, Kelly and Fallingbostel?
I'm writing about another closed, but very different world: the story of a young lap dancer who is struggling to come to terms with her past. I'm writing it in the second person which is proving a challenge, though an enjoyable one. I'd love to return to Cal, Kelly and co. in twenty years time but for now I hope they are happy in Germany, living the same lives of many of the E generation: settled down with a family, happy in their jobs… but still managing to enjoy just the occasional debauched night out.
Nina de la Mer, thank you.