1) Why write a memoir?
I didn't. I wrote a book. At no point – until I was told otherwise – did I think of And You May Find Yourself as a memoir. Over the course of my life I must have read, conservatively, 250 novels for every memoir – which is nothing against memoirs: that's just what I’m more frequently drawn to. Even though some of my favourite books are memoirs, the idea of me writing one, if I’d even considered it, would have seemed hopelessly self-indulgent.
When I think “memoir” I think – instinctively, and wrongly – of famous people recording a period in their well-known lives from an insider's point of view: the celebrity memoir. Like most people, I don’t fit that mould in any way.
This book was about me writing something that I wanted to write, based on what was happening at the time, with the sensibility of someone who has read novels to memoirs at a ratio of 250-plus to one. As a result, the structure, the narrative, the themes and the language are novelistic; the fact the people and events in it are "real" marks it out as memoir. I’m fine with that.
2) So what happens in your "book"?
It covers my first year in Australia after emigrating from Scotland with my Australian wife, our one-year-old son and our very-soon-to-be-born second child.
I’ve always been slightly in awe of people who have life plans, who – even going on a two week holiday – know where they’ll be on the Monday, where they'll have dinner on Tuesday, how much the tickets cost for that thing they want to do on Wednesday.
I’ve lived in several countries, and spent long periods overseas for one reason or another, but the planning’s been non-existent.
In my early twenties, when I did a lot of travelling, I had a debilitating fear of plane crashes, made worse when a plane I was flying in from Chile to Argentina seemed like it was going to fall from the sky. Not too long after take-off, over the Andes, there was a bang and the cabin lights went out.
When they blinked back on I found myself looking upwards, almost vertically, towards the front of the plane, saw bags tumbling down the aisle, the cabin crew on their arses. Some oxygen masks tumbled out, others didn't.
The engines roared, the plane laboured, found its bearings. Everyone got free drinks for the rest of the flight and all the passengers, myself included, were steaming by the time we landed. I fell asleep in Buenos Aires airport and woke up 13 hours later.
From that point on, my thinking went like this: if I plan anything for after a flight, I’m tempting fate, and virtually begging the plane to crash.
My wife and I had a date and a ticket for Australia, and less than $3,000 in savings, which we thought – naively – would last us a month or two on arrival. It lasted a fortnight.
We hadn’t looked at rental costs. I didn’t have a job. We couldn’t sell our flat in Glasgow because it was rafters-deep in negative equity. Broke and directionless, we found ourselves living on my in-laws' living room floor – and not just for a few days, but a year.
That year is the overarching timeframe in the book but, within that, the story jumps backwards to different periods, following themes and concerns that will become obvious to anyone who reads it, some quite dark, some quite hopeful, every one of them universal.
3) Who are your influences?
I’m going to assume you mean “writing influences” – a safe assumption given I wrote the question. And there’s no easy answer. My writing is mine, the voice is mine, it's something I’ve been developing for many years, long before writing this book.
I’ve had favourite writers that have come and gone, sometimes spectacularly. When I first discovered Milan Kundera I thought he was the bees-knees, couldn’t imagine anyone better. Oh, I too could be an Eastern European womaniser, that that was OK, it wasn't in any way sexist, that was what I wanted from life.
I particularly liked the way he’d posit an argument – usually philosophical in nature – then finish his paragraphs or chapters with an absolute statement: “A single metaphor can give birth to love.” Boom! When I re-read one of his books recently I hated that aspect, couldn’t help thinking he was arrogant, loathed my former self for admiring his work so much.
The writers who have come through the various periods of my life unscathed, who still – to my mind – stand up as greats, I see as great for specific reasons: Dostoyevsky, for the worlds he creates and how much I want to be in them; Graham Greene for his pacing, and his terrific use of colons. The “rules” say you should only have one colon per sentence: and yet there he goes: clause after clause: careering ahead: rarely stopping. To me the effect has always been electrifying: his sentences crash headlong through those dots like a cowboy sprinting through successive saloon doors.
Maybe because of his drug infamy, Hunter S Thompson is under-appreciated as a prose writer. He wrestles me into submission within a sentence or two every time.
All of the above (except Kundera) are dead, of course. I’d feel less comfortable listing all the modern stylists who inspire me but there are loads … Janice Galloway, Teju Cole … no, I’ll stop there.
4) Why should people read your book?
They shouldn’t, and they won't unless they feel drawn to it. The world isn’t short of reading material. If other people are anything like me they’ll have dozens of books on their shelves (or not on shelves) they haven’t read. They’ll have dozens more they want to read but haven’t bought yet. Dozens more they feel they “should” read but – if they’re honest – really don’t fancy.
I somehow made it though a four-year English degree without finishing a Dickens novel. Ditto Jane Austen. I didn’t fancy them back then, or now, other than to quell the invisible headmaster's voice telling me I “should” read them. My view is that people should read whatever they want, or nothing at all.
5) What’s your writing process?
By necessity and training, I write very quickly – it's not a million miles away from what the Surrealists called automatic writing. I know what I want to write, in thematic terms, then write frenetically, faster than I can think, ignoring punctuation, never going backwards.
Once, recently, with a headache, I wrote for an entire day with the monitor light switched off, clackety-clackety-clackety ...
That's the first part, spewing it out, and then I go back – on a different day, or days – to deal with the mess. They’re two very different things – the vomiting and the cleaning up. In the right frame of mind, I enjoy both immensely.
6) How would you characterise good writing?
Regardless of length or subject matter, any piece of writing a reader finishes, without feeling obliged to, is good. Any piece of writing a reader enjoys reading, and finishes, is more than good. It's easier to stop reading things than it is, as a writer, to prevent that happening. One mistake and it’s game over.
7) Do you worry about people you know reading the book, particularly people who are in it, about what they might say, how they might react?
Yes and no. There are a couple of people in particular who I’ve had to be very careful with, but they’ve already seen it and like it. There's also one (now ex) friend who, having read it, has broken off all contact and is "super angry".
There are two people who are incredibly important to me who won't read it for a few years yet, and who I'd hate to get the wrong impression. In fact, it would break my heart. I'd probably die on the spot.
Overall, I’ve tried to be honest, and not play anyone for laughs, and in that, I think, the book’s defensible. But it's also worth emphasising it's a book.
Just because the "narrator" thinks someone’s a total arsehat doesn’t necessarily mean "I" feel that way, or feel that way all the time. And “I’m” not necessarily the same as the “me” in the book, even though we share DNA and some awful habits; likewise the people in the book – they’re real people, they’re people in a book: there’s at least a page-width’s difference between those two things.
One of the online comments on And You May Find Yourself that has most amused me is: "I'm not sure I'd like the Paul described in the book if I ever met him." I feel exactly the same way about Richard III.
8) Would you like your book to be a success?
From my point of view it already is. It works. I’m happy with it. That’s a success. Given the choice, I’d rather it was a commercial success – for my family's finances, primarily, but also for my publisher and – way more abstractly – for writing and publishing in general. It’s easy, and enjoyable, to indulge in fantasies about that. Who would play me in the film version? (James McAvoy, please, thanks! Or, as my mum once put it: “Who’s that guy? You know, that guy? Eh, oh ... what’s his name? Brad Pitt!")
9) You write at one point in the book you were “unable to behave as a single consistent being” – what’s that about?
I've always been interested in the disparity between the socially consistent beings we’re under pressure to conform to and what's really going on within us. And, because of that: which supposedly socially consistent being we choose to present as our avatars.
I lived in Glasgow for six years before emigrating, one of many times I’ve had the chance to reinvent myself. I wrote songs and enjoyed being around other people who did the same. The pattern that emerged was: late nights, drugs, singing, talking about David Bowie, getting home to sleep when it was getting light, or nearly dark again.
In Melbourne, with a family to look after, I found myself getting into cycling, which by its nature tends to early mornings. The people I got to know had the same interests, and we’d see each other at five or six in the morning, cycling the same roads. Often, to get to those roads, I’d have to ride through the city, at which point I’d see people who’d been up all night – maybe doing drugs and playing guitars – heading home. They were me. No, they weren’t me. I was me, the real me, on the bike.
Wait, who actually am I? How much of myself am I in control of?
Such questions have a long and distinguished history in Scottish literature. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) is the obvious example, as is its forbear, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). Both are about the rational mind, the terror of losing it, and the often laughable attempts to keep hold of it. The same concern resurfaces time and again in Scottish writing, including, and by no means limited to, Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar (1995) , Irvine Welsh’s Filth (1998) , AL Kennedy’s Paradise (2006).
All contain to varying degrees what was in 1919 called – and later derided – Caledonian Antisyzygy: polar opposites competing within a single entity, which makes for writing that, in the literary critic G Gregory Smith’s words, “becomes [...] almost a zigzag of contradictions”.
In Scotland's case, that conflict was pegged – in Smith's theory – to having both the country and its national identity subsumed by the British state. Australia has related issues: an ex-colony/ coloniser, a country in its own right, with a monarch that visits every few decades to wave out of a car.
In some ways, duality – as Smith posed it – would be a relief. I'm sure we all behave and react in ways that surprise us, that are out of keeping with the person we thought we were, the person we'd like others to see us as. That's what I look at with my writing. I'm one person. I'm two people. I'm three ...
10) Is that why you’re interviewing yourself, like a douche?
And You May Find Yourself is published by Sleepers Publishing.
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