Alan Warner’s first novel, Morvern Callar, was a critical success, hailed as “haunting and brilliantly original”, with a character that is “impossible to forget”. It claimed the Somerset Maughum award in 1996; since then, Warner has won many prizes including the Saltire Book of the Year award (twice). He was also long-listed for the Man Booker prize for The Stars in the Bright Sky in 2010. His latest novel, The Deadman’s Pedal, has been described as “morally sensitive, exquisitely written and emotionally mature”. Eddie Small interviewed Alan Warner at the Dundee Literary Festival, 25 October 2012.
Eddie Small: I’d like to ask you about your most recent book first, Alan. Let’s start with the title – did it come easily?
Alan Warner: The deadman’s pedal is the braking system. It’s kind of universal on trains throughout the world. It can be a handle sometimes, that you keep your hand down on, or it can be a pedal. The basic concept is you take your foot off it and the brakes go on in four to seven seconds. So if anything happens to the driver, to incapacitate the driver, for example he drops dead with a heart attack, the brakes come on. That’s the theory.
I always liked the sound of it from when I was young …dead man’s pedal, sounds very dramatic, and down to the point. So it knocked around…I had various titles knocking in my head about that, but eventually I started to mine whatever symbolism there was in it. The characters do talk about it at one point. One of the characters, Penalty, the old driver, says, “Keep your foot on the dead man’s pedal, son, and you won’t go wrong in life” which is full of contradictions in itself, I just like that idea…there’s always a heavy tinge of mortality running through my stuff. And, of course, Penalty himself, it turns out, is seriously ill. So there’s an irony in the fact that it was the dead man’s pedal. That’s because he, himself, is dying.
So I just like the title. I mean I had others, but I envisage it as part of a trilogy, which I didn’t at first. It was just a formal struggle to tell the story I wanted to tell. If you’re both looking for daily realism and a historical sweep, there’s a contradiction there. Tolstoy manages it, effortlessly, but I’m not a Tolstoy, and also I knew I didn’t have a thousand pages to do it. But that was in my head so I tussled for years with that story.
Eventually I thought to myself, “Go easy on yourself, mate. Don’t try and do it all; you’re going to screw up the style if you shove everything in”. Because sometimes with dramatic narrative, if it moves too quickly, if you don’t have irrelevancy, space, loss of rhythm, sometimes it starts to appear very fake. You can feel the author setting up the drama behind. I’ve always been afraid of that in my work. In the same way, dry verisimilitude and historical drama are kind of two contradictions, so you fight all that out on the page as you try to tussle with it all.
Small: You’re practised already at using the same characters from one book going in to the next. Is the trilogy something that would follow that?
Warner: Completely, yes. I mean it would basically follow young Simon – Simon Crimmons – through into middle age. It would jump in time from the early seventies, mid-seventies, right through into the nineties, the early nineties, with the railway as a kind of central theme to it all as well. Because I can do anything I want now. Because more and more as time has gone by, and characters move from novel to novel, and scenarios and scenes move from novel to novel, it’s become a place of my own imagination. It’s quite hard to deal with that concept, you know, that, “my novels are set in Oban”, they’re not really, any more than William Faulkner’s are set in a specific location in the South. The novel becomes a world of your imagination, eventually. In fact, it becomes more real than the existing world so you use that world of the imagination to free yourself up. The geography is slightly different; almost slightly like a dream in my head; it’s the Oban on the West Coat line but not quite…there’s something a little skewed there that’s different which frees me up, it’s not an attempt at documentary or social realism in that sense.
Small: A sense of autobiography seems to pervade sometimes. How much do you deliberately do this to tease your readers?
Warner: What I do is I try to create an illusion of autobiography but it’s not autobiography. But you’re using elements of that and I’m happy for there to be vagueness. I’ve had people who, when I’ve used an incident in one or other books, have said, “Oh, but that was great, the way you wrote that. But that’s not how it happened”. And there’s that weird resistance to fiction. As if everything in fiction has been invented. As if authors don’t pull down from reality constantly. Like, you know,The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene. Graham Greene served in Africa but how much of that is his story – bits, but not much – so as an author, you pull down what you think is useful, you change what is getting in your way and you invent.
Small: Is the Alan Warner who wrote the last book the same guy that wrote the first one, do you think?
Warner: I think it gets harder. For me, it gets harder. Because, firstly, when you just have one book out, you’re playing solo in a room on your own. But in a weird way, the books start to echo and speak to one another, so that mounts up behind you. And also, you’re kind of pushing yourself a wee bit. You’re trying to change your attitude. You’re trying to take on things you didn’t think you would do. I mean I must have contradicted myself a dozen times, saying… “I’ll never do this”, “Oh, I would never do that”, “Oh, I don’t think you should do that”. And suddenly I found myself at the desk thinking, “Actually, I’m going to write a book not set in Scotland.” I remember a period when I couldn’t imagine writing…and I set a novel in a strange Spain, a Spanish coast, called The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven. But there was a period ten years before where I couldn’t imagine that. Like life really, you change as a person and aesthetically; I think you change – develop. It’s questionable but you certainly change. So I come at them from a new angle. And I remember first book, second book, thinking, “Wow, I’ll be able to swing this. This is a dawdle. Get to the fifth book and I’ll just be cruising” But no, far from it. And you’re more critical of yourself, I think, you know – you’re watching sentences more, and you’re groaning more.
Small: Is there a sense of setting a bar as well that makes it difficult, or is that not the problem?
Warner: I suppose you get that hundred per cent feeling every time. It just depends what your abilities are at that point. You know, I mean I give it a hundred per cent every time. Whether it comes out a hundred per cent, I’m not sure. I’m fond of all my books. I don’t re-read them much, if at all. I’m fond of them. I don’t cringe when I think of them. And I’ve met authors who do, who disown their own work and feel they’ve moved too far from their own work. I published when I was about thirty so I don’t suppose I was so young, and I don’t suppose I’ve changed stylistically and aesthetically that much.
Small: You told me once about writing your stuff in longhand, and keeping notes of changes in case you revert back. Is that still the case?
Warner: Yes, I do. I always start in long-hand. Because I think it distances you from a concept of completion. I think the minute you put it on the screen, a laziness for me, kind of, is there. Like, okay, that’s it finished. When you do it in long-hand, away from your desk in a big red notebook from Menzies, got maybe two, three chapters in it, it doesn’t have the feel of being a book. I don’tbelieve it’s a book. It’s writing. It’s something else. It’s a manuscript. It’s not a book. And I’m far more open. I think the brain and the pen for me works quicker than all this…as though the keyboard’s disconnected; there’s something instantaneous about it. So I always start, though I don’t necessarily do the whole novel, in long-hand. But the early chapters for sure. And then I put it aside, then I go back to it and I stroke out, I put in, so it’s a mess. And then there’s a very satisfying day where I go to the computer and I transfer it; still changing as I put it on to the computer. But I always start in long-hand.
Small: Let me finish by asking you where The Deadman’s Pedal fits in your list of Alan Warner publications?
Warner: Authors are notorious. They’re never going to say, “My second book was the finest and everything since then has been inferior.” So you probably won’t get a truthful answer. You feel -oddly, I think – you feel a certain weariness and revulsion, if you’re honest, to your latest book. Because you’ve been so close to it. You’ve worked at it for so long. It’s out. And there’s always a sense of a kind of de-crescendo going on with it. You’ve been there so long and suddenly everyone’s talking about this and you’re reading out, talking about it, but you’re also like, “I’m sick of this. Why can’t we talk about my fourth book?” Because there’s somehow new ideas about what’s going on in that book. So I think, inevitably, you react against it slightly.
Small: Any parting tips for budding writers?
Warner: My agent said a word of wisdom to me once. He said, “Good work always divides opinion.” Which is an interesting thing I hadn’t thought of.