A conversation with Alan Bissett

19 June 2019

Photograph: Sean Purser

The Falkirk novelist and playwright reflects on the past two decades of his career

Nearly two decades after its initial publication, there remains something instantly recognisable in Boyracers, the first novel by Falkirk-born author and playwright, Alan Bissett. Set in his hometown, the novel perfectly captures the trials and tribulations of teenage life in Scotland. There are the constant car journeys, the aimless drives to nowhere in particular. There are the initial forays into drinking, and the regular Old Firm references in a country where football often dominates everything. Popular culture pervades the novel at every turn. Film quotes and song lyrics are referenced in abundance. And even if the references themselves are somewhat dated and of a different era, the obsession with pop culture in general, the idea of an individual being defined and heavily influenced by their taste in music or in cinema, remains relevant.

Yet Bissett also feels like his debut novel is one that belongs to a very specific time. A certain optimism underscores the book, and it’s an optimism Bissett believes would be hard to replicate now.

“Just at the end of the 90s, going into the 2000s, before 9/11 essentially, I would say the world felt like a more optimistic place,” he told me. “I think young people felt more optimistic than they do now. The 90s was a relatively prosperous time, albeit not for everybody obviously, but after the turn of the century you had 9/11, you had the Iraq War, and New Labour turned out to be a sham. Years later we got a Tory government, and then after that you get Trump, and Brexit, and now it feels like the world is quite a dark place. I think it would be very difficult to write that book as optimistically now about youth as it was then.”

“It’s now something like 18 years since Boyracers came out, and it very much feels like a book of its time,” he added. “Everything’s a lot more complicated and difficult now, especially for young people.”

As with a number of esteemed Scottish writers, notions of identity and nationality often seep into Bissett’s work, even if they are not always the primary focus of whatever he is writing. Back in 1936, the famous Scottish poet Edwin Muir argued that Scots tend to think in one language while writing in another. It’s a statement Bissett himself has previously acknowledged, and one which has perhaps become pertinent in recent decades with the emergence of writers who have utilised Scottish dialects in their work, shunning the notion that authors must only write in a form of standardised English.

10th anniversary edition of Boyracers. Image: Polygon, Birlinn Limited

“When Trainspotting arrived, it was a revolution,” Bissett said. “I wasn’t aware you could write like that, I didn’t know it was allowed. Just being able to write in your own voice about your own culture was in itself a revolution as a writer. And it’s funny, because now Trainspotting plays such a big role in Scotland’s cultural landscape. And it goes beyond that, actually – it was a global thing. But it’s especially important to us. You have so many things pointing back towards it now. You can quote Trainspotting and 90% of people in Scotland will know exactly what you’re quoting.”

Yet if Irvine Welsh has often been seen as the primary figure of this movement which aims to take a stark and uncompromising look at Scotland from a uniquely Scottish perspective, it’s easy to forget that he’s not the only author out there who has been acclaimed for doing so.

“Through Trainspotting I discovered other writers, like James Kelman,” Bissett said. “Kelman is probably an influence on Irvine Welsh, and I think he would acknowledge that. Then going back you’ve got people like Janice Galloway, you’ve got William McIlvaney, and you’ve got people like Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan.”

And Bissett believes it’s important for any aspiring writer to have an understanding of the literary scene which exists within their home nation.

“It’s important because you need to find out what’s been done already. You start to understand what your own context is, and you get a sense of a tradition as well.”

Yet like any author who has spent a considerable period of time devouring literature, Bissett’s influences extend well beyond Scotland.

“I love Donna Tartt, who wrote The Secret History,” he tells me. “She’s a writer whose influence it’s probably harder to detect in my work. There’s not an obvious connection between her and myself, but she’s incredibly great at writing characters, and her worlds feel so real. You end up learning from that indirectly.”

Yet for Bissett, the importance of Scotland, the authenticity that can come from a setting which is truly understood by the writer, remains vitally important to his work.

“Every book, every story, every film needs a setting. And I think that setting partly conditions people’s response to the story,” he said. “We associate someone like Martin Scorcese with New York, or someone like Martin Amis with London.

“Place gives characters context. So even though your story itself might be universal, the way the characters speak, their cultural reference points, everything about their upbringing, are all conditioned in a place.”

“Language is the other important thing,” he added. “Place and language are tied together. Unless you’re very specific about that, about the language your characters speak and the place that they live, then your story’s got something missing. If you read a book set in Brazil, or Italy, or Antartica, or Falkirk, then those are all very different stories, because the places are so radically different from each other. Even if the characters are doing similar things, the place conditions your response and what you’re hearing about. And it adds a layer of authenticity. I couldn’t write a story set in Brazil, because I’ve never been there, and there’s only so much you can learn from Google. Look at City of God, set in Rio, for example – I could never write that film, because I don’t know anything about that world. I know about the world that I come from, so I can write that world authentically. And that authenticity makes a story.”

If Bissett’s debut novel, then, was a fundamentally optimistic work, one imbued with hope and promise, then it’s perhaps pertinent to stack it up against one of his later novels, Death of a Ladies’ Man, a work that is fundamentally much darker.

Certain similarities, of course, remain between the two texts. Like Boyracers, Death of a Ladies’ Man is very firmly rooted in Scotland, albeit set in Glasgow as opposed to Bissett’s Falkirk. And the author’s obsession with pop culture remains evident, the book’s very title itself a direct riff on Leonard Cohen’s album of the same name. Yet where Bissett’s debut novel looks at the troubled innocence of youth, this instead chronicles a divorcee’s dark descent into sexual addiction and hedonism, addressing toxic aspects of masculinity in a way that remains relevant around a decade after its initial release.

“It’s ultimately a book about men and their behaviour towards women,” he said. “The whole Me Too movement has definitely given people, especially women, a heightened awareness of certain aspects of male behaviour, and those aspects are looked at in the book. So I would say it’s probably a book that’s still relevant, given that sort of behaviour still happens. And there’s an increased consciousness around it – I suppose I was tapping into some of those elements early on.”

“It’s the longest book that I’ve written, and it’s the most challenging book that I’ve written as well,” he added. “White privilege, male privilege, these things exist, and I think any writer who experiences privilege has to do a good job of taking it apart, and what it means, and where power comes from. That was a difficult process. You have to confront certain aspects of yourself, and that can be very uncomfortable and very difficult.”

So, now that he has been in the business for nearly two decades, and is an established mainstay of Scotland’s literary scene, how has Bissett evolved and changed as a writer?

“I never used to plan – I’d always been much more of an organic writer. I’d have an opening line, or a title, or a scene, and I just let it grow from there. But once I started writing for television and film, that changed. You need to write scene-by-scene breakdowns for your producer, because they need to know where the story’s going, because ultimately they’re in charge. So that’s disciplined me a lot more into working out in advance what stories would be, so that you save time on the writing process.

“The other thing that’s happened is, now I’ve got two kids, my writing time’s shrunk. My writing process has definitely changed. It’s swings and roundabouts really – because there’s advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. The advantage of just organically seeing what happens is, your story surprises you, but the downside of that is you can waste a lot of time getting yourself into blind alleyways. There’s no right or wrong process though. You just find the process that works for you. And sometimes you might only discover what works in the third or fourth draft.

“For example, I wrote a book called Pack Men, the sequel to Boyracers, and that was a bugger to write. I was finding it really difficult to make it work, and I look at it now and it’s such a simple story – all set in one day. Easy-peasy, right? But in order to find that very simple structure I had to go through all sorts of drafts, tearing things up and chucking things out. And then in the final draft I wrote in a character who hadn’t even been in any of the previous drafts! And the inclusion of that character made everything click into place. Ultimately everything is trial and error and sometimes it’s more error than trial.”

Bissett appearing in the Moira Monologues.

And while Bissett has already produced an impressive volume of work over the years, he shows no signs of slowing down. In recent months he has been touring the length and breadth of Scotland to perform his long-established Moira Monologues, and even if his novel-writing has perhaps slowed down, he is working on plenty of other projects. His musical play, Mr Francis and the Village of Secrets, premieres at the end of this month, and another of his plays, The Red Hourglass, will be performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer.

Yet above all else, the 43-year-old still displays a love of the craft, an appreciation of being able to write, irrespective of the form in which he does so.

“You need to be working if you’re an artist. For me, if I’m not working on a project, my kids won’t eat. It’s as simple as that.

“But a writer writes. If you’re not working on a live project, you’re not a writer – you’re somebody who used to write.”

“I can’t stop,” he added. “There’s never, ever, ever, been a time in my life, even when I was a child, where I wasn’t working on something. That’s literally never happened, and maybe one day it will – but you just keep going, and you move onto the next thing, and that keeps it exciting for you.”

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