Janice Galloway - A Selfless Act
After an absence of six years, Janice Galloway has returned with a memoir rather than a novel. Her fans won't be disappointed, though. Kirstin Innes meets her
[You can also read a full transcript of this interview.]
Janice Galloway has fabulous shoes on. You notice them immediately. She's ensconced, regal and sleek, in the rather grotesque grandeur of the private drawing room in Edinburgh's Scotsman Hotel. The fabulous shoes are slender black patent stiletto heels with a Westwood-y hint of tartan at the toe and a tiny bow. She notices and compliments my shoes. I compliment hers back.
One of the country's most important contemporary writers has published the first volume of her memoirs; an extraordinarily detailed, beautiful book, and I'm getting gooey over her footwear. It's not as facile as it seems though. This is Not About Me, which traces Galloway's life from birth to 11 and centres on her early relationship with her mother and much older sister, is a book about women, about watching women, and about learning to become a woman.
Readers familiar with her work will recognise echoes of the minutely-observed detailing of constructed femininity in The Trick is to Keep Breathing and Foreign Parts resonating in the young Janice's fascination with her sister Cora's routines, the application of orangey panstick and painstakingly redrawn eyebrows. Cora (in real life Nora, but Galloway changed the names of her family members for reasons that will become apparent later) is, as Galloway says 'a force of nature'. Her sudden, glamorous appearance just after Janice's fourth birthday fills the book with hairspray fumes and the angry rustle of skirts, 'enough mascara to block strong sunlight', and the ever-present threat of violence. The place is Saltcoats, the time is the late 50s, and Cora dyes her hair the same blue-black as Elvis.
'We came from a period where people wished to be portrayed quite differently to how they actually were,' Galloway says. 'It wasn't about comfort, it was about looking as though you were "getting by". My sister was the archetype of not just looking like you were getting by, but , well… Lord knows what Nora thought she had to look like. Getting dressed up, that was the thing.
'People wanted to look as though they were successful. It was a working class habit from the area I came from, people really got dolled up, even to go to the pictures,' she recalls. 'My mother would be horrified if she'd ever seen anyone in a shell suit. It's about looking better than how you actually feel, because how you actually are is poor. I've never felt that was healthy. Some of the excesses of misery into which members of my family were led came from the feeling of not being good enough. There had been too much dressing up, of the psyche, not just of the outer self, and it led to an inability to look at where we actually were in the world.'
Galloway has mined this territory before to an extent. Aspects of her family relationships and particular character traits may have previously found their way into her fiction, but transfigured and abstracted. She stresses that it's an unconscious transference. There's no way, she says, she could have written this book if either her mother or sister were still alive.
'I think my mother would have been profoundly uncomfortable about the book, because of the facts of her life being open territory.' She slows down her words, enunciating each separately. 'Because. It's. Embarrassing! This is my line of work, and I am used to the paradoxes of being a writer: you're not being self-revelatory, you're telling a story. It doesn't feel like you, or like members of your family when you're writing them down.'
This is an important distinction to make, and vital to understanding the creation of the book. Galloway has written about real people's lives before: Clara (2002) is a novel, not a biography, about Clara Wieck Schumann, the 19th century pianist and wife of Robert Schumann. The process of turning those lives into fiction was, she says, 'almost exactly the same' as putting together This is Not About Me.
'Creating credible psychologies for historical characters is really a matter of empathy. You can't necessarily do that when you're dealing with people this close to you,' she explains. 'That's one reason why their names were slightly changed, so I could exercise freedom in interpreting their psychologies. I am not that age any more. Those people aren't alive any more. So this is a reconstruction job. It's not that different from recreating Robert and Clara: I just can't go to a library and research these people!'
We speak about Muriel Spark, who Galloway interviewed for a national newspaper when Spark's own autobiography, Curriculum Vitae was published in 1992. Spark's approach to studying her own life was fact-based: indeed, she included an introduction that stated that absolutely everything in the book had been verified with family members.
'I found that astonishing. That she had sought verification about how she did at school? About how she behaved towards her own mother?' Her mock-outrage is almost gleeful. 'I think life is much fudgier than that,' she says. 'I do. I think the dividing line between what's true and what's not true is very fudgy indeed.'
Near the beginning of the book, there's a quietly loaded scene. Janice's 40-year-old mother is singing in the kitchen and slowly realises that her waters have broken and that this is a baby, not 'the change', coming. Galloway herself cannot possibly have known this; she's pieced it together from what she knows about her own birth, and what she understands about her mother. Psyches can be dressed up and historical 'truth' may be pliable, but Galloway is a passionate advocate of the veracity of every individual's own emotional truth, and the sanctity of a memory, particularly early childhood memories.
'So many of us tell kids that certain things they remember didn't happen, because we didn't want them to see it. We all do it. The whole of childhood, I think, is a long walk down a very confusing corridor, with different things happening through every door you pass and none of them in any way explicable. You just have to somehow fight your way through and make what sense you can of it. I found that from a very young age, I had a propensity for drawing things in through the eyes. I watched them. It wasn't very safe, sometimes, to say things, so you start to shut up … but to validate yourself, you watch.'
This is Not About Me is not set out like a conventional memoir. There are no photographs, beyond the shot on the cover; there's no introduction, or footnotes. In freeing herself up to address her family, and her past self, as characters, and in allowing herself that slight, fudgy disassociation, she's created something that doesn't necessarily speak universal 'truth', but is nonetheless shot through with clear-eyed emotional honesty.
'I needed that bit of assistance to write this as a story - just giving it as much distance as I felt was valuable. I didn't just want to make it about' she pauses, sighs, 'about me. In all the writing I've done so far, I've always wanted the people to be representative of everybody, in some regard. There ought to be something, in these people, that people recognise, have felt. It's not about me.'
[You can also read a full transcript of this interview.]
This is Not About Me by Janice Galloway is out now, published by Granta, priced £16.99.