William McIlvanney interview

The big man

He might have been out of the spotlight for a decade but William McIlvanney has been hard at work, finds Doug Johnstone.

The publication of William McIlvanney’s novel Weekend was like welcoming an old friend home after a very long holiday, and finding that the time away has left them in extremely rude health.

After ten years out of the spotlight, McIlvanney’s latest work met with universal critical and public acclaim, and his gregarious appearance was one of the highlights of last summer’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. All of which was something of a relief to the man himself, who had been worried that the world might have forgotten him.

‘There was a strong possibility that folk no longer knew I existed, or thought I was dead,’ he chuckles in his sonorous, west coast accent. ‘It always amazes me how many folk are aware of my work. You’re working blind when you write something, writing into the void. You never know whether it speaks to people, so it’s good to get such positive responses.’

The 70-year-old writer is being overly modest here; he has been one of the most important voices in Scottish contemporary fiction over the last 40 years. In the current publishing climate of fast turnover and fleetingly celebrated young authors, ten years without a book is an inordinately long time, but McIlvanney wasn’t sitting around doing nothing until the publication, last year, of Weekend.

‘It was a long time between books, but most of what I write is not visible to the public, which is possibly a blessing,’ he says. ‘My attempts to write are like an iceberg, nine tenths are never visible. I write an awful lot for the clarification of my own sense of things, and books eventually emerge from that. I’m a brilliant starter of things, but a terrible finisher. I’ve got ten books started which will probably never be finished. It’s like the laboratory of a mad scientist, with incomplete Frankenstein’s monsters lying about, waiting for a lightning bolt to animate them. Somehow, Weekend reached a point where I thought there was something there, so I went for it.’

Superficially, Weekend seems like a very different book from McIlvanney’s usual hunting ground, dealing as it does with Scottish machismo and working class values. McIlvanney uses the plot of a weekend university study trip of lecturers and students to brilliantly weave together a subtle, multi-voiced narrative dealing with the theme of the constant struggle between humans’ ability to reason and our baser animal instincts.

‘I think it’s an extension of what I was doing before,’ says McIlvanney. ‘Some people seemed surprised about it, saying that now I understand women characters, whereas I think I’ve understood them pretty well in the past. I’ve been around, and I’ve tried, you know? That’s a misunderstanding which has haunted me somewhat. The Big Man [his 1985 novel, which was made into a film starring Liam Neeson] was meant to be a dismantling of machismo, yet people said it was a celebration of it. That sort of thing can be really dispiriting.’

Over the last four decades, McIlvanney has always been a tirelessly inventive writer, trying new things and never resting on his laurels. As well as the novels there have been four books of poetry and two non-fiction works, which, along with the fiction, create an important body of work within Scottish literature.

Things could have turned out differently, though. In 1977, McIlvanney published Laidlaw, about a hard-bitten, psychologically damaged, rough and ready cop walking the mean Glasgow streets. That scenario might sound familiar now, but back then the blend of crime fiction, literary themes and a Scottish setting was unheard of. Ian Rankin himself cites Laidlaw as the inspiration for Rebus. Yes, McIlvanney accidentally invented ‘tartan noir’.

‘I’ve been called the Godfather of tartan noir, but the term doesn’t appeal to me, it’s just a cunning piece of marketing,’ he says. ‘After Laidlaw, my publisher said, “Do one of them a year and we’ll make a fortune”, but it wasn’t what I wanted at the time. I’ve always had a dread of writing the same book twice, and crime writing is like comfort food, folk want you to do the same thing all the time. It was one of the key moments in my life, but I don’t regret it. I don’t see the point in nurturing regrets, they just corrode you.’

William McIlvanney appears with Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard at Aye Write! on Fri 16 Feb. Weekend is out now, published by Sceptre.

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