Eight years on from the publication of Scar Culture, Toni Davidson shares the ups and downs of following up his celebrated debut with Brian Donaldson.
So, what’s in a name? Quite a lot as far as Toni Davidson is concerned. The author of 1999’s cult classic Scar Culture wants you to have his characters ingrained on your memory. And if giving them a title which will leap out at you from the relative safety of the written page helps, then all the better.
‘I just couldn’t write “And John said”, confesses Davidson, who has also edited the anthologies And Thus Will I Freely Sing and Intoxication. ‘I’m not trying to be awkward, I just like really memorable names. They have to have an onomatopoeic feel, a metaphorical thing and be a little bit tongue in cheek.’ Instead of Toms, Dicks and Harrys, Davidson gives us Click, Fright and Mr Sad (from Scar Culture) and Minus, Solace and Rean (from his impressive new short story collection The Gradual Gathering of Lust).
The Ayr-born author is currently staying in Ho Chi Minh City (itself renamed from the original title of Saigon after the Vietnam war) where he is doing the research leg for his next novel, My Gun Was As Tall As Me. He won’t go into a great amount of detail about the ins and outs of his next project, possibly still feeling slightly bruised after the difficulties of the post-Scar Culture period.
Back in 1999, Davidson was in the enviable position of having a long-term dream blossoming into stark reality with the publication of his novel about child abuse victims and a psychotherapist who conducts controversial experiments on them. At the book’s Transmission Gallery launch, the central belt’s literati was in attendance for an event that felt more like a civilised club night than your average book reading. Drowning in dub and swathed in red wine, the launch of Scar Culture represented the epitome of drive and verve that would eventually thrust Canongate into the big league.
‘It was a very special time but it was more of a hysterical relief inside of me as it was a long time coming to get my first book published,’ he recalls. ‘There was a lot of support from my friends and a lot of hype, as well as genuine interest, from Canongate and it all reached this pinnacle. Then you are back to just being who you were before all that happened.’
Professionally and personally, the following years were rather more ill-fated. The writing of his second novel, Silem Renk, about a revenge agency which adopts non-violent methods to get its way, was going well when Davidson’s father died at the age of 69. ‘I was just coming out of a long rebellious attitude and starting to get to know him, and it is a huge regret that I can no longer do this. That took its toll on my writing, as prose seemed so much less important than the substance of bereavement.’
Returning to the book became not so much a literary chore as a psychological torment (not helped by his long-term relationship coming to an end). And although it was eventually finished and Davidson remains proud of the work, Canongate were less happy with it. Silem Renk still sits on the backburner. ‘I very nearly gave up writing, with the combined pressures of expectation, self-confidence and identity crisis producing a very unhappy state of affairs.’
His way back in was via the short story form and the collection of tales in The Gradual Gathering of Lust. Not only does he give his characters terrific names, the titles for his tales are pretty special too. ‘Affections of the Ejaculation Centre’, ‘The Inert Penis of the Man Who Had Just Been Shot’ and ‘Some People are Born to be a Burden on the Rest’ are three corkers out of the eight. While affairs of the heart and matters of the libido are at the centre of the stories, a sense of shame and embarrassment seems to link them. There’s Rean who kept an erotic scrapbook hidden from his wife; the siblings Minus and Karine who have done something they really shouldn’t have; and Solace, a video emporium worker with a passion for Grizzly Adams.
‘In most of the stories, there’s a lot of the hidden and covert and “let’s not talk about it”. That kind of dishonesty can cause a lot of problems on a personal and a political level. I think the character in Like a Pendulum in Glue is a case in point; he has really struggled to find a way to express himself and his true desires and people might not find what he wants particularly wholesome.’
Here’s one last story about names. In 2001 a group of four Brooklyn metal heads were growing tired of calling themselves Scrape. Their lead man, Pheroze Karai was a massive fan of Scar Culture. ‘I got this very long email from Pheroze and, while it was lovely to think of the image of some death metal dullard screaming his head off, he was actually incredibly articulate,’ chuckles Davidson. ‘He said that if they ever toured I had to come to one of their concerts. Can you imagine me turning up; a little bit fey perhaps?’
The Gradual Gathering of Lust is published by Canongate on Thu 22 Feb.
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