Benjamin Obler - Javascotia
The caffeine industry has wafted into the UK at an astonishing rate. Benjamin Obler tells David Pollock how he merged coffee with Scotland for his debut novel
It may be hard to recall now, but there was a time when coffee shops weren’t over-running the world, and certainly hadn’t even gained a foothold in Scotland. When Benjamin Obler travelled from his native Minnesota in 1994 to study Scottish Literature on an exchange programme in Glasgow, he saw no Starbucks on city centre street corners; to this American, their absence came to symbolise the cultural differences he felt. ‘I’m a coffee fiend,’ says Obler, ‘and it was pretty tough to find a decent cup in Glasgow. Not like that was life-threatening or anything, but I’ve taken the whole subject to dramatic extremes in my book, so that the absence of good coffee comes to symbolise the experience of being an American abroad.’
In Obler’s debut novel Javascotia, the author’s fictional fellow coffee guzzler Melvin Podgorski isn’t a student, but rather a young advance researcher for a US coffee company that’s looking to set up a franchise in Glasgow. It’s a book which effortlessly manoeuvres the ‘fish out of water’ and ‘coming of age’ genres (although Obler hates this latter description) against the backdrop of the capitalist machine in action. The novel is lengthy but somehow intimate, although Obler’s phonic version of Glaswegian speech is sometimes a bit overworked. Still, details of the city are richly remembered from his first year spent there and a return visit to study for a Masters in Creative Writing in 1998.
‘Melvin is removed from his old life which is a hard-working, fast-paced, ambitious Mid-Western one. Of course, that same kind of lifestyle exists in the UK, where you find a career path, get married and have your offspring. But my time in Glasgow involved a certain liberation from that, so I let my protagonist enjoy a similar lifestyle. The perception of Scotland by mainstream America is something I wanted to address in the book. So many people at home thought it was all heather-filled glens and Highland cattle roaming everywhere. And many people I meet in America tell me they’re descended from a Campbell or a MacDonald, or that they once took a trip over, family tree in hand, looking for the old croft.’ In this respect, Obler lays out the experience of urban Scotland for his readership back home as much as he revisits his own time here.
Javascotia was started while Obler was studying Creative Writing in Glasgow and finished in his new home city of Minneapolis, where he works in publishing. At the moment his second novel is occupying his time, although ‘it’s set in America and it’s about addiction’ is all he will say. ‘Most things I write deal with themes of failure, relationship anxiety, status anxiety. I’m sure some of these’ll be in there.’ Recent efforts have also been made to put a short story collection together, although Obler’s agent doesn’t approve. ‘She says the market’s dismal and that no one will pay money for a first-time author’s collection. I think she’s being overly bleak, so I’m going to persevere.’ And he should. After all, so did the first guy who opened a coffee shop in Glasgow.
Javascotia is published by Hamish Hamilton on Thu 26 Mar.