Alan Warner revisits The Sopranos in The Stars in the Bright Sky
Over a decade after Alan Warner wrote The Sopranos, he’s decided to revisit those wild girls. Claire Sawers hears why the Oban-born writer set his new book in 2001
‘I actually distrust elegance in a novel,’ says Alan Warner. ‘I suffered through reading a lot of heavy fiction as a teenager. To be honest, I was bored. I don’t want to sound like a philistine, but Henry James, god bless him, just doesn’t do it for me. I favour realism.’ Speaking of his latest novel, The Stars in the Bright Sky, the sequel to The Sopranos, the Oban-raised, County Wicklow-based author says he just wanted to have fun. Warner knows that his gang of Highland girls-on-tour, the sambuca-slamming, Guinness-downing, chain-smoking choristers who first appeared as schoolgirls and now return as 21-year-olds, aren’t the most sophisticated lot. Wheeling pink luggage through Gatwick airport before a holiday, trying not to chip acrylic nails, and swearing loudly about other passengers nipping their heads, they are ready to go on the rampage, with pockets stuffed with condoms, and bellies full of Burger King.
So, would Warner be happy if he found himself sitting behind them on a plane? ‘Maybe not,’ he laughs. ‘But I’d probably think, “good for them!” They’re out for a laugh and don’t take themselves too seriously.’ Kay, Kylah, Manda and co are small-town girls with a naivety that Warner finds himself always returning to. It was there in Morvern Callar – his debut story of a supermarket shelf-stacker who inherits money after her boyfriend tops himself and goes partying in Spain – and again in The Sopranos. The film rights were quickly bought up by Hollywood, but a movie version has yet to be made. ‘I guess that innocence comes through in all my books,’ Warner shrugs, half-way through a mid-morning pint in a Haymarket pub.
But what relevance do these girls have now, almost a decade after ladette culture first had its moment? Not long after Zoe Ball, Denise Van Outen and Sara Cox cheer-led a nation of party-hard tomboys into the boozer and onto the pages of FHM, their sweary, footie-loving ways met a bored backlash. ‘I wanted it set in the past,’ Warner explains. ‘Simply because I don’t understand young women anymore! So I set it in 2001, a period I remember more accurately.’ For research, Warner consulted his wife on the finer details of manicures and bikini purchasing, but also drew a lot from his time growing up in Oban. ‘Dating was difficult then. It wasn’t like the Skins generation, where boys and girls all lie around in each others’ bedrooms,’ he points out. ‘Girls were watched from a distance and were fascinating to me. There’s still a certain voyeurism when I write.’
The book’s most revealing moments come as the girls kill time blethering in the airport bar, or bonding over lines of coke in a hotel room. As the girls get to know the privileged Ava, a ‘dark horse’ with a shady past, tension builds and true colours begin seeping through. Brash, funny, and loaded with neatly observed details of girl/girl dynamics, it’s essentially a 400-page eavesdrop on their night-out. ‘I’ve noticed that there’s a tendency for my books to become quite static. There’s a lot of sitting down. I like that, I think that’s a strength. I’m a natural watcher and listener, so I just try to show things in as real a way as possible.’
The Stars in the Bright Sky is published by Jonathan Cape on Thu 13 May. Alan Warner is in conversation with Doug Johnstone at the Central Library, Edinburgh, Sat 15 May.