Interview: Liam Murray Bell discusses his new novel The Busker
The author of So It Is tackles the music industry, Occupy and homelessness in his latest novel
The Busker, the second novel by Liam Murray Bell, is the story of an aspiring musician set across three cities: Glasgow, where he grew up; London, where he pursued his musical ambitions; and Brighton, where he’s fallen on hard times. We talked to Bell about music, writing and Occupy
Would you rather be a musician or a writer?
I’m happy being a writer because I don’t think I was quite cut out to be a musician to be quite honest. I was in a band as a teenager – it was myself and another singer but I was the sort of ‘Bez’ character in the band.
Not even many people can say they’ve been Bez.
Yes that’s true. Perhaps not as skilled as Bez.
Do those experiences form the music side of the book?
Yeah, it was pretty much the reason why I picked that subject, because of those teenage experiences I had in the studio. I focused mainly on the relationship between band members because I was fortunate enough to be in a band with all my friends. The book is based on Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg and Woody Guthrie, that idea of the lone singer-song writer.
Was there a parallel between Bob Dylan and the protagonist, Rab?
I wanted [Dylan] lurking in the background because he’s such an icon. I mean, he is the protest singer. Whenever anyone talks about protest singers, the first person they mention is Bob Dylan. It was interesting looking about Dinkytown in Minneapolis, where he hung out. I also did a lot of reading, whilst out there, about Guthrie, focusing on the American protest movement. So he’s in there in the background somewhere. Rab’s understanding of Dylan is pretty basic at best.
The idea of a Dylan-esque also-ran musician brings to mind the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis – have you seen it?
No. I was going to, but I was moving between Glasgow and England, and it was on in the GFT when I was down here. When I saw it was coming out, I was quite happy because it’s nice when things are coming out at the same time, it’s a nice feeling. The primary setting of The Busker was always intended to be in 2011/2012 and looking at the modern protest movement. I hope there’s some kind of parallel/overlap between the two, but because it’s in a different setting and a different country, I hope there’s enough difference that they can coexist.
The book spends a bit of time on the Occupy movement – were you a part of it?
No I wasn’t. I was living in Guildford at the time studying for my PhD at the University of Surrey, so I was very close to London. I wasn’t very involved, but I was aware. Afterwards, I developed a fascination with it. A couple of my friends were part of it. One of them was involved with Occupy, and then squatting afterwards, and I went to speak to him and his friends in a disused garden centre in Camden. I spoke to them about their experiences of Occupy and how politically motivated squatting was. They spoke about how quickly it changed, and how quickly the media portrayal of it changed, which was all very fascinating to me.
Was that ‘politically-motivated squatting’ aspect something that drew you to the homeless element of the novel?
I see them all as being heavily tied together. The problem that Occupy had was that they had rough sleepers coming through the camp. They didn’t want to turn anyone away, but obviously, rough sleepers can bring a lot of problems in a way where they have alcohol and substance abuse problems as well as some mental health issues. All these things tied together. It was a big problem in Brighton, where part of the novel was set. It was a side issue, but also related.
How much do you identify with Rab and the other characters?
There are probably little bits of myself in all of them. The thing with Rab is that he’s not the most likeable character, he’s a bit naive. There are things about him that I’m quite envious at how brazen he is. He’s actually a bit more confident than me in a lot of ways. He’s not directly based on me.
Some of the side characters – especially Maddie, Rab’s first girlfriend, and Sage, his friend when he’s homeless – seem quite drawn from real life. Were they based on people that you know?
There were probably little bits of different people. Sage was someone that was quite important for me in the book. He was partially inspired by people I know, but also he was inspired by Falstaff, by that relationship between a young Henry IV and Falstaff in Shakespeare, and the example of an older guy providing the experience for a younger guy, who then turns on him. Falstaff’s been written about so much, and that was quite an interesting parallel.
There’s also an interesting character in the shape of Pierce Price, a music industry player. Was he a lot of fun to write?
He was. I like him as a character and he probably grew as a character. Rab’s presentation of him at first was probably my understanding of him. I slowly realised that he is in a pretty tricky position and he’s struggling. I like stripping away a lot of those layers that he puts on – his shiny suits, his catchphrases – to get down to what actually motivates him.
What are you working on next?
I’m not working on a novel at the moment because I don’t really have the time – I’m currently teaching at Stirling University – but at the moment it’s just little short stories that I’m attempting to hammer out. It’s really hard to write whilst you’re teaching. Not because of lack of inspiration, but it’s just finding the time to sit down to do it really. I’ll sit down at the summer and have a good think about what I want to write about for the third book.
The Busker is published by Myriad Editions, out Thu 1 May.