Anne Donovan - Being Emily

Bronte angle

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Anne Donovan

Her understated yet powerful stories have reached out far beyond their Glasgow settings. Anne Donovan chats to Rodge Glass about her follow-up to Buddha Da

I first saw Anne Donovan in 2001 on the underground ‘stage’ of Glasgow’s 13th Note Café, surrounded by beer bottles, graffiti and posters advertising upcoming gigs by the punk and metal bands that usually played there. People were crammed into the tiny venue where other performers had already been ignored or abused by the crowd, which was mostly made up of musicians, writers and wannabe writers: I was one of the final group. It was getting late and most people were drunk, but Anne seemed undaunted by the hostile atmosphere. In her distinctly down-to-earth, direct style, she read the start of a new comedy, seemingly about Tibetan monks coming to Scotland because they’d heard the next Dalai Lama had been born on a Glasgow estate. She was the most popular performer all night because people warmed to her, and her personality came through in her work.

Two years later that story became a hugely successful novel called Buddha Da, which won prizes but also proved popular with libraries and reading groups. It was a word-of-mouth hit whose reach went much further than its Glasgow setting, being translated into several languages. Apparently the Russian translator had trouble interpreting the words ‘Partick Thistle’. Like Trainspotting before it, Buddha Da proved good Scots writing in dialect could be understood and enjoyed everywhere; not that the author has ever chased success.

She has just quietly gone about writing understated, powerful stories and, since 2001’s collection Hieroglyphics, has developed a growing following. New novel Being Emily features the same language and settings to her other books but is much darker and comes five years after Buddha Da. Was it hard to follow? ‘Well, first I wrote a novel that didn’t quite work,’ Donovan says now, very matter-of-factly. ‘But there was no pressure. Then I had the idea for Being Emily, about a girl relating to Emily Bronte, being fascinated by the whole family mythology and that romantic idea of the sisters who live on a moor. Emily was mystical, positively sphinx-like, she hardly went around with anyone else. I thought it was a good start for a short story. Everything I’ve done so far begins that way; I think of myself as a short story writer who occasionally writes a novel by mistake.’

But Being Emily is actually very well-crafted and tackles big issues, particularly in rejecting assumptions about teenagers all being uncaring violent thugs just waiting to attack the nearest helpless granny. ‘Like everyone else, teenagers often get stereotyped,’ she says. ‘I taught teenagers and they are not all the same; in some cases they deliberately reject the culture around them.’ All the teenagers in the novel are ordinary, responsible young people trying to work life out: the problem is the world around them.

It’s too early to say how readers will respond to the novel but the author is modestly pleased with it. And does she feel she has changed since those early public readings? ‘I am happier with my writing now. Before, it was a major barrier for me, to feel what I was doing mattered, but now I feel it does. I just hope the reading groups aren’t disappointed this time.’

Being Emily is published by Canongate on Thu 15 May.

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