The Czech writer Ivan Klima once wrote a rather brilliant essay (‘Recipe for Happiness’, 1989) that sets out to prove how “chain letters” are one of the evils of the modern world and tantamount to an assault on innocent strangers. I’m afraid this instantly came to mind when I was ‘tagged’ recently to be interviewed (or interview myself in effect) for what is now being called “Next Big Thing”: a series of ten questions for writers, which are currently spreading across the webscape of writer’s blogs like proverbial wildfire. In my defence, and in order to put the brakes on the phenomenon a little, I have only been able to find one writer to ‘tag’ next, my successor as it were: a young writer (well, younger than me anyhow!) of startlingly original talent called Jet McDonald. I was privileged to gain sight of the manuscript of his second novel recently, and am more convinced than ever that he is a genius. Before leaving you to my answers to the ten questions, I must also mention the excellent writer and publisher David Rix, who has ‘tagged’ me to do this, following on from his own interview last week, which you can read here. Thanks to David for thinking of me!
1) What is the title of your next book?
If by this we mean the next book to be published (rather than what I’m working on at the moment) then that will be either ‘Freasdal’ or ‘Volwys’, my sixth and seventh novels, depending on how busy each publisher (Acair and Dog Horn respectively) turns out to be next year. Let’s go with ‘Freasdal’ since it was accepted for publication first, or: ‘Freasdal: a life of Coinneach Odhar’ to give it its full title.
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
I must have been about ten years old, going on holiday to the north of Scotland when we drove past a mysterious-looking avenue of trees and one of my elder brothers said that this was “the Brahan Seer’s neck of the woods…” I asked who on earth The Brahan Seer was, he began to tell me, and thus a lifelong obsession had begun. His other name is ‘Coinneach Odhar’, in effect Scotland’s Nostradamus, with the reputed power to see into the future. He was burned as a witch in the late seventeenth century, although much doubt and controversy surrounds the details of his life. The track record of his predictions is intriguing, and arguably some of them are still coming true. Among the Gaelic-speaking Scottish Highlands his named is revered to this day.
I have long been interested in what is sometimes called “the messiah complex”, probably since I was asked to write a play about Christ when I was a precocious primary school kid. The story of Coinneach Odhar, as I have tried to reconstruct and re-imagine it from the historical clues, interested me as a chance to demonstrate how history repeats itself, and how those who dare to be different from those around them, or who dare to tell the unvarnished truth, will always be objects of fear, misunderstanding and jealousy, and eventually even murderous intent. Also, my father always maintained that he himself saw into the future three times during World War Two, about quite trivial things admittedly, but transgressed the laws of physics nonetheless, and I’ve long had to decide in my mind whether he was mad (I don’t think he was!) or if time may not be linear.
3) What genre does your book fall under?
That’s usually a tricky question with me, since my books tend to sit across many genre boundaries (Sci Fi, Horror, Mainstream Literary, Philosophical) but in the case of ‘Freasdal’ it’s relatively easy to say: it’s a Historical novel with Supernatural elements.
4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
It’s funny, I can see them all quite clearly, but that doesn’t mean I can think of actors who would fit the part. Coinneach Odhar is blind in one eye, and has always reminded me slightly of Gordon Brown of all people (a compliment he doesn’t deserve!) but perhaps Dougray Scott or Gabriel Byrne could rise to the challenge with a suitably beaten-up look and other-worldly attitude. The character of Lady Isabella (who orders his execution) would be a dark and complex role requiring a not-conventionally-beautiful actress such as Shirley Henderson or Daniella Nardini. Màiri Chisholm (who Coinneach loves) might have to be Kelly Macdonald I suppose. It’s hard to keep Brian Cox out of mind for the odious Bishop of Moray, although Eddie Marsan might be much more chilling. This is a fun game (let’s hope their agents are surfing right now), but the real answer might be other younger actors out there as yet unheard of, since as you often find when you research history: it actually often happened to incredibly young people. This was of necessity perhaps, because they frequently died young, and lived pretty intensely beforehand. Seventeenth Century Scotland was no picnic.
5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
It takes a lonely kind of bravery to have exceptional gifts, to know the future is bad but still choose to go on living.
6) When will the book be published?
Currently scheduled for late 2013/early 2014.
7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Seven years. This is rather ironic, since I see that Nina Allan answered this question last week with “nine months” and she always accuses me of writing too fast. I must send her some humble pie for Christmas.
8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Tricky one, since I don’t acknowledge being part of any one genre. I haven’t read all that many historical novels and yet here I am the author of one. Aside from Shakespeare and Euripides on the drama front, Margaret Elphinstone’s ‘The Sea Road’ is a superb historical novel I greatly admire, but for the existential element and the insight into the messiah complex, we’d have to look further afield perhaps to something like Albert Camus’s ‘The Outsider’, Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, or Lawrence Durrell’s translation of Emmanuel Rhoides’ ‘Pope Joan’. There’s always Jane Rogers’ ‘Mr Wroe’s Virgins’of course, which brings us back to the subject of film or at least television. I’m not saying I am even half as good as any of these people of course, but the material shares some of the same concerns.
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I was sitting in a café in Glasgow’s Princes Square with my partner Rona one Saturday afternoon, boring her for the hundredth time about my obsession with The Brahan Seer, when she suddenly exclaimed in desperation : “Well, why don’t you write a best-selling novel about him, get it made into a film and make us both a fortune?” I didn’t agree with her motives (!) but as you can see I took her at her word and that project is now underway!
10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Many people probably think that being able to see into the future would be a wonderful gift, but I think my book demonstrates quite painstakingly how this would actually be a burden and a curse. The characters within it are, I hope, extremely real, and the moral dilemmas they wrestle with are on a cosmic scale. Although I’m not worthy for such comparisons: the feeling of inescapable fate and the cruel irony of causality inherent in ancient Greek tragedy and Shakespeare’s Macbeth were often in my mind.
It’s quite a short novel, since I always strive for concision and economy in my writing, and never overstaying the reader’s welcome. I refer to it as one of my “scrovels” (script novels) since it is heavily driven by dialogue and characterisation in the manner of a film.
To my pleasant astonishment, Margaret Elphinstone praised the manuscript and agreed to write a foreword. I hope that helps in terms of getting the ever-fickle mainstream literary establishment in Scotland to read and review the book. I find it very hard to judge my own work, and I found this the hardest book to write yet, for reasons I still can’t really explain. I told Margaret afterwards that if she hadn’t liked it I was going to throw it away in a drawer forever. No pressure (!)
I hope I get to win my bet with Rona, and see ‘Freasdal’ made into a film, since I think it would make a startling one, requiring film of many different centuries at the moments when Coinneach sees forward through time. Hollywood has had a few shots at Scottish history so far but none on as big and thought-provoking a theme as this. For all things dark, morbid and mysterious, Scotland is surely always the best setting, short of Transylvania. The landscapes are still haunted by our bloody history, wherein there will always be much to be learned about human folly and potential.
I never explained about the title. It is a Scottish Gaelic word (the language Coinneach Odhar spoke) which means destiny and providence and inheritance. Like all words unique to a particular tongue, it encodes a cultural value and a way of thinking, whose fatalism is strangely akin to the ancient Greek view of their deities: that the divine is unreasonable and the future cannot be altered.
S T O P P R E S S ! One of the other people I attempted to ‘tag’ to do this interview next has just got back to me: the great D.P.Watt, known to his friends (of whom I like to consider myself one) as Dan Watt. Dan is a terrific writer of the ‘weird’ and supernatural style of fiction, often seen collected and anthologised these days alongside such luminaries of the field as Mark Valentine, Reggie Oliver and R.B.Russel (has anyone paintballed them yet?). Dan is also co-owner of The Inkermen Press, a rather nice little boutique publisher whose reputation can only grow in years to come I humbly predict.