Since the turn of the nineties, contemporary Scottish fiction has taken a swipe at the preconceptions of ‘Bonnie Scotland’. Through the likes of Irvine Welsh, Iain Banks and James Kelman, Scotland has been re-crafted and re-imagined; the frustrations, aspirations and lives of its people seen from a gritty, harsh and often desperate perspective.
Another founding father of this literary movement is Alan Warner. He squints over a pair of reading glasses, looking much like the beleaguered GP of a quaint village practice, as he gives a sneak preview of his new work during a talk at Strathclyde University.
The small-town metaphor is not clumsily inserted by chance; where Welsh became the bard of bustling urbanity, Warner is commonly heralded as the contemporary Scottish rural voice.
Growing up in Connel, near Oban, Warner reveals that he never paid much attention to writing until Scottish contemporary fiction hit him slap bang in the face in the shape of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in Four Books. “I remember seeing it [Lanark] in an Oban gallery, and the cover looked amazing," he said.
"It really make me think because up to then I had never realised there was anyone still writing and alive in Scotland. I had no concept of contemporary literature and I suddenly became stunned and very excited about it.”
From then on, Warner devoured classic literature such as Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Camus’ The Outsider, The Graduate by Charles Webb and André Gide’s masterpiece The Immoralist; the latter's work, in particular, exerting a profound effect upon the then 15-year-old.
“I think it was the revelation that spurred and inspire me to write, as Gide said ‘a curtain opens to reveal a new world in our minds’. After I read The Immoralist it was my first experience of being upset and affected by writing – I had no idea that a book could emotionally move you,” he added.
Since finding his own self proclaimed “Road to Damascus”, Warner exploded onto the literary scene with his debut novel Morvern Callar. Set in Oban, the book follows the story of Morvern, a girl who sells her suicide boyfriend’s unpublished novel as her own. It became an instant hit, securing Warner several awards before being adapted into a movie in 2002. Several other groundbreaking novels followed – These Demented Lands, The Sopranos, The Stars in the Bright Sky and The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven – and Warner has become renowned for his idiosyncratic style, rural setting and image.
“I put distance between my characters [and reality], a gauze," he said. "Yet, at the same time, I’m exploring the life of a small guy in a small town. The characters in these places are stuck in inertia, in a frozen place. Much of my writing comes from feeling and experience, but it must pass through the filter of imagination. If you start a novel with grandeur, you can do what you like with the rest; people believe they are involved in something.
"The thing about small towns, history passes them by – there is a timelessness about them, which fascinates me. For instance, it took punk rock three years to get to Oban; in 1980 there was one punk and he got beaten up every Saturday. He was a pioneer.”
Speaking of pioneers, Warner himself has often been described as such but quickly retorts against the label and makes no bones about what his aims are when he sits down to write. As of the inevitable comparisons between his rural writings and the concrete jungles of Welsh’s, he maintains his aversion of being bookmarked.
“To me, ‘pioneer’ sounds like an outdoor clothing company. All I do is write the novel that I’m trying to write. I’m scared of such labels – I can see the article: 'Is Scot-lit the new Brit-pop?'”
As of his new book, Dead Man’s Pedal – which he jokingly dubs the ‘real’ Trainspotting – Warner lends a soft West-Highland lilt to his written words as he reads the first few chapters. It is a story of railways (where Warner once worked), relationships and friction between social classes, which is itself another distinct theme of Scottish contemporary literature.
He also treats his audience to a short story in It All Pours Down Like Silver, a dark and bleak tale of our recent harsh winters. It is set in Fort William and centres on unemployment, bleakness and boredom. In it, the characters live in squalor, their lives as frozen as the world outside. There are psychopathic dogs; lifetime bans from Tesco and ‘magpieing’ the fallen possessions from underneath ski lifts, with a shocking twist at the finale.
“This was based upon long-time unemployed friends, with our last few extreme winters also in mind," Warner said. "I think I went too far with the end, but I’m proud of the extremity.”
It is a cold-hearted, black-humoured and deeply intricate story that is told in Warner’s usual style. And in this short form we are able to fully appreciate why he has become such an important novelist. It is cold, and at times desolate and hopeless but the adversity is dispersed by descriptions, phrases and imagery that are wonderfully poetic.
The image of Scotland created by Warner and his ilk is borne out of the frustrations and struggles of its people, reflecting a land unsatisfied with itself and straining to secure an identity. Alan Warner is sure to keep churning out these remarkable tales of unremarkable people who, at the same time, are consistently endearing, compelling and fascinating.
Warner's new novel A Dead Man’s Pedal will be available in May.