Wednesday, 31 July 2013

HARD TRUTHS: William McIlvanney

That William McIlvanney's work fell out of print in the first place seems a national disgrace, but to see him once again riding high in the bestsellers' lists is more than vindication of Canongate's recent reprint. I spoke to McIlvanney about his boyhood and youth in Kilmarnock on Ayrshire's west-coast, about his parents and just how he makes this strange business of writing work. This is a shortened exchange (originally posted in the Ayrshire Post) but the full interview can be found in HARD TRUTHS, currently free for the next five days on Amazon.

William McIlvanney.
AT THE age of 76, William McIlvanney could be forgiven for wanting to put his feet up and rest on some well-earned laurels.

After winning the Whitbread, a Bafta and two CWA daggers, after all, there are precious few trophies left for him to collect. But he shows little sign of stopping there as he prepares to reboot his career with a new publisher.

Edinburgh-based Canongate will reprint McIlvanney's backlist of Scottish classics like The Big Man - which starred Liam Neeson in the Hollywood version - kicking off with his seminal crime novel, Laidlaw.

Appearances at literary festivals and book signings all over the country are lined up for the Kilmarnock-born author, who will be introducing a new generation of crime-fiction fans to his hard-bitten Glasgow cop, Jack Laidlaw.

"It’s something I like," said McIlvanney. "I like doing readings because I’ve had terrific feedback from audiences. I would never take it too seriously and say that’s the meaning of what I do but it’s not a bad bonus.

"It’s good to sit there with maybe two-or-three hundred people who at the end of it say, I see what you’re trying to do. For me, that’s a good thing and it helps me."

The son of a miner, he admits the writing life beats howking coal but credits his mother Helen - a great reader herself - with encouraging his early ambitions which included a stint at Glasgow University and a 17-year teaching career before fame as an author.

"There were always books in the house, it was within the family a very natural thing to read," said McIlvanney.

"The house was hugely verbal, there was a lot of argument, a lot of conversation and a lot of discussion of politics and various things.

"In fact, it sounds strange in retrospect but in the [Kilmarnock] housing scheme we lived in we used to have poetry readings and I think we drew the curtains before we did it - in case folk threw stones at us."

The acclaimed writer has never forgotten his working-class Ayrshire upbringing and remains a little surprised by his huge success.

"I think I've been lucky," he said. "If the reviews of [his first book] Remedy is None had annihilated me, I might have stayed annihilated.

"I don’t know that coming from the background I came from I would have had the confidence to say, ‘to hell with it I can still do it’.

"I think the initial response to the first thing I wrote was so important because I was coming from a background where nobody had ever done it. It was like trying to sail the Atlantic in a rowing boat it was such a difficult enterprise."

Now firmly established McIlvanney has been called the Godfather of Tartan Noir and lists bestselling crime writers like Ian Rankin and Val McDermid among his fans.

"I find it very flattering," said McIlvanney. "I went to the Bloody Scotland [crime writing] festival last year and I was amazed by how many people were so benign towards me. I mean, to be called the Godfather of Tartan Noir - which is not my favourite term - is hugely flattering."

His re-released novel, Laidlaw, is broadly considered to be the first work of Tartan Noir and kicked off a phenomenon that has collected international acclaim for its portrayals of the dark side of Scottish life.

"Anything that keeps the book alive, I think, is good," said McIlvanney.

"I don’t think that it’ll be the ultimate expression of Scottish culture, folk will come along and do more but I think it’s great that there’s an area where the value, the significance of the written word, is appreciated."

Set in Glasgow, McIlvanney, says the novel reflects the No Mean City tag but doesn't exaggerate it.

"I think Glasgow has a reputation which is not unearned but which is exaggerated," he said.

"Besides being a hard town it’s a terrifically warm town, I think, it’s a place, as I once said, where Greta Garbo wouldn’t have been alone - she’d have been in a pub somewhere and somebody would shout out, 'Hey you in the funny hat, come over and have a blue lagoon!’"

Traversing the city is Jack Laidlaw, a damaged detective seeking answers to the brutal murder of a young woman found on Glasgow Green. In his path appears a legion of hard men, gangland villains and self-made moneymen who lurk in the city's shadows.

Laidlaw's abrasive manner makes him few friends as he investigates the grisly crime but that's not his intention, says the author.

"Laidlaw happens to be a cop but he’s much more than that and he brings the much more than that to the job," said McIlvanney.

"You can approach the job in such a way that you redefine the job by the humanity you bring to it and that’s what I think Laidlaw does; he’s aggressive, he’s a pain in the arse but he’s serious and he means it." 

Laidlaw by William McIlvanney is published by Canongate priced £7.99.

:: The full interview is contained in HARD TRUTHS (Cross-examining Crime Writers) which is available these next five days for FREE on AMAZON UK and AMAZON USA.