Friday, 25 October 2013

Posts from BOOKMARK - In Conversation with Andrew Greig

In Conversation with Andrew Greig

Oct 21 2013
I caught up with Andrew Greig, after his session chaired by Liz Lochhead, in the BOOKMARK hub. I stood in the queue behind a swathe of people holding copies of his latest novel, Fair Helen, waiting patiently for the author himself to sign them. During the session Andrew had read to the audience two excerpts from the novel, a bleak re-mastering of the border ballad Fair Helen of Kirkconoll Lea, told from the point of view of Harry Langton, a novel which had been flying off the bookshop stand in the hub.

 Songs also featured in Andrew Greig’s session. Yes, you did read that correctly, no, your eyes are not deceiving you. There was indeed singing at a book festival. Andrew Greig accompanied himself on guitar and banjo (not at the same time) over two songs – one he had written himself and the other the border ballad of ill-fated fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea. He also read a selection of poems from his ‘micro odyssey’ Found at Sea. And, of course, he had a bit of a haver with Liz Lochhead.

 As I waited behind my parents to reach the front of the queue, I realised that Andrew was taking time to speak to his fans. As he signed their books, they proudly told him why they could relate to his poetry about sailing and climbing. It was because they did those things themselves, either that or they knew someone who did. The fact that people were so taken by his work because of how relatable it was became my first question.

“I’m always surprised that people follow me through poetry and fiction and non-fiction,” he confessed, “but I can only think it is that in the end I write about things that are common to all of us: being alive, living in transience where everything you know is going to be lost and taken from you, where people die and get older, how we try to create meaning in our lives, how sometimes we lose it, how sometimes we get it back again. And nearly all my books are adventures of a sort. People relate to (even if it’s just an armchair reader) the adventure of going and climbing a mountain or going on a quest – lots of my books are quests – which is a universal human thing. So, you travel somewhere in an adventure to achieve something but above all to give meaning and drama to your life. Falling in love, that’s a quest, that’s an adventure. So yeah, I think that people do relate to it because of that. I’m very aware more and more that I’m writing about universal, what I like to call, existential stuff – what it is to be an individual human being relating to other people in search of meaning and enjoyment, confronted by loss all the time.”

It was quite a profound answer, and I made a point of telling him so as he sipped his coffee. Though I was slightly taken aback by the depth of his words, it was to be expected really. It was foretold in his poetry, his song and even excerpts from his novel. Through his work, Andrew creates something so human it could almost be an entity in itself. Then something Andrew had said earlier drifted to the front of my mind. He had commented during the session that he had ‘very few ideas’. I asked whether he found a lot of his work took inspiration from what is already written, like the border ballad of fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea.

“I find it really helps when I’ve got what I call a template, some kind of story line of characters given that I’m going to work variations on, like my book The Return of John Macnab, lifted directly from a John Buchan book called John Macnab, so at least when I started writing it I knew I had three characters and they had to do three poaching wagers. That much was given, and after that I could do what I wanted, and that helped. Quite a lot of my books start off from songs, or sometimes poems of my own. I wrote a book When They Lay Bare which was a mixture of a classic border ballad called The Twa Corbies and a poem I wrote about a friend of mine who was a PHD student and lived alone in a cabin in the woods, and those two things put together somehow gave me that. So, you’re right, I very seldom invent out of nothing and I tend to write from places I know quite well like Orkney, like the Himalayas, like the Scottish mountains and small towns. I write a lot about small towns. I’m a small town boy – Anstruther, St Ninians, Queensferry, Stromness – and I like writing about places that have not really appeared in many books before. That’s why I like coming to places like here because this is my size of town and I can totally relate to the people living here. It’s something to do with living in a society where so many people are known to you and you are known to so many people, and you either love that or hate that or sometimes both.” He picked up a shortbread and biting into it.

 I glanced at the plate piled high with those sugary biscuits, debating whether or not to nab one for myself. I decided against it, coming to the conclusion that if I tried interviewing Andrew whilst eating biscuits…well, there was plenty of scope for a disaster. Instead I dragged my gaze away from the temptation and thought about what Andrew had just said. So, really, he did have ideas, he just needed something to spark them. In some ways, writing like that is much harder than writing off the top of your head because your stories have to fit seamlessly into the original script, whether it be a ballad or a historical document. You have to make your version individual, your own, whilst acknowledging what inspired you in the first place. It is something that takes skill, time and patience. As with every story, you can’t expect your words to simply jump from your mind to the page. This means going through draft after draft, aiming to leave yourself with a piece of work that is as good as it can possibly be.

 When I asked Andrew what he thought of BOOKMARK he waxed enthusiastic.

“It’s great! I’m genuinely very pleased, chuffed, to be in on the first one. Liz Lochhead kicked it off last night, a great choice actually. She’s always unfailingly good, I mean she’s the Scottish Makar. We were talking about it last night and we said it’s kind of great being in on the ground floor on the first day of it,” he told me. "People like Liz and myself are asked to do a lot of things and we get quite choosy. And as I say, I’ve got a particular predilection for places that are not cities, that are small, interesting. They’ve got an emotional history for me. The first job I ever I ever did when I left home was in Perth, well, on the river outside of Perth, near Stanley. I used to come up here on my days off on my Vespa 90 and explore up to Glen Clova and Glen Isla. So I always see a field of ghosts of my 17-year-old self when I come up here. So that’s the kind of reason why I said yes. I thought – Blairgowrie? Oh yeah. I know it, like it, it’s my kind of place, I’ll do it. Whereas sometimes you go into bigger places where the audiences are much more sparse, less involved and less enthusiastic. It’s a great audience here, in numbers, in interest. It’s been brilliant. You know when people are into it. The thing about so called ‘out of the way’ places is people come partly because it’s a social occasion. They come to see each other as much as anything else. So if I do Ullapool, Lochinver or Cromarty, it’s a social occasion. People are excited to see each other as well as coming to see you and I like that, whereas if you do a reading in London, you get twenty people and they don’t know each other and they have no intention of knowing each other. So they come along and then they have somewhere else to rush off to and then they go. That’s not what I call a festival, whereas this is a festival.”

The fact Blairgowrie is a town, home to quite a tight-knit community, is something that seemed to appeal to most of the authors I spoke with. The very thing that most teenagers (myself included) complain about – the fact Blairgowrie is too small, the fact it isn’t a city – is actually what draws a lot of people here. When you live in a place like Blair you have a chance to be somebody who is greeted in the street by strangers, and as Andrew said, you are known to people and people are known to you. You don’t have to hurry about your business, stuck in your own little world. You can share experiences like BOOKMARK with your neighbours, your friends, and that is what makes this festival so enjoyable. It’s a community thing, and more importantly a community that is willing to welcome people in.

 I thanked Andrew Greig for his time before he hurried away to sit in on Karen Campbell’s session (I think) and mulled over all he had told me. I gave the biscuits one last regretful look and I was off, ready to listen to Mairi Hedderwick entertain a group of children with Katie Morag’s latest tale…