Scottish Novelist Alasdair Gray on Old Men in Love--All This Week on Omnivoracious
Alasdair Gray has been one of my favorite novelists since I read Poor Things many years ago, followed by Lanark, both of which are considered classics. Among the best Scottish writers of the past fifty years, Gray always refreshingly original--there's simply no one like him. In addition to addressing social concerns through a brilliant sense of humor and a deeply empathetic sense of character, his work often contains typographical innovations to convey character thoughts, or to show two strands of narrative at once. He also is an accomplished artist who includes portraits of his characters and other illustrations. Rather than making Gray seem formally experimental, these approaches imbue the fiction with additional layers of complexity. They are always put in the service of interesting characters and situations.
Building on these approaches, Gray's new novel, Old Men in Love, is a mash-up of several different voices, creating a narrative through collage. The main text is presented as the posthumous papers of a retired Glaswegian schoolmaster named John Tunnock, seemingly edited by Gray. Tunnock's a rogue whose exploits often backfire on him, and the novel contains everything from historical fictions set in Renaissance Italy to accounts of how his young mistresses take advantage of him.
This week we'll not only be talking about Old Men in Love, but also exploring some of Gray's earlier fiction, to celebrate the US release of what Gray is calling his last novel. (Hopefully not.)
To start things off, I interviewed Gray by email, about, among other topics, Very and Not Very...
Amazon.com: Is “Old Men in Love” as a title speaking truth about the novel or just a gimmick to make people pick it up?
Alasdair Gray: The novel combines 4 stories about the love lives of 4 old men.
Amazon.com: Your fiction is always presented with your artwork and design. Is it important to have portraits, for example, sketched out before you write much about the character, or does that come after?
Alasdair Gray: I Illustrate and decorate my novel after writing it, but get them printed in a book's preliminary pages as a way of attracting and preparing the reader for what lies ahead.
Amazon.com: One thing I remember about the cover of Poor Things that made me want to pick it up--the review excerpts were divided into “Very” and “Not Very”, and both positive and negative quotes were included. I assume this was your idea. What did your publisher think of it, and how do you perceive your relationship with reviewers?
Alasdair Gray: Yes, the idea of combining friendly with antagonistic reviews was my idea. I wanted it because I dislike the predictability with which publishers' blurbs pretend their every author is the greatest thing since the invention of pre-sliced bread. Bloomsbury and Canongate accept my deviations from that practice because they know readers and critics expect it. My relationship with the few reviewers I have met or corresponded with are perfectly friendly. Of course I prefer to have my work denounced when received with an air of faint bordem.
Amazon.com: Your characters tend to be people you want to read about, but only sometimes people you’d want to actually have lunch with. How have readers respond to Tunnock? Do they tend to want to link the author to the character, or…?
Alasdair Gray: I do not know. The only people I meet and talk with are those I have known for years. Helen Lloyd has been my secretary since 2005 when I began work on the book and says she notices similarities between me and Tunnock and also differences. I suppose the main difference is that I am a faithful married man and not interested in very young women.
Amazon.com: Would you care to give readers a hint of what’s been redacted on page 255? There’s quite a bit of asterisking and this note: “As editor I have been obliged to omit several of Tunnock’s remarks that I have been advised would make me actionable at law.”
Alasdair Gray: In that note I spoke of Harold Wilson, a Labour Prime Minister, whose secretary was enriched through property deals made through knowledge obtained by working for him. On being criticized for this in the House of Commons he responded by getting a Peerage for her. This delighted his leading Tory opponents who hailed this as "an 18th century" answer to his critics--by 18th century they meant "corrupt". I spoke of how this corruption was now widespread and accepted in British political life, mentioning also how the Thatcher family and Thatcher cabinet had been enriched by illegal arms deals with Saddam Hussain and others who they pretended were their enemies.
Amazon.com: The Book of Prefaces is one of my favorites of all time. Do you have any plans for more nonfiction projects? And can you tell us about the art book that’s forthcoming.
Alasdair Gray: I would like to bring out a book called Scottish Studies combining old and new essays about the state of my own nation. In October this year Canongate is publishing a big picture book called A Life in Pictures with a detailed autopictorial text, and Two Ravens Press is publishing my collected verse.
More from and about Gray on Wednesday and Thursday...