By NEIL RIDDELL
“WE ARE who we are because we grew up the Stornoway way. We do not live in the back of beyond, we live in the very heart of beyond,” notes R. Stornoway, the drink-addled misfit and hero of the debut novel by acclaimed Scottish writer Kevin MacNeil, who is now living and working in Shetland.
It is a sentiment which will ring true with many from these parts and the shared kinship may go some way to explaining why MacNeil, 36, chose to move here three months ago to work on completing the follow-up to his 2005 bestseller The Stornoway Way, having previously made brief visits to the isles for the Wordplay festival last September and again in February for a month-long residency at the Booth in Scalloway.
A writer in the widest possible sense, it is not for the first time that he finds himself juggling a host of different projects, each at various stages of completion. Among them is writing a script for a new comedy play, his second novel, a mooted big screen version of The Stornoway Way and an album he has now completed with fellow Lewis man and friend William Campbell. He has rented a cottage at Aithsetter, Cunningsburgh which he hopes will provide the seclusion and inspiration he needs to bring some of those works to fruition.
MacNeil has already hosted several workshops in Shetland and has agreed to teach night classes in writing over the coming winter, having identified more writers brimming with untapped potential here than anywhere he has encountered to date – this from a man who has done residencies, workshops and readings in a range of places across Europe, including Bavaria in southern Germany, Uppsala University in Sweden, Malta and, closer to home, in Edinburgh, Stornoway and Skye.
“So many people have novels started and then they just lie in drawers collecting dust,” he says. “It’s my own belief that anybody can become a writer if they are dedicated enough and I love the idea of giving back to literature, because literature has been kind to me.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in an island community where there’s so many talented, or up-and-coming, or simply motivated writers per head of population. I think a lot of the people here – and I’m talking about both indigenous and incoming writers – deserve to be more widely known.”
Though voicing a deep admiration and respect for the work of writers like Robert Alan Jamieson and John Graham, he accepts that while Orkney can boast of George Mackay Brown and citizens of Lewis can point to Iain Crichton Smith, the great Shetland novelist on a wider stage has yet to emerge and that he hopes to be able to help unearth such a figure.
“I’m hoping that person is going to appear shortly,” he says. “There’s no reason to believe that person isn’t alive and breathing in Shetland right now, whether or not they’re even writing yet. I would love to see the great Shetland novelist emerging imminently.”
MacNeil, a humble, down-to-earth man whose modest upbringing – his father was a taxi driver and his mother a housewife – appears to have served him well, first sprung to literary fame in the mid-1990s when he was approached by publishers Canongate, who asked him for a manuscript. The end result was Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides, a collection of poetry for which he won the prestigious Tivoli Europa Giovani prize. In 2005 came the unanticipated breakthrough success of The Stornoway Way, which met with waves of critical acclaim.
The novel is largely focused, often to hilariously inventive effect, on the darker side of living in a small island community and there are passages in the book which will be familiar to many a Shetlander.
It is a far cry from the airbrushed tourist brochure version of what isolated rocks in the Hebrides and Northern Isles are like, with the story tackling the boredom young people encounter and the drive to drink and often alcoholism which habitually blights such places as a consequence. It seems to capture the essence of what it is like to love, and simultaneously loathe, being born and brought up on a small, windswept island in the middle of the ocean.
It is a powerful piece of work, heart-wrenching in places; his comic elàn aside, the novel’s main protagonist is hell-bent on drinking himself to an early grave. But the bleak territory of the book is offset by an intuitive, wicked sense of humour and some terrific imagery. One man’s ex-wife is a “fine doorful of a woman”, while Lewis (a “bleak weatherfucked rock in the Atlantic”) is damned with some brutal descriptive turns. “That ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes’ crap the tourist industry likes to preach just doesn’t work,” writes the narrator. “A guy has to face it – life in Lewis is composed of days that are mostly B sides.”
While some people may have been offended at the version of Lewis he chose to portray, MacNeil says that he did not set out to write the definitive book on Stornoway. “The fact that there’s all these glossy, naïve, romantic images of places like Lewis and Shetland – maybe occasionally you need to counterbalance that with a little dose of reality. You know if you live somewhere . . . that it’s not a picture-perfect place, nowhere is, so sometimes the idyllic fictional view of a place needs to be tempered with a more realistic, if still fictional, sense of a place.”
As warm, friendly and approachable as the Shetlanders he says have welcomed him so wholeheartedly since his arrival in May, MacNeil detests the at-times patronising and condescending tone some writers adopt when the subject matter is a small community which they do not fully understand and says that, even as a guest, he wouldn’t feel qualified to write about Shetland.
“I’ve very aware of publishing perceptions of a place; of the difference between insiders’ and outsiders’ perspectives,” he says. “I love the people and I love the place. I do feel like I owe Shetland something and I owe it something good”, adding that he hopes the night classes will be a small way of giving something back for the kindness people have shown. He is planning to stay for some time: “I’d like to be here for at least a year, maybe forever, who knows . . .”
Although he is still regularly invited to do readings elsewhere, including one at the Edinburgh Book Festival earlier this week, MacNeil’s main purpose in coming here is to find the time and space to further develop his own art, to spend his time writing rather than being a writer.
He accepts that the creative process that leads to making a film will be a lengthy undertaking but it is clearly a prospect which excites him, and he is obviously keen to see the film made in a way that stays faithful to the book.
He promises that the follow-up novel, Singing for the Blue Men, will be a radical departure with more of an international focus. The author describes it as “a very unconventional love story with a natural disaster” and thinks it will emerge as the best piece of work he has ever written. Conscious that three years have now passed since The Stornoway Way, he is keen to have it completed soon and is finding his new home a “wonderfully inspiring” place to work.
“I’m the kind of writer for whom every piece of work I do is completely different to what I’ve done before. I’m not mentioning names here, but there are writers who write a book, it’s a success and they spend the rest of their career more or less rewriting the same book, often with the same character – might be a detective or what not . . . there are people who do that and make millions, and good luck to them, I’m not criticising them for doing it. But I’ve never had much money, so I don’t miss it – you can’t put a value on integrity. To me, the reason I write is almost for posterity. My ambition is to create a bookshelf of work that will last longer than I will.”
He has also made a start to filling a CD rack with his collaboration with Campbell. The pair first worked together three years ago when they released the superb single Local Man Ruins Everything, a minimalist acoustic number with MacNeil’s soft spoken word narration and a soothing chorus from Campbell, who was once frontman of the now-defunct Scottish guitar pop outfit Astrid. The success of the track took him completely by surprise, as it garnered single of the week accolades in The Guardian, The List and on Steve Lamacq’s BBC radio show.
The pair have now taken that winning formula and recorded an eight-song album which should see the light of day soon. He recognises an increasing degree of crossover between the literary and musical worlds, as seen with the 2006 Ballads of the Book project, where a host of Scottish songwriters teamed up with writers and poets for an album of unlikely alliances.
“Maybe people are waking up to the fact that a lot of bands just don’t write very good lyrics – why not combine people whose job it is to write well with people whose job it is to write music? It makes sense and it’s exciting,” he says.
He describes the album as a “dream fulfilled” with Campbell providing the instrumentation for every song, as well as singing the choruses, and MacNeil writing the lyrics.
“We’re really proud. We wrote eight really, really great tracks that we’re proud of rather than 17 or 18 – a lot of albums these days seem to have umpteen tracks as if the more there are the better, but I think it works the other way around.”
Life as a full-time writer seems to suit him well – MacNeil confesses the haphazard structure of the writer’s day-to-day existence means he often has no idea what day of the week it is and admits it is a luxury which he is extremely fortunate to have, but points out that he has had to make many sacrifices too.
“I’ve been lucky, but I’ve paid the price – I’m single, I don’t have kids . . . my days are a combination of meditating, reading, writing, cycling, and hopefully seeing or at least being in some kind of contact with some friends, but I live quite a sedate life.”
The self-conscious streak in him means he occasionally feels bad at not having chosen a more conventional means of making a living – until he began winning awards for his writing, his parents would tell him to “get a proper job”.
I sometimes feel the guilt of being somebody who sits down, half the time just sitting there, even staring out of the window from time to time, unavoidable in Shetland with the beauty of the landscape, then I get up and make my 100th cup of coffee . . . thank goodness there are people in the world who get up in the morning and dig holes, fix roads, and drive buses.”
Now that he has reached his mid-30s, MacNeil says his last remaining vice is coffee now that he has left behind any days of excess and sporadic moments of self destruction.
“I did have occasional sort of Jack Kerouac phases and I don’t do any of that now. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t take drugs or anything like that.
I live a very pure kind of life now.”
He compares people who take drugs in order to enhance their writing to athletes who take steroids to enhance their own performance.
“The imagination is itself like a muscle, the more you exercise it the more efficient it becomes, I don’t think there’s any replacement for solid hard work.”
And he is sure he has found the right place to carry on working hard: “If you can’t write in Shetland, a place with such inspiration round about you, you can’t write anywhere. It reminds me of Lewis, but [at the same time] it doesn’t, and I’m really intrigued at the differences.
“I think all small islands have something in common, a sense of identity, a sense of perceived uniqueness. I find the scenery, the landscapes, the seascapes, the nature round about very, very inspiring and I feel very much at peace here.”