Friday, August 28, 2015

The Crime Scene

30th August 2015

Since I have been going on at length about the machinations of the writing life, I thought I'd share a picture of the place where it all goes down. This is my study, a nice study, I have to admit, but just remember that before this space was added on to my house, I wrote several novels in the broom cupboard under the stairs. So I deserve it. I even fengshui-ed it.



So, let me describe it. In the foreground (top right), if you look carefully, hangs a wooden seagull. I'm always off in my mind to the country of my childhood, where this sea bird's cry is simply the background against which everything else takes place. 
Out of view behind the chair is a big-breasted statue of the Buddha's mother. What looks like a boom mic hanging from the ceiling over my desk is a bundle of lucky feathers and other amulets, because I am extremely superstitious. It's worked so far! All along the right-hand wall are pictures, of family and a signed poster of Braveheart. Next to Mel is a picture of John Steinbeck with his dog Charlie. Heroes all.


There's an alcove on the far left with a writing desk, though I rarely sit there and it's mostly a place to put things that don't belong anywhere else. 
Moving further up the left wall, there's a table on which sits a replica of the 12th C Lewis Chessmen, and a couple of browned photographs of my great grandmother Rebecca (aptly named Brown) and her husband in WW1 uniform.
So that's my creative space mapped out in 3D. I only have to step into it to feel different. It's my version of Mozart's billiard table  (at least as it was portrayed in Amadeus.) This is my Holy of Holies. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Slightly Dark LIfe of a Writer

21st August 2015

I am always waxing lyrical on this blog about heavy stuff, mostly because that's what keeps me up at night: Scotland, the state of the universe, the state of book publishing and where I fit into that. So I thought this week I'd lighten up (I'm a writer, so I have to be reminded to do this - especially when someone asks me how I am doing, and I take that for a real question.)
There's a lot of mythology surrounding the life of a writer. A lot of it has to do with whisky, which is just so much posturing, if you ask me. You can't write good literature if sozzled. You just can't. A lot of it has to do with living up to that reaction you get when you tell someone you have a published book.


But it's all bubbles.
Here's the reality of being a writer. The first thing is bums on chairs: every day, same time, and it isn't always going to look like you're actually doing anything. Ask my husband. Writing is sort of like the universe: only 5% of it is stuff and the rest is either dark energy or dark  matter.
The next thing is that you are incredibly difficult to live with. Ask my husband. If you're engaged in writing something long like a novel, you can't really discuss it, for fear it sends the muse scurrying off. But the pressure of holding all this in looks something like my pressure cooker when I get distracted, as I often do (because I am a writer), and forget to turn the heat down.


Not writing may be even worse: you're like a bicyclist in the  Tour De France that someone has accidentally locked in the toilet.


Well, that's about as light as I get. Just be glad you're not married to me.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Ghost in the machine.

14th August 2015

Almost as many Russians read this blog as do English-speaking readers. Russians love our bard Robert Burns and have some kind of a fascination for Scotland and its literary output. In fact. no matter how spurious their system of government, that country has never suffered from a lack of enthusiasm when it comes to the arts: it has often been pointed out that although you have to knock westerners over the head and abduct them to poetry readings, Russians will queue around the block.


Could you imagine that in this country? If you see a queue around the block in the West, it is either for the latest toy or the latest blockbuster movie. Sometimes, people will queue for books, but only if it is a bestseller. The publishing industry's wet-dream.
Western society, lacking almost anything else to gravitate towards lists towards the blockbuster and the bestseller.  It has entirely lost sight of the reality that literature should say something beneath the story. I read Goldfinch. Bestseller. Pretty good (if a little unbelievable - says she who writes about time travel!) but not much there beyond the action. It's like the first wash became the painting. America in particular is drawn to this kind of cult - look at Donald Trump polling at 25%. Is there anything there beyond money and hot air?
Not that I move in Hollywood circles, but I hear that everyone you meet in LA is sort of in a blockbuster trance. Ironically, someone like Amy Shummer who finally comes along and bucks the system, questions the role of women in the movie making machinery,  becomes a starlet of the cult herself. Her photo-shopped pictures start appearing on-line and in magazines.
The publishing industry, too, has been taken over by commercial enterprise and sits in wait for the next big thing. It has been asked many times, but it's worth doing so again: which of the late and great writers would be published today? Grapes Of Wrath? Not a chance. Any of DH Lawrence or James Joyce (Ulysees? Give me a break.) Ernest Hemmingway suffered from and played to cult status, but even he wouldn't be put into print in the current climate.
Since Amazon got into the publishing business, it has its own best seller list. The banner of bestseller has been flown until the whole notion has become frayed and faded, nothing more than a ghost.


Anyway, if I weren't sitting in literary limbo myself, I might not be beating this drum. I actually prefer the company of ghosts. But these are sinister ghosts, not good ones. They mess with your mind and rob the soul. Our collective soul. And soul is something here in the West we have so little of.



Friday, August 7, 2015

Finding Yourself at the Scottish Games

7th August 2015

I was dressed up in a tartan frock handing out my business cards and postcards for my book at the Colorado Scottish Games, feeling a little silly, gasping for a cup of tea. Although it is true that Americans of Scottish descent are willing to toss the caber and dance a Highland fling, they mostly shuffle away from haggis and don't ever gasp for a cuppa. At Highland Games in Scotland there is always a tea tent with empire biscuits (woops - just realised the significance of that little piece of confection!) and scones and  millionaire shortbread. And a team of older ladies sporting pinnies and perms who natter between themselves as they pour endless cups of tea, and none of your foofy flavours either, just plain tea like you get in Scotland and don't have to be asked what kind. Tea. Tetleys. PG Tips. Co-op. At these games there was not a cup of tea in sight.


But men in kilts there were aplenty, clan tents, even a McDougall tent. It's all authentic Scottish filtered down through America. It's highland dancers with big smiles, and bagpipers chewing gum. It's hot sweaty weather instead of drizzle. I won't say it's all a bit Disney. I happen to enjoy Disney, and I enjoy American Scottish games, too. I was just walking around in my tartan, not a thing I would do in Scotland, wondering what it was all about?



Well, you don't have to think too long. It's all about identity, silly. Everyone hankers after it, including myself. From one end of the earth to the other, everyone feels the need to belong. We're a clannish species and work better in small groups. If you share a little DNA, it helps. If you wear the same tartan, you're half-way there. And if you drink tea by the gallon and relish a plate of haggis, neeps and tatties, you can be sure where you really belong.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Scotland's Tidal Swell


History shows that reclaiming a nation's identity inevitably gives rise to a wave of cultural revival. This is because "incorporated" nations are held in that position partly by suppressing their artistic output, their songs and instruments and tradition, their books. And their history is not taught in their schools, as was the case in Scotland until recently when the new parliament was established.  This kind of thing happened in America with the native populations. It happens wherever colonies are set up. It happened in Ireland and Lithuania, and it happened in India.
Joyce's Ulysses was published the very year of Irish independence, and he was in good company in that groundswell of new theatre and literature that included WB Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Bernard Shaw, to name a few. Independence in India was also accompanied by a revival in the arts, giving the world writers such as VS Naipaul, Narayan, Arundhati Roy, Desai. Both Ireland and India have become known for their literary output.
The first thing Lithuania did on its road to independence was to establish its own press. Scotland has but one main press, which although founded on the principle of supporting Scottish literature, has more of a global bent these days. There are a handful of smaller presses doing what they can to pick up the slack, but they are Davids in the face of London Goliaths.


So, here's a call to the Scottish government to build an armature to support this gathering wave of the arts, by creating a Scottish press and fostering a fertile soil where the artists and artists-to-be of Scotland can flourish. It should make sure the wee boys and girls in Scottish schools are steeped in their own history, are encouraged to write poetry, sing songs, paint, let their story out.
It's not a manufactured sense of nationalism, as Nazism was and as the overlords and conservative media always try to make it seem. It's the beating heart that was stopped for all those centuries but is now thumping again. I'm not writing books to that end - it's just what's coming out, because I grew up on the silent heart of Scotland and now my writing naturally strains towards the beating drum. I know I am not the only one.


Totalitarianism can be imposed from within, as it was by feudalism and by communism, or from without as it is in colonialism. But you can stifle the voice of a nation for only so long, and then come the Solzhenitsyns,  the Lixiongs and Tserings, the Joyces, the Yeats and the Rushdies, all trying to give a voice to a throat that has been cut. It's the nature of art to do this, not because it is political, but because it is the beating heart of any people, and sooner or later it is going to be heard.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Mature Scotch

24th July 2015

"Lots of men looking to meet a mature woman." I keep getting this email from dating agencies that I have never subscribed to. They must have figured out my particulars from the kind of hits I make on Yahoo News or something. They must have noticed that I never click on new dresses sported by Kate Middleton or anything at all to do with the Kardashians. They have figured out that I am so past it, I won't mind being called "mature." Like an old whisky. Lots of men are looking for whisky, so why not an aged woman?
I'm not aged, of course, though I might be before this publishing business spews me out on the other side. The picture on the back of my bestseller could well be of a grey-haired, terminally wrinkled, version of myself.


Claire McDougall the geriatric who writes of life and love on Scottish shores from her wheelchair. Get your copy now! Well I promise to dispense with the spaghetti straps before I come to this. I promise to wear a wig.
The lady who owns the bookshop in the town closest to where I grew up says my books are too expensive for her to stock. She says she has to sell them at a loss. Scotland, it seems, is not reverberating with the joys of my debut book. It doesn't really even know it's there. "It's hard for Scottish authors and publishers to get their books in book shops," says a woman from Scottish Publishing.com.
So I left Scotland with my shoulders slumped, my hands dragging palms-up like a cartoon character in an advanced stage of despair. I felt unloved by my beloved country.
But I am not one to go gently.  You can't keep a good woman in spaghetti straps down.


Back in my office every early morning, I am churning out the next new thing and singing, I Can Go the Distance! I can't read the future in my cup of tea, wish I could - but I do know this publishing business takes the heart of a Hercules.



Friday, July 17, 2015

The Scottish Homeland

17th July 2015

Someone asked me recently at the close of my week in Scotland how I felt about leaving. Truth is, it is always a gut-wrench, but I'm not sure what exactly that has to do with. I don't use the term lightly, either. There is a distinct sensation of being torn inside as my rental car pulls me for the last time away from the sights I love and carries me off to the airport. Some part of me stops here and won't re-awaken until I am back in another rental car driving up from Glasgow, stopping for tea in the kind of tea shops I write about or dream about, just very ordinary tea shops. But they belong to this place as I do.


And during that future trip I will climb Dunadd again, I will wander around the Kilmartin Museum and drive someone else to the cottage on the shore that I fantasise about living in. I will wonder, as I always do, if it will ever happen and wonder if I could come back.



At customs in USA, I show my green card and they take my fingerprints because they know I am not one of them. I could apply for citizenship and it would be granted. But something has always held me back.  I live in this amazing place called Aspen, home to world renowned scenery, and world class theatre and music. It is such a privilege to live here, and yet - what about that part of me still slumbering in Argyll? Aspen is gorgeous, but it doesn't live in me. I am an outsider here, both culturally and because I don't bleed for this place. No gut-wrench.
I'm not the first to experience this double-edged life. I can barely think of a writer who lived in the place they grew up in and kept writing about it. It takes a certain severe longing to motivate that pen, and that's why I have to wonder about moving back to Scotland - would I ever write again? And would it matter?