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Alasdair Gray

Novelist, Poet & Artist

Alasdair Gray (born December 28, 1934) is a Scottish writer and artist. His most acclaimed work is his first novel Lanark, published in 1981, which he wrote over a period of almost 30 years. His works combine elements of realism, fantasy and science fiction, plus clever use of typography and his own illustrations. He has also written on politics, in support of socialism and Scottish independence. He has been described by author Will Self as "a creative polymath with an integrated politico-philosophic vision", and by himself as "a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian".

Alasdair Gray's publications include: Lanark (1981); Unlikely Stories Mostly (1983); 1982, Janine (1984); Lean Tales - with James Kelman and Agnes Owens (1985); Saltire Self Portrait (1986); Five Scottish Artists - An Exhibition Catalogue (1986); Old Negatives (1989); McGrotty And Ludmilla (1990); Something Leather (1990); Why Scots Should Rule Scotland (1992 and 1997); Poor Things (1992); Ten Tales Tall And True (1993); A History Maker (1994); Mavis Belfrage (1996); Songs Of Scotland (1996); Working Legs - A Play For Those Without Them (1997); The Book Of Prefaces (2000); Sixteen Occasional Poems (2000); A Short Survey Of Classic Scottish Writing (2001).

An Interview with Alasdair Gray
by Dee Sunshine (June 2005)

Dee - In the central part of your novel, 'Lanark' there are two books that appear to be largely autobiographical. How much of them is autobiography and how much is fiction? Are we going to see a significantly different story when your biography is published?

Alasdair - a) Books One and Two of 'Lanark' use the mainly miserable bits of my life up to the age of twenty with increasing fiction toward the end - I never was expelled from Art School, starved, consorted with a prostitute, went mad and committed suicide. b) Yes

Dee - Rodge Glass, your assistant and biographer, has made it clear to me that you will not read his biography until it is complete (and even then you may not read it). Are you at all nervous about someone else writing your life story? And are we ever likely to see an autobiography?

Alasdair - a) No. b) Yes, if I'm spared.

Dee - In the immediate post-war era it was unusual for someone from a working class background to go to art school. In your novel 'Lanark' your father is rather pragmatic in his approach to your artistic aspirations, and is only convinced by assurances that there will be a job at the end of it as a teacher. Is this an accurate picture? Assuming it is, it strikes me that there was no obvious nurturing of your creative tendencies as a boy. So, where would you say your creative drive came from?

Alasdair - Your first sentence is wrong. The Butler Acts passed in 1945 gave grants that allowed me to be one of several working class AND middle-class youths to go to universities, art schools etc. Nearly all of us became schoolteachers - even me for a while. Both parents nurtured my interest in art and literature by reading to me from picture books giving me pencils, crayons and paper before I could write and being pleased when I used them. During a spell of unemployment my Dad tried to paint landscapes in watercolour, though hillwalking was his favourite pastime. Both parents were singers - we had a piano my mother used - they took us to opera and the Citizen's Theatre. The working classes contain more literate, cultured folk than the other classes notice, just as many professional and business people prefer golf and horse-racing to classical music, literature etc.

Dee - Your generation was the first to benefit from grant-aided tertiary education, and my generation was the last to benefit from it. Considering the opportunities that student grants opened up, particularly for young people from poorer backgrounds, are you surprised that there wasn't more opposition when the Thatcher government phased out the student grant system? And what do you make of a Labour government that not only doesn't reverse this policy, but also makes students pay fees on top of all their other expenses?

Alasdair - I wasn't surprised because the students had hardly any responsible adults and no opposition politicians who announced they would restore the grants when returned to power. In other words, the Labour Party was conniving with the Tories even then.

Dee - Back in the 'bad old days' of Thatcher and Major it would have been hard to foresee the day when Labour would win three elections in a row, but had I been able to foresee it I'd have anticipated greater changes over the last 8 years. Personally, I couldn't be more disillusioned with this Labour government. So, what's your opinion of Tony Blair? Is he a pragmatic, realistic leader in these global capitalist times? Or is he a Tory mole who's infiltrated and destroyed the Labour Party? What would you say to Tony if you met him?

Alasdair - a) Blair, like Thatcher, has the brazen assurance of someone who knows he speaks for the stock exchanges of Britain and the USA - what Jonathan Swift called 'the moneyed interest'. b) There is no point in someone with no earthly power speaking to a politician who has some.

Dee - In 'Lanark' there are many references to your Socialist beliefs, but none is more charming that the Billy Liar-esque fantasy utopia that Thaw dreamed up when he was young. Contrast that to the intellectual kicking that Lanark is given by Lord Monboddo towards the end of the book and there are few illusions left. Is this a reflection of your own journey? Are you totally disillusioned, or is there a sneaky wee optimist still whispering sweet nothings in your ear? Is there hope for the human race? Can we evolve into gentler, more caring beings, both individually and en-masse?

Alasdair - I know that nations can improve themselves through Socialism because the wartime coalition government did exactly that, and the National Health Service has not been totally dismantled yet. It may take another disaster on the World War Two scale to make many people co-operate socially to pull themselves out of the shit. Competitive exploitation is building up.

Dee - When you were a student, scribbling away in your notebooks, working on what would eventually be published as 'Lanark' twenty years later, did you ever imagine you would become a famous author, with your own personal assistant and biographer? And if you did imagine this, did you actually believe it would come about, or were you plagued with self-doubt?

Alasdair - No. I thought it likely that 'Lanark' would survive my death but was not sure of being economically comfortable before it. My parents were right to warn me that in Scotland it was almost impossible for someone without inherited money to concentrate on their art.

Dee - A friend of mine relates that the first time he saw your novel 'Lanark' in a bookstore he passed it by, as he thought it was probably a guide to the town, Lanark. It is quite a strange title for a novel, and a stranger name for a character. Why Lanark? Is it significant that you chose Lanark and not, say Bothwell or Larkhall?

Alasdair - I wanted a hero's out of the way Scottish name without Mac in it. At first I called him Cumbernauld but felt it too cumbersome.

Dee - Of all your novels, '1982 Janine' is probably the most controversial, with its prolonged sadomasochist fantasy sequences. What do you have to say to those who, at the time of its publication, accused you of being a misogynist? And do you feel vindicated by Laura Hird's declaration in The List (Issue 523, June 2005) that she became 'utterly obsessed with the book, reading it more than a dozen times in succession, convinced (she) would never read something so perfect again'?

Alasdair - I have nothing to say against what anybody says against my work. I don't want to silence them. I'm glad when my work is praised, especially by women.

Dee - Which of your novels do you consider to be the most accomplished?

Alasdair - '1982, Janine'

Dee - Can you tell me a little bit about your forthcoming books, 'A Life In Pictures' and 'Three Men In Love'?

Alasdair - No, it would take too long.

Dee - You recently celebrated your 70th birthday and you have had some problems with your health, but it sounds like you are busier than ever, from what Rodge Glass said in his interview with me. Will you still be scrambling up scaffolding, painting murals when you are 90? Do you think you'll be working until you draw your last breath?

Alasdair - I don't know but hope so.

Dee - Which novel do you consider to be the greatest ever written? And why?

Alasdair - 'War and Peace'. Ask anyone else who agrees with me. A lot do.

Dee - Have you got an all time favourite painting or painter?

Alasdair - No. But Blake taught me most.

Dee - And finally, what advice would you give to a young man or woman if they told you they wanted to be a writer?

Alasdair - They should acquire a place with one room where they could live and as many as possible that they could sub-let. Thus getting a small steady income.


“The Star” (A short story by Alasdair Gray)
The Official Alasdair Gray Website
Lanark 1982: An Unofficial Alasdair Gray Website
Alasdair Gray's biography
Alasdair Gray’s Personal CV
Alasdair Gray’s Books
Will Self on Alasdair Gray
Alasdair Gray interviewed by Laura Hird
Other Alasdair Gray Links

© Dee Sunshine & Alasdair Gray, 2005.

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