BEFORE THE BREAK
Hugo McEwen, whose second novel The Witching Stone is published this month, talks to Sue Wilson about his hermit-like dedication to his cratt.
‘Writing has always been the big obsession in my lite; I’ve been very focused on it since I was about eighteen, when I wrote my tirst book, during my year olt. Getting it published was much easierthan it should have been —a lriend gave it to an agent in London, and the agent gave it to a publisher, who published it- I thought the whole thing was a doddle; it wasn’t until I was 21 or 22 that I started to realise it was a bit more complicated.
‘Then I was at St Andrews University, doing history, and alter I'd linishedl just bummed around for a while, then sat down and started writing the second novel, which took me the best part at live years. I’ve really geared my whole lite so that I can write lull-time. I live right out in the middle ol nowhere, in Ayrshire, living as close to the breadline as is possible to live, much, much more cheaply than you could ever live in a city. I've done a bit at journalism when I’ve been really desperate, but I don‘t leel I'm very good at it, and also I just leel like a lraud -there are people who do it as their job, and I leel that when you go in there and get paid lor the odd bit 01 work, you’re taking money Irom someone who deserves it more. But I have almost no outgoings, so I can pass it by my bank manager tor a while, and it at the end ol the while I throw a book at him, that keeps. him quiet tor a bit longer.
‘l’ve got an enormous determination to build mysell a sort 01 solid platform, somewhere to stand so I can take a breath and look around; I don’t leel I‘ve done that yet, and until I have, nothing’s going to change — I've sort ol written mysell into a corner; until I can make some money, or make a name, or make something, I'm where lam, I can't really move. In the long term, I’d just like to keep doing it, and at some point to break even. But I can't see mysell ever wanting to do more than write books-the perlect thing would be to pare everything down so that I didn’t have to do anything else.‘
I I The Laughing Playmate: Scottish
Short Stories 1992 edited by Brian McCabc (HarperCollins £14.99 h/b: £5.99 p/b) The twentieth annual Scottish Arts Council-sponsored volume is one of those books you want to be good but sadly. the overall
I Curriculum Vitae Muriel Spark (Constable. £14.95) In one of Sparks best short stories. set during World War II and based. as this delightful memoir reveals. on an actual incident. her narrator says, ‘l believed. in those days. that truth is stranger than fiction.’ with the clear implication of youthful erroneousness. Clearly. Edinburgh‘s favourite literary daughter has decided that some truths. at least. are strange enough to write about. if only to counter some of the more bizarre fictions others have created about her.
Opening with an impressionistic section on her happy Bruntsfield childhood. during which she began to hone her pen. winning poetry competitions left. right and centre. this volume follows Spark‘s career until the publication of her first novel. passing through her unhappy marriage in Africa — her ‘darkest years‘ — her war work for the Foreign Utnce. and her turbulent spell as
I They Came From SW19 Nich Williams (Faber & Faber. £14.99) Unappealing. Adrian Mole-esque adolescent Simon Britton attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of his father and the disappearance ofhis friend Mr Marr. His investigation is hampered not only by his witlcss mother and her eccentric spiritualist friends. but also by his own conviction that the solution lies with extra-terrestials
impression gleaned from these twenty offerings is of a pretty undistinguished collection. A few contributions stand out — Janet Paisley‘s short, intense account, in Scots, ofa disappointed. middle-aged man‘s disastrous mistake. Georgina Mclntosh’s choppy. funny. bittersweet description of a woman‘s experiences on a psychiatric ward. Esther Woolfson's thoughtful study ofa sensitive fifteen-year-old‘s struggle to survive at a brutalising boys‘ school in pre-independence Zimbabwe. But all too many of the authors tackle hackneyed subjects using hackneyed language - there‘s a
l . lazy.s|oppy feeltomuchofthe
work. Perhaps it‘s due in part to the open submission policy — if we want a ‘showcase‘ volume of new Scottish writing. would it not be better to cull it. as other collections do. from literary magazines, where space is harder-earned? (Sue Wilson)
Secretary of the Poetry Society. Though never really delving into her emotional or psychological motivations. this is a wonderfully vivid self-portrait in terms of the atmosphere Spark experienced and created around her. written with characteristically incisive elegance and wit. (Sue Wilson)
who have taken residence in Wimbledon.
It‘s hard to tell which market the author is aiming for with this rather predictable novel: fourteen-year-old boys would probably enjoy the anti-parent philosophy and the dialectic on the joys of self-abuse. but perhaps this theme has had its day. Williams has lost none of his wit or masterly narrative skills, but here he lacks the depth and singularity characteristic of his other work. (Charlie Llewellyn)
Bodybuilder Sam Fussell (Abacus, £5.99) A shy. sensitive and scrawny English Lit graduate. traumatised by life in the Big Apple. starts working out in the Y. the start ofa nightmarish. though hilariously recounted odyssey into the world of 'health fascists and gym bunnies'. steroids and supplements in pursuit ofthat all important ‘condom filled with walnuts’ look.
I Not the End at the World Rebecca Stowe (Virago. £5.99) Sensitive first novel. narrated by a twelve-year-old girl struggling to understand why she is constantly unhappy and in trouble. despite an ostensibly happy background. The ending comes as no surprise. but Stowe pulls off the difficult feat of creating a convincing adolescent voice with considerable finesse and quirky humour.
I The White Bird Passes Jessie Kesson (Virago £5.99) Classic tale of a Scottish childhood in the slums of a Highland city. spent listening to gossips at the close mouth and dodging the Cruelty Inspector. Kesson‘s outstanding achievement is to convey the flavour and exuberance ofbackstreet life and the enchantmcnt it holds for a child. without any hint of sentimentalisation.
I The Hive Camilo Jose Cela (Sceptre. £5.99) The Nobel Prize-winner's best-known book is a savage and rather impenetrable portrayal of life in post-Civil War Madrid. The myriad characters who people the cafes and city squares turn out to be connected by a web of procuring. string-pulling and deceit. while the city as a whole is enveloped in a cloud of world-weariness and cynicism.
I Lost Futures Lisa Tuttle (Grafton £4.99) An intriguing mixture of psychology and sci-fi, this tells ofan unhappy thirtysomething accountant. suddenly taken over by visions of the other selves she could have been. Cleverly constructed. so that the reader. like the central character. does not know until the end which life is ‘real‘ and which are only lost possibilities. (Frances Cornford)
I Launch ol Hugh Macoiarmld‘s Complete Works Waterstone's. 83 George Street. 225 3436. Fri 7. 7.30pm. A panel of
Scottish literati. chaired by Iain Crichton Smith. will gather to mark the publication. in MacDiarmid‘s centenary year. of his Selected Poems and Selected Prose (both Carcanet. £18.95). the first two books in a projected twelve-volume collection of the great man‘s total output.
I Lindsey Davis James Thin. 53—59 South Bridge. 556 6743. Wed 12, 7pm. The author of the popular mystery series featuring Roman detective Marcus Didius Falco will be reading from and signing copies of her two latest novels, Venus in Copper (Arrow, £4.99) and The Iron Hand ofMars (Hutchinson. £13.99).
54'l'he LN 31 Jul} l3 .'\llgll\l I‘M: