All Dunn in
Best known for his poetry, Douglas Dunn looks set to establish himself one of Scotland’s finest short story writers. Sue Wilson talked to him about his new collection Boyfriends and Girlfriends.
Feeling jaded by the scabrous ditty realism of Irvine Welsh? Kelman's acerbic bleakness getting you down? Fora taste of a kinder. gentler voice in contemporary Scottish letters. you could do worse than Douglas Dunn‘s new short-story collection. Boyfriends and Girlfriends. Fifteen quiet. unassuming tales tell mostly of life in Scottish small towns and villages. places that. in Dunn‘s words. ‘are minor. perhaps. but where more of the world lives than the headlines and passions of history would have us believe'.
lt‘s Dunn‘s second volume of stories. in a career better known for its poetic productivity nine collections to date. including [z'legies written on the death of his ﬁrst wife. which won the l985 Whitbread Book of the Year Award. Although between the poetry and his job as Professor of English at St Andrews University you might think Dunn‘s time and mental energies more than accounted for. the stories keep emerging — gradually. (some of those in Boyfriends and Girlfriends were written more than ten years ago). but apparently steadily. and without prior deliberation. ‘I don‘t decide beforehand which form I'm going to use.’ Dunn says. ‘Sometimes you start writing something and it's a poem. and sometimes it‘s a story: you learn in yourself how to tell the difference between one motivation and another.‘
He does. however. retain a particular affection for the short story form. ‘lt represents a tradition of writing that has never really been under any kind of pressure. it‘s never suffered from the kind of self- consciousness that poetry and the novel have,‘ he
Douglas Dunn: prefers the short story form
3 explains. ‘I think it‘s a vulnerable tradition. in that i it‘s always been regarded as a slightly marginal form, 3 but it’s an unembarrassed tradition. a very natural ; tradition of writing, because it has its roots in community. in spoken story-telling or tale-bearing. and I'm very interested in that kind of thing.’
And it‘s in the kind of community where at least the vestiges of such older communication networks 3 survive. the kind bound together by ties of custom , and familiarity that have long been snapped in cities. l that Dunn‘s stories are often set; sometimes in the : present. sometimes 30—50 years ago. Communities
where the progress of a war-widow’s love affairs ﬁlters through to a young boy. despite his elders‘ overt disapproving silence, via a discreet but highly efﬁcient grapevine; where the arrival in the local school of a boy from another part of the country creates a ripple-effect of disruption in accepted generational mores.
Even when he doesn’t employ such a locale directly, Dunn tends to people his stories with characters whose backgrounds lie within this kind of social fabric, where class divisions are softened by a sense of mutual obligation. where even among the well-off there are many things that matter more than money. Obliquely, unhum’edly, with understated irony and without nostalgia. Dunn examines the encroachments of time and change on the ways of being represented by these places and people — through the relationship that develops between a wealthy incomer family and the middle-aged local handyman they hire to
‘There Is a bias towards city experience in contemporary Scottish writing, but I wouldn’t want to overstress it - for a long time there was a bias towards rural experience.’
refurbish their house, through the story of an elderly couple who turn to courting the tourist trade rather than sell the family mansion where they live. His chosen rural and small town milieux between them offer an intriguingly broad, diverse perspective on such shifts. a depth of ﬁeld sometimes lacking in city-set ﬁction. though he denies any anti-urban literary agenda.
‘These are just the kinds of places that I know. because I‘ve always lived in them.‘ he says. ‘There is a bias towards city experience in contemporary Scottish writing, but I wouldn‘t want to overstress it — for a long, long time. for too long. there was a bias towards rural experience. With me, it‘s just that I ﬁnd it very difﬁcult to write about cities. because I haven‘t lived in one; I‘ve tried to write things which were set in a city or in which a city played a big part, but it just turns into trafﬁc noises — l have trouble getting my characters to cross the road in cities.‘ Boyfriends and Girlfriends is published by Faber & Faber at £14. 99.
Late July. 1963. In the shimmering heat of high summer two sisters,
and Huckleberry Finn into a subtle l ‘ tale of adolescent epiphany. And speaking with an equally impressive adiectival dexterity from her home in West Virginia, Phillips is keen to stress the importance of the date 1963 to the novel’s central precept of lost innocence. ‘It was the summer after The Bay of Pigs crisis when Kennedy
kind of passion play where the main characters: Lenny, Alma, the feral boy Buddy, ex-con Parson and Buddy’s father Cannody enact a sequence of events which may be translated as both fall and redemption. ‘I suppose I’m questioning whether good and evil exist,’ she continues. ‘Whether evil is a function of damage or not. Some
almost magical chain of activity and occurrences. ‘In this book I’ve used the setting as a personality in itself,’ explains Phillips. ‘I wanted to heighten the sense of separateness from the rest of the world and use the presence of the physical surroundings to bring out what the children have inside of them.‘
Lenny and Alma, are at camp in Shelter County, West Virginia. Shelter tells the story of how, amid their lush pastoral surroundings, the girls’ lives are irrevocably changed by a dramatic sequence of events.
Shelter, Jayne Anne Phillips’ fourth book and her second novel, is a densely evocative, almost prelapsarian exploration of good and evil, innocence and experience. It weaves echoes of Lord of the Flies
j was considered . . . at least in West
Virginia . . . a kind of Prince and there was a kind of anti-communist hysteria. I wanted the book to take place on it’s own isolated ground before things
really began to change for the country. v I think the first murder, the
; assassination in 1963 of Kennedy, was the first event in a series of events
that completely changed America’s
perception of itself.’
Phillips herself views Shelter as a
people experience difficulty and trauma and yet emerge whole, others begin to splinter and explode. I suppose I saw Parsons and Cannody as extreme examples of that.’
The wooded surroundings of Lenny and Alma’s summer camp play an organic part in the action of Shelter. The heavily-described sensual aspect of the water and undergrowth that Lenny and Cap explore at night becomes the fertile locus for an
Phillip’s seductive, tactile prose and her ability to conjure mysticism from adolescent experience all conspire to make Shelter a work which is much more than a rites-of-passage novel. Shelter is not just a gently moral neo- pastoral piece, it’s a gorgeous and visionary piece of writing and worth savouring word for word. (Bethan Cole) Shelter by Jayne Anne Phillips is published by Faber and Faber at £14.99.
72 The List |3~26 January I995