What Irvine Welsh did for Scottish housing estates with Trainspotting, Scottish writer ALAN WARNER did for Highland ravers with his storming debut novel Morvern Callar. Now Morvern is back in a sequel, with plans to take her to the big screen. Words: Kathleen Morgan Photograph: Chris Blott
SCOTTISH WRITER ALAN WARNER is supping a pint of 80/- in a small, bare pub opposite Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. The bar is traditionally a railwaymen’s watering- hole, something Warner, a former rail worker, is keen to point out. It is Friday evening and he is meeting a couple of friends before making this another night to remember, although the hangover he is already nursing suggests that it might be a bit ambitious.
Before the serious revelry begins, Warner is talking about his latest novel These Demented Lands a few days ahead of publication. It is a sequel to Morvern Callar, the bleak little gem of a book that won him the Somerset Maugham Prize and catapulted him into the limelight alongside his friend, Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh.
Warner is still reeling from the critical success of his debut novel, the tale of a young Highland supermarket worker who wakes up one morning to find her boyfriend has committed suicide. Morvern Callar’s journey from her remote sea-port home — based on Warner’s home town of Oban — to the Spanish rave scene and back, put the writer’s name up in lights beside the rest of what the English press had branded ‘The Tartan Army’, including Welsh, A. L. Kennedy and Duncan McLean.
‘l didn’t feel Morvern Callar would ever get published,’ says the 32-year-old who has been writing since he was fifteen. ‘The money helped — l was just off the railways.’ Warner’s days as a railway driver and shunter will seem even further away if his second book and a BBC screenplay he is writing of Morvern Callar are successful.
Neither project has involved simply repeating the magic formula that made his first novel a success. Rather than taking a step back like Irvine Welsh did when Trainspotting the movie was made by Danny Boyle et a1, Warner insisted on writing the Morvern Callar screenplay. That has meant learning a new craft — one he hopes will help him make money in America with other scripts. ‘I feel protective about my characters,’ he says. ‘At the time I just thought, “No one knows the book better than me, and there’s things I don’t want changed here.”’
Fans of the novel might have to wait some time to see the rave queen and heroine of Oban’s supermarket shelves on screen. Whether These Demented Lands will quell their appetite is debatable. Warner has decided to take a few chances with the sequel novel. He is aware of the risks involved in taking his new-found readership by surprise.
‘l’m very worried about the writer-to- reader relationship,’ he says. ‘I usually write for myself — I’m a very selfish person . . . It would be very easy for me to write Morvern Callar II, but I wanted to get away from that. l
wanted to write a book that was something I would find difficult.’
Warner has done just that. His second novel is a disjointed traipse through a surreal landscape populated by strange, almost mythical — and mostly unlikeable — characters. We are reunited with Morvern as she escapes a sinking ferry boat en route to a wind-battered island with little more than an airstrip and a hotel to speak of. Gone are the scarlet nail varnish, tan, rave gear and carefree attitude of the first novel. This Morvern is world-weary and cynical, intent only on survival.
Central to These Demented Lands are John Brotherhood, owner of The Drome Hotel, who delights in shocking his honeymooning guests, and The Aircrash Investigator, a Christ-like figure intent on unravelling the mystery of an island plane crash. Both men are fascinated by Morvern, who plays a watching—waiting game with them. There is little passion in evidence, though. The loved-up, drug-induced atmosphere of the Spanish beaches Morvern discovered in the first book has been replaced by a sinister, repressive feeling. This island is no holiday resort.
Asked where his fictional island’s roots
‘Much wilder things were going on up in Oban than I've ever seen in a city. Looking back on it, it's a fuckin’ brilliant place to grow up.’
are, Warner sets down his pint and points to Mull on a map of Scotland hanging behind him. The novel’s island shares the same rugged, hostile landscape of Morvern’s home town, only the railway has been replaced by a dodgy ferry boat and an airstrip. Both places are like outposts of civilisation, with the same end-of—the-line, Wild West feel about them - ‘nowhere places’, as Warner likes to call them.
Warner’s own Oban might have felt the same way to a boy intent on reading and uncovering his nation’s culture beyond the tourist shops. The son of a working-class couple who owned a shop and later a hotel in Oban, Warner lived an imaginative existence separate from family life and friendships. ‘From an early age I was living a lot in my imagination,’ he says, before adding with characteristic dryness: ‘l’m having a better time now.’ While his mates played football, Warner began writing in secret. ‘I kept it to myself. In a working-class community, it’s an uncool thing, so I hid it.’
Reading became an obsession, although a difficult one to feed, given the staple diet of tartanised novels aimed at the tourist traffic making its way around the Highlands. ‘My only access to culture was what was on BBC2
late at night and the odd Arena programme,’ says Warner. ‘There were no videos when l was fifteen or sixteen and my reading habits were dictated by the stocktaking policy at John Menzies.’
Whatever its drawbacks, Warner now appreciates having grown up in a Highland town bound by the sea on one side and mountains on the other. ‘Much wilder things were going on up there than I’ve ever seen in a city,’ he says. ‘Looking back on it, it’s a fuckin’ brilliant place to grow up.’ Besides his childhood town, Warner’s parents are another strong point of reference. He is still feeling the impact of his father’s sudden death a year ago. ‘It was a nightmare,’ says Warner quietly. ‘l was beginning to get somewhere and all of a sudden . . . My mum and dad were a big influence on me. It knocked me for six and made the literature pale into insignificance.’
The other major change in his life over the past few months has been marriage to an Irish student — Warner now lives between Edinburgh and Ireland. He is reluctant to talk about it, preferring to remember the words of one of his literary heroes. ‘Camus in the 19505 said there is a great danger of writers becoming famous and not being read,’ he says. ‘I don’t have any truck with the autobiographical stuff. Sure, things are used, but they are always filtered through a looking glass.’
Bang goes the theory that Morvern Callar is Alan Warner in a halter-neck bikini. With the body of a rugby player and a large, rugged face, that would take some imagining. Warner is, however, proud that his female creation attracted positive reviews, even from the opposite sex. ‘I thought women reviewers would loathe it, but I didn’t get one bad review from a woman,’ he boasts.
Now he has proved to himself that he’s able to create a realistic female heroine, Warner aims to do what he always planned — write at least one other Morvern Callar book. ‘I envisaged it as a trilogy that went forward and then back in time,’ he says, and laughs: ‘After a few years you put them all together and feel like a great writer.’
Strange then, that after publication of Morvern Callar, Warner was quoted in the Daily Mail saying: ‘I feel as if I’ve been let out for a night with the boys after being cooped up. The experience of trying to be a woman was interesting, but I’m glad it’s over.’
Lifting his pint before the serious Friday night business begins, he says: ‘I remember reading that. I must have been pissed.’
These Demented lands is published by Jonathan Cape. than 23 Mar. £9.99.
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