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Duncan McLean: Scottish Writer
by Alexander Laurence

Duncan McLean is an important Scottish writer who lives in Orkney, in the northeast end of Scotland where most of his fiction takes place. He is known in America for his other strange novel Bunker Man. He is also the author of an intense book of short stories, Bucket of Tongues. Irvine Welsh spoke of McLean's early work: "It's very hard to think of a better short story writer in Britain today." Oddly enough McLean won the Somerset Maugham award in 1993 for that book and decided to travel to Texas to search for the history of country musician Bob Wills and any trace of western swing music. McLean's experience are recorded in his fine nonfiction book, Lone Star Swing. "Country music," he explains, "is very popular in Scotland. It almost always defines itself as being apart from the center of power."

Even though Blackden is Duncan McLean's first novel, it is only now being published in America. Blackden is the story of Patrick Hunter, an 18-year-old auctioneer's apprentice, who we follow over a three-day lost weekend. He rides his bicycle around the village and his comic experiences become the bulk of the book. McLean explains it as "A patchwork of stories, points of view, jokes, folktales, memories, family history, village history, to downright lies and shaggy dog stories." Even though it seems less plotted than Bunker Man, a novel of obsession, McLean admits "It has a submerged pattern but it's not what drives the book along. It's like what Patrick describes at the end of the book: he's up on the hill overlooking the village and it him it looks like a wall of death. The motorbike might go round and round very fast inside the wall of death but not get anywhere."

Blackden therefore is a somewhat bleak, but it's also a tender, gentle and realistic novel. You wonder why Patrick, or even McLean himself, would stay in a place so described. You can think of Patrick in Blackden as like Stephen Dedalus at the end of Portrait of an Artist fleeing from Ireland so he could become a writer, instead of a drunk like his father. About this possible exile, McLean agrees: "The structure of Blackden mimicked that same circular movement. On each of the three days, Patrick circles the village, talking to people, trying to enjoy himself, and trying to get some grip on his own identity and trying to find a future. But by the end, as you say, he's up on the hill, and it looks like he might fly out above the wall of death and out of Blackden, and like Joyce, and like an awful lot of people who grew up in the Scottish countryside, they fly off and try to make it somewhere else. Kids get fed up growing up in a small places like that."

New Scottish Writing and James Kelman

I called up Duncan McLean a few weeks ago at his house. As I did I felt like I was calling the furthest away point from me on the planet. It's possible that some people in America may have some initial difficulties with the new Scottish writers, since they often use a dialect and a vocabulary unfamiliar to us. "I would say that it's not written in dialect" McLean responded. "It's just written in my language that I have spoken all my life." Fair enough. It does seem somewhat imperialistic to expect Scottish writers to write in a way acceptable to American or even English standards. "I write in the language," McLean continues, "which comes naturally to the story I'm telling. Usually that is a story set in my own country and amongst people I know. So the language is very much of this area, of the history of these places, and all the influences which act on this area."

James Kelman is generally known as a great influence on the new Scottish writers. I asked McLean, if Kelman had any direct influence on his work: "He's a very important figure on the Scottish cultural scene because he led the way to a lot of people writing now including the likes of Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh, and certainly myself. But he's based in the big cities. Glasgow is his place." Even though Kelman is acknowledged, McLean notes the differences: "I grew up in the country and spent all my life in the country. What I was doing with Blackden, I was doing for the country what Kelman had done for Glasgow. To look at minutiae and every day life of an 18-year-old, to convey the atmosphere of the Scottish countryside, and what it was like to grow up there. And to get away from the nostalgic and goofy images of bagpipes and get down to the actual reality of Scottish rural life."

The Voice of the Writer

There have been several novels published in the last five years by Duncan McLean, as well as Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh, and others. I asked McLean about the recent explosion of the Scottish novels as well as many collections of stories by seemingly unrelated Scottish writers: "There's a couple of ways to address that," McLean offers. "The publishers like to talk about a new wave or renaissance of Scottish writing, but that's a marketing ploy. From the writer's point of view, it's been a great time to write. There have been a remarkable number of good serious inventive writers who have been very individual writers, I should say, who have come to the fore. There is one thing that ties them all together though, which is their adherence to their own voice, or the voice they grew up with. That is the voice that tells the story. Neither Kelman, Alasdair Gray, nor Janice Galloway leaves an imposing authorial voice from outside, from Oxford, Cambridge, or the London literary establishment, or indeed a Scottish literary establishment. All of these people, and I include myself here, believe in the primacy of the spoken individual voice which is the basis of their story that they're telling and their art."

If that is so, we can only wonder where Blackden is. This strange place exists on no map. McLean explains: "Blackden is an invented village in the northeast farmlands of Scotland. It doesn't bare a resemblance to anywhere, but it could be a hundred different villages there you know. Everything I have written has taken place in the east coast." As far as influences, McLean is clear: "You write out of what you know and the places you know. I lived in the city for a few years so the first book, Bucket of Tongues, was really dealing with that. On the whole, I see myself more as a rural writer. It takes a while for a place to enter into your brain and soak into your bones, or the language going to the roots of your tongue. That's the most important thing: the rhythm of the language and the vocabulary."

A Small Part of A Small Country

In America, Scottish writers are becoming well known and possibly more popular than London-based writers. I asked McLean about what separates himself from London writers who seem more careerist like Will Self and Martin Amis. "It's rare to meet a Scottish writer who goes 'Yeah, I wanted to be a writer because I wanted to be on BBC 2' or 'I wanted to be interviewed by The Times.' Scottish writers are more likely to say 'No one has written about my part of the country before. I want to make that voice heard.' Or 'My father was stuck out of work in 1984, and no one has told his story. I want to tell his story. No one has written a novel about my part of the world, and I want to do that.' That's what motivates Scottish writers."

About two years ago Duncan McLean did an American book tour with Kelman and Irvine Welsh. Being a writer and doing readings away from Scotland seems like the furthest thing from the reality of McLean's life in Orkney where he works full time at a jewelry factory and has recently had a child with his wife. "I write when I can write," he explains, "and when life doesn't get in the way too much. I hope that feelings of real life come out of every book I do. In Orkney, it doesn't matter if you're a writer. Nobody cares how you make a living. People just care what type of person you are, whether you're good to your neighbors and friends, and how you treat the animals."

We can only hope that McLean can find time to write in his busy schedule because his fictions are often too real and extremely brilliant. He mentions that he is currently working on a book of short stories set in Orkney. "I'm aware of writing books in a difficult language about a small part of a small country. It's amazing that people would want to read my books in America or anywhere at all."

With Blackden now available here, McLean is developing as a very diverse writer, and there's seems to be plenty to interest just about anyone. From the strange atmospheric novels to his homage to Texas swing music, we can see why he can live in the far reaches of Scotland comfortably while re-imagining these fictive worlds. "I like to be led by the story" McLean reasons. "I don't like to impose my own personality on the story I'm telling."

While Patrick Hunter may choose to leave Blackden someday, and ride away on a missing bike, Duncan McLean has definitely found himself as a writer. He seems fit to write and to work on a small island with waves washing over.


Alexander Laurence is a writer who lives in New York City. He has done over 100 interviews with novelists, many of which, are accessible through the Internet. His book reviews have appeared in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, American Book Review, East Bay Express, LA Reader, Bay Guardian, and American Book Jam. He has been the editor of Cups Magazine since 1993.


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