About John McGill
John McGill was born in Glasgow and now lives in Orkney. He has taught English all over the place and has published a collection of short stories, That Rubens Guy, and a novel, Giraffes. His stories have featured in a number of anthologies and have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and Radio Scotland.
An interview with John McGill
When did you first begin writing, and what inspired you to do so? Have any specific books/authors served as inspiration for you?
I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t fiddling around with stories, so the idea of inspiration hardly seems relevant, any more than it would be for walking, or breathing, or eating. The urge to publish in book form came fairly late, when I was past forty, and here I can perhaps point to a couple of literary inspirations: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Gabriel Marcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. In some odd way I thought the lives of smalltown middle-Americans and Colombian peasants seemed connected to the lives of the Glasgow slum-dwellers among whom I grew up. My collection of stories, That Rubens Guy, was an attempt to combine Anderson’s downbeat realism with Marquez’s magic. I was pleased when one or two critics made the South American parallel, but also when another one mentioned Katherine Mansfield!
Can you tell us something about the inspiration behind The Most Glorified Strip of Bunting? And about what you were trying to achieve, what ideas you were trying to convey?
Those of us who live in high latitudes tend to acquire an interest in things Arctic, and many of us move from that to things polar and to exploration in general. The quests for the grails of nineteenth-century exploration; the Poles, the source of the Nile, the Northwest Passage, etc., provide wonderful scope for the storyteller. Robert Edwin Peary thought that the sacrifice of eight toes was a small price to pay for the attainment of the North Pole, and his fanatical dedication to his task is typical of the breed. Whether driven by greed, glory, or sheer romantic lust for adventure, they pitted themselves against the most savage environments on the planet and endured unspeakable hardships, often in pursuit of pointless or even imaginary goals. In the case of the polar explorers, the extremes of isolation, hunger, cold and darkness created fascinating emotional cauldrons – Big Brother on ice! The United States North Polar Expedition, the story of which is told in The Most Glorified Strip of Bunting, offers particularly rich possibilities because, almost uniquely, it gives prominent roles to women. It is a thrilling adventure story, but the sexual element makes it a lot more than just that. In particular, it presents a series of fascinating dichotomies: romantics v cynics, explorers v scientists, Europeans v Inuit, patriots v mercenaries, men v women. The shifting patterns of these conflicts make for a complex, but I hope absorbing, narrative. The drama is also enhanced by having a murder mystery, the death of its commander, at its heart.
How do you go about creating your voice on the page?
I think the creation of a narrative voice is often an unconscious process: even in third person narrative, you find yourself making subtle alterations in tone depending on which character or set of characters you are dealing with. Olympian omniscience is rarely an option, might even be impossible, and irony seems to sneak in uninvited! I enjoy the business of creating first person narrators, usually people very different from myself and often based, with suitable disguise, on acquaintances..
How and when do you write?
(a) I have a one-room shack on a beautiful bay on the island of Hoy. In the early morning I walk the dog along the beach, writing in my head. Then I go back to the shack and scribble things down fast in an old jotter. That done, I feel confident about being able to polish and finish on the word processor. (b) Over a long career as a teacher and trade-unionist, I’ve developed an enviable ability to do the scribbling at the back of meeting rooms and conference halls while devoting some small part of my brain to the proceedings. Then I sit down at the keyboard and marvel at how brilliant the scribblings are!
What do you enjoy reading? What are you reading that you can recommend at the moment?
Just about everything – I enjoy bad books nearly as much as good ones. I confess reluctantly to feeling most at home in the 18th century, with Swift, Fielding, Smollett and, above all, Sterne. I dip into Tristram Shandy frequently and read it cover-to-cover every second year or so, and I have a similar affection for Alice in Wonderland. A list of other favourites reveals a predilection for the oddball: Hogg’s Confessions, Thoreau’s Walden, Butler’s Erewhon and The Way of all Flesh, Jeffries’ After London, Gray’s Lanark. In similar vein, I love the grotesque tradition in German fiction, from Hoffman through Kleist and Kafka to Grass’s Danzig Trilogy. None of which detracts from my admiration for the great chroniclers of the quotidian: Austen, Chekov, Mansfield, Dreiser, et al.
I try to keep up with contemporary fiction, but find myself turning increasingly to biography, history and popular science. I don’t want to die without having at least made an attempt to understand quantum mechanics. I’ve just finished Orhan Pamuk’s Snow and The White Castle and enjoyed them enough to make me pick up My Name Is Red: he combines the personal with the political in a very convincing way. Stud Terkel’s And They All Sang – interviews with musicians - is my current bed-time read. Great stuff. My daughter lent me her copy of Vanity Fair on the Orkney boat the other day and I marvelled afresh at its dazzling opening chapter.