Pure Dead Brilliant, By The Way [SKINNYFEST 3] [PRINT VERSION]

I was this zonked-out hippie trying to write poetry and figure out what was going on in the universe. This guy's out there starting the revolution and making a million pounds and losing it and making another million pounds.

Feature by Keir Hind | 14 Aug 2006
Alan Spence's debut work was 1977's 'Its Colours They Are Fine', an influential selection of short stories set in the Glasgow of his youth. Since then he has written more stories, novels and plays, to much acclaim. He has even turned his hand to poetry, inspired by his conversion to Buddhism to try his hand at haiku and other Japanese styles in works like 'Glasgow Zen', and 'Stone Garden'. His new book, 'The Pure Land', is a cracking historical novel based on the life of an Aberdonian, Thomas Blake Glover, who was instrumental in the modernisation and industrialisation of Japan. The book spans the ten years from 1860 to 1870, during which Japan transformed rapidly from a feudal nation into a capitalist one. Glover was only in his 20s at the time.

"I knew nothing when I was 20" Spence tells me. "I was this zonked-out hippie trying to write poetry and figure out what was going on in the universe. This guy's out there starting the revolution and making a million pounds and losing it and making another million pounds. It's phenomenal".

Glover is also supposed to have inspired the opera Madame Butterfly, a story of a westerner who has a child with a courtesan whom he later abandons. Glover went to Japan as a trader and quickly went into business dealing in tea, ships and armaments. The shipping company he formed went on to become Mitsubishi. He also formed the brewer Kirin, whose football tournament was recently won by Scotland. "The timing of that was quite nice, wasn't it?" laughs Spence.

Spence came to the material through his current job as Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen. "I had a notion to write a play which had some kind of Aberdeen dimension to it," he says, "and I'd heard about this book, 'The Scottish Samurai', by a guy called Alex McKay, basically a biography of Thomas Glover."

After an abortive attempt at writing a play, then a film script, and then a short(ish) story, Spence's agent suggested he write a novel. The idea appealed to Spence, who had seen Julian Barnes read from 'Arthur and George', (a novel about Arthur Conan Doyle). "He made the point that he wasn't writing costume drama; he was writing a modern novel, with all the techniques available to him, which just happened to be set in the 19th century." Spence started doing that too. It then turned out that Canongate was interested, and were willing to pay for it - so long as it was quick.

"I ended up writing most of it in a six-month burst, just head down," says Spence, "I actually really, really enjoyed the process." The story itself is about rapid change, and this writing process seems to have complemented that.

Alongside the narrative of political change is an unusual love story. Glover was torn between two women - the geisha, Maki, who gave birth to his child, and his wife Tsuru. He adopted the child, but stayed with Tsuru. For Spence, Maki became fascinating.

"It seemed right to me that she would become a nun" he says. "I didn't know when I was writing this character of Maki that it was a standard pattern that some of these women [geishas] followed, and that made me even more convinced that I'd been given the story, that it came to me from some other place."

The story of Maki is an important part of the book for Spence: "It put the whole story in a much bigger context. In terms of the great eons of time that humanity actually evolves through, and these huge spiritual truths - these eternal and infinite realities that she was ultimately getting in touch with - they make all the rest pale into significance in a way. It's not that this story isn't real and true and important, but there's actually other stuff going on behind all that, these huge historical forces at work through an individual life. Glover himself actually became an instrument of these huge changes that he didn't even understand. I often think that's how we all are, we don't really know why we're doing stuff, where it's all going to end up, you do your best and try to do the right thing in a given situation."

Reading 'The Pure Land', one has the feeling that the author has excelled himself in an unusual situation and ended up doing just the right thing.
The Pure Land' is published August 24
Alan Spence appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, ScottishPower Studio Theatre, August 24, 20:30