The Incredible Alan Bissett

You'd expect a plumber to be normal and down to earth, so I don't see why writers shouldn't be either

Feature by Nine | 13 Sep 2006
I absolutely love doing readings in schools, says Alan Bissett. "Most of the kids are expecting some old guy in a tweed jacket to read them poems about mountains or something. When I come on effing and blinding I can see them looking at the teachers for permission that it's okay to like this kind of stuff. A lot of them aren't aware that literature can have relevance to their lives or any kind of energy or excitement about it."

Bissett's novels 'Boyracers' and 'The Incredible Adam Spark' are both set in his hometown of Falkirk, and centre around "working-class, teenage males going through emotional crises." If this sounds bleak or harrowing, it's time to rethink your assumptions: both books are a joy to read, filled with energy and personality, and refuse to compromise with their mixture of Scots voices and experimental prose. A clear indicator of his talent is the feedback from the kinds of people he writes about, who don't exactly constitute a target market in the literary world: "A lot of teachers and librarians recommend 'Boyracers' to pupils for personal study and the like. I think especially to boys who they can't get interested in books, because the novels are very Scottish and teenage and are dealing with things they face everyday in their own culture, and are narrated in their own language. And a lot of them have told me '…Adam Spark' or 'Boyracers' is their favourite novel. That makes me really, really, really happy. That a 15 year-old might feel the same way about something I've written as I did about the works of Clive Barker or Edgar Allan Poe at that age is hard enough to imagine, but to turn someone who doesn't even enjoy reading onto books is extremely gratifying indeed. It's a privilege, in fact."

This kind of privilege outweighs the obstacles Bissett faces by refusing to make concessions for his audience. "I'm well aware that the style and voice of my first two books limited their appeal," he admits, "but I care only so far as they sell enough copies that the publishers let me write more. Which, fortunately, they do. So that's evidence, I hope, that the language isn't too great a barrier. But, y'know, it's really not a conscious choice. You employ whatever techniques you can just to crack the book open and make it work, and Adam Spark's idiosyncratic dialect, and the Scots voices in 'Boyracers', just felt natural, obvious and appropriate. The books just wouldn't have existed - or would have been robbed of whatever power they possess – if they hadn't been written that way. So I'm afraid I just had to sacrifice those readers who were alienated by the language. And I was quite prepared to do that. Can you imagine 'Trainspotting' or 'A Clockwork Orange' written in Standard English? It would have destroyed those books. Instead, much of their energy comes from the fireworks of the voices on the page, and I think '…Adam Spark' is the same. I see no reason to not expect some effort on the part of the reader - almost all good fiction requires it - but at the same time I'm well aware that might just be a turn-off for many people, and fair enough. There's plenty other books for them out there better than mine; readers don't owe me anything. The people who like it though seem to like it an awful lot, and I'll settle for that.

"Perhaps precisely because kids like that are not 'readers', and haven't been fixed and drilled by the requirements of 'good' grammar, spelling and register, they can take to the verbal language experiments easier than more experienced or middle-class readers, who expect a certain narrative voice. Usually theirs. But don't get me started on the politics of all that..."

Much of Bissett's appeal, like that of his books, is a down to earth approach, which he shrugs off when it's mentioned. "Well I think if someone has enjoyed your book and wants to tell you so, and has made the effort to come out of their house to go to a library and sit down and listen to you talk for an hour, the least you can do is be cordial, grateful and approachable. You'd expect a plumber to be normal and down to earth, so I don't see why writers shouldn't be either. There's nothing that makes us that special." What does make the whole reading experience more special however, is the personal touch. Bissett's books can be found in various shops, already signed by the author and each with their own individual message. "I just don't like the idea of idly scribbling my name and leaving it at that. Seems so impersonal and dull. It's good to make an effort. I like the thought of people discovering the messages accidentally in the bookshop and it putting a wee smile on their face. Or else offending them. That happens sometimes. Especially when I write, 'Your hands feel so soft on my covers,' or 'Drop me in your bath'. I'm sure it annoys as many browsers as it attracts."
Alan Bissett spoke at the Book Festival with Nick Brooks and Michael Cannon on Aug 23