Ahead of its launch on the 21st of November in Edinburgh’s Blackwells, Craig Smith talks to Karyn Dougan of National Collective about his novel The Mile and how literature can be a powerful message bearer.
NC: Tell us a bit about your novel The Mile.
CS: The Mile is a hopefully entertaining look at the Scottish independence debate through the eyes of three friends – a unionist, a nationalist and an undecided voter – who head out on a pub crawl down the Royal Mile a week before 2014’s crucial vote. Ian wants to convince his friends to vote Yes, Euan’s not so sure, and Stuart couldn’t care less. On the way, they’re joined by an old man who leads them on a bit of a journey – not just to the pubs of the Royal Mile, but of self-discovery, via 300 years of Scottish history. Alternatively, it’s a bit of a piss-up with some poor jokes, some political banter, and lots and lots of swearing. I aim to please.
What was the catalyst behind the novel as a whole – what was the first spark that inspired you to start writing it?
For months I’d been arguing the case for independence on Facebook and Twitter, or with family and friends, or while waiting on the kids in the school playground, and it felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall sometimes, trying to get the message across. Like a lot of people on the Yes side, I can tend to get a bit evangelical, and I think this can turn people off. I needed to find an outlet for it, and a trip to Edinburgh Castle in February gave me the spark. I was walking down the Lawnmarket with the kids and saw the Ensign Ewart pub. I thought to myself, “In all the years I’ve been going out in Edinburgh, I’ve never set foot in that place – must arrange a wee pub crawl down the Royal Mile sometime.” And that was the start of it. The thought of a pub crawl mingled with the independence stuff bouncing around in my napper, and I was off. I may have even bought the kids an ice cream to keep them quiet for a bit.
You’re someone who is very engaged with the topic of Scottish independence. Why did you decide to write fiction as opposed to non-fiction about it?
I’m engaged in as much as I’ll argue all night for independence, and I’ll do leafleting and Yes paper deliveries, but there are plenty heavyweights in the non-fiction field already and I’d never be able to compete at that level. I’ve read Alasdair Gray and Adam Tomkin’s brilliant How We Should Rule Ourselves (Canongate) and The Independence Book: Scotland in Today’s World (Luath Press) – an excellent collection of essays. The only problem I see with these books, great though they are, is that they’re unlikely to be picked up by your average punter. I thought an easy-to-read, (hopefully) comical tale, which weaves the positive argument for independence into a fairly simple story might be more likely to be read by people less interested in the dry facts and figures. We’ve got to use as many methods and mediums as we can to get the argument for a Yes vote across, especially when the mainstream media are so hostile to it. Music, art and literature are all-powerful message bearers, which is why National Collective is such a great resource and will be crucial in focusing Scotland’s creative minds on the task ahead.
How serious did you intend the book to be in regards to the independence debate?
One of my intentions was to try to dispel some of the common myths associated with independence, such as the ‘Too wee, too poor, too stupid’ line that’s sadly trotted out by so many sufferers of the Scottish Cringe. Or the ‘Vote Yes and Salmond becomes ruler of Scotland for all eternity’ crap that you read so often on Facebook threads. If the book’s taken seriously, that’d be fantastic – I’d love to think it could sway opinion. But I don’t think a wee novel on its own could do that. What it will hopefully do, though, is get people asking questions, or seeking out their own answers, away from the scary headlines and the massaged ‘facts’ we’re getting from Better Together. Either that or accept that all facts and figures can be manipulated to suit the message, so just vote with your heart. That’s a key message in the book – have a bit of faith. There’s no reason Scotland can’t be a hugely successful independent country. Once you instill that belief in people – that we can be normal, like everywhere else, and not only that but have a progressive and positive influence on the world – no amount of scaremongering can turn them off.
Were you worried about how the book was going to be received, especially when it was being referred to as “the first indyref novel”?
Ha! Yes, and I still am. Especially as the “first indyref novel” was my own description! I had to try to get the book some attention, and I thought that line might work. As far as I know it’s the first, and I’m sure there will be others, but will anyone come up with an impassioned novel in defence of the Union? I mean, who’d write that? I heard Andrew Marr might be working on something – I’ll keep an eye out. Does he write fantasy fiction? The characters in The Mile cover all the viewpoints – it’s not a totally blatant rant for Yes. The unionist character makes his case too, however weak it may be, and I think in the end he’s probably the most likable character – he’s just confused and easily led. The book’s had nothing but favourable reviews so far, but we’ll wait and see – I’m sure there are plenty haters gonna hate it too. That’s only to be expected when you’ve written something that’ll polarise opinion.
You managed to achieve good balance between the politics and the humour, but did it ever feel when writing that the politics tried to overpower the rest of the story?
Not really. I was quite conscious whenever I wrote something that came across as a bit of a rant – it was easy to tell when I was doing this, as the words came far too easily! So I’d reel it back a bit. I think the backspace key on my Macbook is probably the most worn. The advantage of having Ian and Euan at opposing ends of the spectrum was that they could both pour water on the other’s arguments. Or, more often in the unionist character’s case, he’d just zone-out and stop listening. He’s got other issues to deal with, and can’t really be bothered engaging some of the time, which is quite a common unionist tactic – whether it’s intended or not – the shake of the head and the thousand-yard stare. I hope it’s not just viewed as a political novel, as that would limit its appeal and defeat the purpose of it. There is a story in it – there’s a bit of a chase, some love interest, a couple of scraps, some jokes, and Charlie Chaplin makes an appearance. There’s also a load of wee historical Easter eggs dotted throughout for the train-spotters.
Explain the significance of the setting of The Mile – you obviously didn’t choose the Mile just for its pub stops!
Edinburgh’s one of the most stunning cities on Earth, and the Royal Mile is absolutely dripping with history. It struck me that it seemed like a good metaphor for the journey Scotland’s taken since the Treaty of Union was signed. From the Castle all the way down to the Parliament – at the crossroads we now find ourselves at. I liked the fact it gave the story a definitive start and end point, and contained it all within a very small, defined area. It’s also a place that people are very familiar with so it meant I could dispense with a lot of the descriptive fluff. Planning the book involved taking a sheet of A4 and drawing the Royal Mile, from the Castle to Holyrood. I marked 1707 at one end and 2014 at the other, and filled in the gaps, so events in each pub loosely relate to key stages in Scotland’s history.
The characters really do come to life on the page, especially the character of Jock. The lads certainly seem like blokes you’d find in your local. How much of these characters are inspired by people in your life?
I think people will always ask “is that you” or “is such-and-such based on thingy” but I think the characters are just an amalgamation of various people I’ve met over the years, whether in real life or online. Jock comes across as a sweary Granpaw Broon but he’s probably got a bit of my own Grandad in there too. He fought in WW2 and most of his stories didn’t involve battles, but bizarre things like selling a truck filled with cans of dirt to some Germans after telling them they were full of coffee (this was just after the war had ended otherwise I expect their meeting may have panned out differently!). As for Ian and Euan (the nationalist and the unionist) – they were very easy to write as I obviously share Ian’s opinions (despite not being a traditional SNP voter, like he is) and up until a few years ago, I was closer to Euan’s viewpoint – as I’m a convert to the independence cause. I probably suffered from “the cringe” myself until I was cured after (surprise surprise) a night in the pub in 2011.
Another excellent character is Rosie, one of the important female characters in the novel. How did she come about? What was her role?
I’m glad Rosie came into the story. Initially, Jock was going to be a more ghostly figure – a sort of “spirit of Scotland” who was going to indirectly influence events in each pub. But I figured that’d be too hard to write, so I decided to make him a care-home escapee instead. Rosie is his carer, who sets off in pursuit. I tried to give every character a role (reflected in their name) that suggested a bit more than the literal part they play in the book. Rosie is the “English Rose” – she’s meant to represent the positive relationship Scotland would have with England post-Yes. And is an attempt at shattering the myth that we’re all English-hating, Braveheart-obsessed bampots.
In general, do you think that more books should be less concerned about remaining “neutral” when discussing things like the referendum?
For some political non-fiction, neutrality may be important, but above my desk I’ve got a sheet of paper with Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Rules of Writing on it. Number 7 is: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia” – I think that’s vital. The book could have been a wishy washy affair with no real argument either way, in an attempt to broaden its appeal, but in doing that it’d have failed this test. So, I made it very pro-Yes.
I don’t expect it to be read by many, if any, hard line unionists. For Yessers, hopefully there’s a lot of “that’s me!” moments. And ideally, some undecided voters will think “that sounds good to me” and come over to the Yes side. That would be the ultimate endorsement.
The ebook of The Mile is now available on Amazon. Paperback is launched on 21st November.