Books of my life by Alan Warner

Alan Warner (MPhil 1989) is the award-winning author of nine novels including 'Morvern Callar' and 'The Sopranos'. His book 'The Deadman's Pedal' won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2013. Here, he tells us about the books of his life.

The book that makes me laugh the most
I haven’t read it for 30 years, but I remember almost being sick with laughter at John Kennedy Toole’s 'A Confederacy of Dunces'. I just need to think of that book and I smile – even after three decades. But what I if I read it again and don’t like it, now I am a grumpy old man?! And such a tragic, ironic, cruel tale to that book’s publication. [Toole committed suicide following repeated rejections of his book; his mother found his manuscript and had it published 11 years after his death.]

The book I loved most as a child
On holiday in 1974 my Dad bought 'Jaws', by Peter Benchley; this was before the film came out. I couldn’t stop reading it, but it’s full of swear words. My father tried to hide the book from me but eventually he gave up and, expurgating all the adult content, he read me the entire book over a couple of evenings! I was magnetised. A dad who reads you 'Jaws' at bedtime! A wonderful experience.

The books I come back to again and again
I don’t keep count, but 'The Garden of the Finzi-Continis', by Bassani, 'Wuthering Heights', 'The Great Gatsby', and 'Dead Souls', by Gogol. You never exhaust them – each time they read like a different book and reveal new things to you.

The book that got me through the hard times
Real suffering can rob you of a taste for reading, but I can usually find something to save me. Primo Levi’s 'The Truce' – it seems almost wrong to say, but the book is often very humorous, and so uplifting. You know you never had things so bad, so it helps you feel alive as he escapes from Hell.

The book that’s my guilty pleasure
Oh dear. I still read 'Jaws'. I like Thomas Harris’s novels. I am partial to a 'Just William' story now and again. It is a bit snobby to even call them guilty pleasures, but I have liked a few Lee Child novels – I think the guy can really write. He has a tight, sculpted style. His character is Jack Reacher, who is so tough he has never eaten a yoghurt. That’s brilliant.

The book that changed my mind
There are a few non-fiction books that have made me think again about political and historical things, but one novel comes to mind – 'The Shipyard' by the Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti. It’s one of those experiences where I began to read the book and thought: “What the hell is this? This is awful. I don’t like this …” and then cautiously, mysteriously, something changes, you get drawn in and hooked. It’s happened with music and movies and paintings too and it’s great to have your mind changed like that. By the end of the novel I felt it was one of the best things I had read – fabulous – and I read all his other books. 

Alan’s new novel 'Kitchenly 434' will be published by Faber in March 2020. 'Our Ladies', the Sony Pictures adaptation of 'The Sopranos', will also be released next year. 'Good Listeners', a selection of Alan’s short stories and those of Brian Hamill will shortly be published by 'The Common Breath'.

In his own words

I did vaguely fancy being a writer from the age of around 14, but frankly, I wanted to be many other things as well: a filmmaker, a ground-breaking electric bass player, the manager of Claridge’s Hotel in London, a high-speed train driver between Glasgow and Preston, a scuba-diving treasure hunter in the Bahamas, a Boeing 747 pilot … all vaguely normal aspirations for a kid of that time, I guess. Writers and others – for example, actors, painters or musicians – often like to invent a narrative about themselves after they have become something they wanted to be. You always hear the narrative of people who have become something they wanted to be, but you rarely hear the narratives of people who don’t become something they wanted to become. And I am as guilty of trying to forge a narrative of myself as a writer as anyone is. I think I took a long time to get any “game plan” in any approach to life other than keeping my head below the parapet.

When I was in London in the mid-1980s, where I did my undergraduate degree before I came to the University of Glasgow to do an MPhil, I actually tried to become a studio engineer in music recording studios. I was very passionate about music and became obsessed with recording processes – but at the same time, I am a guy who can barely wire a 13-amp plug. I actually called round at some quite famous recording studios trying to insinuate my useless self. It was the usual thing … “If I can’t help with placing microphones, then I’ll make the tea.” I am not even good at making a decent cup of tea. You have to warm the cup first and it must be Tetley’s, but how long to let the teabag soak for? It was the worst possible time to try and become a studio engineer; studios were changing over from analogue recording on tape to digital recording, and drum sets had become machines, so they needed even fewer engineers. A lot of this seems to be lurking in my new novel, 'Kitchenly 434'.

I started writing bad poems and lyrics to try and foist them on to my mates in Oban who were in rock bands and were all very good musicians, unlike me. So in my teens I started to keep notebooks and, with great self-importance, I would underline significant passages in the books I was reading because I saw my mate doing this. I wrote poems with the odd half-decent line and a few awkward short stories. But I didn’t start seriously working on my first novel, 'Morvern Callar', until I was about 26.

I forget where I get my ideas from. I have an idea every week for a novel or a short story, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, or would work on the page. You start out wanting to write about A and it slowly becomes B, then your plan is C and when you write it, it morphs into D. Then you sort of forget where you started out from, and why. Well, I do. I once set out to write a novel about a man who travels around Europe trying to find four of his ex-lovers. It ended up as a novel about a guy who hates to travel so much that he never actually leaves the town he is from ('The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven'). That was because it was just too complicated and fancy-pancy to have him jetting all over Europe – it was a vain idea, because I was myself travelling a great deal at the time and wanted to use my experiences of airports and hotels … but you have to be careful about forcing your own experiences into a story. Sometimes events from your own life just don’t fit in the story you are telling.

It’s a dangerous question to ask any writer the favourite book they’ve written. It’s like choosing between your children. And also, if you read about an author and he or she says: “The book I am most proud of writing is my fourth novel, 'Sandbags Around the Dancehall'" … well, I can only speak for myself here, but if I saw that author’s books lined up in a bookshop and 'Sandbags Around the Dancehall' wasn’t one of them, I probably wouldn’t buy any of the others as I would want to test the author out on the book they like best. If I answer that question I feel I am shooting myself – or my books – in the foot. Also, authors can have funny tastes in what they think their best work is. Evelyn Waugh thought his best book was 'Helena'. Herman Melville only rated his very long religious poem, 'Clarel'. But I don’t feel I have written a real honking, fly-attracting stinker, which I want to erase from history. It’s amazing I manage to write any of them and I am still grateful people have published them. I am just so flattered that anybody would take the time to read any of my books, it doesn’t matter which one.

I have no complaints about the adaptations of my books. I have been very lucky. Lynne Ramsay, who is an amazing filmmaker, made a movie of 'Morvern Callar' and I love it. It’s a sort of French art movie set in Oban, something I didn’t expect to see in my lifetime, let alone be partially responsible for. Then Lee Hall, who wrote 'Billy Elliot', did this fantastic theatre adaptation of my novel 'The Sopranos', called 'Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour'. That was just a wonderful show with a remarkable cast of young actors and singers. The show toured all over the world between 2015 and 2017 and it ran for a season in the west end of London. It was just a fabulous thing, so full of life – but very moving, too. Now Michael Caton-Jones, who made many damn good Hollywood movies like 'This Boy's Life', has done a film version of 'The Sopranos'. It’s called 'Our Ladies', but it’s a different beast from the theatre adaptation – again, all these amazingly talented young actors are in it. I’ve seen a cut of the film and it’s tremendous stuff.

This article was first published September 2019.