His Boswell: an interview with Rodge Glass
By Susan Tomaselli.
3:AM: Not wishing to make you sound like a literary stalker (though in the book you freely admit it), you met Alasdair Gray in a bar (where you were a barman), took his creative writing class and became his secretary. What was it about Gray’s work that drew you to him?
Rodge Glass: I was a fan of his work before we met – when you move to Glasgow as a student of Literature, he is the name that keeps coming up again and again. My book is dedicated to – or rather, blamed on – the friend who forced me to read Gray’s Lanark when I was 19 and too immature to really understand it. I fell in love with Gray’s work because of his playfulness, his overtly political stance, and his understated, economic prose style. That is still what I admire the most.
3:AM: As any fan of Alasdair Gray’s work will know, there’s a lot of his life in his fiction. Why, then, a biography?
RG: I wrote my biography because I felt I was in a unique position to provide something else no-one else had yet – and as Gray has always said, wishing for a non-existent thing is always a good reason to create it, even if fame and money drive the maker too… I felt, and still feel, that people in future will want to know what it was like to work with Alasdair, to watch him paint, to talk to him, travel with him, care for him. He is remarkable personality and I was confident I could put that on paper. Of course, I wanted to draw attention to his work, both good and bad, but in a way anyone could have done that. I had access no-one else did.
3:AM: Rather than a conventional biography, you opted to write a personal response to his work and his life, not only aping many of the stylistic techniques of Lanark, but also those Boswell and Johnson. A conscious decision on your part?
RG: Yes absolutely. This was as much a book for Gray fans as for the man himself or for future critics. It seemed the most sensible and entertaining way to go about telling the story of his life and work which, as you rightly say, are so closely linked anyway. Right down to the fake footnotes, the ‘End Notes and Critic Fuel’ section in the paperback – it’s all on purpose. I also thought that by dealing with Gray on his own terms I’d be in a more interesting, perhaps compromised position, to criticise from. Still, regardless of Alasdair’s style, a personal biography was the only style I could have written. I don’t pretend to be the closest person to him in the world, but I certainly cared a great deal. I had to be honest about that, or else readers would be right to doubt me.
3:AM: One critic said that it would be easier to write a biography of Gray if he were Chinese: “There would be no need to divide image from word, myth-making from realism, truth from ideology. He would be reverentially portrayed as a master of pictography conveying the struggle for harmony between the inner and outer essences of man and society. And the great artist himself would live decorously on a large government pension befitting a social treasure.” At one point you write that it was “sometimes like listening to a computer programmed to blurt random facts from the last one thousand years.” How difficult a subject was Alasdair Gray?
RG: He was incredibly difficult to write about, and sometimes very difficult to work with, but he was also inspiring in the extreme. I felt honoured to learn the writing trade from him, and felt a responsibility to be honest about the relationship, about my place in the story, and about his work. Brutally honest. Why do anything by halves? I’m not sure I entirely agree with that critic though – and I’m fairly certain that Alasdair would not want to live on a big government pension, far less be a treasure of any kind. He has spent many years trying to avoid that. (Also, his story ‘Five Letters from an Eastern Empire’ warns, amongst other things, against poets becoming part of the state.) I think he would have had similar struggles in any nation. And similar successes.
3:AM: In a Secretary’s Biography you write you’ve “seen him first thing in the morning, last thing at night, sober, drunk, excited, depressed, asleep” and, “naked (passing me in the hallway on the way to the bathroom)”. Gray not only gave you permission to “write what you like, you know. People will find out anyway. And it’s only a life…” but also not to interfere, for your account to be independent. Given that there have been many famous falling-outs between biographer and subject, were you worried about your relationship changing after publication? What has Gray’s reaction been?
RG: I was certainly worried about falling out, and as you may know from the book, I often felt dirty about it, and questioned my own motivations. I questioned my own abilities, and feared being rejected. All of that. Still, I have been very lucky. It is a measure of my subject that he did not interfere, that he understood it had to be critical or else be worthless. And we have remained friendly. I saw him earlier this week, and will go and see him do a reading at Oran Mor of one of his plays next week. I am now, very happily, simply a Gray fan again. I’m not saying it hasn’t been difficult at times, and especially for Alasdair and his family. But he has been very gracious. He reviewed my book in The Guardian: some thought he was too kind to me, others thought he’d been too critical. Someone should write a critique of that writer criticising his critic!
3:AM: Something James Kelman said recently reminded me of a diary entry of yours from 2005: “Alasdair will only be appreciated when he’s dead, and even then it won’t be what he deserves…The usual parasites will say how ‘important’ he was. They’ll probably name a Glasgow building after him.” Alasdair Gray is, as Will Self says, “a great writer, perhaps the greatest living in this archipelago today.” A great Scottish writer, but not Scotland’s best known. Do you agree with Kelman? That the establishment “will praise the mediocre – how so much praise and position is given to writers of genre fiction in Scotland”?
RG: I think Alasdair would now say he’s had too much praise, after many years of none. He’s in danger of becoming a national treasure, more known for his personality than his work. But I think the work will last, and there are many people in many countries who value what he has produced. We can argue forever about who is better than who, how much he deserves et cetera, and I think Kelman had something interesting to say, in a wider sense than what was reported, about marginalisation of rebels in this sanitised 21st Century of cultural capitalism where Warholised versions of Robert Burn‘s face on the underground have become shorthand for Scottish literature. But hey ho, no-one has a right to be remembered. My book is a statement of belief in Gray’s work, and in the man. As for praise for the mediocre, that is very ordinary practice, and is to be expected by any mature writer. Inoffensive things please more people, so will make more money. Twas ever thus. It means nowt and it doesn’t worry me at all.
3:AM: I like your honesty in the book, both on Gray and his work. Of his art you say, “if the art was really that good…would it not have been noticed by now?” Sorcha Dallas thinks Gray has been a constant influence on generations of younger Scottish artists – including Lucy McKenzie – but that this has rarely been seen. Will the much-delayed A Life in Pictures change this?
RG: This is one of the issues that I think has already moved on since my book, in that Sorcha Dallas has collected much of Alasdair’s artwork together and is finally making him more money from it. She believes he has been neglected and I think that in some way that’s true. He simply does so much that some has been left behind as he’s most successful as a novelist. The passage you quote was true, I did feel that at the time, but really it was just me being frustrated – it was very hard to get anyone who wasn’t a mate or a colleague of Alasdair’s to praise the artwork alone, and his art is a footnote even in 20th Century Scottish Art. (At the moment.) I’m a literature specialist, not an art critic, but I think if Alasdair’s reputation is to change as an artist then an art critic may need to write A Life in Pictures. As Alasdair admits, he’s doing it because no-one else has. I do think the book will help though, and I should say that I do love elements of his art, especially how it democratises – I just happen to think it is at its most effective when married with words, whether that be on his book jackets or on the Oran Mor mural. Picture into word into picture – that’s my personal favourite.
3:AM: You’re now teaching creative writing yourself at the same institution Gray taught you. Though perhaps not a direct influence on your novels, is Alasdair Gray an influence? Is there a pre- and post-Gray Rodge Glass? And do you teach his work on your course?
RG: Funny you should say that because yes, I realise my Masters taught by Alasdair was jointly at Glasgow and Strathclyde Universities, though I never think of him connected to Strathclyde because we only ever met at his house or at his Glasgow University office. I was an undergraduate at Strathclyde, then moved across to the joint degree, then to a PhD at Glasgow. And I’m now back at Strathclyde. The first person to encourage me there was Robert Alan Jamieson, the Shetland novelist and poet, and the Head of Department, David Goldie, was an early influence too. I think of that more on a day to day basis, but Alasdair still has a big influence on the way I operate. He is a great believer in apprenticeships and so am I. My Gray biography was the end of my apprenticeship as a writer and I now hope to help others as I was so lucky to be helped. I teach Creative Writing and am also Writer in Residence this year, very much post-Gray. After so many years privileged to be close to Alasdair I feel it is time I grew up, left the poor auld bugger in peace, and moved on both with my life and my fiction. I am greatly influenced by much contemporary fiction, especially European and American fiction, and I’d say someone like Chuck Palahniuk is currently a bigger influence on me than Alasdair. Still, the things Gray taught me about writing practice and attitude to life will always be with me. As for teaching his work on my courses, no way! Maybe one day, sure, but for now I need a break.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Rodge Glass is a journalist, musician and author of the novels No Fireworks and Hope for Newborns. His biography, Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography was a winner of the Somerset Maugham Award and is out in paperback now.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 15th, 2009.