DEAR LAURA: AN INTERVIEW WITH LAURA HIRD
"Traditionally people wrote in isolation. It was generally not till the work was finished that people get any sort of feedback. But I guess with the emergence of so many writers groups, collectives, courses, how-to books and magazines, websites they can put early drafts of their work and get feedback, many people like to have some form of response to their work before they see it as being complete. I don't think anyone can be taught how to write, but I do believe that both unpublished and published writers sometimes lack confidence."
We had wanted to interview Thora Hird but later found out she was dead. So A. Stevens decided to interview Laura Hird and asked her the usual boring questions.
3:AM: Your latest is a short story collection. Do you believe, like some, that the short story form is in decline?
LH: I don't think the short story has ever been a form that does well commercially, particularly in the UK. It's something I've never really understood. There seems to be a huge passion for short stories out there but this has never really been reflected in their sales. Even best-selling authors like Stephen King's short story collections sell a fraction of what their novels do. Most UK publishers are reluctant to take on short story collections unless there's a novel there as well. The reason they give is that short story collections are impossible to sell for translation. I always think if would be so easy for newspapers to feature weekly short stories in their supplements but so few do. I also think that short stories should be part of the national curriculum so that children can grow up reading and appreciating the form.
3:AM: The stories reminded me of Mary Gaitskill and what she was doing with Bad Behavior. Is this as an apt comparison and would you regard her as an influence in any way?
LH: I'm ashamed to say that at the advanced age of nearly 40 I've yet to read any Mary Gaitskill. Friends for several years have been recommending her work to me and telling me they think I'd like it but I've never quite got round to it. I came very near after watching Secretary, the film adaptation of one of her short stories, which I loved but again, must have got distracted. As to her being an influence though, not yet.
3:AM: You came to prominence in the Rebel Inc. books alongside Gordon Legge and James Meek. Do you still keep in touch with that whole Scottish scene or would you say you've moved on? Why do you think the whole Rebel Inc. thing petered out, given the acute need in Britain for a vehicle of that nature?
LH: In September this year I took part in the Rebel Yell Festival run by Sean Walsh at Ballina Arts Centre, County Mayo which was a series of public/school workshops and readings to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the publication of Children of Albion Rovers. Had a great week there with Gordon Legge, Kevin Williamson, Paul Reekie and Irvine came up from Dublin for the last couple of days with Emer Martin -- who was featured in the second 'Albion Rovers' book, Rovers Return. I've always kept in contact with Gordon, Kevin and Paul and many of the writers featured in the magazine -- Shug Hanlon, Toni Davidson, John King, Brent Hodgson etc. Most of the people featured in the magazines are still writing or working on the edges of the writing scene, some have gone on to have great mainstream success -- Irvine, Alan Warner, James Meek -- and others, like co-editor Sandie Craigie are sadly no longer with us. Kevin Williamson put Rebel Inc. into hibernation after an acrimonious parting with Canongate books but runs an excellent weblog, The Scottish Patient, where the spirit of Rebel Inc. is very much alive and is very much involved in the underground political scene in Scotland and abroad. I hope that he will resurrect the magazine one day.
He was a unique and powerful force in independent publishing and thought. I think much of the ethos of the magazine is very much alive on the internet these days with hundreds of independently run online magazines dedicated to giving edgy new writing a platform -- 3:AM being a shining example. I've certainly tried to keep the flag flying with my own site. The internet is also a great platform for promoting independent publishers who cannot afford to sell their books on Amazon or in book chains.
3:AM: Do you regard yourself as a Scottish writer, or is it all bollocks?
LH: I regard myself as a Scottish writer in that I was born and have lived most of my life in Scotland and it is therefore very much part of my identity and something that makes me feel incredibly proud and at other times wildly frustrated. Scotland, like everywhere else, is made up of thousands of extremely complex, diverse, contradictory aspects which I like to explore as someone who lives in the capital city, when I am away from it and through the imagined eyes of someone unfamiliar with the place. I also feel very proud -- and very often equally frustrated -- to be part of the United Kingdom as a whole, having lived in, travelled around and made many great friends throughout these Isles both prior to and during my life as a writer.
Through travel, friendship, experience and my contact with other writers in the UK and throughout the world through my website, I also feel very much part of an international writing community with which I can share and compare ideas and experiences. We are all in the same wonderful, unfathomable, beautiful, shitty boat, wherever we live.
3:AM: Well the international perspective shines through with your website. What made you set it up and how do you see it developing as a platform?
LH: I first set up the site so I could showcase new, unpublished writers who I was meeting whilst tutoring courses, or were contacting me for advice on where they should submit their work. I also wanted to do something to help publicise the many independent literary magazines, websites and small presses that I came into contact with whilst seeking out new writers to read myself. As the website and showcase grew, I started receiving submissions from all over the world, and at the same time I was seeking out new writers from other sites and literary magazines/anthologies and asking them it they'd like to be featured. The reviews and interviews also developed from me writing the odd review myself, to receiving submissions and gradually I gathered a loyal band of reviewers who work voluntarily and like the same kind of writing as myself. I'm now very proud of the diversity of the site and the fact that someone can have their first published piece of work featured alongside established and award-winning authors such as Ali Smith, A. Igoni Barrett, Dan Fante, Allan Guthrie...
I also like the wide geographical mix of featured writers and the fact that there are no barriers to age, creed, religion, opinion, genre other than that I personally enjoy the writing I feature. The site is now approaching is two millionth hit and many of the writers included in the showcase over the past few years have gone on to have their work published in the mainstream press, anthologies and through publication of their own work. I love working on the site but it is increasingly overwhelmingly time-consuming, however, I hope to continue it in some form for as long as I can. I have thought about external funding but worry that this might compromise what I can and cannot include on it. I also plan to launch the site's first writing competition in the coming months and I'm in the process of contacting people who may like to sponsor prizes.
3:AM: Would you say you share the same influences as the writers you promote? Who are your influences?
LH: After I've accepted a piece to feature on the showcase I ask the writers to email me a few of their influences to feature alongside their work. Some writers I've discovered for the first time through this and other long-time favourites of mine just keep coming up: Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Alan Bennett, Harold Pinter, Nabokov, John and Dan Fante, Richard Brautigan, Alan Sillitoe, Michel Faber, Patricia Highsmith, Charles Bukowski...
Many of the showcased writers also seem to be influenced by film-makers I admire -- Ken Loach, Harmony Korine, Stanley Kubrick, Mike Leigh, Charlie Kaufman, Gaspar Noe, Lars Von Trier, Todd Solondz, Shane Meadows, Alan Clarke, Neil LaBute...
It's good to get a dialogue going about people whose work you love and aside from finding different people's influences fascinating, it also allows people visiting the site the chance to maybe discover other writers they had not previously heard of.
3:AM: What's your view on what could be termed the 'creative writing industry' these days?
LH: I hadn't really thought of it as an 'industry' before but know what you mean. I suppose these days, anywhere there is a perceived market of any kind, will be slowly saturated by both good and bad organisations and individuals trying to exploit that market. Personally, I think if someone has a compulsion to write, they will write, be it at home, in a mud hut, on a park bench, in prison, in a hospital bed. Traditionally people wrote in isolation. It was generally not till the work was finished that people get any sort of feedback. But I guess with the emergence of so many writers groups, collectives, courses, how-to books and magazines, websites they can put early drafts of their work and get feedback, many people like to have some form of response to their work before they see it as being complete. I don't think anyone can be taught how to write, but I do believe that both unpublished and published writers sometimes lack confidence. I've been tutoring creative writing courses for the Arvon Foundation for about seven years now. Arvon is a charity which holds residential writing courses in venues (in many cases bequested by deceased writers -- Ted Hughes, John Osbourne etc. throughout the UK. These courses give both published and unpublished writers the chance to interact, get support, advice, constructive criticism of their writing. I also do workshops in schools and in inner cities. I always enjoy working with people and getting to know them through their writing, both through working on these courses and through my website. At the same time I also see a lot of profit-making organisations setting up both in the UK and abroad where, in many cases, unpublished writers and people with questionable experience of publishing are setting themselves up as tutors and editors. I have no personal experience or know of anyone who has attended or been involved in any of these so I don't know how effective them may or may not be. I suppose at the end of the day though they must at least give participants some sort of sanctuary to write. I could go on about this one for hours but at the end of the day there are some good things out there and there is some exploitative crap out there. I endeavour not to promote any of the latter on my website.
3:AM: So, what's next for Laura Hird?
LH: My short story collection, Hope and Other Urban Tales was published last month by Canongate. Dear Laura will be published by in March 2007, which features letters my mum wrote to me during the time I was a student in London in the late 1980's, interspersed with my own feelings about our lives at that time, my parents' early lives and my own childhood, my relationship with my mother and father, regrets, memories. It was an emotional book to work on, but I could not resist the opportunity to finally get a book of my mum's writing out there. After that, Canongate have commissioned a sequel to my novel, Born Free, which I look forward to working on. I also recently co-edited a bilingual English/Italian issue of Storie magazine -- '10 Minute Scots,' co-wrote a song with King Creosote for a Chemikal Records project, and I'm hoping to soon be working on an anthology featuring writers from the showcase section of my site with Heidi James. I'm also working on a couple of projects with European film-makers, dramatising two stories from my first collection, Nail and Other Stories. And, of course my website, the next issue of which should go online over the festive season.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Laura Hird was born in 1966. She studied Contemporary Writing at Middlesex Polytechnic. In 1997 she was awarded a Scottish Arts Council Writer's Bursary to allow her to write full-time. She is the author of Nail and Other Stories (1997) and Born Free (1999), a novel set in Edinburgh, where she lives.
Hope and Other Urban Tales was published in 2006.