When reviewing Carl MacDougall’s new story collection Someone Always Robs the Poor, the Scotsman described him as a ‘towering figure’ of Scottish literature. It also said that the stories showed he had not lost any of his ‘distinctive style or ability to shock’. It concluded by saying this is a ‘masterful collection’. The Herald said that Someone Always Robs the Poor is ‘brutal but brilliant’. Here we asked Carl some questions about his new book and his wider career.
Over what kind of time-period were these stories written?
‘Korsakoff’s Psychosis’ was written more than 30 years ago. The others were written over the past four or five years, two within the last year.
Tell us about some of the themes covered within the collection
I never thought about this till I read something Iain Crichton Smith said, that I was drawn to people who are stuck and cannot help themselves. I think that’s true, but I also think I am drawn to those of us who are lost or stranded in one way or another, either through their experience or because they refuse to learn from their experience, or they are stranded by their belief, by things they can neither describe nor understand.
And of course, there’s always Scotland, in one form or another. We take it with us.
Do you work on short fiction in a linear fashion or do you have multiple stories in development at the same time?
There are usually a few ideas lying around at various stages of starting or finishing, but there comes a time when I have to work on an individual piece. I work on a story then leave it, work again and leave it and keep repeating the process till it’s done.
‘Korsakoff’s Psychosis’ is the longest story in the collection. Do you tend to know the approximate length of a story before you start writing or do you go where the narrative takes you?
Most of the time I have a fair idea. Korsakoff’s was different. I wrote the middle section and was unhappy with it, then after about a year, I went back to it and wrote the other sections and then I left it alone.
You’ve written three novels and one other story collection, but there’s been a long gap since you last published fiction. Why the gap and how does it feel to have new fiction ‘out there’…?
It feels good. It feels like me, as if I am fully represented.
You have demonstrated commitment to the short story, not least in your seminal anthology of Scottish short fiction, The Devil and the Giro – did compiling such an exhaustive work influence your own story writing afterwards?
I wanted to do The Devil and The Giro because as a Scottish short story writer, living and working in Scotland I could find no short story collection that had more than 10 or a dozen pieces. And until we started publishing stories in Words magazine, there was no place where Scottish short story writers could be published. The theory was they weren’t being written. I knew differently and set about proving it and have been doing pretty much the same thing ever since.
I think the biggest influence on my work is the knowledge that I am part of a tradition that goes back as far as we can go, which is why I put oral stories in The Devil and The Giro.
You’ve co-edited seven separate editions of New Writing Scotland – what are the pleasures and challenges of working with emerging writers work?
The pleasure has mainly been working with other people and finding agreement, of course there are pieces of dissent here and there, but it’s more usually quite literally a co-production. Another, perhaps more lasting pleasure is seeing how people whose names you have encountered for the first time in the NWS submissions grow and develop.
The list of folk who were first published in NWS and who have gone on to greater things is very impressive. It isn’t a sense of someone being discovered. That would have happened anyway, but it would have taken longer and been much more difficult without NWS.
You presented two major BBC 2 TV series on Scots language and literature in the mid-naughties. How challenging an experience was it?
They were lovely experiences. I enjoyed them enormously. I was working with good people who cared about what they were doing and lasting friendships have come from it.
I think the main challenge came when I realised we could not do everything, that there were ideas, people, work and subjects that would have to be left, that, in fact, we could do little more than scratch the surface. But that’s fine, considering it had never been done before.
The real job then became showing people they had a heritage, that there was a birthright that was being denied them, that for a small country whose population had been steadily declining for more than 200 years we produced and are still producing writers who could take their place on the world stage.
What do you think of the airtime given to Scottish literature these days?
I don’t keep a track of it, but it’s as though Writing Scotland never happened. I would have thought it could have been a springboard into other things, other people, other ideas, but the feeling seems to be that it’s been done and doesn’t need to be revisited.
You’re President of Scottish PEN. When did you take on the role and why?
Scottish PEN has been around for 90 years the good news is that we are still doing the work that writers are uniquely qualified to do, speaking on behalf of those whose voices have been forcibly silenced, those who can no longer speak for themselves.
I have believed in PEN and in what PEN stands for long before I knew it existed. But in times like these belief is not enough. It has to be followed by action and we must continue to press the point that across the world people are being jailed often without sentence for doing little more than expressing freedoms we take for granted.
And this is one of the reasons why PEN is absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, there are many more. In a world of alternative facts, where truth is a variable, freedom of expression and belief is under threat, here as elsewhere, and it is our duty while we still can to expose and continue to expose these breaches and to support the victims whose bravery in conditions we will never know, often brings a higher price than we can understand.
For if PEN stands for anything it stands for empathy and compassion and it seems to me that it is only when these are combined with understanding that we can begin to approach the truth.
Carl MacDougall is appearing with Ron Butlin at Aye Write! Glasgow’s Book Festival on Sunday 12th March at 3pm, tickets available here
More about Someone Always Robs the Poor here