I’m very pleased I have a chance to talk to Ewan Morrison, an extremely talented writer from Scotland, author of several novels (Swung, Distance, Menage, Tales from the Mall and Close Your Eyes) and short stories (The Last Book You Read and Other Stories), he also writes for film and TV and directs. His debut novel received a nice review by another great Scottish writer, Irwine Welsh, and he wrote: “Swung is a beautifully crafted, completely realised and often inspirational book, and it announces Morrison as one of the most interesting and exciting voices to emerge in Scottish fiction in recent years.”
Ewan can be found on ewanmorrison.com, and visit him on Facebook&Twitter you can also read many of his articles on The Guardian website.
Hi, Ewan – what would Ewan Morrison tell us about Ewan Morrison?
I’d tell you that I’m a writer who is very much tied into currents in society, so I’m not a writer of fantasy or escapism. I’m also someone who gets very bothered by the things in the human species and in our era which seem to me hypocritical or malfunctioning, so I explore these things – these are things like our ideas about romantic love; the idea that people are intrinsically good; that the internet is a liberating place; that we are ‘born free’ and so on. Actually I see that a lot of what makes up modern society is a collection of tightly bound ‘comforting lies’ – little narratives that we tell ourselves every day to make ourselves feel good about ourselves, and I see that this is why when life starts to go wrong for us – we lose a job or a partner or have trouble with children or their lack – we become completely undone, we explode, because the comforting lies become exposed and we can’t live by them anymore, while we watch everyone else going on with their lives within the big comforting lie.
I’m one of those writers who puts lies we live on the table and wants us to face our own hypocrisy and ‘lostness’. As a result, people tend not to like me or my writing very much. I seem to be appreciated by those who have know what its like to be lost without a narrative to live by. These are few in number but are a special kind of people. Perhaps a dying breed in this age of internet amnesia and artificial happiness.
The Last Book You Read and Other Stories is a marvelous short story collection, but what struck me the most, was the first person female characters you created so genuinely. I mean, I almost checked the cover again to see if it was actually written by a woman! 🙂 How do you achieve that?
Women have often said this too and one female novelist said I should have been nominated for the UKs female author award. I’ve been reading a lot of new male authors recently and they bore me with their ‘structure over emotion’ and their pretentiousness.
But I’m avoiding your question – why do I write women ‘genuinely’? I think it might be something to down to my childhood and not being allowed into the world of boys and men. I was a social outcast and was experienced physical abuse from ‘boys.’ This was a quite extreme form of bullying and I was branded a ‘poof’ and a ‘girl’. I responded at an early age to women’s greater empathy and whether I liked it or not people associated me with ‘the feminine’. I decided to make the most of it in my twenties and was one of those grungey ‘transgressors’ who was a ‘gender bender – a slacker with girls make-up and a taste in terrifying music, and I explored every side to my sexuality which included different ways of being feminine and queer.
The world is far too monotonous and its sufferings are far too predictable. I’ve hated the male/female split for twenty years. At first I thought it was an ‘ideological construct’ as we did when (in the 90s) post modernism was still alive. Now that it has died and biology and neuroscience are our new filters for seeing the world, the male/female split seems even more horrific and deterministic. I abhor it – it is as the Buddha and Schopenhauer both agreed, the source of all suffering in the world.
Male writers are vanishing, historically speaking, because the financial base for supporting writers is decreasing and women now read 80% of all fiction, they 90% of the books they buy are written by women. I know many male writers who are now on the edge of poverty. Novels will be entirely for and by women within a decade unless something drastic happens.
You spent quite some time in New York – how did The City That Never Sleeps influence your writing?
If I had never gone to New York I would never have started writing. I had been a filmmaker and went to NYC, just after 9/11 (one month after) to make a feature film. The film fell through and wrecked what I thought was my career, so I ended up writing ‘for me’. Actually whenever I forget to write for me, which involves writing truthfully and with brutal honesty about things that hurt people (with a bit of humour), that is when I do my worst writing. I go back to the writing I did in New York (The Last Book Your Read and Other stories) as a kind of well from which I draw my water. It was the New York crisis in my life that threw me into being a novelist.
Other than that I was crazy about New York. I did the musical tour of the city all by myself – went up to ‘Lexington/125’ to pay homage to Lou Reed (“feel sick and dirty more dead than alive”). Went to a Bleeker Street Café (“found someone to love today”) to pay homage to Joni Mitchell. Went to the Chelsea Hotel to pay Homage to Janis J and Leonard C, the Ramones, Sid and Nancy and Andy Warhol. One day in Chelsea I saw Lou Reed in the street walking a goddamn poodle with Laurie Anderson. New York, blew me away, on a daily basis. I understand how it burns people up. I hate to quote any of the songs about New York but they are all true.
A novel or a short story? Which do you prefer?
It’s about paying respect to an idea. Some ideas are short and sharp like a seduction, others are long and last a generation like a marriage. The first is a short story, the second a novel. Any creative object is a hybrid of form and content – but the two have to emerge together. I love form and experimenting with new shapes for writing but experimenting with form for its own sake is empty, so there has to be a content – which is a human element which helps shape the form. In my book Tales from the Mall, I took something that was too big to be a novel and broke it into short stories, tales, facts, data, anecdotes and pictures. The form and content found each other after three years of writing. So, no I don’t prefer one form or the other.
Do you have a special routine or ritual to help you get your creative juices flowing?
If my juices ever stop flowing I have an odd ritual – I give up on trying to create anything at all and instead I copy. I copy out something that someone else who I admire has written. This will usually be a bit of philosophy rather than fiction – at the moment I’m obsessed with Schopenhauer and he gives me a kick start on most mornings when I can’t face ever writing again. My other ritual is that I carry a notepad with me always and I make very small entries. I have done this since I was seventeen and have hundreds of them now. The things I write down are usually sayings, aphorisms or things I’ve heard that are incisive. So at the moment one page my notepad has the following quotes:
“Every time a friend succeeds I die a little” Gore Vidal.
“You get what you get and you don’t get upset” American Kindergarten saying.
“We have to ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak” Epictetus
I often ask writers whether they have written, or thought about writing for film and TV – you actually wrote for both and also directed. Plus your writing almost reads like a movie. Does that come from your experience as a visual storyteller or does the word come first and image after?
I see pictures in my head when I write, I see ‘scenes’. I find it impossible to read books by writers who don’t write in pictures. Dostoevsky reads like cinema. Proust does not. Beckett is like a very slow arty movie but Will Self is like a long drawn out pub joke. I think there’s more to ‘seeing cinematically’ than just being influenced by cinema. All of the metaphors for cinema are consistent with psychoanalysis. You have ‘projection’ and ‘screen memories’. So I think writing in pictures is writing that is closer to the way that the subconscious works.
I’m going to be directing again and the feature film adaptation of my novel ‘Swung’ is going to arrive in the world this year (It stars Elena Anaya).
One thing that saddens me is how the internet is killing independent cinema through destroying DVD sales and then demonetizing through piracy. DVDs were the lifeblood for the indies – that tiny ten percent profit margin that kept tiny companies and interesting directors alive and autonomous. The ‘free’ culture of the internet has made it harder and harder to get films made – unless you can get a shitty little job on a corporate blockbuster or want to shoot the film yourself for your 150 youtube buddies. I was lucky enough to live through the glory days of the booming independent cinema movement: Hal Hartley, Neil Labute, Todd Solondz. These guys are all getting killed off by the internet now, and nothing of quality is taking their place.
TV is another story. Try getting any TV made without a dead body in it!
Both your film and TV work and your writing received several awards – how do you feel about awards?
I have mixed feelings about awards. We’ve been forced to depend more and more on the publicity around awards as the book buying market shrinks. Awards create an audience for literary (not genre) books but they also destroy the readership for literary books that aren’t nominated for awards. It’s getting so that a novelist can’t sell more than 2000 copies without being shortlisted for a major award. We saw this last year when Will Self’s last book didn’t make the Booker shortlist and he reported that his book sales went well below the 2000 mark. I also know novelists who have won the biggest awards in the world (ten years ago) and who now can’t get more than a couple of thousand pounds as an advance for their next book. What have they got to do, win these awards all over again? The market is now brutal. Publishers can only submit one book per award a year so they might as well only publish one book a year and really promote it.
I think there are too many ‘first time’ awards and far too much attention is given to first time writers – Why? Because they are better? Because we like to encourage the young as we like to smile at babies? No, because the culture as a whole fetishizes sexy young good looking people – they look better in newspaper photos. People want to befriend them or seduce them or imagine that they are young again and live vicariously through their youth. I always allow the young their youth and beauty but honestly, it is all that they have going for them. They lack wisdom, hurt, resentment, grief, the riches of life. So many young writers are just ‘faking it till they make it’ and a lot of them come from wealthy families and love to self promote on the internet.
First time writers can’t write as well as writers with five novels under their belt, that’s a fact and many of them are one hit wonders.
So I’d scrap first time write awards and make them compete with the grown-ups, and I’d scrap cheap books and ebooks and make people pay ten euros as a base rate for every book. That would get rid of all of the really bad ‘self publisher’ writers out there who are undercutting the livelihood of the writers of quality with their free and 99c books.
I’d basically institute a very oppressive regime which would protect something very fragile. This makes me a cultural conservative, a thing that amazes me as I have been both a post modernist and a Trotskyist in the past.
How important do you find the Social Media for your work, promotion and networking with other writers and readers?
I distrust social media – I’ve written articles about ‘the lie of the social media platform’ for the Guardian. I despair of over the vast number of amateur writers, writers of fan fiction and derivative prose who believe in self promoting their largely free ebooks online. Its unfair on them to think that they will ever have an audience. There is an entire generation out there who are going to be crushed by a whole new kind of failure. Yes a new kind of failure because internet self-publishing did not exist six years ago and neither did this mythical dream that you can become a self publishing star. As Seneca said ‘misfortune weighs most heavily upon those who expect good fortune.’
Message to anyone who puts “author” before their name on their facebook or twitter page – Don’t debase a form you don’t understand by claiming that you have already achieved something in it. If I wanted to be a plumber but had never had a job as a plumber would I put plumber before my name? How about surgeon. ‘Surgeon Ewan Morrison’.
There are 3 million new authors on Amazon and most of them are peddling fan fiction and rip-offs of other books. We don’t need this stuff cluttering up our lives, and novelists don’t need it stealing peoples reading time.
Writers should just write and let other professional PR people do their PR online and offline. Writers who give tips on how to be a success on their websites and twitter pages are degrading the profession of writing and encouraging people to waste even more of their lives on social media. I’ve confronted these charlatans in the past in public and accused them of being ‘snake oil salesmen.’ Most of these ‘writers who give self publishing tips’ are poor writers who have to supplement their incomes by selling variations on the classic ‘how to get rich’ manuals.
The proof of the whole online self-promotion things is that almost every single ‘author who was an internet success’ has moved over to a ‘proper publisher’.
As for networking, yes it works for some, but I hold to an old motto from the Glasgow School of Art – ‘by their work shall ye know them.’ Its maybe an old fashioned idea but I believe that the quality of an artwork should be independent of the social skills and good looks of the artist. This used to hold to be true and many of the greatest artists of the 20th century were ugly, anti-social individuals and hermits.
It’s worth asking yourself before you are about to send out a self-promoting tweet – would Hemingway have done this?
‘Hi Guys, just heading down to the beach check out my suicide notes. LOL’
If you sell yourself through your social skills you will be judged ultimately on them. So what happens when you need to spend four years working on an immensely personal, focused, radical text that requires solitude. You just drop off the self promoting spectrum.
Any writer who is going to last beyond their own lifetime has to commune with that deeper self and the silent structures of great thought and that means difficult solitary digging, not social media or social skills.
I can’t believe it but there are actually people who call themselves writers out there who tweet about the progress they are making while writing.
‘Guess what – just finishing the last chapter in my new awesome novel. Yay!’
Such people will implode when they are ignored for two weeks let alone two years. Such people will never write anything great because they are distracting themselves with multi-tasking and actually re-wiring their brains to have to receive constant feedback, praise and ego support from others.
There is no social media in the grave. I try whenever possible to think about everything from the point of view of death.
Who are your literary (and film) heroes?
Don Delillo. Philip Roth. Schopenhauer. Jane Anne Philips. Kierkegaard. Epictetus. Lorrie Moore.
Antonioni, Bertolucci, Tarkovsky, Bella Tarr, Gus Van Sant.
Most of all I come back again and again to Tarkovsky and transcendence in cinema. ‘The Mirror’ is the greatest work of art I have ever witnessed. I have ‘the script’ for it too and it is unlike anything I’ve ever read – it is not even a script or a story. I am not even a Christian but I understand transcendence as a goal and an achievement in his work (as a subject and as something within the form itself). I often find myself yearning for Tarkovsky scenes in my own work and in films and TV I see, this is the moment where I say to myself – ‘enough humans, for Christ sake! I am sick of their noise and petty live; their pointless cyclic miseries. Get rid of their stupid faces and words, let me have landscape, movement, wind, music (always Bach) fire, silence, light, dreams, dark, the mystery of objects in themselves.’
The closest I’ve come to a form which is like ‘The Mirror’ is ‘Close Your Eyes’ and I only realized that after I completed it. It’s my most silent of books. I’m going to revisit ‘The Mirror’ again soon because of the incredible introduction scene with the stammering boy. I had a stammer as a child and so did my father, and I want to write more from the inner mind of the stammerer. It is a dangerous mind, despairing and apocalyptic, vengeful and full of dreams.
What’s on your work desk on at the moment?
A cheap but large Buddha from a garden centre. A picture of a fresco of St. Francis from a trip to Assisi. A music stand for holding books open. 27 pens. Post it notes. A wrist support due to my having developed a writing related injury (incurable). The diary of Anne Frank. Seven notepads. Two pairs of glasses. A tibettan meditation bowl. Two stereo speakers. An old macbook with a broken keyboard and a plug in one instead. Notes on Evolutionary Psychology and a secret novel with two weeks worth of revisions to be completed. A post it note that says ‘Political fairytales’ another that says ‘For a Man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all victories.’ Plato. Another that says Michael Gira.
Thank you, Ewan!