In the space of just three novellas, Polygon Books’ Darkland Tales has become a must-read series, with its contemporary takes on moments and people from Scottish history. Following on from Denise Mina’s Rizzio and Jenni Fagan’s Hex comes Alan Warner’s Nothing Left to Fear from Hell, which reimagines the enigmatic and complex character of Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. SNACK spoke to Alan Warner to find out more.
How did Polygon pitch Darkland Tales to you, and did you immediately know the story you wanted to tell?
I can’t recall exactly – just Bonnie Prince Charlie on the run. In my bonkers novel, The Man Who Walks, the final scene happens on Culloden battlefield, where a Hollywood movie production is filming a scene on the actual battlefield; a weird historical palimpsest. I think Jamie Crawford at Polygon had a hunch I was interested in the period. Which I always have been. When I was 13 or 14 I made my poor mother drive me to Culloden battlefield from Oban for the day. In those times, in the later 70s, the battlefield was covered in Forestry Commission conifers, which is sort of astonishing when you think back on it. They have since been felled, and luckily the archaeological record was not that badly damaged by all the tree roots, tractors, and plants on it, as you can see by Tony Pollard’s fantastic research work on the battlefield with
Bonnie Prince Charlie is a historical figure that many people will be aware of, but still know little about. Why did you want to write about him? Did writing Nothing Left to Fear from Hell give you a new appreciation for the prince and the mythology which surrounds him?
Well, Charles Edward Stuart is a bit more compelling than Prince Harry and Meghan. He was only about 25 years old when he managed to raise a whole army in months, in a country he had never set foot in, win two battles against the odds, and completely rock the Hanoverian status quo down in London. I don’t feel romantic or sentimental about him, but he is a cross between a rock star and a Renaissance prince, with a modern vulnerability thrown in. More interesting for me is just: what was he really like, and what was the ’45 really like? To BE there? It happened. It’s as real as today: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the colour and the horror. Writing the book gave me a bit more insight as to how driven he was – rapacious ambition, really – I read much more about the 1750s and 60s, and you see how the Jacobite project continues in his mind. Even when time and modern politics have moved on, he is still scheming to get the crown for his dad. His dad lived a long time, so at some point he realised it was never going to happen.
Aside from Charles you also depict other historical figures. How do you approach writing characters who lived? Is it different to creating your own?
All you can do is imagine and project, so it is similar. If you had to write Tony Blair – God forbid – it would be the same. The prince’s companions and protectors during his flight and fugitive period were important, men like MacEachen, an intelligent seminarian who bizarrely became father to one of Napoleon’s great generals, Étienne Macdonald.
And O’Sullivan, who was really a literal mercenary, though again an interesting one. We should also not forget the anonymous highlanders and clansmen who never sold him out, and protected him, often at huge personal cost. It was Denis Diderot, the great French writer, who, when asked for proof of human goodness on this earth, gave as an example the highlanders’ universal refusal to give up Charles Edward Stuart for a huge monetary reward.
I read some of the letters and accounts but it’s the usual thing. They disagree over facts – people like to draw themselves in a good light and as more significant than they might have been. We would all be the same. Later, people wanted to be associated with his glamour and romance but not with the disaster of the rising.
The best historical fiction – and perhaps all historical fiction – speaks to the present day. Is that something you agree with, and did you gain a fresh perspective on the modern world by writing Nothing Left to Fear from Hell?
I wonder if the power of the genre is that time is always the subject? The way none of us can recapture time: our lost youth, our regrets, past joys and sorrows. The mystery of time, how it telescopes, changes, becomes subjective for us all, moves quickly then slowly through our lives and then gets us all in the end. Maybe we read historical fiction looking for answers and guidance, hoping not to repeat mistakes. Obviously, it doesn’t work! I am not sure I gained a fresh perspective: humans are rapacious, they look for advancement through all history, it seems, but within this wasteland still lies love and humour, tenderness and beauty. Those things endure as well.
I think the novella is currently an underrated format. What are the challenges it offers, and do you enjoy addressing them? Do you enjoy reading them?
I agree with you, though I think of it more as a short novel. The Great Gatsby is a short novel (and I am NOT comparing my work to it, not for a microsecond) but it still has this huge reverberation. Size doesn’t really matter. The short novel might risk being slight and inconsequential, but that’s better than a huge, self-important 499-page washing-machine-securer. It was helpful in that I knew there was an end in sight. When I begin one of my own penny dreadfuls, it’s terrifying as I never know where it will end, how long or short it might be.
There’s comedy throughout, often found in surreal imagery such as someone recollecting being spanked by a fish and the descriptions of Bonnie Prince Charlie in disguise. Your writing often has an uncanny and strange quality to it. Is that a result of how you encounter the world, or is it all in the writing?
Well, I am not sure; in this life you must have a bit of a sense of humour to get through it, even if mine is somewhat bleak. There were examples of humour that come through from that time, which is wonderful to see. There had to be humour, the same way there had to be sex – but those aspects are just not mentioned in almost all the records which remain.
Did you do a lot of research for the book? If so, are there texts you might recommend to readers?
In a weird way, staring at maps for hours on end was almost as important as reading. I state some of the books that helped in the afterword, especially Eric Linklater’s wonderful wee book (almost like a tourist guide text) from the 60s, The Prince in the Heather, which is really exhaustive on the itinerary of Charles Edward Stuart on the run. Linklater’s massive research is lightly worn in that book, and I pay it huge respect.
Would you write more historical fiction, and if so do you have any periods or figures you would consider?
I am tussling with two: a novel which flips between World War II and Scotland today, called Fortification of the Township, and one set in the Napoleonic period from a certain point of view, which has become difficult. This has given me a wee bit of confidence on that one. I tinker a lot, though – ever hopeful.
Do you have any future projects you can tell our readers about?
Irvine Welsh and John King and I are doing another book together in the summer called The View from Poacher’s Hill, short fiction. It’s like being in a band with those two gents.
Nothing Left to Fear from Hell is available now, published on the Polygon Books imprint of Birlinn Ltd