Alan Bissett is a novelist, playwright and performer whose debut novel Boyracers (2001) introduced an important voice in Scottish writing. Lazy Susan is his first book of prose for a decade, and he spoke to SNACK about it.
Your new novella is called Lazy Susan. How would you describe it, and how would you describe ‘Susan’?
It is a wee riot of a book, and so is Susan. She is a kinda Scottish, working-class Holly Golightly, a 22-year-old party-girl from Fife who has come from nothing but has ambitions to be a social media influencer.
We follow her over the course of one weekend, flitting between different parties on the East Coast. She’s fun to be around and she’s an optimist, but there are complications in her life – her Mum isn’t speaking to her and her best pals are all settling down and leaving her behind. The book is told from Susan’s point of view, and I take a few risks with the narrative structure that will make it a bit of an unconventional read. But I want folks to discover what I mean by that only once they’ve opened the book.
This sees your return to writing fiction after almost a decade away, since 2011’s Pack Men. Why now, and why this story?
There were just a multitude of factors that made it difficult to write a novel over the last decade. I threw myself into campaign mode during the independence referendum and novels take too long to write, publish, and consume to make them an effective medium for responding quickly to current events. Then shortly after the referendum I had children and they take up huge amounts of your time and energy.
Also, I’d gone into theatre and was really having fun there. You can write plays more quickly, and clearing the decks for a novel would’ve really slowed me down as a playwright. But I somehow still considered writing prose fiction the ‘day job’, and I’ve longed to return to it.
Basically, Speculative Books published the scripts for my Moira Monologues plays last year and also offered me a wee deal for a novella. I knew I didn’t have the time or headspace to write a full novel yet, but I figured a novella would get me back in that zone. Susan was the character who was buzzing about in my head, and so as soon as I’d committed to giving her room to emerge – bang! Out she came, no stopping her. It was just a nice convergence of forces that brought me back to prose.
Do you think working in other areas, and I’m thinking particularly of your theatre work, helped or affected the way you approached returning to writing prose?
I learned a lot from the immediacy of theatre. You have to grab an audience from the word go and hold them in an intense spell over the course of an hour so that they are literally thinking about nothing else. You develop a much stronger sense of storytelling and pacing, which I found I was applying to prose fiction once I went back to it.
You proudly describe Lazy Susan as a novella, an often overlooked form of prose fiction – was this a deliberate decision, or did it just fit this story?
Well, at a practical level – having not written prose for ten years – a novella was just less daunting than a full-length novel but still allowed me to exercise long-neglected muscles again. So the ‘limbering up’ element of it appealed to me. But then I started enjoying the restrictions that the form was setting down.
I had a word-count ceiling and that forced me to find a neat, manageable size for the story – one weekend over the course of one girl’s life. How do I show the maximum of a person within that time frame? It reminded me a bit of writing for ‘A Play, A Pie and A Pint’ in the Oran Mor. They stipulate you can have three actors and a 50-min time slot. The limitations make you focus. You can’t sprawl. But you can still innovate.
Like when you see a film with zero budget but tons of imagination? I always like a creative challenge, so the novella form, one I’ve never written in before, gave me boundaries I could really respond to creatively.
Sitting on the side-lines for ten years, so to speak, how have you viewed Scottish writing, and particularly fiction, over that time?
Well when my first novel, Boyracers, was published in 2001 it was right at the tail end of that kind of ‘Rebel Inc’ moment in Scottish literature, post-Trainspotting, when loads of working class voices pushed through, which is possibly why Boyracers got a hearing at the time. But very quickly after that Scottish working class writing – and also Scottish surreal writing – fell sharply out of fashion and was considered ‘very Nineties’ for a good fifteen years or so.
For quite a while people only wanted to read crime fiction from Scottish writers, and many, very fine, crime writers did emerge from Scotland in that time. But, observing things recently, it feels like the pendulum has swung away from genre fiction again, so now you’ve got the likes of Jenni Fagan, Kerry Hudson, Graeme Armstrong and Chris McQueer, Scottish working-class writers who’ve all had major breakthroughs with stuff that isn’t easily marketable. So it all feels possible again.
These things are cyclical, I now realise.
The 2010s were a historic, often volatile and divisive, decade for Scotland – politically, culturally, and socially – and for a large part of it you were at the heart of the discussions being had. How do you look back at this time personally, and for the nation?
I look back on it as an immensely positive and hopeful time in my life, one which I’ll forever be proud of being part of. I gave everything I had to the independence movement, but we didn’t win (yet), so after that I wanted to go off and explore different things and themes, rather than just be ‘that independence guy’ forever.
There’s nothing at all about Scottish independence in Lazy Susan, for example. But I think it was a rare period in recent history when Scotland seemed on the brink of massive, epochal change, which is of course why the ruling establishment – abetted by their local branches in Scotland – threw lightning bolts from the sky to stop us.
We shook the pillars of the British state, and who knows? It might yet fall. I have little children to raise now, though, and I live in a small community that I want to try and support, so being a public agitator is no longer where I want to devote my energies. That said, absolutely nothing has happened since 2014 to make me think Scotland didn’t make a huge mistake in voting No, so I can happily stand by the me from that period.
Lazy Susan is published by Speculative Press
Signed copies can be ordered from alanbissett.com
Alan will be taking part in the opening event of the Paisley Book Festival 2021