When people ask for a Scottish book recommendation, the answer I most commonly give is Ron Butlin’s The Sound of My Voice, a novel still known by too few. Butlin is one of the most interesting and inventive writers at work over the last 50 years, whether as a novelist, poet (he was Edinburgh’s Makar from 2008 to 2014), or librettist, whose work has been adapted by Scottish Opera. However, it is The Sound of My Voice that still seems to prompt the most fervent reaction.
At the time of publication, Irvine Welsh called it ‘One of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the 80s’, and few have matched it since. Earlier this year the news emerged of a sequel, So Many Lives and All of Them Are Yours, and SNACK spoke to Ron Butlin to learn why this was a story he wanted to return to.
So Many Lives and All of Them Are Yours is a sequel to The Sound of My Voice, which was published in 1987. Why did you want to write it now?
I didn’t! After writing the opening pages of a new story about a man called Alfred arriving at midnight in a strange village, I read them to my wife. ‘Scrub Alfred!’, she says. ‘That’s Morris out of The Sound.’ Next morning I carry on with Alfred… and it stays midnight all day. I’m stuck. Stuck big time. Until… until I scrub Alfred, call him Morris, and all at once I can sense the whole new novel out there in the future, waiting for me.
What was it like to return to the life of Morris Magellan after all this time? Did you feel his was a story unfinished?
Morris was a functioning alcoholic, a business executive who had it all: money, status, wife, kids, and the best of everything – he lived the dream, and it was turning into a nightmare. Yes, his story was definitely unfinished. Look at the state of Britain today, look at the planet.
As a reader, it was quite emotional to learn how Magellan’s life had unfolded since The Sound of My Voice and it made me wonder if you ever have readers in your thoughts when writing.
Certainly not when I start. My first draft is always a mad dash from one broken-off scene to another to get down as much as I can of the characters, the world they live in and possible narratives. Finally, many months later, I end up with a jumble of unrelated scraps and sketches, like a box of jigsaw pieces scattered on the table. Second draft, I wonder how the pieces might fit together – there’s no picture on the box to help me! By the 20th draft, I feel I’m ready to show the novel-in-progress to my first reader, my wife. Then the work really starts.
Did you have Morris Magellan’s back story in mind from the beginning?
Not at all. As I write, I discover. Also, I found myself drawing on my own chaotic past – life on the London streets; the power of music to hold us together. It wasn’t conscious, but came into the narrative quite naturally. Everything that’s ever happened to us is still happening.
And his children, whom he still thinks of as ‘The Accusations’ (although perhaps with more fondness than previously) return. The idea of love, and the hope it offers, is something which is intrinsic in the novel. Why did you want to explore that idea?
Love is surely all of us at our best. Even a life-casualty like Morris yearns to love and be loved in return. Yearning, however, is not enough. As he painstakingly discovers.
Part of the novel is set during lockdown. Did that serve the story, or did you want to examine that strange time and its effect as well?
As Morris observes: ‘Lockdown? He has been in lockdown for as long as he can remember. It is who he is.’
The Sound of My Voice was written (almost) entirely in second-person narration. This time around, the narration changes depending on when the story is being told. Can you talk about why you wrote So Many Lives and All of Them Are Yours as you chose to?
There’s no choosing this or anything much when creating a novel. In the course of many drafts this novel went through first, second and third-person narration – sometimes all three! – until the voices sounded true. I go with what feels right. Like in music, I try to avoid playing bum notes.
The themes in So Many Lives and All of Them Are Yours are serious, but there is comedy, if dark. Is it important that exists?
The Scotsman reviewer stressed that the novel is serious, but rich in comedy. I want to up the comedy in my next book. The way things are, we all need it.
And what is next for you?
Comedy, luckily. A text for an actor to perform with Swiss musicians – totally absurd: kitchen utensils turning promiscuous after hours! To music by Bohuslav Martinů . Great fun!