Rain-lashed streets, gloomy cops, grisly crimes; you may not know the name William McIlvanney but you know the genre of fiction he pioneered. Author John Niven meets a living icon
It was Glasgow on a Friday night, the city of the stare.’ How well I recall reading the opening sentence of William McIlvanney’s novel The Papers Of Tony Veitch for the first time, back in the early Nineties when I was still a student at Glasgow University. It was the first book of his I read and, by the time I was a few pages in I sighed, almost with weariness, because – to paraphrase Martin Amis on Saul Bellow – I knew that here was a writer by whom I was going to have to read everything.
Tony Veitch (1983) was the second book to feature Glasgow detective Laidlaw, the creation that McIlvanney is best known for. (The first book in the series, Laidlaw, was published in 1977. The last, Strange Loyalties, in 1991.) With the character, he introduced something we hadn’t seen before – the hard-boiled detective who read philosophy and poetry and had an intelligence and sensitivity at odds with the usual tropes of the genre. Here was a novel that might have been written by Raymond Chandler or James M Cain, but set in Glasgow instead of Los Angeles, and with a central character that walked through violence, death and despair with Albert Camus in his head. It was hugely influential on everything from Ian Rankin to (controversially, and more of which later) Taggart.
And now, happily, Canongate is reissuing all three Laidlaw novels, introducing the 76-year-old ‘Godfather Of Tartan Noir’ to an entirely new generation. And even more happily, ShortList asked me to meet McIlvanney for lunch.
Like myself, McIlvanney came from a roughcast Ayrshire town (Kilmarnock in his case, Irvine in mine) and went on to Glasgow University before becoming a novelist. I had a sense we’d get on. We met in an Italian restaurant on the south side of Glasgow. In the flesh, McIlvanney looks a little like George Orwell: there’s a gauntness to the cheeks, and that moustache – a thin bristle of silver. But where Orwell was frail and dead by 50, McIlvanney, nearing 80, is very much alive: tall and robust with clear, penetrating blue eyes. Over black pudding salad (McIlvanney), risotto (me) and dry white wine (both of us, a fair bit of it) we discussed his long career. He was fine company.
John Niven: How early in life were you conscious that you wanted to write?
William McIlvanney: I remember writing a poem when I was 14. It was quite a heavy thing, about sex and betrayal. Pretty advanced for a 14-year-old. It was just like it fell out of the sky. Like this extraterrestrial thing. I ran outside and showed it to my brother, who was sawing wood out the back. He looked at it and said, “Did you really write this, Willie?” And I said, “Aye,” and he said, “Bloody hell. It’s amazing.” So there was this encouragement immediately. And I often wonder, if I hadn’t had that reaction, I might not have written anything else.
Were your parents encouraging? Kilmarnock in the Forties was an unlikely time and place for a working-class boy to want to be a writer.
My father was wonderfully benign about my ambitions. He never really read anything I wrote, or offered an opinion, but if he said, “What are you doing there, son?” and I said, “I’m writing a poem,” he’d just say, “Oh right. Fine.” I remember overhearing a conversation between my mum and dad where they were discussing my future. I’d have been 14 or 15, and you could leave school at that age then, and my dad was saying, “Well, maybe he should be getting a job and bringing in some money.” Which is what you did back then, and it’s kind of what I assumed I’d be doing. But my mum said, “No. Not that boy. He’s going to stay on at school if that’s what he wants to do.” And she was made of steel, my mum. My dad knew better than to argue with her.
Can you remember the exact moment you found out you were going to be a published writer?
Of course. It would have been 1965. I was teaching at the time, and I got back to my flat and the woman who lived below us had brought up a telegram for me that had been delivered to her place. I opened it and it was from my agent, and it just said, “Book accepted for publication.” I ran downstairs and hugged her. The advance was £200, but I didn’t care about that. It could have been nothing.
With Laidlaw, there’s an energy and freshness in the way you write about Glasgow that could only come from someone who wasn’t from there.
Well that’s interesting. Maybe I did bring that eye to it. I first came to the city in the early Fifties to go to Glasgow University. I remember getting some criticism, people saying, “Oh, you know he’s not even from here?” As though I wasn’t entitled to make Glasgow Laidlaw’s city because I wasn’t born here. But I was from Ayrshire, for Christ’s sake. It’s only 30 miles away. It’s not Outer Mongolia.
What about methodology? How do you write? Computer? Typewriter? Do you keep certain hours and aim for a specific word count every day?
I write longhand and then have it typed up. And, no, for me it’s different every time. Sometimes you’ll have streaks where you’re writing and writing, and other times – nothing. Whatever I have that works for me, I can’t force it. Writing a novel, you never really know it’s there until it’s there. For me it’s like riding an unbroken horse every single time.
Can we talk about Laidlaw being the inspiration for Taggart?
Well, ‘inspiration’ is one way of putting it. Let’s just say I had a few meetings with BBC Scotland – this would be the late Seventies – about doing a television version of Laidlaw. Nothing came of it, and then suddenly there was Taggart. A friend called me and said, “Willie, all they’ve done in this is change the location of where the body’s found.” I thought about suing, but these things just consume all your energy and, if I’d lost, I’d still be paying for it now. My mum could never watch Taggart. She’d throw a shoe at the television when it came on.
When I knew we were meeting, I asked a few fellow Scottish novelists if they had anything they’d like to ask you. Shall I fire away?
This question is from Andrew O’Hagan: ‘There’s a scene in Docherty where a teacher clouts a boy for speaking in his native Ayrshire dialect. You wrote that before the whole question of dialect and power came to be spoken about – at least in the way it is now – with James Kelman and Irvine Welsh and company. Was this something you’d been wanting to explore?’
Oh, Andrew’s a lovely man. Certainly I was very interested in reflecting the way characters spoke in my part of the world. It was never something I felt worked for me beyond the dialogue. And I received a certain amount of stick for that, for not extending the Scottish vernacular into the narrative in the way that James Kelman and, later, Irvine Welsh did.
You said somewhere, “I write as I feel compelled to write. If you don’t like it, read someone else.”
This question is from Irvine Welsh: ‘As a huge fan, I always want more books. Why the gaps, the hiatus in the bibliography?’
Like I said, for me it has to happen in its own way. I remember being told after Laidlaw, by my editor, “If you can write one of these every year, you’ll be a millionaire.” I’d have liked that, don’t get me wrong. But it just wasn’t in me to be able to do it.
Ian Rankin wanted me to ask you about Sean Connery looking to play Jack Laidlaw back in the late Seventies...
Yes, he was very keen. We met at Edinburgh Zoo, funnily enough. I think it was one of the few places he could go without being constantly recognised. Anyway, eventually this woman did recognise him and she came over and said, “Excuse me, are you who I think you are?” And, deadpan, he said, “No.” And she just went away. But I really liked Sean Connery. We became quite friendly for a time. He was very much his own man.
What happened with him playing Laidlaw?
Oh, just... some misunderstandings between agents. The usual stuff that goes on in that world.
The further I go into the film industry the more it makes the music industry seem like a well-oiled machine run by intelligent, well-meaning people. You’ve had your own experiences there, of course, with The Big Man [McIlvanney’s novel of the same name about a bare-knuckle fighter, which became a not-wholly-successful Liam Neeson film in 1990].
Well, I always feel with these things if you take the money, you have to shut your mouth. There were people coming up to me after the premiere trying
to get me to bad mouth the film, but I wouldn’t do that because I’d been paid. Perhaps the film wasn’t as creatively successful as I’d have liked it to be, but that’s the way these things go.
And a bad film being made of one of your books hardly negates the book, does it? It’s still there, intact, on the shelf.
Do you pay much attention to reviews?
Early on, I used to carry a couple of very good reviews about with me. I’d find it encouraging looking at them when I was filled with doubt about whether I could write another novel.
People don’t seem to get this. They think if you can write one novel then you’ve cracked it. For me, there’s always that sense of, “Phew, I got away with it again.”
Absolutely. It’s like Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam where he says a line to Diane Keaton, and turns and goes, “She bought it.”
I remember Irvine reviewed one of your later novels, Weekend, when it came out, and he said that it read like the work of a young writer. And you’d have been in your sixties then...
Oh, that’s very kind of Irvine. For a novelist, you want to keep that sense of wonder at the world. Sometimes people will tell me stories about something they’ve done or seen, and I’ll be like, “They did WHAAAT?” I always, still, to this day, find the things people say, do and think endlessly fascinating.
Laidlaw, and Cold Hands by John J Niven, are both out now. For McIlvanney’s tour dates, visit canongate.tv/events