Article published on August 11, 2017.
NB and nudge reviewer Philipa Coughlan was so impressed by her discovery of the novels of Ron Butlin she tracked him down to find out more…
Philipa Coughlan: Your recent novel Billionaire’s Banquet places two student friends running a catering business against the backdrop of Thatcher’s economic policies. Did you want to write about how those times affected Scotland as opposed to a London-centric view?
Ron Butlin: I found myself setting Billionaires’ Banquet in Edinburgh because it is a city I know well. Like Hume, the main character, I donned a secondhand set of evening-clothes and waited on the rich at play. An eye-opener, to say the least. Mrs Thatcher was not popular in Scotland (an understatement!). Hume admires her, the other characters are more concerned about the search for mathematical truth, falling in love and so forth. Like everyone everywhere. The novel is a weirdly updated Upstairs, Downstairs, where fat cats and street-kids, lovers, losers and the rest struggle to survive.
PC: In the book, the freedom of student life both sexually and without the economic constraints of student loans often leads to shock and emotional disaster. What sort of student were you?
RB: I was an easy-going student when it came to all-night parties, chance conversations in the street about Kant, and afternoon hash-cakes on the roof. Not so easy-going when it came to essays and exams. I did my bst. Like most of my generation I took the future totally for granted i.e. assumed there would always be one. My philosophy studies were not undertaken in the hope of finding job-security for life- I took life for granted also. How things have changed! Something happened back then, some pieces of grit got into the works of history -and here we all are in 2017, not so easy-going any longer. Billionaires’ Banquet is at once a part-affectionate look at those long-ago days and a very hard look at the present. Thankfully, humour wins out and readers tell me the novel is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny as well as being profoundly unsettling. Several said they could not put it down and consumed it in one or two sittings!
PC: Your prose is tight and thoughtful where each word means something. Is this a reflection of being a poet before a novelist?
RB: Very likely. I always start with a few words that pop into my head and simply see where they take me – most of the time I don’t know if these words will turn into a poem, a story, or even a novel. My approach is Don’t Plan and Don’t Think. I have learned to trust my imagination. Only as I write do I begin to get glimpses of what it is I’m writing about. Not a method I’d advocate, but I seem stuck with it. For example, my most recent play, Sweet Dreams (for Oran Mor in Glasgow), starts with a man coming on stage and taking off his jacket and trousers to reveal he’s wearing pyjamas underneath. I was as surprised as the audience, believe me! Gradually I realised that this was someone so totally exhausted with the stresses of contemporary living, the pressure of keeping up with emails and the rest, the endless restructurings and uncertainties at work, that he just wanted to sleep! Like Billionaires’ Banquet the play is a comic satire – with a very serious centre. It rang a lot of bells for a lot of people. Poetry tends to argue through image whereas prose argues more through narrative and character. Billionaires’ Banquet is not in the least ‘poetic’ thank goodness. Nevertheless, my ‘poetic’ imagination took me into all kinds of unexpected places. As always, I drafted and redrafted many times, hoping to make each word count. All 73,000 of them!
PC: The Sound of My Voice, published in 1987, won many awards and was for me one of the best books I have ever read. Was the subject matter of an alcoholic unravelling chosen for any particular reason?
RB: I had a friend who was heading towards full-on alcoholism. He lived an almost double life- emotional chaos in private, status and success in public life (he had a high post in the civil service) Gradually, as the novel shaped itself, I realised I was remembering visiting my friend a long time ago and seeing his chaotic life up close- the wild and shambolic evenings, the suited-up mornings as he left for Westminster. But he is not Morris, and the story is not his. As I wrote, the novel took on a life of its own. I didn’t write the chapters of The Sound of My Voice sequentially, but in dozens of separate unrelated sections. Every few days a new section would begin suggesting itself. Eventually, when there seemed to be no more new sections to come, I gathered all I’d written and started over again – rather like having lots of pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, except there was no picture to keep me right! Only when I was getting near to what might become the finished picture did I really have any idea what the novel was about. That moment of realization was truly exciting!
PC: Steve and FranDan Take On The World is a recently published YA novel. You say writing for 11-14 year olds is a new venture. What made you tackle this genre and would you do so again?
RB: I don’t think I have enjoyed writing a book so much as my recently published and first ever YA novel, a thriller for kids (10-14 yrs) – Steve and FranDan Take On The World is a rattling adventure story involving hidden treasure, baddies, capture, escapes- you name it! To my delight kids seem to love it. ‘An awesome story with meaning’ said one 12 year old critic on LoveReading4Kids. Others chime in saying ‘I enjoyed it so much I stayed up till 11pm each night to finish it’. ‘Humorous, exciting, packed with adventure, ‘ I couldn’t put this book down’, ‘Brilliant….I would give this 5/5’. I assumed at first, I was beginning my next adult novel to follow on from Ghost Moon (nominated for the international IMPAC Award). With serious purpose and top-heavy intentions, I savoured the first few words that had popped into my imagination while waiting in the supermarket queue. By the time I was on the bus home, the words had become a sentence. Then a second sentence. Rather unexpected sentences. But there you go. Who were these people? That of course, is the kind of question I never ask until a book is near completion. I just take whatever my imagination gives me and do my best to run with it . Result – things just kept getting wilder and wilder. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and my first thought was – how are they going to get out of THIS! My wife, Regi Claire, is a very fine writer, and also a very fine cook. For the last 20 years near enough I have read to her while she cooks. We have got through over 150 books, including several of Dickens’ longest! When writing Steve and FranDan Take On The World, Regi wanted me to read each daily instalment. She, too, was gripped. So too, was our dog Leila, who features in both the novel and on the cover. After Billionaires’ Banquet was completed, I imagined I would begin on another adult novel. No chance. I had no sooner started on what promised to be yet another powerful work on the human condition when Steve and FranDan showed up and elbowed it out. Thank goodness. I have now nearly finished their second adventure and am determined to return to the deep waters of man’s struggle to make sense of his destiny etc. etc. But, as my mum used to say, we’ll see.
PC: You have written seven opera libretti, three taken up by Scottish Opera. But your past included meeting Paul McCartney in a lift and writing for a pop- group. What were they called and why, as you say are they justly forgotten?
RB: As a highly poetical teenager, I wrote soulful lyrics for some friends who had a pop group. At one point, the band was given a spot on the Tony Blackburn TV show, wearing tartan mini-skirts and with dry ice blowing about their knobbly teenage knees. When I say that these two and a half minutes of stardom was to be the high-point of the band’s career, you can imagine the rest. Let us leave them their anonymity, and pass on. The rest of the world certainly has.
PC: Between 2008-2014 you were the Edinburgh Makar (Poet Laureate). How did the role affect your poetry?
RB: As the Makar of Edinburgh I became a more public poet. The first time I found myself commissioned to write on a given subject, I protested (to myself at least) rather pompously ‘Am I expected to write to order? My creativity cannot be turned off and on like a tap!’ Then I found it could. Mind you, I got off to a very good start – the Malt Whisky Society of Scotland asked me to write a poem in praise of whisky. How hard is that? Naturally, I had to do a lot of research…I continued with my ‘normal’ poems, of course. Indeed one has gained a degree of celebrity in Scotland. I wrote a very humorous poem, in Scots, protesting to Edinburgh Council about the year-after-year delays in constructing the new tram network. I was heralded as ‘the voice of in Edinburgh’. The poem was republished in newspapers and online. Letters were written, comments posted. The poem was set to music and sung by choirs. Really, I expected to be un-Makared! Instead, I survived and was re-appointed for a further 3 years. In my final year one of the poems I had written –The Electric City of Heck – became the inspiration for an entire arts festival, Hidden Door 2015. I must say I felt very proud and deeply touched.
PC: Ian Rankin is a good friend and great admirer of your work. Any thoughts about a crime novel?
RB: A crime novel? I love reading crime novels and thrillers and can say with total confidence that writing one would be utterly beyond me. I wish it were otherwise.
PC: I’d describe you as a polymath, someone with a wide expertise which spans many subject matters. Which area of writing causes you the most difficulty?
RB: I’m afraid the glib answer is the true one. Typing. I’m useless at it. I write everything longhand, correcting and revising as I go, covering the pages with comments, arrows, bubbles, zig-zag crossings out and so forth, until it is almost unreadable. While I can still manage to make out what I’ve written, I summon up my two-finger typing skills to put it into the computer. Then, mercifully I print it out ready for more re-draftings. Back and forth, back and forth I go until I have done all that I can. Finally, I show it to Regi. My wife is one of the best editors I have ever come across. My clear freshly-typed pages are soon returned covered with her comments, her arrows, bubbles, zig-zag crossings out and so forth. And so it goes on. Every writer should have a Regi Claire. I comment on her work too. We trust each other.
PC: You have worked as a male model, barnacle remover and valet-footman in countries right across the world. You are a character in a novel yourself! Is there a place to visit or job to try still on your ‘to do’ list?
RB: I’ve travelled very widely and lived in Paris, Toronto, in the hills above Barcelona, the Far East and even spent time in a commune so far out in the Australian wilderness that I had to learn to ride a horse to get around. I now live in Edinburgh. I was brought up in a very small village and would love to live again out in the country. It probably won’t happen. My compromise is that I live in Edinburgh as if it were a village, and the streets have become a network of friendships. Regi is Swiss. We may come to spend more time there. I hope so.
My next job is my next book – what else?
Billionaire’s Banquet by Ron Butlin, published on 15 April, 2017 by Salt Publishing, in paperback
Steve and Frandan Take on the World by Ron Butlin, published on 18 May, 2017 by BC Books, in paperback
An edited version of this interview appears in the summer 2017 edition of NB magazine
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