I’m absolutely delighted to have Helen MacKinven on the blog today discussing her debut novel Talk of the Toun. In a slight variation to how I usually do these posts, Helen’s written a guest piece on her use of Scot’s dialect in the novel, which is up first. That’s followed by my review and then, because I love the book so much and there were so many things I wanted to ask about it, there’s a Q&A with Helen too. Enjoy!
When I read your excellent piece in Fiction Uncovered, on reading regional and cultural accents it expressed sentiments that are central to who I am as a writer and a key theme in my debut novel. I grew up in a council housing scheme and everyone I knew apart from the teachers at school, the doctor and the parish priest was working class. I was the first person in my immediate and very large extended family to get a degree. To be a writer wasn’t something that ever seemed like an option and I’d no role models to aspire to, writers weren’t real people, they belonged in the world of books. I enjoyed the escapism of following the adventures of the girls in Mallory Towers who had midnight feasts and toasted marshmallows as a parallel universe to playing chap door run and making my way home when the street lights came on. There were no characters that I could relate to in the books I read, they didn’t act like me or speak like me and it was a long time before I found the inspiration I was looking for to find my own writing ‘voice’.
Writers like Anne Donovan in her novel Buddha Da, gave a voice to characters I could understand and relate to and her use of dialect was a model for the style of writing I aspired to achieve, that of an authentic and credible voice.
It’s taken me ten years of writing to find my own ‘voice’ and realise that rather than copy formats that sell, I want to write about subjects and settings that aren’t necessarily commercial. I feel that this has made it harder for me to get published.
When I was looking for a publisher, this was the response; ironically the company is based in Edinburgh.
“The Scottish dialect in your novel flows effortlessly and was appreciated and understood by the Scottish members of the team. But readers unfamiliar with Scottish dialect found the novel too demanding and challenging.
We suggest that you submit your novel to a publisher more focused on publishing Scottish novels.”
I’ve taken the gamble of using Scots dialect in my writing which might be a barrier to some readers but not to the ones I want to reach. My novel is a coming-of-age story where the main character wants to go to art school but has to fight against the expectations of her circle of influence and find her own identity. I know how hard that can be, even although I lived in the same type of council house as my classmates because I was clever and wore glasses, laughably I was called posh!
When I started writing the first person narrative of my novel I immediately knew I had no choice but to write the dialogue in a local dialect to make it sound real and natural, anything else would be false. Of course my book will not appeal to every reader, and if one of the reasons is that there’s too much dialect, then my work here is done.
Angela and Lorraine have been friends since the first day of primary school. Lorraine’s been a teacher’s pet and a cry baby ever since. Now the girls are seventeen and Lorraine’s crying because the rector’s in school showing them an anti-abortion film.
There were only two weeks left to go before the school holidays and with the exams finished, it was obvious that the teachers were filling in time and were literally using murder to kill off any ideas that we had of a summer of sun, sea and sex. Most of us wouldn’t get as far as the beach at Burntisland wearing cagoules as it pissed down, but every one of us could get shagged if we put our mind to it. And I was determined that me and Lorraine wouldn’t be coming back for sixth year as virgins.
Beside this short-term ambition to lose her virginity, Angela’s got her sights set on Glasgow School of Art. Encouraged by one of her teachers, she’s hoping to get off the council scheme she’s grown up on and pursue a different path. Not if her parents have their way though, they – her dad in particular – are intent on her getting a job straight from school, just as they did.
It was getting harder and harder to speak to them. My mam and dad talked at me, not to me. I’d outgrown them when I was about twelve and we’d lived on different planets ever since.
But Angela has her gran, the pet psychic, Senga Shepherd, to turn to. She dog sits Bimbo, the white poodle, for Senga when she goes to the bingo and also nips to her gran’s for lunch on Saturdays. Senga’s got plenty of wise words and advice as well as knowing the local gossip.
Lorraine’s family’s quite different. Her thirteen-year-old sister Janine is disabled – in a wheelchair and reliant on others for her care. Her mum, Rita, is a devout Catholic – or at least she is now, Angela’s mum and gran have plenty to say about what Rita got up to before she had Lorraine – and they live on a Wimpey estate nicknamed Spam Valley by the locals from the scheme:
…where the weans got a row from their mammies if they used slang words that they learnt in the playground at school.
But the catalyst in the novel for the problems in Lorraine and Angela’s friendship comes from two people who Lorraine becomes close to: Pamela, a girl from school who Angela refers to as ‘Little Miss Brown Nose’ and Stevie Duffy, just out of borstal and ‘…a total ride. Ah’d sook him tae the root’, who both of them fancy.
The novel follows the girls’ friendship over the summer as they try to shed their virginity and Angela aims for art school.
MacKinven covers a number of big themes: sex – women’s sexuality particularly, class, religion, family relationships, friendship. They’re seamlessly integrated into a very tight plot.
What really impressed me about Talk of the Toun though was how it’s grounded in its time and place. The use of Scottish accent and dialect is perfectly pitched. I disagree with MacKinven’s earlier point here that the language she’s chosen to use might be a barrier. There’s the odd dialect word that readers might not know but they’re not difficult to discern in the contexts in which they’re used and if someone really needs to check them, the internet has the answers!
The other way in which the setting is well realised is through the use of 1980’s references. These take two forms: the first is the myriad mentions of cultural things from the time – Rubik’s cube, Rimmel’s Heather Shimmer lipstick, Cagney and Lacey, Kerplunk, Care Bears and so on. The second is more complex and a brave move on MacKinven’s part – references to attitudes of the time in relation to race and women’s sexuality. This leads to some passages in the novel that are very difficult to read in 2015. I cringed through them, not only because they’re so far from anything most people would dare to say these days but also because I know they were attitudes members of my own family held and vocabulary that they would use. Although it makes for uncomfortable reading, it allows MacKinven to do something really interesting with the end of the novel that’s completely in keeping with the time. It should lead to some interesting discussions and I’m glad she was brave enough to do it and not stray into a more modern response.
Talk of the Toun is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. I heartily recommend it and hope novels like this one keep chipping away at the idea that novels have to be written in Standard English to succeed.
Talk of the Toun is set in the 1980s and there’s some great references – Betamax videos, Take the High Road, Care Bears, Heather Shimmer Rimmel lipstick to name a few – that really help to ground it in this time. However, there are also some comments by characters that are very difficult to read in 2015 – Lorraine’s disabled sister is ‘handicapped’ ‘a Windae Licker’ and takes the ‘Nut Bus’ while there are a number of racist names used (along with protests from some characters that they’re not racist when Angela challenges them). Was it important to you to convey the social attitudes of the 1980s as well as the fashion and culture?
Absolutely! Initially I was uncomfortable even writing words and phrases that these days are socially unacceptable and I worried about reading passages aloud and the impact on the audience. My concerns as the writer were that the offensive terms could be interpreted as my own thoughts, rather than those of the characters and it was tempting to whitewash the manuscript. I had to reflect on whether or not I wanted the novel to be an accurate depiction of the ‘norm’ for the era or simply an easy read. I took the decision, along with using vernacular in the dialogue, that my aim was to create a credible sense of time and place and therefore I had to include the language and attitudes of the 80s. I hope that this will provoke discussion on how much things have changed, or not, in Scotland now.
There’s a lot in the novel about attitudes to women regarding sex and pregnancy that for me still felt very relevant to conversations happening now, were you thinking about parallels whilst you were writing the book?
Again, it was a case of trying to write a realistic situation and use my own memories of the attitudes to sex and pregnancy when I was a teenager in the 80s. Like the main characters, I was brought up as a Catholic and was indoctrinated at school and within the home that to become pregnant, unmarried, would bring shame on the family and scupper any thoughts of further education or a career. The first chapter in the novel has a scene where the senior pupils are shown a graphic anti-abortion film and this was based on my own experience at school. Being force-fed these messages meant that sex was equated with fear amongst me and my friends, your worst nightmare was to fall pregnant. I feel that attitudes like those highlighted in the novel are realistic in certain communities at that time and made an impact on how young women grew up to view their bodies and their sexuality. However, although times have changed, I wonder how many other young women are still on the receiving end of negative images and concepts?
Although most of the voices in the novel are working class ones you avoid stereotyping, particularly through Angela and her desire to go to Glasgow School of Art. Was it part of your aim to show a range of views and experiences?
My dad was one of fourteen children so I had many cousins (too many to count!) and yet I was the first in my extended family to go on to further education and achieve a degree in Primary Education. Growing up, the only middle-class folk I encountered were teachers at school, the doctor and the priest. My family’s mentality was that “sticking in” at school was the way to get on in life and I was encouraged to work hard and aim high. My personal experience doesn’t reflect Angela’s but it was easy to see how some of my contemporaries could feel held back by their social class. Angela is encouraged by her art teacher to use her talent to explore a world beyond her small town life and I wanted to show that a postcode doesn’t dictate your dreams.
The novel deals with a number of serious issues but it’s also very funny. Was the humour there from the first draft or was it something you added during the editing process?
Some years ago, I attended an Arvon residential course and as part of the one-to-one feedback from the tutor she remarked that it was interesting to critique a piece of black comedy. It took me a minute or two to realise that she was referring to my work as I’d never given my writing that label. But the more I wrote, the more I realised that my natural ‘voice’ enjoys using humour and so I consciously built in the light to offset the dark. The many drafts that ended up as Talk of the Toun always had humour running throughout the manuscript and I couldn’t imagine it in any other form.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
I have quite a list but in relation to inspiration for Talk of the Toun I would say that Buddha Da by Anne Donovan would come close to the top as it features working class characters and uses rich Scottish dialect. I love to read Scottish contemporary fiction and also admire the work of writers such as Janice Galloway, Jackie Kay, Kerry Hudson and Karen Campbell. As you might guess, I like to do my bit to champion women who showcase quality Scottish fiction!
A huge thank you to Helen MacKinven for a fantastic guest post and Q&A and also to Thunderpoint Publishing for the review copy.