The Stillman, it has deep roots, way back to childhood. Some of those memories are so vivid, ticker-taping out of the past; the feared but apparently health-giving spoon of cod liver oil coming towards me, cycling no hands down a hill and falling off and breaking my arm… And many of them involve books. Reading Jack Higgins in an abandoned sheep shelter as the rain hammered down, hours spent leafing through my parents’ books. They had lots, crammed into sagging MFI bookshelves. Hugh MacDiarmid nudging (probably picking a fight with) Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Norman Mailer squeezing beside Neil Gunn, Henry Miller, John Steinbeck... Most mysterious of all was the row of red leather bound volumes with names I couldn’t pronounce; Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Pushkin.
They seemed to show a way, those writers. And not just them. My father and papa wrote. I was hugely proud to read a short story my papa had published, a clever tale about a would-be shop burglar spooked in the night by the life-size cardboard cut-out of a person. So it seemed natural to pick up a pencil and start writing. I chose an easy way in, sequels to other peoples’ books, Eric Morecambe’s The Vampire’s Revenge and Force 10 from Navarone by Alistair MacLean. Alas, these must remain lost classics. I only managed a few hundred words. When you’re 13, playing football is a powerful counter-current. A few years later it was Iain Banks who made me take writing more seriously. I identified with him. He wrote books the way I wanted to. He too came from small-town Scotland.
That Highland upbringing led to lifelong pre-occupations; place, identity and exile, themes running through The Stillman. I’ve long since been away and I’m still unsure if the distance allows or obscures reliable interpretation. You gain perspective by being away but you lose something at the same time, the day to day connections. Or the viewpoint becomes skewed. That’s where nostalgia is born and nostalgia can be treacherous. When you leave a place you have to be careful with the stories you tell others, and yourself, about where you’ve come from. But if you don’t stray too far from familiarity you have to remain open to the world, those other viewpoints. There are attractions and pitfalls in each perspective and The Stillman is a little bit about that, the search for the middle way.
I’m working on a new novel which builds on these themes, looking at the experience of an incomer to a place that has a very fixed idea of itself. What are the limits to belonging, in that context? What will he never be able, or allowed, to overcome? Yet all wrapped up in a decent story, of course. The boy who spent most of his childhood reading knew that a story wasn’t worth much if he couldn’t lose himself in it.
-- Tom McCulloch