Stride Magazine - www.stridemagazine.co.uk

  Rupert Loydell talks to Alan Garner
[from Stride magazine no. 8, 1983]

Up the muddy track, through a field full of cows. The gate is opened by a smiling Alan Garner, who leads me to his kitchen. We sit at the table and after a cup of coffee I start the questions.


You seem to have gone in a circle, from childrenís books, through more complex [adult?] books, back to even simpler childrenís books. Can you explain the process?

That is a view expressed by outside readers. None of my books were written specifically for children, although they understand what Iím saying far more readily. It was originally the publishers who published me as a childrenís writer.

Red Shift produced very polarised reactions, people hate it or love it.

I agree. Iíve found that the book is in the potentially unhappy situation of being a cult book. Once a book is finished, thatís it. I want to be clear of it, to get the writing finished. Itís analogous with birth. I donít enjoy the process. People accuse me of trying to be baffling, but I simply want to make the reader contribute to the story.

Youíve beaten me to it. I wanted to ask you about your statement ĎI leave the reader gaps to fill iní. Does it annoy you when they donít, or when they get it wrong?

The reader canít get it wrong. Every reaction is unique, despite resulting from a permanent text. Interpretation is individual. I find people react to things not deliberately written in. For instance, back in 1963, when The Moon of Gomrath was out I met a publisherís rep. [I have time for them ≠ if they donít sell the books in their car boots, I donít eat!] He was enthusiastic about the book, and recalled heíd had sleepless nights over one passage. As he talked about it I thought I knew which passage he meant. I was wrong. It turned out to be a link paragraph that Iíd rushed over to get to the next Ďpurple passageí. Things like that have resulted in me consciously believing in creative reading. Imaginative, not didactic.

Was the paring down of Red Shift a technical device, or a very emotive process?

It presented itself that way. Iíll explain my writing process: There is a moment when a conceptual idea stands naked. Something is a book. There is a gap, and then a second moment happens. A book starts to appear. I often write, completely spontaneously, the last paragraph of a book. I donít always understand it, but I know itís the ending. Then the rest of the book appears Ė sounds and sights, at first out of focus. Then suddenly, it all synchronises, the form included. Once itís finished I start an analytical process. Very little gets altered.

With Red Shift the first conceptual point was when someone from Mow Cop was relating a tale passed down to her by her illiterate grandmother. She told of the Romans marching Spanish prisoners through
Cheshire, on their way to make a wall. She used this to explain why the people of Mow Cop look foreign. Historically thatís inaccurate, but the idea of the Ďlost Ninthí excited me. That was in 1965. In April í66 I missed a train and sat on a railway platform for an hour, reading graffiti. ĎNot really now not anymoreí suddenly associated itself with Mow Cop. Then there were four or five years of note taking. Barthomley tied in early on Ė the odd wording of the massacre report attracted my attention. Then the writing came. It was not intellectually possible for me to create the interplay of Red Shift. It would be wrong for me to have invented and forced something like that. It happened. I only noticed, or had pointed out, a lot of the word play, repetition, and association, afterwards.

How did The Guizer fit in? It has been suggested that it explained Red Shift?

It was just what interested me at the time. Although you have to question what produced that interest at that particular time.

Is it a continuation of what you were saying in your essay ĎInner Timeí?

Perhaps. With hindsight... probably.

Do you just use myth as a springboard, or is it deeper than that? Are you scared of the myths associated with your books sidetracking the reader, or do they add to the story?

Yes, they do add to the story. Real myth is part of the collective soul, it has no one original author. It is highly charged material that has been worked on, worked over, many, many times. If you use the material in the right way your writing will work. If you get it wrong it will work against you.

I am not responsible for what people find if they work back into myths. I have a lot of contacts with the mythic due to strong research. It puts off the horrible business of actually writing, and I think due to my academic upbringing I can convince myself Iím not skiving! Seriously though, extensive research becomes a foundation for intuitive decisions taken in the actual writing later on.

Red Shift, I know, took a long time to write. What about the Stone books?

There was no research Ė except 43 years of family!

Are The Fairy Tales of Gold original or re-telling/paraphrase?

They were written as original, but later I could see the sources Iíd drawn on. Each story took about four hours to write, yet I felt quite ill afterwards. It was like using a coffee-grinder plugged straight into the National Grid, with no power step-down. I couldnít write any more for quite a while afterwards. At the moment Iím working on similar, yet more substantial texts.

Are fairy tales as important as myths?

Theyíre very important. They are de-sacrilised myth, and very dangerous things to handle. They are not for children Ė they got this association, became Ďnursery talesí, in the 19th century with Land and Jacobís re-tellings. They were criticised at the time, but their work became very popular.

Do you have lots of unfinished work, or do you concentrate everything into one end project?

Usually one thing at a time, although things do overlap. I can be writing one thing and researching another.

Can you tell me anything about any new projects that are under way?

I find I canít talk about what hasnít been yet. The first conceptual moment for the next novel [I think itís going to be a novel] was in December 1974. The second moment was in October í79. I still donít know what the storyís about!

The film Lamaload, about the drowned village, I thought was awful. What were you trying to say?

It was part of a series trying to make place as important as characters. I think you have to realise television doesnít always have to be profound, it can tell anecdotes.

How much did you have to do with the film of Red Shift?

A lot. I donít enjoy making films Ė I still encounter the problem I discussed in ĎInner Timeí. Red Shift had an excellent producer, a man called David Rose. He wanted to make the film. We met, and he later chose John Mackenzie as director I met with John and we discussed the book. We both have different obsessions with violence which is interesting. Over a period of 18 months the script was re-written three times. Adaptation interests me greatly. People who are faithful to a book, or try and extract dialogue, always face great problems. There was some apprehension about using a well known face for Jan, but she was an excellent character actress. The boy who played Tom was facing his first television part. He was having to cope with having to just be someone, not being able to work into a part as in stage work. I tend not to worry about these sort of problems too much. Iím glad the far more problematic preliminary work is done. We shot nearly 200 minutes of film, all that Iíd scripted. John then spent six months editing down to the required 90 minutes, producing the film we both wanted. The onus was on the editing. I think the credits said it all Ė Ďa film by Alan Garner and John Mackenzieí.

What do you think of A Fine Anger?

It scared me because he got so much right. It started out because Neil Philips asked me to check, on a factual level, a chapter about me in his thesis. When he went he left me the chapter to read. I was amazed because heíd correctly inferred all my sources!

Later, when my publishers were discussing some sort of critical analysis of my work I said that he was the only person I knew who could manage it in any capacity. I donít think anyone involved in childrenís writing and criticism could cope. So Collins commissioned him. He came up for three days and had free access to my cellar full of resource material. I was out all day, so there was no conversation about the book. I donít even know what he looked at. A Fine Anger is very personal. There was one bit I asked him to take out, but otherwise itís okay although I donít always see what heís getting at. Afterwards we got to know each other quite well, but it wasnít written as a friend.

So it wasnít like Keith Sagarís book on Ted Hughes where he got to know him on a personal level as well?

No, totally different. Itís funny you should mention Ted Hughes Ė our lives are terribly connected. Iím always bumping into people heís worked with, from technicians through to Gordon Cross whom I work with in a musical capacity. I think in a few decades, looking back, people will regard Alan Garner and Ted Hughes as two [very different] sides to the same coin. Working in the same areas, from different viewpoints.

Iím fascinated by your statement of intent with regard to faith/belief, to Ďreport the view from hereí. Couldnít belief stay at the same point whilst you risked, made a commitment?

My belief is underdeveloped compared with my knowledge. I get asked Ďif you know, why canít you commit?í I find most formal religions concentrate on a certain reality, and narrow vision. I donít want my wide-angle vision blinkered. The church has rather cut itself off from the arts. It isolates Christianity from amongst the mythical, yet it belongs there. Myth adds, not detracts from things like Christís divinity. It fascinates me that he continued a long history of people being hung on trees to die. I had a fascinating discussion with two priest friends, very different people. I said my belief was a problem, yet they regard it as a buffer against problems. Belief should result in open mindedness, not the opposite.

Youíve said Ďwords were originally poeticí. Do you deduce this from the minstrels, from oral histories, folk tales?

Oral, yes, but further back than youíve suggested. Something akin to what William Goldingís getting at in The Inheritors. I was trained as a classicist, and if you study words as a science you find words do not define what they name. They approach it at a tangent, and open up a certain area of mystery.

Something as basic as the experiment Hughes tried with Orghast?

Yes.

Can you tell me about your illustrators? Recently thereís been Michael Foreman, and a long time before that Charles Keeping illustrated Elidor.

Charles Keeping complained that he had no holes to fill in Elidor, that he could only depict what was already there. He was right. Now I donít feel a novel needs illustrations. With the fairy tales I knew at least fifty per cent would be illustrations. Iím very pleased with Michaelís work. I think we have the same emotional, or physic background, although we had very different upbringings. The more complex tales Iím writing at present will have smaller illustrations, more like decorative borders really.

Do you have an illustrator in mind?

Oh Ė no ideas as yet.

What are your influences?

Nothing major beyond what I use as my resources. Something very important though, not as an intellectual concept, but on a personal level, something Iíve found Ė place is an emotion.


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Rupert Loydell 1983, 2002