What are the chances of finding a turtle in Scotland?
You might find one in the zoo, but otherwise the turtle steers well clear of Scotland. A country where you have to wear two pairs of socks most of the year is no place for our flippery friends.
So how did a turtle that speaks with a Glasgow accent come about?
When Donald (the story’s narrator) has to imagine his escape from his mother’s curse, it’s a turtle that he latches on to, as an exotic creature that’s seemingly about as far from Glasgow as you can get. But Donald’s imagination is shaped by his culture and his upbringing, so the turtle he conjures up as his saviour is a distinctly Glasgow one. The Turtle in the book is a sketch of a particular kind of Glasgow character, all front and no-nonsense, whose relations with everyone are enacted through a kind of genial, foul-mouthed banter which sometimes spills over into vindictiveness, but also expresses a kind of love. It’s not so far-fetched, really. On the face of it a turtle is about the most un-Glaswegian creature you could imagine, but on the other hand, it hides itself behind this big, tough shell. That’s its survival tactic and it’s one that’s worked well for both turtles and Glaswegians.
Do you consider Turtle to be a Glasgow novel? How does it sit, in your mind, with books by Glasgow writers like James Kelman, for example?
James Kelman is an artist and he lives and breathes Glasgow. He’s a master at taking us right inside the mind of a particular kind of marginalised, alienated Glasgow character. When I read ‘How late it was, how late’ (Kelman’s controversial 1994 Man Booker Prize winner) I recognize the character of Sammy immediately. Anyone who’s lived in Glasgow knows someone just like this, but Kelman shows us how Sammy thinks, his anger and the depth of his confusion. This is what I think of when I think of ‘Glasgow writing’, though there’s a varied tradition – the existentialism of Alexander Trocchi for example, or the dialect poetry of Tom Leonard. But Turtle isn’t a Glasgow novel at all in that sense, it’s a migrant’s novel and it’s about escaping that culture – the mad, angry parts of that culture. Escaping it, and not escaping it, because I don’t think it’s possible to fully erase the culture that formed you. So the Glasgow in Turtle is really a particular memory of one person’s Glasgow, and like all memories, bits of it are distorted and bits of it are false, although there’s a truth buried in there somewhere, too.
How important is the setting of post-industrial 1970s Glasgow to the story?
I feel I owe an apology to the people of Glasgow because the city in Turtle is unremittingly bleak, even though it’s very much a backdrop, and more of a cultural thing than a physical setting. But it’s the source of much of the humour in the book, and it reflects the city I knew as a boy, which was dirty and depressed with mass unemployment and grinding poverty. It was also a violent, angry place where getting chased by bampots wielding open razors was more common than it ever should be. I believe it’s better these days. They’ve cleaned the soot off the buildings, so I suppose it must be.
Your book deals with the madness of families, and with themes of escape and survival. There's a truism that first novels are often quite autobiographical. How autobiographical is Turtle?
Any resemblance to turtles living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Was your family as mad as the Pinelli's? Were curses and fortune telling part of the reality of your childhood? And if so, how did they mould your imagination?
My mother was a great believer in fortune tellers and was one of the most superstitious people I’ve known. Our childhood was full of things you couldn’t do – sitting at a corner of the table was bad luck for example, if you came in through the front door, you had to leave through the front. It was her way of coping with a difficult life. She was your archetypal, nervous-breakdown prone housewife on Valium, and our dad was not always around as much as he should have been, and their marriage was very unhappy, so that was a curse of sorts. Our family was dysfunctional in an ordinary kind of way, but, no, my mother was not awful like Trixie is (the mother in the story), and my family was not nearly as mad as the Pinelli’s. They’re all my own invention. I’m getting help for it.
Many first novels are not only autobiographical, they're often written in the mode of realism. Was the magic realist aspect of Turtle a deliberate choice for your first novelistic outing?
I’m a bit of a sucker for stories that play with reality, throwing it around a bit, with ghosts or angels or talking fish or whatever, but making it all work in terms of the narrative world so that, as a reader, you don’t miss a beat. I definitely wanted a flavour of that, though I wasn’t deliberately trying to write magic realism. As Turtle took shape, though, an interesting kind of tension developed between the bits that may or may not be magic realism – I have some problems with that term – and the more realist aspects which said, in effect, ‘Stick it up yer bahookie, pal. Ye’ve a heid full a broken bottles.’ So even though Trixie’s clairvoyant, and there’s a curse and a talking turtle, it’s all brought back to earth by the psychology of a boy trying to grow up in a poisonous family. Beyond that tension – between reality and imagination or the surreal or whatever – I would say that Turtle is actually a realist novel. In the best tradition of Scottish miserablism. With funny bits.
The novel contains a framing device of a man returning to Glasgow after many decades for his mother's funeral and is narrated over a period of twenty-four hours. How difficult was it to establish this frame, and was it there from the first draft?
It was there from the first draft, though I’d written four or five chapters before it struck me what was going on, that Donald, as the narrator, was physically somewhere, and not just a disembodied voice. And it seemed to make sense that he would be back in his childhood home for the first time in yonks, with all this family history washing over him as he tries to come to terms with the death of his mother. That’s really what sparks his story off. The shock of being there, in Trixie’s house, rediscovering himself and all the crap he went through as a kid – that’s what gets him talking. It’s part of a healing process over the day and night that he’s there, but Donald doesn’t understand that for quite a while. He’s a bit thick really, emotionally.
In the acknowledgments, you thank your wife for reading and commenting on every chapter of every draft of the novel. How many drafts did you write before you completed the manuscript?
Probably about six. The problem with writing on a word processor is that it’s too easy to redraft as you go along, so it’s hard to say. I just kept printing bits out and Jenny kept reading them and telling me if she thought I was writing nonsense or not. She’s very good on the psychological stuff, motivations and the complexities of relationships, that sort of thing. I’m very lucky to have her, for many reasons.
What are you working on now?
A rather strange tale of love and betrayal which has nothing to do with turtles. It spans three generations from pre-war Poland to rural Australia and is told through the eyes of a troubled grandson as he pieces together the story of his grandfather's life and mysterious disappearance. It's all getting a bit complicated and at the moment I have two women and three children about to freeze to death in war-torn Silesia and I have no idea how I'm going to save them. I expect something will come up - it usually does.
(Mandy Sayer is a Sydney author and columnist.