I wrote a novel called Turtle which features a talking turtle. Not just any old talking turtle, but a Scottish turtle, one that speaks with a Glasgow accent. So I that’s why I’m here today, to talk to you about my experiences of writing from life. But before I start, I have a confession to make. I made the turtle up. He’s not real. I’m hoping this might cause a literary scandal.
Turtle’s about a young boy, Donald, and his crazy clairvoyant mother, Trixie, who believes he’s cursed to die by drowning on his eighteenth birthday. It’s about the madness that flows from that, and how Donald escapes it, with the help of a turtle he finds in a run-down zoo. But the turtle that talks to him is really in his mind, a kind of psychological crutch.
So where did this Turtle come from?
I did have a pet tortoise when I was a kid. Toby the tortoise. He liked to eat buttercups but I never heard him talk or make any kind of noise, other than chewing sounds. Like all tortoises, he could run faster than you think. Toby was the Michael Schumacher of tortoises. One day I let him have the freedom of the back lawn. I turned my back for a moment and he was off like a shot. Zip. Never saw him again. I’m getting over it slowly. Some days it’s still hard.
The truth is, there are no turtles in Glasgow. You might find one in a zoo, but otherwise the turtle generally 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.
I want this morning to talk a bit about Glasgow. I was born there, and the city I grew up in was a typical nineteen-seventies post-industrial wasteland, full of gangs of teenage boys all trying to kill each other for sport and recreation. It was cold and windy and it rained all the time, except for a day in the middle of the year which we called summer.
Actually, I feel that I owe an apology to the people of Glasgow – and to any Glaswegians here in the audience today – because the city in Turtle is a wee bit bleak, even though it’s very much a backdrop to the story itself. The Glasgow I knew as a boy was a violent, angry place where getting chased by bampots wielding open razors was more common than it ever should have been. I believe it’s better these days.
To the amazement of the locals, in 1990 Glasgow was declared European city of Culture. My mother sent me the tee-shirt. It had a picture of Glasgow Cathedral and above it the words ‘Glasgow – European City of Culture’. Underneath it said, ‘Ach away an bile yer heid’. (I’m happy to translate later)
Today Glasgow is a vibrant centre of arts and music. They’ve sandblasted all the soot off the buildings. And they’ve knocked down all the old slums and built shiny new ones.
But even though – as per my earlier confession – there are no turtles in the real Glasgow, the Glasgow of my imagination is in many ways a city of turtles. It’s positively teeming with them. You know, a Glaswegian turtle is not really that far-fetched. When Donald, the narrator in my book, 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. It’s a creature that hides itself behind a big, tough shell. That’s its survival tactic and it’s one that’s worked well for both turtles and Glaswegians.
And like turtles, Glaswegians are – well, they’re just not very cuddly.
The Turtle in Turtle is actually a sketch of a particular kind of Glasgow character, all front and no-nonsense, whose relations with everyone are enacted through a kind of foul-mouthed banter, insults and mickey-taking, which sometimes spills over into vindictiveness, but also expresses a kind of love.
Now, in the same way that the Eskimos have several words for snow, Glaswegians don’t have any words for love. So you can understand the difficulties they face in trying to express this particular emotion. And why being a turtle might actually give you an advantage here, sad as that may seem.
If you’re following this carefully, you’ll see that I’m displaying my Glasgow upbringing by hiding behind my own shell and avoiding the real issue here; Never mind the turtle, what about the other characters – the mad, clairvoyant mother, the gangster father, the over-achieving brother and malevolent, evil sister. Are they drawn from life?
You know, I seriously hadn’t given this much thought until the first time I met with Annette Barlow of Allen & Unwin to discuss publishing the book. Wee alarm bells went off in my head when the first question she asked me was, have you talked to your family about this?
Annette’s all too often seen the fallout for authors who have trouble sorting out fiction from fact: bitter family arguments, friends becoming enemies, lovers parting ways. It was the first inkling I had that people might see the novel as autobiographical, talking bloody turtle and all. And the more I protest that it’s not, the less people believe me. That’s why I’ve been asked here to talk about it. But as I said, I’m here under false pretences. I made it all up. Honest.
Okay, I’m not being honest. A first novel in particular is often autobiographical, drawing on the life experiences of the author, and perhaps basing characters on people he or she knows in the real world. All writers do this to some extent, but problems arise when the relationship is too close, when someone reading the book can recognise themselves or others. Or think they can.
In the case of Turtle, Annette was right to draw my attention to the possibility of everlasting enmity with the surviving members of my family, though, in an odd way, it wasn’t really a problem at all.
The greater part of the truth is that my father is not in the book. Neither is my late mother, nor my brother, nor either of my two sisters. The lesser part – the most difficult part – is that they are. Was I thinking of my father when I developed the character of Carlo, an Italo-Scottish gangster and the archetypal absent parent? Well, yes, Okay, fair cop, guvnor. It happens that my father was born in Scotland to Italian parents. Though now retired, he did very well for himself in the gaming machine and amusements business. He wasn’t beyond being a bit dodgy in his business dealings. But there the similarities end. He’s not a gangster and he’s not in jail for the murder of two of his associates. He also has much better dress sense than Carlo
And what about Trixie, the mad clairvoyant mother who can dream people dead, and who believes her son is cursed? My mother had a difficult life for sure. She was your archetypal sixties housewife on Valium, and also one of the most superstitious people I know; she believed all sorts of tripe about spooks and spirits. But she wasn’t anywhere near as mad as Trixie.
What about the narrator, then, a damaged man who, thirty years before, escaped his mother’s curse and has now come home for her funeral, and though he doesn’t realise it, to heal himself? Well, Donald is not me. I survived my family’s ordinary dysfunction a bit more successfully, and a lot less dramatically, even if today I still sometimes display a nervous tic and a tendency to bark at passing buses.
So, what I’m saying here is that I made it all up. And that I didn’t. That real life and imagination are two sides of the same coin; that the one can’t exist without the other. And that fiction writing, above all else, recognises this.
Virginia Woolf put it better than I can when she said, ‘Fiction is like a spider’s web, attached, ever so slightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners.’
And that, to me, is the beauty of novels. At their best they build fictional worlds which are entirely believable, no matter how dramatic, bizarre or surreal. And to do that they have to draw on reality for characters, settings and stories which speak to us, emotionally, and universally. The characters in Turtle are as real as I could make them, and in that sense I hope that if you read the book you’ll empathise with them as fellow human beings; that their feelings and fears, their hopes and motivations, will find an echo in your lives, too.
At least as far as the human characters are concerned, anyway. As for our testudinous friends, any resemblance to turtles, living or dead, is, as they say, entirely coincidental.
(Contribution to a forum at the Sydney Writers' Festival, 2009)