Interview with James Robertson
For an alternative view of James Robertson's 'novel', see 'A Brief History of
by 'One Who Upholds the Truth'.
Your previous two novels were either entirely historical, or had a strong historical aspect. What made you
write a contemporary novel this time around, and do you actually see it as a fair distinction?
I don’t really see a difference. All my short stories and half of The Fanatic
are set in what we loosely call ‘the
present’, but where does the present start and where does it end? The novel I’m working on now is set between 1945 and
2000 – how much of that is the present and how much is history? Sometimes it seems that history is snapping at our heels
all the time as our daily lives speed up – the 1980s, for example, part of my adult life, even the 1990s, seem like
distant history sometimes. For me, the really interesting thing about past, present and future is the fact that they
interact, that there is fluidity in time. The past acts upon the present, but equally – as I tried to show in The
Fanatic – the present acts upon the past, it reshapes how we see the past and therefore what it says to us.
I was aware of being possibly typecast as a ‘historical novelist’ and I didn’t want to get stuck with that or any
particular label, but that's not what determines where or when my fiction is set. History is very important to me but
only if I can see some kind of connection with now and with tomorrow. Otherwise it’s dead and dry and has no interest
The themes of religion, atheism and a certain amount of Scottish folklore are obvious in The Testament of Gideon
What drew you to these themes? What were your objectives in writing about them?
I had quite a big injection of religion in my childhood, particularly at primary school level, and even though it’s worn
off now you never really get it out of your system, so in part Gideon Mack
is an exploration of those residual questions
of faith in an age of scepticism. I hasten to add that I am a fanatical sceptic, but I find the history of religious
movements, and particularly the theological, political and social repercussions of the numerous splits and divisions in
Scottish Protestantism, fascinating. And when that kind of intense, serious and socially very dominant organised
religion overlays a country like Scotland which was already full of a fabulously rich folklore, including many
pre-Christian myths and legends, it makes a very heady brew and a great source of material for a storyteller. Scotland –
past and present – is an amazing repository of ideas and images for a novelist.
Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner is referred to at one point, and you could also draw parallels
books such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and other Scottish books which have strong elements of the supernatural. Did you
consciously choose to work within this ‘tradition’? Why do you think the supernatural has been such a common theme in
To answer the second question first, I think the reason that the supernatural keeps informing our literature lies in
what I’ve already described – that mix of folklore and legend with a very intense form of religion. The religion may
have diminished substantially but it leaves its imprint. There was an anthology of Scottish short stories published a
few years ago under the title The Devil and the Giro
(‘giro’ in this instance meaning the payment of
unemployment benefit) and that title neatly captures the idea of the fantastic rubbing shoulders with the ordinary in
everyday situations – a congruence that seems somehow quite characteristic of a lot of Scottish life. Maybe the Scots
are no different from other people, but it does seem somehow that many of us live close to, sometimes over, an edge or
boundary between the banal and the bizarre. So, yes, I’m aware of that literary tradition, and I think Hogg’s book is a
seminal piece of Scotland’s literature, and that Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde
, which revisits much of the same territory,
is a masterpiece – but I don’t consciously or slavishly try to imitate them, I think I’m just drawn to the same themes
and ideas that interested those writers.
The other more recent tradition in Scottish fiction has been towards a gritty, urban, hyper-realism. I'm
James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, but there are others. Was there any conscious decision to avoid that sort of writing, or,
alternatively, what drew you to such a different area of fiction?
People keep putting Kelman and Welsh in the same boat, even though Kelman started writing in the 1970s and Welsh’s
Trainspotting didn’t come out till 1993. They’re completely different writers who produce completely different kinds of
books, but because both of them use a lot of ‘bad language’ (as some would categorise it) they get lumped together under
this ‘gritty urban hyper-realism’ label. Analyse their work, though, and there’s a lot more surrealism and fantasy there
than received wisdom would have you believe. Kelman has had a big influence on myself and many other fiction writers,
not just Scottish ones, in breaking open the boundaries of language, and some years later Welsh blew the lid off cosy,
comfortable perceptions of what ‘Scottish literature’ consisted of, so I’m grateful to both of them. I don’t consciously
avoid writing the way Kelman does or Welsh does, I just don’t write the way they do, and if I tried to I’d fail. The
exciting thing about contemporary Scottish writing is how multi-voiced it is: the field is open, you’re not under
pressure to write in a particular style – or if a writer finds himself or herself under that kind of pressure, they
should resist it and write with their own voice. As Hugh MacDiarmid wrote,
And let the lesson be – to be yersel’s,
Ye needna fash gin it’s to be ocht else.
To be yersel’s – and to mak’ that worth bein’.
Nae harder job tae mortals has been gi’en.
Your previous two books both had cities as a central ‘character’ – Edinburgh in The Fanatic, and Dundee
in Joseph Knight. This is the first novel set almost entirely in a rural location. Correct me if I’m wrong, but
I can’t think of
another recent Scottish novel set in the present that is also set in the countryside – not since authors such as Buchan
in the early twentieth century, or at least if you exclude the Gaelic north and west from the equation. I’m wondering if
that is something you have thought about, and if the rural nature of this book has any implications? It could easily
have been set in a city after all.
I think there are a few contemporary novels set in rural Scotland – some of Andrew Greig’s work, for example, or
by Duncan Maclean. I’m sure there are others. Could the book have been set in a city? Maybe. It could
also be transferred, without much problem, to rural New England or perhaps Norway or New Zealand. But an awful lot of
Scots still live in small towns and villages, and that side of Scotland has become, in a way, slightly invisible in
contemporary fiction – a kind of reverse of the situation at the end of the 19th century, when the dominant literary
mode was the Kailyard School, with novels and stories being set in rural villages almost as if the industrial revolution
and the growth of urban Scotland had never taken place. Some of the elements of Gideon Mack
– especially the legendary,
folklorish stuff – do draw very definitely on a non-urban landscape – forests, rivers and burns, mountains, quiet
single-track roads – and perhaps it’s easier to tap into the spring of folk memory in the countryside. At one point
Gideon is walking in Keldo Woods and he says, ‘The gloom crept in about me. I thought of all those ancient stories that
had their dark souls located in woods... Now the forests existed only in patches, and the old stories had declined too.
But there in Keldo Woods on that January afternoon I could feel them stirring, shuffling over twigs and frosty leaves,
whispering at me from the shadows.’ It’s a qualitative difference from the feeling you get in a city – even a city like
Edinburgh, where the history and legends are coming out of the walls at you.
The tagline on the jacket of The Testament of Gideon Mack is ‘If the Devil didn’t
man have to invent him?’ Could you explain some more about the ideas behind that?
It’s a reworking of Voltaire’s pronouncement, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’, but it’s
certainly not an original thought. Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov
, has Ivan say, ‘I think if the devil
doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.’ To which Alyosha replies,
‘Just as he did God, then?’ The interesting thing about the premise is the assumption that the Devil does exist! Of
course, there’s no way of knowing for sure. We can fairly convincingly argue both God and the Devil (two sides of the
same superstitious coin?) out of existence on rational grounds, but if they do exist then frankly human notions of
‘rationality’ are going to be quite inadequate to deal with that fact! The thing about Gideon Mack is that there are
plenty of questions but no conclusive answers. If people read the book expecting a definite answer to the question, does
the Devil exist, they’re going to be sorely disappointed.
All your novels have been characterised, first and foremost, by being ‘good reads’. All three have a strong plot
that draws the reader quickly through the book. Although the two are obviously not mutually exclusive, would you prefer
that a reader leaves your books having been well ‘entertained’, or do you think it is important that some other
‘lessons’ are learnt along the way? What ‘lessons’ do you think Gideon Mack contains?
As a writer, it’s pretty discourteous to your potential readers if you don’t make the book ‘readable’ (which doesn’t
mean you have to dumb it down). Rather like Gideon ploughing his way through the complete set of Scott’s Waverley
novels, I used to think that once I’d started a book I should struggle through to the end regardless of how tedious it
was. As you get older you realise that this is a ludicrous way to behave. There are too many novels by too many authors
who seem oblivious to the existence of the people who read them, or who rather arrogantly don’t care about them. That’s
okay if you’re James Joyce but if you just think you’re James Joyce it’s likely to end in tears. As a reader I like to
read fiction that challenges, informs and engages me, but I also want to be entertained enough to keep wanting to turn
the pages. As a writer I try to bear that in mind.
Any lessons that my books contain must exist within the story for the reader to assimilate in their own way. It’s not a
novelist’s job to force-feed the reader or to preach at them. On the other hand good books do contain ideas, messages,
lessons – whatever you want to call them – but often they work subliminally, or at least subtly, sometimes over a long
period. What, if any, are the lessons of Gideon Mack
? I think it’s too early to say…
I’m interested in the theme of ‘magic’ in The Testament of Gideon Mack, which it seems to me was also present in
Fanatic. In both books magic is linked to people who might be perceived as either insane, or at least in a doubtful
mental state – although Gideon Mack’s sanity or insanity remains ambiguous. In The Testament of Gideon Mack,
superstition, folklore and organised, respectable religion are also linked. Could you give us some thoughts on this
magical side to your novels?
There are some elements of Gideon Mack
which you might almost categorise as ‘magic realism’, but the magic is always
being undercut by doubts about whether what is happening is really happening. Gideon is an unreliable narrator but some
of the ‘witnesses’ at the end of the book aren’t that reliable either. The thing about magic is that you’re never quite
sure how it works, whether it’s a trick or really magical. And so much of that comes down to perspective, how different
individuals see the world, how it appears to them. What are madness and sanity? They’re arbitrary points on a line.
Likewise, what’s magical and what’s completely ‘normal’ or mundane? It depends on your point of view.
As a follow up to that, are you either being critical of organised religion, or, on the other hand, suggesting
that ‘magic’ in whatever form, is important to people.
I suppose I’m critical of organised religion in that it often doesn’t seem to work very well and is easily subverted to
become a negative or anti-human force. In other words, religion is created by humans who then too often use it to
demean, persecute, oppress or diminish human beings. Sometimes, though, religion can elevate, enhance, celebrate and
liberate. It also has quite a capacity to re-energise itself. The Church of Scotland looks like it's on its last legs in
the early 21st century, but I suspect it will be around for a while yet. I thought when I started Gideon Mack that I
would be writing about the role of the Kirk in modern society, but the book became much more about one individual,
albeit a minister, and his personal struggle with faith or lack of faith. But I never intended the book to be an attack
on the Kirk, and it isn’t: apart from anything else, that’s a pretty soft target these days. Part of what the book is
about, though, is that very question of what religion is for: if religion is failing, do people not require some other
source of the miraculous, the magical, in their lives? I think they do. It is one of the functions of the human
imagination. ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,’ as Oscar Wilde put it. Or was it the
The Fanatic made quite open comments about the state of Scotland at that time – the time of the 1997 election
and the period before the referendum for the Scottish Parliament when Scotland seemed on the point of dramatic change.
Do you see Gideon Mack as making any similar comment on contemporary Scotland?
Again, I kind of thought it might but it ended up being much more about one man. There is a trajectory of events in the
background, running from the Second World War through to the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the
invasion of Iraq, but it’s very much in the background. I think I’d like to leave it to readers to decide if Gideon Mack
has anything important to say about contemporary Scotland. My next novel, however, will certainly have to deal with
these political, social, cultural questions in a wider context.
So can you say something about what the next book is about, and why you decided to write it?
The intention is to write a novel charting the big political, social and cultural changes that have occurred in Scotland
from 1945 to 1999, the year our Parliament was re-established after a gap of nearly 300 years. Throughout the 1980s and
1990s I was involved in the movement for Scottish self-government and during this period I accumulated a fair knowledge
and understanding of the history and culture of Scotland. I always reckoned that the story of how the country changed
politically and culturally in the second half of the 20th century would be a great subject for a big, sprawling,
panoramic kind of novel.
I’m still mapping out how this story is going to be told, but the sort of changes I’m talking about include the decline
of heavy industry and the growth of the service sector; emigration, the Welfare State, urban redevelopment; the social
and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s; the rise of nationalism; Thatcherism; the interaction between city and
country, Lowlands and Highlands. Obviously it’s a potentially massive canvas, so there’s a lot of reading and research
to be done before I start writing. To be honest, at this point I’ve no idea what’s going to emerge.
One final question. If I thought I saw Gideon Mack up a mountain somewhere, should I tell anyone, or keep it to
Perhaps you should do what the historian Dr Roland Tanner, who ‘sees’ Gideon’s ghost, does: have a large whisky to steady the nerves!