The Gift Garden
The idea for the book came pretty much fully formed, at least in a loose sense. I basically woke up one day with an idea for a story in three acts, about a man who literally buries his sins. Almost everything that’s in the book was in my original vision for it, except that in the final act the narrator was supposed to cut the tree down and build a boat out of it, using it to sail off to some other place. That seemed a bit daft to me, and also rather too nicely wrapped up, and I didn’t want this story to have easy answers or endings. Beyond that initial framework that I came up with, I did then ‘just write’. It was a process of just occupying that emotional space and pouring everything out onto the page. It was a rather painful thing to write. But then anything worth writing usually is painful in some way.
There are some specific images in the book that come from my childhood, and in hindsight, much more that is clearly influenced by things I’ve been through. One clear image of red berries that occurs in the book comes from climbing a hill in the town of Forres in northern Scotland where I lived until I was about 4 or 5, to reach this place called Nelson’s Tower, and the woods over the hill were full of holly bushes. I remember quite vividly those dark green leaves and these bright red berries just flashing around the forest. There’s also a lot in there about my weird issue with hospitals, which started very young when I had a terrifying experience having my tonsils and adenoids removed in Aberdeen hospital, and continued with my various stints in hospital, as well as dealing with my mother’s numerous suicide attempts when I was in my 20s.
Apartments & Catholicism:
I lived in Glasgow for about 10 years, moving from one crappy tenement apartment to another, every 2 years or so. Some were worse than others, but most of them were pretty awful in some way. I lived in one place that had no carpets, central heating or hot running water. That was in 2004/05. So my worldview at the time was pretty coloured by poor housing and crappy flats. Everything I was writing at that time was really about people in decaying apartments going mad. So it’s autobiographical in a sense, but that’s what a writer does.
I grew up in a Catholic family and went to Catholic school, so despite what I might believe now (or not believe, to be more precise), that background has coloured my imagination. Also, I grew up in the west of Scotland, which is as riven with religious sectarianism as Northern Ireland is, just without the guns. So all that stuff is hard wired into me now, and as much as I’d like to get away from it, it’s just there.
There was no intention, originally, for The Gift Garden to have any religious overtones at all, it just came out during the writing process. And while I wouldn’t say it was thematically relevant, I guess you can read whatever you like into it.
No Names. No Dialogue:
No real rationale beyond me just despising dialogue in novels. It’s a very difficult thing, I think, to capture the way people talk, in a genuine way, in prose. And given the very stylised way I write, it just seems like something that would be very out of place. Also, the story is a very internalised one, it’s deliberately very introspective. So having dialogue, the character externalising something would have felt completely out of place. As for the lack of character names — again, in a story like this, it would have felt like I was being too specific, nailing these people down to characters. As soon as you have “characters” you require characterisation, background, development etc. I’m not really interested in that. I want to paint a specific image, deal with a specific theme, create an atmosphere. I want the reader to be overwhelmed. What the people are called isn’t remotely interesting to me.
I’m not really influenced by other writers so much now. When I was younger I drew a lot on people like William Burroughs, or Iain Banks, but as my own style and voice developed I found myself looking less to other writers and taking inspiration more from film and music. Not that I’m not influenced by other writers, because clearly I am, but I consciously draw more from other sources. For The Gift Garden I was very influenced by the Andrzej Zulawski film Possession, as well as the music of The Cure, mainly their Pornography album, which is kind of the closest things to a soundtrack the book will ever get. Many of the themes of that album found their way into the book in some way, and it was a great source of inspiration for the imagery too.
The Gift Garden:
The book didn’t have a title all the way through writing, and for a while after. It took me a long while to come up with something that I liked, or felt was appropriate. I suppose this emerged out of the Biblical references, the fact that there’s a kind of Eden story there, hence the garden, which also serves as a symbol of the story’s landscape — the apartment, the way it changes, as well as the narrator’s emotional journey.
There are hidden meanings in the title, but people can work that out if they want to.