Research Notes · 01/24/2014

What Ends

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Andrew Ladd writes about What Ends from New Issues Press.

+

I grew up in Scotland, so you might think writing a novel set there would be easy. Throw in a few lochs, a few lads and lassies, a haggis or two — and the rest writes itself, no?

This was the specter hanging over me, reader, as I wrote my first book: the challenge of writing a Scottish novel without writing a “Scottish novel.” And for that reason, as I wrote the very early drafts, I did my best to make it as _un_-“Scottish” as possible. I deliberately avoided phrases like “I cannae mind” (“I can’t remember”) or “aff his heed” (“out of his mind”); I purged the dialogue of those stock Scots sounds and words like “och,” and “wheesht,” and “wee,” no matter how naturally they seemed to crop up; and I painstakingly read and re-read the dialogue out loud, putting on my best accent and trying to make sure the cadences and word choice would convey a convincing sense of Scottishness without conveying “Jock McTavish and The Legend of The Kilt.” It was an endless, unrewarding curse.

It was also, I realise now, a complete waste of time.

For one thing, a book set in Scotland and written by me, a person who grew up in Edinburgh, was bound to get pegged as “Scottish” no matter what I did. Never mind that I have American parents, had been living in America for years when I started writing it, and was planning to pitch it mainly to American agents — this is just how publishing works. I knew this, too, on some level. But the problem, I now realize, was that I was projecting my own insecurities onto the text.

See, ever since entering adolescence, I’d become increasingly wary of how tenuous my own Scottishness really was. Sure, I’d grown up in Scotland, and it felt like home — but my family, being American, had always been a little different. (Thanksgiving yes, Boxing Day no.) After I moved to the U.S. for college and lost what little Scottish accent I’d ever had, my anxiety about my own Scottishness got about fifteen times worse: now when I went home, shop assistants would assume I was a tourist, and even in the States people started telling me I didn’t have an accent.

So starting the novel, I was terrified that while American readers would be blithely reading the book as Scottish, Scottish readers would be just as blithely sneering at me as a fraud — as some dilettante wannabe writing another “Scottish” book, one which failed to capture real life in Scotland any more convincingly than Mike Myers’s Fat Bastard.

That was why I started cutting so earnestly anything that might come off as writing from stereotype. That was why I just as earnestly started inserting obscure vocabulary that only a “true” Scot would know (e.g. “She went for the messages,” which means “she’s gone shopping”). I guess the best way to describe what I was going for — though I doubt I could have articulated this at the time — was a sort of knowing, secret handshake kind of Scottishness. Which sounds elitist and snooty and awful, I know, but bear in mind that even as I was trying to pull this off this odd wink of an aesthetic, I was still terrified that the people I was trying to impress with it would just think I had something in my eye.

Exacerbating the problem, of course, was that I was writing about a way of life with which I had no experience, and about a part of Scotland that I’d never really been to. This might seem like a strange complaint, to someone from a country as large as America — like a person from eastern Connecticut, maybe, saying they felt unqualified to write a book about western Connecticut. But when you’re already feeling out of your depth, wading further into the unknown does nothing to allay your fears — and west coast Scotland really is culturally distinct from east coast Scotland. The last time I was home there was a story in the news about a west coast man accusing an east coast fish ‘n’ chips shop of racial discrimination for charging him extra for ketchup (i.e. the west coast condiment of choice) while the east coast condiment of choice, the delightfully named ‘brown sauce,’ was free.

Again, I understand that this sounds silly and tribal in a country the size of South Carolina — but they really do feel that way. I feel that way. I remember reading an article in the New Yorker a few years ago, when the G8 was meeting in Gleneagles, which mentioned that Bob Geldof had held a coinciding protest concert in Edinburgh — described in the article as a “local rugby stadium.”

Now, to a Scot, describing Gleneagles as “local” to Edinburgh is about as offensive as saying Boston is a suburb of New York — and this seemingly inconsequential piece of geographical summary had me spluttering indignantly until I actually looked at a map, and discovered that Gleneagles to Edinburgh is about how far you’d travel to get from Coney Island to Yankee Stadium and back. Still, that should give you some idea of the fierce sense of ownership some Scots feel about their part of the country, and how stupid it was, really, for a clueless Edinbugger like me to try and write about life in the Hebrides.

And that, probably, was the most illuminating thing I learnt while writing my novel. If Glaswegians and Edinbuggers can feel as different, in a country the size of Scotland, as an East Coaster and a West Coaster in one the size of America — if a few dozen miles across a firth can mean a gulf between identities as vast as the difference between Boston and New York — couldn’t the same also be true of people from different ends of an island just four miles across? Was this sort of tribalism endemic, perhaps, to the human condition?

In my very first draft the book had opened with an outsider — a Londoner — coming to the island; the whole book was to explore the conflict between the world of the island and the wider society beyond. But the more I wrote, the more that felt like precisely the kind of book an outsider would write — when clearly the more fascinating drama was borne of that same kind of squabble wrought smaller (or larger, perhaps) on the thirty or so people left on the island itself.

That isn’t to say that the island-mainland conflict isn’t there, in the book, or that ultimately it’s not the conflict that still concerns me most, in a grander, abstract sense. It bothers me that this perfectly legitimate way of life should be so difficult, these days, just because the economic trends elsewhere make living on an island so unfeasible. (This is an oversimplification, but also an issue for another essay.) But in the finished draft, that larger conflict, like the outsider with whom the book once opened, are relegated to a supporting role; mere background noise, really, to the richer, more immediate conflicts that give life its most gratifying, infuriating, worthwhile texture.

And though the book, as I expected, has been pegged as “Scottish,” and though I do still worry that there are Scots out there reading it and scoffing at how wrong I’ve got everything, I’m more sanguine about things, now. More hopeful, instead, that the people who read my book will recognize how such conflicts reverberate at every level of our lives — and that in doing so, they’ll also come to recognize how much all of us really share.

+++

Andrew Ladd is the blog editor for Ploughshares, and his work has also appeared in Apalachee Review, CICADA, Memoir Journal, and The Rumpus, among others. He grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and has since lived in Boston, Montreal, and London; currently he lives in Brooklyn, with his wife.