Thanks to Len Wanner, as well as Kyle MacRae and Allan Guthrie at Blasted Heath, for allowing us to feature the introduction and an extract from The Crime Interview: William McIlvanney by Len Wanner. If you would like more, you can purchase the whole publication as an e-book or Kindle for a mere £0.99 by visiting the Amazon links on the right.

 Introduction by Len Wanner

William McIlvanney was born in Kilmarnock in 1936. The fourth of four resourceful miner children, he discovered his love of literature and learning in what used to be known as 'modest circumstances'. Back then the old phrase denoted the lack of fashionable experience in spite of solvent respectability, but at times it has also connoted a family economy that places its greatest stock in the life of the mind. Such was Mr McIlvanney's good fortune. At home he soon learned how to invest benign aggression, be it in spirited debate, Kilmarnock Academy, or Glasgow University, and the payoff has been rich. To 15 years of teaching English he has added 15 books in fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, two Scottish Arts Council Book Awards, two CWA Silver Daggers, a Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award, a Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, a Whitbread Award, a Scottish BAFTA, etc. 

Yes, Mr McIlvanney is highly prized, but versatility is deemed a division, not an addition of assets, and thus his due fame, the routine repetition of praise, has been delayed by the variety of his writings. Starting with Remedy is None in 1966, he has written such critical and cultural classics as DochertyLaidlaw,The Big ManWalking WoundedSurviving the Shipwreck, and The Kiln, and on every page, be it that of a novel or a short story, an essay or a poem, he has championed the courage of our doubts. Only let his clear, undecorated language linger in the ear, and you begin to hear your own questions, feel as his protagonists do, and see them the way he does: unblinking, unafraid, and understanding. We know these people like ourselves, for although they belong to the past his power of intent makes of them the here and now.

Speaking of which, Mr McIlvanney has done for our time what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did for his. He has created an archetype with an all-access pass to his fictional as well as our factual society. Starting in 1977, his Inspector Jack Laidlaw has led a procession of Scottish writers around the world, and since their shared success, his service to crime fiction has been seen as the source of Tartan Noir. LaidlawThe Papers of Tony Veitch, and Strange Loyalties have enlightened generations of readers, not least as to the term's intentions and the author's imitators. This is why he has been charged twice, first with selling out and ever since with deeds of note. Having refused the funds of a series franchise, he has remained commercially undervalued, he has been rated a writer's writer, and he has given the Scottish crime novel a new lease of life.

The genre's debt to Mr McIlvanney is immeasurable. The man has shown that there are no formulas, not in literature and not in life. He has done so by mining the gap between purpose and performance, by reminding us that we all live within touching distance of the tough, the troubled, and the tested. That this can seem hopeless is the sign of a sensibility formed when stoicism ruled thoughtful minds; yet reading any one of his genre-defining works leaves one as heartened as the generosity of his spirit. When we met for the following interview in a Glasgow bar, he took my questions like his gin & tonic: slow, stirred, and with a smile. Talking in prose, he tipped the conversation with poetry as if he knew it was loose change and his last suit will have no pockets. Could a man do more to bewilder the public?

The Interview

Is it fair to say that your achievement is equal to your ambition, having written a genealogy of the Scottish working class? 

In retrospect, I can see that as one way of defining what I've done, though I hope it's a lot wider than that. I come from a working-class background and learned total respect for it, but I don't think I set out with that deliberate ambition. The first thing that took hold of me like demoniac possession was the work of William Saroyan, an American short story writer. When I was 17, I was William Saroyan. He just thought he was. I was trying to write short stories that were more Saroyan to say that my initial influences were American fiction, and my experience nailed me to Scottish working-class life, but I don't see myself as its laureate. It was a matrix with which I tried to work out what I wanted to say about many more things. I started with an unbridled passion to write, and although that has only fitfully sustained me and I've had fairly arid periods as well, I've always written about what I've experienced in some kind of depth.

Now that you said that, a strange memory haunts me: When I was 19 or so, I wrote a blank verse play about working-class life: "Actions in Generic Tense" – kinda like Shakespeare in Nicky Tams. That was a title calculated to have them queuing round the block, eh? I didn't achieve anything you should make it as articulate as anybody talking about the most important things in history. That has always been an element in my attempts to write. It's not to glorify working-class life but to show that it doesn't need glorifying. It doesn't exclude the importance of other elements of society, but it should be spoken of with as much intensity and dexterity of language as you can muster. 

And yet it's taken some until Weekend to read your men as people who dismantle machismo and your women as people you actually understand. Why do you think that is?

That is a good question. I think people who know me would be surprised at how I was chastised for being anti-female. It was absolutely untrue. Look at how big a part Jenny Docherty plays in the meaning of Docherty. I think she's a terrific woman. At that time, women were to remind us and suggest we deepen our politics. Burns had a massive influence on me, and I think his poem A Man's A Man For A' That is the most succinct demolition of titled status in the history of literature. He just annihilated the concept of the importance of title in relation to humanity, and I think that's a very Scottish thing. From the Declaration of Arbroath, we've said that if the king's not good enough we'll ditch him. Don't worry about it. One of the things I love about the history of Scottish culture is that a continuing thread runs through it, one of equality that says: "You will be judged as a person by the nature of your humanity, not by the quality of your name or the status you appear to have achieved." It's very hard to understand your own nationality and its significance, but for me that is its essence.






"The difficulty is not that you’re some amazing genius, but that what you’re trying to do is so bizarre, which is to live life and overtake it. It’s like disembowelling something and trying to make it live again, which is why serious writing is a troublesome thing to carry... It’s like hunting an animal and not knowing what it looks like. You don’t know its markings or even the shape of it, but sometimes when you find it you go: 'That’s what I was hunting all that time.'"
"I’ve been quite moved that folk regard me as a forerunner of Tartan Noir. In my old age, it’s like getting a pension of esteem you didn’t know you were going to get.

"He's a tortured figure. He’s trying to be honest in the midst of endless pomposity and dishonesty. He’s an awkward man, but I like him, and I agree with him most of the time."
"It’s not to glorify working-class life but to show that it doesn’t need glorifying."

IAN RANKIN, creator of Inspector Rebus, said: "McIlvanney was very important to me personally because he was a literary novelist. He’d won the Whitbread Prize for f***’s sake, and then suddenly he’s writing gritty urban crime novels set in Glasgow... I thought it obviously is no different from writing literature so although I was doing my PhD on Muriel Spark it was okay to write popular fiction."

BOB SHRUM, speech writer for Kennedy, to William McIlvanney: "I’ve got two things to say to you. One will please you and one won’t. I think you write like an angel. If you lived in America you’d be a millionaire.”