Interview with Donald Smith, Author, &
Director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre, in Edinburgh
Donald Smith was born in Glasgow to an Irish mother. Brought up in Glasgow and Stirling, he began work in Edinburgh as a theatre stage manager, becoming Director of the Netherbow Arts Centre in 1983. Donald has written, directed or produced over fifty plays, and is a founding Director of the National Theatre of Scotland. Influenced by Hamish Henderson, Donald was also the moving spirit behind the new Scottish Storytelling Centre of which he is the first Director, and is widely recognized as one of Scotland’s leading storytellers.
Donald Smith has produced a series of books on Scottish narrative, including Storytelling Scotland: A Nation in Narrative, Celtic Travelers, and a poetry collection, A Long Stride Shortens the Road: Poems of Scotland. Donald Smith’s study of Robert Burns and religion; God, the Poet and the Devil, has just been published. (Saint Andrew Press 19 Dec 2008).
His two novels are both published by Luath Press. The English Spy (2007) and his most recent book, Between Ourselves (Luath Press, 1 January 2009).
In Between Ourselves, Donald Smith has woven the real life love affair of Nancy and Burns into a tantalising tale of passion and betrayal, binding historical fact and fiction together to create an intimate portrait of Burns the man. It is published this month to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Burns' birth. (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796).
The six months that Robert Burns spent in Edinburgh, between the Ayrshire years and the short-lived maturity in Dumfries, were an intense time in the life of a poet who became a Scottish hero. Burns is an icon, but he is a flawed one. The great bard was fond of drink, women and over familiar with Edinburgh's underworld. He was often conflicted with crippling self-doubt about his talents and bitter about his place in society. During the short time in Edinburgh, Burns had dealings with the infamous Deacon Brodie; was struck by inspiration and failed by his muse; and, fell in love with two unavailable women and bedded many more than that. While never straying from accepted Burns' history, this remarkable novel imagines the life of Burns' in those months to discover the flesh and blood man behind the legend.
‘The English Spy’ about Daniel Defoe, was your first novel, after having written other books of non-fiction and poetry. Is there any connection with this, your next novel, based on Robert Burns, ‘Between Ourselves'?
I’m a storyteller and I’m interested in the big national narrative, if you like, and how we can open these stories up and get inside them. In 'The English Spy' it’s a wonderful way of getting inside the England, Scotland, wider Europe, cultural and political stuff, by homing in on this extraordinary individual, later a major author, qua spy, operating here in Edinburgh.
So, first the narrative, but the second connection is Edinburgh. 'Between Ourselves' is also set in Edinburgh. They each unlock through a literary character, a historical character, issues which are also contemporary, and the great national narrative, with Edinburgh the backdrop.
What drove you to write this book about Robert Burns?
I’ve lived and worked in Edinburgh for thirty-five years, as a storyteller, author, and been involved in different cultural things, so in that respect, I’m not a career author who has to sit and decide, what should be my next book? That’s probably reflected in the fact that I have a wide number of different publishers. It’s that cultural tradition of Scottish literature in Scottish society, that continuing thing that is of great interest to me, that I am a part of, that I want to keep articulating and keep fresh. The story is changing all the time, of today’s society which has experienced major change, and is experiencing major change.
This year is state-designated as the ‘Year of Homecoming in Scotland’, harnessing the 250th anniversary and appeal of Burns to promote Scotland.
I’m not critical of that, but it’s Burns that’s important to me. In both my current books about Burns, I think it’s very much about a journey of rediscovery. Everybody thinks they know about Burns, but we don’t really. He’s a much richer, broader topic.
As a wee example of that, what I found very interesting, when looking at the whole Union thing in 'The English Spy' and looking at Burns, is that English and Scottish literature, even on a broader European context, you can’t cut it off and say “that’s Scottish literature there, and that’s English literature there.” The two are feeding off each other. Daniel Defoe’s experiences here, feed into his later invention, virtually, of the novel in the form of fiction.
In addition, in Burns’s case, what I think is not properly understood, is that Burns’s literary heroes were Alexander Pope and Lawrence Sterne. His favourite book was Tristram Shandy. Obviously, he was greatly influenced by other Scottish poets, Robert Ferguson and Allan Ramsey, but he in his day, is a great creative, contemporary, innovative writer on a British and European scene, and by whatever measure. He’s up there beside Blake as one of the great pioneers of the Romantic.
Do you think that through his early death, he was unable to fulfil that potential, to become a world-renowned literary figure, on a par with Goethe perhaps? He often appears well known as a Scot, and as a poet, but perhaps his work itself is not that well known?
Yes, I think that’s absolutely true. I think that’s wrong and a great shame. He was a hugely interesting and innovative writer across a whole range of genre. He has a huge thing for song and lyric; and that is recognized internationally. Beethoven and Haydn set music to Burns’ lyrics.
But I think that there’s another issue in there. Not only his early death, although relevant. Burns was living at a time of a vast social structure in Scotland, and that’s one of the issues I deal with, the degree to which, literature in Scotland certainly as well as other countries, literature was so dependent on patronage from the elite. And one of Burns’s great traumas and difficulties as an artist, as a writer, is that he was a radical, socially, politically and culturally, in a very conservative society. He was caught on the cusp, between, on the one hand there was a huge upsurge of ideas, the Enlightenment, and then we have the huge reaction against the French revolution, and political and cultural repression. In Scotland that was felt very keenly, because of that social structure again, and there was no parliament, everything was managed from London through the elite.
Burns, and this for me is one of the huge issues I dug into in the novel, is never given the chance to develop his creative potential, for all sorts of social and political reasons. He’s from the wrong class, he’s got no formal education and patronage, he struggles to survive on the margins, and that’s why this period in Edinburgh which is not a major part of his life in other ways, kind of decides the relationship between Burns the writer and the power structure of the day, and in a sense, he has to retreat. Some of his most interesting later works were actually published anonymously, in one of the Grafton journals. So there’s a whole very interesting interaction in Burns, the conflict and struggle between the artist, the writer, and politics, but also in the way the literary system worked, literary patronage, publishing and censorship. Themes that are still so relevant. And Burns’s whole struggle with that, is the guts of the novel.
I liked the bit about his notes on pricing, revising the pricing for submissions, and deductions made.
Oh yes, one of the themes in this book, is not getting paid by your publisher. I had to keep saying to my publisher, “You know it’s not personal Gavin. Honestly.” You know he’s a very nice publisher, I know a great many. But there again, you have this fun, moving between the historical and biographical reality, and building it up. I’ve had a lot of fun with the figure of William Creech, the publisher. He was a real Edinburgh literati, part of that middle class, elite, with huge intellectual snobbery and all the rest of it.
Monies owed by William Creech bookseller to Robert Burns, Poet, for the Edinburgh Edition of his Works:
500 subscription copies £125
Balance Owing for Distribution to Subscribers £400
Property of Poems £100
Damn the bookseller’s discount. Restate as—
Subscription copies £125
Subscribers’ copies (less discount at one quarter) £300
Property of Poems £105
How do you get away with that blend of fact and fiction?
Both of the novels I have written so far are what you might call ‘bio-fiction’. I think there’s a kind of genre there, or a sub-genre, and the way in which you can weave creatively between biographical material and fictional material is the essence of the art of bio-fiction. To give an example of that, if you look at the two extended autobiographical letters (in the book) - Burns’s one, that is Burns, virtually untrimmed except my intervention is to cut out, to do some as it were, some self-censorship from a letter which was written to someone else and he is amending it for Clarinda and he decides to pare back on it. But Clarinda’s letter is created entirely by me. Although it is based on entirely biographical background. The reason for that, why would you do that? The reason is that Clarinda’s story hasn’t been heard. She hasn’t been given her voice up to this juncture, and this was the challenge an author to explore your themes by exploring things that aren’t there in the biographical detail albeit, I would say importantly, not creating anything that is totally wrong or improbable.
I try to explain that in the introduction to the reader. 80-90% of this is known, but then there are the gaps. I think it’s a definite sub-genre.
How do you go about your research?
Well in this case, I have lived with the Burns thing all my life. But I really came to the point of thinking, just after the Millennium, I don’t think I really understand Burns, the man. And I can’t quite get the unified personality behind all these different poems. So I set out on personal research, and I read everything that we have from Burns. And I’ve read all the historical background and contemporary research, and thirdly I went on visits to all the places, there’s a fantastic amount of buildings and places still there, where he’s been. Particularly in Ayrshire and Dumfries. So it was quite a conscious thing.
The first thing I did with it all, was to create a big play, in two acts, Ayrshire (the first part of Burns’s life) and Dumfries (the later period of his life), and I skipped Edinburgh altogether. Because I was on this thing, of all the background and research, all of which I use in the play. But then after writing the play, I got thinking again and actually, although Edinburgh was only an episode in his life, I ended up saying, ‘you know, I think I’m wrong. I think it’s critical, it’s decisive. And I think it gives me the opportunity to draw together what I want to say about Burns, to try and capture a sense of Burns’s personality.’ By this time, I’d done ‘The English Spy’ and I thought, 'I think that might give me a way in.' At first it was very experimental. It was very difficult to say, what is Burns’ s voice? What is the voice behind these quite elaborate, prosaic letters, these bawdy songs, who is this guy?
So, it was an outcome of very long process?
Yes, and first I wrote the novel. Then I got approached about writing a more general book about Burns’s ideas, and I’m also just finished doing a little guide to Burns’s Edinburgh which is to go up on the Edinburgh City of Literature website. It’s the key places from poems, extracts from letters and places associated with them, and it’s not the shiny Burns guide to Edinburgh. And that’s the other side, you see, my relationship with Edinburgh. Edinburgh’s a character in this story as well. It’s a fantastic visual environment and it’s also an amazing history, with layers and layers of interesting stuff.
The role of women in Burns’s life is a whole discussion in itself. But how does it feature in 'Between Ourselves'?
Well, what is very important in the book is that Burns is not the only character. In my view, Nancy McLhose has been at the receiving end of some of the most dreadfully patronizing, sexist commentary from both women and men, and I really, really hope, that if I have achieved anything with this book, that is, putting that side of the story back into perspective, if people pick up on that, that would give me great satisfaction.
Who do you see as your target audience? Do you think Burns is accessible to the average reader?
What you might call the intelligent, interested, general reader. What Virginia Woolf would call, ‘the common reader’ and what pleases me most about this whole thing so far, is that feedback I’ve had about the novel, readers are saying to me. “This is really interesting, you’ve got a great story there, we’ve learnt a lot.“ But I really have been able to sense a connection with a readership in the story, and as a storyteller, that’s very important to me. As a live storyteller, you really create the thing, in the action of reading. And I think that’s a great Scottish thing. Virginia Woolf had the idea of the ‘Common reader’ and in Scotland it’s the ‘Democratic Intellect” that’s the George Davie idea, I was taught by him at university. The idea that everybody in society should be a reader, should be able to have critical thought. I don’t want to write for a narrow audience, but of course, paradoxically, one of the things I’m pointing out is that Burns was no peasant simpleton. People will so often say, ‘he was the common man’, ‘the peasant poet’, but he was a very sophisticated artist. You’ve got the mind of the sophisticated artist, the irony, the arrogance sometimes. And I think all of that, should be accessible to a wide readership.
Well it might reach that audience with the anniversary celebrations. I saw it was even for sale online at Tesco.
Right. I’m into that. There’s an interesting spark in all that anyway, that the Burns thing, and the 250th anniversary (of his birth) has huge commercial buy in, even Lidl’s cheap-end supermarket has a “celebrating Burns” catalogue. Unfortunately my book was not in that one…..(laughs) I relish that, the storytelling tradition is democratic, and that’s part of the health of a society, its education, and I’m not interested in that ‘select’ thing.
It sounds as though Burns would very much approve.
I hope so. I don’t know whether he’d be comfortable with some of the other aspects of the story. But honesty, he was for honesty above all. I think he would love what storytelling centres do around Burns. We had this great evening last night, about Burns, his Irish connection and Edinburgh and so on, with people from all over the world there, and at the end somebody said, ‘you know, I think Burns would really have enjoyed this evening”. And I think, by comparison, at the standard Burns’ supper, he would have run a mile.
Great. Thank you very much indeed for your time.
Cheers then. Bye-bye.
Thank you to Donald Smith for his time, insights and much laughter in the interview. The Scottish Storytelling Centre is located very centrally on Edinburgh's Royal Mile. It is a sign of the positive spirit and backing that literature has in Scotland, and its place in society. If you are passing, do visit some of the Burns' events or take part in the ongoing activities throughout the year. As a native Scot, I will have to pop in on my next homecoming visit.
Happy Burns Celebrations to all our readers on January 25th!
For a printed edition of this interview go here.