I first met Willie on a snowy day in Glasgow. I was writing a profile of him for the British Council, which was staging a literary festival in Sofia, Bulgaria that he had been asked to attend. I'd never interviewed anyone before, let alone an author I admired so much, so I was terribly nervous.
To keep calm, I walked into town from the West End, going over my questions in my mind. Having set out far too early, I bypassed Sauchiehall Street and chose a longer route over Garnethill, where the tallest buildings were stark against the white sky, like etchings on a canvas otherwise left blank. We were in that moment of rueful surfeit between Christmas and New Year. But we were in the midst of a larger pause too: between the Wall coming down and the Towers coming down, with a Labour government in Westminster and a Scottish parliament in Edinburgh. The future looked promising, if a trifle dull.
We met in the old Ailsa Bar at the Central Hotel. With its plentiful ashtrays and tartan-upholstery, it felt like a bastion against the impending advent of universal smoking bans and polished floorboards. The first thing that really struck me about Willie was how handsome he was and how indifferent to the fact he seemed. If he'd been an American writer, he would probably have been lured onto the screen sooner or later, like Sam Shepard. His only comment on this was to amusedly recount the analysis of his public persona once supplied by a Scottish academic: 'You're not bad looking. You appear to be successful. And you've got a mouth on you. And they don't like that.'
He was open and approachable with me from the start, kindly pretending not to notice that the British Council had apparently dispatched a 10-year-old to interview him. (Though I had gained my PhD a couple of years earlier, I hadn't managed to find a university job and was earning a parlous living as a part-time bookseller and part-time literary journalist.)
As the snow resumed outside, we settled in with a whisky each and began. I still have the tape somewhere, buried at the back of a cupboard. I sound squeaky; he answers my questions in his ruminative baritone. An Ayrshire boy myself, I instantly recognised his accent as conveying the best of us: Scottish clarity and firmness interwoven with Irish musicality – not a bad description of his prose, in fact.
I'd first read him at university, when he was somewhat out of fashion – criticised, in the aftermath of 'The Big Man,' for glorifying violence and being obsessed with an unreconstructed version of working-class masculinity. The way my fellow students dismissed him for being insufficiently postmodern was enough to get me interested. Reading his non-fiction collection 'Surviving the Shipwreck' as I stood amid the library stacks, I also discovered that he'd lost his father to cancer in his first month at Glasgow University. I'd been through exactly the same experience myself. These are the kind of coincidences that strike you as deeply significant when you're young and raw and brimful of foolishness.
I went on to read 'Docherty' and the 'Laidlaw' trilogy. Scottish literature at the time seemed rather thin-lipped stuff: preoccupied with social realism and harbouring a parsonical suspicion of anything imaginative or overtly eloquent. But there was a Lawrentian richness in his books; both in his prose and in the unreserved attitude to human experience. Occasionally his similes and metaphors seemed to crowd upon one another, creating the sense, for the reader, of toiling across a landscape that was all peaks – but not often, and it was a fault of generosity rather than meanness.
Because the purpose of our interview was to introduce him to an audience that hadn't really heard of him, I couldn't guide him down any obscure paths. We had to tour the familiar landmarks instead: the Kilmarnock childhood as the son of a miner; the admired debut with 'A Gift from Nessus'; the Whitbread Prize for 'Docherty'; the move (so startling back then, but amazingly prescient too) from literary to genre fiction and back again. But I was also able to ask him about a personal favourite – the short story collection, 'Walking Wounded.' I felt that, like John Updike or James Kelman, he was, in some ways, at his best in his short stories. The ordinary lives he portrayed were seen more vividly for being caught and held in a narrower spotlight.
'I'm haunted by more ideas than I'll ever realise,' he said, of the short stories. 'I always want to write about ordinary lives. But sometimes it's hard to put such lives into elaborate plots because their essence is casual. So the intention was to bring together small moments in such lives with the unifying theme that we are all, to some extent, walking wounded. I don't know if you know the character of Eumaeus in "The Odyssey"? While Odysseus goes off and has all his adventures, Eumaeus stays at home. He's a swineherd. He keeps pigs. And I've always wanted somehow to write a "Eumaeud": the story of the person who stays behind and lives the apparently mundane life in which there's still a great deal of simple heroism… I believe in the dynamism and articulacy of working-class life. I've been accused, in writing about Tam Docherty, for instance, of creating a man too good for this world. But I think that's rubbish. There's a tendency, amongst those who wish to appear very relevant and "with it," to look for the worst in any situation. That's a libel on human nature.'
I felt compelled to ask him about his depiction of violence. He looked briefly exasperated ('not this again!') but offered a fine defence: 'I portrayed violence for what it is, which is abhorrent. But by actually taking it seriously, not exploiting it as entertainment, I was accused of cashing in it. Many modern depictions of violence in fiction, like in Tarantino's films, raise no moral questions at all and no-one says a word. Sometimes it has appeared to me that people have seen the opposite of what I'm trying to do in my books, especially in Scotland. W H Auden said that the bad reader reads metaphors as literal and the literal as metaphorical. In "The Big Man" the bare-knuckle fight with Dan Scoular and Cutty Dawson was a metaphor for Thatcherism: the idea that we're all in a race, so let's help ourselves and it doesn't matter if the weakest fall by the wayside.'
When it came to recent political developments, he was positive but realistic, his comments tinged with a droll scepticism that made me warm to him even more: 'I believe that devolution is a worthwhile experiment, especially if it leads to independence. At the very least it allows Scotland the chance to move away from blaming England for all its troubles. Scotland is one of the oldest countries in Europe but until recently it has been like a geriatric teenager, unable to make its own decisions. And, let's face it, we could get repetitive strain injury from patting ourselves on the back about how much nicer and more tolerant and progressive we are than the English. If we were independent, maybe we'd finally get to put that assumption to the test – find out who we truly are.'
We were there in the Ailsa Bar for three hours, all told. I still count it as one of the best afternoons of my life; certainly one of the most privileged. I went off and wrote up the interview and sent him a copy. I also, shamelessly, sent him a couple of my published short stories. To my surprise, having read them, he asked me if I wanted to meet again a couple of months later. Same location, same walk into town – but a drenching, stormy day this time, with the streets like rinsed canyons and all but the nearest buildings frail in the mist.
Off duty, I was slightly less nervous, but I wish I could have given him better arguments. I had already waded through a fair bit of crap in my young life. Yet it seemed that nothing could banish my essential air of bland cleanliness; or an ingratiating manner that would have made Uriah Heep blush. And, in spite of some bright spots (London Magazine, New Writing Scotland, Radio 4), I was still very uncertain about my credentials as a writer of fiction. So I tended to just nod along with whatever he said, when I'm sure he would have preferred some contradiction.
I next saw him, unexpectedly, in Sofia itself. I say 'unexpectedly' because I wasn't supposed to be there – my task had simply been to interview the attending Scottish authors in advance of the festival. But someone dropped out, so I was invited at the last moment.
He and I got to Sofia before everyone else and I tagged along with him for a day as he spoke to various local journalists. Peak surrealness arrived with our joint appearance on Bulgarian breakfast television, perched side-by-side on a polyester sofa. He was great company and we both loved the city centre, with its neo-classical architecture, chestnut-lined streets and Byzantine ruins.
In the evening we had dinner in the hotel. Perhaps due to the powerful Melnik wine we consumed, I actually offered a few opinions of my own. In particular, I advanced my theory that Glasgow-born producer Kenny McBain had been more influenced by 'Laidlaw' than the ostensible source material when establishing the rich, measured, reflective tone (revolutionary at the time) of 'Inspector Morse' on television – not least in its sense that the true mystery at each episode's heart was the detective himself; like Laidlaw, Morse was more character study than crime fiction. He seemed interested to hear this. And even though the saga of trying to get 'Laidlaw' on screen had been a painful one, he shared a good Sean Connery story.
During the long period when Connery was trying to turn the first book into a film, he and Willie would meet in a variety of unlikely places. Their assignations at Edinburgh Zoo are well known, but Willie also once found himself at Gleneagles, where Connery was playing in a celebrity pro-am. As they trudged around the course and discussed the project, Willie was treated to an example of the movie star interacting with his fans. Standing on the seventh green, he was spotted by a group of businessmen on the nearby eighth tee who clamoured loudly for his autograph. He acquiesced, grudgingly. There followed an awkward silence, in which both parties remained immobile on green and tee – until Connery growled, 'Well, I'm not fucking well coming over to you.'
The festival itself was held in the baroque gloom of the old military club on Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, near the mighty Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Spectres of the old days lurked everywhere – not least in the form of the little old lady who sat scowling at you, awaiting a tip, as you entered and exited the toilet. The simultaneous translations and the earpieces we had to wear, which constantly fell out, made the whole thing feel like a hastily convened UN summit.
Willie was brilliant in all the sessions he participated in – thoughtful and receptive, without a hint of superiority or condescension towards anyone. Taking part in discussions with titles like, 'Writing in a Time of Political Change,' he was able to speak eloquently about Scotland, while acknowledging that our recent experience of such change paled in comparison to that of our hosts, who were still up to their necks in post-Cold War consequences. Listening to him, it occurred to me again that he had that quality you most expect to find in writers when you're young and naïve, but rarely do: soulfulness.
I tried to make some kind of meaningful contribution myself. But an uncomfortable feeling persisted that I was a man way out of his depth, taking part in an aquacade when I should have been discreetly signally to the lifeguards for help.
My discomfort was reinforced by some of the other Scottish authors present, who seemed to think I had elbowed my way into this gig and treated me accordingly. The real low point came at a lunch where one of them, in a voice loud enough to ensure she was heard by everyone present, turned to me and said, 'So, tell us all, David, how have you managed to make so little go such a long way?' Afterwards, Willie took my aside and told me not to worry about it. 'My mother would have just told her, plain and simple, "That's not what you do to people,"' he said.
Back in Glasgow, I only saw him a few more times, usually in a pub near the Mitchell Library after he'd done an event at the book festival. He tended to be surrounded by fans in these circumstances, but we chatted a bit. I'd managed to get a novel for teenage readers accepted, albeit for a modest advance, by a well-known London publisher and he was pleased for me. Although I'd been writing this kind of stuff – adventure stories in imagined settings, I suppose you'd call them – for as long as I'd been writing anything, I knew I'd be accused of going 'populist' and he sympathised, remembering his travails with 'Laidlaw'.
Much more importantly, I'd also been reading 'The Longships in Harbour' and wanted to ask him about his poetry. I admired its blend of lyricism and social commentary, along with its commitment to traditional forms. I felt it exhibited the same strength as his stories – paring back his style so that you could see its virtues even more clearly, while the imprint of its generosity remained. He seemed pleased to talk about this. As with all authors better known for other things, I think he felt that his poems were somehow at the heart of who he was.
My novel came out and received some good reviews, but I was dropped by my publisher for achieving only 'respectable' sales. Essentially unemployed, I got a new job in a small web business as a content developer. For a long time, a foolish sense of humiliation about my writing career made me reluctant to keep in touch with old friends from the literary world. As a result, to my regret, I didn't see Willie during the final years of his life, when he was gradually rebranded as the 'father of Tartan Noir' – a horribly limiting label, in my opinion, which does scant justice to the depth and sensitivity of his work.
But I remember, with great affection, the last exchange we shared, since it was so characteristic of him. Leaving the pub, I pointed out how great it was that he was so unambiguously valued at last, without any envious sniping at his charisma or the pleasures offered by the unapologetic richness of his prose. He looked around the crowded room and gave me a conspiratorial smile. 'Oh, aye,' he said. 'My halo's got a halo these days.'