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‘City of fine and grotesque’

Writing fiction, looking after little girls, doing journalism and essays and running a writing department — that’s how Kirsty Gunn describes herself as we settle down at Bengal Club for a chat on the sidelines of the University of East Anglia’s second short fiction-writing workshop in Calcutta, jointly steered by her and author Amit Chaudhuri.

Tell us a bit about yourself…

I’ve always written, since I was a child. I read English at university, in New Zealand, and at Oxford, kept writing stories throughout. My first book Rain (1994) achieved a degree of success, it was made into a film, it was translated around the world. At some point in all of this I was married and had children and still kept writing. I was also doing bits of journalism, criticisms for magazines and newspapers and then I was offered the job at the University of Dundee, where I was asked to set up and direct a writing programme, so after some thought I decided to do it so that was added to the mix. A busy life, a full life, a very exciting life, not much time in between all these activities. At the moment I divide my time between Scotland and London.

Why do you write?

It’s not a question I can really answer! Because I’ve always done it. It’s a bit like ‘why do you brush your teeth?’ Well, actually we know why we brush our teeth… but why do we have any of the habits we have. And I’ve been talking about that with my students here and back in Scotland. We can’t rely on the muse, we can’t rely on our imagination, we can’t rely on feeling confident enough to write. But we can rely on our routine. So if you have a routine, a habit, this is something you can return to and you can always make work out of that habit.

From where do you get your story ideas and inspirations?

I’m not sure. It was suggested the other night at this lovely event we had at the British Council, chaired by a wonderful intellectual and scholar and writer, Manas Ray [of the Centre of Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta] and he was suggesting that my inspiration comes from New Zealand and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. I think a lot of writers use as inspiration the place they have left behind them. I’m thinking about Hemingway and Paris, the great Canadian writer Mavis Gallant….

But my new book, The Big Music, is set in the north-eastern part of the Highlands of Scotland. I start to create a place for the story to live in. This book I had a very clear sense of these empty hills, a day towards the end of summer, when the light is starting to change, there’s a bit of coolness in the air, and I had an image of a man upon one of these hills, carrying a newborn in his arms. Why is he there? What is his relation to the child he’s carrying… these are questions I needed to answer by writing the book. And with this sense of place that begins the story, so does a line start to play over and over in my mind, almost like music. I can’t get rid of the line and that line then becomes the first line of the new book. The line for this book was, “The hills only come back the same: I don’t mind”. That provides the tone, the base note, the colour of what’s to come.

Reading your review in The Guardian of last year’s Booker Prize winner The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, who is also from New Zealand, one gets the sense that you were trying to very politely say that the book isn’t all that great…

I love her first novel [The Rehearsal], by the way. See, this is the thing, every year someone wins the Booker Prize and then that book is everywhere. But you know, all those books that I have been giving my students on their reading list for the workshop, they haven’t heard of a single one. No, one had heard of Robert MacFarlane [British travel writer]. But ALL of them are fabulous writers. Like Amy Blume, the great American novelist and short story writer, and Tessa Hadley, the great British novelist and short story writer. Both of these are women who investigate relationships and domesticity with enormous modesty but also profound wisdom. I’ve introduced them to some southern writers like Carson McCullers, who wrote The Member of the Wedding, one of the great southern [southern states of the US] works of literature.

I see this as one of my most important jobs as a teacher, you know. Because when I came here at the beginning of the week, we had various discussions about what people were reading, and it was mostly participating in what I called ‘monoculture’, in what I call ‘same-old, same-old’.

In 44 Things you make a strong case for stay-at-home moms…

Yes, because my girls were little and I wouldn’t have given up any of that time. But I was writing my books and I was home. And when they went to school, that’s when I took up my job at the university. But I am a writer. I know it’s difficult for women who are in regular jobs, I am surrounded by such women. However, my little one — she’s 12-and-a-half but we still call her the little one — well, in her class, there’s only one girl who has a mother who works. All the others stay at home and look after the husband and the household. And they’re all clever women, they were all at Oxford and Cambridge and LSE and Harvard…. And I’m kind of horrified by that. I think we can do everything.

But don’t you think working women end up with two jobs — one of a homemaker and one of a professional?

Yeah, absolutely! But I’m telling you I have something like four jobs! The point is, we’re capable of doing it. Something has to give… my household’s in chaos [laughs]. And so, every house I go to, the first thing I do is I sit down and say to myself, ‘Gosh, everything is in such order!’

But it is possible to do everything. The problem is a loss of confidence that occurs when you stay at home for small children for a number of years. People who are writing are lucky because they can keep a measure of involvement in what they were doing but if you are a banker or a doctor or a lawyer, there’s an enormous loss of confidence because you are not in that workplace. So probably for women like that, they have to make arrangements to go back to work sooner or go back for a shorter week or something.

You teach creative writing. Can one really teach creativity or writing?

I don’t call it that, I hate that phrase! I teach writing practice and study because all we can do is learn ways of making our writing real to us. Making it our own, making it the kind of writing no one else makes and finding strategies to do that.

You can create a place where creativity can flourish. That’s what we’ve done at Dundee. We’ve created a wonderful context for creative work. And my goodness, that is the case! From the moment the students come in and work on the programme, they start doing other things. They start performing work, theatrical experiences, creating magazines, editing them, getting their work published, organising poetry reading… you create a world in which ideas and exchange of ideas become like the air you breathe.

Your thoughts on Calcutta? Was the city in your consciousness before this workshop?

I loved it. But you know what, I’m not sure I’d have even come to India. Because I don’t get a great deal of time to travel and because my life is so busy, when I do get a break, the family and I like to go up to the Highlands because it’s so relaxing. So this was a wonderful opportunity! This was the first and now I know I’m going to come back. I can feel the draw of it. But I must say, getting the visa for getting here was a total nightmare, took about a week! But it’s an extraordinary country. I’m going to the north of India with my family after the workshop.

What I love about this city are the textures… oh, there’s this great expression from Virginia Woolf that you can use… she talks about the grating together of the fine and the grotesque. That to me captures this city, it’s so fine, so sophisticated and that kind of the deepest level of exchange and aesthetics… and this sort of crumbling grandeur is appealing to me.

A recent read you enjoyed?

It’s the most extraordinary novel by an Irish writer, Eimear McBride, and the title is A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. I am so pleased the book is doing so well because it took her something like 10 years to find a publisher. All the houses turned her down and she finally found a tiny, tiny press [Galley Beggar Press in Norwich].