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A Man of His Times: Revisiting Alan Sillitoe
From Issue 30, Winter Reading
Alan Sillitoe’s writing is uniquely musical, but it is a street rhythm, located in the English postindustrial town of Nottingham. His quick-witted dialogue parallels the quick thinking his characters need to survive. Their inner monologues, however, seethe with anger at those who circumscribe their lives, and with a constant ache for self-awareness thwarted by the assumption of a bluff, ready mien.
After the publication of his first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Sillitoe was unwillingly inducted by critics into the circle of Angry Young Men. Unwillingly because he was at the time living on Majorca, writing alongside Robert Graves and trying with his girlfriend (now wife), the American poet Ruth Fainlight, to make ends meet. Throughout his writing career Sillitoe has resisted being categorized as other than himself. This despite gaining a wide audience of readers who look up to him as a “working-class novelist,” winning the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (which in 1961 was made into a film starring Tom Courtenay), and having volumes of street cred.
In 1942, at the age of fourteen, Sillitoe began working at the Raleigh Bicycle Factory in Nottingham and was subsequently an air traffic control assistant. In 1946 he joined the RAF as a wireless operator and was stationed in Malaya until 1949, when he contracted tuberculosis. Bedridden and bored, he asked the nurse for a typewriter and a stack of books. He then began to write in earnest about his youth in Nottingham. Yet despite bringing his considerable life experience to bear in his work, what makes Sillitoe the real article is the richness, the passionate energy of his writing. One gets the feeling that something real is being put down, something that only he can say.
This interview was conducted by phone from Brooklyn, New York, with Mr. Sillitoe speaking from his home in London.
Montana Wojczuk: Where do you write?
Alan Sillitoe: Well, I live in London, in Notting Hill Gate, which is the western part. I have my own room; it has one wall completely covered with books, and all over the floor, in the drawers, are maps and things like that. I also have a shortwave communications receiver that I use to take down Morse code. It’s a kind of therapy. When I can’t be bothered to write another comma, I tune in. They’re all quotations from French intellectual writers in Morse code, discussions of literature, things like that.
AS: Yes, if I’m writing a novel I write several pages a day. If I’m not writing a novel, which I’m not at the moment—I just finished one—I edit. I’ve spent the last three or four months polishing, polishing, polishing a book of poems which I’m about to send out. Also I wrote a lecture which I had to give in northern Italy, on Lake Cuomo, recently. I was the lecturer of the month at the university. It was supposed to be about maps and morality, so I called mine “Maps in the Life of a Writer,” and I delivered it.
I’m catching up now on all the things I promised to do when I was engrossed in a novel but never had time to do. I think that my next book will probably be a book of short stories.
MW: What are maps in the life of a writer? Briefly.
AS: Maps in the sense that give shape and form to the model life you have to lead to go on. But the lecture was a bit more complicated than that, you know. I can’t really tell you, something like that.
MW: Do you feel your writing has a style?
AS: Every writer, really, should have his or her own particular, idiosyncratic, special voice. Of course when you’re starting to write that takes some time to find out, you simply don’t know. I discovered mine because of reading aloud. When I was living with my girlfriend in Majorca, in the fifties, we used to read to each other in the winter because there was nothing else to do. She read to me some novel by Dickens, and I read to her Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. One chapter a night. Now, when you enunciate that wonderful prose, you realize that good English is clear English. And from then on you polish, polish, polish, put all your stuff in many drafts so that what you’re trying to say is clear. You try to write in such a way that complicated matters appear simple. That’s really what you aim for. My style is, I hope, clear English, but it’s also mixed with the demotic—slang, arcane, argot, and so on—which gives it a kind of richness and which gives it a natural voice and which is my natural style.
MW: Do you read your work aloud, as you’re polishing?
AS: I do sometimes, if there’s a section which I simply can’t get clear or get the hang of. Then I do read it aloud and it falls into place. You can see exactly where the tautologies are, where the purple passages are, and then you can clean it up.
MW: With your particular demotic, is it mostly from your hometown, Nottingham?
AS: It is. Half my fictional output has used Nottingham as a stage. The other half, well, a writer writes about all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. But when I set my stuff in Nottingham my real voice comes out. If I don’t set it in Nottingham, I rely on clarity, on sense, to make it flow in classical English. As Fielding, or someone like that.
MW: Why do you keep coming back to Nottingham? What is the fascination for you?
AS: I use it. It is in a sense far more complicated and interesting thinking about people who don’t think about themselves. And that’s the majority of people I write about who come from Nottingham. You have to imply, you have to circumvallate their emotions, disinter their subconscious so that you write about them in order to illuminate them.
MW: Do you think the people you write about are more in the world, more aware of what’s going on around them because they’re not thinking about themselves?
AS: It’s difficult to say. Perhaps the more they think about themselves the more aware they are about what’s going on in the world. That’s very hard to say. Because I won’t say you can’t speak for other people; you certainly can if you’re a writer. But on the other hand I think if they aren’t conscious of themselves they can’t see enough of the world to justify their existence.
MW: I’m curious about the rebelliousness of the main characters in the Nottingham stories, and that’s why I identified with them. What are they rebelling against? Or would you define them as rebels?
AS: I don’t give them labels. They may well be rebels but I don’t label them. That’s just a conceit perhaps. I could label them if I wanted. I think a rebel, in a sense, initially comes up to be one because he begins to distrust the people who tell him how to live or how to behave. Now what they tell him may not be wrong, there may be much in it. And yet to doubt is the beginning, to doubt, not to believe. Because if you doubt and you don’t believe and you think yourself justified, it gets you into situations where you do learn about yourself.
MW: How do they start to distrust? Is it a natural part of who a rebel is or is there a certain event that convinces them that the world is untrustworthy?
AS: How do “authorities” know what they’re talking about? Of course they don’t but they appear as if they do. If you look over the twentieth century at all the intellectuals who were trying to push Marxism down the throats of the so-called working classes, you’ll see that they weren’t having it. Because they knew there was something wrong with it. They suspected the intellectuals were only using Marxism as a ploy to keep them in their place. They’re not stupid.
MW: A Man of His Time, your newest novel set in Nottingham, is about a family of blacksmiths. Why did you write about that profession?
AS: I’ll tell you, the obvious thing is that my grandfather was a blacksmith. I did base it on the framework of his life, but a great deal of the novel was invention. I knew something about the travails of the trade. I had always intended to write about him somehow. I use him, as well as an indication of the changing circumstances of people and families within the scope of one century. And that appealed to me.
AS: That’s right. In fact, I wrote a book called Raw Material, which also concerned Burton the blacksmith. And I thought one day that I might as well write a film script about him, but nobody wanted that, so I put it aside for several years and then I thought, Well, I’m not going to waste it, and I turned it into a novel. I’m rather glad I did.
MW: There are a couple of moments that still feel very cinematic. There is one in particular where Mary Anne is playing the slot machine, and the colors are flashing in front of her eyes. Her life is spinning out of control. It also reminded me of the scene with Brenda’s abortion in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. How did these scenes develop?
AS: One relies as a writer on imagination, hard work, lots of reading, what you observe but also what you hear. You pick up tidbits like a magpie making a nest. I did hear of someone where I came from trying to get an abortion in that way—hot bathwater, gin, etc. Then if you take Mary Anne’s obsession, or temporary obsession, with a slot machine—my own grand-mother actually did that, or I heard it later from one of my aunts that she was caught one day by Burton spending the domestic money of the house. So a lot of things I imagine, but a lot of things I collect in notebooks.
MW: Do you consciously create a scene that shows the inner workings of a character’s mind?
AS: I had to be very careful to find the exact point at which it was necessary to use that story. When I heard the story I didn’t know where it would be used. Then I thought, Well, when Oliver, Mary Anne’s son, goes into the army, that is the point where she would become distracted, would need an overriding compensation from that sort of gambit. So I placed it then. In earlier drafts of the novel I had it someplace else, which didn’t quite fit. I put the novel through three, four, five, six drafts, and things were changing all the time.
MW: In the last chapter of A Man of His Time, Arthur, Brian, and David visit Ernest’s grave. Is this intended to be the same Arthur of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning?
AS: I’ve written about a dozen novels set in Nottingham, and I decided that I would round off the sequence, looking at the rest as a sort of comédie humaine in the area of Balzac. The novel before A Man of His Time was called Birthday. And that was a continuation of, or sequel to, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, in which Arthur Seaton is a man in his sixties, and it tells you all the time that went on from Sunday morning until his present age. After that I thought, One more novel is needed, and I started to work on A Man of His Time. So I’ve got this twelve-volume set now, or I would hope to, called the Nottingham Sequence.
MW: At the end of A Man of His Time, Arthur says that if he lives ten more years he will need a compartment for Viagra in his walker. Is this, then, going to be the last in the Nottingham Sequence?
MW: Is there a thematic tie to the book of poetry you’ve just finished?
AS: I don’t think so. I published my collected poems in 1995 and these are the poems written and collected since then. There is another novel, still looking for a publisher. It’s called Moggerhanger. That is the third volume of a trilogy. The first volume was A Start in Life in 1970, then the second volume was Life Goes On in 1985, and Moggerhanger is the final volume.
MW: So you finished another novel between A Man of His Time and your most recent volume of poetry?
AS: Yes. It’s going around. I’ve done a special thing on those three books, which is to write a picaresque epic. In other words, using the formula from the Spanish picaresque novels at the beginning of the seventeenth century. And that’s been my formula in those three volumes, which could be put together in a single narrative of twelve hundred pages. Whether anyone will ever do it, I’m not sure.
MW: Did your interest in the picaresque begin in Majorca or is this a more recent interest?
AS: I’ve never studied it, I simply read the novels and was very impressed by them and liked that tactical deployment of human resources. Sublimated by a picaro, a villain, or confidence man.
MW: Is there one in particular you’ve been reading lately?
AS: There’s Guzman de Alfarachae, and Gil Blas by Lesage. He was a Frenchman of course. And then there’s Fielding, who wrote Tom Jones. There’s nothing new, but I wanted to do one for a contemporary world.
MW: In addition to novels and poetry, you’ve written plays, essays, and short stories. How do you decide what form an idea will take?
AS: If you’re going to write a novel you take something from your novel about a person and in a very short space of writing about him or her, the character meets someone else and action begins and so you’re taken rip-roaringly along. A poem, of course, comes from a deeper part of the subconscious. I like writing short stories because they seem one of those perfect art forms, because you have to work, work, work. As Hemingway said—keep on writing, writing, and revising, as if you’re going to have to send every word by telegram and pay for it.
MW: Do you feel within a short story that you can get full character development?
AS: Not always. Whether it’s a story or a novel you have to have the person different at the end. Even with a short story it’s not a thing of incident. If you’re dealing with a person or a couple of people, something has to happen to develop them. In a novel, of course, by the time you’ve written several hundred words about them something has to have changed. Not something fundamental, because no one ever does, but something has to change that justifies the writing about them. You have altered them in some way.
MW: There is a line in A Man of His Time where Arthur says that “if you can’t remember you’re dead from the neck up.” How important is it to you to memorialize Arthur and the people in the Nottingham stories?
AS: The thing is who reads them, you see. The sort of people who read my stories, and the novels, are very often the sort of people I write about. That gratifies me to a great extent, because what I like to do is write about people who are not normally considered good material. Often it’s because people simply don’t know how to write about them, because they don’t know them, or they’re not sympathetic to them in any way. It’s obviously much easier to write about someone who is educated and has very, very fascinating thoughts than it is to write about someone whose thoughts are not so easy to grasp. I like to write about people who aren’t normally considered good food for writing.