INTERVIEW: Douglas Bruton on Larkin, the subconscious and ‘With or Without Angels’

As part of my interview series Writers on Research, I spoke to author Douglas Bruton on the research process behind his novella With or Without Angels (Fairlight Books, 2023).

In With or Without Angels, we encounter what I would describe as an active dialogue between fiction and fine art, specifically between the narrative of the novella and the work of real-life artist Alan Smith. Before we move on to Alan himself, I’m curious to get your general perspective on the relationship between fiction and art. What is it, for example, that fiction can achieve that art cannot, and vice versa? And is there a tension there between the manufacture and the negotiation of meaning, as we find in your creative commentary on Alan’s work?

I should say at the outset that I graduated with a degree in English only to return to education about five years after that to get a degree in art. I never really thought of myself as a writer back then but as a reader; however, I was at the time always an artist (at some level at least). I do not know if this is an influence on the subject matter of my writing now that I am older.

I went to art college in search of some way of expressing myself creatively. It felt important to me. I ended up writing something at art college that I intended to illustrate. What I discovered in that process was that I was expressing myself more obviously in the writing than I was in the art. Art and writing are both creative outlets and maybe they come from the same inner source; for me writing just allowed me more effectively to access that source. It took two degrees and more than ten years for me to reach this conclusion.

I have written a lot of conventional work over the years but more recently I have found that I am drawn to explore different ways of telling stories, experimenting with structure and form, playing. That bit, for me just now, is fun even when the narrative tackles more serious issues. I write fairly intensely when I am embarked on a project – With or Without Angels was written in just over a week and my previous book (Blue Postcards) was written in six days. I don’t do much, if any, editing after the work is down on the page. When I am writing, I can get into a ‘zone’ where it just flows out of me – up to 9000 words in a day. I do not really give much attention to meaning, but am more interested in the narrative. I write like a reader, wanting to know what happens and having to write to find out. I trust that my creative subconscious will take care of the ‘clever’ stuff in the work (if there is any clever stuff), the meaning if you like. I guess that allows me to sidestep questions of meaning in the way that the old artist in With or Without Angels does; besides, what one person gets out of a work – the ‘meaning’ – is often very personal to them and different from what another person might get and not even what the writer thought was the meaning.

I realise that I have not yet answered your question about what art can achieve that fiction cannot, and vice versa. I’m fumbling about for something cogent to say here. For me narrative is an important part of fiction; art is not bound by this. Both fiction and art communicate to me, both move me, so both have meaning. I sense that fiction and art come from the same inner place and so they sort of do the same thing, only using different tools. That’s about as near to an answer as I can get on this one.

To return to Alan Smith not as an artist but as an individual, I’m interested in how you chose to approach Alan as a subject. Your narration is third person, but with a close focus on Alan himself and with a speculative insight into his thoughts and feelings. Was there a moral question there in embodying Alan as a subject? How did you handle that proximity to real life and to the people Alan knew and loved?

So, at the end of With or Without Angels I tell you ‘where the idea came from’: I met Alan Smith’s widow at a social event. She encouraged me to look up Alan Smith’s work online, which I later did. I can’t explain what happened next. I wasn’t looking for a subject to write about. I found these two people, the late Alan Smith and his wife, very engaging and interesting and Alan’s works got into my head (like an earworm). I engaged with his work, pored over his pictures, then felt compelled to do something in response. Inspirare – from which we get the word ‘inspiration’ – means to inhale or breathe in; With or Without Angels is my breathing out again after breathing in Alan Smith’s works.

Actually, I did not write this work for publication; I wrote it because I felt I had to. It would have found a place in a folder on my computer and rested there. But I subsequently sent it to Alan’s widow and it was she who encouraged me to ‘put it out there’.

I hope I have made clear in the work that this is a creative response and not an attempt to portray the real artist and his wife – that’s why the old artist and his wife are not named. Indeed, there is more of me in the old artist than anything else. In the book I also direct readers to go and ‘see’ Alan’s work for themselves so that they might have something of the experience I’d had and that motivated the writing of the book, an experience that inevitably spilled into and informed the book. I also acknowledge in the book that this is a ‘collaborative’ work. I hope I have been sensitive to the real people in my writing of this book; they have all assured me that I have.

One of the key preoccupations of With or Without Angels is that of memory and imagination, which I would argue provoke an interesting echo in the photographs and photomontages that pepper the novella. Alan Smith’s series The New World could be read as an exercise in augmented memory, or the point of exchange between memory (or perhaps record) and imagination. How do you feel about this, and might there be an echo there of the wider project of With or Without Angels?

Yes, this is an important preoccupation of mine at the moment. Not that I set out to explore this particular issue when starting to write, but memory and the part played by the imagination in memory is something in my head, rattling about; and being so preoccupied with this it is inevitably pushed into the creative subconscious and then resurfaces in my writing. Maybe it’s something to do with where I am in my life – nearer to my end than my beginning – and I often bump up against failings of memory, not just my own. And I am so often witness to how the holes in memory get filled by the imagination so that in the end the memory cannot really be trusted. It does not bother me that memory is so unreliable, but it interests me. The fact that this is also there in Alan Smith’s work, at some level, only serves to add credence to the answer I gave to one of your first questions – that there is little difference to what art and fiction can achieve.

Another theme that helps establish the resonance of both The New World and of art in general is the idea that ‘Love will last; love is the thing that will survive us’ (p. 103) and indeed survive our art. I’m interested to know how that applies not just to The New World or the original Tiepolo fresco which was its partial inspiration, but to your own writing. Where is the enduring love in your work, either as a catalyst or a product, and how does the value of that love affect your writing?

This is a tricky one for me to answer. The line suited the work I had written.

I have children. They are grown up now. The love that will survive me when I am gone is, I hope, in them. And I think when we are assessing our lives it is that love that outweighs everything else and is therefore important. If we think of that love as passing on and on from one generation to the next then it goes on forever even when we are forgotten or are little more than an obscure name on a lost family tree.

But then again the work, if we are very lucky, has a chance to survive us for a lot longer. After all, we still read ancient texts.

‘What will survive of us is love’ is something Larkin said in one of his poems. I am always a little unsure of the absolute sincerity of Larkin. It makes a very ‘cute’ soundbite, this line, but I am not sure that I fully trust its meaning. Larkin did not have children so his work will, I think, survive longer than his ‘love’.

But whilst we are still alive, then perhaps ‘love’ is more important than the work and so there is a sort of truth in the line, a hopeful truth.

As for my work; Blue Postcards was reviewed by Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman newspaper. In his summing up he described the book as ‘clever and kind’. I think I put a lot of myself into my work and I hope that there is ‘kindness’ in my writing, and love, and I hope that if my works last beyond me that the love and kindness in my writing will continue to resonate. If it does, then some part of me survives.

I’d like to close by asking a question with which I had originally intended to start our conversation, but decided to hold back. On page 59 we find an aphorism attributed to Publilius Syrus: ‘Not every question deserves an answer’, appearing after a brief meditation on the worry of answering questions like ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ and ‘How would you define your work?’ In the context of being asked questions like this now, by someone who asks questions like this for a living, how do you feel about the value of interrogating writers or artists on their work? If there is value here at all?

Great question. I am not sure that I will speak sense here, but I will try. I put a lot of faith in my own creative subconscious. It is that part of me that solves the last clue in the crossword puzzle, the clue that my conscious brain has struggled with and given up on, and the creative subconscious suddenly gets it and punts the answer into the front of my thinking even when I am no longer looking for the solution. Since I also access the creative subconscious when I am ‘creating’ I feel I should defer to that part of my brain to answer questions about the meaning in my work and all your questions too, but the creative subconscious is publicly shy. So, the best qualified part of me to answer your questions – all questions pertaining to the work – is asleep or hiding, which makes my attempts to answer your questions sub-standard at best. Whether there is value in that (in my answers) to you or to any reader, well, that’s for you to say. Personally, I think the work should stand on its own two feet. Everything else is just PR and not to be trusted (I don’t trust Larkin; nor do I trust myself – and nor should you!)

Douglas Bruton’s work has appeared in various publications including Northwords Now, New Writing Scotland, Aesthetica and The Irish Literary Review. His short stories have won competitions including with Fish and The Neil Gunn Prize. His children’s novel, The Chess Piece Magician published by Floris Books (2009), was shortlisted for The Heart of Hawick Book Award 2010; his literary fiction debut, Mrs Winchester’s Gun Club, was published by Scotland Street Press (2019); Blue Postcards, longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2022, was published by Fairlight Books (2021); With or Without Angels is also published by Fairlight Books (2023).

Joe Bedford’s interview series Writers on Research is made possible with National Lottery funding via Arts Council England.

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