An elderly former documentary photographer returns to an old Blackpool guest house with her beloved grandson Luke, a captain with the Royal Western Fusiliers, in the Man Booker Prize nominated Scottish author’s illuminating new novel.
The characters in The Illuminations have a habit of transforming reality. Did your Ronald Pinn inspire research inspire this?
The other way round, I think. The work on the novel started 5 years ago and the true story of Ronnie Pinn — a name I found on a gravestone and animated on the Internet — was a much more recent piece of work. But you’re right to make a connection: I’ve always been interested in what you might call the instability of selfhood, people’s vulnerability, and the way that ‘reality’ is sometimes a thing people invent for themselves.
While your characters straddle the lines between fact and fiction, so do you as a writer. Is one restrictive without the other?
Fiction is now such a staple in our lives, not just in what we read but in how we exist. If you want to be a reporter nowadays, you had better train yourself in how people go about manufacturing their personalities — not just in social media, but in their heads — and a contemporary novelist might take an interest in that, too. When I started out, I was going around the streets of London late at night looking for people who’d been pictured in The Big Issue’s MISSING adverts. And when I found those people, I often found them as someone else. I found that they didn’t want to be found. And I discovered they had made themselves up, to some extent. All those lessons remained with me and they continue to chime with my understanding of people.
How did your research in Afghanistan shape the novel?
It gave me a sense of place. The great war reporter, Martha Gellhorn, said ‘you have to taste it’. And that’s right: you can’t write about that heat, that dust, that fear, if you haven’t dwelled in it for a while and absorbed it yourself. I also saw the other side of the war in close-up. I saw boys who were trained as suicide bombers and I looked into their eyes. That was crucial for the book. And I saw the small details of everyday life, the stuff that novels need in order to breath.
You make it clear that there’s ‘nothing good’ in the war and you talk about video games as military recruitment tools. Was it your experience that the troops were there to get to the ‘next level’ despite being disaffected with the politics?
I wouldn’t go that far, myself. I spoke to troops in Belfast who had served in Helmand and they maintained politics didn’t interest them. And that has been my experience of soldiers. They don’t take political positions, they take professional ones, and sometimes emotional ones, based on their fellow-feeling and their devotion to the regiment. They don’t think of themselves as heroes making a sacrifice and they’re often just boys trying to make a living. But I noticed again and again, and this is my own perception, I’m not speaking for them, that gaming had a big influence on how they understood the enemy and the enemy threat. They used the same language — ‘kill ratio’ — that you get on those games, and I found there to be a digital de-sensitisation going on: especially from the air or inside a tank, using similar controls to those on X-Box, there are soldiers who seemed to exhibit a moral confusion about the reality of death.
Why do many of your characters find it easier to forge relationships with non-relatives?
You can choose your friends. And it’s a difficult aspect of life, and always has been, that you can’t choose your family. The family can seem to have a claim on you that you don’t welcome, as well as expectations, demands, and suspicions. It’s as old as Greek drama: how to you exercise freedom as an individual when the mob, including the home crowd, are determined to tell you who you are. I have to say I’ve always liked that problem.
How did you come across Margaret Watkins and how did she inspire Anne’s character?
I saw a photograph by Margaret Watkins called ‘The Kitchen Sink’ and I thought it was miraculous. Then I found out this woman, at the height of her career, had given it all up and left New York to live in Glasgow, looking after her old aunts. I’d always known women who were similarly held back by domestic duty, and, when I saw Anne, I suddenly saw her in the light of what Margaret Watkins had revealed to me. That often happens in the writing of fiction: a real life person meets other figures in your head, giving breath to someone new in your imagination, and that’s how my lovely elderly lady Anne Quirk was born.
Why did you choose Blackpool as the focus of Anne’s romanticism?
Because I love it. The history, the atmosphere. A shy but important part of me is always dancing in a Blackpool of the mind.