Finding your literary voice - with a working class accent

At the beginning of 2020, well before my debut novel was published, I was invited to an evening soiree in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library – a kind of preview event for authors performing at a well-known literary festival.  I changed quickly in the toilet at the car salesroom I worked in and navigated the comments from the boys about who I was ‘going on a date with’ – literary soirees not being a regular feature at this Ford dealership in the East End of town. I arrive late and I’m stressed – finding a parking space and rushing in. The building is massive, intimidating; in a few months I will be standing before an audience there discussing my novel, and that scares me.

I find where I’m meant to be and I walk in. There are a few looks over wine glasses but no one approaches me and I stand alone, still stressed and now feeling increasingly anxious on top. I’m at least ten years younger than most people here, my hair is buzz cut and I’m wearing earrings. But finally, a woman approaches me. ‘Who are you with?’ she asks.  ‘I’m not with anybody – it’s just me’ I reply. ‘Oh,’ she says confused, perhaps thinking I’m working there, or am lost. ‘I’m one of the authors - you invited me!’ I say. The whole thing becomes awkward, I feel more anxious and end up leaving early afterwards.

Thinking about it later, I felt so out of place. People’s glances felt judgemental. I had not only looked different, I also absolutely, categorically, sounded different to everyone else in that room. My head tells me I belong to the literary scene: I have a Bachelors (with Honours) in English and a Masters in Creative Writing; at twenty-eight years old, I’m officially a newly-published novelist, with literary giants Picador - I’m one of you guys now! But my heart tells me I don’t fit. I get dressed for soirees in garage toilets. I’m young, working-class, from Airdrie, and all of the labels from the themes of my novel could apply to me: ex-gang member, ex-drug addict. I used to do this stuff – violence and drugs. I used to belong there.

My university days saw the end of that tribal belonging. I removed my gold hoop earrings from both ears as I tried to blend in, and I subconsciously sanitised my accent in uni halls - for all of five minutes. Then I didn’t. I met another drug addict, gang-member and we became friends and reverted to type - back into the familiarity of the past. We never joined clubs or societies, we never adapted to our surroundings, we never modified ourselves – and by a miracle we hung on and both graduated. Students by name only, alienated from our surroundings by accent, history, trauma and class-conflict within our own heads. It’s question of belonging – not self-worth. 

I was told by a tutor that the story of my novel, The Young Team, was a ‘well-worn track’ and ‘we don’t need another Irvine Welsh – read more, try something different’. But my story is more than that. It’s a mirror: a reflection of my forgotten post-industrial town and the worst things I have experienced there. It’s a toolkit: a cautionary tale for other young men pursuing their own redemption. This is my story, my community, my language, my culture – They have a right to exist and no one has the authority to dismiss that. (Thank you, James Kelman.) 

I submitted The Young Team to agents and publishers about 300 times. It took around seven years from outset to publication.  The vernacular dialect is a common reason for rejection. Coz yi widnae wahnt mi ti talk aboot thi trooth wia voice lik wanna yoo scruff. (Thank you, Tom Leonard). I re-wrote the first 20,000 words in Standard English, not the low-status language of my characters or community, but a compromise for the publishing industry. To be misheard is possibly better than not being heard at all.

Picador, however, tell me to keep in the dialect – all of it. It’s part of the very fabric of the story, my editor Kris Doyle says. They don’t sanitise, or cleanse, or modify or soften. Every word stays.  Call it editorial courage, if you like (and it was). I just call it home.

In March 2020, The Young Team was published. Thanks to the great sales team at Picador, my book is in all the bookshops in Scotland. I went round to meet booksellers and got great support from Waterstones staff, who often chatted to me in-store. We have built a relationship. One author asks me ‘Are you on an endless tour of Waterstones in Glasgow?’. No – but I know them and they know me. One Waterstones staff member said - ‘Remember: a signed book, is a sold book!’, so I signed every book I could. Bookseller support on social media and in their shops with customers is greatly appreciated and absolutely invaluable to a young writer setting out.

I’ve been on TV, BBC radio and interviewed by several national newspapers. I have the capacity to exceed the low expectations of interviewers, who expect a gang-member to show up… but instead someone with a more academic voice arrives but always juxtaposed with my native style. I am not your average author, rough around the edges - but seemingly accepted as I am educated, a published writer and vocal about equality and social justice. I get some great reviews.  There is worth in my words after all.

People raise their heads now when I read in public. I command the room - in my own accent – no longer anxious, but more powerful in performance.  I still feel dread as I approach the mic, speaking clearly in a more ‘polished’ voice around the issues of substance abuse and violence prevention. Then I read in my own accent – and the fear vanishes. Young guys tell me this is the first book they’ve read: they don’t usually read books at aw but they enjoyed it n that. One told me he has been inspired to stop using drugs after reading about my struggle with addiction.  I feel vindication – then pride.

Picador ask me to read the audiobook –– in the coded language I have created in authentic dialect.  I’m very excited about bringing it to life. People often tell me they love to hear me read in my thick Lanarkshire accent. Lots of friends, who don’t typically read, have mentioned their excitement about the audiobook: I’m confident it will make the story more accessible to those who can’t bring themselves to open a 385-page novel. These friends are often the characters who populate my work and who may most benefit from hearing my words. I’m reading my work aloud often in preparation and it feels more like rehearsing for a drama production than prose- as I attempt to vary speakers and create a lifelike impression of the often-heated dialogue between gang-members and other colourful characters in North Lanarkshire. I hope I can bring the story to life just as I imagined – and lived – it.

Of course, for the time being, everything is on hold under the COVID-19 crisis. I was able to begin my speaking schedule but, sadly, many events later in the year have been cancelled – from grassroots charity work, school and prison visits, to major events like the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It is not all doom and gloom though. The artistic community seems to have rallied, and many artists are taking themselves online to share their talents as entertainment during lockdown. Lots of readers have been posting ‘isolation reading’ and contacting me to chat online. I got myself a microphone and have done several interviews and live-streams. If there’s a will, there’s most definitely a way. We are the most connected literary generation ever, as well as the most diverse.

I’m still buzzing from The Guardian review of my book.  Jude Cook says my language; the language of my friends and gang and community – ‘slam dances and pirouettes’. No longer tough-nut – now Nutcracker. ‘The non-standard English forges a dazzling poetry of its own.’ 

This is ma trooth.

And belonging? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves…