Controversial issues run through both of your novels [religion in Niven's The Second Coming; drugs in the military in de la Mer's 4 a.m.]. Do you deliberately set out to upset people?
Nina de la Mer (pictured): I guess you always run a risk of a backlash when you take on the establishment, whether religious groups, the military or the political classes, but wasn’t a deliberate ploy to be controversial in depicting the use of recreational drugs in the Army. For one thing, CDT (Compulsory Drug Testing) has been used in the Armed Forces since 1995, so it’s more of a historical issue really. And I’m happy to defend the book to the hilt to the more army-barmy types who may take offence at the drugs/military discipline depicted. John may have more have a problem on his hands with the 2.1 billion Christians in the world, though!
John Niven: The Second Coming isn’t against the idea of God or Christ, although I think that’s all they are – ideas. It’s very much against what people do with their interpretations of those things. “I think what God meant to say was…” Never been that confident myself, as Bill Hicks says. I fully support anyone’s right to believe whatever crazy piss they want to believe, but I also support my right to mock those beliefs. It’s when people say ‘you cannot mock what I believe’ that my patience expires. How can I blaspheme what I do not believe in? Anyway, if your God is really worthy of the name surely he’s not too concerned about what a minor Scottish novelist thinks about him?
How important is humour to your writing?
JN: I don’t really do ‘gags’. It’s more to do with the way the characters talk. But I think you can make points deftly in comic writing that might otherwise seem rather laboured. Actually I’m just finishing a new novel which is completely ‘straight’, so to speak. That’s been… interesting.
NDLM: Whereas 4 a.m is rampant with barracks humour and therefore pretty gag-heavy. But humour is hugely important to the novel, squaddie slang and piss-taking being learned during the Army’s gruelling two years basic training and then perfected in the field (mainly as a defence mechanism) – the voices of the characters simply reflect this. In general, I don’t think you can write about real life without the occasional burst of humour, even if your overall theme is dark. Particularly, in fact, if your overall theme is dark.
What about Scottish/British humour, in particular? Do you think it adds character?
JN: With Steven Stelfox (in Kill Your Friends) the way he spoke reflected the very scorched-earth nature of his cynicism. His dialogue is littered with profanity but it’s quite ornate and structured. Funnily enough this can lead into difficulties in translation: in other languages it just looks like a load of horrible swearing. So you need quite a deft translator. The Amateurs is the only book I’ve written set in Scotland and it was a great joy for me to work in my native tongue. Money for jam in fact.
NDLM: Likewise, I got a real kick out of writing in ‘Scottish’, having grown up in West Kilbride, Ayrshire, with the slang of the West coast and Glasgow echoing around me. Having Cal, one of my main characters, speak in Glasgow dialect with its hilarious ‘patter’ helped form his character, and allowed a counterpoint to the bleaker moments in the novel. I do think overusing particular dialects/slang is a risk though, as I am sure James Kelman and the like would testify to. But it was a risk I wanted to take.
How have real-life people influenced your stories? Do people often mistakenly ‘recognise’ themselves in your work?
NDLM: 4 a.m. is based on my real-life experience of raving with squaddies in the 1990s ,but I tried to distance the characters from any people I actually knew from back then. An admission, though! Less attractive traits of certain men in my life somehow wormed their way into my villain, Iain. A kind of literary vengeance if you like… but something tells me that vanity would mean it unlikely they recognise themselves in him: time and vitriolic emails will tell.
JN: I very rarely put ‘real’ people straight onto the page. They’re not good enough to hold all the things you normally need them to hold in a book. You tend to make up little Frankenstein’s Monsters, composites of two or three people. In the rare instances it is a specific person they never recognise it. The targets of satire always think the cannon is pointing just past their shoulder. Although, with Kill Your Friends everyone and his dog in the British music industry thought – usually wrongly - that certain characters were based on them. Situations too. I had a lot of people come up and say to me, “Oh I was there when that thing happened in your book,” and, of course, they’re referring to a completely fictional scenario.
NDLM: But John, I read that one of your ex-colleagues in the music business was so convinced that your diabolical Steven Stelfox was him, that he had you sign 30 copies of the book. Did this make you laugh or cry? And was there anything of you in Stelfox, in fact?
JN: No, he was signing them HIMSELF and giving them to people saying, ‘This was based on me.’ That cracked me up, that someone would be PROUD of having someone like Steven Stelfox based on them. Only in the record industry. And, no, I am so unlike Stelfox it’s untrue. Well, apart from the hedonism at a certain stage in my life.
Is it fair, then, to use satire to expose people’s stupidity or vices, when you are basing certain character traits on people you have met?
NDLM: I think John trounces me in the satire stakes, particularly in The Second Coming, but I did intend to expose the naivety of the two main characters in 4 a.m. i.e. by depicting through their paranoia and base humour that drugs aren’t big or clever. I mean, drugs are fun. But they’re neither of those things. To answer the question though, as John says above I think most authors don’t base a character 100% on any real person, so satire is fair game as a weapon in a writer’s armoury.
JN: I don’t quite understand what ‘fair’ means here. The book will have its own morality and there’s no room for anything else. I’d like to ask Nina though, I thought your choice of subject matter was fabulously brave. Did you ever think ‘I might be able to sell more books if I chose something a little less sharp-edged?’ I don’t mean you should have just banged out some chick lit, but…
NDLM: Well, more than anything my ambition was to tell a cracking story, rather than make a mint, and this one just kind of fell into my lap. Not that I’d have been tempted to put pen to paper if I’d been witness to the romance of the century: Aga-sagas, middle class angst, torrid love affairs; ‘safe subjects’ just aren’t my cup of tea – as a reader or a writer.