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Author Interview  

Robert Crawford

About Robert Crawford

An Interview with Robert Crawford

More About Robert Crawford

Robert Crawford is Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St Andrews. He is the author of Scotland's Books: The Penguin History of Scottish Literature.

Interview with Robert Crawford, author of Scotland's Books

A whole history of Scottish Literature is a big project for one writer! What motivated you to write it?
I love imaginative writing and I love the multifariousness of Scotland.  The book brings these two passions together. The challenge was to try to tell a clear version of the whole story: to cover fifteen centuries of Scottish literature in one paperback book. The small part of our planet that we now call Scotland has produced work which is remarkably lively, varied, and nuanced. I wanted to write an account of it that was lucid enough for anyone to read for pleasure, but didn't airbrush out the richness, the complexity of the subject. So not just 'Trainspotting' and Harry Potter, Muriel Spark and Robert Burns had to be in there, but also less well-known work in Latin, Gaelic, Old English, Old Norse, and other languages. Literature is Scotland's greatest art-form. I'd like readers to understand why that is.

What kind of profile do you think that Scottish literature has in the world as a whole. Are there particular areas that are neglected?
In the western world and beyond, people know names from Scottish literature - Peter Pan, Jekyll and Hyde, Sherlock Holmes. Often, though, people don't even realise these names come from works by Scottish authors. So sometimes 'Scotland's Books' is telling a story parts of which are very well known indeed, but other bits of which are lost or forgotten.

Few people in, say, New York, Birmingham or Melbourne are forced to study a subject called Scottish literature. Most folk read it simply for pleasure. Sometimes the pleasure you get from a book can be all the greater if you have a sense of the background that shaped it. Scottish books don't have to be read solely as Scottish, any more than American books have to be read as American - but often it makes good sense to know a little about the nation's literary culture.

Now is a good time to write - and, I hope, to read - a history of Scottish literature. In Scotland we've been very busy reimagining ourselves as a nation. Feminism and globalization have intensified that process. Scottish literature has often anticipated developments in Scottish politics, including the re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the pressure for independence.

Powerful aspects of Scottish literature are often ignored. Here's just one example. If you think only in terms of English literature then older Scottish writers' preoccupation with 'Britishness' gets forgotten. Walter Scott, for example, the single most influential writer in the global development of the novel, was obsesssed with Britishness and inter-societal prejudice. But English novelists - then and now - couldn't care less about Britishness: when they write state-of-the-nation books those tend to deal with Englishness. You can't understand Britain, let alone Scotland, if you read only English literature.

What were the highlights of writing and researching the book?
Though I needed a lot of help from experts in the languages, I enjoyed trying to find ways to make Gaelic, Latin, and other writings play a full part in the book. When the Gaelic poet and scholar Meg Bateman read it aloud to me on Skye, letting me hear its rhythm, I was able to make an English-language version of a famous Gaelic battle-incitement which lets readers get some sense in English of how urgent yet stringently ordered the original poem sounds.

I came to realise that across Renaissance Europe George Buchanan had a far greater reputation than Shakespeare. Today Buchanan is almost forgotten: so again I've tried to communicate a sense of why his Latin work was so powerful, and how that Latin tradition (now pretty ruthlessly suppressed) was vital in Scottish writing - from medieval poets to the work of the radical Scottish republican who became Australia's first political prisoner!

It was great to find things by accident. In St Andrews University Library I came across an unpublished prologue to the Scottish Enlightenment's most famous play - the one some argued 'ought to be Publickly burnt by the hands of the Hangman'. In Oxford I found out about Ewart Alan Mackintosh, the English public schoolboy who wrote the most moving of all Scottish World War I poems.

I quote works like these in the book because it seems so important to give readers a first-hand sense of the material I'm discussing: to let people get a real flavour of Scotland's books as well as reading about how the books were made.

What kind of experience do you want your reader to have?
I'd like readers to feel they're encountering a clear, companionable voice that provides enough guidance to understand a good deal about the making of Scottish literature. 'Scotland's Books' is a big book, but I hope it has pace and lucidity.

Who has inspired you?
Many people, in person and through their writings. One I'd like to single out is the Gaelic poet and scholar Derick Thomson whose work over many decades has patiently and generously explained Gaelic culture - not least to people like me who come from a very different background.

Did you find that your opinions of any writers changed whilst you were writing the book.
This often happened. To take just one instance, I'd known Ali Smith slightly when I was a student, and quite liked her work. Now, reading her recent novels, it seemed to me her prose had been set free in a remarkable way that let it draw on poetry and conceptual art, yet still tell stories with characters readers could care about. To do that while engaging stylishly with globalization, surveillance culture,'spin', and other contemporary preoccupations is a big achievement.

If you had to take one classic (Scottish or otherwise!) onto a desert island, what would it be?
T. S. Eliot's Collected Poems.

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