An Interview with Kevin MacNeil, author of The Brilliant & Forever

We are less than month away from the publication of Kevin MacNeil’s novel The Brilliant & Forever. We thought that we would take the opportunity to ask Kevin a few questions, to get to know him a little better:

Brilliant and Forever
1. Do you have a favourite character in the book?
 I grew fond of all the main characters, but my favourite has to be Archie. Because he’s an alpaca.

2. What was your inspiration to write this story? / Was there a particular moment of inspiration that pushed you to write this? Was there one specific moment? Hmm. I’ve wanted to write a novel about the X-factorisation of culture and about friendship (and ambition and competitiveness and envy) for some time. I wanted to create a novel that had a wide spectrum of voices so that I could give thought to what writing is and what it’s for. But the triggering moment was probably when I met a talking alpaca.

3. What is your favourite scene or moment in the book? I especially like the final chapter – but no spoilers.

4. What inspired you to become a writer? I always thought it was because I wanted to create something that would last longer than I would. But I’ve increasingly come to realise it is also to honour those who existed before I did.

5. What keeps you motivated as a writer? Reading great books, observing lovely absurd little moments in life, travelling, meeting people, attending book festivals, watching films, being alive in and to the moment.

6. What’s your favourite book, and why? Impossible! Too many to choose from. Way too many. Probably a Buddhist sutra, though  – The Heart Sutra.

7. Do you have a routine when you’re writing (i.e. silence, a particular genre of music, only working in the morning, only working in your underpants?) I usually work best in the quiet of morning. But I can also write in noisy cafes, and I’m glad of that as writers need flexibility, discipline and a deep understanding that things are how they are. Writers who can only work with a diamond-encrusted biro or while wearing a pair of Dan Brown’s castoff Y-fronts are heading down the road of OCD.

8. What advice would you give to anyone who wants to be a writer? Being a writer is about communicating imaginatively. You communicate every day and you exercise your imagination every night, so inherently you have the potential. The practical skills are learnable. The thing no one can give you is perseverance.

9. How easy was it for you to find a publisher? It was relatively easy since I’d already published with Polygon. My first book was with Canongate – and they had approached me asking for a manuscript. So I’m not a good example! I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

10. What’s the best experience you’ve had while writing a book? Writing The Brilliant & Forever was overall the best experience I’ve had writing a book. It was actually fun to write. I enjoyed it in a way that felt fresh and new and energising and I think these qualities fed into the book.

11. Who are you generally writing for? I’ve never really known. Perhaps anyone with a lively mind and a sense of humour.

12. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be? I once worked in a restaurant as a commis chef and indeed was asked to leave university and work as a chef full-time. Maybe I could have done that.

13. What one thing would improve your life? I don’t think it’s helpful to think about what’s missing in life – better by far to be grateful for what we have.

14. Where would you like to be right now, anywhere in the world? Same answer as 13!

15. Are any or your characters based on yourself or people you know? *Consults lawyer* ‘No comment.’ *consults bank account* ‘That’s how much advice to “make no comment” costs?’

16. If you could swap lives with one of your characters, who would you choose and why? Hibiki in The Brilliant & Forever. He understands.

17. Have you ever regretted how you ended a story and wish you could change it? Yes. I once gave quite a dark book a depressing conclusion, thinking it was the only possible ending that novel could have. But the film version would have been different, and will be, if it’s ever funded.

18. If you weren’t a writer, what would your ‘dream’ occupation be? Professional cyclist.

19. If your book was a film, who would you cast for the lead character? Ryan Gosling? Though he seems to smoke too much in his movies. A young James Stewart, if such a thing were possible? I wonder if I’d play one of the characters myself – I played Sorley Maclean in a drama doc a few years ago.

20. Why are books important in your opinion? Wisdom, empathy, experiences we wouldn’t otherwise have, enjoyment, emotional engagement, humour, awe.

21. What are you reading right now? West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan, The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden, The Travels of Sorrow by Dermot Healy, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins.

22. Which authors do you particularly admire? Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Anton Chekhov, Anne Michaels, Vasily Grossman, Lydia Davis, George Saunders, Denis Johnson, Dino Buzzati, Carson McCullers, Ron Rash, Mary Robison, Robert Louis Stevenson.

23. If you had a superpower what would it be? I’d like to be SortTheTrainsOutMan – my superpower would be the ability to sort the trains out in this country. Instead of being overcrowded, unreliable and overpriced, they’d be comfortable, affordable and a joy to travel on. I wouldn’t have an attention-grabbing costume. I’d be dressed normally and go about my business anonymously. As people relaxed on their train journey, eating pastries while, say, Glenfinnan slid past, I’d feel happy because I’d Sorted The Trains Out. And yet I’d always have a tinge of regret I hadn’t gone for Eradicating Poverty and whenever EradicatingPovertyMan went zooming past overhead I’d get a physical sensation of self-reprimand.

MacNeilKevin MacNeil is an award-winning writer from the Outer Hebrides now living in London. He is a novelist, poet, editor and screenwriter. The Brilliant & Forever is his third novel will be published on the 3rd of March 2016. You can buy a copy here, online, or in any good bookshop.

 

Six Nations 2016 – An Extract from ‘Behind the Thistle’

Ahead of this weekend’s matches that kick off of the Six Nations 2016 we take a look back to the genesis of the current Scotland team and how it has grown to a squad that was a whisker away from the semi-finals in the 2015 World Cup; a team that were crushed emotionally in that great, bittersweet battle against Australia, a game that will live on in infamy in every Scotsman’s memory.

This extract is from Behind the Thistle: Playing Rugby for Scotland, and is from Chapter 25 and starts with the 2013 season:

RETURNING TO THE TOP TABLE
2013-2015

2013 and 2014 saw another period of transition. Scott Johnson had been employed by Robinson as a skills and attack coach at the start of the 2012 season and took on the head coach role after the Englishman’s abdication. Johnson in turn employed the services of former England international turned Sky TV analyst Dean Ryan on a short-term contract as his forwards coach for the 2013 Six Nations and the hurriedly assembled coaching team pulled a rabbit out of the hat in leading Scotland to third in the table – the highest finish they have enjoyed since occupying the same position in 2006 (although the 2013 team recorded just two wins to the 2006 team’s three – and one of these was a daylight robbery one-point win over an otherwise dominant Ireland at Murrayfield).

Behind the Thistle pbkJohnson came to Scotland with a mixed reputation as a popular skills coach but with mixed results as a head coach. After negotiations with the SRU following the 2013 Six Nations, it was revealed that he would remain as temporary caretaker coach and would, in time, move ‘upstairs’ to the SRU’s Director of Rugby position, last occupied by Ian McGeechan in 2005. With the announcement of Vern Cotter as his long-term successor as head coach, a whole new controversy ignited when Cotter’s employers, Clermont Auvergne (who had been unaware of the SRU’s advances), blew a gasket and insisted that Cotter see out his contract to the summer of 2014. So Johnson remained in charge for the 2013 summer tournament in South Africa with the host nation, Samoa and Italy, the autumn Tests against Japan, South Africa and Australia and the 2014 Six Nations before handing over the reins to Cotter for the summer tour to north and south America and South Africa – and the road to the 2015 World Cup in England. Clearly, for a team that had struggled to string a series of victories together in the professional era, the foundations on which the team was trying to build consistency were manifestly unstable. But the players simply had to accept the coaching merry-go-round and get on with things.

Despite this instability and sense of uncertainty in the coaching structure, some of the attacking play during the 2013 Six Nations was exceptional. Against England in the opening game, Sean Maitland marked his debut with a try down the blind-side wing after some wonderfully ambitious attacking play, before a turnover on the Scotland line by Kelly Brown unleashed a counter-attack normally only seen by the classic French teams of the ’80s and ’90s. The ball went from Brown to Stuart Hogg to Ruaridh Jackson to Matt Scott, whose quick hands unleashed David Denton – and all this done behind the five metre line. Denton carried the ball just beyond the twenty-two and very nearly ended the move when he ignored supporting runners. But as he was felled by Mike Brown he popped the ball from the floor to Jackson, who showed the same dexterity as Scott had done just moments before to slip the pass wide to Maitland. Maitland found himself in space but was aware of the covering defence tracking across to close him down; he was also aware that he had Hogg to take his side into the lead with just four minutes remaining on the clock on his inside, so carried the ball up field to the ten metre line and stabbed a grubber into space for his fullback to chase. Hogg put on the afterburners, showed fabulous footballing skills to hack the ball on and then beat the despairing cover of Toby Flood to score in the corner. It was to be voted try of the tournament.

The attacking intent was wonderful, but the defence was often stretched and the set-piece creaked under pressure from a dominant England eight. In the end, those were the margins that decided the fate of the match and England won 38-18, a scoreline that was more than a disservice to the Scottish efforts.

Mike Blair: I decided to retire shortly before the 2013 Six Nations. It was a hard decision to make, but it’s one that I felt lucky that I was able to do. Every time I pulled on the Scotland jersey it was an incredible honour and a privilege.

There’s a plaque in each players’ cubicle in the Murrayfeild changing-room which bears the name of greats from the past who have previously worn the shirt. Seeing those great names, I was always reminded of something that Jim Telfer once said: that the jersey is never really yours; it belongs to the nation and to the history of the team . . . you are only ever borrowing it for a time.

I used to recreate David Sole’s slow march of 1990 in my garden, used to hear Bill McLaren’s voice commentating as I ran around with the ball. I think that when any player pulls on their international jersey, they wear it for their friends and family, for all the fans that support them around the world, for the great players that have worn it before them, for their school teachers and for their club coaches and so on; but they also wear it for that boy inside of them who has played a thousand games in his head, and for those who even now run around their gardens with a dream that they might one day wear that same jersey. For me, that was what playing for Scotland was all about. Forget all the lows. It was an amazing ten years; I lived a dream.

Jim Hamilton (Scotland 2006-2015, 63 Caps): After the England loss Dean Ryan dished out a pretty brutal analysis. There was no crisis meeting but he spoke to every forward and asked us to tell him what we felt our primary role was as an international player. None of us did our job properly against England so we had to strip it back and sort it out. Rugby is a simple game and if you don’t do the basics right you won’t win the game; there’s no point looking pretty, running around and offloading if you don’t get the win.

Against England, we were a bit off our game and they were very, very good – they played a completely different game to what we had trained for and what we expected. You have to give them credit, though: they won the contact area so well that we had to go away and have a good long look at ourselves.

The backs had impressed at Twickenham and they continued where they left off when Italy came to Murrayfield, tearing the Italian defence to shreds as they scored tries through Tim Visser, Matt Scott, Stuart Hogg and Sean Lamont in a 34-10 shellacking.

Stuart Hogg (Scotland 2012-2015, 38 Caps): I really enjoyed my try against Italy because it was another length of the field effort and had been a bit of a gamble. Italy had broken through and they had a two-on-one against me – and I decided to go for the intercept. It was a pretty big call and I could have made a complete mess of it if Luciano Orquera had thrown a dummy. It was a fourteen-pointer, as they say, because if it didn’t come off then they would have scored under the sticks. Orquera had broken into space and I was set up pretty square against him, so it made sense for him to try and keep me fixed and then give the scoring pass to Tommaso Benvenuti. I had the option to either try and tackle Orquera man-and-ball to try and stop his pass, to slide onto Benvenuti but risk Orquera dummying and scoring himself, or to go for the intercept. Luckily it came off and eighty metres later I’d scored at the other end. It’s a great moment when you back your instincts and your skills and things like that work out for you.

Greig Laidlaw: We played Ireland next and with the way we were playing we felt really good about our prospects. We wanted to win and we wanted to win the respect of the Irish boys as well. We’d probably not given them much reason to respect us in the recent past, so we wanted to change that. Unless you beat them you can’t expect respect from them. It was a bit of a scrappy game; they went ahead after we let in a pretty soft try from Craig Gilroy, but we kept in amongst them and kept chipping away at the scoreboard. We showed some decent dog that day and hung in there and we managed to get our noses in front near the end and stayed there.

Jim Hamilton: It was a strange game, I think they had seventy-five per cent possession and I think we stole ten out of fourteen of their lineouts, which was obviously a huge base for them. Ireland are always very structured in what they do and rely on their ser-piece a lot. But if you can counter that you set yourself on the road to beating them and that’s exactly what happened in 2013.

Although the team continued to play in an expansive fashion in the next two fixtures, against Wales at Murrayfield and France in Paris, the defence was porous and small errors on the part of the Scots were ruthlessly taken advantage of by their opponents as Grieg Laidlaw’s team lost both Test matches 28-18 and 23-16 respectively.

In the summer, the team travelled to South Africa for a quadrangular tournament featuring the Springboks, Samoa and Italy. The opening match was against Samoa in Durban, where preparations were hampered slightly – albeit in a positive way – when prop Ryan Grant received a call up to the Lions tour in Australia. The late change in the front-row could not be blamed for the result that followed, however, as the big-hitting South Sea Islanders overpowered the Scots to win 27-17. The bruised squad then had to try to pick themselves up to face the might of the tournament hosts at Nelspruit, but they had picked up a number of key injuries in the squad and Kelly Brown, Pat McArthur and Geoff Cross were all forced to return home. The South African 372 media had written off the challenge of Scott Johnson’s side, but the match wasn’t nearly as one-sided as it had been predicted, with Scotland sparkling in attack to score some sensational tries through Matt Scott and Alex Dunbar. The injury woes continued, however, as Scotland lost not one but two stand-offs during the course of the match, with Ruaridh Jackson and Peter Horne both sustaining serious knee injuries, and in the end the greater power and experience of the Springboks told as they secured a 30-17 victory to meet Samoa in the tournament title decider.

Matt Scott (Scotland 2012-2016, 33 Caps): The South Africa game in the summer of 2013 was a big turning point for me. Scott Johnson had given me a hard time all week after we lost to Samoa, and one day he took me to one side and said, ‘Look, you’ve got thirteen caps now, you’re not new any more. If you don’t start growing up and acting like a player with thirteen caps, one who can boss the game and start believing that you are good enough to be here, then we’re going to pick someone else.’

It was a huge kick up the arse, but he was right; subconsciously I was still immature, still not being loud or assertive enough. Against Samoa I’d been too chilled, but before the South Africa game I wrote loads of notes and distilled them into five or six key points which I kept reading over and over. In the warm up I was very focused and animated, much louder and more vocal than usual.

I was so motivated and pumped – although getting up for that game was easy as the South African media spent the week speculating on whether we could keep the margin of victory to less than 50 points – and I had a very good game against Jean de Villiers, one of the best centres in the world. The way I played gave me a big confidence boost; I felt a genuine change inside of me, and I often reference that game in my own mind.

You can read more about the history of the team with your own copy of Behind the Thistle: Playing Rugby for Scotland, available here, and in all good bookshops.

Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire by John McKendrick, an extract

John McKendrick’s new book, Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire is a combination of compelling narrative history and gripping travelogue. His journey to uncover Caledonia, the short-lived Scottish colony in Darien, began when his legal career took him to the international ports of Panama. In his search for traces of the enterprise he became entangled by many of the same difficulties encountered by the seventeenth-century Scots: an inhospitable climate; a suspicious indigenous population with its own local conflicts; and dense jungle. A machete-wielding history, the journey becomes a personal pilgrimage as McKendrick uncovers vestiges of Darien not just at the place still known as Punta Escocés but in the places to which the colonists scattered. This extract finds him in the southern United States –

Darien A Journey in Search of EmpireAlthough it was October the land was steamy, swampy almost and the air was humid and heavy. I drove with the windows down and the hot air tangled my hair into knots. The radio played a selection of lachrymose Country songs. I passed a large church which announced ‘A crossless life is a pointless life’. A sentiment the Reverend Archibald Stobo would very much have agreed with. Stobo is perhaps less well-known than his fellow Darien minister Francis Borland, because he did not keep a record of his time in Caledonia. But he was fit enough to go ashore and preach at Charleston in 1700, and this devotion saved his life. I had come to the Carolinas and Georgia to find out more about Caledonia’s most successful survivor and his descendants, who did more to fulfil William Paterson’s dream than any other. In Savannah I hoped to see where those descendants had lived, and from there I would go to Charleston to see where the Reverend Stobo founded around five churches. Stobo was the most successful of the survivors of Caledonia. First and most importantly his connection with Theodore Roosevelt provides an extraordinary link across 200 years from the vision of Paterson to the achievement of Panama as a vital hinge in the world economy. But Stobo had other great offspring. His grandson, Archibald Bulloch (1730–1777) who was born in South Carolina, was a great Revolutionary leader who fought against the British and was Georgia’s representative at the Continental Congress.

In Charleston, the South Carolina Historical Society was housed in the oddly named Fireproof Building at 100 Meeting Street. The building was attractive, in the Palladian style with Doric porticos, but more interestingly it claimed to be the first fireproof building built in the United States for the preservation of public records, the ideal location for a history society. I was not sure what I expected to find in the Society’s library but felt sure it was worth asking what records or documents they had which dealt with the Reverend Stobo. Inside the cool reception to the library a pretty young librarian helped me and we chatted for a while over what I was interested in. She asked me to temporarily register and then carried out a search of the records. A few documents appeared on the computer screen on the system and the librarian sought them out for me. When they arrived they were of little help and revealed very little about Stobo’s life in Charlestown. After a little over an hour I was about to leave when the librarian asked me if I would like to see the ‘Stobo bible’. I asked what it was and she was not very sure but asked me to don a pair of white gloves and she disappeared to the fireproof vaults to find it. I sat with eager anticipation. Could this really be the Reverend Stobo’s own bible? Could it have been preserved all this time?

Darien - In Search of Empire - 8pp cmyk plateThe librarian came back with a large buff-coloured manila folder tied closed with string, which she laid carefully on the table before me then said ‘enjoy’ and left me to it. I sat for a moment, overcome with excitement and emotion: this truly could be a wonderful find. The bible used by Stobo over 300 years ago; the bible he would have held and touched with his own hands in New Edinburgh, and now I would be able to hold it too. It made me feel closer to the Caledonians, even closer perhaps than visiting the site of the colony. I gingerly pulled back the string, struggling a little with the uncomfortable white gloves on my fingers. The manila paper sprang open to reveal a small brown leather-covered bible, with a leather catch which had become damaged. I carefully turned it over and inspected the leather covering, which was a little spoiled and damaged in places but essentially complete. I opened the bible to reveal page after page of perfectly preserved gospel, printed in tiny print, but clearly legible and well laid out. The whole book was remarkable and I felt thrilled to hold Stobo’s bible in my hand, waves of history pouring out from its fragile, dry pages.

A note in the manila envelope made clear this bible had belonged to the Reverend Archibald Stobo who founded several Presbyterian churches in the area. It appeared to lend support to the idea – given the date and place of publication, close to when he would have set sail from Glasgow – that this was the bible he may have used in New Edinburgh. It seems likely it was bought in Scotland before the second expedition sailed. This may even have been the bible he would have held when he gave sermons to the Caledonians, the bible he used when he prayed for salvation when the Spanish attacked, the bible he would have pressed against his hands aboard the Rising Sun when he feared the ship would not make it on its voyage from Jamaica to Scotland. It was an amazing and startling discovery and moved me intensely. I opened to the bible gently and read several passages. Flicking through the crackling pages I wondered what sustenance the Reverend Stobo would have taken from some of the passages as he read them: Joshua 1:6–9 ‘Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land’; Matthew 11:28–30 ‘Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’; Nehemiah 6:3 ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down’. What inspiration or solace did the he find in this book as he hoped, feared, repented and rejoiced in his travels from Glasgow to New Edinburgh to Jamaica to Charleston? Holding the bible in my hands made me feel closer to the Caledonians than at any other point in my journey following them. I gently closed the bible, kissed it and taking a last wistful look at it, placed it gently back in the manila folder. Back in the fireproof vaults, the bible was sure to survive for another 300 years.

Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire is published this month and is available here on our website and in all good bookshops.

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