The Making of Alasdair Gray's 'Of Me & Others': Creating
Alasdair Gray's much-anticipated autobiography Of Me & Others was published recently by Cargo Publishing. Here, exclusively for the Scottish Book Trust blog, members of the team at Cargo tell the second part of the book’s genesis - including fascinating insight into what it’s like to work with this living legend of Scottish literature.
Read part one of this exclusive blog.
Working with Alasdair Gray
Mark Buckland (Cargo MD) @Mr_Buckaroo: I mentioned Alasdair's fluid working style in the last blog. It's more complicated than that single word can express.
Dr. Alistair Braidwood (Editor of Of Me And Others) @ScotsWhayHae: Editing with Alasdair is not an experience most editors would recognise, at least it wasn’t on this project. Mark, Simon and I – and later Craig Lamont (design and cover) - are facilitators for Alasdair’s vision.
If that sounds too passive, then it’s not meant to be. We were taking material that had already been written (mostly) and were trying to collect it to make a coherent whole. Of course we had discussions along the way, but agreed that his say would be final. It is his story, after all.
Editing with Alasdair is not an experience most editors would recognise
Simon Cree (Assistant Editor) @piratesprogress: Alasdair asks it to be so, and I oblige: typefaces are tested then dismissed, chapters are written and re-written, articles past and present are added and then removed from the table of contents.
MB: I think part of the joy of seeing Alasdair work is that everything is considered to the nth degree. He considers every aspect of a text and what it might say about him, his thinking and the people around him. It might seem spontaneous when he changes his mind suddenly, but an extraordinary amount of time's gone into thinking through each decision.
SC: Long periods are spent in silence while he considers. Sometimes he leans back into his armchair, eyes almost closed, considering a sentence or an idea. Sometimes he paces over to his book shelves, staring at the spines, occasionally taking one down and reading.
MB: Alasdair is well-read, obviously but he’s also a true polymath. His own character is imbedded in everything he discusses, but he also has this understanding of why he's interested in these topics. I think my job on this project was probably the most enjoyable out of all of us; I got to sit and talk about Italian politics in the time of Dante with Alasdair, or hear him wax lyrical about the referendum.
AB: Experiences like this are the most memorable parts of working with Alasdair. It’s partly why this book took so long to finish – we were all having too good a time.
The process of perfection
SC: We will cease, on the odd occasion for hours at a time, whilst he considers the next chapter, how it should be structured, what it should be, where each element of his life should appear and in what form. I tidy up the text while he does so. We spend ten minutes or more on one sentence, a turn of phrase, a single word.
AB: After all those months of uncertainty about what the book would be, Alasdair’s life, in prose, emerged.
SC: The work progresses steadily. I type and edit, Alasdair dictates and intervenes. The screen is smudged and marked where his finger has jabbed in from over my left shoulder, stabbing at a mistake, an inconsistency, a repetition that I hadn't noticed.
AB: You may wonder why he needs such secretarial help, and Alasdair’s answer is that he doesn’t want to risk ruining his penmanship by battering away at a keyboard. Like many of his statements, and most of his writing, it is part serious, part jest, and you are never entirely sure where the balance lies.
Will we ever finish this book?
MB: So, we had now reached Spring 2013. Time to be candid. I was a bit concerned about progress.
AB: As Alasdair says in the ‘Foreword’ to Of Me And Others, it “… might have been called A Life In Prose”.
It was obvious that this was a project that could go on for ever
MB: Ali's quote is accurate, but I wondered if the prose it was starting to resemble was Tristram Shandy. You know that issue he has that he's living his life and can't quite write fast enough to keep up with it? In a similar way, I was worried that the revisions, the endless revising of pieces, restructuring and alterations were throwing us off course.
AB: It was obvious that this was a project that could go on for ever, and by now no-one, including Alasdair, wanted that. We all had other projects on the go, and new ones to attend to. Focus, honesty and team work were required if the book was ever going to see the light of day.
SC: Mr. Gray works with the piece much in the same way he would a piece of fiction than, rather, a person simply chronicling their life. Events don't change, conversations are kept the same, but descriptions – the way a location is perceived, how light ripples across water – are pored over, sometimes in the most minute of detail. This takes time. Longer than we had first envisioned for the project.
MB: With Cargo, we'd always promoted a much more relaxed way of working. I absolutely understood that Alasdair had set out with us to create a simple project, but had become much more creatively and emotionally invested in a book that at this point was now, in all but name, an autobiography.
AB: As the months and years have gone on, there is no doubt that Of Me And Others has come to mean a lot to Alasdair, as it grew into an intensely personal project, taking him back to meet some of his best friends and family. It was a cause for reflection on his life, and it is understandable that he wanted to spend as much time there as possible.
Deadline day looms
SC: As the deadline approaches, the work becomes, if not more tense, at least more fraught. Mark and Ali are aware of the time limits imposed upon us by printers, media, festivals: Alasdair himself becomes frustrated that the endgame is fast approaching on a work he does not consider finished by any means.
AB: At this point, Simon was really at the coal face, having to work with Alasdair while all the time aware those deadlines were looming. It’s not that Alasdair ‘loves the sounds of deadlines whooshing by’, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, but that he is a perfectionist, and that is difficult to marry with any imposed time limits.
MB: Publishers always worry. We're permanently followed by a dark cloud of fretting and hand-wringing. How many publishers does it take to change a light bulb? "There is no light." Terrible joke, but you get the idea.
How many publishers does it take to change a light bulb? "There is no light."
I was particularly worried here that we had set a November 2013 date for release and we were running out of time for… everything. We were all working around the clock on this, but the book was enormous. The project always seemed that little bit beyond all our grasp. Why? Alasdair revised endlessly; I can't praise him enough for the work he put into creating, revising and devising the pieces themselves and then how they fit together. But I was not controlling the project enough – as a publisher, the buck stops with me.
AB: There are many things we had to consider, and Mark, Simon and I would have several fraught meetings over this period about what to do. Alasdair is a 79-year-old who works on multiple projects at a time. We had to balance the importance of getting the book out for a certain deadline with possibly killing Scotland’s greatest living artist!
MB: I stress a lot of the time. But as November drew closer, I had a conversation with the critic and Aye Write! programmer Stuart Kelly who said to me “I don't think it's going to happen this year.” Weirdly, I suddenly had this relief, even when I insisted it would be. But Stuart reminded me that it is better to do the book in the best way, not in the fastest way.
There are times in publishing when schedules, money, deadlines – these concerns have to be put aside. There are times when we publishers forget we are part of making wondrous things, objects that will last an eternity; we get so wrapped up in the business of publishing, we forget that there's something much more fundamental, much more important at work.
Beautiful things take time, that's one of the reasons they're beautiful. We moved the publication date to 2014 and we continued working with the great maker of imagined objects.
To be continued…
Read part one of this exclusive blog.
Alasdair Gray's Of Me & Others is available now from Cargo Publishing