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Alan Bissett interview: Deadlier than the female

"LOVE IS NOT A VICTORY MARCH," growls Leonard Cohen. And if there is a presiding spirit in Alan Bissett's new novel, Death of a Ladies' Man, it is probably Cohen, to whom the book owes its title. Here, love is a battlefield in all the worst senses: sieges and sorties and sabotage, and casualties. Plenty of casualties.

Our soldier is Charlie Bain, 30 years old, a teacher of English in Glasgow. God's gift to women (or so he believes). As many women as possible, thank you. The book is his journey, a high-speed, coke-fuelled rollercoaster ride through bars, classrooms, bedrooms. His inner world spills fast and furious on to the page. Even the typography is galloping.

For the last four years, Bissett has been inside Charlie Bain's mind and, he reports, it wasn't a pleasant experience. He saw the dark side of male sexuality, a world of hard-drinking, unthinking misogyny. "Modern man is f***ed up, modern men really are in a terrible state. I realised that to an even greater degree during the course of the book. I actually wonder whether feminism has had any impact on men at all in the last 30 or 40 years."

He remembers the precise moment when he realised how bad things were. In the name of research, he got an invite to a party with Neill Strauss, the American writer of The Game, who has been called the world's greatest seducer. He found himself surrounded by Strauss's Glasgow fraternity, polished pick-up artists with one-track minds and not a scruple between them.

"That idea that sincerity becomes impossible, that all you have is a series of masks and you say whatever needs to be said, you use whatever tactic is required in order to get the target relaxed. That was a really depressing thing for me to see. Male sexuality taken to its logical conclusion. If I was in any doubt that the book I was writing was worthwhile, its value was confirmed that night."

He describes Death of a Ladies' Man as "a cautionary tale for women written by a man who is trying to say: 'Look, this is why we are the way we are. Understand but do not forgive.'" The cover line is more succinct: "A vital read for anyone who wants to understand why men are dicks." If the book has a fault, it is in the assumption it seems to make that all men are like Charlie Bain.

Bissett, of course, is not like Charlie Bain. He takes every opportunity to emphasise this. He's 33 and was listed 46th hottest man in Scotland by a tabloid newspaper. He's good-looking and blessed with plenty of natural charm. He has already been asked at book festivals if the book draws on his own experience. He chooses to meet me in a bohemian West End tea shop over a Merchant City bar. Message: Bissett's kind of place, not Charlie Bain's.

"I am a man, I have male desires, I didn't have to look very hard in the character to find those, but what you then do (as a writer] is magnify it, imagine if the choices you made in your life had been different ones, what would have become of you? It's a 'there, but for the grace of God' tale. There are layers of fiction you put there for the purposes of the story which are nothing to do with you. I would be appalled if a reader thought I had done some of the things that he's done.

"I feel like I've had it with male culture, I really do. It all seems to be founded on entirely the wrong values. I've always liked the company of women. Even the interviews you do with men are always much testier, they usually try to land a couple of blows. Before I wrote this book, I understood feminism intellectually. Now, I've started to feel it."

From an early age, he now realises, he was rejecting the values of traditional masculine culture. Growing up in a working-class family in Hallglen, Falkirk, he sought prowess in neither fighting nor football; instead, he was the kid whose stories the teachers read out to the class.

When he won a prize for reciting a poem in Scots in primary three, he discovered an equal love of performing. He is an acclaimed performer of his work, frequently to be found at indie nights such as CCA's Discombobulate, and supporting bands. In the last year, he has written two plays, The Ching Room (performed at ran Mr and the Traverse) and The Library, as well as his own Falkirk monologue Times When I Bite, which was premiered at Glasgow's Aye Write Festival.

Leaving school, he rejected a possible future as a labourer at the Grangemouth petrochemicals plant for a place studying English at Stirling University, then trained as a teacher. "Performing is 60 per cent of a teacher's job. I loved the feeling of being in front of those classes, taking them somewhere. Those aspects of Charlie are pretty close to me. When he's in the classroom, that's as close to him as I feel."

Bissett bowed out of teaching after six months, suspecting that the future contained more bureaucracy than poetry, and signed up to a PhD, but spent the next three years writing fiction. His first novel, Boyracers, a coming-of-age story set in Falkirk, was published when he was 25, and he was hailed as the voice of a new generation in urban Scots writing. The novel is being adapted for film, and he's writing a sequel. He wrote his second novel, The Incredible Adam Spark, about a Falkirk teenager with learning difficulties, while teaching creative writing at Leeds, then Glasgow.

Death of a Ladies' Man is a statement that he has come of age as a writer. His first novel in English, it is both complex and keenly aware of its antecedents: James Kelman's A Disaffection; Mr Alfred MA, George Friel's novel about the downfall of a Glasgow schoolteacher. Charlie Bain engages with Kelman in an ill-advised attempt to awaken his sixth years to the politics of language.

But what confirms his maturity most is his determination to journey deep into the heart of his character. He wrote the first draft of Death of a Ladies' Man at speed, then three months of re-writing became three years, chasing the textures and nuances, plumbing the depths of Charlie Bain.

"I had to really look at the darkness. That was difficult. I stripped away far more layers of him than I initially thought were there (the absent father, the painful early divorce). I couldn't afford to write about this guy as if he was some moustache-twirling cad. I had to find the pain."

In doing so, he makes his character three-dimensional, one we are tempted to sympathise with against our better judgment. "That's the tragic thing about him, the nobility is there, there are certain feminine values that should have led him in the right direction, but his cock takes over. We say that glibly all the time about men – their brains are in their trousers – that's what he needs to defeat and can't. He's trapped, sex becomes a numbers game to him, it becomes about engorging himself on women."

It's not hard to see that Bissett is glad to be free of him. Straight from finishing the novel, he wrote Times When I Bite, a monologue about a Falkirk woman – inspired by some of the women in his family. When the heroine, Moira, a school cleaner, decides to seduce the "cocky, good-looking young English teacher" and isn't impressed by the result, it doesn't take an analyst to see he's getting his own back on Bain.

"It was a reaction to the novel. Having spent four years inside the head of a sexual predator and being steeped in maleness, I wanted to write a female part, and she came out of me ferociously. And Falkirk came back. Falkirk was like: 'Enough of these Glasgow books, we'll give you one. You can do your wee bourgeois Glasgow book, then get your arse back here'."

&#149 Death of a Ladies Man, by Alan Bissett, is published by Hachette Scotland, 12.99. Alan Bissett is appearing at the Edinburgh book festival on 17 August.

Alan Bissett on the politics of language

After two novels in Scots demotic, Death of a Ladies' Man is Bissett's first novel in English.

"I was really f***** up by it, because I felt that I've got a responsibility to continue to legitimise Scots dialect writing in the way that Kelman did, to intellectualise the position about the validity of this kind of writing. Writing a novel in English seemed like some kind of class betrayal.

"I went to see Tom Leonard about it, and we spoke about what he and Kelman and writers like that had created, how he'd made it possible for somebody like me to become a writer and write in the language I'd grown up in, how I felt I was betraying that by writing a novel in English. It was like: 'Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobe, you are my only hope'.

"He looked at me: 'Betrayal? Let me tell you something, Alan, it's your f***** language as well. Don't let them try and tell you English is theirs, it's yours as well.

"'They want to keep it for themselves, you've got to take it back and make it yours.' And I realised I could make a statement of that."

 
 
 

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