Janice Galloway wants to meet in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library cafe. I’m early, so I take a gunfighter’s seat in a corner to watch her approach. I know what she looks like but she doesn’t know me so I’d emailed her beforehand:
“I’ve got brown hair and am overweight with a big nose.”
Her response: “By the sound, we look fairly similar.”
As it turns out I’m beak deep in her latest book when she appears beside me. Her shoes might be bobby-dazzler diamanté but they’re flat pumps and silent: the impact all in the visuals.
“Hello, I’m Janice,” says a woman with brown hair, who isn’t overweight and doesn’t have a big nose. “The book gave you away.”
Galloway is one of the country’s best known writers but insists no-one ever recognises her and sure enough she’s slipped into one of the biggest libraries in Scotland without a ripple among the bibliophiles surrounding us. This is how she likes it, on the fringes observing.
Her first book, The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989) won her the MIND/Allan Lane award, Foreign Parts carried off the McVitie’s Prize. Clara, about the life of Clara Schumann won a whole raft including the Creative Scotland Award and the Saltire Scottish book of the year, and her anti-memoir This is Not About Me, with follow up All Made Up also won prizes. Radio work includes three series for the BBC (Life as a Man, Imagined Lives and Chopin’s Scottish Swansong) and she works with musicians and visual artists including Sally Beamish and Anne Bevan, as well as teaching writing. She’s also been writer in residence at four prisons. “Somebody has to. And I was skint,” she says by way of explanation.
The latest book is Jellyfish, a collection of 14 short stories that is her first for five years and explores love, sex, parenting, and the fallout they cause in our lives. The collection begins with David Lodge’s assertion that “Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way around.”
“I’m embracing that,” she says. “I’m saying it makes sense. Books like American Psycho don’t make sense to me. They’re a bit like watching a horror movie, a killer shark wrestling with a mega octopus, you’re not submersing your thought into it very much, whereas this I can submerse my thought into. He’s saying life is real.”
“What I’m writing about is human nature and there are so many ways to do that. For me the way that’s simplest is you write simple stories, not necessarily about people going through huge, horrible traumas, although sometimes they are. But the bulk of your life is spent in a kind of ‘so what’s the right thing to do here?’ and it can be about the most trivial things, tiny things.
“People say why aren’t you writing about Darfur? Well, I’m not there. I concentrate on the tiny thing that might come back and bite you on the arse, the tiny dilemmas, that’s my territory.
“You are fighting your whole life to find out where you stand morally. Is it right to give to charity or is that stupid because it’s going to end up in the pocket of somebody like FIFA? You don’t know what the right thing to do is any more. Lying is much more a part of the culture, like that MP from Orkney. And Blair… I mean your head just turns cartwheels when you think what that man has done, and is still living under some illusion that he can assist the Middle East. Now, where is that man’s sense of irony? That is one of the big issues of now for me, who is telling the truth and does truth really matter? I think a lot of people, even knowing how illusory it is, would like to pin down the right way to behave in a situation.
“And it assaults us at its most virulent in tiny situations, and with children the hardest because you really don’t have the space to get it wrong because you can do untold damage if you do.”
Galloway was born in Saltcoats, Ayrshire, in 1955 into a working class family. Her father, an alcoholic, left the family when she was four and died a year later, and her sister, 16 years her senior, arrived back home after leaving her husband and children and proceeded to bully both mother and sister.
“I think I was too young for a lot of it. I didn’t see my parents or sister as people with problems that people have. That happens in your twenties if you’re lucky and in your thirties, if you’re not. My sister was impossible to live with but she was going to survive no matter what and I respect that now she’s gone. It’s safe now. She’s not going to come and get me any more! My mother never really recovered from being a doormat but she recovered enough to start liking living on her own before she died. It was like she got to it just in time.”
Given that her first book is about a young teacher losing her grip and sliding into depression, it’s easy to make the mistake that Galloway has based her books on her life. Clearly she’s not a 19th century German, as she herself has pointed out, and she might be a mother, but the little boy staring at a killed jellyfish in the title story is not her son James, and the lover’s books being burned on a triumphal pyre after a relationship breakdown in another are not hers. Even when she is writing a memoir of her childhood, it’s anti-autobiography, her sister Nora becomes Cora and the title This Is Not About Me.
“You are not writing about a person, you are writing about an archetype in a situation and what this one person does in this situation. Writing isn’t life. Life doesn’t happen in paragraphs and they’re not people, they’re words,” she says.
Today she lives in South Lanarkshire with her husband Jonathan May, one of Britain’s most experienced bass-baritones, and her friend Alison Cameron. Her son James is now in his twenties and works in London in IT.
“I’m delighted to get this book published because nobody wants to publish short stories these days. Publishers always say to me, ‘what we’d really like is for you to get on with that novel you’re writing.’”
‘That novel’ is set in 18th-century Italy, but she says with a groan that progress is slow and she’s only half way through.
“It’s so time-consuming. Like Clara, it’s another historical novel and I’m one of those people who trips themselves up all the time. Did they have wallpaper? What colour would it be likely to be? How did they stick it up? I need to know all of that before I can say someone’s lying in bed! So it’s taking me forever.”
The characters are not her, the situations not hers, but every writer puts something of themselves into their fiction. Does she ever regret writing about her upbringing, albeit changing her sister’s name from Nora to Cora. Does it make her feel vulnerable?
“No, I think it makes you less vulnerable. You’ve ‘fessed it. It’s liberating. There is nothing quite like the relief of owning up. I spent years pretending my family were OK,” she laughs.
“It’s raw and that’s what makes us afraid, because you know how abusive people can be when you’re raw. There are some people that consistently treat you badly, and if you have a poor opinion of yourself, you will try and bring them over, instead of thinking, ‘you can take a hike’. I guess I see that as a particularly female trait – I don’t have the faintest authority to talk about what it’s like being a man – which is why so many of the central characters are female.”
So, the mental illness she laid bare in her pages, is that all gone, dealt with and forgotten?
“No, of course not, it never goes. It’s part of your life experience. That’s like saying ‘you were battered as a child, but you must be over that now’. You hold on to it, use it constructively. I couldn’t even say in a bone fide way that I was necessarily mentally ill. The book that classifies mental illnesses is now so big, that grief is classified as a mental illness. That’s f***ing mental. Grief is human. Even talking about what is mental illness or what it’s caused by is such a minefield I’m not putting even a toe in there, no fear. But the last person I’d ask would be a bloody psychiatrist.”
Now 59, Galloway admits she likes getting older, “getting further away from the maelstrom, the white heat of how much someone can damage you,” as she puts it.
“I interviewed Muriel Spark once and it was hilarious,” says Galloway. “She said, ‘Once you stop being interested in the sex, life gets so much better.’ I thought that sounds reasonable, because it does make you behave weirdly and dangerously.
“I think life’s just getting better. And I’ve got this tip from Muriel. She said 83 is about as far as you want to go.”
One thing she’s very clear she won’t ever be writing about is her experience with Graeme McNaught, a 55-year-old concert pianist, who in April walked free for a second time on charges of stalking her. Galloway and McNaught met in 1990 and had a six year on-off relationship during which they had a son, James.
McNaught had been on trial accused of going to her home unannounced and trying to leave her letters and sending her an unwanted parcel. He was also accused of sending friendship requests to her and her family members on social media site LinkedIn. At Hamilton Sheriff Court the jury acquitted him on the grounds of insanity. McNaught had also walked free from court last year on earlier charges of stalking Miss Galloway amid concerns over his mental state.
Galloway really doesn’t want to talk about this now, other than to say the stalking law needs to be improved to protect women like her, by becoming more victim centred.
“I have to take the word of people I don’t know, who don’t know me, don’t know him, pontificating about what they think. There has to be a better way. It’s not the law that’s wrong, it’s not the people who apply the law, it’s where the law is focused that’s wrong. If the law becomes victim centred, it’s about what happened, what effect did it have, how do they try and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“I won’t write about it because it’s already out there. And it’s boring. And it’s about me. My big thing is it’s not about me. Of course it will go into the writing, but not that crudely, dear God no. It will emerge in other ways. When you learn something you can apply it to 16 different situations, you don’t just apply it to the one that’s happened today. Like the story about the jellyfish is about people being mean, we’ve all seen that, but when you see your child discovering that this was possible, that’s when you realise what a dreadful thing it is.”
It’s time to take some photographs, so we head into the depths of the Mitchell Library, along labyrinthine corridors to the puppet collection.
“I don’t like this, photographs,” she says, squirming.
Why not? Surely she’s used to it by now?
“Whenever someone looks at me through a camera, I’m comparing them with my sister, saying ‘What do you look like?’. Have you heard Billy Connolly’s story about being photographed, being shouted at because you don’t look right? ‘Stop that! You look stupit!’ It’s like beltin’ your weans and saying ‘shut up greetin’.”
Uncomfortable, but amenable, she poses, the green of her dress turning her blue eyes jade. “Aquamarine”, says the photographer, “the colour of fag ash”, says Galloway dryly, quoting Nora.
She poses among the puppets and books, then eventually it’s over. “I was really dreading that,” she says. “Interviews, photographs, I was terrified,” she says, smiling with relief. There are hugs, goodbyes and she’s off.
As the photographer packs away his equipment he lifts his head and looks down the long corridor. “Look at that,” he says. Janice Galloway is dancerunning, to a silent soundtrack, all the way along the endless black and white marble squares, jade green dress billowing and bobby dazzler pumps sparkling in the light slanting down through the high Victorian windows. Arms out, she’s like a bird about to take flight. Then before the camera can come out again, she’s gone.
Janice Galloway will be at the Solas festival, Perthshire, tomorrow, www.solasfestival.co.uk
Jellyfish is published by Freight Books on Monday, priced £12.99. Allan Massie’s review is on page 46