New to the Wild West

CHRIS HANNAN IS STANDING IN front of a large colour photograph of a limitless landscape beneath a sky saturated an improbable shade of blue. On the horizon, the pink rocks of Arizona's Painted Desert have an otherworldly glow.

"God, that's where I went for a walk and got lost," he exclaims. "I had two enormous bottles of water, but by the time I made it to a highway and hitched a ride – which was not easy – I couldn't speak," he croaks, mimicking the parlous state he was in. "Yeah, it was dead scary."

Gazing at Adam Chodzko's image of Flagstaff, Arizona, in the Print the Legend – The Myth of the West exhibition at Edinburgh's Fruitmarket Gallery, has brought back vivid memories for Hannan, the award-winning Scottish playwright. He recalls drinking pint after pint of water, unable to slake his raging thirst in the wake of this foolhardy adventure.

Nonetheless, like all good writers, he has used the experience to dramatic effect, in his first novel, Missy, a mesmerising tale of wild, wild women and the Wild West, which has taken him five years to complete and looks set to become a bestseller. Certainly, Missy is the finest first novel I've read for a long time. Hannan won a two-book deal on the strength of his outline alone, although his next project is adapting The Three Musketeers for Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre in 2009.

Missy is not published in the States until June, but on New Year's Eve the New York Times chose it as a likely sleeper bestseller of 2008.

US publishers' websites, in the meantime, are buzzing with news of Clydebank-born Hannan's wildly entertaining book, about sex, drugs and the down-and-dirty Wild West, told by one of the most bombastic, fantastic heroines in recent memory.

His narrator is 19-year-old Dol McQueen, a flash-girl – a hooker hooked on liquid opium. According to Hannan's British publishers, in Missy, "Moll Flanders meets Deadwood". They're also describing daring Dol as "an opium-addicted Becky Sharp".

Dol is, in fact, unlike any other literary creation. She's unique, as anyone familiar with Hannan's stage plays, including The Baby and The Evil Doers, might expect. For here is a man whose dramatic output has drawn comparisons with that of Arthur Miller, and who has created some of the most challenging roles for women in Scottish theatre in the last 20 years, ranging from the eponymous Elizabeth Gordon Quinn to the lusty, heroic Ann, central character of his play Shining Souls.

When the original Traverse Theatre production of Elizabeth Gordon Quinn was produced in 1985, The Scotsman's theatre critic, Joyce McMillan, wrote that Hannan's heroine was "monstrous and magnificent" and that the play was a "masterpiece". McMillan finds Ann, in Shining Souls, "one hell of a woman, a kind of Mother Courage-cum-Marilyn Monroe".

It's no surprise, then, that Hannan, whose plays have been staged by the National Theatre of Scotland, the Royal Shakespeare Company and by Sir Peter Hall at the Old Vic, has created yet another heroine who is a hell of a woman. Like the mighty Quinn, Dol is a magnificent monster, whom it is impossible not to love, despite the fact that she's infuriating, too – forever telling us that she's only happy when she's "varnished or gonged" on missy – liquid opium.

Small, quick and a funny colour, Dol is the immensely intelligent daughter of the drunken Isobel McQueen, from Edinburgh, who one minute is swelling around like a duchess, the next, her skirt's up in flames.

With three other flash-girls and their majestic millinery, Dol leaves San Francisco for the silver mines in Nevada and a fresh start. On the way they meet a repellent pimp called Pontius and a one-armed police chief, Duffield. Soon, Dol has a cache of opium stashed beneath her bed. Then the girls – with Dol's mother and Pontius and the chestful of missy – are on the run into the dangerous wilderness, pursued by a gang of brutal, baby-faced killers who stalk them into the parched desert, where Indians steal their mules and they almost die for lack of water.

The deliriously deluded Dol goes cold turkey, eventually finding enlightenment and self-knowledge. "Let's just draw a veil over the fact that I didn't have to do much research into addiction. Yeah, when Dol says that when she's 'gonged on opium' she has an immense feeling inside her that she can govern Chaos. Research in that field has definitely been done," admits Hannan, who did do extensive reading about life and death in the Wild West in the 1860s. "The use of drugs was endemic then, especially among the flash-girls in the brothels, although everyone took it. They even gave opium to babies."

Hannan, 50, is tall and dark, with youthful, puckish features. He has written extensively for televison as well as the theatre, and I imagine him as a wee boy, in Glasgow, playing cowboys and Indians, gunslinging in the back-court.

"Not at all!" he exclaims. "Like most women – and a few guys I know – I'm really anti-Western. I'm actually quite bored by the genre of cowboy movies. They are often anti-women, quite racist – and right-wing, of course. Even John Ford films like The Searchers, which are supposed to be the very best, I find lurid in the storytelling. But there have been a couple of Westerns that I liked and I think I almost wasn't aware of their influence on me while I was writing Missy. One is Unforgiven – the Clint Eastwood movie which depicts the West as an unforgiving place – and the other is Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller, in which Julie Christie is set up as a whorehouse madam by a gambler, played by Warren Beatty.

"When I'd finished writing Missy, I thought, 'God, I hope I haven t been too influenced by that film', because it was definitely in my head. What really appealed to me, though, was the freedom you have as a storyteller if you set something in the lawless West. Mind, they did make laws pretty quickly, too. But when I read the dozens and dozens of journals people had kept, I realised that the West really was a romantic place where you could totally reinvent yourself.

"You could leave New York, or Ireland, or Scotland as one person and arrive in the West as someone else. Because I wanted to write about immigrants, I went into this determined that my West would be multicultural and it turned out that that was the truth, although you wouldn't know it from the movies or pulp fiction Westerns."

With its rollicking, perfectly crafted plot and assured sense of place, Missy is more than just another Western adventure yarn. The dialogue has all the snap of a flash-girl's suspender, while the prose sparkles like the diamond-ringed buttons on Pontius the pimp's vest. It is, though, the deeply poignant, heart-piercing story of a feckless, uncaring mother and a vulnerable daughter's desperate search for her mother and for love.

So if, as the clich has it, all first novels are autobiographical, what are we to make of Missy?

"Well, for mothers and daughters you can obviously substitute fathers and sons. However, I have brothers and sisters and I can't talk about my own sometimes difficult relationship with my dad because it involves other people."

The fourth of five children, Hannan and his partner, Sarah, an IT consultant, have no children. "I've never been a father, but I think anyone who reads Missy will draw their own conclusions about fathers and sons, although I would like to say that before my dad died – he was a shipyard worker, a boiler-maker, who became a salesman – me and him were fine. We loved each other, always. At the end we were happy."

Hannan's late mother, one of ten children, became a primary school teacher. For both of his parents, who came from poor backgrounds, "education, education, education" was the mantra. Hannan read English at Oxford. After graduating with a double first, he returned to Glasgow to work with the homeless, then began writing plays.

More recently, he's taught at Cambridge University as part of a year-long drama fellowship. He began writing Missy while he was working with students there, and eventually completed the novel last autumn, sitting in a hotel in New York's Brooklyn, which seemed appropriate because, "it's still so like the West – a teeming nation of nations".

What really delighted him about his research was the discovery that women in the West had much more freedom and economic power than he'd expected. "After all, Hollywood gives us either the Madonna or the whore – the good woman or the saloon girl."

But Hannan adds a rider: "The career choices weren't great. If you couldn't cook or sew, then becoming a flash-girl was probably the only option. I found, for instance, that many married women became hookers, because using their sexual power was one way they could make money.

"I'd never have contemplated writing this book from the point of view of a male narrator. The character of Dol arrived long before I had the story. I've always wanted to write a novel about an anti-heroine. I do like bad women!"

So have the film rights been sold? The publishers have high hopes. "The problem is there isn't a role for Daniel Day-Lewis," says Hannan. "He can hardly play Dol, can he?"

&#149 Missy by Chris Hannan is published by Chatto & Windus on 17 April, priced 12.99.

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