Kenneth Steven's short stories are rooted in rural Scotland – but that doesn't mean they avoid tough subjects, he tells SUSAN MANSFIELD
PERHAPS it's no coincidence that Kenneth Steven's new collection of short stories is called The Ice. Or that the predominant seasons of its stories are autumnal or wintry.
Steven's "study" is a wooden cabin in Aberfeldy, and the winter months are his most productive writing time.
"Like many writers, I write best in the season I'm describing," he says. "It's what I call method writing. I don't think I'd ever be able to write an autumn story really effectively in the middle of spring. (The title story for] The Ice, I can say in all honesty, was written in sub-zero temperatures."
It's no surprise that already we're talking about the seasons, the landscape. Steven's stories, like his much-loved poetry, are rooted in the colours and textures of rural Scotland: the light falling through autumn leaves, the wind buffeting conkers from a tree, the magical sound of snow falling.
His connection to the land is almost umbilical; he can't imagine writing without it. "In the country I feel I have equilibrium. I don't have an urban background and therefore I feel jagged and uncomfortable in the city. That would immediately be a block to creativity, to the flow of words."
Steven, 41, is acclaimed as a poet and children's writer. His 2000 poetry collection, Iona, sold more than 10,000 copies, and his selected poems, Wildscape, was published last year. His children's books have been published in 12 countries, and stories broadcast on Radio Four. He has written three short novels, published as A Highland Trilogy.
His first novel, Dan, was shortlisted for the Saltire Prize, but it was a difficult time for a lyrical, rural writer to emerge in Scottish fiction. Trainspotting had just been published, setting tartan noir as the flavour of the decade. Rural Scotland began to look like a clich we were growing out of. Those writing in the tradition of Gunn and Mackay Brown found themselves marginalised.
Steven went his own way. He picks his words carefully, shapes his sentences thoughtfully. He says he has always preferred side roads, literally and metaphorically, "the road that one goes bumping down in the car, off the main road, where extraordinary stories are happening about which no-one knows".
These are the lands his stories inhabit: lands of crofters and pearl-fishers, village shopkeepers and Highland estates. Some have a half-magical, folk-tale quality. Others venture further afield: with immigrants to New York, with a soldier to the Western Front. But in Steven's stories the loss of connection to the land of home is seldom a good thing.
Often his protagonists are children or the very old, lending the stories a luminous quality of memory, a sadness for something lost. "These two perspectives, at opposite ends of life, I find possibly an easier entry point to the telling of the story. What is more difficult is coming from the perspective of 'ordinary' middle age where the senses are dulled by the business of living."
Sometimes a story will arrive in the form of a monologue, "where it is carried by the voice in my head and I am writing down what they are telling me, before their voice is gone again. The interesting thing is that, once that process is finished, I can't re-enter the water of it. Once that person has finished telling me their story, they've gone. They never come with sequels."
At other times, there will be a place first, and a story which "swirls into that setting". That was the case with the title story, "The Ice", about a boy returning home to Perthshire for Christmas from the boarding school where he is bullied. Steven says in it he found a way to write about his own experience of being bullied at school.
"I feel in a way that I've been trying to write that story for 20 years, and I've always given up in despair because the story has felt too self-conscious, I've felt still too close to the experience. It has only been through finding that character of Lewis, and that scenario, which is completely fictional, that I was able to draw back and pour the story into it."
It is a story of dramatic light and shade experienced with the intensity of childhood, the magic and elation of Christmas tinged with the sadness of the inevitable return to school. "What I wanted to do with the story was to create the strongest possible juxtaposition between beauty, love and hope, and despair. I wanted to bring the two together and tighten the threads at both sides to create this absolute tension. I don't want to dodge darkness in my writing, but I do want to write about it in a different way than is being done in the main today."
It's easy, he believes, for the kind of explicit, aggressive writing which has become fashionable to become a "celebration of blackness". There is a greater range of voices now, he says. The playing field is wider but not yet level. For publishers and magazine editors, the voice of tartan noir is still perceived as being dominant.
For him, the challenge is to write about both light and darkness in a lyrical way. His mentor is award-winning Norwegian writer Lars Saabye Christensen, whose work he has translated. "Lars is writing about urban Norway, the west of Oslo, and sometimes about fairly stark, sad moments. But he still brings the most beautiful lyrical voice to those stories. What I learned from that is that when you write about darkness or even depravity, you don't have to use a jagged, raw voice to describe that. With his writing, it's almost as though the more harsh and terrible the description he's bringing to the page, the more lyrical the words."
This is exemplified in the final story in the collection, "The Typewriter", which stands apart from the others. Set in an unnamed oppressive state, it is about a translator who, in an act of quiet rebellion, translates the lies of the regime into truth. In prison, he is delighted to be given his old typewriter, but this turns out to be the beginning of a particularly insidious form of torture. Each day, his captors destroy one letter key, eroding language, his capacity to communicate, and ultimately to think.
This was written not in the cabin in Perthshire but during a lecture trip to the United States "at the height of the War on Terror", at a time when questions were being asked about whether British airspace was used for "rendition flights", by which the CIA transported abducted detainees to jails such as Guantanamo Bay for interrogation. It has a political drive the other stories don't have, drawing its inspiration perhaps from Kafka rather than Neil Gunn.
"It's my strongest statement within the book," says Steven firmly. "I've always found these disappearances particularly horrifying, the idea of the state being able to erase someone's presence entirely and incarcerate them. The likelihood is that Britain and Ireland were at least tacitly complicit in allowing these flights. I'm always seeking to ask questions in my stories, not answer them. Here, I'm asking inevitable questions about what freedom means to us, what truth is."
• The Ice and Other Stories by Kenneth Steven is published by Argyll, priced 7.99.