Interview: Kirsty Gunn, author of The Big Music

Gunn at Dundee exhibition of work by artist sister Merran. Picture: Dan Phillips
Gunn at Dundee exhibition of work by artist sister Merran. Picture: Dan Phillips
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Kirsty Gunn tells Susan Mansfield

how the pipes called

into being a novel

that comes with

its own music

KIRSTY Gunn knew the sound of the bagpipes from the moment she was born. It made no difference that this was in New Zealand, her father was a Highlander and a fine piper. They might have been on the other side of the world, but theirs was a house full of music.

“The family story is that my mother and father came home to their little rented flat, and my mother said, ‘Look, we’ve got a newborn baby, you’ll have to stop piping’, and my father said ‘Rubbish, it’ll be great for her.’ So I heard the pipes from the moment I was born, and – so the story goes – slept through the night.”

Now 51, sitting in an empty seminar room at Dundee University where she is Professor of Creative Writing, she laughs at the story. “Home” is in London, with her husband and their two daughters. But the notion of “home” is complicated. For now we’ll stay with music.

Bagpipes infuse Gunn’s ambitious new novel, The Big Music, which tell the story of a family of Sutherland pipers over several generations. It is structured like Piobaireachd (pronounced pee-broch) the classic compositional form of the Highland bagpipe: a foundational movement laying down the theme, followed by variations, embellishments, echoes and refrains. The story departs from and returns to its theme, the sentences rise and fall like musical phrases. Ultimately, it fades, like Piobaireachd, which ends gradually as the piper walks away from the gathering.

“It is such a beautiful form, it lends itself to fiction,” Gunn says. “A lot of people believe it’s the beginning of the concerto genre, something between a concerto and a symphony really, because it’s a solo instrument but it has a symphony’s sense of unity.” As a form it flourished in the 16th century and earlier, its composers often unnamed, usually unremembered.

“The Piobaireachd is so ignored in Scotland. Here is this beautiful, important form of high culture, and yet people think of the pipes as the old joke of a cat being strangled, something to be embarrassed about or make a joke of. There’s no doubt that the form itself gave me an enormous sense of something to honour.”

Gunn is an intense, passionate speaker about her work. She loves piobaireachd, and she loves Sutherland, the place of The Big Music, where she has a house. “Now the book is published I get to say to people ‘Are you going to come up and see us in Big Music country?’” she laughs. “I feel like I’m in a Marlboro cigarettes ad.”

It’s the place of her ancestors – “It’s all MacKays and Gunns and Sutherlands up there, the place is stiff with them” – but she is careful to distance herself from the story. She quotes Czech novelist Milan Kundera: “Given that the novelist destroys the house of his life and uses its stones to build the house of his novel, how tenuous must be the validity of those who set themselves to undo what a novelist has done and redo what he did.” It’s a warning: this is not about me.

Gunn is highly acclaimed for lyrical, poetic writing, rich in symbolism. Her last novel, The Boy and the Sea, a coming-of-age story about a teenage surfer and his father, set on a single afternoon, won the Sundial Scottish Arts Council Book Award. Her writing soothes and unsettles in almost equal measure. One reviewer described her prose as “fragmented sentences, wisps of words that feel like they’re coming from inside your head”.

“I’m very aware of the sounding, I do read aloud as I’m writing. I’m an insane and manic redrafter. I spend a lot of time getting exactly the right rhythm and the fall of a sentence. The idea of a story that sounds in the mind, that has a kind of emotional resonance – that’s something that music does for us, isn’t it? So I’m trying to achieve that in words and in the form of the thing itself.”

Gunn is a playful writer as much as she is earnest, after her heroines, Virgina Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. The Piobaireachd structure enables flexibility: “That notion of fully exploring the meaning of the lyric novel. The idea that you break free of the tyranny of narrative to let a story emerge. The idea is almost made literal in this book because the book is about music.”

The Big Music began with a picture: an old man, out in the wilds of the Sutherland landscape, with a newborn baby in his arms. And a sentence: “The hills only come back the same: I don’t mind”, which she knew would be the opening line. “Really, that was all. I never know where my books are going.”

But she knew to trust her instincts. In time, the old man gave up his identity, John Callum MacKay Sutherland, whose father was Roderick John Callum, a great “modernist” piper, who ran a piping school at the Grey House, near Rogart. Estranged from his father, John left as soon as he could – “I’ll not be back!” – for university in Aberdeen and a career in the City. But as he grew older, a failed marriage behind him, he found himself drawn back, to the Grey House and to piping.

By the time we meet him, his health is failing, but he is trying to piece together the fragments of his life in his musical magnum opus, “Lament for Himself”. Meanwhile, his estranged son, Callum, begins his own journey back to the Grey House. Theme, variation, return. The more fragmented the male narrative becomes, the stronger the women’s voices, holding the story together, passing it on.

The theme of home, departure and return, is present in almost all of Gunn’s fiction. Her 1999 collection of short stories is called The Place You Return to is Home. “I think it is that thing, born to a Scottish family, who called Scotland home, and yet born on the other side of the world where Christmas is in summer. Go figure.”

The Big Music is presented as a series of papers Gunn claims to have discovered and edited, cross-referenced with her footnotes and appendices on the history of the Sutherland family, the Grey House and more about bagpipe music than the average person might hope to learn in a lifetime. Maps of the area and architectural plans of the house are included, transcripts and interviews are alluded to.

For the launch of the book, an exhibition was mounted, including handwritten musical scores allegedly by the Sutherland pipers, the household journals of the women, and a doll’s house, a scaled-down version of the Grey House, made by Elizabeth, John Callum’s mother. “My hope is that we’re going to be building a huge archive here at the university,” Gunn says. “All of the domestic papers, journals, early manuscripts, and, ideally, photograph albums, visitors’ books. I’d love to think that the doll’s house could stay.”

Further sleuthing draws a blank. If Elizabeth made the doll’s house, does that mean she existed, and that none of this is fiction? Is the Grey House to be found in the hills around Rogart, even though the mountains referred to in the book, Ben Luath and Ben Morvaig, don’t appear on any maps? “I love the idea of the boundaries being very dissolvable, and the idea that the reader is actively engaged in asking those questions,” Gunn says. “I think we’re a bit obsessed as a culture … there is so much talk about the value of fiction and the value of non-fiction, and the proliferation of memoir. Everybody wants to ask: ‘Oh is it real?’, as if that would somehow make it a more useful experience, or as if it’s somehow more true. The truth of a poem versus the truth of a memoir.”

The Big Music is “more of a world than any kind of novel”. Certainly, reading it is immersive, the landscape, the history, the music. “It’s a question of the reality that’s created between the covers of the book,” says Gunn.

“If the experience of entering into that world is acutely felt, then one loses those rather tiresome readerly ticks we have of wanting to check something off against something that is known. The world of the book is absolutely real.”

• The Big Music, by Kirsty Gunn, is published by Faber, priced £20