Ron Butlin on The Sound of My Voice, the novel that came back from the dead

Ron Butlin's 1987 novel The Sound Of My Voice might have vanished without trace, but for Irvine Welsh hailing its genius. As Edinburgh publishers Polygon prepare to release a new edition, the author looks back on the book's peculiar story so far

Ron Butlin PIC: Phil Wilkinson
Ron Butlin PIC: Phil Wilkinson

It began as a short story. I can still remember sitting on the flat roof of my then girlfriend’s place at the edge of Clapham Common in London, an A4 pad resting on my knee, and writing, “You are thirty-four years old and already two-thirds destroyed…”

Having already published two collections of poetry and one volume of short stories, I assumed The Sound Of My Voice would be more of the same. However, this short story kept getting longer and longer. As I’d saved some money from my recent stint as a Scottish-Canadian Exchange Writer, I was free to sit down every morning, A4 pad on my knees, and write and write. When my girlfriend and I separated, I drifted to Paris, Barcelona, Budapest and then to Edinburgh. Meanwhile every morning, A4 pad on my knee…

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I am a fully-paid up member of the write-about-what-you-don’t-know school. I write to explore, to discover – I don’t do plans. Over 30 years and 20 books later I still get the same kick out of sitting down every morning… and letting my imagination carry me where it will.

The Sound Of My Voice took several years to write and then rewrite. Only gradually did I begin to cotton on to what the novel was about. In fact, I’m not totally sure, even now. When no more sections were forthcoming, I began piecing what I had into some sort of order – a bit like doing a jigsaw, but without the box top picture to tell you what you’re aiming for. After much cutting, editing and rearranging, it seemed to make sense. It felt right.

The main character, Morris, is a fully-functioning alcoholic. He has it all – successful career, marriage, children, his own home. In society’s terms, he has made it. Being Scottish I had drunk buckets of beer, wine and spirits as a teenager, then more or less stopped until Paris taught me the pleasures of wine with dinner – a lesson I still heed. Morris is different. Speaking in the second person, the voice talks him through his day in an attempt to keep him from destroying himself. The problem is, Morris has no wish to hear a word of what’s being said.

In 1987, the novel was published by Canongate and promptly disappeared. A Paladin paperback was published the following year – it also disappeared.

I had poured my heart and soul into this novel and its lack of readers coupled with the bewilderment of reviewers hit me harder than I probably realised at the time. Nevertheless I still continued to sit down every morning, A4 pad on my knee… I wandered here and there – Paris again, house-sitting in rural Spain, a commune in the Australian outback, the Far East – living very much hand-to-mouth. Finally I returned to Edinburgh and got married to Regi, who came over from Switzerland, bringing a new kind of happiness into my life. Stability, too, sort of.

Then one day our phone rang. It was the Village Voice in New York telling me that Irvine Welsh had selected The Sound Of My Voice as a Lost Classic and would I grant them permission to use quotes from the novel in his piece. Somehow, Welsh – whom I’d never met – had come across a copy from a third Scottish publisher. He saw it as a highly political novel, a polemic against Thatcherism and the consumer society. This had never occurred to me, but I saw it made complete sense. “This book is one of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the 80s… Morris becomes a far more terrifying ghost at the feast of 80s consumerism than your stock McInerney-Amis character could ever be…” Unfortunately there were no copies for sale in the US.

But things began to change. With Welsh’s article as a foreword, The Sound Of My Voice was published yet again, this time by Pete Ayrton at Serpent’s Tail. Critics hailed the novel as a triumph; it began to be widely translated and to win prizes abroad, the French translation twice gaining a Best Foreign Novel award. And now it is published for the fifth time. Fingers crossed, it is here to stay.

The Sound Of My Voice, by Ron Butlin, Polygon, £7.99