Interview: Janice Galloway, author

I N A polythene bag in Janice Galloway’s house is a Fair Isle jumper, brown with a green pattern round it. It was one of three identical jumpers owned by her mother, and knitted by Galloway’s sister Nora, and since both are gone now it is Galloway’s two-for-one memento. The jumper is tiny, like a child’s, and Galloway cannot get it on, but she stores it with the Christmas tree and the matinée set of her son, now 19.

Later, I wonder if the matinée set is traditional blue, or perhaps white, or maybe even yellow, and regret not asking. Specific details are interesting. In my house, the Fair Isle jumper is my father’s fleece, which in the early days after he’d gone I used to sniff, and somewhere there is a red poppy patch from my mother’s dress, and the matinée set is a soft, random pink and lilac, also knitted by my sister. It is not stored with the Christmas tree but is folded in a linen cupboard. What is the nostalgia stash in your house? Where is it? That’s what fascinates Galloway: the instincts we have in common as human beings, the specifics that translate into the general, the things that connect us.

The question seems innocuous enough to me, yet somehow establishes a recurring theme in the interview: how difficult did Galloway find it to give herself away in memoir? She is the author of the acclaimed This is Not About Me, in which she writes about her Saltcoats childhood. This week, she publishes the sequel, All Made Up, which follows her through adolescence and is to have its first public outing at the Edinburgh Festival.

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Galloway, like all writers, has been asked about autobiography in her fiction, particularly The Trick is to Keep Breathing, which is about a woman who has a breakdown, and Clara, which is about the wife of the composer Robert Schumann. On one occasion she responded with, “Do I look like a dead 19th-century German pianist?” Right now she says she’s fascinated by my phrase “give yourself away”. She doesn’t. Like the title says, it’s not really about her. It’s about everyone. Maybe, but that doesn’t lessen curiosity about the individual. But perhaps her vehemence is partly that very Scottish defence against being deemed a show-off.

“It’s writing about yourself without feeling vain. Good lord, this is Scotland – that’s the last person you should be talking about. My mother would have said, ‘Who cares?’ And my sister would have said, ‘Who gives a damn what you think?’

People are not reading it because it’s about me. They’re reading it because there might be something about the times, the mores. I’m just completely bamboozled by people who want to find out about individuals. Why do people buy books about Katie Price? Who cares about the private life of Becks? It’s an industry. I think what most people are looking for is common humanity.”

Galloway is a mesmerising writer. She captures perfectly the childhood that adults so easily forget: the fear, the painful isolation, the sense of almost perpetual confusion about the world and your place in it, the struggle to understand adults and their words and motives. It is unsentimental, yet her words pierce like a rapier, the blade in and out so cleanly, so painfully, the skin is left open like a paper cut, blood glistening but unflowing. (Her agonising account of buying a “special” present for her mother that her sister regarded as stupid and slapped her for, is unforgettable.) Hers is a tale of three women, thrown together in a confined space, who never quite manage to love each other in an uncomplicated or fulfilled way.

Galloway’s mother was a product of her times, a woman doing her best in difficult circumstances. Married to a drunken husband who managed to set fire to his newsagent shop when it wasn’t insured, they separated when Galloway was four. The following years were financially and emotionally difficult. She told Galloway that her late arrival (she thought the pregnancy was the menopause) had ruined her life. Galloway’s relationship with her sister Nora, called Cora in her memoir as a distancing mechanism, was even rockier. Nora had simply walked away from a husband and babies, returning to live with her mother. She was 17 years older, a man’s woman, a gorgeous creature to Galloway in her prom frocks and make-up, but physically violent, emotionally cruel, spiteful, and monumentally selfish. The one certainty for the reader is that ‘Cora’ must be dead for Galloway to write about her with such freedom, such an unerring eye. Truth can be so cruel.

But Galloway does not see this in terms of betrayal. “I am just an author. I think the tools of my trade are people. Everyone is a character.”

She is warm, gregarious, with an almost constant amusement rippling through her expressions, decorating her conversation. If she were in the mood, she says, looking at me with astute eyes and laughing, she could create a whole psychology round me. She’s scaring me now. “No, I’m not.” (She is.)

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“Your feet are remarkable,” she says, “Tiny.” No, they’re average – size five. “Well it’s the shoes, they cut your feet in half. And then there’s the big earrings.” Big? They’re just hoops. But that’s the thing isn’t it. Small ... big ... we all see the same things differently and some of it is illusion. Truth isn’t a fixed point. And Galloway just writes her truth. After all, she argues, “I don’t feel like I’m betraying a piece of land to describe it accurately.”

Your perspective is based on the time you were born, the place, the political system, your sex, your family, your language. And it’s the only viewpoint you have. She can only describe Cora and her mother – and indeed the world – as she sees them. “The writer’s job is to say, ‘Where do you fit? This is the bit I see, now you must fit on that continuum somewhere.’ But you never feel you are giving away people’s secrets, quite the opposite. You feel you are inviting people into what you’ve got. My job is to create a bond between you and me, one reader at a time. A conversation.”

Cora is brilliantly drawn, yet monstrous. “No, she’s not,” says Galloway instantly. “I’ve heard that more than once and I don’t get it. She’s not monstrous. She’s f***ed up.”

Did Galloway love her? A moment’s silence. “You’ve read the books. What did you think?” I think you would have loved her if she had allowed you to. “Yep,” she says. “That’s it.” See? The book ‘conversation’ between us worked. “That’s fantastic. Something came across in the way I thought it might.” She pauses.

“I was very proud of her. I used to think ... my sister. But I was afraid of her and it’s very difficult to love someone you’re afraid of. Some of us make a skill of it. Here’s a beautifully destroyed person. I can cure them. I can make them whole.”

There are reasons why you should describe things as you see them. Every so often, it’s important for a society to stop and say, “This is where we are ... this is who we are.”

“I think it’s one of the things that is wrong with our country, We’re afraid to say what our truths are because we think nationally, ‘Who cares?’ Who do we think we are? Well, you are who you are and you’re here, and this is all you’ve got to share and you’re here a very short time.” As a young child, her father died. Her elderly neighbours died. Her granny died. “I was surrounded by death an awful lot when I was small. And you are aware of how fragile ... how people go ...” She quotes seamlessly from Shelley. “‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings, look on my works ye Mighty and despair.’ You’re reading that on a ruin and once you have got that, you have the right approach to life.”

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Maybe we all know that, and resist it, on different levels. It’s why we wistfully hoard matinée jackets in the attic, trying to keep hold of everything that passes, trying to grasp an eternal that doesn’t exist, remind ourselves what mattered in our temporary existence. “We’re all dust,” says Galloway. “We are all ridiculous, ludicrous, specks of fluff. And we think we matter. The only gift you’ve got is, ‘This is the truth as I see it. Is this any use to you?’ And then you vanish. Then you drown. Then you atomise. Then you go.”

Superficially, Galloway seems upbeat. “Good,” she says, approvingly. She is dressed in summer florals, a peaches-and-cream effect, and she has an energy, a lightness. But I wonder what’s left of the introverted child, the fearful, lonely girl of her memoirs. “Ooh,” she says, “I would have to pay a psychologist an awful lot of money to find that out. I know to a certain extent, when I stumble across it.”

You know, she says, when you wake at 3am? This isn’t giving herself away, she says pointedly. “This has to happen to you, because it feels so naturally human to me. Three and five in the morning are the two favourite times. You wake up and you think, ‘I am useless. I don’t deserve my space on this earth. I am a rotten mother ... I wish I was a doctor but I don’t have the brains to be a doctor. I might as well just jump in the water.’”

Her mother tried that, literally. Tried drowning herself in the sea. Nobody mentioned it afterwards. “My mother tried to kill herself, my sister tried to kill herself.” A friend once confessed her mother had attempted suicide, and Galloway’s only surprise was that it wasn’t common. “I thought everybody’s mother did that but nobody talked about it.”

Secrets, secrets, secrets. Her house was full of them. Barriers. Galloway’s mother married her father because she was pregnant – but then the baby died. “My mum was a dreadful person for keeping pointless, stupid secrets. She didn’t have the bravery to think, ‘Who cares?’ Which is mental because she was very clear that when you die, you die. She kept a secret that didn’t matter a tuppeny damn in the period she kept it – mores had changed. And that secret had almost destroyed her belief in herself, and the kind of life she led. Had she told me, I would have learned something about her that would have fundamentally changed the nature of everything. I think secrets are dangerous. I think they can kill you.”

And yet, when her mother died, Galloway knew her mother wanted to say things but she didn’t want to hear them. Why? “Honestly? Because I thought it would break her and I didn’t know what to do with a broken mum. She had never been broken. What had kept us together was this sense of dignity that you did not give away all your secrets. If she gave that survival tool away because she thought she was dying, what was she going to hold on to? There was only one thing left – me. And I didn’t feel all that buoyant, frankly. But if she had done it, I would have coped, of course I would have.”

With three women together, it was a great house for crooners. “We loved men on the telly in our house. They were our favourite kind of men.” Crooners? “No, men behind glass,” she laughs. Her mother also cried when Shirley Bassey sang ‘My Life’. Secretly, it was her signature song. “The best torch songs are full of awful secrets about your private life, and she thought there were awful secrets in hers. Then I found out they weren’t awful at all.” Her mother was a sad character but also incredibly funny. She had a great line in malapropisms.

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Like her mother and sister, Galloway has experienced depression. She had a breakdown at university, and in a later episode ended up in hospital. She acknowledges that parents establish patterns of behaviour their children simply reach for in times of crisis. But clinical depression is an illness, and in her case, she thinks, partly genetic. “I believe in drugs. I don’t believe you should do the heroic thing and say, ‘I am going to do this with alfalfa sprouts.’ No. I am weak. I am fragile. I don’t have enough time.”

But there is a sense with Galloway that she has simply grown into herself, got happier – got the hang of life, maybe. “Oh yes,” she says. “I wouldn’t do my 20s again for a pension. But do you know what’s liberating? Having kids. You need to get out of bed in the morning. And having a baby is the most ambiguously emotional experience.” Yes, it’s life and death side by side, isn’t it? “Absolutely. And pain, and anger is in there somewhere. You are at your most human. I think we’re all a shocking jumble. I don’t think anybody is a monster or a saint.”

She was 35 when she had her son and had already given up her teaching job. He was, she says in the dedication of her new book, “what was missing”. “I didn’t expect it. I had been told babies destroy your life. But I thought I had nothing to lose. I was actually quite low at the time and I thought, ‘Don’t give this baby away.’ It seemed the right thing and the more pregnant I got, the more excited I got.”

Wasn’t she frightened of being alone? “No, that was just a given.” The sense of isolation had lasted all her life? “Yes, right through. Boys became important because you could share a language with a boy. It was mostly digital and genital but there was something to do that wasn’t talk. And you were fairly sure he wasn’t going to say, ‘Who cares?’ halfway through.” But during pregnancy, she talked intimately with other women. “It was like joining the secret human being club, which had been there all the time.”

If boys gave her another language, so did music, which she went on to study, with English, at university. Does it still play a big part in her life? “It’s a big man in my life now,” she smiles. “I’m married to a singer. My son is a drummer, his father was a pianist.” She laughs. “Yes, I have a soft spot, a very particular, anatomically placed soft spot.”

Now singers, she says, they really give themselves away. “It reduces you to jelly because what they are giving away is almost too much to bear. But they don’t feel diminished – it’s what they do.”

How much does she care about criticism? “My fragile me cares very much, my intellectual me, no. It’s not supposed to give a damn, and one tries to discipline the other by thrashing it.” Yes, but isn’t it strange that no matter how much intellect thrashes emotion, emotion always wins. Why is that? “Because it’s got five o’clock in the morning.”

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When her son was born, Galloway contacted Nora for the first time in years and they met one final time. She died in 2000. Growing up, Nora had been such a strange mixture of cruelty and diffident generosity. “She was old enough to be my mother, and I think that was part of what was wrong. Watching me was like watching herself but I was the lucky bitch who had no dad. I think something about her relationship with my father ...” She smiles. If Nora was here she would put her right. Everything that came out of Galloway’s mouth was, de facto, rubbish.

Their father died two years after their parents separated and there is a terrible scene in Galloway’s first memoir where she stands at his deathbed and he reaches for her, crying. “I have about four pictures of him in my head and in two of them he’s crying. To be four and thinking I have to put my dad back together is not good.”

She had no sense of missing a father until she realised that her beloved music teacher, Ken Hetherington, would make a nice dad. After her son was born, she realised what a massive absence he had been. “I never got to know him. Nora was fairly screwed up, and I managed to love her. But maybe loving him would have been one too many. I think I had plenty to cope with.”

Jonathan, her husband, asked her recently if she’d like help to find her father’s grave, but she said no. “I have no interest. I can’t see what I would get out of it on a practical level. I think it would just be a disappointment.”

There will be no third memoir, she insists. She’s now writing a new novel that starts with a woman and is sort of about farmers. If she knew more, she’d be bored already. Now farmers have the right approach to life. Look after the land. Feed the beasts. Life is short. When Galloway’s life comes to an end, she can imagine no better way to go than lying in a field.

But she has observations to make first, connections to forge. Those who write know it’s partly a confidence trick, holding the voice, believing it’s worth speaking. “This is a constant high-wire act of daring,” says Galloway. “I am just hanging on there as best I can.” n

All Made Up is published by Granta on Thursday, £16.99, and is Radio 4’s Book of the Week from 29 August. Galloway appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Friday, 11.30am (

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