Gary Bryson’s first novel, Turtle, explores a dysfunctional Glasgow family and the nature of familial love, with the help of a talking turtle. Readings spoke to Gary for our series on new and emerging Australian authors, sponsored by CAL.
Gary Bryson began broadcasting radio dramas out of his Glasgow bedroom window at the age of twelve. At the same time, he was a voracious reader and prolific writer of stories, regularly publishing short fiction in his school magazine. When he ‘grew up,’ he had left fiction behind – though he began making his radio programs on a much larger scale. Bryson, who escaped Glasgow aged 21, has long been a producer at ABC Radio National, where he was the executive producer on Philip Adams’ Late Night Live for many years.
‘I was quite content with my career as a journalist,’ he says. ‘But I still harboured this idea that I might like to write something non-factual one day.’
The idea for his first novel, Turtle, came to him after he returned to Glasgow for his mother’s funeral in 1999, after she died of a sudden heart attack.
The novel starts with a similar premise. Donald – who fled Glasgow as a young man and hasn’t seen or spoken to his family in 30 years – gets a phone call urging him to return for his mother’s funeral. Back in the much-changed city of his youth, surrounded by reminders of the past, Donald reflects on growing up in a dysfunctional family with a mad, depressive mother who may or may not be psychic (and believes Donald is cursed); a sister he despised; and a much-absent gangster father. Throughout the book, Donald has an ongoing internal conversation with an imaginary turtle that speaks in a broad Glaswegian accent, whose significance becomes apparent as the story unfolds.
It was his journalism background that drove Bryson to do a creative writing course at Sydney’s University of Technology, as a way of providing some structure to his burgeoning book. ‘I can’t work without deadlines,’ he laughs wryly. ‘I was frittering around and writing little bits of this and that for a while and not really getting anywhere.’ The course not only gave him the deadlines he craved, but people to bounce ideas off, in the form of his lecturers and fellow students. ‘He was one of those dream students who writes well, listens, and works hard,’ remembers one of those lecturers, Mandy Sayer.
The persistence in tracking down the right people that’s vital to a working journalist was also integral to his hunt for a publisher. After being rejected by ‘every agent in Sydney’, Bryson sent off the novel to ‘a lot’ of publishers, where he pictured it lingering on the slush piles – so he looked for specific names in the publishing industry he could direct the manuscript to. It was turned down by one publisher, and picked by the other, Allen & Unwin.
Bryson’s father is not a gangster and he has never spoken to a turtle, but there are strong elements of autobiography in his story. One of the first things his publisher said to him was, ‘have you spoken to your family about this?’ He laughs as he recalls telling his father that he was publishing a novel ‘about growing up in a dysfunctional Scottish family in the 1970s’. ‘Am I in it?’ his father asked. Bryson told him that he wasn’t. ‘But he might think he is when he reads it,’ he says. ‘That’s a serious problem for writers who pick up on and use autobiographical material to create novels with. And I’ve thought long and hard about it.’
While his protagonist, Donald, escapes from his grim surroundings to the exotic world of swimming and the turtle, the young Bryson immersed himself in books. ‘I used to use reading as a way of tuning out from what was going on around me, in my family.’ Did his love of reading lead to his love of writing, then? ‘Possibly, yeah. I think that if you read a lot as a kid, you start to think about how that’s made.’
Mandy Sayer interviews Gary Bryson
Mandy Sayer was Gary Bryson’s creative writing lecturer when he was writing Turtle. She calls the book ‘one of the finest debut novels I have read in years’ and says Bryson’s storytelling is ‘quite simply, enchanting’. She spoke to Gary for Readings on the eve of Turtle’s release.
What are the chances of finding a turtle in Scotland?
You might find one in the zoo, but otherwise the turtle steers well clear of Scotland. A country where you have to wear two pairs of socks most of the year is no place for our flippery friends.
So how did a turtle that speaks with a Glasgow accent come about?
When Donald (the story’s narrator) has to imagine his escape from his mother’s curse, it’s a turtle that he latches on to, as an exotic creature that’s seemingly about as far from Glasgow as you can get. But Donald’s imagination is shaped by his culture and his upbringing, so the turtle he conjures up as his saviour is a distinctly Glasgow one. The Turtle in the book is a sketch of a particular kind of Glasgow character, all front and no-nonsense, whose relations with everyone are enacted through a kind of genial, foul-mouthed banter which sometimes spills over into vindictiveness, but also expresses a kind of love. It’s not so far-fetched, really. On the face of it a turtle is about the most un-Glaswegian creature you could imagine, but on the other hand, it hides itself behind this big, tough shell. That’s its survival tactic and it’s one that’s worked well for both turtles and Glaswegians.
Do you consider Turtle to be a Glasgow novel? How does it sit, in your mind, with books by Glasgow writers like James Kelman, for example?
James Kelman is an artist and he lives and breathes Glasgow. He’s a master at taking us right inside the mind of a particular kind of marginalised, alienated Glasgow character. When I read ‘How late it was, how late’ (Kelman’s controversial 1994 Man Booker Prize winner) I recognize the character of Sammy immediately. Anyone who’s lived in Glasgow knows someone just like this, but Kelman shows us how Sammy thinks, his anger and the depth of his confusion. This is what I think of when I think of ‘Glasgow writing’, though there’s a varied tradition – the existentialism of Alexander Trocchi for example, or the dialect poetry of Tom Leonard. But Turtle isn’t a Glasgow novel at all in that sense, it’s a migrant’s novel and it’s about escaping that culture – the mad, angry parts of that culture. Escaping it, and not escaping it, because I don’t think it’s possible to fully erase the culture that formed you. So the Glasgow in Turtle is really a particular memory of one person’s Glasgow, and like all memories, bits of it are distorted and bits of it are false, although there’s a truth buried in there somewhere, too.
How important is the setting of post-industrial 1970s Glasgow to the story?
I feel I owe an apology to the people of Glasgow because the city in Turtle is unremittingly bleak, even though it’s very much a backdrop, and more of a cultural thing than a physical setting. But it’s the source of much of the humour in the book, and it reflects the city I knew as a boy, which was dirty and depressed with mass unemployment and grinding poverty. It was also a violent, angry place where getting chased by bampots wielding open razors was more common than it ever should be. I believe it’s better these days. They’ve cleaned the soot off the buildings, so I suppose it must be.
Your book deals with the madness of families, and with themes of escape and survival. There's a truism that first novels are often quite autobiographical. How autobiographical is Turtle?
Any resemblance to turtles living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Was your family as mad as the Pinellis? Were curses and fortune telling part of the reality of your childhood? And if so, how did they mould your imagination?
My mother was a great believer in fortune tellers and was one of the most superstitious people I’ve known. Our childhood was full of things you couldn’t do – sitting at a corner of the table was bad luck for example, if you came in through the front door, you had to leave through the front. It was her way of coping with a difficult life. She was your archetypal, nervous-breakdown prone housewife on Valium, and our dad was not always around as much as he should have been, and their marriage was very unhappy, so that was a curse of sorts. Our family was dysfunctional in an ordinary kind of way, but, no, my mother was not awful like Trixie is (the mother in the story), and my family was not nearly as mad as the Pinelli’s. They’re all my own invention. I’m getting help for it.
Many first novels are not only autobiographical, they're often written in the mode of realism. Was the magic realist aspect of Turtle a deliberate choice for your first novelistic outing?
I’m a bit of a sucker for stories that play with reality, throwing it around a bit, with ghosts or angels or talking fish or whatever, but making it all work in terms of the narrative world so that, as a reader, you don’t miss a beat. I definitely wanted a flavour of that, though I wasn’t deliberately trying to write magic realism. As Turtle took shape, though, an interesting kind of tension developed between the bits that may or may not be magic realism – I have some problems with that term – and the more realist aspects which said, in effect, ‘Stick it up yer bahookie, pal. Ye’ve a heid full a broken bottles.’ So even though Trixie’s clairvoyant, and there’s a curse and a talking turtle, it’s all brought back to earth by the psychology of a boy trying to grow up in a poisonous family. Beyond that tension – between reality and imagination or the surreal or whatever – I would say that Turtle is actually a realist novel. In the best tradition of Scottish miserablism. With funny bits.
The novel contains a framing device of a man returning to Glasgow after many decades for his mother's funeral and is narrated over a period of twenty-four hours. How difficult was it to establish this frame, and was it there from the first draft?
It was there from the first draft, though I’d written four or five chapters before it struck me what was going on, that Donald, as the narrator, was physically somewhere, and not just a disembodied voice. And it seemed to make sense that he would be back in his childhood home for the first time in yonks, with all this family history washing over him as he tries to come to terms with the death of his mother. That’s really what sparks his story off. The shock of being there, in Trixie’s house, rediscovering himself and all the crap he went through as a kid – that’s what gets him talking. It’s part of a healing process over the day and night that he’s there, but Donald doesn’t understand that for quite a while. He’s a bit thick really, emotionally.
In the acknowledgments, you thank your wife for reading and commenting on every chapter of every draft of the novel. How many drafts did you write before you completed the manuscript?
Probably about six. The problem with writing on a word processor is that it’s too easy to redraft as you go along, so it’s hard to say. I just kept printing bits out and Jenny kept reading them and telling me if she thought I was writing nonsense or not. She’s very good on the psychological stuff, motivations and the complexities of relationships, that sort of thing. I’m very lucky to have her, for many reasons.
What are you working on now?
A rather strange tale of love and betrayal which has nothing to do with turtles. It spans three generations from pre-war Poland to rural Australia and is told through the eyes of a troubled grandson as he pieces together the story of his grandfather's life and mysterious disappearance. It's all getting a bit complicated and at the moment I have two women and three children about to freeze to death in war-torn Silesia and I have no idea how I'm going to save them. I expect something will come up - it usually does.