Shane Strachan has been writing short fiction in the North of Scotland for several years while working on theatre projects with the National Theatre of Scotland and Paines Plough. This year has seen him receive a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship from the Scottish Book Trust to work on a novel inspired by the life and work of fashion designer Bill Gibb, and also mentor on the Queer Words project from which a new anthology We Were Always Here will be published by 404 ink in January 2019. In September, he also published a collection of short fiction as part of the 2018 Muriel Spark centenary celebrations. The collection, Nevertheless: Sparkian Tales in Bulawayo, is published by Zimbabwe-based publisher amaBooks and explores Spark’s years in former Southern Rhodesia alongside a modern-day narrative.
When did you first become interested in Dame Muriel Spark and her work?
Like many people, my main engagement with Spark had been with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I read as part of my degree and went on to teach to undergraduates at the University of Aberdeen. What always surprised me about such a slim novel was that at first it seems like a straightforward schooldays story, but each time I re-read it I’d uncover another layer of complexity and another way of interpreting the events that unfold. I read a few more Spark novels around that time, but it was the centenary celebrations that led to me uncovering Spark’s connection with Africa and the fantastic short stories she wrote in response to her time there.
Nevertheless: Sparkian Tales in Bulawayo is a new collection of short fiction pieces you were commissioned to write. Can you explain how this came about? Tell us a little of the research required?
In response to Creative Scotland’s call-out for new projects, I discovered that Spark had given birth to her son in the same hospital where I’d previously ran an arts-in-health project in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. It was all very serendipitous and unexpected. Spark’s connection with Bulawayo opened up the door for me to finally be able to write stories about my own impressions of Zimbabwe after a couple of years of feeling unsure about how was best to approach them.
Alongside reading a lot more of Spark’s works, particularly her short stories, the research was primarily digging through the extensive Spark archive at the National Library of Scotland, which was one of the key aims of the Endless Different Ways grant – to shed light on this archive and to explore ways it could be used creatively. I also did a fair amount of reading about Southern Rhodesia in the 1930s and 40s, as well as academic essays on Spark’s stories set in Africa, especially their exploration of female experiences in the colonies during this time.
Which interesting titbits did you find in the National Library of Scotland archives that didn’t make it into these stories?
The thing that stood out to me most was that Spark seemed to do a fair amount of her own research on what life was like in Africa at the time she lived there. It was as though she didn’t quite trust her own memories to be accurate, which is understandable given how young she was when she was there and how traumatic a time she had. This sense of trauma was also clear in several post-its in the archive which start to tell something about her past, then cut off unexpectedly. To write about her own experiences for her autobiography Curriculum Vitae, I get the sense that Spark was in a sense already treating this time like a work of fiction, stitching together the fragments of memories she could recall with facts from encyclopaedias to make it as authentic as possible for the reader.
You’ve visited the city of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, which is twinned with Aberdeen, a number of times. How many of your experiences did you share with Duncan, the young doctor who features in your stories?
The Duncan stories were something of a vehicle to share some of my own experiences and impressions from my visits to Zimbabwe, particularly the awkwardness I suddenly re-felt around my sexuality in a culture where it’s predominantly frowned upon or misunderstood. However, I heightened a lot of this in the fiction for the sake of bringing about more dramatic tension – Duncan is even more stifled than I ever felt, and much more affected by the experience of hiding part of himself away. I wanted to heighten this so that there is a sense of release near the end of his story when he realises that a lot of his fears have been unfounded, or rather, come from an overly anxious white British perspective, rather than the reality of everyday lived experience in Zimbabwe.
As well as this, both Spark and Duncan move through places and spaces that I myself visited while in Zimbabwe. I particularly wanted to get across the beauty of the country, especially in the national parks and at Victoria Falls, places that greatly impacted on Spark’s sense of wonder and spirituality.
Overall, it’s worth saying that of course Duncan isn’t me, and my version of Spark isn’t 100% the real Spark. Stories take on their own life and sometimes the sentences that appear on the page are unplanned and unexpected, but are necessary for finding a new “truth” as such. This tension between fact and fiction is something I’m continuing to explore through my current work-in-progress, a novel based on the life and career of fashion designer Bill Gibb.
All proceeds from the sale of Nevertheless go to The Lady Rodwell Maternity Hospital in Bulawayo. How will the money raised improve conditions?
Since writing the stories, the political and economic situation in Zimbabwe has worsened meaning that food, medical supplies, and various other essentials are not getting into the country due to a currency crisis, so it’s very hard right now to say in what ways the money from Nevertheless will be used in these testing times, but I’m sure the hospital will put it to use in the areas of most need. The situation in Zimbabwe is rarely covered in the UK press, but a LinkedIn blog by Zimbabwe-based writer Carly Buckle has been providing the greatest insight for me of late.
Finally, Nevertheless: Sparkian Tales in Bulawayo was created as part of a project to remind readers of the importance of the legacy Spark left to Scottish literature. After reading Nevertheless, where should readers who wish to try Spark’s work begin?
I would definitely recommend Spark’s short stories, particularly the ones inspired by her time in Africa. If readers want to know more about what happened next to Spark, her autobiography Curriculum Vitae covers her life from childhood up to the publication of her first novel. My own favourites of her novels are The Comforters, The Driver’s Seat and Memento Mori, but there’s so much more to read and explore, and Spark fans tend to mention a different book from each other when asked for their favourite!