Monday, 23 May 2011

“Whenever I’m away from home I feel like a different person.”: An Interview with Rodge Glass

We recently nabbed contributing author Rodge Glass to ask him about his Elsewhere short story, After Drink You Can Turn Earth Up Side Down. Read on to hear his thoughts on travel, reading work aloud and his serendipitous adventures due to last spring’s volcano incident.

The Elsewhere stories had a specific theme - namely, to be about something unfamiliar or unknown. What did this idea mean to you, and how did that develop into your story?
Well, the Elsewhere theme turned out to be really lucky for me, as ‘Elsewhere’ could be a possible title for a whole collection of stories I’ve been working on for a while now, each dealing with loners or single people in different parts of the world.
I have one called ‘A Weekend of Freedom’ which was the beginning of this idea, a story based on a nightmare stag weekend in Sofia, Bulgaria, commissioned for the Homecoming year, and which was published in Gutter #2. (Gutter is a magazine of new Scottish creative writing. Find out more on the Gutter website).
At the time of that story I was really wanting to change my style. Loosen up a bit. Be unafraid. After that one I wrote several others, some commissioned, based in Belgrade, Manchester, Tunis, Edinburgh…I’m not sure but I think I’d like to work on the collection steadily over the next couple of years. There’s a powerful poem by Kapka Kassabova called ‘I Want to Be a Tourist’. If she’ll let me steal that title for my book, I’ll be happy.

Did you find a predetermined subject like Elsewhere was a helpful jumping off point or a limiting factor in developing your story?
I know some writers struggle with being given a particular subject but generally I have a few ideas knocking around at any given time, and I like a challenge. As I say, with this one, it was a great excuse to write on a subject I was really interested in exploring anyway.
Whenever I’m away from home I feel like a different person. You can’t avoid that there’s a whole world you can never know or understand out there. You’re forced to confront what you do not know. It’s overwhelming, but it makes me want to eat it up at the same time. Which is an odd feeling.

Your piece is set in a bar in Hong Kong. Is this based on any personal experience of the city?
Yes. I went to Hong Kong for the first time ever last year, in the April, shortly before I was asked to write this story. My Dad has lived out there for a good few years, he runs the family business from there, though he’s moved to China now. I’d never seen that part of the world and I was fascinated.
One night we went to a bar in Wan Chai with just myself, my brother, my Dad, and a cousin who lives out there. We don’t get a huge amount of time together so it was an important few days really. And it was great! But something about those bars set up for Western men to get all nostalgic and cruise for young vulnerable women from Hong Kong, or more likely Thailand or somewhere like that. It made me uneasy. And the Filipino band playing the covers of 60s and 70s Western classics, songs that used to represent rebellion but now represent a kind of comfort. I thought there was something in that. Apart from the bar and the band, the whole story is fictionalised. I’m a bit quiet. I tend to just watch, think too much, go away and write about stuff that might have happened but didn’t.

You've mentioned previously that you like to read unfinished work to audiences, for their feedback and reactions. Does this ever alter your work? Did it affect the final result of this story in any way?
Yeah, I love to do that. Because, as Alan Bissett says, “If it’s dead in your mouth then it’s dead on the page”. When I read out a story, I work out whether it’s alive. And if it is, how I might improve it.
As for this story, I did make all sorts of changes after doing readings over the Atlantic. It’s not so much about the audiences, although sometimes people do engage and give advice. But it’s mostly about reading something out then realising there’s a more succinct, or poetic, or satisfying way to say the same thing.

The Elsewhere stories are meant to be about something "not connected to your own home or your own people". Do you think, accidentally or deliberately, the stories we've collected (yours included) have anything to say about Scottishness or Britishness?
Mine is very much about Westerners abroad – although that Western thing is always fractured and mixed up. The escaping rich man in my story, dancing with the young Thai girl to Eric Clapton’s ‘Cocaine’, could be from Glasgow, or London, or Pittsburgh. The point is, he’s looking for Western comforts in the East.

And lastly, you did a surprise reading of this piece at Toronto's International Festival of Authors last year. How did that come about?
When I was in the middle of writing this story, I was invited to do a reading in Pittsburgh (my life isn’t always this rock ‘n’ roll), and on my way home I got rerouted to Toronto because of the Icelandic volcano. No one could get over the Atlantic, basically, and I had two weeks in Canada that I’m deeply grateful for. I love Toronto and had a great time there.
Someone heard about my story and asked me to cover for Andrea Levy, who was in England and couldn’t make it over for the same reason. It was amazing. Writers were covering for each other at festivals either side of the Atlantic. Which was also the reason I got invited to read at the Metropolis Bleu Festival in Montreal around the same time. I was still stuck, and Jason Donald (also part of the Elsewhere project, I believe) couldn’t get over. I was gutted for Jason but he really didn’t want to let them down. He generously recommended me, and I ended up reading my work in Canada. The only thing I had with me at the time was my copy of ‘After Drink…’, unfinished. Thankfully it went down really well and I managed to get it finished before I came home, much delayed by the volcano.


Many thanks to Rodge for sparing the time to chat to us. We look forward to his collection of elsewherian treats when it’s finished!

Rodge spoke about After Drink… at the 2010 Edinburgh International Book Festival. Find out more in this video of his event with fellow Elsewhere contributors Jen Hadfield and Eleanor Thom.