About The Author
Ross Raisin was born in West Yorkshire in 1979, near Bradford and Ilkley. He studied English at King's College in London and worked for a time as co-manager of a wine bar, before studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmith's University in London
His debut novel, God's Own Country, was published in 2008 by Viking, who acquired it after a hotly contested auction involving most of London's major publishers. Published to rapturous critical acclaim, the book went on to be shortlisted for eight literary prizes; Ross won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award in 2009. Making wonderful use of local dialect, the book follows a solitary young farmer who forms an unlikely allinace with the daughter of a metropolitan couple of the type whose second homes are coming to dominate the Yorkshire landscape. Things take a darker turn when she has second thoughts about joining him in his plan to escape his dour and lonely life.
His latest novel, Waterline, is the story of a Glaswegian shipbuilder made redundant, then widowed when his wife contracts a lung disease from the poisons on his clothes. Robbed of all that he cares about, he escapes the awkward sympathy of his remaining family and friends by going to London. But after a short stint as a kitchen porter, he finds himself homeless on the streets of the capital.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Ross talks about giving voice to the inarticulate, the value of exploring cliché.
Questions & Answers
The issue of homelessness has been rarely tackled in literature and receives minimal media coverage. Was this a subject to which you felt you needed to draw attention?
Not as such. Or, certainly the political motivation to draw attention to homelessness was not what made me want to write this book in the first instance. That motivation built as I was researching and starting the book and, of course, is a very important part of what I came to want the book to achieve, but in the first instance it was all about a character. As the first stirrings of most books are, I imagine. God's Own Country was similar in that way: drawing attention to farmers, and a less sentimentalised take on the countryside than we are usually given, was very much what it was about, but it began with thinking about a single character, and what made him interesting.
You are right though: homelessness is rarely tackled in English fiction (and if it is, it isn't always tackled well). It does feel necessary to write about it, especially now, at a time when government cuts to public spending are going to see an increase in the numbers of homeless at the same time as massive cuts are being made to spending on the homelessness sector.
Mick and his son Robbie have little to say to each other. Was Cathy the matriarch who held the family together?
You could see it that way, yes (although Craig is the son, really, with whom Mick has little to say; his relationship with Robbie is very strong, but Robbie lives in Australia). Cathy was one of many elements that held the family and, crucially, Mick, together. Over a lifetime, the family, like all families, has normalised its place in terms of the relationships between different members, and its place in the community, in society. The decline of the shipbuilding industry that Mick has always worked in, and the death of Cathy, cause Mick and the sons to confront a change in these positions and the fact that, yes, Cathy was the one that held a lot of it together.
Did you find it particularly difficult to write authentic dialogue for such inarticulate characters?
Just because a character is inarticulate doesn't mean that they don't possess their own language. The way I see it, the main characters in each of my books don't necessarily express themselves in a way that the world around them would consider articulate, but their voices as related directly onto the page in narrative are capable of great expression (the only limitation being the imagination of the writer). With these voices, they are conveying an identity that is very much to do with place, and also with their emotional and cognitive states. And because the narratives are told in their voices, it follows that the dialogue is also written in that same language.
Alcohol has clearly always played a part in Mick's life, but as his troubles mount, so does his reliance upon it. Is there a specific tipping point for him into dependence?
It's probably more gradual than a specific tipping point, but I think it's fair to say that by the point he is spending the last of his money to get off his face on the superlager, he's probably reached it. When I began the book I in fact intended for him not to turn to drink, feeling that it was too much of a cliché, but as the drafting progressed I realised very clearly that the cliché of such a character was exactly what I was interested in: I wanted to take the true parts of the stereotype and look at why they exist, and go beyond the stereotype to look at what that character is actually thinking and what has taken them to this point. A large number of homeless people (around a third of the residents of St Mungos, for instance) suffer tri-morbidity: mental illness, physical illness and substance abuse. It is pretty clear that these things can go hand in hand and contribute to each other. To create a character like Mick, who suffers in the way he does, and not make him drink, would, I grew to feel, have been disingenuous.
You've employed local dialects in both your first two books. Do you have a particular interest in such local variations or has this just been a natural consequence of the settings you've chosen?
Bit of both. However, it is more a natural consequence of the forms that I have chosen than the settings themselves. It would have felt odd to me, writing two narratives that are so close to one particular character, telling it in the voice of that character, if the language that the narrative used did not represent where the character lives. And I do like researching and playing with language too. It helps me get through the more difficult days.
Both your books have featured people working in industries that are struggling. Do you feel this fundamental shift in the labour market is overlooked by politicians and the media?
Well, in terms of shipbuilding, it has been a very slow decline, and historically there has been quite a lot of focus by the media, especially locally. And politicians certainly haven't overlooked it - rather they have, to a large extent (Heath, Thatcher) been a major part of the cause. In terms of farming, the struggle of smallholdings in the face of supermarket demands and the rise in fuel and grain prices has largely gone unaided by government, even though it does occasionally feature in the media.
The settings for both your books are quite different from the predominantly metropolitan milieu that dominates the publishing world. Are you writing for a particular demographic?
No. I am writing about people and places that I find myself interested in, and if in terms of demographics that means people who are economically struggling then I'm going to have a whole lot more subject matter to write about over the coming years, that's for sure.
Your first book was sought after by a number of publishers and went on to be shortlisted for eight awards; you also won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. How did you find the experience of receiving so much attention for your first book?
Odd, flattering, amusing. More than anything, I just felt extremely fortunate because I was aware of the fact that sometimes that happens in publishing, and I was lucky enough it was my book that was getting this attention at that time, when it could very well have been any number of others. It was difficult too, to know all of this was happening when friends of mine, other writers, had not been fortunate enough to get their books published.
I am very conscious of the whimsy of success, and try to stay clear of paying too much attention to it. It is important to know clearly what you think yourself about what you have done. I have no doubt in my own mind that my second book is a bigger personal achievement than the first, and a more complex book. Whether reviews and prizes and the like will reflect that - who knows? The important thing is to try and remember what you were trying to achieve when you decided to write the book.
Can you tell us anything about what you'll be writing next?
Well, my wife and I have a two-week-old baby now, so whatever it is, it's going to have to wait until our table is not covered by nappies and nipple creams. It's a big undertaking, starting a novel - imaginatively, practically, emotionally - and I don't feel quite ready for that while the baby is so little. So, my plan is to write short stories. They are, for obvious reasons, easier to complete in limited time slots and, moreover, I've written a few in recent months and am really enjoying it. After spending so long writing a book that is stylistically so particular and unwavering, it feels very liberating to experiment with different styles, characters, voices, places. I'm going to get enough of them together that I can go to my editor and try to persuade her to publish them as a book.