An interview with Alan Garner
Alan Garner stands in the kitchen of his ancient house, his face to the wall. A moment ago his features had been drawn into the kind of expression I’d more expect to see on a cross ten-year-old than on a man who, 30 years ago, had a hand in deciphering the Linear B script of Minoan Crete. His wife, Griselda, who is patient, is attempting to tell him something but Garner doesn’t want to listen. I begin to expect that in a moment he’ll put his fingers in his ears and hum, but alas, I am deprived of the spectacle. Griselda, teacher and critic and sharp-eyed guardian of Garner, gives up.
Garner, 64, is nothing if not determined. Flamingo this month republishes his classic set of novels, The Stone Book Quartet, a celebration of the culture of his family and the Cheshire landscape he knows as well as if he had lived there for all of the 8,000 years that the site of his home, Blackden, has been inhabited. Garner took to writing, he readily admits, because he’d heard a rumour that "the artist was the last free man" and that if he were one, he might not have to get up early in the morning. And so he doesn’t but, as for freedom, the novel he published in 1996, Strandloper, took him 12 years to write. When I offer the alternative, "the artist is the last slave", he ruefully agrees.
Garner’s work is unique in English writing for its apparent simplicity, its fathomless depth. Under a blue sky swept with cloud, Blackden rests against the landscape that Garner, since his first book, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was published in 1960, has made his own. "Own" is the word he chooses to describe his relationship with the hill called Alderley Edge, the physical, spiritual centre of The Stone Book Quartet. It is "a very subtle kind of symbiosis. It’s an owning. But in the sense of owning to. I owned that land and it owned me."
It is this owning which made the Quartet, first published nearly a quarter of a century ago. Garner has been the winner of both the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize – for The Owl Service, published in 1967 – and is not only one of Britain’s finest and most prolific authors (despite feeling, each time he begins a book that, as he gasps, "it’s all going horrrribly wrong!"), but also one of a select group who grow their work out of the soil from which they spring.The late Ted Hughes was one of these; Peter Ackroyd is another. Garner’s father lived and died within a mile of where he was born: a seeming aberration at the mobile, uprooted end of the 20th century. It is no coincidence that the work of Garner, Hughes and Ackroyd all acknowledges that the border between past and present, this world and the other, is permeable and unstable.
It is the acceptance of this instability that has caused Garner to be perceived as a writer for children; his work falls, to many publishers’ minds, into the category of "fantasy". But Red Shift, published in 1973 and the work that preceded The Stone Book Quartet, is, with its complex structure, its savage landscape and dark undercurrent of sexual violence, a deeply challenging book for any reader, to give only one example from the body of Garner’s work.
Garner is clearly exasperated by the "children’s writer question" – understandably so, though it seems pertinent in this case, as Flamingo is an adult imprint, and The Stone Book Quartet had previously been published by Collins Children’s Books. "I feel instinctively that children’s writing can’t be literature," he says. "It is ghetto writing. C. S. Lewis said that if a book can only be enjoyed by children then it’s not a good book. I never considered myself a writer for children. If there are layers of childhood within the reader that are attracted towards what I write, then I see no reason for their being either prevented or encouraged. This is why, to me, the whole question is a fatuous matter."
Myth, as Garner has written, is not entertainment; it is "rather the crystallisation of experience". The Owl Service, with its tale of owl patterned plates that lead the children who discover them down into a dark and ghostly past, draws on the Welsh Mabinogion. A plate from the owl service itself hangs by the Aga in Garner’s home – as he reminded me forcefully via e-mail: "I don’t INVENT. I FIND." Garner’s gift is his ability to synthesise his own experience with a tradition to which he has an eerie access.
One might say, then, that The Stone Book Quartet is his own myth. Here are four brief tales; on the dustjacket they are called "fables" and so they read: they have the simplicity, the compression, of a much older literature. Garner’s sentences are simple. But the spaces between the words go back a very long way. Much further, in fact, than Garner’s great, great grandfather, who is the Cheshire stonemason at the centre of the first tale, The Stone Book. The four books then move forward in time and family, but not into the future. Garner explains: "I felt I couldn’t go beyond my great, great grandfather: memory seems to go back about three generations, and then ends with some paternal or maternal figure which has accreted unto themselves historical events that belong to other, earlier members of that family. And I felt that I couldn’t impose on my children’s generation a history they would not wish to occupy."
In writing The Stone Book Quartet, Alan Garner continued his family’s traditions. His people were craftsmen – stonemasons, blacksmiths – and so is he, though in the beginning that didn’t seem to be the case. He was a sickly child; it was his intellect that developed rather than his manual skills, and he eventually won a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School.
Garner still considers himself in the school’s debt – his nativity play, Holly from the Bongs, is being performed at the Edinburgh Festival to benefit the MGS Foundation Bursary Appeal – but his academic success cut little ice with his family. A classics scholar with his heart, at one time, set on the Chair of Greek at Oxford, he still recalls "the awful period when I would rush home and try to explain to my family how exciting the concept of a deponent verb was — and they would perceive that as an attack". He did end up, after National Service, at Oxford, but abandoned his aspiration toward the coveted Chair. It was the Suez Crisis and the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956 that spurred him to pick up his pen. "I knew that if I had a life expectancy of four minutes I had better get on with it."
Yet – in terms of the later development of Stone Book – his early alienation from his family was never complete: he absorbed the "deep, narrow" culture around him. "Every Sunday night throughout childhood my grandfather the patriarch, who I loved dearly, demanded that his four sons and their wives and his grandchildren attend at court, in his cottage. The wives were not expected to speak; the children were not expected to speak. I used to slide under the table just to absorb the conversation – which was always between the men. Written down, it would appear to be gibberish, because the communication was in the silences. They were affirmations of their tribal identity and territory, expressed simply by saying somebody’s name. Then there’d be an ‘ah’ and a long silence. And then someone else would say something like ‘Leah’s hill’. Silence. And then, ‘Mmmn’. And so it would go."
It was that process of osmosis, transformed into the luminous Stone Book Quartet, that finally reconciled him with his family. After he’d written them – "very quickly, because I always feel that the book exists; it really is releasing a figure from a stone" – he gave a copy to his father. "And it’s one of the few times I’d ever seen my father on the verge of real anger. He said to me: who told you my uncle Charlie was a sniper? And I found out that all the bits I’d invented were actually true. That is what healed the rift. He was shocked. But once he got over the shock it didn’t matter to him. I don’t know what he thought, but we were one again. It’s been worth writing to be able to say that when my father died there was no unfinished business."
The only unfinished business for Garner now is the writing that still drives him. There are some films in the works; of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, and Colin Vaines, now head of production at Miramax in New York, has the option on The Owl Service.
But these are, in a sense, distractions. It seems little wonder that the writing of Strandloper, which draws a 19th-century native of Cheshire into Australian Aboriginal myth, was not a stretch for Garner. The Aboriginal mind, connected to the dreaming of the land, is his own. Only connect, said Forster; few connect better than Garner. His next book is about the Silk Road, but remains close to home: he shows me a Tibetan prayer wheel found, not in Tibet, but not far from where we stand. Garner is as settled in the hills of Cheshire as his father was before him; but his mind roves far and wide to bring into being the truth he knows exists and needs only to be drawn from the stone.