Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner, book review: Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – all in an Acton flat

Alan Warner says he started writing in his late twenties because he felt he  ‘could get run over by a bus tomorrow’

We try to dress up the book, don’t we?

We try everything to get away from what a book actually is. There’s no way to make it sexy from the outside, so the publishing industry tries to find other ways to dramatise it. But what it’s about is a lone journey from one cover to the other, and it either works for you or it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter if it’s Georgio Bassani or Lee Child.”

All writers begin as readers. Alan Warner is in town to discuss his new novel Their Lips Talk of Mischief, not to mention its strange, haunting predecessors Morvern Callar, These Demented Lands, The Sopranos. But when we sit down in a London pub, it is the act of reading fiction, rather than the craft of producing it, that makes his eyes light up.

“I became a reader overnight,” Warner says, settling down with a pint of stout. “I remember exactly what happened. I was 14 and went to John Menzies newsagent. Every book that had a vaguely smutty blurb I bought.”

Warner’s first reading list may have been driven by his libido, but it is impressive nonetheless. “On the back of The Immoralist by André Gide it said ‘unconventional sexuality’ – that’ll do. On L’Etranger by Camus it said he ‘challenges sexual mores’.”

The only exception to the high-brow erotica was Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. It was Paton, ironically, who began Warner’s conversion from priapic teenager to literary addict. “I thought, ‘this is boring as shit’. I was looking out the window. Everybody’s playing football. After 40 pages, something started to change. By the end of the day I had read it straight through. I was shaking with emotion. I didn’t realise books could do that to you, could make you feel like that.”

Thirty-six years on, and the 50-year-old Warner has come a long way. His immersion in Penguin Classics led to a love affair with Scottish writing (he mentions Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Douglas Dunn and George Douglas Brown) which fed directly into his own literary career. “I was a huge reader, but how to become a writer? Very quickly I developed this idea that I had to reflect my culture. I had to find a way to make literature out of the culture I knew.” Yet the faraway look in his eye as he recounts the revelations of that summer’s day in 1978 suggests that reading changed his life. “When I look back now, I see celebration. I was from a very small village on the west coast of Scotland, everything seemed exotic to me.” Warner describes his family as happy but “completely uncultured”. “The worlds that opened up with each book were so intriguing and addictive compared to what I knew.”

Warner has poured these formative feelings into Their Lips Talk of Mischief. His eighth full-length work of fiction, it reads like a debut: his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, only with added adulterous sex, hallucinogenic drugs, and rock’n’roll. At its centre is a claustrophobic ménage à trois. Two friends, Llewellyn and Cunningham, bond over Joyce, literary ambition and beer. Completing the love triangle is Aoife, Llewellyn’s wife and the illicit love of Cunningham’s short life. Each character faces a dilemma. Love or pain, London or Scotland, family or art. And as Cunningham puts it: sex or Faulkner.

Their Lips Talk of Mischief grew out of conversations Warner had with the students he teaches on Edinburgh University’s creative writing course. “I couldn’t help thinking back to my social and cultural circumstances and comparing it to theirs.” One student was inspired by YouTube interviews with Salman Rushdie and David Foster Wallace.

“Well, that’s okay. It’s no worse than me as a teenager imagining Jean Paul Sartre at a French café with his pipe.” Nor, Warner argues, do novelists need to be widely read. “You don’t need 200 novels. If you read four books, and feel strongly about why you dislike and like aspects about them, that can make a writer.”

Despite the novel’s intimate tone, Warner is quick to deflect accusations of autobiography. “The way Llewellyn and Cunningham talk is the way I talked at points in my youth. They are in no way portraits of me. I had very, very different experiences.”

There are, however, inescapable similarities. The novel is set in Acton in 1984 – exactly the time and place that Warner lived while studying at Ealing College of Higher Education. Despite having no money, Warner, like Llewellyn and Cunningham, spent inordinate amounts of time in the pub. “Beer was relatively cheap then. You could spend a lot of time in the pub. I certainly did.”

While both characters share his youthful literary fanaticism, only Cunningham gives the impression that he might write himself. Llewellyn’s tragedy is that reading, and indeed beer, become isolating ends in themselves. “I don’t know if reading a great deal is a slightly defensive mechanism to feel superior to society around you. It’s, ‘Fuck you I have read all of Dostoevsky’. I know there was an element of that to my reading.”

Unlike Llewellyn, Warner channelled this defiant spirit into his own debut, the now-classic Morvern Callar. “I was living in a flat in Edinburgh, working the railways,” he says. “I didn’t talk about writing with anyone. They would have just taken the piss. I was one of those bedroom, closet-case typers.” Writing through the night, he was fuelled by jazz records, dreams of Beckett in Paris, and desperate aspiration. “It was a last will and testament. It was also emotional and grasping. I was in my late twenties and I felt I had to get something down because I could get run over by a bus tomorrow.”

Morvern’s voice, both “perverse” and “savage”, was Warner’s way of avoiding the pitfalls of the first novel. “Push literature out of the scene and have it appropriated by this voice that completely obliterates ideas of eternity through literature, or making a statement.”

It is doubly ironic, then, that Morvern Callar not only made a statement, it made Alan Warner’s name. He has no problems with the book’s continued popularity, helped by Lynne Ramsay’s striking film adaptation. But what thrills Warner, almost inevitably, is its effect on a reader. “How does a kid in Orkney see Morvern compared to someone in Paris reading the translation?”

Warner has finished his pint and has cigarettes at the ready. Before heading off, he chews over the Scottish Referendum (he’s in favour of independence) and an increasingly unequal Britain. “Two cultures: Waitrose and Lidl. There are people who don’t think twice about going to Waitrose, and people who have no choice but to go to Lidl. I don’t know how that’s the Britain that came out of the Second World War.”

Only one question remains. Sex or Faulkner? Warner laughs. “Both at the same time.”

Their Lips Talk of Mischief is published by Faber & Faber.

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