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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?