The trick is to start writing

Janice Galloway has become the novelist she pretended she was. Her small fictions have paid off. Big time
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Skint woman sees ad in cafe offering pounds 25 prize for the best short story. Dreams, writes the story and, no, it does not win. But it impresses one judge, who tells her to send it to the editor of the Edinburgh Review. He loves it, pays her pounds 25 and asks if she has more. Yes, she lies. Six. Send them all, insists the editor. She writes them. Editor says four are awful and two are great and asks if she has a novel. Yes, she lies, and writes one. The Trick Is to Keep Breathing, an account of a woman cracking up, is better than Sylvia Plath's beautiful but so terribly restrained The Bell Jar and Virginia Woolf's (ditto) Mrs Dalloway. It makes you laugh through your tears. Fabulous reviews, immediate reputation as Scotland's most exciting new voice.

The stuff of fiction and Janice Galloway's true story (omitting the foreword concerning a gift of Alasdair Gray's fantastical Lanark, which puts the notion to write into her depressed 26-year-old head). But it is not Galloway's style. It's far too cheery and nothing like gritty enough. Galloway's narrators invariably wear their central nervous system on the outside and heap detail upon felt detail with a vividness that is either hallucinatory or nightmarish and always unforgettable. In her latest collection of short stories, #Where You Find It ("it" being love), like her prize- winning novels The Trick and Foreign Parts (a tender and hilarious tale of two women), the writing can be felt on your pulses. Galloway is a literary endoscopist. She gets beneath the surface of life and exposes the nerves.

In the brilliant and startling title-story of her new collection, Galloway gets inside a kiss, making you feel the cord that holds a tongue in place stretch as it gropes ("Sometimes it's scary like there's an animal between us, an engorged mullusc trying to get out"). She rubs your nose into rotting flesh, makes you feel cold greasy chips, and only very occasionally offers you a tiny moment of ecstasy when the tea tastes good and you have time to notice (though the chances are you also notice the cup is chipped and your lip is bleeding). Writing has rarely been so visceral.

Janice Galloway, 39, is a large-eyed beauty with wonderful bones, a fabulously foul mouth and an outspokenness to match it. "Hope" is engraved on her locket, but you find little in her writing. Her latest book, like those before it, deals with love in all its permutations - the love between so-called lovers, between children and parents, between strangers, friends, even a pimp and one of his girls. In "Someone Had to Do It", the boyfriend explains why he had to torture to death his lover's little girl - it's love of sorts, twisted into hate and horror. There's love in the shame of having to tell your mother about your abortion ("A Proper Respect"), in the loneliness of witnessing your man's desire for other men ("The thing that is not, can never be me" - "Bisex"), in the rush of jealousy experienced by the narrator in "Waiting for Marilyn" when he sees the flash of an engagement ring on Marilyn's finger.

More often than not her narrator is female, Scottish and hard-up - not a million miles away from Galloway's own situation. Her blissless working- class childhood began in Ayrshire, a seaside resort where Glaswegians once spent the industrial fortnight, when her mother was in her forties. ("She thought I was the menopause - otherwise I might not be here today.") Galloway's memories, like her writing, "are etched wi' a razor blade". Her alcoholic father left when she was three and died two years later. She recalls her father as "sad, dangerous. An adult is a big scary thing anyway. You try walking round on all fours. It's bloody scary and worse if they're drunk." He had been an ambulance driver during the war, when his fingers were blown off. The compensation bought the newsagent's shop - next door to the pub.

But it was thanks to another of his addictions - a fortnightly hardback from a book club - that Galloway was educated. "Books educated me." All the Galloways read. Her dinner-lady mother read two autobiographies every week, her sister - 19 years her senior - read six books a week, thrillers, if she could get them. Janice read everything, except Enid Blyton, which the librarian thought better for her than Eskimo mythology ("so much sex - lots of lesbian sex too") and Egyptian mythology ("where all the female roles really appealed, though I didn't know that at the time").

Her first breakdown happened when she was at Glasgow University reading English and Music. "I knew there was something wrong with me when I kept bursting into huge convulsive sobs in Dryden lectures. I don't know whether there was anything wrong or if Dryden was the last straw." She can laugh about it now, and the way psychiatrists were caked in spaghetti and incapable of asking a question (which makes for vital humour in The Trick) but the line between truth and fiction seems suddenly blurred. The texture of Galloway's writing combined with the form (she's big on dramatic monologues) invariably makes it painfully real. Like the character Cassie, who rubs up scratchily against the world in "Foreign Parts", when she finishes Therese Raquin the reader feels "fired up, needing to know what was true".

"Writing is assumed to be a job for men, whereas women have to explain why they do it and where it comes from," Galloway says. "Raymond Carver has a fabulous answer to the truth question. He said: 'It is fiction, remember. I'm not writing autobiography.' It's the only answer. It's fiction that interests me. But where it gets complicated is that all writing is autobiographical. You only have your eyes to see through, your place on the landscape to stand on. That's all I can vouchsafe for and if you want to be as honest as possible, that's the only way. I couldn't possibly write as a Jew during Kristallnacht - what right have I got to do that?"

Galloway insists upon several "essentials" in her writing, the most important of which is "to make the reader feel". "I want people to know to remember that I am a body, not some kind of great brain schlumping about being an abstract truth. I hate the kind of writing that inflates the intellect into the only thing that matters - there is a horrible elitist game going on there - a 'let's escape from the body'. We are our bodies and no matter what your background, you should be able to feel what it's like to be the wee boy [in "Babysitting"] who is looking after his brother in a room which stinks because his father is sitting there rotting. We all feel the same when we touch things, that's the real universal."

Another essential is "hauling the reader in", which she does with tremendous originality by leaving lots of white space on the page "to make them do part of the work and bring the experiences that they have". The way she arranges words is closer to poetry than prose. In "Foreign Parts", when the women walk into Chartres cathedral the word "glass" is printed in six columns, 16 lines deep. ("That's to do with the visceral thing - I've walked into Chartres and that's what it was like. Pckwwhaaa! How do you make somebody feel it? It's an intellectual idea, but only second. It comes from feeling.") Words frequently slip off the page and into the gutter to be caught by the reader; words are written backwards, the print grows and shrinks. She seasons with dialect (I would rather read her for the way she uses "dunt" instead of our weedy "budge"). If the content demands it, syntax and punctuation are sacrificed - a major statement from a former teacher. An isolated line reads OOOOOO - which could be a scream or a laugh or a breath. Ambiguity is important. Galloway revels in it, but never for the sake of it. "It's not a game - if you want to write realistically about what it feels to be alive, it is very complex and very ambiguous."

Rule three is never to bore. "I am astonished at how many intellectual writers seem to equate boring with quality. There's an EM Forster quote I'm very fond of: 'If you make your reader laugh he will think you a trivial fellow, but if you bore him in just the right way he will think you a genius.' Nobody has the right to be boring, not in this day and age - there are too many fucking books. If someone can't have a quick flick through and feel something that says, 'Do come in', not 'Are you up to this?', the book shouldn't have been written."

It comes as no surprise that her "very very favourite writer of all time" is Marguerite Duras. "She has more to say to me than any other writer I've ever read. There's no buggering about with form - with 'this is a short story, this is a novel, here's a ludic poem...' - she just says what she has to say." Which is precisely what Galloway is doing. Her clear fascination with form stems from a desire to blow it up. "Form comes to get you - cliches of language and cliches of form, and you must have a constant guard against it. It's not a striving for some sort of spurious originality. I'm perfectly content using devices I've seen elsewhere. No idea is original, all ideas have been shaped collectively. There's this big idea behind all literature that there are people, greater than the rest of us, who have thought up these ideas alone and it's all bollocks. I've got no aversion to be part of this great plagiaristic thing that goes on. If there's a good idea, I'll use it."

n 'The Trick Is to Keep Breathing', adapted and directed by Michael Boyd, is at the Royal Court, London, SW1 (0171-730 1745) 10-15 June. 'Where You Find It' is published by Jonathan Cape at pounds 9.99