ALAN Riach continues his conversation with poet, director, actor and author Gerda Stevenson about the art of writing

Alan Riach: You come from a family of musicians. How important is the voice in your writing? How central is song to your words, either in your collection of poems Quines or the short stories in your latest book Letting Go?

Gerda Stevenson: It’s central to my creativity. I’m a singer/songwriter and there’s a weave of songs through some of the stories. A song can immediately place you in a particular era or location.

The first story in Letting Go is called “Graves” and it just wasn’t working until I thought of bringing in Walter Scott’s “Jock O’ Hazeldean” – one of our best-loved folk songs. Once I thought of that, the whole structure of the story revealed itself – it became a springboard for the protagonist, and I rewrote the story accordingly.

READ MORE: Alan Riach interviews Gerda Stevenson on the art of writing

Alan: The priority of music and song, the human voice, is pre-eminent in your poem from Quines about Lizzie Higgins (1929-93), the traveller, fish-filleter, tradition-bearer, singer, daughter of the renowned Jeannie Robertson, who only sang publicly and made her recordings after her mother’s death, and yet carried on the tradition so memorably.


She learned me in her wame,

ilka note tirlin doon tae whaur I lay,

like a bird faur aff in a daurk glen,

or a bell, dingin slaw throu watters deep –

ma mither’s sang.

Time’s the thing, bidin yer time – I couldnae reive

the shine fae the barrie star oor Jeannie wis,

couldnae hae her sang while she lived,

but it beat throu ma bluid, haudin me hale

whan the scaldies sconced me sair at the schuil –

radge, I wis, wi hert’s care, fleein oot thay gates

wi their black airn clang; I’d no be back, I swuir.

Syne ma first day fish filletin: I’m tae be “initiatit” –

the notes come swallin up, silent, like a siller shoal

afore ma een, as I’m dragged tae the grun,

an they try tae strip me nakit. But I whup oot ma knife.

Daur ye! says I – this time, I’ll no be humiliatit –

daur ye touch a threid o my sark an I’ll gut

ilk ain o ye bangsters, I’ll hae ye mutilatit!

“The fastest knife alive” they cried me, crooned

fur filletin mair nor a ton o fish in a flash –

the glent o ma blade wud blin ye.

An ma lemon sole: warks o art –

The King o Ethiopia traivelled tae see fur himsel!

I’d nae need tae sing fur ma supper aa throu

thae years, tho I could; but no till it wis time.

Dawin braks on the day, a thrang o fowk

aa gaithert in her memory; the lang green gress

growin ower her grave; her sang swalls up

an oot fae me at last, tae rax her, ilka note

tirlin doon tae whaur she bides on t’ither side

o time, the sang she learned me in her wame,

an I hae wings noo, like that swallow high,

what a voice I hear, it’s ma ain, like the voice

o ma mither dear, what a voice,

what a voice I hear.

Alan: It’s almost as if the voice creates its own landscape. What’s the importance of place for you?

Gerda: The landscape, changing through time, is a kind of connecting backdrop in most of the stories in Letting Go – in some cases only hinted at. This is intentional – imagined characters from my native area, the Pentland Hills, going out into the world, and meeting others from elsewhere.

Alan: The stories are all threaded on time, so to speak, with characters moving through landscapes that change more slowly than they do, and with songs that have slightly changed meanings in different moments, in different lives…

Gerda: Time in itself is fascinating.Maybe I was partly influenced by the structure of Quines, which is more or less chronological. Not all the protagonists in Letting Go are female but I’m deeply interested in the long trek that women are on, historically, to gain equality. I look at myself, my mother, and my grandmothers, and see how opportunities were so limited for our sex but are developing for us through the generations.

Alan: What made you choose the form of monologue or first-person singular narration in some stories but not others in Letting Go?

Gerda: It’s usually an instinctive thing. In the story “Colour” it wasn’t, though! I rewrote it several times before I settled on a satisfactory register. It was initially in neutral third-person, but it didn’t work. I tried a child’s voice in first-person, but that didn’t work either.

I wanted it to be from the child’s perspective (my own – a lot of the book is fictionalised autobiography), and eventually settled on a third-person narrative, though not neutral, giving the impression of the child’s experience, without actually being in first-person. It was tricky, because I was writing the story for adults, although it’s from a child’s standpoint, and to create the illusion of a child’s experience, I had to be rigorous about sticking to a fairly limited vocabulary.

The National: Lizzie Higgins made her recordings after her mother’s death. Photograph: Brian ShuelLizzie Higgins made her recordings after her mother’s death. Photograph: Brian Shuel

Alan: What made you choose Scots, rather than English, for some voices and narrative idioms?

Gerda: Only two of the stories in Letting Go are in monologue first-person form, and they’re the only ones in Scots. The other 10 are in English, and all in third-person. I chose Scots for those two because the language was true for the characters, and monologue form was essential because I wanted to give them their own voice. They are women who have no agency. One is bullied almost catastrophically by her family, who won’t listen to her nor allow her to make decisions for herself. The other literally has no voice – she’s disabled and can’t speak – so she’s communicating her thoughts to the reader.

In Quines, all the poems are in monologue form, whether in English or in Scots. But that was a deliberate choice at the outset, for the whole book. There are a lot of different nationalities in Letting Go, different voices and snatches of languages, including Gaelic, Polish, Italian and Afrikaans, as well as my mother’s own Lancashire English. Getting the voice right and “true” is very important to me. I write drama as well as poetry and prose, and I love to get my characters talking to one another in my head, creating dialogue, hearing their voices – probably because I’m an actor. I do this when I’m out walking with my dog – I do a lot of writing in my head before I type it up.

Alan: Every one of your poems and the stories in Letting Go are engaging “entertainments”, pleasures to read, but this goes along with their serious intent, their purpose of making visible how injustice works, prejudice, exploitation, assumptions of authority. Humour and seriousness are not separate things in your writing. And the issues – misogyny and sexism, racism, religious bigotry and assumptions of cultural superiority – are as grim as you like but dealt with fluently.

How do you strike that balance?

Gerda: If you’re writing about such subjects you have to avoid telling the reader what to think. Each of your characters must have a credible point of view. Chekhov always did that – he never patronises his characters in his plays and short stories, he never intervenes with his own authorial voice.

Also, I’m a performer, I

appreciate the value of entertainment, which isn’t necessarily a superficial thing. A good story well told is entertaining, it has to involve the audience.

When I was training as an actor at RADA in London, the principal of the college was Hugh Cruttwell (who was married to the fine actress Geraldine McEwan). He was a brilliant man – had been an English teacher, and I learned so much from him. When he died, Kenneth Branagh said of him: “He was the greatest teacher and student of acting I have ever known…an inspiration to a generation of British actors – and a modest, shy man who would have been the last to recognise himself thus.”

Hugh would always come to watch the first dress rehearsal of any play we students were presenting – we called it “The Cruttwell Run”, and it was a bit scary! He was so incisive: “Too much how, and not enough what,” he’d comment, meaning don’t focus on irrelevant, indulgent externals – characters’ mannerisms, for example. Tell the story. Liz Lochhead wrote an excellent poem about this, called “Credo”. I’ve always remembered Hugh’s wise advice – or rather, exhortation, and it applies to writing too. Just tell the story, with a lightsome touch. Let it speak for itself. Juxtapositions of humour and seriousness often occur simultaneously in life, sometimes inconveniently. The most absurd comedy can happen in tragic circumstances, and I love the raw, sometimes surprising humanity of that.

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Alan: It’s a universal, maybe, that runs through all the specifics of character and place and particular histories and moments. Maybe we only make progress by keeping in mind what’s always with us. And there is no limitation to the enquiry.

Gerda: And it extends into the darkest as well as the brightest places in our history. I’m thinking of Eliza Junor, born in Demerera in 1804, died in Fortrose in 1861. She was the daughter of a slave-owner from the Black Isle, and an unknown mother, probably a slave or a “free-coloured” woman. Eliza won a prize for penmanship at Fortrose Academy and I felt that she should have a poem of her own.


I’ve learned my letters well – my copperplate masts and sails

flow across the page, like the ship that carried us here,

my brother and me, to our father’s land, the Black Isle

of white people, where I’m glad no cane grows;

my mother always said I had a way with words –

Demerara - River of the Letterwood, its banks of trees

with bark like hieroglyphics, a whisper in my ear from birth:

Demerara, Demerara… I wish she’d lived to see my prize

for penmanship, that I could tell her we are well, and freed,

that we don’t heed the taunts of half-breed, octoroon,

mulatto, quadroon; the dominie’s wife says tawnie –

told me she’d seen some in Cromarty too,

had heard rumours there were others come to Inverness

and Tain; and, saving present company, wasn’t it a shame

that Scotsmen didn’t refrain from relations with slaves?

She was pouring tea, and her spine stiffened in her corset

when I declined the sugar. “But it’s Demerara,” she crooned,

“It’ll make you feel at home,” and spooned it into my cup;

I watched the gold beads – “hybrid jewels”,

my father calls them – melt in the peat-brown pool.