25 Aug 2023

Scottish author David Keenan on his ecstatic novels and love of Kiwi music

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 25 August 2023

After completing his first book, former music journalist David Keenan fulfilled an unusual vow he'd made to himself.

He destroyed the "worst novel of all time" not by pushing 'delete' but by taking a hammer to his laptop.

That was when the writing truly began, he tells Kathryn Ryan.

David Keenan and four of his novels.

Photo: Supplied

David Keenan is the author of This is Memorial Device, For the Good Times, Xstabeth, Monument Maker and Industry of Magic and Light. He is in New Zealand for three events at Christchurch's WORD festival.

Keenan's award-winning 2017 debut novel This is Memorial Device centres on a fictional '80s post-punk band in his North Lanarkshire hometown of Airdrie.

The former industrial town seemed "romantic" to his younger self, Keenan tells Kathryn Ryan.

“Airdrie is regarded as a sort of a rough, cultureless, working-class town. And that was not my experience growing up at all really, I found it an incredibly romantic place.

“My first novel This is Memorial Device is kind of a love letter to those times, or perhaps more accurately, my fantasy of the possibilities of those times because it's set during the post-punk years in the early '80s.

“I'm just a little bit too young to be of that generation but at that time, the tribes in the small towns were really on the street.

“So I would sit down in the centre of Airdrie, and see these incredible-looking people who seemed so bold to me, they seemed to believe in art so much that it had transformed their lives.”

On his love of music writing

“I almost loved music writing as much as I loved music. I was a big fan of rock writers like the late Lester Bangs. And so, I never thought of myself as a rock critic. I always thought of somebody who was an evangelist.

“And what I tried to do with my rock writing was match the music, write in a way that didn't betray the music.”

On the redemptive power of art

“In all my books, one of the big things that run through is they're very affirmative, they are books about saying yes, even in difficult circumstances.”

On the DIY ethos

“Punk and post-punk were very important to me because they had that liberating thing that you can do this. too.

"And I think that runs through all my work as well because I am most interested in people who make art and who do not wait for permission from anyone else to get it out there.”

On verbal storytelling

“My father and his uncles were all illiterate, they couldn't read and write. And yet, when I was young, I realised the absolute faith they had in the redemptive power of language because even when they were living through the Troubles, they would be relaying a story, a quite tragic story, a story of violence and tremendous suffering.

“But they could turn it into the funniest thing ever. And they would compete in the telling as if you could just get the story right… if you can just tell the perfect story. It was somehow redemptive.”

On getting out of the way of the writing process

“It sounds as if I'm being really mystical when I say this, but it's a genuine experience and not a mystical one.

“The individual ego absolutely disappears, and you become sort of a vessel, I try to get myself out of the way, and sort of allow the book to speak. And so most of the books I've written, I'm not present when I'm writing. So I don't really remember actually writing the books, the books sort of appear fully formed.”

On how it all started

“I just started writing. And I realised very quickly that I was writing possibly the worst novel of all time, I thought I was gonna give up, I'll never be a writer. But then I realised that is the point where everyone gives up, and if you get beyond that, then maybe I did have a chance of being a writer.

“I made a vow that I would complete this worst novel of all time, and ultimately, at the very end, when it was completed, I would ritually destroy it.

“Because I wanted to convince myself that I could write hopelessly. And I think that was really important. If you're able to write hopelessly, then you've got a chance to be a writer.

“So, after I destroyed that, I smashed that laptop up with a hammer, I started again.”

On his early prolific output

“Over the space of 15 years, I can't even put a number on how many novels I wrote... maybe seven novels, one after the other. And then I didn't know how to go about getting published. So I thought, well, when you're on, you’re on, and I would immediately start another one.

“It was like 15 years into my career of being a writer that I first ever thought to contact a publisher and see if they could actually be published.”

On the cult fandom of This is Memorial Device

The fictional band Memorial Device has attracted legions of real-life fans and even a namesake beer because of what it represents, Keenan says.

“What I love is everyone has their own Memorial Device in their way. And I love giving up ownership of that and allowing these books to grow and mean something to everyone else because Memorial Device isn't specifically about Airdrie. It's about the small-town experience, and how art can change that.”

On avoiding research in the first instance

“I always think research is an excuse for not inventing.

“So on my first pass-through, I never do any research. I absolutely trust the voice in my head.”