An Interview with David Keenan

This Is Memorial Device is a novel about the greatest band that never existed, told through twenty-six chapters by a vibrant cast of misfits, drop-outs, and artists. Set in Airdrie, one of the small towns in Lanarkshire in the west of Scotland, it is the tale of how a small community was temporarily transformed by a post-punk band in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. David Keenan grew up in Airdrie. This is his debut novel.

What made you write the novel?

The inspiration was my experience of Airdrie as a small working class town, away from any cultural centres. I wanted to explore the clichéd ideas of those towns. My experience of Airdrie was that it was magical, strange, and odd. It was full of eccentrics. In literature especially, the handling of those towns is typically clichéd: that it’s rough; that people wanted to escape it; and that it’s all about dialect. I wanted to write a romantic book, about the possibilities of being in a small town, and about the degree of belief and bravery it takes to be a musician there. On the back of the book, it says “It’s not easy being Iggy Pop in Airdrie”. It’s harder than being Iggy Pop itself!

The poet Jack Spicer says that things happen to writers because they want to be written. Very early on, I thought that Airdrie happened to me, because it wanted to be memorialised. In some ways, Airdrie represents every small town, with its local heroes. I wanted to write a love letter to that time, and to that place.

There is a striking contrast between the amusing, the nostalgic and sometimes desperately sad stories told in the novel. What emotional tone were you aiming for?

I think it’s an affirmative book: it’s saying an absolute “yes” to the circumstances that those people were in. One of the questions the book asks is: can you exist in a moment and be aware of its significance as it is passing, or must it pass before you’re able to bestow significance? A lot of the people in the book are remembering things a long time after they happened; they’re older, sometimes lonelier. It’s occasionally sad that they say: “I didn’t realise it at the time, but at that moment we were at the centre of the world.”

But all the art projects in the book are attempts to wake up to where you are and see the significance of the present moment; they’re attempts to see yourself from the outside, almost with the eyes of God. Lucas Black, from Memorial Device, suffers from water on the brain, which means that he is the only character in the book who properly lives in the moment – because it’s all he can do. He commits suicide, but the last words in his journal read “Complete contentment”, which is actually quite life-affirming. So, yes, sad things happen in the book but it’s affirmative and celebratory overall.

The New Statesman has described the book as “a fantastical meander in intense, magical-realist prose”. How did you develop that style?

I wasn’t deliberately referencing magical realism. I felt that the times that I was writing about were so strange – and that Airdrie as a town was so weird – that a social realist approach would be appropriate. I don’t think that social realism is particularly realistic, though: I don’t think that’s how people experience things. In order to get closer to the prosaic madness of the time, the text had to have a hallucinatory, magical power. That felt closer to the psychic truth of what it felt like to be caught up in the mad rush of events.

The book features appendices, which include imaginary discographies for Memorial Device and glossaries of post-punk bands in the area. Why did you choose to include those features?

I thought a lot about post-punk. The true story of post-punk is one that was not documented: often those bands never made a record. Maybe they played two gigs? Maybe they had just a cassette? The only way to tell the true story of punk is through fiction. But I still wanted the story to feel grounded in reality, so I built up the appendices and indexes. I thought: wouldn’t it be great if you had an imaginary field guide? You can go to the exact spots in Airdrie, where something didn’t happen, but visiting them gets you closer to the psychic reality as if it had.

The book’s structure is highly experimental, with a non-linear plot and the modes used in the chapters ranging from interviews to diary extracts. How did you develop that structure?

I also wanted the plot to come in by stealth. Over the course of the book, we get the story of Memorial Device, ending with Lucas Black’s story. I wanted the book to culminate in the centre, to show how events come together and the effects ripple outwards. As you read, names fly out; it’s only later on that we fully piece together the characters’ backgrounds.

There are various other cabalistic things too: I wanted to have twenty six chapters, one of each of the letters in the alphabet. In the back of my mind, I had this idea that letters are lonely; they conjugate together to form words. There’s a lot in the book about loneliness: it’s about people connecting together, though culture, performance and extreme behaviour. So the structure of the book is about individual voices, trying to connect.

The individual voices aren’t always accurate; they contradict each other, because memory itself is creative. So the book itself is a ‘memorial device’ for the band, Memorial Device. It’s quite a heavy thing: it’s a way of raising the dead, with a Shakespearean gravitas.

Why did you choose to write so much of the novel in the first person?

I used the first person extensively because I wanted to explore the multiplicity of languages and voices found in just one working class town. In a clichéd working class novel, there is often only one voice; I wanted to show how varied and experimental that kind of place was.

On the subject of the different voices, how did you imagine and render them in prose? Did you draw on voices that you know?

No, there are no characters drawn from people I know, although there are composite aspects from them. Speaking generally, I think Scottish and Irish cultures have a huge delight in language and patter; I get a lot of inspiration from people in the street and the way in which they engage with language. It’s almost as if there’s a spiritual epiphany in just turning the letters over, creating new patterns. I wanted to put that creativity and playfulness with language into the book. In terms of getting individual voices, I established the rhythm of the character and, in a way, they just did it themselves. I found that these characters began to speak through me, without a lot of conscious control.

Sometimes, I found that the characters did things, or said things, which were disappointing; I would think: “Why did they do that?” But they felt so alive: I had to let them go their own way. It was quite incredible! I don’t think any writer who is writing at a certain level can take complete credit for everything that happens in the book; it becomes an organism. 

Josh Kimblin writes for Varsity and is studying History at Christ’s College Cambridge

The winner of the Gordon Burn Prize will be announced at Durham Book Festival at Thursday, 12 October 2017.