Alan Trotter is a Scottish writer, living and working in Edinburgh. His debut novel, Muscle, was published in 2019 by Faber & Faber. It’s a unique piece of work, combining detective noir tropes with unusual, experimental elements to make something that’s a thrill to read, but also unclassifiable.
We caught up with Alan to chat about creative strategies, his apocalyptic next novel, and Billie Eilish.
I’m interested to know what a day’s writing looks like for you. Do you have a setup and a routine, or is it more ad hoc?
A.T - It’s changed a bit. I used to try and write in more structured ways, but Muscle took a really long time, and I realised that if I want to write more than another book in the years I have left to me, that I should probably figure out something that’s more conducive to regular work. So now I just write every day, at least a tiny little bit. Oftentimes I’ll have a day when I write very little, but I’ve not been having any days where I don’t write at all.
I’ve also started writing more things at once. [With] Muscle I did quite a lot of writing of the wrong book and revised it and revised it, until it became the right book. Now I’m spending more time being like, well if I can’t write this book today, which of these three other things that I’m writing can I work on and enjoy more, and have more fun at? So, I’m trying to be a more regular, and happier writer.
Now I’m spending more time being like, well if I can’t write this book today, which of these three other things that I’m writing can I work on and enjoy more, and have more fun at?
Are there particular conditions that are conducive to your work, a particular place you like to write, music, no music, time of day, things like that?
A.T - It changes a lot. There are definitely times when I will try and deafen myself with music, where I will have headphones on and something blaring as a way to try and clear the way for myself. I’ve also used white noise for that, and white noise and music together to just absolutely obliterate the outside world. But equally there are days where it’s just silence and sitting with a pen and paper. First drafts tend to happen in a notepad with a pencil, by preference, but most of the time is spent shifting things around in a word processor. Apart from that, I’m trying not to cling dearly to routines, because I guess it would be a bit like having a lucky pair of socks for an athlete, and then if you lose the socks you’ve destroyed your career [laughs]. I don’t want to be like, well I can’t write because I don’t have the perfect space.
Is there a particular musical artist that crops up in your listening?
A.T - I used to listen to a lot of music. For a brief while I was a music journalist and I used to be a really committed [listener]. But for the past however many years now, since Billie Eilish’s debut album came out, I feel like 90% of my listening has become Billie Eilish, which is unexpected at this point in my musical life. When I was writing Muscle there was a lot of jazz music, [particularly] Cool Struttin’ by Sonny Clark. But yeah, for the last couple of years there’s been a lot of Billie Eilish and not much else [laughs].
Muscle isn’t an easy book to sum up neatly. There’s time travel and sci-fi elements alongside all this crime noir stuff. For those who haven’t read it, how would you describe it?
A.T - I should be decent at it by now. It was an awkward book and I spent many years working on it, and I’m really proud of it, but I still can’t do the, like, ‘here it is.’ When I want to describe it, I almost want to go, ‘it’s about a guy smoking a cigarette, and another man is thrown from a car and lands at his feet, and then they start working together,’ but that’s basically just saying I want you to read the book. So, it’s about a thug who is a bit smarter than he has any need to be, and is riddled with anxieties that are both very strange and quite relatable, because he doesn’t feel like he is central to the world he’s existing in, he doesn’t feel like he’s making his own decisions about his life, and none of that’s as outlandish as the weirdnesses of time travel and hardboiled detective pastiche would lead you to expect. It’s a tricky one.
It was an awkward book and I spent many years working on it, and I’m really proud of it, but I still can’t do the, like, ‘here it is.’
And what are you working on at the moment?
A.T - I started writing a book after Muscle, it’s a book in which all the bad things have come along that felt like they were threatening to come along, and the world has been reduced down to a little island off the coast of Scotland, where there are some very powerful men, or men who believe themselves to be powerful, and it’s less a book about them and more a book about their children, who are kind of shiftless and bored and hanging out in the only place in the world where it’s still possible to be shiftless and bored. I was going to go and visit the island it’s set on, which I’ve never visited, at the beginning of 2020 and couldn’t go because an actual pandemic got in the way.
It’s set in a place called Luing, [which is] just south of Oban, it’s a small ferry from the mainland that gets you there, and I’m hoping to go and visit now. Plans that were set at the beginning of 2020 have now hopefully been put in place again. I’m kind of excited about seeing it, but also really worried because I’m not writing about it as it is. In the version I’m writing it’s got this kind of dilapidated resort hotel that is a complete fiction and does not exist. So, it’s not a real representation, but part of me still worries we’re going to get off the ferry and something about is it going to unwrite the book, is going to destroy the book, [and I’ll think] ‘you were not only wrong, you were so deeply wrong that somehow the whole thing has been a misadventure.’