Rodge Glass is the author of two novels and a biography, Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography, for which he received a 2009 Somerset Maugham Award. He recently visited the Edinburgh Writers’ Club to talk about researching and writing about the life of his mentor.
Glass was tutored by Gray while doing his MA in Creative Writing at Glasgow and Strathclyde universities and subsequently spent three years working as Gray’s personal assistant. Glass felt compelled to write the biography so that other people would know what it was like to spend time in Gray’s company. “He was a complete nutcase, worth writing about.”
Although Glass had been in close contact with Gray for several years before beginning work on the biography, he says, “At no point did I feel like I knew Alasdair better than anyone else. I felt I could contribute something in a way that someone with a pile of books and good reviewing skills couldn’t do.”
Gray supported Glass with the project, providing him with contact details of friends and acquaintances he could talk to and allowing him to read his unpublished writing. “If my book’s worth anything it’s because I had access to all the things I wanted to.” Gray’s personal poems were particularly revealing, giving Glass an insight into his subject’s mind. “For a biographer it’s gold; all the masks disappear. The narrator is the poet.”
One challenge that Glass faced with writing the biography was to communicate the facts while making the book an entertaining read. He was conscious that he should try “not to make Alasdair into a cartoon – not to make fun of him – and also not to make the book dry.” Glass’s solution was to include anecdotes and diary entries from the time he spent working for Gray to give an impression of the subject as a person. He describes the resulting book as “a portrait of the artist as an old man.”
Glass points out that writing a biography of a living person has its drawbacks and advantages. “It’s incredibly inconvenient to write about someone you can bump into in Iceland because they can complain about [the book] but it makes it easier to make it vibrant.”
When asked if he will add chapters to future editions of the biography to cover later years of Gray’s life, Glass responds that he has no plans to do so. “[The book] was never supposed to be an absolute truth. It’s an intense emotional engagement over a particular period of time. There’s an honesty to that that I’m proud of.”
For anyone interested in writing a biography, Glass has this to say: “Immersing yourself in someone else’s life comes highly recommended by me but don’t immerse yourself to the extent that you neglect everything else. It’s a quick way to the insane asylum.”