An interview with author Des Dillon
In Glasgow some things will never change, the Scottish Premier League will divide opinion and home-grown comedy will fill seats. Perhaps this is why Des Dillon’s play, Singing I’m No a Billy He’s a Tim, continues touring theatres years after its debut.
The drama tells the story of a Rangers and Celtic fan clashing during a night in the cells. Although the subject of sectarianism is an old one, Dillon keeps the play fresh by adding contemporary twists to each new tour. So it is no surprise the play struck a chord with audiences across the UK, and received a standing ovation in Belfast. Remembering this, Dillon cites it as the most rewarding moment of his career.
“I felt like I was finally getting recognised as the author I consider myself to be. What’s happened recently for me is that people who won’t read my books will come and see my plays. I’m No a Billy sold 2000 seats at the Armadillo in 2011, and I have never sold 2000 books.”
Commercial success hasn’t come easy to the author who claims he progressed into the writing scene over a period of years. Having grown up in Coatbridge, one of nine siblings, he worked jobs ranging from fruit machine engineer to bouncer, before going to university.
“I went to Coatbridge college to get three Highers and become a PE teacher, but I got the best mark in the country that year for one exam, and that was when my teacher said I should go on to uni and do English.”
Taking this advice Dillon joined Strathclyde University, where he first became published as the winner of the Keith Write literary competition. While Dillon’s poems were popular among the department, he felt his fiction more at odds with the world of academia. Drawing inspiration from the blue collar Glasgow he grew up in, Dillon claims his stories remain at odds with literary circles.
“I wrote my first novel and it took seven years to get published. When I did get published the reviews were like ‘Ned writes book, and ned writes another book’, and it was like this for the first five years.
“My problem is I write for a demographic of people who don’t read books. I’ve got a value system that is totally at odds with the one you meet at book readings and university tutorials.”
The value system Dillon recognises in his work is that of oral narrative, which he claims is inherited from his Irish Scots background. Taking inspiration from his own experiences, Dillon approaches stories as a conversation with his reader.
“Coatbridge has a real Irish culture, with lots of storytelling, and a lot of my work is based on my family and people I know; true stories but fictionalised. My novel Six Black Candles is my six sisters getting together to do a witchcraft spell to kill the girlfriend of one of their husbands…my sisters do actually do witchcraft.”
Quirky as it sounds, the novel became a best seller in Moscow, and when adapted to play was translated into Russian for performance at the Kyiv Drama Theatre on Podol (Ukraine).
“One of the reasons my stuff does so well in the Ukraine is because the area is just one big Glasgow, they have the same dark sense of humour as us, but less of a class structure.”
Parallels between the two places sparked Dillon’s interest in Eastern Bloc history and catalysed his latest project, a story set during the Siege of Leningrad. Unlike previous work, Dillon spent days researching, and learned to speak enough Russian, to navigate his way around the city. Leningrad, now known as St Petersburg, is famous for having endured the longest resistance to German siege, during World War II. It is the pivotal moment of this siege that Dillon focused on.
“During the attack they played Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, which had been written during the siege for the besieged city. When they played it they broadcast it to the Germans and the German morale fell apart. So this was the turning point of the Siege of Leningrad, therefore the turning point of the war in Russia, therefore the turning point of the whole Second World War.”
Dillon credits his interest with pivotal moments down to his abstinence.
“I have been sober for twenty years, and when I go to AA meetings I like to hear stories about the guy’s turning points. I have always had compassion for the underdog, cause I’ve had a rough life myself. When I was a drinker I used to get into fights, but I do all the adrenalin sports, like rock climbing and mountain biking so that’s like my substitute.”
As for relaxation, Dillon turns to poetry.
“I feel at my most blissful when I am in the garden writing poetry. No one really knows me for poetry, but that’s my main thing, that’s what I’ll end up doing once I get these books out the way. I use it to express my more philosophical ideas; questioning the meaning of life. Of course you never find out, but trying to find out is good.”
To read his poetry for yourself, visit the Scottish Poetry Library.