INTERVIEW: Colin Burnett on working class voices, the importance of dialect and shared experiences

A Working Class State Of Mind is the kind of debut that makes you sit up and pay attention. The result of author Colin Burnett’s desire to tie in sociology with fiction it’s already secured a lot of attention since publication by Leamington Books just over two months ago. 

‘I first got the idea for the book when I was studying,’ Colin said, ‘I wanted to tie in key theories and engage the wider working class with sociology.

‘I think that the mainstream media plays down the issues that working class people face and so I wanted to amplify those voices.

“What I like about sociology is that it had me questioning the world around me: the politics and the social aspect.  That’s what I hope my book can do as well to some extent. Our identities and experiences have the right to be heard as much as anyone else’s.’

‘It’s important to counteract the establishment’s idea that these issues don’t need voiced’

Written as a series of linked short stories about a group of mates trying to survive the day to day grind, the book has resonated with audiences both at home in Scotland and globally. Colin said, ‘It’s a universal thing, we all have these similar experiences whether it’s here or in America or wherever. It’s important to counteract the establishment’s idea that these issues don’t need voiced.

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‘I think each story gives a snapshot into what it means to be working class in Scotland today. For example there’s a story about the bookies because I think gambling addiction among young, working class people is prevalent but doesn’t have much of a light shone on it by mainstream media. You hear bits and pieces but it’s not covered to the extent that it should be.’

Further aspects are explored from substance abuse to lack of opportunities and it’s the latter that really strikes a chord, Colin explains: ‘The lack of opportunity is something I really wanted to show and it’s polar opposites between what you could get away with as a middle class person compared to a working class person.

‘In some ways I think young people have it worse now more than ever. After Thatcher started shutting down industry there’s even less opportunities. Before, there was always something to go onto after school, like the mines, but now it’s all gone and you’re left to figure it out for yourself. 

‘Then obviously that sparks a big drug culture because people can’t cope. It all comes back to lack of opportunity.’

‘I don’t think you can dilute the importance of how important it is to have work written in Scots and its different dialects’

Written entirely in an east coast Scots dialect, A Working Class State Of Mind is one of a number of recently published books amplifying our language. Colin admits it wouldn’t have “felt right” to write the book in English as ‘Scots is the true voice of the working class.

‘Dialect is really important and we need to celebrate all the different Scots dialects. It’s what will inspire future generations. Like, in Airdrie, young folk who have read The Young Team [by Graeme Armstrong] will realise they can go out and write the same way and in their own voice. I’m hoping people where I stay will think the same about my book and also be inspired to write.’

Referencing Robert Burns, who took his local language and made it global, Colin continues, ‘That shows the power of the Scots language to me. Our language is alive, vibrant and rich. It’s so important to keep all the different dialects going. You see people say that Scots is just a poor version of English but it’s not the case at all.

‘The independence movement is definitely a part [of why we’re seeing a resurgence in Scots works being published]. The referendum engaged a lot of people into politics, especially young people. People that weren’t necessarily interested before that. It showed that Scotland has its own identity. 

‘The upturn in Scottish literature has been a consequence of that. We see that Scotland has its own identity outside of the UK and I think that it’s important to show that Scotland has its own culture and art to counteract the idea that we’re nothing without being a part of the UK.’

‘You’ll always find a glory hunter in football’

One of the book’s biggest strengths is its characters, especially the larger than life Aldo. Everyone knows an Aldo: one part pressure cooker waiting to blow, one part sociopath, one part heart of gold (read the book to figure out the ratios for yourselves). With Colin now working on yet more Aldo (and Dougie) for his next book he says, ‘I’ve known a few Aldos in my time and I really like writing him. I like that idea of an antihero, how you end up liking him but you know you probably shouldn’t. One of the first characters I saw like that was Tony Soprano: he’s a scumbag but he also has redeemable qualities.

“Aldo was never going to be the focal point but everyone seems so drawn to him. I think people are drawn to these characters because they don’t obey the same rules as everyone else.’

Aldo shines particularly brightly in a couple of chapters. In one, a wee dug called Bruce worms his way into his life and in the other Aldo reveals himself to be something any fan of a small town football team on a decent run will be familiar with: the glory hunter. 

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Colin said, ‘Bonnyrigg Rose is my local team and I remember once, when they had a good cup run, all these people were suddenly fans even though they’d never mentioned them once before. So I got the idea to adapt that glory hunter idea to Aldo. You’ll always find a glory hunter in football and then as soon as they get knocked out that’s it again.’ 

Once again it was another way of bringing something so intrinsic to culture in this country, particularly working class culture, to the book but on a lighter note than some of the other themes. Colin says, ‘Football is such a big part of Scottish life, that’s why it shows up in fiction a lot. It’s so hard to avoid it. People can lose themselves and forget every day worries at a game.’

‘Folk have said it’s really thought provoking and shines authenticity onto working class realities’

As a debut novelist, Colin says he couldn’t have had a better experience working with publisher Leamington Books. He says, ‘It’s been brilliant working with Peter and Leamington. I’ve enjoyed seeing how books come together and about the publishing world. Peter took a chance on me as a writer and he’s given me a chance to have my voice heard so I can’t speak highly enough about them. It’s been great fun the whole way through and looking forward to working on the audiobook now.’

Feedback from readers and reviewers has been encouraging with themes from the book resonating with the global audience. ‘I got feedback from someone from Missouri,’ Colin said, ‘About the story at the end of the book that’s set in High School. She said it was very reminiscent about her own experiences which I thought was really cool. She’s from Missouri and I’m from Edinburgh but it’s all the same, it’s universal.

‘That’s the main thing I like about being a writer, hearing from people that have enjoyed the book. It inspires me to write more. I don’t write just for Scots, I try to represent all working class people. I know that sounds pretty full on but working class literature is marketable. It’s not just working class people that want to read it, loads more people want to engage with it. 

‘The feedback so far has been really pleasing. Folk have said it’s really thought provoking and shines authenticity onto working class realities. That was one of my main objectives and it’s been so pleasing to see that come across.’

You can find A Working Class State of Mind from the usual retailers or direct from the publisher. Read our review here.

Follow Colin Burnett on Twitter @ColinBurnett16

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