INTERVIEW: Kirkland Ciccone on strange towns, the Scottish psyche and pandemic publishing

It’s been a wee while since the last interview here on the Scot Lit Blog but we’re back with a bang. Happiness Is Wasted On Me has been one of the stand out novels for us over the past year so it was a proper treat to have a chat with the man behind the book, Kirkland Ciccone. I’ll leave it to the interview to do the introductions…enjoy!

‘All I wanted to do was write books and tell stories when all my friends wanted to be marine biologists!’

Born and raised in Cumbernauld, like main character Walter in Happiness Is Wasted on Me, Kirkland attended Cumbernauld High School….just like Walter. ‘This may become a theme!’ Kirkland says when he spoke to Scot Lit Blog earlier this month. To anyone who has read Kirkland’s first novel marketed for adults [he already had four YA novels before it] there’s much of his own story that will be familiar to fans of the book. ‘All I wanted to do was write books and tell stories when all my friends wanted to be marine biologists. I just wanted to see my books on the book shelf in libraries or bookshops. But it just seems so unlikely because, as a working class person, it’s like you’re more likely to go to the moon than get a book published, you know what I mean?

‘Anyway,’ he continues with something that can only be described as infectious enthusiasm, ‘In High School I decided I wanted to be a journalist.’ [Just like Walter]. A stint at college to study journalism and PR followed before Kirkland turned to performing one man shows at Cumbernauld Theatre, ‘I turned up one day and said, “I hear you’re looking for talent – Ta Daaaaa! And they never threw me out! So I started doing live stories. And I was so shy, I would literally read from a Pukka Pad. But it was actually really good, because if the audience didn’t throw glasses at me I knew it was good, and if they were bored and threw things then I knew the stories were bad.’

From there Kirkland began touring theatres across the country all the time continuing to write and try to get a book published. But it just wasn’t happening. Then, in a conversation already full of sentences I didn’t see coming, he declares, ‘So then I got a job as a psychic consultant.

‘It was through word of mouth and I would turn up and read people’s future at parties and stuff. It was a good way of working but eventually I started to get jealous of people that worked in shops and had nine to five jobs.’ And then, like Walter, Kirkland got a job in a library.

Despite not intending to go into writing YA, he started around about the time Twilight was a huge deal globally and something about it appealed. With a book written, the publisher that eventually picked him up was Strident – ‘because they were closest,’ Kirkland adds a wee bit wryly. ‘My thing was weird YA, like the weirdest, strangest things. I just loved the idea that teens were getting sort of punk rock fiction fed in to their brains, the stuff that I wanted to read at that age. But the problem with the books is that they got progressively weirder to the point where they’re unreadable. And, you know, at some point I decided that I couldn’t continue writing that stuff. I just wanted to say something about the world around me.

‘I wanted to write an adult novel and I wanted to become cult. But I never realised you can’t just become cult, other people have got to make you cult. Basically, I wanted to be a cult author of adult fiction. Happiness Is Wasted On Me is the first time where I felt like I knew what I was doing and it’s the first book that I’ve written that I’m completely happy with.’

Once the book was finished it was sent off to Scottish indie Fledgling Press, which had already published a number of books by Kirkland’s friend Alex Nye. ‘I feel like Scottish publishing had taken awhile to catch up [to everywhere else], and I don’t think they were ready for me before. But I also had to be ready to tell that story as well.’

‘I love how Cumbernauld Town Centre is kind of like David Bowie’s Labyrinth where you just walk down some stairs and around a corner and end up in a different world.

While Happiness Is Wasted On Me is full of memorable moments and characters, arguably the strongest aspect of the whole book is Walter himself. Not least because of his relatability to anyone that hides away from real life among books and pop culture. A quick skim through reviews of the book and you’ll see that this element of relatability and likeability as a character pops up fairly frequently.

Kirkland said, ’A lot of people feel that Walter is very real and very likeable (thank God!). He is based on me to an extent but he’s not me – he’s less confident than me I would say. He’s not an avatar. It’s not like I’m living my life through him. The truth is, he makes a lot of mistakes in the book, he’s quite distant and very socially awkward, which wasn’t me at all.

‘I felt like if you’re going to have a protagonist, they don’t always need to be likeable, but for this book I felt the best way to get people to empathise with him was to try and make him as likeable as possible…but not perfect. I just wanted to try and write him as normal as possible even though he’s not a “normal” person. Because everything he represents puts him on the outside of everything around him. He’s at the window looking through the glass or reading a book in the background while people are fighting in the living room in front of him. 

‘I just drew from real life incidents too so that autobiographical element probably makes him feel more real to people as well.’ 

While Walter is a brilliant character, vivid and real, another huge element of the book is the setting: Cumbernauld. While it’s often used as a punchline both at home and elsewhere due to the number of times it’s won the Plook on the Plinth award, among others.

Kirkland said, ‘Cumbernauld is a strange, strange town. They made it with flat roofs because they thought the sun was going to shine forever, in the middle of Scotland, one of the rainiest countries! And the town centre is extremely ugly. People get insulted when I say that and think I’m taking the piss but the truth is that’s what I love about Cumbernauld. It’s what I’ve always loved about the town – how weird it is, how strange, how ugly. 

“Cumbernauld Town Centre” by The JR James Archive, University of Sheffield is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

‘It has a real personality. I don’t think I could have come from anywhere other than Cumbernauld. It really has informed my personality a lot. I feel like I really embodied the town. I felt awkward, I still do, and not quite put together, but that’s why I felt a deep emotional connection with Cumbernauld town centre building in particular. 

‘I love how it’s kind of like David Bowie’s Labyrinth where you just walk down some stairs and around a corner and end up in a different world. It’s strange but I love that. I still feel like there’s lots of it that we don’t know about – like you could knock down a wall and find a shop that hasn’t been touched for 40 years or something. I would love to take the Most Haunted crew in with our torches and have a look around.

‘The town itself is so personality packed that it does become a character in the book. People who’ve lived in Cumbernauld and have read the book have contacted me to tell me that they can feel the town in the DNA of the book itself and that’s the best compliment that I can think of.’

‘We were all drawing on the same kind of cosmic force’

Something that’s clear in Kirkland’s work is the very fine balance between darker topics and difficult parts of life alongside the lighter parts that keep you going. Happiness Is Wasted On Me opens with a young schoolboy [Walter, obviously] finding a dead baby in a box – hardly a laugh a minute riot – but there’s so much charm to be found as the book progresses, even though the bleak things Walter goes through in his formative years are fairly relentless. 

Read More: Growing up Scottish – nine reads to add to your TBR

‘I didn’t feel,’ Kirkland says, ‘That any slice of life Scottish fiction would sell to a publisher. So I thought I would put this murder mystery element into it and connect it to Walter’s personal development. But there must have been something in the water because at the same time Shuggie Bain came out, and God bless it, I realised I actually could have done just the normal slice of life story. Then Duck Feet came out, and Blessed Assurance, all these Scottish coming-of-age novels while I thought I was doing something different! They’re all kind of in the same wheelhouse. We were all drawing on the same kind of cosmic force.

‘I do find myself drawn towards dark subjects but almost without realising it I always put comedy in too. I think it’s something that’s going to stay in all my work, that sense of the absurd, or everyday surrealism. It’s just very natural to me and I can’t help but put both in. Happiness Is Wasted On Me was a very dark book and I worried that it was maybe too dark. But thankfully the lighter parts of my own personality made it’s way into the writing and I’m really glad of that because it stops it being too bleak.

‘It’s so Scottish. Like, people might have the most horrible stories about alcoholism or drugs or anything, people that have gone through such hardship, and yet they can laugh about it as well. It’s like an aspect of our collective Scottish psyche where you’ve got to laugh or you’ll cry.’

I would get up every morning and read teletext and take notes and say to my mates, “Oh have you heard this new band called Placebo?”

Barely a page will go by in Happiness Is Wasted On Me before there’s some kind of pop culture reference, whether music or TV or film, the book is packed with these Easter egg like references that will delight any 80s or 90s kid. With Walter growing up in the 90s, at the same time as Kirkland did, he once again draws from his own life experiences to add richness to both character and story. 

‘I actually loved the 90s. It’s not a perfect decade by any means but, culturally speaking, so much went on. You had grunge, you had Britpop, you had all kinds of different artistic movements going on, you had all the really good films. The political situation with the Tories leaving and New Labour coming in. So the 90s is fertile ground for a backdrop for a story.

‘But I liked the idea that as the character gets older, things around them change, but he remains almost the same. When you’re writing about young people, or dealing with young people, you know that teenagers speak about their favourite things. All of them trying to find the next new bands, and who’s going to find the best new band and sell it to all your friends and be the one that discovered it. I would get up every morning and read Teletext and take notes and say to my mates, “Oh have you heard this new band called Placebo?” And that’s an experience that’s going to always be around as long as teenagers are around. 

‘So yeah, I do like pop culture references and I think a good pop culture reference speaks for the characters themselves. It can be character building: the sort of films they watch, books they read and songs they listen to. It tells you a lot about a person and I suppose, from a writer’s perspective, that’s really useful to use. 

It’s an important book to me, it has so much about me in it and so much that I wanted to say.

Happiness Is Wasted On Me was released at the height of the pandemic in 2020 when everything was closed and there was no chance of a live book tour let alone an open book shop. Initially slated for a March 2020 release, after signing a contract with Fledgling towards the end of 2019, the book was pushed to the autumn due to the pandemic. 

Of his route to publication Kirkland said, ‘All in all it was a very smooth process [up to that point] and it was really nice that I got everything I wanted for the book. We were all set to put the book out in March of 2020…and I knew about the virus in China, we all did, but I just didn’t realise how serious it was. Then people started to die and it just felt really dark and horrible…and then it came here.’

The last thing anyone needs is a rehash of all we’ve been through over the past 18 months but putting a book out into the world while the world is closed has proven to be as difficult as you’d expect. 

“Housing, Cumbernauld” by The JR James Archive, University of Sheffield is licensed underCC BY-NC 2.0

‘So the book couldn’t come out in March,’ Kirkland says, ‘And I understood that. But the virus weaponised the advantage that we have of having audiences in a book shop, or library. The best thing about putting a book out is getting to meet people, you get to read your book to them and in my case, getting to perform. I had ideas of how this was going to go, for my first adult novel and it feels like my first book to be honest. I wanted to tour and go to the cool venues, punk rock clubs, theatres and libraries….

‘And it didn’t happen.’

By autumn, the publishing industry was starting to get back to normal, Shuggie Bain was out creating a buzz about Scottish fiction, and an online, digital launch was held. ‘It was brilliant,’ Kirkland said, ‘But you still don’t get what you really wanted from it. It was difficult because my emotional state was really tied up in this book. It’s an important book to me, has so much about me in it and so much that I wanted to say. It was just a lot to deal with at the time.

‘The journey was slow and I did feel cheated at first, but you do have to think of the bigger picture.’

‘It feels almost punk, there’s a real energy there’

The novel is now headed for a well-deserved second print run to coincide with the world opening back up again, as such, Kirkland was able to have his first in-person event for the book at The Book Nook in Stirling very recently. 

‘When you go into a book shop and see that table full of Scottish books it does feel like kind of a renaissaince. Some might say its tokenistic but it’s still always at the front of the shop or prominently positioned and that’s helped sell Happiness Is Wasted On Me. I’ve actually seen someone pick it up then walk to the till with it! (I never jumped out at the them or anything though incase they thought I was some kind of serial killer). 

‘But at least these books are getting picked up now and they’re trying to sell them.’

On the gear change we’ve been seeing in publishing over recent years, in terms of more marginalised and working class voices finally getting heard and published, Kirkland admits it’s something he thinks about a lot. ‘Sometimes I think the Scottish publishing industry is really middle class and it can be difficult, at times, to know where you fit in. Sometimes I feel like I do fit in and other times I feel like the book didn’t get the innings it deserved. I did get a lot of support and it’s nice to know that people enjoyed it but I hoped it would maybe get into the mainstream more. 

‘I think it might [get that mainstream attention] now, because other working class voices are breaking through and it’s becoming more and more prevalent. I think it’s important that Scottish writers are telling Scottish stories as well. I think it’s good that we’re getting that kind of prominence. 

‘I was in Waterstones the other day and O Caledonia, which was out of print for years, is back in print again. And I can’t help but think that that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for all these new stories coming out. It’s nice that that’s happening. And of course you’ve got folk like Chris McQueer and 404 Ink that really push that kind of mentality in a sense.

‘It feels almost punk, there’s a real energy there with all the people starting blogs and making Instagram posts and just supporting any way they can. It feels good. I feel for the first time like I’m in the right place at the right time.’ 

You can find Kirkland’s own website here (click click) and he’s also on Instagram and Twitter

Read our review of Happiness Is Wasted On Me here.

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