Addressing a roomful of strangers in a small community centre is something that Alan Bissett has grown used to in recent years.
The author and playwright from Hallglen is a prominent campaigner for Scottish independence and regularly spoke at meetings across the country in the lead-up to last September’s referendum.
But when The Falkirk Herald met the 39-year-old at Bowhouse Community Centre in Grangemouth on a freezing January afternoon, he was talking about two subjects he’s equally as passionate about - the power of the written word, and his home town of Falkirk.
Bissett is working with Falkirk Community Trust to deliver a series of creative writing classes as part of a new project entitled ‘Acts of Discovery’.
Those attending the classes are asked to write a work of fiction or personal essay on what Falkirk means to them. The best entries will be published in a collection, edited by Bissett, to be released later this year.
“It’s about being from a particular place and what that means,” he explained. “One of the aims of both these projects is community - to make people realise they are from a specific place.
“What people do now is come home from work and go straight on Facebook, or watch the telly, or play the X-Box or whatever. That whole idea of community people don’t quite take it as seriously anymore.”
Bissett now lives in Glasgow but the influence of his home town is self-evident in critically acclaimed novels such as ‘Boyracers’ and was the obvious choice to lead ‘Acts of Discovery’ after it won £150,000 funding from the national Creative Place Awards, established in 2012 to recognise communities where people work together to promote their town or village through culture.
As well as a book, the project will also see Bissett premiere an as-yet-untitled new play sometime next year, and he’s been enthusiastically delving into the town’s past as part of his research.
“Ask people what they know about the history of the district, and they tend to say ‘Battle of Falkirk,’ he said.
“I grew up here and all of my family are here - I thought I knew Falkirk pretty well. But all of a sudden this whole other Falkirk appears before me on the page.”
Bissett hopes the eventual collection of stories - which will be written mostly by people with no previous publishing experience - will explore what makes Falkirk a distinct community in an era of mass communication and increasing globalisation.
“I thought both of these projects in tandem can answer those questions - one written by me, and another written by people from Falkirk,” he continued.
“That’s the sort of questions we’ve looked at in the workshops, so we’ll do a bit of creative writing but also talk about the place that they come from.”
What does he think makes Falkirk that bit different?
“For me, there were certain values instilled in me when I was growing up. They might not be Falkirk-specific values, it’s possible that people that grow up in Dunfermline feel the same about Dunfermline, but it was about being there for people when they need you - being a good neighbour, looking out for folk, and I think Falkirk is small enough that it’s still got that kind of ethos.
“What’s interesting about a place like Falkirk is it’s large enough that people identify with their ‘bit’ - people say I’m fae Camelon, or I’m fae Langlees. I grew up in Hallglen, and we defined ourselves against Tamfourhill - which is ridiculous, but that’s how it goes.
“So Falkirk is an interesting size. It’s got an incredible industrial past - it was the engine room for central Scotland in a lot of ways, with its iron works and petrochemical and agriculture, in a way that Stirling wasn’t. There’s a bit more wealth in Stirling - which is not to say that it doesn’t have its problems.
“Living in Glasgow now, I always think Falkirk’s relationship to Stirling is like Glasgow’s relationship to Edinburgh. Falkirk is a bit more real.”
Bissett returns to his home town regularly and admits he’s dismayed at the current state of Falkirk High Street, which he believes has been a hit by a “triple whammy of recession, internet shopping and out-of-town retail parks”.
“Falkirk town centre is quite a good looking place,” he added. “There are all sorts of aspects to its character that you only realise when you stop to think about it.”
As the author of four novels as well as several plays, Bissett is the ideal candidate to advise aspiring writers, but he’s keen for his students to embrace their own individuality.
“I don’t want to say to people: ‘if you do this it will get into the book’,” he said. “The first criteria is quality of writing. I’m also looking for something that has a distinct local flavour.
“Falkirk has a particular kind of language. I would be looking for people to use language in a creative way that shows the local dialect and a strong sense of place, or just a really well-told story. It can be a nostalgia piece about where they grew up, or it can be a story that has Falkirk as the background. I don’t want to be too prescriptive about it. I’ll know it when I see it.”
Bissett has regularly made the town and its residents central characters in his work. And he’s hoping these classes will inspire others do the same in their writing.
“I don’t think Falkirk has ever been contextualised,” he said. “There’s been some really good writers that have come from Falkirk, people like Janet Paisley, Gordon Legg, Brian McCabe. a guy Shug Hanlon from Bonnybridge who did a book called ‘High Bonnybrigg’.
“I would say to people to write what comes naturally.
“In my second novel, ‘The Incredible Adam Spark’, I first tried to write that in standard English, and it just wasn’t working. I was writing about this teenage boy from Falkirk, and I couldn’t make the story move. And then I tried writing it in first person, the way that he - a working class boy - would probably talk, and wooft, that was it away.
“The book is the boss.”