I’m very pleased that Brian has taken to the time to answer Questions Five – his enthusiastic answers are perfect for following the huge attention the GRRM interview has received.
Brian, as a Scot, I can only assume that you eat haggis 3 or 4 times in the average day. How do you think haggis is best served?
BR: You do know every year in Scotland several tourists who are flippant about haggis get hunted down and slaughtered like curs by howling, kilt-clad, claymore-wielding mobs, don’t you? It’s virtually a national sport.
When I was but a wee lad, I loathed haggis with a passion. I considered it a vile concoction, developed for the sole purpose of torturing children in general, and me in particular. Fast forward to 2007, and the best night out I’ve had all year was when eight or ten of us gathered at a friend’s house back in January for a Burns Supper (a noble Scottish tradition it would take too long to explain in detail). The company was good, the alcohol was flowing, ‘The Ode to the Haggis’ was delivered with enthusiasm, and the haggis itself was devoured with unseemly gusto. I long ago overcame my aversion to the “great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race”, for the simple reason that it is the finest, most characterful national dish to be found anywhere on the planet, and its offalish splendour can brush aside even the most deeply ingrained childhood trauma.
How to serve it? The first task is to select your haggis. What you really want is not one of the widely available ones that is sealed in plastic, but the proper, original form which comes encased in the pale sheath of a sheep’s stomach. Never ask your supplier exactly what bits of the sheep are used to make the filling, as the answer may render you incapable of eating the thing.
The traditional accompanying vegetables are tatties and neeps (mashed potatoes and mashed swede/turnip), and in this case you will not go far wrong by sticking to tradition. When eating haggis at home, I personally tend to leave out the neeps, and instead indulge myself with a gigantic heap of potato and parsnip, mashed together with plenty of butter and salt and pepper.
The above is not the whole story, of course. If you find yourself stumbling out of a pub in the small hours of the Scottish night, in a state of intoxication, with an urgent need for fast food and a temporary lack of interest in the potential consequences for your coronary arteries, the only way to serve haggis is coated in batter and deep fried, with a good serving of greasy chips beside it. Pretty much every fish and chip shop in Edinburgh stands ready to provide just that, as a public service.
Incidentally, the second verse of the Ode to the Haggis begins (there’s a little bit of translation involved here, for those not up on the old Scots language, which includes me):
“The groaning platter there you fillMasterful.
Your buttocks like a distant hill …”
If I were going on holiday to Edinburgh and I can only visit one pub, which pub do you recommend and why?
BR: This is my kind of interview. It’s obviously absurd to try to narrow Edinburgh’s titanic array of drinking establishments down to a single recommendation, but given how long I spent on the haggis question I should probably try.
I think the best I can come up with for you is the Bow Bar. There are two reasons: one, it’s a small, friendly pub with a mix of locals and visitors (but mostly locals), good beer and a startling array of whiskies if you’re into that kind of thing; two, it’s just round the corner from Edinburgh’s sf/f bookshop, Transreal Fiction, so on a rainy afternoon (it rains a lot in Edinburgh, but don’t let that put you off visiting) you can potter around the bookshop, have a chat with the owner, buy a few books and then retire to the pub to settle into a corner with a drink and read. Lovely. Also, if you lose track of time and end up drunk, there’s a chip shop within staggering distance to supply you with haggis and chips: a perfect end to a perfect day.
Discuss one reason why Winterbirth may inspire a reader to strip naked and run screaming into the forest?
BR: If read backwards, very slowly and with just the right accent, certain sections of it are liable to summon the Great Old Ones from the vastly deeps or wherever they’re hanging out at the moment. Stripping your clothes off and running away screaming is a perfectly rational response to such a manifestation. That’s the most plausible reason I can think of. I’d certainly like to think it’d be an over-reaction to any perceived shortcomings in the text itself. Hopefully.
What other peculiar qualities of Winterbirth should readers be aware of?
BR: It is, to the best of my knowledge, unique amongst all fantasy novels ever published in containing the phrase ‘muculent saliva’ (I stand ready to be corrected on that, by the way). It’s also probably the best novel I’ve ever written. That’s maybe not so impressive when you consider that the only other novels I’ve ever written were done when I was still the wee lad who hated haggis (and probably were only long short stories, come to think of it, though they felt like novels at the time).
Why should Winterbirth be the next book that everyone reads?
BR: If you like Winter, it’s the book for you. If you like Summer, it’s also the book for you because it’ll remind you of all the reasons you don’t like Winter, and why Summer is a good thing. More importantly, I’ll be grateful, my publisher will be grateful, my agent will be grateful. My parents will probably be grateful, because they’re nice like that. Even my accountant’ll probably be grateful, since if no one buys the thing he’s a bit redundant. All that gratitude’s got to be worth something in the cosmic scheme of things, hasn’t it? Plus, you might like it. You never know.