issue 22 Spring 04
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Jimmy's new view

Scots writer Anne Donovan 's acclaimed debut novel Buddha Da explores how western Buddhists can appear through the character of an ordinary Glaswegian who gets involved with his local Buddhist centre. She spoke to Joyce Henderson

Interviewing Anne Donovan is an intense experience. Petite and animated, she demonstrates critical awareness and objectivity about her work, but with no lack of passion. Her training as a teacher is obvious as she fends off questions about her personal life. You can try all you like for revealing biographical details but you won't get far, except for an occasional reference to her five-year-old son. She is much more comfortable talking about her work.

Donovan tells me that she started with her three main characters and the book developed from there. There's Jimmy who's a painter and decorator and a bit of a joker, his sensible wife Liz and his daughter Anne-Marie, who thinks becoming a Buddhist is Jimmy's biggest joke yet.

'It was the most outlandish thing he could do in the eyes of his daughter,' explains Donovan. 'I had in mind a particular sort of guy - an extrovert working man, from a tight-knit West of Scotland family who had never grown up in a way. He had married a woman who did all the sensible grown-up stuff for him. And here he was hitting 40, his father had died two years before and his daughter was growing up. I wanted to see what happened when he started to look inside and examine what was going on in his life.'

Donovan was also drawn to exploring the threads of Buddhism, for reasons she thinks were only partly conscious. But she was particularly impressed by the Buddhist understanding that we are all intrinsically pure, we just don't realise it.

'Take those television programmes that give people advice on their clothes and make them look at themselves in a 360-degree mirror and point out the faults. Sometimes people see them and sometimes they don't. It is similarly difficult for people to accept their innate goodness. That's what impresses me about Buddhism - the idea that we are 'good' already but we just don't see it. We often think we have to do positive things to become good. In the book I try to question that notion: suggesting that it's not about adding things, more about getting rid of the rubbish to see what's already inside us.'

In a crucial scene in Buddha Da, Jimmy sees himself drunk and fooling around on a video made at a family party and does not like what he sees. He has already started to meditate and, while his family see nothing wrong with the video, he is disgusted. He has started to view things from a Buddhist perspective, which clashes with his family's outlook. 'In meditation you are trying to see things as they really are. This was Jimmy's moment of clarity. It's as if he sees through someone else's eyes, looks at himself objectively for the first time,' she explains.

Donovan has drawn on her own experience of this process: she learnt to meditate at the Glasgow Buddhist Centre in Sauchiehall Street and has been on several retreats at Dhanakosa, a retreat centre in the Scottish Highlands. However, she insists that the Buddhist venues are a conflation of several places, and the incidents mostly invented. She gathered her sense of place from Dhanakosa, if not the specifics. But the incidents, the characters, the conversations and even the soup will ring uncannily true to anyone who's ever attended a newcomers' retreat there - and probably provoke a smile of recognition.

Donovan has read widely and has studied abroad with Tibetan teachers. The Buddhist teachers Jimmy encounters in Buddha Da are Tibetan Rinpoches. 'For the purposes of the novel, they had to be exotic because I wanted the clash of cultures. And in Tibetan Buddhism there is a great emphasis on lineage, just as there is in the extended family of the West of Scotland. Jimmy was rooted in his close-knit family. He works with his brother and there is a sense of things being passed down from one generation to another. It's why his daughter Anne-Marie is so grounded. I wanted to explore that idea of lineage.'

Brought up a Catholic in Coatbridge on the outskirts of Glasgow, Donovan now explores different spiritual traditions in her own life. She finds the Buddha an inspirational character and meditation a very sane activity, especially in a busy life. She meditates now and again and also draws inspiration from Christianity, enjoying the contemplative atmosphere on Jesuit retreats.

'Meditation brings you into your body and the Metta Bhavana practice is great for dealing with Scottish conditioning, which instils the belief that it's selfish to think of yourself. What a revelation to be encouraged to develop feelings of loving-kindness towards yourself.'

In Buddha Da, Jimmy approaches meditation as something that is going to get him somewhere. He is attracted to the lamas he meets and wants what they've got. He doesn't see what is right under his own nose. He is also blind to the effects his actions have on his family. 'In a way Jimmy was selfish because he decided to become celibate without considering his wife and he decided to become a vegetarian, yet it was Liz who had to cook him separate meals. He didn't address the tension between what they both wanted and needed,' explains Donovan.

Another of Buddha Da's underlying themes is the Buddhist teaching of impermanence. Jimmy acts instinctually, which causes his wife and daughter to take their own courses of action. He believes what he is doing will benefit them all. And imagines they will be just the same when he has finished exploring. In the end he has to face the unpleasant consequences of his absence from the family which, paradoxically, initiates his purest impulse. He responds from his highest self, arriving where he hoped to be but not by the planned route.

Donovan makes the perceptive point that most of us would like things to improve without anything having to change, and relates it to her own experience of writing. As a child she wrote stories but gave up after feeling 'intimidated' by studying the literary greats at university. A writing retreat in 1995 encouraged her to take writing more seriously and she began to finish stories. She won the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday short story competition in 1997 and was a winner of the Canongate prize in 1999/2000. Jamie Byng of Canongate Press encouraged her to continue writing and eventually gave her a two-book deal for her short story collection Hieroglyphics and her novel, Buddha Da. But she only recently gave up her career as an English teacher to write full time.

'Change is hard. But everything is changing all the time and we are often trying to hold on to things. I worried that giving up my job to write full-time would mean I'd end up living in a black bin bag. I'd pass a homeless person on the street and think, 'that could be me!' But when I found the book had been well-reviewed and was selling well, I decided to take the plunge and resign. Things fall into place when you commit yourself.'

Things fell into place spectacularly for Donovan. Two weeks after she resigned she was shortlisted for the Orange prize, an international award for women writers (along with Carol Shields, Zadie Smith, Sheena Mackay, Donna Tartt and Valerie Martin). Donovan is now working on a screenplay for Buddha Da, which provides paid work whether or not it makes it to the screen. The small stylish figure of Anne Donovan disappears along a Glasgow street. Change seems to suit her. She walks with a spring in her step and she doesn't look back.

Buddha Da by Anne Donovan is published by Canongate, $17.00/£9.99 p/b