It seems appropriate that Ronald Frame had to blow cyberdust off his new novel before giving it to his publisher.
Havisham, his picaresque account of one of Dickens's most enigmatic characters, is both an homage and an elegy to the raddled, ruined, jilted bride whose dreams turned to dust, just like her wedding cake. By the time she appears in Great Expectations, Miss Havisham spends her days living by candlelight, dressed in her old wedding gown and training her adopted daughter Estella to break men's hearts.
Sitting in an airy Glasgow cafe, an underground ride from the city's west end, where he lives with his widowed mother, Frame talks about his novel and the writer's life with a philosophical air. Stuffing paper napkins beneath a wobbly table leg, he barely pauses for breath. Charming and often caustic, he is the most engaging coffee companion, but almost impossible to interview. One chats with Frame, but one cannot interrogate him.
When I first met him, 25 years ago, Marie Claire magazine had just named him one of the most eligible bachelors in Britain. He was certainly one of the most courteous. Now, on the cusp of 60 and sporting a beard, he is still trim and elegant, dressed in a sage-green jacket and faded jeans, with a notebook in his pocket for recording ideas and eavesdroppings.
Frame has been writing novels and radio plays for almost 30 years. The sensuous tone of many of his early books – Sandmouth People, Penelope's Hat, Bluette – saw him pigeonholed as a writer more interested in the lost glamour of the 20th century than in the rough, tough stuff that was fuelling Scotland's explosion of macho fiction. Now, over a decade in the wake of his highly acclaimed The Lantern Bearers, a moving depiction of a young gay boy's sexual awakening, which won the Saltire Prize, his stature as a stalwart of the literary scene has been assured. Frame, however, seems unperturbed by status or fame, evincing a remarkably Zen air for a man imbued with a Presbyterian work ethic.
When, eventually, conversation turns to Havisham, he speaks as if it were a distant cousin. After writing it, he says, "there were various reasons why I had left it, partly because I had done it at a certain time when that seemed to be quite a fashionable thing to do – that Emma Tennant period when she was writing lots of sequels and prequels – and that kind of blew itself out a bit. And I kind of forgot about it. I just thought I would look at it, and it didn't seem like mine so much. So I could be quite objective about it. I did get quite drawn into it and I felt it cast quite a spell."
How could it not? Miss Havisham is an extraordinary woman, and Frame has speculated persuasively about what her young life might have been like. Showing the rich brewing family to which she was heiress, and the sort of society her father introduced her to in the hope that she would marry well, Frame allows the reader to enter the mind of this imperious young woman.
For all his genius, Dickens is often criticised for unconvincing female characters, and one wonders if Frame chose Miss Havisham to correct that imbalance. He nods. "You're right. I think I was keen on developing her in a way she wasn't in Dickens. Miss Havisham was a more developed character than Betsey Trotwood, but she wasn't three-dimensional. In Great Expectations people didn't generally notice that Dickens did provide a measure of history for Miss Havisham, but nobody seemed to pick up on it. I thought it was very interesting ... I thought he could have developed that and taken it in a more naturalistic way. Yet when his characters are natural, like Pip as an older man, they become rather boring and not very interesting.
"Maybe that's the point Dickens is making. Because there's nothing more alive and, dare I say it, unpleasant than boys at 10 years old. Horrible. People can never be as bad as they were at 10. You grow up and everything gets a bit smoothed out. You learn the art of politeness and concealment."
When Frame was 10, he was attending a Glasgow primary school, walking home each day "like a chocolate soldier" in his brown uniform and cap. It was at this period that he learned the art of jaywalking. Today, the risks he runs are artistic. What will Dickens devotees make of his prequel?
"I wasn't too worried about the Dickens thing," he says with typical insouciance. "He's not going to be turning in his grave in Westminster because I had a go. These characters are infinitely adaptable. What I really wanted the book to read like was a translation of a Victorian novel. I didn't want to write a cod Victorian novel. I never saw the point of that. If you're writing in 2012, why would you write as Dickens wrote, apart from to show your cleverness?"
Over the years, Frame's playwriting has been a significant a part of his career, and in the case of Havisham, the story began in 1998 as a radio play, which he then adapted. "I'm a great fan of radio," he says, happy, you feel, to be discussing a subject he's passionate about. "It's a very intimate medium. It's a relationship between you and your listener. You have to engage their attention, and if you haven't got it after two minutes, you've lost it. It's like getting hold of the Ancient Mariner's hand on your shoulder. I've got a story to tell you."
He recalls certain occasions in the studio. "Good actors don't change anything. Middling actors sometimes ask if they can change the words round." He takes sip of tea. "You don't want to make a big scene about it."
In whatever form Frame writes, simplicity is the key, and increasingly so, it seems. "I've become much more interested in story now," he says. "It's primarily a form of entertainment. There's no point in making a book worthy, or pleasing the academic community, because all it is is storytelling. I also think that love, and the telling of love stories, not being too clever about it, not being too ironic ... people think you can't write love stories nowadays, which is nonsense. Of course you can. It's just that we've lost the knack of it. I think love does make the world go round, and the new novel is a love story of sorts."
For this reader, stepping into Miss Havisham's young shoes has been oddly comforting. Her end might still be terrible – there is nothing Frame can do to change that – but there's some consolation in his depiction, if simply because she has been given the stage and respect she deserves.
He looks gratified. "I like characters to breathe, and not necessarily to add up. At the end of a book, a character should have a degree of enigma left. I don't think we need to know absolutely everything about Miss Havisham.
"That's one of the things about writing for radio, when you have people speaking, that they don't always tell the truth about themselves. Actors and actresses are frequently saying to me, 'oh darling, with your scripts, it's all in the subtext isn't it?'. I'm always scratching my head about this. No, it's all there. Just read it."
Havisham is published by Faber & Faber, £16.99