The 47-year-old Ayrshire-born author created a sensation with his first novel, Scar Culture, about survivors of child abuse who are exploited all over again by an ethically questionable psychotherapist. Since its publication in 1999, Scar Culture has frequently been cited as one of the best Scottish novels of recent years.
Davidson is on a rare visit back to his homeland from Switzerland, where he now lives with his wife, author Kate Orson, and their one-year-old daughter, Ruby. For the last few years, he's been teaching English in South-East Asia, mainly in Vietnam, and the experience of living in a tropical climate – not to mention gazing down from a nice apartment onto squalid shacks – directly inspired his new novel.
After a 13-year silence broken only by a short-story collection, his second full-length novel is titled My Gun Was As Tall As Me and returns to the theme of exploited children. It's set in a thinly-disguised version of Burma, where the government press-gangs children as young as seven into brutal death squads, desensitising them to violence and then sending them to burn down villages (even the ones in which they were raised) and massacre the inhabitants. Worldwide, the number of child soldiers is estimated to be about 300,000.
Davidson's narrative follows two escapees from a destroyed village, mute twins Lynch and Leer, who are thought by their fellow villagers to have mystical powers. Entwined with their story is that of Tuvol (again, his nationality is left unclear), whose father is revered for starting a chain of orphanages but has little time for his own son. An aimless and lonely rich boy, Tuvol decides to freeze to death on a mountainside. Fittingly, this grand gesture of Western angst is averted by someone who knows what real suffering is: Dominique, an aid worker on holiday in the mountains. Tuvol decides to find himself by volunteering for service in Dominique's displaced person's camp.
"I think the trigger was moving to Asia, Vietnam in particular," says the softly-spoken Davidson of the novel's genesis, confessing that the final result wasn't what he originally planned. "I knew I wanted to write a book about being in an Asian or tropical setting, and I also wanted a cold setting – not necessarily Scotland but just back in the West, in the cold. I was waiting to go to Burma for a holiday, and I looked into it and thought, 'This doesn't sound good', and from then on I starting researching around Burma and the story of Johnny and Luther, two boys in the Karen tribe in Northern Burma who were said to have magic powers. At the beginning, I looked into Congo and the Lord's Resistance Army, things like that, but as the novel developed some of the other characters became more prominent so the child soldier thing became less of a theme and more of a background. Although Lynch and Leer are in a conflict zone, they're much more of the victims rather than the cajoled perpetrators."
Had circumstances been different, My Gun Is As Tall As Me would have been Davidson's third novel. He finished Silem Renk, a story about a revenge agency that uses non-violent methods, in 2005, but while working on it he had to deal with grief over his father's death and the end of a relationship. Writing became harder, his publisher Canongate wasn't keen on the finished manuscript and it was never published. Davidson admits that embarking on My Gun Was As Tall As Me had its difficulties after that experience, "but then I was familiar with that from long years of not having anything published", and it didn't take him long to get back into the frame of mind for writing a novel.
"At the beginning I'm just working a little," he says. "At the end I'm totally immersed. I love the immersion of a book. You are cognisant of everything that's going on, you know what's happening with each character. Because I don't see it as a plot that I have to make sure everything's working with, I just have to make sure I know all these characters well enough to make it true. To make their voices true is to make the story true. If they're right, everything else will fall into place. Which is slightly naive, probably, from an editor's point of view, because they sometimes want things to be a little tighter than that. So I kind of give them a messy manuscript that has to be tidied up a bit – but that's people, that's characters, in the way that I write."
Instead of Silem Renk, the next Davidson book to be published was The Gradual Gathering Of Lust & Other Tales (2007), a book of short stories exploring the complexities of sexuality, and it seems to have been exactly what he needed.
"I loved the stories because they gave me a chance to explore things of myself – ideas, as well as my own mixed-up autobiography. I just felt really free with the short stories. I loved the freedom they gave me. After the rigours of a novel it felt refreshing to just concentrate on one story for a few weeks, finish the first draft and move on to the next. It was certainly a good bandage on the wound. And more than that – they took on their own life. One of the stories was made into a little play in Saigon, and I took a lot of pride in that."
Well aware that he could be pigeonholed as an author who only dwells on the gloomy things in life, Davidson says his next book, a mystery set in the Alps, will avoid the unsettling themes for which he's become known.
"The next thing I write, I'm avoiding thematically any type of horror at all. I'm not saying I'm going to write a happy book, but I think I'm looking forward to moving on to something different again. I feel that I've explored quite a lot of the dark side of things. Having said that, who knows? Because I do find that what I intend to start out writing about doesn't necessarily happen at the end. And I think that's one of the joys of writing these books: the way that it surprises me."
My Gun Was As Tall As Me is published by Freight Books, £8.99
Contextual targeting label: