They will talk about it non-stop in Charlotte Square this summer, about storytelling and how important stories are,” says Kirsty Gunn. She is visibly annoyed at the zeitgeist that demands fiction “be ethically and morally involved” in wider society. It is mid-July. The Edinburgh International Book Festival, based at Charlotte Square, is one month away. I am sitting opposite Gunn in the National Library of Scotland cafe. She has just finished giving a lecture on literature and modernism at Edinburgh University’s Summer School and is brimming with energy.

“The fact is,” she says, “our notion of story is so perverted by Hollywood and the entertainment industry that our narratological priorities have become limited. Stories, if you go back to the roots of the word, are about the telling, they are not about a moral or something that is uncovered or revealed.” This is why Gunn is so frustrated when reviewers say her sophisticated new novel Caroline’s Bikini is about “a

drug-addled housewife, unhappily married”, who invites a lodger, financier Evan Gordonston, to live in her house in Richmond, London, and he subsequently falls in love with her.

Gunn should be annoyed. Anyone who has read her fiction will know that it is first and foremost preoccupied with what modernist poet Wallace Stevens called “the cry of its own creation”. This quote can be found in the “Further material” at the end of Caroline’s Bikini, a novel that fulfils Ezra Pound’s dictum to “make it new”, but which also harks back to the poetic trope of unrequited love established during the Renaissance. During that period, poets such as Petrarch began writing “extended imaginative pieces of text – poetry or prose – that in themselves are an attempt to create an artefact or ‘thing’ that many stand in for the love object”.

In light of this, it seems reasonable to ask Gunn when she first heard the cry of her novel’s creation. “The book started in the summer of 2015. I wrote a short story called Caroline’s Bikini. It was a perfectly good short story. I knew I could publish it. But I was bored by it because John Cheever had already written that kind of story.” So it was flung in the bin. “But I couldn’t let go of the title… there was a lyrical thing going on, but also it was the quality of the words not settling on the page.” She kept the character of Caroline Beresford – the so-called “unhappy housewife” – and the idea of a pool party. “Then it came to me that the story was about these two other people altogether, two old friends [Emily and Evan], and he was in love with Caroline, and he needed to talk about that, and the story was going to be about the story of Caroline’s Bikini.”

Emily, the sharp-witted narrator, is an advertising copywriter. She becomes Evan’s amanuensis and writes down his story. They meet in bar after bar, week after week, over gin and tonics. When his infatuation goes nowhere, Emily, mindful of what “people might just want to read”, spends hours trying to coax details out of him: “I’m talking content, and lots of it.” If Evan is the lonely male in the corner, gradually becoming shabbier and shabbier as his love for Caroline eats away at him, Emily is the life and soul of the party.

I point out her definite change of tone in Caroline’s Bikini, which is more light-hearted and ebullient than her previous novel, The Big Music (2012). She agrees. “I’ve never written a funny thing in my life… it was gorgeously unexpected. I had real fun writing the book because of Emily and her tone.” She even enjoyed handing the book in to her publisher, wrapping the manuscript in an old bikini.

Emily’s lively style owes a debt to Gunn’s childhood reading habits. “My sisters and I used to read these books called the Susan Stories. They were written by a Scottish writer, Jane Shaw, who died on Arran not that long ago. They were not funny because they were setting out to be funny but because of the way she created her sentences. When my daughters were little, we used to read the Susan stories. They are teenagers now but we still have nights of reading Susan.” Gunn is also interested in how laughter – “this bodily spasm that is not part of our cerebral thinking” – can draw us into other worlds. Muriel Spark, who, like everyone else, she has been quoting a lot this year, once wrote, “humour is the only honourable art form left”.

There is something Sparkian about Gunn’s demeanour and her alertness to the world. She was born and grew up in New Zealand. But, as her name suggests, her family’s roots lie in the north-east of Scotland. She now lives in Sutherland and London with her two daughters and husband, who works in publishing.

Her relationship with the Scottish literary canon has changed over the last six years since she wrote The Big Music. Set in Sutherland, it is crafted around the Piobaireachd, the classical compositional form of the Highland bagpipe. Back then, Gunn might have been reluctant to call it a Scottish novel. Nevertheless, when The Big Music came out, the conversation about Scotland’s future could be heard on the lips of even the most apolitical of citizens.

“Because of the Scottish independence referendum, I started to become mindful of writing and nationality. I have written about this in newspapers, and I wrote a pamphlet for the Saltire Society called Notes Towards a National Literature. I was troubled by the ways in which a lot of writers, many of them friends, were seeing their writing project as part of a nation-building project. I was very unhappy about that. But it did return me to Edwin Muir and his writing about [Walter] Scott and this idea, what is the Scottish novel?”

Gunn is Professor of Creative Writing Practice and Study at Dundee University. She has recently brought Neil Gunn into the undergraduate course to “talk about how the Scottish novel has always had a different agenda [from the English novel]. I used to resist that because I have always resisted ideas of agenda.” Now she feels excited to bring those divergences to the general reader, “not for any nationalist purpose, you understand, but so we might enjoy those differences and so we don’t have to bang that bloody drum so loudly”.

In general, the English novel has been more concerned with mimesis – art representing life – than the Scottish novel, which has a more modernist preoccupation: the art of creation. This quality goes right back to James Hogg’s Memoirs of a Justified Sinner and finds its modern equivalent in writers such as Alasdair Gray and, now, Gunn. Is she worried that there is a dearth of young novelists carrying forward this tradition? She nods. She is concerned for the current state of Scottish fiction. Many writers seem to have fallen back on tried and tested formulae. They are losing their sense of risk and danger. It is hard to disagree. Fiction in Scotland has seen better times.

But, even if Caroline’s Bikini was emerging in another “efflorescence” that Scottish literature went through in the 1990s, it would still stand out as sui generis. It is a novel that makes you reassess the nature of many things, including love and the stories we tell about love. Before Gunn leaves, I ask how she arrived at the unexpected ending. She shrugs and smiles. “The story consumed itself,” she says. It is true, in more ways than one.

The story doesn’t disappear completely, however. Like all good books, turning the last page is another way to return to the beginning. The invitation on the front cover might request an “RSVP” but, really, there is no need: everyone is invited to this riotous party. There is a pool, there are gin and tonics, there is Petrarch, there is formal ingenuity and, most importantly, there is serious fun to be had. What’s not to love?