Agnes Owens is the Vale's “writer in residence”. Born in 1926, Agnes still lives in Balloch. Her close friend Alasdair Gray says she is the “most unfairly neglected of all living Scottish authors”, and perhaps one reason for that is that her first novel was not published until 1984 when she was 58, although she had produced her first short story in 1978 at a writing group in Alexandria which was being mentored by Liz Lochead.
Another is perhaps that her work is steeped in what has been termed “tough, social realism” - one publisher complained to her that she only wrote about poor people, by which he presumably meant financially poor people.
Well, there's been no shortage of tough social realism in the Vale for the past 200 years or so, and Agnes has accumulated enough life experience for any number of novels. She worked in Westclox for a number of years, and when it started to run down, she took on a variety of jobs including cleaning and typing. She has been married twice, (her first husband had died when he was only 43) and had 4 children by her first husband and 3 by her second. So, unlike many of to-day's more prominent authors, she's got a lot of first hand material to call on in her works, and call on it she does to great effect.
Having written short stories for her writing group from the late 1970's, Agnes's first novel, Gentlemen of the West appeared in 1985. It is loosely based on another son who was a brickie, whom she calls Mick in the novel and later, Mac. He lives amongst winos and dropouts just outside Glasgow. It's pretty gritty, and the follow up novel Like birds in the Wilderness (1987) is even grittier. The first novel had established her reputation with her fellow Scottish writers, particularly her fellow West of Scotland writers, and this was further enhanced when she joined Alasdair Gray and James Kelman to produce a collection of short stories, Lean Tales in 1985. Agnes was well established as part of what many call the “Golden Age of Scottish Writing”.
Her next two novels, A Working Mother (1994) and For the Love of Willie (1998) turn to women, blighted by life, as her protagonists. Between these two novels she also produced a collection of short stories People Like That (1996) - the people being those at the lower rungs of to-day's society.
Earlier this year (2008), Agnes Owens published her latest book, Complete Short Stories (published by Polygon), and is still going strong. It does make you wonder with James Kelman “how much more could have been?” if Agnes had found that writing group in Alexandria when she was 28 instead of 58. Still, we should be grateful for what we've got, and what's still to come.
Update: Sadly, Agnes Owens passed away in October 2014 following a long illness. There is a detailed obituary here.