INTERVIEW: Ely Percy on finding voices, the Scots resurgence and the Scottish school experience (Part Two)

Look up Duck Feet and you’ll see how beloved this novel already is on Scottish Bookstagram. Written entirely in Scots, the book was published by the brilliant Monstrous Regiment earlier this year. For many, me included, this was the book that hooked them onto Ely’s writing, so I had to find out more about the story behind the story. 

Duck Feet is the story of Kirsty Campbell, told through her viewpoint and observations about the world around her: her mates, her school, her family, the community, the world in general, as she moves through High School in the early 2000s. It’s a wry, funny and occasionally emotional read that most Scots (and everyone generally) will be able to relate to.

‘People have asked me if Kirsty is me….absolutely not!’

Like Vicky Romeo before it, Duck Feet started life as a short story. ‘Mslexia had a call out for short stories on the theme of shoes,’ Ely says, ‘And I was sat thinking about all these different shoes, brogues…high heels…trainers. But to stand out, I knew it needed to be something unusual. Then my dad comes into the room with a basin of water for his bad feet and the first story [about Kirsty] just came out. I wrote it then and there and typed it up the next day. It was months before it got published but I thought it was fun, that I’d enjoyed writing about this school setting, and started thinking about where to take it next, which was the French class.

‘It was about ten stories later when I thought, this is the same wee lassie all the time. I was finding her voice really easy to write. I realised I could just keep talking about her and thought then that this was maybe something bigger than short stories.’

Ely was on a mission after that and started tracking down people they went to school with, folk their sister went to school with and folk that went to schools in other parts of Scotland. ‘I spoke to the 13-year-old daughter of one of my college tutors and when she realised she could say anything and talk about folk she really warmed up to it!

‘I was just asking people lots of different questions and finding that people were telling me the same stories. It was like it didn’t matter where you went or when you were at school, it was the same stories coming up. I left school in 1997, my sister was there until 2001, there were people that had been in high school before me, people that had been in high school after me, and they were all saying the same things.

‘There was the person you liked, your best pal, your worst enemy, teacher you liked, teacher that hated you for whatever reason, the wee person that everyone said smelled, the class clown, the person that was always pure trying to fight everyone, the lassie that got pregnant by 15, the person that everyone thought was a total fuckin’ waste of space that would amount to nothing but then surprised everyone by doing better than everyone else…I just saw these same characters coming up over and over.’

‘This just won the Booker prize and I’m being told not to talk like that?’

There were two things Ely wanted to keep out of the novel, things that are probably all too familiar with a lot of those who also grew up in Scotland: Kirsty wouldn’t be bullied and school kids wouldn’t be told to suppress their language.

Ely, who was bullied at school, says, ‘I decided that I didn’t want Kirsty to get bullied. [Because of being bullied at school] I used to think that I hated Renfrew and I wanted to leave there. Writing Duck Feet was actually cathartic to me, because I realised that through choosing to tell the story through the eyes of someone that didn’t get bullied, and was just reporting on what she saw, that it wasn’t Renfrew that I hated. It was just that particular time in my schooling: when I went there and people weren’t very nice because I was a bit different. Kirsty didn’t experience that but she certainly saw other people being bullied for being different or for having problems. I think it was a good choice to do that.’

Ely continues, ‘When I went to school, teachers were always like: speak properly, don’t say aye, don’t say naw. [If you did speak like that] teachers would say to you that you’d be lucky if you ever found work. So, in the book I decided that the teachers wouldn’t pull pupils up for the way they spoke. The kids in the book just talk the way they talked. It took me until I was like 19 to read How Late it Was, How Late and think, wait a minute, this just won the Booker Prize and I’m getting told, “don’t speak like that.”

‘I understand that they were just trying to do what was right. They were telling us to talk properly because otherwise no-one would ever take you seriously, or you’d never get a job. That was the message that was being sent. I just thought that I didn’t want that for my novel.’

‘It’s like a chorus, I can hear different notes in different voices’

Duck Feet has a huge cast of characters but each has such a distinctive voice. This is something that came easily to Ely, and reflects the huge variations in Scottish accents and regional dialects within the country, sometimes even in the same town or area. 

‘I find it easy writing in accents that are round about me,’ Ely says. ‘My sister did say that Kirsty doesn’t really sound like us, but my voice has really changed over the years since I last lived in Renfrew. There are many different people that are living in Renfrew who speak a wee bit different from each other, it’s like a medley of voices, and I needed to pick one voice – Kirsty’s voice – and it just came to me [when I started writing]. 

They elaborated further on this to say, ‘Sometimes I hear somebody talking, it could just be one sentence, and I can just hear the whole conversation coming. When that happens I know that’s a character for my book. Hopefully, in Duck Feet, you can see a couple of different things to show the differences in the characters voices, like Charlene will say “hingmy” and “hing” and Chris Rice and Kelly Marie will both say “were” and “per” while Kirsty doesn’t. I just wanted to change it up a bit and show slightly different accents. 

‘It’s like a chorus, I can hear different notes in people’s voices and if strangers are passing me in the street and [their voice] chimes with me, I could just keep writing it. At least for a short piece anyway.’

Books written in Scots are firmly back in the public consciousness, resonating with people in a way that had maybe been a bit lost for awhile. Ely says, ‘I hadn’t seen anything for about 20 years, maybe more than 20 years. There were these working class Scottish books, written in Scots, then it just…there wasn’t really anything for a long time, I wasn’t really seeing it. But this new wave is great though, it’s great to see it back.’

Follow Ely on Twitter and Instagram and visit their own website. If you missed it, follow the link to Part One.

Aiden’s review of Duck Feet can be found here, on our Instagram. Sarah’s will be up when she pulls a finger oot. 

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