INTERVIEW: Emma Grae on writing her debut novel in Scots, inspiration from the older generation and the responsibility of authenticity

Thursday saw the publication of the utterly brilliant Be Guid Tae Yer Mammy, author Emma Grae’s debut novel and one of the few recent examples we’ve seen of leading female voices in a Scots language novel. 

It’s a multi-generational story of the women in a large working class Glaswegian family but the main focus is the stories of Granny Jean, a real force to be reckoned with, and her granddaughter Kate, who is battling her own demons as she tries to make her way in the world. 

Told over the course of about a year, this is a rich, detailed story full of social history and memorable characters that will stay with you long after the final page. We caught up with Emma before the book was published to find out more about it. 

‘I had to make some tactical decisions’

With the help of Dr Michael Dempster, who was a huge resource to Emma on the use of Scots throughout the book, especially in the multi-generational context, Emma made sure each of her characters have strong, authentic Scots voices. She said, ‘I feel like I’ve got a fairly diluted Scots accent. This is purely because I’ve lived all over the place and I have to speak clearer so people can understand me. I live in central London now and sometimes people literally don’t have a clue what I’m saying. I’ve got a video of me from 2010 and I sound so Scots, like every single word is pure Scots, but unfortunately I’ve had it drummed out of me a bit. It’s a shame but I can still write in it.

When it came to writing her entire novel in Scots she admits she had to make some choices about what words to use where, ‘I wanted the book to be accessible. For example, I used the phrase “Lang may yer Lum reek,” once, but I used chimney elsewhere – I had to make some tactical decisions.

‘I know people are going to have things to say about it and maybe say it would have been better if it was more accessible or comment on the fact that I varied the Scots across each generation. They might say, “why didn’t you just do full Scots for them all?” I can see the argument for doing that but I think it’s quite nice to capture how Scots has become more varied over time.’

Be Guid Tae Yer Mammy is notably one of few Scots language novels with a female perspective, following Duck Feet‘s main character Kirsty Campbell earlier this year. But, admits Emma, there’s probably still a way to go in terms of it hitting the mainstream publishing market. She said, ’I love Ross Sayers stuff and I really enjoyed Chris McQueer’s book but I thought we hadn’t seen the female perspective much. Most things seem to come from the male point of view and we’re not seeing a lot from the female point of view.

‘We’re starting to see a bit of change come through but it’s still very much on the fringes…I don’t think a mainstream publisher would touch a book like that because [from their perspective] it’s just not going to sell outside of Scotland.’

‘When everyone else was getting fried at Freshers Week I was basically just cutting around with folk in their late nineties…’

It’s fair to say that a lot of Be Guid Tae Yer Mammy took inspiration from Emma’s own life, family and wider community. But the seed of the idea came from her time working in a care home as she put herself through her undergrad degree. She said, ‘After I stopped working there [at the care home] I wanted to write abut what I’d seen because it was such a weird experience to have. When everyone else was getting fried at Freshers Week I was basically just cutting around with folk in their late nineties if not older.’ When it came to writing those experiences it came naturally to do so in Scots, because that was the voices of the older people Emma had been working with.  

‘There’s some anecdotes about stuff that happened in the care home and no one would believe me if I told them – but they really did happen! There was absolutely ridiculous stuff that would go on. But one of the main things I wanted to do was show how hard working the carers are. It can be quite a thankless job and people don’t get enough recognition for it.

‘I knew I wanted to write something in that setting and I felt like I had loads of really good material that I could use,’ Emma continued. ‘It was just a case of finding a vessel for that. The character of granny was very much a combo of every old lady I ever knew. Lizzie was totally made up but with granny every part of her had some sort of root in reality.’

Without giving away too much about the book, Emma says, ‘Granny is definitely not the nicest person in the world! I’ve had various people say to me like, “Oh my God that was just my gran,” and that’s what I want. I want her to be relatable, I want her to be like every working class, Catholic granny from that area. There were so many people I knew like that. The phrase, ‘Be guid tae yer mammy,’ came from  a real old lady that I knew. She used to say that all the time. I’ve never heard anyone else say that apart from her, but it was used in the same way as granny in the book – in a “I’ll get my kids to run about after me kind of way.”

In terms of how much of a book about women this is, Emma admits that it just naturally happened that way, saying, “I’m glad it did. I think we have a lot of books about men out there already so it’s nice to see from both Scottish and younger points of view. But in terms of that sense of what Glasgow was like…I’ve not seen it done elsewhere, I don’t know if it has been done…maybe I’m the first?

‘It’s definitely something that I wanted to capture. I was brought up Catholic so that aspect is all very true to life. You do see everything through the lens of God whether you want to or not. The onus of goodness definitely seems to be on women rather than men, the attitude towards men is very “Boys will be Boys”…so maybe because the book does say a lot about religion that’s why the focus is so much on women in the end.’

‘I ended up auditioning to be in Trainspotting 2’

Kate, the granddaughter in the book was inspired by Emma herself and her experiences growing up, finding work and doing all this while living with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). ‘OCD is very rarely touched upon in literature let alone in a book which also does so many other things. I feel like when you get a book about OCD that’s usually all the book is about rather than just seeing someone live their life with it.’

While OCD rep is an aspect of the book itself, it has also created challenges in getting it out into the world. Emma said, ‘It’s been a huge problem, writing the book with OCD, I can tell you. This has been high up on the list of obsessions in terms of thinking something is going to go wrong with it. So for me letting go of the book has been hard. It’s hard to enjoy it.

‘It is an OCD thing to be able to explain where every little thing in the book comes from. I have this horrible fear that someone will try and take it from me. That they would take away the fact that I found all these stories, or say that they weren’t mine, or that no-one told me them. And that’s horrible. I never came out as having OCD for a really long time. I didn’t tell anybody, I was scared of what people would think or they would misunderstand it.

‘I do think it’s important to write about these things but I quite like the fact that Kate is just existing in the book – it’s not a main plot point in the book that she has OCD. She’s just living with it.’

Aspects of Emma’s own life made their way into the book in other ways. For Kate, Emma used her times travelling to London on the Megabus to go job hunting on hardly any sleep, or touching on the lack of career options up in Scotland, or, in a more abstract way, auditioning for movies. She said, ‘When I finished my Masters I was totally skint. So before figuring out what the hell to do next I ended up auditioning to be in Trainspotting 2. That was where granny’s audition scene came from!’

Emma took a lot of inspiration and information from her own granny, asking stories and details about her war memories, many of which made it into the book. On top of this she used so much more family and community history to add authenticity. ‘It’s made it harder having so much reality underpinning the book…I really had to do my homework for it. I wanted it all to be as accurate as possible historically. I’m a huge history buff. I got told not to do historical fiction but I feel like I did it in the right context. It worked really well.’ 

‘The hardest thing is letting the book go and accepting that it’s done.”

‘I’m excited for people to see the book because I think it will increase my confidence going forward,’ Emma says, ‘But the thought of not doing these stories justice, especially when it comes to tidbits that older people who are no longer here have told me, and the thought of somehow messing that up…that bothers me.’

That aside, she says she’s excited about the kind of conversations her book might inspire, especially in terms of the current wave of Scottish books coming out. She said, ‘I feel like there’s an interesting discussion to be had about Scots across the generations. So we’ll see how [the book] does. As long as some people read it and enjoy it, then I feel like it’s been successful. 

‘The hardest thing about your first book is letting it go and accepting that it’s done and that people can think what they think [about it]. I was very lucky with the Scottish community on Twitter though. They definitely rallied behind it and that made a huge difference in terms of just getting it off the ground.’

Emma is now working on a novella, also in Scots, but also hints that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of either Kate or Granny Jean….

You can read our review of Be Guid Tae Yer Mammy here and buy the book direct from the publisher or your local bookshop. Follow Emma on Twitter @emmagraeauthor

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