INTERVIEW: Ely Percy on lesbian rom-coms, challenging prejudice and dealing with rejection (Part One)

The Scot Lit Blog recently caught up with the ever so lovely Ely Percy, author of the belter lesbian rom-com Vicky Romeo + Joolz and everyone’s favourite slice of Scottish school days nostalgia, Duck Feet. We spoke about the long road to publication for both of their novels, challenging prejudice and writing in Scots, among other things. 

It’s another long one so go grab tea and a biscuit and settle in. This is part one, where we discuss all things Vicky Romeo, and you’ll find part two where we talk Duck Feet, if you click this link.

Vicky Romeo + Joolz is a rom-com about Vicky Romeo, a butch Scots-Italian lesbian that thinks she lives in a gangster film, and Joolz, the femme fatale that captures her attention. There’s a whole cast of characters in the novel that surround the leads and it’s a world that you can’t help but be drawn into and fall deeply in love with. 

‘Where are the books about us?’

Ely started writing Vicky Romeo + Joolz in Spring 2002, initially it was going to be a tragic play, basically Julia and Juliet (the lesbian Romeo and Juliet) but, says Ely, ‘I just wasn’t feeling it, it wasn’t working for me, I didn’t believe in it. I just like writing funny stuff. So, I completely binned it and started on the novel.’ 

The influence for the novel came from a few places but, they said, ‘I just wasn’t finding books about young, queer Scottish people who were working class. You’d maybe get one of those elements [present in a book] but I’m looking around at all my pals who are at least two of those things and thinking, “Where are the books about us?”’

Ely says the only book they found that came close was Delilah’s by John Maley, a short story collection set in a gay bar in the late 90s, but jokes they were ‘glad they didn’t read it before the first couple of drafts of Vicky Romeo were done.’ Explaining more about the start of the writing process they said, ‘I didn’t really even know how to structure a novel, I just started writing about this character that was a butch lesbian that wanted to be an actor.’

In the beginning, Vicky Romeo + Joolz was a short story collection. Begun when Ely started creative writing at Glasgow Uni, they had the stories ‘of about 30 different viewpoints (!)’ put together by the Christmas of first year. But Ely initially didn’t get the reception they hoped for from course tutor Liz Lochhead. 

‘She was like, “What the hell is this?”,’ Ely says, ‘She goes, “This is not the book we talked out, you came in and talked about how you wanted to write about this working class butch lesbian, this butch about town womaniser, who had this dream to be an actor, a third generation lesbian…” She says, ‘This is not it. It just doesn’t work. Maybe you’re not a novelist.”’ With that feedback, Ely says, ‘So, I went home and cried. But then I started again and decided to try for one viewpoint…I ended up with two: Vicky and Joolz.’ 

After writing the first 30 pages, Ely took it back to Liz, ‘And she was like, “This! This is what we’re talking about!’ The book was then redrafted but ultimately Ely decided to drop the Joolz viewpoint and make the book solely from Vicky’s POV. ‘I eventually said to Liz, “Oh you were right!” And she says, “I know I was right!”

The next stage was getting an agent. Again with the help of Liz Lochhead, Ely found representation from Giles Gordon when the novel was still just on its second draft, who was fully on the same page as them about the book. ‘I said I don’t want this to be in Borders or Waterstones in the gay and lesbian section. There’s nothing wrong with that but I wanted it to be a book that anybody could read, I wanted it to also be accessible to people who weren’t working class Scottish lesbians. Giles said, “No, we’re not going gaystream, we’re going all the way.” Sadly, Giles passed away soon after taking on Ely and the book.

‘What part of girl-meets-girl-butch-femme-queer-coming-of-age-rom-com did you not get?’’

Eventually, Ely begun to search for representation once again but, ‘It was a solid year of no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I’d redrafted it again and nobody wanted it, nobody was interested. I’m sending it out to people and getting the feedback that it’s too gay, it’s too niche, no-one’s going to want to read it…but it’s really funny though. I was wanting them to just tell me it was shite or something. Someone even said I should make one of the lead characters a man and I was like…which one? What part of girl-meets-girl-butch-femme-queer-coming-of-age-rom-com did you not get in the pitch?’

Years later, around 2018, Ely received interest from Knight Errant Press, which had just published F. M, or Other: Quarrels with the Gender Binary. The publisher asked to see the full manuscript of another book in the works, a crime novel with a trans main character, but it wasn’t anywhere near ready. Instead, Ely sent a couple of chapters of this work-in-progress and all of Vicky Romeo. ‘Nathaniel [the publishing director] got back to me and was like, “Oh my God, it’s so gay. I love it.”’ 

Knight Errant took on the book and crowdfunding for publication began but there was still some drama to come before it hit the press, ‘There was very little editing done to it,’ Ely says, ‘Because it had already been through so many drafts and had so much work done to it. But I did change the ending a couple of weeks before the crowdfunder!’ Then, due to a hold up at the printer, Ely was only handed a copy of the finished book an hour before the launch at AyeWrite, but, ‘Technically, the first print run was only 100 copies because we had to split it to get it done faster. So, technically, I did sell out on the night of the launch.’

‘It was ignorance, but now there’s no excuse’

One of the things I, as a reader, appreciate the most about Ely’s work, is how much they don’t hold back or sugarcoat. Their characters are always very human with all the good and bad that comes with that. In Vicky Romeo, Ely saw prejudices and problematic behaviours in the community and turned a mirror on it within the novel. They said, ‘I came out as gay in 2001 and there was so much biphobia at the time.’ 

In attending the L.I.P.S group – a real thing but which also featured heavily in the novel – they did actually have the bisexual awareness workshop that is depicted in the book. ‘There were lots of people you would meet [back then] and get on really well with them, they’d be lovely, then they’d come out with something like “Oh god, here comes my ex, the tourist, she’s not a real one of us,” and all that. And I’m thinking that was not okay back in 2001, and it’s not okay now. I would meet quite a few young women who would say they were lesbians but then later go, “Actually I’m bi but don’t tell anyone because folk don’t like it.” And I’m thinking, I don’t get this, I don’t get what the fucking problem is here.

‘That’s why I wrote about it, because it was absolutely rampant. I think back then I did tolerate it more, or tolerate people who were biphobic. But now I don’t think I could. There’s so much more awareness now.

‘It was just ignorance [back then] but now there’s no excuse, there’s so much information right there.’ 

Follow Ely on Twitter and Instagram and visit their own website (which they’ve been putting a lot of work into recently and looks smashin’ btw!). Highly recommend watching their videos on Instagram of various readings from their work too, it’s an absolute treat. 

Follow the link to Part Two.

INTERVIEW: Aidan Martin on growing up in Livingston and thoughts about how to change things for the better (Part Two)

In the first part of our interview with Aidan Martin, author of the incredible memoir, Euphoric Recall, he spoke about becoming a published writer with no experience behind him and what he’s going to do next. 

In this second part, he shares more about growing up in Livingston and this thoughts about how to create a better future, and what changes we need to make in society to enable that to happen. 

…the older you got, as a lad, the more violent it became…

There was nothing to do in Livingston when I was growing up. The town was only 20 years old when I was born in 1986, it was remote and isolated. There was no football team, no big shopping centre, if you wanted to go to a restaurant you had to go through to Edinburgh. There was only one chippy in the whole town and maybe one or two hairdressers.

‘It’s changed a lot since back then. 

‘There were pros and cons to growing up here. I focused a lot on the cons in the book because it was part of my experience with the violence and social deprivation. But there were good things about living there, people could pick not only the street they wanted to live on, but the house, because the council wanted people to come and live here. So you’d end up with a lot of families living next to each other, uncles, aunties, grannies and neighbours becoming part of that family as well. I wish I’d spent more time talking about that in my book, and I will in future books. 

‘But that doesn’t change the fact there was still nothing to do. And it was still very territorial, not too different from what you get in The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong. You could end up getting stabbed to death for standing on the wrong corner.

‘We grew up with that as the social norm. There would be guys in the community notorious for petrol-bombing houses or well-known rapists…it was such an extreme way to live. 

‘I can only talk from a male perspective, and it was probably the same all over, but back then you had to all dress a certain way and look a certain way. You had to have the right jeans, Rockports, hoodies, chains, the hair, and a gold earring – but if you wore it in the right ear that meant you were soft or gay. 

‘It was the most bizarre way to grow up. 

‘In high school, me and my best friend both had NHS braces to fix our teeth but we snapped them because you’d get beat up at school for having them. 

‘There was this idea that if you did anything to improve yourself or move away from what everyone else was doing, it was a threat. The older you got, as a lad, the more violent it became.’

…there’s more to life than fighting and aw that…

‘On the one hand things have gotten better since then, but on the other they’ve gotten worse.

‘Mental health issues are much worse, they’re through the roof. There’s still massive problems with deprivation and addiction.

‘But there’s more to do now, more culture. There’s musicians, artists and writers: people doing all these things that make you see there’s more to life than fighting and aw that. 

‘We don’t have any real industry for people. We eradicated a lot of the industries that gave people a sense of social cohesion and community and that was replaced with a lot of substances.

‘I think there’s a lot of things that need to be done with ongoing problems, we need access to mental health services, rehabs and therapies to deal with he problems that we have right now. 

Going forward we need something to prevent people getting to that stage. 

‘I think people need to have something to aspire to. They need to have something that makes them feel like they’re worth something. Someone said to me, and I agree, is that the most attractive quality is self esteem. When I’m lacking self esteem, that’s when I want to feed the worst part of me with something that’s not good for me.

‘No-one at my high school noticed that I liked to write. Teachers didn’t spot it, no-one nurtured it. I think the system is wrong, you’re getting force-fed things that you’re just not into rather than getting nurtured for the things that could give you a future. I could have been writing for 15 years by now. I wrote for myself but never with the thought of doing anything with it. 

‘My book came out in October and I’ve already been asked to write articles for psychology journals, all this other stuff, all these people wanting collaborate. It’s taken until now to realise that I’m a writer. Who knew!? I didn’t know that! I only discovered in my 30s because I was writing my pain, and realised I’m quite good at it. That makes me feel more excited than drugs ever did.

…the behaviours that people call toxic masculinity are a reaction to something…

I don’t particularly like the phrase toxic masculinity. I understand where it comes from but I feel like, for a lot of the men who grew up at the same time as me, when we were young lads, we didn’t know any different. It was just survival. What people call “toxic masculinity” was a survival mechanism.

‘Looking at all the lads I grew up with…one of them became a police officer and I’m doing what I’m doing, the rest are all stuck in addiction, in institutions or incarcerated. None of them are bad people. They’ve got good hearts: they’re intelligent, creative and never intended to live this way. A lot of it is being a product of your environment. 

‘I was asked to talk to a young lad, he’s 22, and he was saying all of the same things I’m saying. Him and his pals grew up in the same sort of scheme that I grew up in, there’s not much for them to aspire to, and none of them do anything.

‘There’s social exclusion if you’re not part of the drink/drug culture. That brings a sense of no purpose, no direction, and with it that sense of suicidal tendencies. 

‘What it came down to for this young lad is that he just doesn’t feel good enough inside. He doesn’t feel good enough. For me, that’s the root cause of a lot of mental health problems and addiction: the feeling of not being enough. That no matter how well we do, even if we get to such a level, we’re still striving for a perfection that doesn’t exist. 

‘I don’t even think that’s toxic masculinity. The behaviours that people call toxic masculinity are a reaction to something, and I think it’s a sense of hopelessness, powerlessness and just not feeling good enough.

‘There’s something wrong with the culture. The culture breeds this inferiority complex and this idea that you can only ever get so far.’

You can buy Euphoric Recall from the publisher. Find Part One of this interview here.

INTERVIEW: Aidan Martin on writing as a coping mechanism, going with his gut, and The Chair (Part One)

Euphoric Recall by Aidan Martin is a powerful, visceral memoir. In it, Aidan has laid his heart bare, told his truths with a staggering honesty, and in doing so tells not just his story but the story of so many others like him. 

It’s a truly incredible book, published by the bold and innovative Guts Publishing. We are big fans of them here at the Scot Lit Blog (if you missed it, check out our interview with John Gerard Fagan, author of Fish Town) and were absolutely delighted when Aidan agreed to give up some of his time to talk to us. 

The interview is split into two parts, in this first part he discusses the path to publication and what he’s doing next. In the second part (which I’ll publish immediately after because waiting is a pain in the arse) he talks more about growing up in Livingston and his thoughts on the future. 

Writing as a coping mechanism 

‘I’d always written poetry, it was a big coping mechanism for me as a young kid and a teenager,’ Aidan said, “But of course in that era, with lad culture and all that, you wouldn’t go around telling your pals you write poetry. But I was really inspired by Kurt Cobain and Eminem – just to get my pain out through the written word.’

It was after writing the eulogy for his grandmother, and for his little brother before her, that Aidan says he felt he had a book in him. He references a Higher Power often throughout the book and says it was this that made him write his story in the first place, ‘I just stepped down from reading my gran’s eulogy and had this feeling, it wasn’t even words, telling me “write a book, write a book, write a book.” It was like my granny was saying, “Right, you’ve taken me to my final resting place, now you have to go away and write something.” It’s the only way I can describe it. Some people think it’s far fetched but it’s really not.

‘I went home that day and started on chapter one but at that point wasn’t thinking about getting published. I just started writing it for me. Then, as I got the first chapter finished I kind of realised that I was writing an actual book here. I didn’t know it was a manuscript, I didn’t even know it was called a memoir.”

With the book not completely finished yet, Aidan turned to uni friend, Darren, to read what he’d written, ‘I said to him, “Don’t let me be that person on the X factor that cannae sing,” when they’re totally deluded because their friends and family have told them that they’re great, I said to him, “If it’s not any good please just tell me, don’t let me make a fool of myself.” But he said to me, “No mate, it’s really good, you need to do something with this.”

‘That’s when I discovered it was a memoir but I didn’t know anything about pitching or anything to do with publishing. I just thought because I had a book now people were going to come to me!”

Knock backs on the road to publication 

Pretty much all writers know it’s not going to happen like that, there’s as much work involved in finding publication than writing the book itself. 

Aidan continues, ‘I just started Googling one day and realised, shit, I’m going to need an agent to get in with a big publisher, or find an independent publisher that accepts unsolicited manuscripts. It was all like a foreign language to me. 

‘I started sending pitches out, completely randomly, not keeping track of anything. I had to learn everything – all the bits and bobs publishers needed and elevator pitches…all of that. If I looked at my first set of pitches I’d probably cringe so badly because they probably weren’t professional at all.”

After not getting anywhere with that first wave of submissions to publishers and agents, Aidan’s mum, who was fully behind him and believed in the book 100%, gave him the money to take the manuscript to a literary consultancy agency. The one he used took the book and passed it onto another author to give their critique.

‘The feedback was horrendous,’ he says, ‘The woman was lovely about it, she wasn’t trying to be nasty, but she was basically shooting me down. She said no-one would buy a book about addiction unless it’s by a celebrity, and that I glamourised drugs too much. I disagreed with that because the thing is, you need to tell the good parts before you tell the bad parts. That’s what’s real. People will call bullshit if it’s all bad. Of course it’s not all bad, you wouldn’t fuckin’ use drugs if it was all bad. 

‘But it really did my confidence in. I put the manuscript away for about half a year or something. Every single day my mum was telling me to send it out and my pal was telling me this author had gotten it all wrong…’

‘A million reasons to stop and give up’

With a renewed fight to get his book out, Aidan made his second approach to the market completely different. ‘I made a wee excel spreadsheet this time. I made a note of every agent I sent the book to, every publisher, and kept copies of every pitch. I was so organised, kept dates and times and email addresses just to make sure I wasn’t crossing over anywhere.

‘I got some nice feedback off agents saying it was quite good but not right for them. A few others were quite dismissive saying it’s a cut-throat business and “good luck getting in” kind of thing – I’m like fucking hell, man. There was a lot of rejection, a million reasons to stop and give up. The self doubt in my mind kept growing, telling me I’m not a writer and I don’t belong in that world.’

Then he discovered Guts Publishing, ‘I just loved what they had to say. It felt authentic, personal, no bullshit. They wanted ballsy memoirs so that’s how I pitched it to them. I took a risk. I wouldn’t tell people to swear in their pitch but I said, “This is a fucking ballsy memoir, this is what you’re asking for and I think you’re going to like it.”

‘At first they turned it down. They gave nice feedback but just said it was the wrong time for that kind of project but said I could put in something for an anthology they were working on.’

Going with Guts

As fate would have it though, Aidan found himself with an offer from another publisher just as Guts turned him down. He says, ‘But it was impersonal, they didn’t talk about their ideas or anything, they just said they’d looked at it and saw potential and sent a contract. It didn’t feel right.’ After a reminder from his mum that he’d always gone with his gut in the past, and thinking again of the Higher Power, he turned that publisher down, knowing they weren’t right for him. 

He says, ‘Then Guts got back in touch with me saying they’d like to take another look at the whole manuscript; and they really liked it. I met Julianne over Skype, who’d started Guts Publishing from scratch. She’s an amazing woman, and we just clicked. She made no false promises, she told me what was good and what areas needed work. She was very honest about it. 

‘She suggested we edit chapter one together first and see how we got on. If it worked we could talk about a contract. I thought that was really fair and it worked so well. When she gave advice I didn’t get wounded by it; I wasn’t a young person desperate for validation, I was ready to learn and grateful for the education.

‘I also got my friend Mark [Deans], who grew up in Ladywell with me, to do the front cover, then we had to pitch that as well. Julianne asked him to do thirty versions but then we went with the first one he did.’

The Chair

Now, while also completing his Masters, Aidan is also working on the follow-up to Euphoric Recall, a novel this time. He says, “The first book was my story, but this time it’s the story of my pals. It’s about how men, who can’t even tell each other what they’re feeling, would happily take a baseball bat to the heid for each other. That’s what I want to express in this novel.” 

The novel is almost finished, just a chapter and a bit to go, before Aidan starts getting it ready to send out to publishers and begin the process all over again. It will be set in the early 2000s, in West Lothian, “with the lad culture, the drug culture and the trance scene,” he said. “But it’s not going to be like anything I’ve seen before, I want it to stand out, I want to do my own thing with this.” 

As well as writing, followers of Aidan on social media (@aidanauthor on Instagram and Twitter) will have seen another project he’s working on: The Chair. He says, “So, the story behind The Chair is that I was looking to do a promo video for the book, I just needed something I could circulate on social media. 

‘I spoke to my friend Barrie Mulligan, a local guy, and said I had an idea for a photo shoot of me sitting on a computer chair but outside. He said he liked the idea but a computer chair is shit, we needed a proper fuckin’ chair – he sends me a photo of this Chesterfield and says this is what you need to be sitting in for it. That’s why he’s the photo guy and I’m the writer. 

‘Then Barrie just goes and buys the chair, gets it shipped from England, and we start looking at ideas for the photo shoot. Then I thought, what if we don’t make it about me? What if we made it about the local community and ask other people to sit in the chair. What if we make it a podcast where I’m talking to local people – they could be artists or people involved in local projects or anyone wanting to raise awareness of something…

‘Now, we’re making a series of mini documentaries, about all these different people sitting in the chair, talking, telling their stories. We’re starting it here in Livingston, we want to celebrate the people from here, but we’ll see where it goes from there.’

You can buy Euphoric Recall direct from the publisher. Find Part Two of this interview here.

Part Two: Scottish LGBTQIA+ Reads – non-fiction & memoir

It’s time for the second part of our Scottish LGBTQIA+ celebration for Pride Month! Did you catch part one for fiction? Well, here’s a whole other list of Scottish (or Scot-related) reads to add to your TBR but non-fiction this time.

Maggie & Me by Damian Barr

It’s 12 October 1984. An IRA bomb blows apart the Grand Hotel in Brighton. Miraculously, Margaret Thatcher survives. In small-town Scotland, eight-year-old Damian Barr watches in horror as his mum rips her wedding ring off and packs their bags. He knows he, too, must survive.

Damian, his sister and his Catholic mum move in with her sinister new boyfriend while his Protestant dad shacks up with the glamorous Mary the Canary. Divided by sectarian suspicion, the community is held together by the sprawling Ravenscraig Steelworks. But darkness threatens as Maggie takes hold: she snatches school milk, smashes the unions and makes greed good. Following Maggie’s advice, Damian works hard and plans his escape. He discovers that stories can save your life and – in spite of violence, strikes, AIDS and Clause 28 – manages to fall in love dancing to Madonna in Glasgow’s only gay club. Maggie & Me is a touching and darkly witty memoir about surviving Thatcher’s Britain; a story of growing up gay in a straight world and coming out the other side in spite of, and maybe because of, the iron lady.

Amateur by Thomas Page McBee

In this groundbreaking book, Thomas Page McBee, a trans man, trains to fight in a charity match at Madison Square Garden while struggling to untangle the vexed relationship between masculinity and violence.

Through his experience of boxing – learning to get hit, and to hit back; wrestling with the camaraderie of the gym; confronting the betrayals and strength of his own body – McBee examines the weight of male violence, the pervasiveness of gender stereotypes and the limitations of conventional masculinity. A wide-ranging exploration of gender in our society, Amateur is ultimately a story of hope, as McBee traces a way forward: a new masculinity, inside the ring and out of it.

China in Drag: Travels with a Cross Dresser by Michael Bristow

Approaching the end of his nine year stint as a BBC journalist in Beijing, Michael Bristow decided he wanted to write about the country’s modern history. To assist him he asked for the help of his language teacher, who was born just two years after the communist party came to power in 1949.

The changing fortunes of his life have mirrored the ups and downs of his country, which has moved from communist poverty to capitalist wealth in just a single generation. It came as a surprise though, to learn that the teacher was also a cross-dresser. Michael gradually realised that the teacher’s story is the story of modern China.

Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide by Kate Charlesworth

Cartoonist Kate Charlesworth presents a glorious pageant of LGBT history, as she takes us on a PRIDE march from the 1950s to the present day. Peopled by a cast of gay icons such as Dusty Springfield, Billie Jean King, Dirk Bogarde and Alan Turing, and featuring key moments such as Stonewall and Section 28, Sensible Footwear is the first graphic history charting lesbian life from 1950 to the present a stunning, personal, graphic memoir and a milestone itself in LGBT history.

In 1950, when Kate was born, male homosexuality carried a custodial sentence. But female homosexuality had never been an offence in the UK, effectively rendering lesbians even more invisible than they already were often to themselves. Growing up in Yorkshire, the young Kate had to find role models wherever she could, in real life, books, film and TV. Sensible Footwear is a fascinating history of how post-war Britain transformed from a country hostile towards ‘queer’ lives to the LGBQTI+ universe of today, recording the political gains and challenges against a backdrop of Kate s personal experience: realising her own sexuality, coming out to her parents, embracing lesbian and gay culture, losing friends to AIDS.

Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows by Christine Burns

Over the last five years, transgender people have seemed to burst into the public eye: Time declared 2014 a trans tipping point , while American Vogue named 2015 the year of trans visibility . From our television screens to the ballot box, transgender people have suddenly become part of the zeitgeist.

This apparently overnight emergence, though, is just the latest stage in a long and varied history. The renown of Paris Lees and Hari Nef has its roots in the efforts of those who struggled for equality before them, but were met with indifference and often outright hostility from mainstream society. Trans Britain chronicles this journey in the words of those who were there to witness a marginalised community grow into the visible phenomenon we recognise today: activists, film-makers, broadcasters, parents, an actress, a rock musician and a priest, among many others. Here is everything you always wanted to know about the background of the trans community, but never knew how to ask.

Endell Street: The Suffragette Surgeons of World War One by Wendy Moore

When the First World War broke out, the suffragettes suspended their campaigning and joined the war effort. For pioneering suffragette doctors (and life partners) Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson that meant moving to France, where they set up two small military hospitals amidst fierce opposition. 

Yet their medical and organisational skills were so impressive that in 1915 Flora and Louisa were asked by the War Ministry to return to London and establish a new military hospital in a vast and derelict old workhouse in Covent Garden’s Endell Street. That they did, creating a 573-bed hospital staffed from top to bottom by female surgeons, doctors and nurses, and developing entirely new techniques to deal with the horrific mortar and gas injuries suffered by British soldiers. Receiving 28,000 wounded men over the next four years, Flora and Louisa created such a caring atmosphere that soldiers begged to be sent to Endell Street. And then, following the end of the war and the Spanish Flu outbreak, the hospital was closed and Flora, Louisa and their staff were once again sidelined in the medical profession. The story of Endell Street provides both a keyhole view into the horrors and thrills of wartime London and a long-overdue tribute to the brilliance and bravery of an extraordinary group of women.

Queer Voices in Post-War Scotland: Male Homosexuality, Religion and Society

This book examines the experiences of gay and bisexual men who lived in Scotland during an era when all homosexual acts were illegal, tracing the historical relationship between Scottish society, the state and its male homosexual population using a combination of oral history and extensive archival research.

The Bi-ble: Vol 1 & 2: Personal Essays and Narratives about Bisexuality (Monstrous Regiment)

Bisexuals inhabit a liminal space between cultures, often misunderstood or dismissed by the straight and gay communities alike. This selection of intersectional bi voices has come together to share their stories, helping bi voices be heard and identities seen. It’s time to stand up and spread the good word.

F, M or Other: Quarrels with the Gender Binary Volume 1 (Knight Errant Press)

Gender – it affects us all, but what exactly is it? There isn’t a single, straightforward answer to put your mind at ease. In the form of compelling poetry, prose, essays and graphic storytelling, this anthology will address the issue head on. From fierce feminism to modern masculinity, perspectives on passing to nuanced experiences of identities beyond the binary, the authors will dispel the idea of a single narrative and invite the reader to take in the multitude of lived and imagined experiences. Prepare to have your feathers ruffled and your preconceptions stripped away – F, M or Other? Does it matter?

Have you read any of these books? Or have any of them on your TBR? Talk to us in the comments or follow us on Instagram for a blether.

Part One: Scottish LGBTQIA+ reads – novels and collections to add to your TBR lists

It’s Pride Month so we’re celebrating here at ScotLitDaily! And it’s been a minute since our last Book List so here’s another collection of books to add to your TBR stacks.

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

The death of legendary jazz trumpeter Joss Moody exposes an extraordinary secret. Unbeknown to all but his wife Millie, Joss was a woman living as a man. The discovery is most devastating for their adopted son, Colman, whose bewildered fury brings the press to the doorstep and sends his grieving mother to the sanctuary of a remote Scottish village.

Winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize, Trumpet by Jackie Kay is a starkly beautiful modern classic about the lengths to which people will go for love. It is a moving story of a shared life founded on an intricate lie, of loving deception and lasting devotion, and of the intimate workings of the human heart.

Now regarded as a classic and for good reason. I first read Trumpet when I was at uni and I’m well overdue a re-read.


Vicky Romeo Plus Joolz by Ely Percy

A plucky, on-the-nose, heart-mending comedy about a bunch of queer folks trying to find their way and going about life where not a single queer person dies. 

The novel’s focal point is a gay bar, a world that most folk aren’t exposed to – but this is Vicky Romeo’s ordinary world. Ely captures a perfect snapshot of this locum, of what it was like to be Scottish, working-class, queer and figuring shit out in that period of queer history.

The debut novel of the amazing Ely Percy. If you were a big fan of their recent Duck Feet definitely check this one out next.


Goblin by Ever Dundas

Goblin is an oddball and an outcast. But she’s also a dreamer, a bewitching raconteur, a tomboy adventurer whose spirit can never be crushed. Running feral in World War II London, Goblin witnesses the carnage of the Blitz and sees things that can never be unseen…but can be suppressed. She finds comfort in her beloved animal companions and lives on her wits with friends real and imagined, exploring her own fantastical world of Lizard Kings and Martians and joining the circus.

In 2011, London is burning once again, and an elderly Goblin reluctantly returns to the city. Amidst the chaos of the riots, she must dig up the events of her childhood in search of a harrowing truth. But where lies truth after a lifetime of finding solace in an extraordinary imagination, where the distinction between illusion and reality has possibly been lost forever?


Venus as a Boy by Luke Sutherland

Drinking late one night in an East End club, a writer is approached by Pascal, the friend of a man named Désirée who claims he knows the writer from growing up in Orkney – and that he’s dying and wants him to write his story. The writer ignores him.

But a month later, a package arrives containing, among discs, sunglasses and other trinkets, a photograph of the writer aged eight. So he listens to the discs and emerges amazed and shaken. He then transcribes this heartbreaking story which traces Désirée’s life as a bullied youth in South Ronaldsay to the streets of Soho where he reduces his grateful clients to tears with his astonishing gift of sex…


Ever Fallen in Love by Zoe Strachan

Richard fell for Luke at university. Luke was handsome, dissolute, dangerous; together they did things that Richard has spent the last decade trying to forget. Now his career is on the brink of success, but his younger sister Stephie’s life is in pieces. Her invasion of Richard’s remote west coast sanctuary forces Richard to confront the tragedy and betrayal of his past, and face up to his own role in what happened back then.

In this compelling, visceral tale of how not to fit in, Zoë Strachan takes us on a journey through hedonistic student days to the lives we didn t expect to end up living, and the hopes and fears that never quite leave us.


The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan

Mara’s island is one of stories and magic, but every story ends in the same way. She will finish her days on the cliff, turned to stone and gazing out at the horizon like all the islanders before her.

Mara’s parents – a boxer and a ballerina – chose this enchanted place as a refuge from the turbulence of their previous lives; they wanted to bring up their children somewhere special and safe. But the island and the sea don’t care what people want, and when they claim a price from her family, Mara’s world unravels. It takes the arrival of Pearl, mysterious and irresistible, to light a spark in Mara again, and allow her to consider a different story for herself.


Happiness is Wasted on Me by Kirkland Ciconne

Cumbernauld was built to be the town of the future…that is, if the future looked like a really rubbish episode of Doctor Who. It’s also home to Walter Wedgeworth, a child stuck in a uniquely dysfunctional family controlled by the tyrannical Fishtank, whose CB Radio aerial is a metal middle finger to all the neighbours on Craigieburn Road.

When 11-year-old Walter discovers the corpse of a baby inside a cardboard box, he resolves to ignore it, pretend it didn’t happen. He knows the price of being a grass. But the child’s fate haunts Walter, bringing him into conflict with the world around him. Walter’s journey will lead him from childhood to adulthood; school, college, bereavement, Britpop, his first job, Blackpool, the Spice Girls, feuds with his neighbour, and finally…face-to-face with a child killer. Taking place in the 90s, Happiness Is Wasted On Me is a genre-blending tale that spans a decade in the life of Walter. It’s a coming of age tale, a family drama, a mystery, and a biting dark comedy. Ultimately, it’s the story of how even the strangest people can find their way in the world.

Do we mention this book a lot? Aye. Is it warranted? Also aye. For some gorgeous asexual rep look no further than this absolute gem of a book.


Amphibian by Christina Neuwirth

It’s summer in Edinburgh. Rose Ellis arrives at MoneyTownCashGrowth one morning to find that the entire fourth floor has been flooded with water, in a desperate attempt to improve productivity.

As the water steadily rises, her working situation becomes more and more absurd…


Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith

Girl meets boy. It’s a story as old as time. But what happens when an old story meets a brand new set of circumstances?

Ali Smith’s remix of Ovid’s most joyful metamorphosis is a story about the kind of fluidity that can’t be bottled and sold. It is about girls and boys, girls and girls, love and transformation, a story of puns and doubles, reversals and revelations. Funny and fresh, poetic and political, here is a tale of change for the modern world.


Wain by Rachel Plummer

Wain is a collection of LGBT themed poetry for teens based on retellings of Scottish myths. The collection contains stories about kelpies, selkies, and the Loch Ness Monster, alongside perhaps lesser-known mythical people and creatures, such as wulvers, Ghillie Dhu, and the Cat Sìth. These poems immerse readers in an enriching, diverse and enchanting vision of contemporary life.

The poems in this collection are fun, surprising, and full of a magical mix of myth and contemporary LGBT themes- it is a perfect read for teens who are learning more about themselves, other people, and the world around them. Wain is fully illustrated, and aimed at teenagers.


Tonguit by Harry Josephine Giles

This expansive collection by one of Scotland’s outstanding performers is a moving exploration of identity, and how it is warped and changed by our languages, nationalities, and the often inhuman machinations of the State.

Tonguit stands as a collage of the early 21st century; of growing intolerance, the rise of ATOS, the bedroom tax, growing protest movements, the homogenisation of politics, and beneath it all humanity, trying to love and laugh and live.


Look out for a follow up post on non-fiction reads next week.

Have you read any of these books? Or have any of them on your TBR? Talk to us in the comments or follow us on Instagram for a blether.

You can find most of these books in our own Bookshop at bookshop.org – if you choose to buy from our shop we will receive a small commission which will be equally split between a donation to the Scottish Book Trust at the end of the year and keeping this blog running.

INTERVIEW: John Gerard Fagan on unusual memoir, disillusionment and running about like Scott Brown

Fish Town is a memoir like no other. Written entirely in short, free verse snippets it remains as rich and evocative as any that are more traditionally presented. Author John Gerard Fagan, who is originally from Muirhead but now lives in Edinburgh, depicts his years living and working in Japan in a profoundly Scottish way. With deadpan humour, wit and honesty this depiction of one man’s culture shock becomes a story everyone will find relatable to some extent. 

John generously gave up some of his time to talk to us earlier this week and share a wee bit more about his debut publication. 

How it all began 

The book begins with such a profound sense of fuck this. John’s need to get out and do something else and see something else of the world is absolutely palpable. After finishing a degree in Economics and Marketing, John went the usual route of trying to find graduate jobs but says it didn’t work out. 

Instead, he moved to Australia for a year with a group of his mates and it was at this point he started writing, ‘I got the bug then and wrote my first book while I was out there. I’ve been writing ever since including a masters in creative writing. But,’ he continues, ‘That took me to 28 and I still wasn’t getting any permanent work. I was working in factories and in call centres but nothing was really happening.’ 

Which takes us up to the beginning of the book. ‘I’d done a TEFL [Teaching English as a Foreign Language] course just to broaden my horizon and that’s what people were looking for over there, along with a degree, to do teaching. So, I thought I could go over there and do creative writing classes.’ As it turned out only some of the schools loved that idea, while others weren’t so keen and wanted him to stay on script. But, with the goal of ultimately teaching in universities, John persevered. 

Highs and lows

The majority of the book depicts John’s time in Fish Town itself with the latter third going into his experiences elsewhere in Japan. Immediately it’s clear that this move all the way across the world was a bit of a frying pan/fire situation. Instead of being sent to the metropolis, John was assigned to a slowly dying fishing town of Yaizu where he struggled to find his feet. 

Early parts of the book, depicting hostilities from the teachers at the schools John was sent to and general attitudes of some of the people he met towards each other, are deeply moving at times and frustrating at others: the chapter umeboshi, that depicts the casual cruelty humans can show each other without thinking, sticks out in particular. These are the chapters where the fish out of water element is at its strongest and it’s all the more poignant for it. 

“File:Port of Yaizu and Seto River.jpg” by Alpsdake is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

That said, while the book starts with a sense of disillusionment that seems to go from bad to worse, it was important to John to show it wasn’t all dark, that there were lighter moments, especially after settling down in Fish Town. ‘There was some good periods, some really good periods, but I think the darker side tends to come to the front more often.’ For John two highlights of his time in Fish Town stuck out, the first was joining a band, “That’s probably my favourite part, looking back, it was a good feeling. It was something I’d always wanted to do and it was easier over there to get set up and get started. They wanted something different for the gig line ups over there.

The second was joining the local football team. He says, ‘That was surreal, everyone was just staring thinking I was some kind of professional [come out there to play]. I was going out there and getting involved, running about as if I was Scott Brown, and everyone else was just silent. But it was good, they didn’t like that about me in the first game but then they got used to it.’ 

Creating something a bit different 

The structure of the book itself is one of the strongest aspects of it. With it being told in such short, snappy pieces it’s easy to fly through and difficult to put down. While it comes across as simple, however, as with all good writing there was a huge amount of thought and effort into moulding it into the book that it is. 

‘I decided I needed to make it a clear story of my progression rather than a meander.’ The book initially began double the size it is now with John mentioning all the trips he took and people he met but on completion he realised it needed to be reined in. ‘Whenever it went too far away from the main story, or if I was repeating myself – because there was a lot of repetition in my experience with living in a wee town and seeing the same things over and over – it got cut. I wanted to show the progression from the origin story in Fish Town when I was in my 20s and daft to me slowly learning and changing as time went on.

‘I started writing it on my phone at the airport before coming home [with the final chapter] and it was written then exactly as it is now. I thought when I started writing the rest I would have to change it into prose and give it a “proper” structure because I’ve never seen a memoir being done like this before. I really didn’t want to do that though, I thought it looked good. I got lucky with the publisher [Guts Publishing] because they really saw what I wanted to do with the book and weren’t too heavy handed with it.’

“File:JRCentral-Tokaido-main-line-Yaizu-station-platform-20101215.jpg” by LERK (talk · contribs) is licensed underCC BY 3.0

There is a strong Scottish element to the book, from the content (like when people Do The Accent at us) to the language itself, and John says initially he did consider writing it fully in Scots. ‘It came naturally to me to write in Scots, and a lot of my previous stories have been in Scots, but then I thought it might be alienating. While it is a Scottish story, it is set in another country. When I was over there one of my pals was reading Trainspotting but translated into English and that played on my mind a lot: the fact people find it difficult to get into the language. 

‘So, I thought, especially for a first book, I’ll keep in the Scots that’s pertinent to what I want to say. I wouldn’t translate a word into English for example, and the majority of the book is written the way I would speak naturally. 

‘I didn’t really change my accent when I was out there but I slowed down a lot. Now I’m back people are saying “oh you’re talking posh now,” but I had to pronounce better and slow down or no-one would understand me. But I really didn’t want to lose my voice in the writing.’

In a book that depicts just a huge amount of honesty, John admits there were some things he ultimately decided to take out of the book when it came time to send it out for publication. ‘What’s in there is still really personal though, so there was a bit of anxiety attached to sending it out and thinking, “Oh God, what am I doing here?”’ But in terms of people who are in the book, John says the reaction has been fully positive, ‘All of the reactions from people that are in the book and that have read it have been really good.’

This might not be the end for Fish Town  

The memoir wasn’t going to be John’s first published book, that was never the plan. Having had over 100 short stories published and a number of novels written but unpublished, he reckoned that fiction was going to come first. ‘But it wrote itself,’ he says, ‘I wrote it and had it ready to go within a year so was like “Oh, I guess this is first then.”

‘The first book I ever wrote was in Australia but it was terrible, looking back on it I see it was just rubbish. I’ve written about five since then including genre books like post-apocalyptic and horror. But recently I’ve been more focused on Japanese literature. The next book I’ll be sending out will be set in Fish Town. It’s sci-fi, a strange book…but we’ll see what happens.’   

You can read our review of Fish Town here. For more about John visit his website and check out Guts Publishing here. 

Growing up Scottish: nine reads to add to your TBR

Booker Prize winner Shuggie Bain is a gorgeously written yet brutal and emotive story of one boy growing up in Glasgow as the son of an alcoholic mother. But it’s just one of the many different experiences of growing up Scottish that have been depicted in our homegrown literature. So if Shuggie Bain whetted your appetite for a good ol’ bildungsroman (not a word you can shoehorn into most conversations so yay for an excuse) here’s a list of nine more to add to your TBR.

Boyracers by Alan Bissett

Boyracers is the story of 16 year old Falkirk lad Alvin and his three older mates. Their days involve racing around town in a car called Belinda and debating film and music. Alvin has to overcome all the usual teenage problems – romantic entanglements and deciding what the hell to do with his life. Published in the early 2000s it’s just as relevant today and a well-deserved cult classic.

Good to know: If you loved the book you can find out what happened to Alvin and his pals next in Pack Men.


Duck Feet by Ely Percy

Duck Feet is a coming-of-age novel, set in the mid-noughties in Renfrew and Paisley, Scotland. It follows the lives of 12-year-old Kirsty Campbell and her friends as they navigate life from first to sixth year at Renfrew Grammar school. This book is a celebration of youth in an ever-changing world. It uses humour to tackle hard-hitting subjects such as drugs, bullying, sexuality, and teenage pregnancy. But moreover, it is a relatable and accessible portrait of figuring out who you are, plunging into the currents of life, and most of all, finding hope.

Read Aiden’s review of Duck Feet here


The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong

2005. Glasgow is named Europe’s Murder Capital, driven by a violent territorial gang and knife culture. In the housing schemes of adjacent Lanarkshire, Scotland’s former industrial heartland, wee boys become postcode warriors.

2004. Azzy Williams joins the Young Team [YTP]. A brutal gang conflict with their deadly rivals, the Young Toi [YTB] begins.

2012. Azzy dreams of another life. He faces his toughest fight of all – the fight for a different future.

Expect Buckfast. Expect bravado. Expect street philosophy. Expect rave culture. Expect anxiety. Expect addiction. Expect a serious facial injury every six hours. Expect murder.

Hope for a way out.

Read our The Young Team reviews here and here.


The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

Fifteen-year old Anais Hendricks is smart, funny and fierce, but she is also a child who has been let down, or worse, by just about every adult she has ever met. Sitting in the back of a police car, she finds herself headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders where the social workers are as suspicious as its residents. But Anais can’t remember the events that have led her there, or why she has blood on her school uniform…

We featured Jenni Fagan’s second novel The Sunlight Pilgrims in our featured Dystopian Reads.


Kieron Smith, Boy by James Kelman

Rejected by his brother and largely ignored by his parents, Kieron Smith finds comfort – and endless stories – in the home of his much-loved grandparents. But when his family move to a new housing scheme on the outskirts of Glasgow, a world away from the close community of the tenements, Kieron struggles to find a way to adapt to his new life.

Kieron Smith, boy is a brilliant evocation of an urban childhood. Capturing the joys, frustrations, injustices, excitements, revels, battles, games, uncertainties, questions, lies, discoveries and sheer of wonder of boyhood, it is a story of one boy and every boy. It is James Kelman at his very best.


Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

Everyone has a Tully Dawson: the friend who defines your life.

In the summer of 1986, in a small Scottish town, James and Tully ignite a brilliant friendship based on music, films and the rebel spirit. With school over and the locked world of their fathers before them, they rush towards the climax of their youth: a magical weekend in Manchester, the epicentre of everything that inspires them in working-class Britain. There, against the greatest soundtrack ever recorded, a vow is made: to go at life differently. Thirty years on, half a life away, the phone rings. Tully has news.

Mayflies is a memorial to youth’s euphorias and to everyday tragedy. A tender goodbye to an old union, it discovers the joy and the costs of love.

Read Aiden’s review of Mayflies here.


Happiness is wasted on me by Kirkland Ciccone

Cumbernauld was built to be the town of the future…that is, if the future looked like a really rubbish episode of Doctor Who.

It’s also home to Walter Wedgeworth, a child stuck in a uniquely dysfunctional family controlled by the tyrannical Fishtank, whose CB Radio aerial is a metal middle finger to all the neighbours on Craigieburn Road. When 11-year-old Walter discovers the corpse of a baby inside a cardboard box, he resolves to ignore it, pretend it didn’t happen.

He knows the price of being a grass.

But the child’s fate haunts Walter, bringing him into conflict with the world around him. Walter’s journey will lead him from childhood to adulthood; school, college, bereavement, Britpop, his first job, Blackpool, the Spice Girls, feuds with his neighbour, and finally…face-to-face with a child killer.

Taking place in the 90s, Happiness Is Wasted On Me is a genre-blending tale that spans a decade in the life of Walter. It’s a coming of age tale, a family drama, a mystery, and a biting dark comedy. Ultimately, it’s the story of how even the strangest people can find their way in the world.

Read our review of Happiness is Wasted on Me here.


Sonny and Me by Ross Sayers

‘Whoever said yer school days are the best days ae yer life was at the absolute wind up. I hink maist adults dinnae mind whit it was really like. Wait til yeese hear whit Sonny and me got detention for…’

Daughter and Sonny are two best friends just trying to get through fourth year at high school. But when their favourite teacher leaves unexpectedly, and no one will say why, the boys decide to start their own investigation. As they dig deeper into the staff at Battlefield High, they discover a dark secret which one person will kill to protect…Will they uncover the truth without being expelled? Can their friendship survive when personal secrets are revealed? And will they manage to skive off double English?

Divided City by Theresa Breslin

A young man lies bleeding in the street.

It could be any street, in any city. But it’s not. It’s Glasgow. And it’s May – the marching season. The Orange Walks have begun.

Graham doesn’t want to be involved. He just wants to play football with his new mate, Joe. But when he witnesses a shocking moment of violence, suddenly he and Joe are involved. With Catholics, and with Protestants. With a young Muslim asylum-seeker, and his girlfriend. With all the old rivalries – and fears . . .

A gripping tale about two boys who must find their own answers – and their own way forward – in a world divided by differences.


Have you read any of these books? Or have any of them on your TBR? Talk to us in the comments or follow us on Instagram for a blether.

You can find most of these books in our own Bookshop at bookshop.org – if you choose to buy from our shop we will receive a small commission which will be equally split between a donation to the Scottish Book Trust at the end of the year and keeping this blog running.

INTERVIEW: Alan Gillespie on the dark side of the Highlands, cathartic writing and twisted characters

Earlier this week the Scot Lit Blog had a bit of a catch up with debut novelist Alan Gillespie ahead of the launch of The Mash House TODAY (May 6, 2021). As debuts go this one is a bit of a belter: a dark and intense tale of secrets and tragedy in a small Highland town. With characters that will stick with you long after you turn the final page, I couldn’t wait to pick the brains of the man behind the words. So, without any further havering from me, let’s get on with it….

The darker side of the Highlands

Setting is so important in any book and, in The Mash House, Alan really got under the skin of what goes on underneath the tartan shortie tin facade of some of these wee toons. Taking inspiration from his own experiences as an outsider to a close-knit community, the idea for the novel sprang from his early days as a teacher.

“When you’re training you have a choice for your probation year: either choosing a council to work under or ticking a box to be sent anywhere which comes with a bonus. I went for the bonus! I ended up in this really, really remote school in the west Highlands. It was a weird, unique experience for me going from growing up in a town, then living in a city to ending up somewhere so rural.”

As he didn’t drive at the time, Alan had to go back and forth to school each day on the ferry – something that you’ll get to know well in the book – he says, “The ferry finished at seven or eight o’clock then after that there was definitely a feeling that you were closed off for the night. No-one could get in, and no-one could get out. You’d hear of folk driving drunk home from the pub because there were no police about and if I was staying over there for a drink I’d have to borrow a torch from the barman at the hotel because there’s no streetlights.”

So from this admittedly “weird experience” the seed of the story was sown. But it needed an edge. “Obviously it’s gorgeous there. I’ve always been attracted to being in places that look good and [the Highlands] are definitely that….A colleague at school once said to me, and I used this in the book, “you can’t eat the scenery” meaning that after a little while it wouldn’t be enough to sustain your interest, and I definitely got that. The people were really welcoming and friendly but the longer I was there the more village gossip and secrets would come out. Stuff like who was having an affair, who’s brother had done something, that kind of thing. I started to realise that it wasn’t the utopia it looks like on the postcards. The humanity started to come out.”

Coen brothers magic…but make it Scottish

The Mash House is such a cinematic book. If you’re looking for vibes think Blue Velvet with a bit of Twin Peaks, add a dash of True Detective by way of Fargo…oh, and make it Scottish. Alan, who also admits that Scottish classic Jekyll and Hyde kicked off his interest in the concept of the duality of man, says: I was inspired by Fargo – the Coen brothers film then the TV series – set in this wee Minnesota backwater but where there were also all these horrendous gangsters and stuff. I really like that as a concept and I really wanted to take it to the Highlands.”

These concepts came into play as Alan began the writing process, he said: “I’m interested in narrative distance. I don’t want to be in the characters head as a narrator. I wrote the book in the third person because I don’t want to know every thought and feeling the character has. I’d rather be sitting on their shoulders observing them or even sometimes a step or two behind them. My editor said I had a distant tone and I quite like that to be honest: a lot of my favourite authors have that observational style. Sometimes you have to go into a character’s head: with flashbacks or emotional dilemmas, but I’d always prefer to show rather than tell – that’s what I like to read, and what I want to write as well.”

Fans of short chapters will be delighted with The Mash House, as Alan is a man after our own hearts on this, “I like to keep short chapters due to personal preference. Like, if I’m reading in bed and there’s about 15 pages to a chapter break I’ll think “Oh fuck that.”  Also, I can write about 1,000 words quite quickly, so most of my chapters are naturally about that length.”

Writing interesting women

All of the characters in The Mash House are fun to read: it’s a varied cast and we get to know them all intimately. But it’s the three main women in the book that will most likely stay with you. Alice, who we meet first, is a beautiful, but thoroughly psychotic school teacher, while gangster’s wife Margo has more than a hint of Lady Macbeth about her [the third woman is in the next wee section, I can count dinna worry].

Alan says, as a man, he’s, “very aware of trying not to write two dimensional female characters. I wanted to make the women in the book feel very real and authentic.” [Just for the record, I think he smashed it] He continues, “Alice was a lot of fun to write – her first scene of killing the cat is the first one I wrote – and I didn’t really know where I was going to go after that. Then, because of me being a teacher, I decided to make her a primary school teacher and take it from there. A lot of Alice’s actions in school were definitely inspired by things I’ve seen or heard of and then for the book I took it that step further. I’d obviously never do any of the things she did [watch out for a blu-tac scene] but I lived vicariously through her in a way.”

But coming back to the man-writing-women idea, Alan knew there had to be more to her, “I was inspired by the Villanelle character in Killing Eve for Alice. I really liked the idea of her being gorgeous, seductive and psychotic. But also there also had to being something else there, some damage. I think when you have a character who behaves like she does you have to have some reason behind it, some drivers and motivations. You’d get bored after a few chapters if they were just psychotic with nothing more about them.”

As for Margo, she was inspired by stories Alan had heard of the gangsters wives in Glasgow who would stitch up the victims of their husbands slashings and stabbings. “I don’t know if the story was true or not but I heard she would patch up these people, give them a cup of tea and almost counsel them through what had just happened. I thought that was a very interesting concept. I wanted Donald [Margo’s husband] to be quite small time and have this facade that didn’t really hold up and Margo was a bit of a Lady MacBeth. In real life you do have these gangsters and presumably a lot of them go home to a wife at night. I was interested in how she would react to these things that her husband is doing.”

Light among the dark

The beginning stages of writing the novel came at a difficult time in Alan’s life as he began writing soon after the death of his grandpa. But he says he found writing two characters in particular, Jessie and her own grandpa, provided a way for him to process that grief. Of them, he says, “I wanted there to be a more loving and tender relationship in the book to give readers a bit of a break from all the dark stuff. 

“My grandpa died shortly before I started writing the book so the grandpa in the book is a tribute to my own who died in a hospice. When I was writing I was still grieving and a lot of the conversations and quirks of grandpa in the novel are basically him. I really enjoyed writing the chapters with those two, they probably gave me, as a writer, a little bit of a break from all the death and chaos and stuff too.” 

Finding the motivation to see the book through to the end

Alan decided to go with Unbound, a hybrid publisher, to see his book come to life. He explains the model as crowdfunding combined with traditional publishing. Unbound give authors a crowdfunding target and then, when this is met, it switches to a more traditional publisher with editors and book designers to help the book across the finish line.

The Mash House (Paperback)

Alan says: “It helps debut writers like me who could be completely overlooked or dumped on a slush pile at a big publishers. It was really hard work to do the crowd funding as I was writing the book at the same time but it was motivating every time I got another few supporters. When you reach 100% the book has to be delivered and that’s a massive motivator. 

“I was offered the book on three chapters and a synopsis – without being given the book deal I don’t think I would have gone any further than just those three chapters and a synopsis. Being busy as a teacher it almost felt kind of selfish to be writing. I felt like I should have been developing things for class or doing some marking instead of writing. But then having the deal was a really powerful motivator to finish writing the book.”

Winding up our chat I was delighted to hear that the first draft of the next novel is already written. Alan says he’ll return to it during the summer break to begin the drafting, refining and editing process while he looks about finding an agent. It’s going to be such a treat to see the career of this exciting writer develop – and I’m going to be fighting my way through to the front of the queue to read the follow up.

Thank you so much to Alan for being our very first interview! Follow him on Instagram, Twitter and his own site – www.alangillespie.co.uk

Read our review of The Mash House here. You can buy the book direct from the publishers or from Waterstones.

Eight Scottish Dystopian fiction reads to add to your TBR

There are some who avoid dystopian fiction like the…well, like the plague. If you fall into this category then this list probably won’t be for you. Then there are some who find a strange sort of comfort in reading dystopian fiction during tough times – this list is probably more your cup of tea…

Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Set in the disintegrating cities of Unthank and Glasgow, this modern vision of hell tells the interwoven stories of two men: Lanark and Duncan Thaw. As the Life in Four Books unfolds, the strange, buried relationship between Lanark and Thaw slowly starts to emerge. Lanark is a towering work of the imagination and is the culmination of twenty-five years of work by Gray, who also illustrated and designed the novel. On its first publication it was immediately recognised as a major work of literature, and drew comparisons with Dante, Blake, Joyce, Orwell, Kafka, Huxley and Lewis Carroll. Thirty years on, its power, majesty, anger and relevance has only intensified.

Scot Lit says: Don’t be daunted – Lanark might take a little effort to read but it’s 100% worth it. A truly spectacular book and well-deserving of its status as a classic, everyone should read it.


The Plague Trilogy by Louise Welsh

While the trilogy started with A Lovely Way to Burn which was set in London, the second book Death is a Welcome Guest sees the action move north of the border. Magnus McFall was a comic on the brink of his big break when the world came to an end. Now, he is a man on the run and there is nothing to laugh about. Thrown into unwilling partnership with an escaped convict, Magnus flees the desolation of London to make the long journey north, clinging to his hope that the sickness has not reached his family on their remote Scottish island. He finds himself in a landscape fraught with danger, fighting for his place in a world ruled by men, like his fellow traveller Jeb – practical men who do not let pain or emotions interfere with getting the job done. This is a world with its own justice, and new rules. Where people, guns and food are currency. Where survival is everything.


The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan

November 2020 and the world is freezing over. As ice water melts into the Atlantic, and vast swathes of people make for the warmer south, Dylan is heading to Scotland, once the home of his late mother and grandmother. Twelve-year-old Stella and her survivalist mother, Constance, scrape by in the snowy Highlands, preparing for a record-breaking winter. Living out of a caravan, they spend their days digging through landfills, searching for anything of value. When Dylan arrives in the middle of the night, their lives change course. Though the weather worsens, his presence brings a new light to daily life, and when the ultimate disaster finally strikes, they’ll all be ready.

Scot Lit says: I’m reading this one on audiobook (excellent narration from Steven Cree btw) just now and it’s incredible. So much of it is eerily familiar in the current global situation – the first chapter in particular sounded just like any news report on any day right now. Poignant, prescient and important. This is rapidly becoming a favourite – Sarah.

Read our review of Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan here.


Skeleton Blues by Paul Johnston

Scot Lit Says: There are a whole bunch of Quint Dalrymple dystopian novels – but here’s the synopsis of the one I like the sound of the most…

Ex-cop Quint Dalrymple discovers there is something very rotten in the independent city-state of Edinburgh in this near-future dystopian thriller. Edinburgh, spring 2034. The weather’s balmy, there’s a referendum on whether to join a reconstituted Scotland coming up – and a tourist is found strangled. As usual, maverick detective Quint Dalrymple is called in to do the Council of City Guardians’ dirty work. For the first time in his career, Quint is stumped by the complexity of the case. An explosion at the City Zoo is followed by the discovery of another body – and the prime suspect is nowhere to be found. Can Quint and his sidekick, Guard commander Davie, put a stop to the killings before the city erupts into open violence? Are the leaders of other Scottish states planning to take over Edinburgh, or is the source of unrest much closer to home? Quint must race to pull the threads together before he becomes one of the numerous skeletons on display…


The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

The Night Sessions: A Novel by [Ken MacLeod]

A priest is dead. Picking through the rubble of the demolished Edinburgh tenement, Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson discovers that the explosion wasn’t an accident. When a bishop is assassinated soon afterwards, it becomes clear that a targeted campaign of killings is underway. No one has seen anything like this since the Faith Wars. In this enlightened age there’s no religious persecution, but believers are a marginal and mistrusted minority. And now someone is killing them. But who? And – perhaps more importantly – why? The more his team learns, the more the suspicion grows that they may have stumbled upon a conspiracy way outside their remit. Nobody believes them, but if Ferguson and his people fail, there will be many more killings – and disaster on a literally biblical scale . . .


But n Ben A-Go-Go by Matthew Fitt

The year is 2090. Global flooding has left most of Scotland under water. The descendants of those who survived God’s Flood live in a community of floating island parishes, known collectively as Port. Port’s citizens live in mortal fear of Senga, a supervirus whose victims are kept in a giant hospital warehouse in sealed capsules called Kists. Paolo Broon is a low-ranking cyberjanny. His life-partner, Nadia, lies forgotten and alone in Omega Kist 624 in the Rigo Imbeki Medical Center. When he receives an unexpected message from his radge criminal father to meet him at But n Ben A-Go-Go, Paolo’s life is changed forever. He must traverse VINE, Port and the Drylands and deal with rebel American tourists and crabbit Dundonian microchips to discover the truth about his family’s past in order to free Nadia from the sair grip of the merciless Senga. Set in a distinctly unbonnie future-Scotland, the novel’s dangerous atmosphere and psychologically-malkied characters weave a tale that both chills and intrigues.

Good to know: The book is entirely in Lallans with some Aberdonian and Dundonian dialect


IDP: 2043 by various

Graphic novel, IDP: 2043 imagines a Scotland around 30 years in the future. Six teams of major names in European comics and graphics novels collaborated to create the single narrative story including Barroux, Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth, Pat Mills, Hannah Berry, Irvine Welsh, Dan McDaid, Adam Murphy and Will Morris. The book is edited by story editor, crime writer and graphic novelist, Denise Mina. The story follows the catastrophic effects of a small rise in sea levels on the county’s heavily populated low lying areas and how society reimagines itself in the face of a huge population shift in a world of scarce resources.

Fact: This book was created in conjunction with the Edinburgh International Book Festival as a 30th anniversary celebration.


Resistance by Val McDermid and Kathryn Briggs (June 2021)

Zoe Meadows has taken a break from hard-hitting investigative reporting to spend more time with her family, which is how she finds herself doing celebrity Q&As at an outdoor music festival near the Scottish border. She and her friends, who run a food truck, head north, along with 150,000 festival-goers for a weekend of music and camping. Then, some of the food truck’s customers begin to fall ill, and many point to food poisoning. But when the festival ends and the attendees scatter across England, more people begin to get sick and die. What’s worse, it is spreading fast and baffles doctors, resisting all efforts to contain or cure it. With time running out, Zoe is compelled to fight for the truth, even as she loses that which she holds most dear.


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