INTERVIEW: Charlie Roy on writing about mental health, knowing your characters and getting a debut novel over the finish line

The Broken Pane is a stunning debut novel. Dealing with themes of women’s mental health, motherhood, abandonment and trauma it is a dark and harrowing read at times but, as protagonist Tam’s journey progresses, some hope starts to shine through. 

It’s one of a few recently released books centred around the topic of mental health in women so we caught up with author Charlie Roy to discuss the importance of this representation in literature, among other things. 

‘I was very clear that this was never going to be a book just about watching this trauma unfold, nor could it just be about the healing. I felt they needed to go hand in hand.’

‘I’m very interested in mental health and I’ve struggled with depression myself over the years,’ said Charlie, ‘I think there was an element of trying to understand it by writing about it.’ While in recent years there’s been a definite increase in the amount of books published that centre on the theme of mental health, when Charlie first started work on The Broken Pane eight years ago there wasn’t much out there. 

‘I think that the landscape has changed enormously in the last few years and I’m really pleased to see that. That said, I still don’t think there’s enough writing [about it], not for men’s mental health either. But I think it’s something that’s really helpful to explore in the written form.

‘There have been a number of books coming out like Catherine Simpson’s memoir about her sister dying by suicide [When I had a Little Sister] and Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes….But there is still a lot of room to explore various aspects of it [mental health]. I don’t think it’s saturated, I think there’s still a need. And I’m hoping that there will be more stories along these lines.’

Charlie says she felt that the stories she had read in the past rarely had the balance she was looking for and kept this in mind when beginning work on her own novel.  ‘I’d read a few stories of people who had difficult upbringings and you get to the part where the difficulties end but then you’re left wondering how did they heal? How did they move on? That second half just felt like it was never being told. Or sometimes you’d have the story of the second half, the moving on, and the first half being referred to but without you actually really getting a sense of the reality of the trauma. I wanted to do both parts of that story justice. 

‘I was very clear that this was never going to be a book just about watching this trauma unfold, nor could it just be about the healing. I felt they needed to go hand in hand.’

‘I think if I’d started writing the novel in my twenties I’d have felt quite overwhelmed’

Like most writers, Charlie started writing stories at a young age, passing notes and wee short stories to her friends at school. But it wasn’t until university that she got more into poetry initially writing ‘short, funny poems about people we knew’ for her friends and enjoying the process but not really taking it seriously. 

It wasn’t until starting a teaching job and speaking with poet Jenny Lindsay, who invited Charlie along to a poetry night in Edinburgh, that she really got into writing and performing poetry. While pregnant with her eldest child, however, things changed again and Charlie found she couldn’t go to the poetry events anymore and the time was right to start work on a novel. 

‘I felt ready for it,’ she said. ‘I think If I’d started writing the novel in my twenties I would have felt quite overwhelmed. But by the time I started it, I’d done a degree, had a dissertation under my belt, and I’d also done a second qualification in teaching. With all this I felt like I had the tools to start on it.’

Admitting that publication was far from her mind when she began work on the book, and it was really more about not being able to just sit and watch TV of an evening, Charlie says it took about six months to finish the first draft. 

‘Then I shelved it for about five years.’

“broken door” by MikeWebkist is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Thankfully, Charlie started work on it once again but the second draft was a massive undertaking. 

‘The second draft was a proper second draft. I think some writers are very efficient in their writing, and do not need to make such big changes but this was a major overhaul. I’d initially told the story from a couple of different points of view before realising that it needed to be just Tam’s voice.’

The last obstacle to getting the book finished was the lockdowns of last year. But, Charlie says,  ‘In a funny way, I think having the lockdown, and all that time focused on my little bubble, helped the very final stage of the book. Once the kids went back to school in August 2020 I got furiously back to work and it all started to come together and infuse into those last couple of chapters that hadn’t been there before. 

‘I think even though it is quite a bleak story in the first half, the end is quite uplifting in a way. I think that even though I’d tried to do that before, I hadn’t actually been able to find it until after being in lockdown.’ 

The novel found its home with Edinburgh-based indie publisher Leamington Books who have had a string of amazing novels coming out this year. 

‘I’ve been really lucky with Leamington,’ said Charlie. ‘I think Peter [Burnett, managing editor] is really just a wholly enthusiastic person all round anyway. I think he really values good writing and good stories. He’s definitely looking for new stories. I think in the less traditional publishing houses there’s an enthusiasm for new things that have not been done before and a willingness to take a bit of a risk on new stories. 

‘And through that, talking about women’s health, or working class stories, and so on, these stories are coming from independent publishers who are willing to look into new corners.’

‘With characters like that you’re not just creating them, they come to you, and there are things about them that are inevitable.

One of the major strengths of The Broken Pane is the characters. While Tam is the protagonist and it’s her journey we follow, everyone from her father Mick, to her mother Ange and her Nana are well-rounded and real. 

In talking about the inspiration behind the characters, Charlie admits that, essentially, she’s grown up with Tam alongside her. She explains…‘Tam has been with me for a long time. Originally, when I was in my twenties, and years before the first draft even happened, I was going to write YA fantasy – I had a very “devoted to dragons phase” that tied in with the metal phase of my life. [Interlude here to catch up on Slipknot gigs from 20 years ago and how amazing HIM were…] So I had this idea for a whole three part dystopia and this lead character was pretty much the proto-Tam.’

This developed into further thinking about how such a character would cope with parents who fell apart, or if something happened to their mother and they were left with a father who was a broken person. Motherhood is a recurring theme throughout the book, from the paternal grandmother, to the maternal grandmother, to the mother, to the sister having to mother the brother. Charlie says it was this element of motherhood, placed in parallel with societal influences such as the taboo around single motherhood in the 1940s to the husband’s control of the home, even down to a woman not being allowed to open a bank account without her husband’s permission, in the 1970s, that started to inform Tam’s character. 

 Michelle O’Connell Photography is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

‘This could sound a bit pretentious,’ Charlie said, ‘But it does feel as if I know Tam. I’m not sure if she’s a friend, maybe more like a cousin or a sibling – it’s a more complicated relationship than just friends. In some ways it felt like she was telling me her story. 

‘With characters like that you’re not just creating them, they come to you, and there are things about them that are inevitable. For instance the way Tam cleans things, it just felt completely right for her character. The detail and the vividness of how she remembers cleaning and tidying the house becomes such a key part of her. But I didn’t consciously sit down and decide to make that part of her character. It was like a two-way dialogue.’

‘What I hope I’ve achieved is creating real characters who behave like real humans.’

The other characters of the novel are just as nuanced and complex as Tam. It’s testament to Charlie’s skill as a writer that no matter the behaviour or actions of any of them – as all have made questionable decisions or done horrible things – they remain multi-faceted and even sympathetic to an extent.

Ange, Tam’s mother, who is absent for most of the novel, is just as much a product of her environment and circumstances as Tam. Charlie says, ‘To me, with Ange…She was a 17-year-old girl when she got pregnant by accident and she could not have an abortion – it wasn’t legal at the time. Her choices were to give up the child, basically be hidden away, or to get married. And Mick has “done the right thing.” 

‘At that point Ange is abandoned by her own mum and she can’t cope. It was a high school romance gone wrong and these, everything from then on, are the consequences of that. Ange is running away from it all. She’s stilted in her own development, she’s not dealt with things. In many ways I have a great deal of sympathy for her. I don’t think she was morally right but she had to face some difficult things and literally ran away.’

The third woman of the novel, Mick’s mother and Tam’s Nana, had an equally traumatic story and, again, the events of the novel are the consequences of all the things that happened to her, and what made her make the choices that she did.

Charlie said, ’She really wanted to be a good mum to Mick but part of her problem was never being able to say “my own child is not fit to be a parent.” She’s never able to admit that and it’s a tragedy. That was her boy, her baby, she was doing her best as a single mum when it was a very challenging time to be a single mum. She managed to find George who was great but came along too late for Mick in a way…It’s all consequences of how difficult it is to raise a child alone. 

‘Nana wants to help her grandchildren, and she loves them, but she just can’t admit that Mick is not fit to be a parent. So every time he gets that little bit better there’s just that little glimmer of hope that he’s going to be all right this time.’

Charlie added, ‘What I hope I’ve achieved is creating real characters who behave like real humans. I mean, even Mick, for all that he’s awful, he does try. I hope he’s not a kind of cartoon character. I hope that he comes across as a very real person.’ 

Don’t miss our review of The Broken Pane and thank you so much to Charlie for taking the time to speak with us. 

Follow Charlie on Twitter @dayinspace and buy the book direct from the publisher (or wherever you buy books, but there’s a link).

Author Pic: Ryan McGoverne @ryanmcgovernephoto

INTERVIEW: Kirkland Ciccone on strange towns, the Scottish psyche and pandemic publishing

It’s been a wee while since the last interview here on the Scot Lit Blog but we’re back with a bang. Happiness Is Wasted On Me has been one of the stand out novels for us over the past year so it was a proper treat to have a chat with the man behind the book, Kirkland Ciccone. I’ll leave it to the interview to do the introductions…enjoy!

‘All I wanted to do was write books and tell stories when all my friends wanted to be marine biologists!’

Born and raised in Cumbernauld, like main character Walter in Happiness Is Wasted on Me, Kirkland attended Cumbernauld High School….just like Walter. ‘This may become a theme!’ Kirkland says when he spoke to Scot Lit Blog earlier this month. To anyone who has read Kirkland’s first novel marketed for adults [he already had four YA novels before it] there’s much of his own story that will be familiar to fans of the book. ‘All I wanted to do was write books and tell stories when all my friends wanted to be marine biologists. I just wanted to see my books on the book shelf in libraries or bookshops. But it just seems so unlikely because, as a working class person, it’s like you’re more likely to go to the moon than get a book published, you know what I mean?

‘Anyway,’ he continues with something that can only be described as infectious enthusiasm, ‘In High School I decided I wanted to be a journalist.’ [Just like Walter]. A stint at college to study journalism and PR followed before Kirkland turned to performing one man shows at Cumbernauld Theatre, ‘I turned up one day and said, “I hear you’re looking for talent – Ta Daaaaa! And they never threw me out! So I started doing live stories. And I was so shy, I would literally read from a Pukka Pad. But it was actually really good, because if the audience didn’t throw glasses at me I knew it was good, and if they were bored and threw things then I knew the stories were bad.’

From there Kirkland began touring theatres across the country all the time continuing to write and try to get a book published. But it just wasn’t happening. Then, in a conversation already full of sentences I didn’t see coming, he declares, ‘So then I got a job as a psychic consultant.

‘It was through word of mouth and I would turn up and read people’s future at parties and stuff. It was a good way of working but eventually I started to get jealous of people that worked in shops and had nine to five jobs.’ And then, like Walter, Kirkland got a job in a library.

Despite not intending to go into writing YA, he started around about the time Twilight was a huge deal globally and something about it appealed. With a book written, the publisher that eventually picked him up was Strident – ‘because they were closest,’ Kirkland adds a wee bit wryly. ‘My thing was weird YA, like the weirdest, strangest things. I just loved the idea that teens were getting sort of punk rock fiction fed in to their brains, the stuff that I wanted to read at that age. But the problem with the books is that they got progressively weirder to the point where they’re unreadable. And, you know, at some point I decided that I couldn’t continue writing that stuff. I just wanted to say something about the world around me.

‘I wanted to write an adult novel and I wanted to become cult. But I never realised you can’t just become cult, other people have got to make you cult. Basically, I wanted to be a cult author of adult fiction. Happiness Is Wasted On Me is the first time where I felt like I knew what I was doing and it’s the first book that I’ve written that I’m completely happy with.’

Once the book was finished it was sent off to Scottish indie Fledgling Press, which had already published a number of books by Kirkland’s friend Alex Nye. ‘I feel like Scottish publishing had taken awhile to catch up [to everywhere else], and I don’t think they were ready for me before. But I also had to be ready to tell that story as well.’

‘I love how Cumbernauld Town Centre is kind of like David Bowie’s Labyrinth where you just walk down some stairs and around a corner and end up in a different world.

While Happiness Is Wasted On Me is full of memorable moments and characters, arguably the strongest aspect of the whole book is Walter himself. Not least because of his relatability to anyone that hides away from real life among books and pop culture. A quick skim through reviews of the book and you’ll see that this element of relatability and likeability as a character pops up fairly frequently.

Kirkland said, ’A lot of people feel that Walter is very real and very likeable (thank God!). He is based on me to an extent but he’s not me – he’s less confident than me I would say. He’s not an avatar. It’s not like I’m living my life through him. The truth is, he makes a lot of mistakes in the book, he’s quite distant and very socially awkward, which wasn’t me at all.

‘I felt like if you’re going to have a protagonist, they don’t always need to be likeable, but for this book I felt the best way to get people to empathise with him was to try and make him as likeable as possible…but not perfect. I just wanted to try and write him as normal as possible even though he’s not a “normal” person. Because everything he represents puts him on the outside of everything around him. He’s at the window looking through the glass or reading a book in the background while people are fighting in the living room in front of him. 

‘I just drew from real life incidents too so that autobiographical element probably makes him feel more real to people as well.’ 

While Walter is a brilliant character, vivid and real, another huge element of the book is the setting: Cumbernauld. While it’s often used as a punchline both at home and elsewhere due to the number of times it’s won the Plook on the Plinth award, among others.

Kirkland said, ‘Cumbernauld is a strange, strange town. They made it with flat roofs because they thought the sun was going to shine forever, in the middle of Scotland, one of the rainiest countries! And the town centre is extremely ugly. People get insulted when I say that and think I’m taking the piss but the truth is that’s what I love about Cumbernauld. It’s what I’ve always loved about the town – how weird it is, how strange, how ugly. 

“Cumbernauld Town Centre” by The JR James Archive, University of Sheffield is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

‘It has a real personality. I don’t think I could have come from anywhere other than Cumbernauld. It really has informed my personality a lot. I feel like I really embodied the town. I felt awkward, I still do, and not quite put together, but that’s why I felt a deep emotional connection with Cumbernauld town centre building in particular. 

‘I love how it’s kind of like David Bowie’s Labyrinth where you just walk down some stairs and around a corner and end up in a different world. It’s strange but I love that. I still feel like there’s lots of it that we don’t know about – like you could knock down a wall and find a shop that hasn’t been touched for 40 years or something. I would love to take the Most Haunted crew in with our torches and have a look around.

‘The town itself is so personality packed that it does become a character in the book. People who’ve lived in Cumbernauld and have read the book have contacted me to tell me that they can feel the town in the DNA of the book itself and that’s the best compliment that I can think of.’

‘We were all drawing on the same kind of cosmic force’

Something that’s clear in Kirkland’s work is the very fine balance between darker topics and difficult parts of life alongside the lighter parts that keep you going. Happiness Is Wasted On Me opens with a young schoolboy [Walter, obviously] finding a dead baby in a box – hardly a laugh a minute riot – but there’s so much charm to be found as the book progresses, even though the bleak things Walter goes through in his formative years are fairly relentless. 

Read More: Growing up Scottish – nine reads to add to your TBR

‘I didn’t feel,’ Kirkland says, ‘That any slice of life Scottish fiction would sell to a publisher. So I thought I would put this murder mystery element into it and connect it to Walter’s personal development. But there must have been something in the water because at the same time Shuggie Bain came out, and God bless it, I realised I actually could have done just the normal slice of life story. Then Duck Feet came out, and Blessed Assurance, all these Scottish coming-of-age novels while I thought I was doing something different! They’re all kind of in the same wheelhouse. We were all drawing on the same kind of cosmic force.

‘I do find myself drawn towards dark subjects but almost without realising it I always put comedy in too. I think it’s something that’s going to stay in all my work, that sense of the absurd, or everyday surrealism. It’s just very natural to me and I can’t help but put both in. Happiness Is Wasted On Me was a very dark book and I worried that it was maybe too dark. But thankfully the lighter parts of my own personality made it’s way into the writing and I’m really glad of that because it stops it being too bleak.

‘It’s so Scottish. Like, people might have the most horrible stories about alcoholism or drugs or anything, people that have gone through such hardship, and yet they can laugh about it as well. It’s like an aspect of our collective Scottish psyche where you’ve got to laugh or you’ll cry.’

I would get up every morning and read teletext and take notes and say to my mates, “Oh have you heard this new band called Placebo?”

Barely a page will go by in Happiness Is Wasted On Me before there’s some kind of pop culture reference, whether music or TV or film, the book is packed with these Easter egg like references that will delight any 80s or 90s kid. With Walter growing up in the 90s, at the same time as Kirkland did, he once again draws from his own life experiences to add richness to both character and story. 

‘I actually loved the 90s. It’s not a perfect decade by any means but, culturally speaking, so much went on. You had grunge, you had Britpop, you had all kinds of different artistic movements going on, you had all the really good films. The political situation with the Tories leaving and New Labour coming in. So the 90s is fertile ground for a backdrop for a story.

‘But I liked the idea that as the character gets older, things around them change, but he remains almost the same. When you’re writing about young people, or dealing with young people, you know that teenagers speak about their favourite things. All of them trying to find the next new bands, and who’s going to find the best new band and sell it to all your friends and be the one that discovered it. I would get up every morning and read Teletext and take notes and say to my mates, “Oh have you heard this new band called Placebo?” And that’s an experience that’s going to always be around as long as teenagers are around. 

‘So yeah, I do like pop culture references and I think a good pop culture reference speaks for the characters themselves. It can be character building: the sort of films they watch, books they read and songs they listen to. It tells you a lot about a person and I suppose, from a writer’s perspective, that’s really useful to use. 

It’s an important book to me, it has so much about me in it and so much that I wanted to say.

Happiness Is Wasted On Me was released at the height of the pandemic in 2020 when everything was closed and there was no chance of a live book tour let alone an open book shop. Initially slated for a March 2020 release, after signing a contract with Fledgling towards the end of 2019, the book was pushed to the autumn due to the pandemic. 

Of his route to publication Kirkland said, ‘All in all it was a very smooth process [up to that point] and it was really nice that I got everything I wanted for the book. We were all set to put the book out in March of 2020…and I knew about the virus in China, we all did, but I just didn’t realise how serious it was. Then people started to die and it just felt really dark and horrible…and then it came here.’

The last thing anyone needs is a rehash of all we’ve been through over the past 18 months but putting a book out into the world while the world is closed has proven to be as difficult as you’d expect. 

“Housing, Cumbernauld” by The JR James Archive, University of Sheffield is licensed underCC BY-NC 2.0

‘So the book couldn’t come out in March,’ Kirkland says, ‘And I understood that. But the virus weaponised the advantage that we have of having audiences in a book shop, or library. The best thing about putting a book out is getting to meet people, you get to read your book to them and in my case, getting to perform. I had ideas of how this was going to go, for my first adult novel and it feels like my first book to be honest. I wanted to tour and go to the cool venues, punk rock clubs, theatres and libraries….

‘And it didn’t happen.’

By autumn, the publishing industry was starting to get back to normal, Shuggie Bain was out creating a buzz about Scottish fiction, and an online, digital launch was held. ‘It was brilliant,’ Kirkland said, ‘But you still don’t get what you really wanted from it. It was difficult because my emotional state was really tied up in this book. It’s an important book to me, has so much about me in it and so much that I wanted to say. It was just a lot to deal with at the time.

‘The journey was slow and I did feel cheated at first, but you do have to think of the bigger picture.’

‘It feels almost punk, there’s a real energy there’

The novel is now headed for a well-deserved second print run to coincide with the world opening back up again, as such, Kirkland was able to have his first in-person event for the book at The Book Nook in Stirling very recently. 

‘When you go into a book shop and see that table full of Scottish books it does feel like kind of a renaissaince. Some might say its tokenistic but it’s still always at the front of the shop or prominently positioned and that’s helped sell Happiness Is Wasted On Me. I’ve actually seen someone pick it up then walk to the till with it! (I never jumped out at the them or anything though incase they thought I was some kind of serial killer). 

‘But at least these books are getting picked up now and they’re trying to sell them.’

On the gear change we’ve been seeing in publishing over recent years, in terms of more marginalised and working class voices finally getting heard and published, Kirkland admits it’s something he thinks about a lot. ‘Sometimes I think the Scottish publishing industry is really middle class and it can be difficult, at times, to know where you fit in. Sometimes I feel like I do fit in and other times I feel like the book didn’t get the innings it deserved. I did get a lot of support and it’s nice to know that people enjoyed it but I hoped it would maybe get into the mainstream more. 

‘I think it might [get that mainstream attention] now, because other working class voices are breaking through and it’s becoming more and more prevalent. I think it’s important that Scottish writers are telling Scottish stories as well. I think it’s good that we’re getting that kind of prominence. 

‘I was in Waterstones the other day and O Caledonia, which was out of print for years, is back in print again. And I can’t help but think that that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for all these new stories coming out. It’s nice that that’s happening. And of course you’ve got folk like Chris McQueer and 404 Ink that really push that kind of mentality in a sense.

‘It feels almost punk, there’s a real energy there with all the people starting blogs and making Instagram posts and just supporting any way they can. It feels good. I feel for the first time like I’m in the right place at the right time.’ 

You can find Kirkland’s own website here (click click) and he’s also on Instagram and Twitter

Read our review of Happiness Is Wasted On Me here.

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

INTERVIEW: Kirsti Wishart on retro fiction, queer representation and writing what you want

If you’re looking for a quirky, queer read with a retro vibe then you won’t go far wrong with The Knitting Station, the debut of Kirsti Wishart published by indie Scottish publisher Rymour Books. Described as ‘a very Scottish saga of counter-espionage, knitting and sheep’ put any preconceptions aside and just go along for the ride with this genuinely fun book. 

We recently caught up with Kirsti to find out more about the inspirations for the book, her writing life and queer representation in Scottish fiction. 

‘Writing has always been in the background for me, but it took quite a long time to build up the confidence to actually do anything with it’

Having long been a short story writer rather than a novelist, Kirsti admitted that it took time to build up the confidence to tackle a longer project. It wasn’t until she landed a place on the Scottish Book Trust mentorship scheme, the precursor to the New Writers Award, that she pushed on with it. 

‘I was fortunate enough to get Sam Boyce as a mentor and she was the person that really got me through the first draft of my first novel. I’d always had comments before that my short stories were kind of on the edge and veering towards novels so having this “permission” to finally go ahead and write a novel felt great. 

‘It is a bit awkward when you find out your natural writing ability is a novel though. It’s a bit like being told that your natural playing ability is a church organ – it’s just so huge and time consuming!’

Kirsti has written three novels since then but The Knitting Station is the first to have found publication. It’s a book that took a lot of inspiration from her academic work when she undertook a phd. She said, ‘I heard that other writers had started a phd, like Ali Smith and Ian Rankin, but had spent all their time writing stories or plays. I thought doing a PhD too would give me the time to do that and at least be writing creatively. But at the end of the four years I had the PhD but hadn’t had time to do anything else.’

But, as Kristi says, her work looking at Scotland’s position within the British empire and examining the work of the likes of John Buchan and Robert Louis Stevenson in that context, was a big influence on The Knitting Station. With Stevenson in particular she said, ‘He’s fascinating. His work is far more ambiguous [than Buchan], his heroes are always more unsure of themselves and of the landscape. There’s an instability there.’

‘With The Knitting Station I wanted to have women, and middle aged women at that, centre stage’

The Knitting Station is a book full of strong female characters: queer women, middle aged women, young women, flawed women, real women. ‘With Hannah Richards I wanted a main character that was very unsure and very uncertain of herself coming into this new environment and not sure of how the locals live their lives. I very much wanted to put women, and middle aged women at that, centre stage. I was looking at that kind of adventure tradition [from Stevenson or Buchan] and feminising it.’

Kirsti says that she put some of herself into Hannah’s character, saying, ‘I suppose with Hannah…she’s not fully a representation of me but she kind of is. I think that, with a lot of my writing, the main characters are caught between observing and participating. Hannah’s background is that she was a code-breaker, something that’s very hidden, it’s a very internal process and yet what you do in that job could have huge ramifications: it could be life or death. 

‘I think for Hannah, that when she goes to that island and starts to notice things, it’s a case of is she strong enough to actually engage with what’s going on? She’s very much on the outside and aware of how she might be perceived or not accepted by other people. But she is forced into the position of having to engage and do something and not just be on the sidelines. She has to carry this through and get involved. 

‘I think this can be true for writers as well. Sometimes you think about whether writing is enough or should you be out there participating in life more than just observing it. I suppose, by writing something and putting it out there you are trying to participate but you’re doing it from a remote perspective. I think Hannah is emblematic of the writer then, she’s sort of part of things but one removed from it as well. But I did want her to be brave enough to step up and be the heroine.’

Hannah being a lesbian is also something that Kristi felt was important to have represented in her novel. She says, ‘It will be changing now, especially with books like Shuggie Bain, but with Scottish fiction in particular I was growing up not knowing what I could read where a lesbian would be the main character. There were some novels out there but it would be kind of veiled sometimes, especially in Scottish novels.

‘It was very deliberate that I wanted Hannah to be gay, I didn’t want it to be “is she, isn’t she?” I think it’s important to have that representation and see yourself reflected but also for other people to see, “Oh right, it’s not that big a deal.” 

‘It’s not something I personally think about on a daily basis – it’s just who I am – and that’s what I wanted for Hannah too. I also wanted it to be clear that she had made her own assumptions about the Islanders and how they would react [to her being gay]. And they’re actually very accepting. I wanted to show that prejudice can be a two way thing.’

‘It’s retro but not historical’

‘I would say the book is historical in the way Mad Men is historical in that it’s a version of the 1960s that’s very influenced by the culture at the time. It’s more of an image of the time, or an idea of it. One of the main inspirations was knitting patterns of the time which were very kitsch and camp but you had film stars at the time modelling them – people like Twiggy or Roger Moore. So I suppose the idea for The Knitting Station was “What if James Bond was a knitting pattern cover star” – how would that read? 

‘I was just taking pleasure in the culture, trying to do something but in a kind of pulpy way. Like going and putting characters with modern sensibilities back in time, similar to what Sarah Walters is doing with the Victorian era – I just wanted to explore what it would look like.’

The obvious question to Kirsti was, is she a knitter herself?

“Sheep” by moohaha is licensed under CC BY 2.0

‘I’m kind of terrified of revealing that I’m not!’ She said, ‘I’ve been expecting knitters to get in touch and tell me about everything I’ve gotten wrong. But I found the whole culture inspiring, especially around things like the Fair Isle pattern. I’m very interested in putting things together that initially look quite conflicting, so you’ve got knitters and knitting and that seems all very safe, but then you have them becoming armed later on. So it goes from something very safe and cosy to having spies and invasions and all that sort of thing happening.’

‘My message to writers would be to not waste so much time worrying if you’re good enough or not’

‘Just get on with it and actually write, and write a lot, because that’s the way you’ll actually find out about your rhythms and what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.  Don’t fret about whether it will or won’t get published. It was only when I decided to start writing something that I really wanted to write about – it was a story about a mechanical bird – that I got published.’

The Knitting Station was written a few years ago and Kirsti set it aside while she worked on other projects. When she came to look at it once again she says, ‘I was thinking “this is mad” who would publish this? But you have to trust your instincts. It’s a difficult balance because if you want to make some kind of a career in writing you have to think in a professional way. But I also think there can be too much emphasis on professionalisation and trying to write what you think other people will want. 

‘You have to stop thinking about the end product so much and just enjoy the process. Because there are absolutely no guarantees with writing. The fact that it can all happen [publication] by luck or by chance is one of those things where it’s either really good to know or it’s absolutely terrifying.’ 

Next to be published will be the first novel Kirsti wrote – The Projectionist – hopefully later this year, also with Rymour. It will be another offbeat story about a small Scottish town obsessed with movies with loads of film references. She also has another lined up (teaser: it’s about Scottish superheroes and sounds amazing) to follow.

So, there’s plenty more to look forward to from Kirsti. Her last word on her work? ‘You could say my work is surreal but with a grounding in reality. Just reality that’s just a bit tweaked or heightened. I can’t do realism to save myself…it does have to come through this slightly odd filter.’

You can buy The Knitting Station direct from the publisher. Follow Kirsti on Twitter @kirstiw

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. 

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.

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. 

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.