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

Spooky Scottish reads for Halloween: Part Two (ghosts, horror and stories set in Scotland )

Welcome to Part Two of our round up of spooky Scottish reads to get you in the mood for Halloween. If you missed Part One you can find it here where we brought you recommendations for dark tales, short stories and wee reads. So, lets get on with it then…

Ghost Stories

Too Near the Dead by Helen Grant

This is one of my favourite creepy books from this year! Blurb? Sometimes it’s terrifying, loving someone this much…For Fen Munro and her fiancé James, it is a dream come true: an escape from London to a beautiful house in the stunning Perthshire countryside. Barr Dubh house is modern, a building with no past at all. But someone walks the grounds, always dressed in lavender. Under a lichenous stone in an abandoned graveyard, a hideous secret lies buried. And at night, Fen is tormented by horrifying dreams. Someone wants Fen’s happiness, and nothing is going to stop them – not even death…

Read our review here.

The Whistling by Rebecca Netley

Alone in the world, Elspeth Swansome takes the position of nanny to a family on the remote Scottish island of Skelthsea. Her charge, Mary, hasn’t uttered a word since the sudden death of her twin, William – just days after their former nanny disappeared. No one will speak of what happened to William. Just as no one can explain the hypnotic lullabies sung in empty corridors. Nor the strange dolls that appear in abandoned rooms. Nor the faint whistling that comes in the night…As winter draws in and passage to the mainland becomes impossible, Elspeth finds herself trapped. But is this house haunted by the ghosts of the past?

Pine by Francine Toon

Lauren and her father Niall live alone in the Highlands, in a small village surrounded by pine forest. When a woman stumbles out onto the road one Halloween night, Niall drives her back to their house in his pickup. In the morning, she’s gone. In a community where daughters rebel, men quietly rage, and drinking is a means of forgetting, mysteries like these are not out of the ordinary. The trapper found hanging with the dead animals for two weeks. Locked doors and stone circles. The disappearance of Lauren’s mother a decade ago. Lauren looks for answers in her tarot cards, hoping she might one day be able to read her father’s turbulent mind. Neighbours know more than they let on, but when local teenager Ann-Marie goes missing it’s no longer clear who she can trust.

House of Spines by Michael Malone

Ran McGhie’s world has been turned upside down. A young, lonely and frustrated writer, and suffering from mental-health problems, he discovers that his long-dead mother was related to one of Glasgow’s oldest merchant families. Not only that, Ran has inherited Newton Hall, a vast mansion that belonged to his great-uncle, who had been watching from afar as his estranged great-nephew grew up. Entering his new-found home, it seems Great-uncle Alexander has turned it into a temple to the written word – the perfect place for poet Ran. But everything is not as it seems. As he explores the Hall’s endless corridors, Ran’s grasp on reality appears to be loosening. And then he comes across an ancient lift; and in that lift a mirror. And in the mirror … the reflection of a woman. A terrifying psychological thriller with more than a hint of the gothic, House of Spines is a love letter to the power of books, and a reminder that lust and betrayal can be deadly…

Horror

I feel like with any run down of Scottish horror you have to start with the two classics that always spring to mind – The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Dr Jekyll and Hyde.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

A wretched young man, ‘an outcast in the world’, tells the story of his upbringing by a heretical Calvinist minister who leads him to believe that he is one of the elect, predestined for salvation and thus above the moral law. Falling under the spell of a mysterious stranger who bears an uncanny likeness to himself, he embarks on a career as a serial murderer. Robert Wringhim’s Memoirs are presented by an editor whose attempts to explain the story only succeed in intensifying its more baffling and bizarre aspects. Is Wringhim the victim of a psychotic delusion, or has he been tempted by the devil to wage war against God’s enemies? Hogg’s sardonic and terrifying novel, too perverse for nineteenth-century taste, is now recognized as one of the masterpieces of Romantic fiction.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R.L. Stevenson

In seeking to discover his inner self, the brilliant Dr Jekyll discovers a monster. First published to critical acclaim in 1886, this mesmerising thriller is a terrifying study of the duality of man’s nature, and it is the book which established Stevenson’s reputation as a writer.

Shrike and Bane by Joe Donnelly

There’s a few you could choose from with Joe Donnelly but I’ve picked out Shrike and Bane specifically because they’re the two I’ve read. In Shrike, a wee Scottish town is being terrorised by an evil that was awoken during a dark seance that had gone terribly wrong. There’s a LOT going on in this one from a crime fiction element to a psychic to a monster to the occult but if you’re a fan of old school paperback horror of the Stephen King ilk give it a go. In Bane, a wee Scottish down is being terrorised by evil…It’s a theme but it works.

(If you subscribe to that unlimited subscription service on that site that’s named after a river you’ll find Shrike and Bane included…just sayin’)

The Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley

Edinburgh 1827. In the starkly-lit operating theatres of the city, grisly experiments are being carried out on corpses in the name of medical science. But elsewhere, there are those experimenting with more sinister forces. Amongst the crowded, sprawling tenements of the labyrinthine Old Town, a body is found, its neck torn to pieces. Charged with investigating the murder is Adam Quire, Officer of the Edinburgh Police. The trail will lead him into the deepest reaches of the city’s criminal underclass, and to the highest echelons of the filthy rich. Soon Quire will discover that a darkness is crawling through this city of enlightenment – and no one is safe from its corruption.

The Fall of the House of Thomas Weir by Andrew Neil MacLeod

Edinburgh, 1773. A storm is coming. A storm that will shake the Age of Reason to its very foundations. When rumours spread of ghouls haunting Edinburgh’s old town, there is only one person who can help. Dr Samuel Johnson: author, lexicographer… and a genius in the occult and supernatural. With his good friend and companion, James Boswell, Dr Johnson embarks on a quest to unravel the hellish mysteries plaguing the city. But what they uncover is darker and more deadly than they could have ever suspected, an evil conspiracy which threatens not just the people of Edinburgh, but the whole of mankind. For the tunnels under Edinburgh’s Old Town hide a terrible secret…

Maggie’s Grave by David Sodergren

The small Scottish town of Auchenmullan is dead, and has been for years. It sits in the shadow of a mountain, forgotten and atrophying in the perpetual gloom. Forty-seven residents are all that remain. There’s nothing to do there, nothing to see, except for a solitary grave near the top of the mountain. MAGGIE WALL BURIED HERE AS A WITCH reads the faded inscription. But sometimes the dead don’t stay buried. Especially when they have unfinished business.

The Trickster by Muriel Gray

Life is good in Silver, a small town high in the Canadian Rockies. Sam Hunt is a lucky man. with a loving family and an honest income, he has everything he wants. But beneath the mountains a vile, demonic energy is gathering strength and soon it will unleash its freezing terror upon Silver. In the eye of the storm, one man struggles to bury the private horrors of his childhood. He knows nothing, yet seems to know everything: Sam Hunt. All he loves may be destroyed by an evil beyond imagining. An evil from the buried, hated past. An evil named the Trickster.

You might also be interested in checking out our round up of dystopian fictionfind it here

Unsettling Tales set in Scotland

The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke

Upon the cliffs of a remote Scottish island, Lòn Haven, stands a lighthouse. A lighthouse that has weathered more than storms. Mysterious and terrible events have happened on this island. It started with a witch hunt. Now, centuries later, islanders are vanishing without explanation. Coincidence? Or curse? Liv Stay flees to the island with her three daughters, in search of a home. She doesn’t believe in witches, or dark omens, or hauntings. But within months, her daughter Luna will be the only one of them left. Twenty years later, Luna is drawn back to the place her family vanished. As the last sister left, it’s up to her to find out the truth . . .

Banquet for the Damned by Adam Neville

Few believed Professor Coldwell could commune with spirits. But in Scotland’s oldest university town something has passed from darkness into light. Now, the young are being haunted by night terrors and those who are visited disappear. This is certainly not a place for outsiders, especially at night. So what chance do a rootless musician and burned-out explorer have of surviving their entanglement with an ageless supernatural evil and the ruthless cult that worships it? A chilling occult thriller from award-winning author Adam Nevill, Banquet for the Damned is both a homage to the great age of British ghost stories and a pacey modern tale of diabolism and witchcraft.

By These Ten Bones by Claire B. Dunkle

A mysterious young man has come to a small Highland town. His talent for wood carving soon wins the admiration of the weaver’s daughter, Maddie. Fascinated by the silent carver, she sets out to gain his trust, only to find herself drawn into a terrifying secret that threatens everything she loves. There is an evil presence in the carver’s life that cannot be controlled, and Maddie watches her town fall under a shadow. One by one, people begin to die. Caught in the middle, Maddie must decide what matters most to her-and what price she is willing to pay to keep it.

Black Cathedral by L.H. Maynard and M.P.N Sims

At an old manor house on a remote Scottish island, six managers of a large corporation arrive for a week-long stay. Within days they will all suffer horrifying deaths and their bodies will never be found. The government assigns the case to Department 18, the special unit created to investigate the supernatural and the paranormal. However this is no mere haunted house. The evil on this island goes back centuries, but its unholy plots and schemes are hardly things of the past. In fact, while the members of Department 18 race to unravel the island’s secrets, the forces of darkness are gathering… and preparing to attack.

Madam by Phoebe Wynne

For 150 years, Caldonbrae Hall has loomed high above the Scottish cliffs as a beacon of excellence in the ancestral castle of Lord William Hope. A boarding school for girls, it promises that its pupils will emerge ‘resilient and ready to serve society’. Into its illustrious midst steps Rose Christie, a 26-year-old Classics teacher and new head of department. Rose is overwhelmed by the institution: its arcane traditions, unrivalled prestige, and terrifyingly cool, vindictive students. Her classroom becomes her haven, where the stories of fearless women from ancient Greek and Roman history ignite the curiosity of the girls she teaches and, unknowingly, the suspicions of the powers that be. But as Rose uncovers the darkness that beats at the very heart of Caldonbrae, the lines between myth and reality grow ever more blurred. It will be up to Rose – and the fierce young women she has come to love – to find a way to escape the fate the school has in store for them, before it is too late.

Swansong by Kerry Andrew

Polly Vaughan is trying to escape the ravaging guilt of a disturbing incident in London by heading north to the Scottish Highlands. As soon as she arrives, this spirited, funny, alert young woman goes looking for drink, drugs and sex – finding them all quickly, and unsatisfactorily, with the barman in the only pub. She also finds a fresh kind of fear, alone in this eerie, myth-drenched landscape. Increasingly prone to visions or visitations – floating white shapes in the waters of the loch or in the woods – she is terrified and fascinated by a man she came across in the forest on her first evening, apparently tearing apart a bird. Who is this strange loner? And what is his sinister secret?

White Pines by Gemma Amor

A woman, returning to her roots. A town, built on sacred land. A secret, cloaked in tradition and lore. Welcome to White Pines. Don’t get too comfortable.

Black Cairn Point by Claire McFall

Heather agrees to a group camping holiday with Dougie and his friends because she’s desperate to get closer to him. But when the two of them disturb a pagan burial site above the beach, she becomes certain that they have woken a malevolent spirit. Something is alive out there in the pitch-black dark, and it is planning to wreak deadly revenge. One year later Heather knows that she was very lucky to escape Black Cairn Point but she is still waiting for Dougie to wake from his coma. If he doesn’t, how will she prove her sanity, and her innocence?

City of Ghosts by V.E. Schwab

Ever since Cass almost drowned (okay, she did drown, but she doesn’t like to think about it), she can pull back the Veil that separates the living from the dead…and enter the world of spirits. Her best friend is even a ghost. So things are already pretty strange. But they’re about to get much stranger. When Cass’s parents start hosting a TV show about the world’s most haunted places, the family heads off to Edinburgh, Scotland. Here, graveyards, castles, and secret passageways teem with restless phantoms. And when Cass meets a girl who shares her “gift”, she realizes how much she still has to learn about the Veil – and herself. And she’ll have to learn fast. The city of ghosts is more dangerous than she ever imagined.

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.

Spooky Scottish reads for Halloween: Part One (short stories, wee reads and dark tales)

If you’re looking for some creepy reads to get you in the mood for Halloween then don’t worry, we’ve got your back. Here’s a HUGE list of scary Scottish books across the whole spooky spectrum. This is a mix of everything from Scottish writers, publishers or just set in Scotland, but hopefully there’s something for everyone.

Short Stories

There are so many incredible and creepy short story collections by Scottish writers so no doubt a fair few will have been missed from this list, but it’s a good place to start.

Mayhem and Death by Helen McClory

“Descriptively mythical yet recognisable stories woven from dark and light, human fear and fortune…A silent documentary through a terrible place….Mary Somerville, future Queen of Science….A coven of two. The book also includes novella Powdered Milk, a tale for the lost.

Scottish Ghost Stories by James Robertson

A classic, solid collection of Scottish ghost stories from the incredible James Robertson – his first book in fact. There are some famous stories here – like Glamis Castle or Major Weir (the subject of James’ The Fanatic – another ScotLitBlog recommendation!) – and others that may be less familiar. All are pretty creepy.

Uncanny Bodies (Anthology)

This is an anthology of work meant to unsettle you. As the blurb says, “the uncanny is a place where you feel at home – until home turns against you. It’s a city where the streets can’t join up. The uncanny alienates your own body from you through medical advances, such as prosthetic limbs or cardiac defibrillators. The ‘uncanny valley’ is a landscape where robots try to imitate you. This anthology gets beneath the skin and into the depths of what it means to be human in an age of machines and genes.” Sounds guid, aye?

Haunted Voices (Anthology)

Haunted Voices was the first output from Scottish indie publisher Haunt. It’s packed with stories from some of Scotland’s best storytellers and you can expect ‘monstrous tongue-eaters, shadowy demons, haunted video tapes, wicked priests, strange shapes in the darkness, a retelling of Poe’s The Raven… and more.’

Tales for Twilight (Anthology)

Tales for Twilight is a brand new anthology from Birlinn with stories ranging across the centuries from James Hogg to James Robertson. They say: ‘Scottish authors have proved to be exceptionally good at writing ghost stories. Perhaps it’s because of the tradition of oral storytelling that has stretched over centuries, including poems and ballads with supernatural themes. The golden age was during the Victorian and Edwardian period, but the ghost story has continued to evolve and remains popular to this day.’ [I pre-ordered this one as soon as I found out it existed!]

The Open Door & Other Stories of the Seen and Unseen by Margaret Oliphant

Talking of classics.. This “forgotten” collection of stories by Margaret Oliphant, who was big in the 19th Century but less so since, could be up your street. ‘From suspenseful hauntings to strange tales of afterlife and the emotional echoes of ghosts beyond simple frights, Oliphant’s stories possess a unique style and nuanced voice to deliver stories thoroughly unnerving and unforgettable.’

Things we Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan

This is one of my favourite short story collections. This is a collection of dark stories of fear, violence, domestic claustrophobia and desire. As the blurb says, you should expect stories about…’a woman is unnerved by her isolation alone in a house in Iceland; another can only find respite from the clinging ghost that follows her by submerging herself in an overgrown pool. Couples wrestle with a lack of connection to their children; a schoolgirl becomes obsessed with the female anatomical models in a museum; and a cheery account of child’s day out is undercut by chilling footnotes.’

Look Where You’re Going Not Where You’ve Been by Steven J. Dines

I’ve not gotten to reading this collection yet but it sounds incredible and I’m excited for it. The blurb says, ‘The past is never far behind. If we do not leave it, if we insist on carrying it with us to the end…that end is a monster. This stunning debut collection of dark, literary fiction drowns the reader in its themes of grief, regret, love, and hope. A family is torn apart by tragedy and misadventure, their future creaking under the weight of judgment. Old men play at being ghosts while a young boy sees real ones wherever he turns. A wandering immortal desperately seeks an end to his pain. Intimate, unflinching, and poignant, these eleven tales of the broken and the unmade include the two previously unpublished novellas, dragonland and This House is Not Haunted.’

Poetry and Micro-Fiction

Sometimes you need your scares short and maybe not-so-sweet – so here’s a couple of suggestions.

Where Decay Sleeps by Anna Cheung

As I write this list I’m not 100% sure if Where Decay Sleeps is out yet – though Haunt’s site says it will be shipping in October so it’s close. They say of it “[the collection] lays 36 poems on the undertaker’s table, revealing to us the seven stages of decay: pallor mortis, algor mortis, rigor mortis, livor mortis, putrefaction, decomposition and skeletonisation. Readers are summoned to walk the Gothic ruins of monsters, where death and decay lie sleeping. Tread carefully through Satan’s garden. Feast your eyes on the Le Chateau Viande menu (before your eyes are feasted upon). Read the bios of monsters on Tinder. Discover the unpleasant side effects of a werewolf ’s medication. Blending traditional Gothic imagery, modern technology and Chinese folklore, Where Decay Sleeps is the debut poetry collection from the haunted mind of Anna Cheung.’ Sounds dead good eh?

Love, Pan-Fried by Gray Crosbie

LOVE, PAN-FRIED is a bundle of tiny stories about shape-shifting, love, loss, our strange relationship with our body and everything in between. While not all creepy, it definitely has its moments and it’s perfect if you’re after something small and strange.

Dark and Twisted Tales

Scotland has a wealth of stories that fall into the vague category of “dark and a bit weird” – here’s some of our favourites but you wouldn’t have to dig far to come up with so many more.

Under the Skin by Michael Faber

Is it sci-fi? Is it horror? Is it dark and twisted? Aye, all of those probably, and well deserving of its place here. Blurb? ‘Isserley spends most of her time driving. But why is she so interested in picking up hitchhikers? And why are they always male, well-built and alone? An utterly unpredictable and macabre mystery, Under the Skin is a genre-defying masterpiece.’

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

The debut that introduced Iain Banks to the world with a bang…literally. There’s a lot to be disturbed by with The Wasp Factory so proceed with caution. ‘Two years after I killed Blyth, I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different reasons and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did my young cousin Esmeralda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.’ 

The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh

An absolute classic – with a sequel coming next year! The Cutting Room is definitely not to be missed. ‘When Rilke, a dissolute auctioneer, comes upon a hidden collection of violent and highly disturbing photographs, he feels compelled to discover more about the deceased owner who coveted them. Soon he finds himself sucked into an underworld of crime, depravity and secret desire, fighting for his life.’

Read our review here.

Bitterhall by Helen McClory

The second spot on this list for Helen McClory but she’s brilliant so tough…’Bitterhall is a story of obsession told between three unreliable narrators. In a darkening season in a northern city, Daniel, Órla and Tom narrate the intersections of their lives, from future-world 3D printing technology to the history of the book, to a stolen nineteenth-century diary written by a dashing gentleman who may not be entirely dead. An interwar-themed Halloween party leads to a series of entanglements, variously a longed-for sexual encounter clouded by madness, a betrayal, and a reality-destroying moment of possession.’

Read our review here.

Glister and The Dumb House by John Burnside

John Burnside has written a fair few books that come nicely under this category. Two we want to highlight here are Glister and The Dumb House. Glister is the story of Innertown, and the young people who live there. ‘Every year or so, a boy from their school disappears, vanishing into the wasteland of the old chemical plant. Nobody knows where these boys go, or whether they are alive or dead, and without evidence the authorities claim they are simply runaways. The town policeman, Morrison knows otherwise. He was involved in the cover-up of one boy’s murder, and he believes all the boys have been killed. Though he is seriously compromised, he would still like to find out the killer’s identity. The local children also want to know and, in their fear and frustration, they turn on Rivers, a sad fantasist and suspected paedophile living alone at the edge of the wasteland. Trapped and frightened, one of the boys, Leonard, tries to escape, taking refuge in the poisoned ruins of the old plant; there he finds another boy, who might be the missing Liam and might be a figment of his imagination. With his help, Leonard comes to understand the policeman’s involvement, and exacts the necessary revenge – before following Liam into the Glister: possibly a disused chemical weapons facility, possibly a passage to the outer world.

and The Dumb House?

As a child, Luke’s mother often tells him the story of the Dumb House, an experiment on newborn babies raised in silence, designed to test the innateness of language. As Luke grows up, his interest in language and the delicate balance of life and death leads to amateur dissections of small animals – tiny hearts revealed still pumping, as life trickles away. But as an adult, following the death of his mother, Luke’s obsession deepens, resulting in a haunting and bizarre experiment on Luke’s own children.

Burnt Island and The Existential Detective by Alice Thompson

Here’s another two-for-one recommendation deal (don’t say we’re not good to you) as Alice Thompson is one of our favourite unsettling story writers. Here’s two set in Scotland for your reading pleasure. In Burnt Island, ‘struggling writer Max Long arrives on the island to work on his next novel. There he encounters bestselling author James Fairfax, whom Max suspects of not being the real author of the book that has made his fortune. Furthermore, Fairfax’s wife has gone missing. In a desperate bid for success, Max decides to compromise his talent by writing a horror bestseller. Recently divorced and increasingly mentally unstable, he witnesses disturbing visions that take the form of the horror he is attempting to write. Is Max losing his mind – or his soul?’

Read our review here.

And in The Existential Detective, ‘William Blake is a private detective. When he is asked by an eccentric scientist to investigate the where-abouts of his amnesiac missing wife, Louise, Will finds himself entangled in layers of deceptions and disappearances that lead him inexorably back to an unsolved mystery in his own past: the loss of his young daughter Emily. The case takes Will to brothels, nightclubs and amusement arcades in the Scottish seaside resort of Portobello. Identities become con-fused as his sexual obsession with a nightclub singer becomes entwined with sightings of Louise, his own torturous memories, and new visions of the lost Emily.’

The Long Drop by Denise Mina

I wasn’t sure whether to include this one as it also falls under crime, which by its nature is dark and not really what we’re aiming for on this list. But it’s included anyway because it falls kind of outside the usual crime story and into fictionalised account of a true story. ‘William Watt wants answers about his family’s murder. Peter Manuel has them. But Peter Manuel is a liar. William Watt is an ordinary businessman, a fool, a social climber. Peter Manuel is a famous liar, a rapist, a criminal. He claims he can get hold of the gun used to murder Watt’s family. One December night in 1957, Watt meets Manuel in a Glasgow bar to find out what he knows.’

Whirligig by Andrew James Greig

Whirligig is another novel that comes under the crime umbrella but I think it’s just strange enough to also feel at home on this list. ‘Just outside a sleepy Highland town, a gamekeeper is found hanging lifeless from a tree. The local police investigate an apparent suicide, only to find he’s been snared as efficiently as the rabbit suspended beside him. As the body count rises, the desperate hunt is on to find the murderer before any more people die. But the town doesn’t give up its secrets easily, and who makes the intricate clockwork mechanisms carved from bone and wood found at each crime? Whirligig is a tartan noir like no other; an expose of the corruption pervading a small Highland community and the damage this inflicts on society’s most vulnerable. What happens when those placed in positions of trust look the other way; when those charged with our protection are inadequate to the challenge; when the only justice is that served by those who have been sinned against?’

Read our review here.

Little Eve by Catriona Ward

I’ve had Little Eve on my wishlist for awhile now so if you’ve read it I’d love to know your thoughts! Blurb? ‘New Year’s Day, 1921. Seven mutilated bodies are discovered in an ancient stone circle on a remote Scottish island. The victims are ‘the Children’ – members of a nature cult ruled by the charismatic, sadistic patriarch, the adder. The sole survivor of the massacre, Dinah, claims that Eve is the murderer, apparently drowned while attempting her escape. Yet as Eve’s story of the years leading up the massacre intertwines with Dinah’s account of the aftermath, a darker, stranger truth begins to emerge. The Isle is all Eve knows. Hidden from the world, the Children worship the Great Snake who dwells in the ocean, dance in the stones at dawn and offer their blood in sacrifice. The adder’s word is law. When Eve is forced into the world beyond the Isle her faith and love are tested by unexpected friendships that make her question everything. As she begins to see through the adder’s macabre fictions, the world Eve knows collapses. Does she lose her humanity with her belief? Does it drive her to kill?’

Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone

Last but not least here’s another 2021 published dark and twisty treat. ‘Cat’s twin sister El has disappeared. But there’s one thing Cat is sure of: her sister isn’t dead. She would have felt it. She would have known. To find her sister, Cat must return to their dark, crumbling childhood home and confront the horrors that wait there. Because it’s all coming back to Cat now: all the things she has buried, all the secrets she’s been running from. The closer Cat comes to the truth, the closer to danger she is. Some things are better left in the past…’

We hope you enjoyed this run down of some creepy recommendations to make your Halloween a little more on the spooky Scottish side. There’s loads more suggestions to come in part two so keep an eye out for it.

Book to movie adaptations: eight to add to your TBR and watch list

Our Ladies, the adaption of Alan Warner’s much loved The Sopranos is out today after long delays to the release date. So, to celebrate, here’s a list of some Scottish book to movie adaptations just in time for the weekend if you’re anything like me and have gone back into hiding.

The Sopranos/Our Ladies

The Book: Alan Warner’s 1998 novel is about a choir from Our Lady of Perpetual Succour School for Girls who are headed to the national finals in the city. The Sopranos – Orla, Kylah, (Ra)Chell, Amanda Konky and Fionnula are up for pub-crawling, shoplifting and body-piercing being the top priorities but first they have to lose the competition…

The Movie: Initially slated for release after its premier at the 2019 BFI Film Festival, Our Ladies was delayed due to the pandemic by over a year. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones it stars Tallulah Greive, Abigail Lawrie, Rona Morison, Sally Messham, Marli Siu and Eve Austin.

Trainspotting

The Book: Set in late 1980s Leith, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is a collection of linked short stories of a group of mates, most of whom are heroin addicts. This book is the quintessential Scottish cult classic and a definite must read. It’s been referred to as an inspiration to so many Scottish writers including ScotLit faves Graeme Armstrong and Aidan Martin.

The Movie: Just as much of a cult classic as the book the adaptation barely needs any introduction, but here’s a brief one. Directed by Danny Boyle, Trainspotting was released in February 1996. It stars Ewan McGregor, Ewan Bremner (FACT: who actually played Renton in the previous stage adaptation), Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd, Robert Carlyle and Kelly MacDonald.

Porno/T2

The Book: Sick Boy is back in Edinburgh after a long spell in London. Having failed spectacularly as a hustler, pimp, husband, father and businessman, Sick Boy taps into an opportunity which to him represents one last throw of the dice. However, to realise his dream of directing and producing a pornographic movie, Sick Boy must team up with old pal and fellow exile Mark Renton. But they find out that they have unresolved issues to address concerning the increasingly unhinged Frank Begbie, the troubled, drug-addled Spud, but, most of all, with each other.

The Movie: Danny Boyle returned to direct the 2017 sequel to Trainspotting. The original cast all returned to star in it once again too. Set a decade after the original they wanted to wait until the cast had aged enough to portray this accurately.

Filth

The Book: Yep, it’s another Irvine Welsh…With the festive season almost upon him, Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson is winding down at work and gearing up socially – kicking off Christmas with a week of sex and drugs in Amsterdam. There are irritating flies in the ointment, though, including a missing wife, a nagging cocaine habit, a dramatic deterioration in his genital health, a string of increasingly demanding extra-marital affairs. The last thing he needs is a messy murder to solve. Still it will mean plenty of overtime, a chance to stitch up some colleagues and finally clinch the promotion he craves. But as Bruce spirals through the lower reaches of degradation and evil, he encounters opposition – in the form of truth and ethical conscience – from the most unexpected quarter of all: his anus.

The Movie: Starring James McAvoy the 2013 film adaptation of Filth was directed by Jon S. Baird. Allegedly, McAvoy used to drink up to half a bottle of whiskey every night before filming in order to look as rough as possible.

The Last King of Scotland

The Book: The Last King of Scotland is a 1998 published novel by Giles Foden. It focuses on the rise of former Ugandan President Idi Amin and his reign as dictator from 1971 to 1979. The novel, which is part fiction/part truth, is written as the memoir of a fictional Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, employed by Amin.

The Movie: Starring Forest Whitaker and James McAvoy the 2006 film was directed by Kevin Macdonald. Would you like a fact? According to imdb, the black limousine used in the film was actually one of Idi Amin’s.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Book: Romantic, heroic, comic and tragic, unconventional schoolmistress Jean Brodie has become an iconic figure in post-war fiction. Her glamour, unconventional ideas and manipulative charm hold dangerous sway over her girls at the Marcia Blaine Academy – ‘the crème de la crème’ – who become the Brodie ‘set’, introduced to a privileged world of adult games that they will never forget. 

The Movie: Starring the inimitable Dame Maggie Smith this 1969 film was directed by Ronald Neame. DMS went on to win a best actress Academy Award for this role.

Hallam Foe

The Book: Hallam has an unusual teenage hobby – voyeurism. He spies on everyone: on the gardener’s sex life, on his father’s ridiculous plans for a underground village, on his wicked stepmother, whom he holds responsible for his mother’s suicide – until he is set up, and set adrift. He moves to Edinburgh, where voyeurism is more dangerous, particularly when Hallam has revenge on his mind…

The Movie: Starring Jamie Bell (who is also in Filth) Hallam Foe was directed by David MacKenzie and released in 2007. Although most of the movie was filmed in Edinburgh they avoided showing Edinburgh Castle, which would have been visible at the majority of locations if they weren’t being weird about it.

Young Adam

The Book: Set on a canal linking Glasgow and Edinburgh, Young Adam is the masterly literary debut by one of the most important post-war novelists. Trocchi’s narrator is an outsider, a drifter working for the skipper of a barge. Together they discover a young woman’s corpse floating in the canal, and tensions increase further in cramped confines with the narrator’s highly charged seduction of the skipper’s wife. Conventional morality and the objective meaning of events are stripped away in a work that proves compulsively readable.

The Movie: Another David MacKenzie directed film, Young Adam was released in 2003. This “erotic drama” stars Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton. McGregor’s nude scenes were going to be cut from the US version of the film but he objected and so they were kept in.

Let’s call this a part one, because there are definitely more book to movie adaptations we want to share with you in the future. On top of that there’s a whole bunch of Scottish books that have ended up on TV, or inspiring TV, or are optioned for TV or film. So aye, this is very much the tip of the iceberg!

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

Novels written in Scots: ten to add to your TBR

There’s been a resurgence of books written in Scots in the past few years or so. We’ve already featured recent reads like The Young Team and Duck Feet a fair bit on our blog and socials in the past few months but if you’re desperate for some more then here’s a longer list of novels to add to your TBRs.

The Young Team by Graeme Armstrong

Based on Graeme’s own experiences growing up as part of the gang culture in Airdrie you can’t have missed The Young Team because it’s been absolutely everywhere since it was published last year. This is gritty, real, hard-hitting and can’t be missed.

Duck Feet by Ely Percy

Duck Feet is the ultimate nostalgia read for anyone who grew up in Scotland in the late 1990s/early 2000s. This is the kind of book that’ll have you laughing one minute and greetin’ the next. It doesn’t hold back and gives the kind of realistic warts-and-all depiction of growing up Scottish that most people will appreciate.

A Working Class State of Mind by Colin Burnett

Colin Burnett’s debut, A Working Class State of Mind, is a linked short story collection written in east coast dialect. It’s a bold book with memorable characters and doesn’t hold back on criticisms of the UK government and how society looks down on the working class.

Before Now: memoir of a toerag by Moira McPartlin

Before Now is another novel that would appeal to anyone that loved the nostalgia aspect of Duck Feet. Written in Fife dialect it’s the story of one working class lad figuring out his life and making some realisations about his family and community along the way.

Buddha Da by Anne Donovan

I’ve not actually read this yet but in his review oor Aiden said, “Buddha Da embraces you from the first sentence, told through three distinct narratives… We navigate through some heavy topics which are told with poignancy but uplifted with quirky dialogue. The characters are so endearing which engrosses the reader in their story, I felt like I was part of their family.”

The Tartan Special One by Barry Phillips

The Tartan Special One is a surreal book written in Dundonian dialect. It’s absolutely hilarious and would appeal to anyone who loves the batshit aspect of Scottish football. I don’t think it’s in print anymore but copies are relatively easy to get hold of.

Be Guid Tae Yer Mammy by Emma Grae

Emma Grae has written such an incredible multi-generational story about working class Scottish women. Be Guid tae yer Mammy is a book to give up a whole day for and just settle in to enjoy the drama, funny stuff and touching moments in this very Scottish story.

How Late it was, How Late by James Kelman

A Booker prize winner written in Scots? How Late it Was, How Late isn’t the easiest of reads for multiple reasons but this story of quite possibly the worst hangover in existence is well worth the effort.

But n Ben A-Go-Go by Matthew Fitt

Dystopian fiction but write it in Lallans. Matthew Fitt is a bit of a Scots language publishing hero so But n Ben A-Go-Go is not to be missed…except I have missed it (oops) but it’s on my TBR and I’ll be getting to it asap.

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

I mean…obviously. I wasn’t even going to include it in the list because at this point who hasn’t heard of Trainspotting. But leaving it out would be amiss so here it is. A classic, an unmistakable voice and a book that feels just as relevant today as it did in the 90s.

There are also a decent amount of books originally published in English that have been translated into Scots. I think it’s especially brilliant to find children’s books that have been published in Scots including a few of Roald Dahl’s (Chairlie and the Chocolate Works or The Guid Freendly Giant, anyone?) or Alice’s Adventirs in Wunnerlaun. Look out for a whole other post about Scottish children’s books coming very soon.

What is your favourite book in Scots? Are there any we don’t have on the list but that should definitely be there?

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 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.