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