INTERVIEW: Ely Percy on finding voices, the Scots resurgence and the Scottish school experience (Part Two)

Look up Duck Feet and you’ll see how beloved this novel already is on Scottish Bookstagram. Written entirely in Scots, the book was published by the brilliant Monstrous Regiment earlier this year. For many, me included, this was the book that hooked them onto Ely’s writing, so I had to find out more about the story behind the story. 

Duck Feet is the story of Kirsty Campbell, told through her viewpoint and observations about the world around her: her mates, her school, her family, the community, the world in general, as she moves through High School in the early 2000s. It’s a wry, funny and occasionally emotional read that most Scots (and everyone generally) will be able to relate to.

‘People have asked me if Kirsty is me….absolutely not!’

Like Vicky Romeo before it, Duck Feet started life as a short story. ‘Mslexia had a call out for short stories on the theme of shoes,’ Ely says, ‘And I was sat thinking about all these different shoes, brogues…high heels…trainers. But to stand out, I knew it needed to be something unusual. Then my dad comes into the room with a basin of water for his bad feet and the first story [about Kirsty] just came out. I wrote it then and there and typed it up the next day. It was months before it got published but I thought it was fun, that I’d enjoyed writing about this school setting, and started thinking about where to take it next, which was the French class.

‘It was about ten stories later when I thought, this is the same wee lassie all the time. I was finding her voice really easy to write. I realised I could just keep talking about her and thought then that this was maybe something bigger than short stories.’

Ely was on a mission after that and started tracking down people they went to school with, folk their sister went to school with and folk that went to schools in other parts of Scotland. ‘I spoke to the 13-year-old daughter of one of my college tutors and when she realised she could say anything and talk about folk she really warmed up to it!

‘I was just asking people lots of different questions and finding that people were telling me the same stories. It was like it didn’t matter where you went or when you were at school, it was the same stories coming up. I left school in 1997, my sister was there until 2001, there were people that had been in high school before me, people that had been in high school after me, and they were all saying the same things.

‘There was the person you liked, your best pal, your worst enemy, teacher you liked, teacher that hated you for whatever reason, the wee person that everyone said smelled, the class clown, the person that was always pure trying to fight everyone, the lassie that got pregnant by 15, the person that everyone thought was a total fuckin’ waste of space that would amount to nothing but then surprised everyone by doing better than everyone else…I just saw these same characters coming up over and over.’

‘This just won the Booker prize and I’m being told not to talk like that?’

There were two things Ely wanted to keep out of the novel, things that are probably all too familiar with a lot of those who also grew up in Scotland: Kirsty wouldn’t be bullied and school kids wouldn’t be told to suppress their language.

Ely, who was bullied at school, says, ‘I decided that I didn’t want Kirsty to get bullied. [Because of being bullied at school] I used to think that I hated Renfrew and I wanted to leave there. Writing Duck Feet was actually cathartic to me, because I realised that through choosing to tell the story through the eyes of someone that didn’t get bullied, and was just reporting on what she saw, that it wasn’t Renfrew that I hated. It was just that particular time in my schooling: when I went there and people weren’t very nice because I was a bit different. Kirsty didn’t experience that but she certainly saw other people being bullied for being different or for having problems. I think it was a good choice to do that.’

Ely continues, ‘When I went to school, teachers were always like: speak properly, don’t say aye, don’t say naw. [If you did speak like that] teachers would say to you that you’d be lucky if you ever found work. So, in the book I decided that the teachers wouldn’t pull pupils up for the way they spoke. The kids in the book just talk the way they talked. It took me until I was like 19 to read How Late it Was, How Late and think, wait a minute, this just won the Booker Prize and I’m getting told, “don’t speak like that.”

‘I understand that they were just trying to do what was right. They were telling us to talk properly because otherwise no-one would ever take you seriously, or you’d never get a job. That was the message that was being sent. I just thought that I didn’t want that for my novel.’

‘It’s like a chorus, I can hear different notes in different voices’

Duck Feet has a huge cast of characters but each has such a distinctive voice. This is something that came easily to Ely, and reflects the huge variations in Scottish accents and regional dialects within the country, sometimes even in the same town or area. 

‘I find it easy writing in accents that are round about me,’ Ely says. ‘My sister did say that Kirsty doesn’t really sound like us, but my voice has really changed over the years since I last lived in Renfrew. There are many different people that are living in Renfrew who speak a wee bit different from each other, it’s like a medley of voices, and I needed to pick one voice – Kirsty’s voice – and it just came to me [when I started writing]. 

They elaborated further on this to say, ‘Sometimes I hear somebody talking, it could just be one sentence, and I can just hear the whole conversation coming. When that happens I know that’s a character for my book. Hopefully, in Duck Feet, you can see a couple of different things to show the differences in the characters voices, like Charlene will say “hingmy” and “hing” and Chris Rice and Kelly Marie will both say “were” and “per” while Kirsty doesn’t. I just wanted to change it up a bit and show slightly different accents. 

‘It’s like a chorus, I can hear different notes in people’s voices and if strangers are passing me in the street and [their voice] chimes with me, I could just keep writing it. At least for a short piece anyway.’

Books written in Scots are firmly back in the public consciousness, resonating with people in a way that had maybe been a bit lost for awhile. Ely says, ‘I hadn’t seen anything for about 20 years, maybe more than 20 years. There were these working class Scottish books, written in Scots, then it just…there wasn’t really anything for a long time, I wasn’t really seeing it. But this new wave is great though, it’s great to see it back.’

Follow Ely on Twitter and Instagram and visit their own website. If you missed it, follow the link to Part One.

Aiden’s review of Duck Feet can be found here, on our Instagram. Sarah’s will be up when she pulls a finger oot. 

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

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

Maggie & Me by Damian Barr

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

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

Amateur by Thomas Page McBee

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

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

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

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

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

Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide by Kate Charlesworth

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

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

Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows by Christine Burns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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