If you’re in Glasgow 6.30pm on Tuesday 19th November, drop into Waterstones Sauchiehall Street for a FREE BookWeekScotland event, thanks to Publishing Scotland. Hear twelve authors:- Claire MacLeary, Elizabeth Wein, Anne Donovan, Caro Ramsay, Alan Martin, Sylvia Hehir, L.M. Affrossman, Gary Chudleigh, Kevin P Gilday, Alan Brown, Tanya Roberts and me… If you can’t make […]Book Week Scotland — Alex Nye writes…
If you’re in Glasgow 6.30pm on Tuesday 19th November, drop into Waterstones Sauchiehall Street for a FREE BookWeekScotland event, thanks to Publishing Scotland. Hear twelve authors:- Claire MacLeary, Elizabeth Wein, Anne Donovan, Caro Ramsay, Alan Martin, Sylvia Hehir, L.M. Affrossman, Gary Chudleigh, Kevin P Gilday, Alan Brown, Tanya Roberts and me…
If you can’t make that one, how about dropping into Edinburgh Waterstones, West End, at 6.30pm on Thursday 21st November for another FREE BookWeekScotland event, again thanks to Publishing Scotland. Hear nine authors:- Lesley Glaister, Olga Wojtas, Helen McClory, Douglas Watt, Stephen O’Rourke, Anthony O’Neill, Daniel Shand, Gerda Stevenson, and me… I don’t think I’ve missed anyone out! Be lovely to see you there.
Thought I would share what I have been getting up to as a Writer in Residence at Slains Primary (courtesty of the Scottish Book Trust) – a remote school in rural Aberdeenshire, near Collieston Bay. Once a week, I’ve been travelling up to the North East of Scotland to stay in the same hotel, I’ll have you know, as Bram Stoker. I walk the same beach – Cruden Bay – pacing the sand, listening to the sea, while I contemplate each session with the pupils of Slains Primary.
The Residency is funded by the Scottish Book Trust via their Live Literature Scheme, which gives young writers the opportunity to be inspired, to encourage their creativity and literacy – to the benefit of all. The teacher, Conor Meehan, is so enthusiastic. He put in a bid for an Author in Residence, and has encouraged his pupils to thoroughly engage with what it means to be creative.
Our first session – I decided – would be given over to Cave Writing. Together we explored the creative possibilities offered by writing a story set in a cave. I partly chose this because my new YA title, out on November 21st, features my main characters, Mia and Hani, involved in an underground chase through a flooded cave system, beginning at Smoo Cave. Of course, the setting of Slains Primary, with its nearby cliffs and wild beaches, is ideal for imagining this. So, when I turned up at the school, Conor had the classroom in darkness, and I had to go down on hands and knees through a crawl entrance. As did the pupils after me. The classroom had become a cave. Brilliant atmosphere for our first session.
The following week, I concentrated on Mirrors. Of course, Conor had excelled himself again, with the classroom bedecked in mirrors and darkness. So many amazing ideas from the class. And Conor is the kind of teacher who lets them plan and idea storm on their wipe-clean desks. It was like watching Van Gogh at work, as some scratched away with their pens, others stared meaningfully into a mirror as if they had caught the tail-end of a vivid story. Next week, we’re climbing up to the black ruins of Slains Castle to write in one of its ruined rooms, the sea roaring in the distance. Bram Stoker himself was inspired by that very ruin, and I can see why.
Publication Day has arrived. My fifth title, ARGUING WITH THE DEAD, published by Fledgling Press, is available as from today, with a review coming soon as part of the Love Books Tour. There will be a book blog tour from the 5th to the 10th August when I’m lucky enough to have a guest post by some of the top bloggers who are passionate about books and reading, courtesy of Love Books.
ARGUING WITH THE DEAD is a historical novel about Mary Shelley, living alone in a cottage on the banks of the Thames, sorting through her husband Shelley’s (the poet) scattered papers, while a blizzard fills the air with its own paper-storm. We learn about the chaotic and sometimes destructive forces which shaped her, and what life was like for a woman of those times (early nineteenth century). Her mother might have been Mary Wollstonecraft, arguably the first feminist writer, but the world didn’t listen much then, as it doesn’t listen much now. It’s a book written by the sweat of my brow, but joking apart, I did pour a heart full of passion into it.
You can’t argue with the dead – but we do. And Mary does.
There will be a happy launch to follow, with food and wine and much chat, where friends will of course be invited, but it will be after the excitement of the Edinburgh International Book Festival is over (I don’t want them to cramp my style…) x
The other day Fledgling Press sent me the first draft proofs for ARGUING WITH THE DEAD, which is to be released on 31st July, all being well. Writing an introduction to the book has also given me a chance to reflect on … why another Mary?
Mary Shelley, the narrator of ARGUING WITH THE DEAD, has a strong literary and historical connection with wild Scotland. What fascinates me most about Mary Shelley is how Nature is a huge source of inspiration for her. Mary loved wild landscapes, mountains, rivers and bleak snowy heights, places which were still seen as hostile and unappealing in the early nineteenth century when Mary was imagining the scenes of her famous novel, Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus. She used wild landscapes – a Hebridean island at one point, and also the Mer de Glace at the foot of Mont Blanc – as a backdrop for her Monster and his terrible tragedy.
People have often misunderstood the idea behind Frankenstein, in part due to the cliched Hollywood portrayal. Mary feels deep empathy for her Monster, who is rejected by his Creator, the scientist. Having created a being out of cobbled-together body parts, Dr Frankenstein is utterly repelled by what he has made, while the Creature himself struggles to acquire language, culture and education. The Creature is, however, doomed to eternal isolation, rejected not only by his Creator but by everyone he comes across. The only person in the novel who accepts the Monster and welcomes him into the fold of human intercourse is a blind man who cannot see what the Creature looks like. The novel poses the question (echoed in a poem called Basking Shark by Norman MacCaig) Who is the real Monster? Without knowing it, Mary Shelley used poignant symbolism which still rings true to this day. Her Gothic tale can be used in schools and colleges to offer profound understanding on issues like equality, inclusion, respect, the importance of education, science and belief, and of course medical and scientific ethics. From that point of view alone, it is an amazing text.
But it wasn’t just the novel itself which inspired me to write ARGUING WITH THE DEAD. It was Mary’s turbulent and difficult life, full of contradiction and conflict, hope and despair.
It was no surprise that Mary came to write a ground-breaking novel. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft who wrote A Vindication of The Rights of Woman (a hugely significant text, which was neglected by successive generations until eventually being re-embraced in the 1970s).
Mary’s life was filled with losses and bereavement. She travelled extensively, and witnessed the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars at first-hand. She was a woman of profound ideas influenced by everything she saw and felt. To some extent she was more fortunate than most. Mary found a voice at a time when most women were silent.
Little did she realise that her novel would find its way into the global imagination in the way that it has. Her novel came from a deep place, and that is why it resonates today.
ARGUING WITH THE DEAD bears some similarities to FOR MY SINS. Both have a strong and sensitive female protagonist who is also the narrator, and suffers much in the course of her life. Both have a colourful and eventful history. Both have links with the Scottish landscape which I love, and both are haunted by their past losses. But that is where the similarity stops.
The seeds for my first historical novel FOR MY SINS, about Mary Queen of Scots, were first planted a long time ago, in the fallow soil of childhood when I read the novel A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley, and I suppose I could date my passion for Gothic literature back to this early encounter with a traditional children’s book. It is a fascinating novel set in an ancient farmhouse, where the heroine opens doors and slips back into the sixteenth century, and to the time of Anthony Babington, who saw the imprisoned queen as a tragic heroine to be rescued. He was executed for his efforts. The tragic and romantic appeal of this story planted the first seeds of my love for Scottish history, particularly the tragic queen, when I came to write my own novel FOR MY SINS, where Mary is imprisoned at the end of her life, stitching her tapestries while being haunted by the ghosts of her past.
What I hope to do, both in ARGUING WITH THE DEAD and FOR MY SINS, is to inhabit the mind and heart of a significant woman of the past. I hope I have done my two Mary’s – one a queen, the other a great novelist – justice.
Speaking live on BBC Radio Scotland to Fiona Stalker about Mary Queen of Scots and my historical novel FOR MY SINS.
I’m currently delivering a series of 10 creative writing workshops to Braidhurst High School as part of their Drive to Literacy. I work them hard, but they are enjoying themselves, honestly. Here they are writing their first ever prose poem, and unearthing gleaming results. They’re a quiet bunch, but as you can see, they are allowed to stand up sometimes.
I’m also working as a Creative Writing Mentor as part of the Scottish Book Trust’s What’s Your Story programme, mentoring two exceptionally gifted young people, during which I’ve had to learn sign language. Our surroundings at Moniack Mhor were very conducive to creative writing. We had the cottage to ourselves, complete with roaring stove and the entire collection of the Scottish Poetry Library on the shelves.
For World Book Week, I’m in Sandaig Primary for two Art of the Ghost Story workshops on 6th March, and on 7th March (World Book Day itself,) I’ll be appearing in the Mitchell Library, the Burns Room at 10.30 am and 1.30 pm as part of the Aye Write/Wee Write’s schools programme. Last week I was in Wishaw Library for two sessions with local school children, who prepared for the visit by reading Chill, designing covers and drawing pics of what they thought I should look like.
Then on Tuesday 12th March I’ll be in the auditorium at the wonderful YayYA Festival, which draws in schools from all over Glasgow and beyond, curated by… who else? Grand Master of Design, Kirkland Ciccone.
It might be just a house, but this is where I entered the worlds of C.S.Lewis, Enid Blyton, Tolkein, Joan Aiken, Mary Norton, Frances Burnett, Tove Jansson… et al… A house which my parents bought for £9,000 in 1970 and sold five years later for £16,000. From the ages of 7 to 12, I lived here, the most significant reading years in in my life, when books and stories lay the foundation work for my future. Every beautiful story you can imagine – the sparkle and sinister-edged shadows of Peter Pan, for example – was opened for me in this plain 1970’s semi.
When I went out to play under the streetlights, I thought of the children in Ballet Shoes for Anna, digging with their bare hands in the earth to find their parents and grandparents lost in an earthquake in Turkey – and I learned that such things could happen, that the earth could swallow people in some faraway country if it decided to heave up out of its volatile rest.
And I learned that small children worked and died in the factories and mills of Lancashire (Midnight is a Place by Joan Aiken) and their lives counted for nothing, and I wondered at the brutality and injustice of it all, while at the same time learning how a narrative could be structured and many-layered like an onion (which led me on, eventually, by degrees, to Wuthering Heights).
All of these worlds and more were discovered behind the facade of this plain 70s semi.
The door to the Secret Garden opened for me and I stepped through, and I read that same passage 30 years later at my Mum’s funeral, because… well, just because…
And what thrills me even more is that the copy of Peter Pan I read when I was a child is the same copy my Mum read when she was a little girl, and which my children later read – a beautiful old book with original illustrations, thick as a Church Bible, published before the invention of the mass-produced paperback and the Penguin revolution. That single volume has touched lives in the 1930s and 40s, as bombs fell out the sky over Leicester, and Norfolk in the seventies, and Scotland in the 90’s and Naughties.
Never under-estimate the doors and windows and opportunities that open when you read a book as a child. The texture of the pages, the smell, the words and the worlds it creates, weave a magic spell… and I can still step inside those worlds with ease, even now, and see them all clearly in the light of day, as fresh as they were when I was 8 years old. I wonder if playstation games can do that?