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Recent and Upcoming Events

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.

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A 1970’s Magic Portal

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?

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The End is Nye

We’ve done that joke… anyway, a cheeky little sneak preview of my new novel about Mary Shelley – ARGUING WITH THE DEAD – out next year with Fledgling Press. And as if that’s not enough, I also have another children’s novel coming out too. I’ve been quietly writing away – because after all, that’s what writers do – in my castle (featured below) because after all, that’s where all writers live…while faithful little Louis gazes at me mournfully.

As Mary Shelley sorts through the snowstorm of her husband’s scattered papers – for which she will be paid the handsome sum of £500 – a blizzard rages outside. What she has never confided in anyone is that she has always been haunted by Shelley’s drowned first wife, Harriet, who would come to visit her in the night as she slept with her two tiny children in a half-ruined villa in Italy while Shelley was away litigating with lawyers. Did Mary pay the ultimate price for loving Shelley? Who will Harriet come for next?

For those who loved FOR MY SINS, I’m hoping you will love this too. Once again, I’ve delved into the mind of a Mary (perhaps I’m doing all the Marys) but this Mary – as I’m sure you don’t need telling – wrote FRANKENSTEIN when she was 19. She was vilified and ostracized by the society she lived in at the time, for writing it. How could something so foul and disgusting emerge from the pen (and the mind) of a young girl? But she identified very closely with the Creature, who cries out in her novel “Misery made me a fiend!” The Creature is rejected by his Creator, Dr.Frankenstein, and Mary was no stranger to feelings of rejection. I have loved writing and researching it. Some of the novel is set in Scotland, where Mary was sent when she was 14 to get out from under the feet of her stepmother. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have loved writing it. In fact, I hope you buy it because if you don’t, writers like me cannot afford to heat the many rooms of my castle (featured below), and I starve… and so does my dog, Louis, who still hasn’t had a walk this morning… (Disclaimer: I don’t live in a castle. That castle below belongs to someone else… I can’t remember his name…)

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The Value of Quietness

 

Disappearing into the hills

disappearing into the hills

 

Landscape has always been very important to me. As a child living in a remote Norfolk village (with no motorway in the entire county, no trains or buses from our village) I learnt to be pretty self-sufficient. I developed the habit of walking the dog for miles while reflecting on books I was reading, or working on an ongoing inner narrative that might one day find its way onto the page.

 

Crisp views of Scotland

crisp heights

 

It’s strange to me that I’m still doing that nowadays, but in a different landscape entirely. Instead of the flat marshes and misty fenland with its endless mudflats, I have the crisp clear heights of Scotland, but I’m still walking the dog (a different dog!!!), and I’m still working on that inner-narrative, some of which makes its way onto the page.

 

A light powdering of snow

red coat

 

When I was a teenager, I hoped to be a novelist one day. It was my dream. Now I write novels for a living, but the reality is different to what I imagined it. When I was a young hopeful, I wrote to Anita Brookner telling her of my ambition, and she wrote back saying “A writer’s life is full of disappointments.” She had won prizes, published novels, had reviews in all the major newspapers and magazines. I didn’t know what she meant.  Now I do… But the one thing which hasn’t changed, and which remains a constant is this deep abiding love I have for landscape, and for this landscape in particular… Scotland.

 

Kenmore mountains

Mountain ridges

 

Every day I walk, and every day I find inspiration and beauty, no matter what the weather. A neighbour said to me this morning “Another lovely day!” He was being sarcastic, of course, because the light powdery snow had turned into a fine mist of rain, but I felt all elated and ecstatic after having taken photos of the sky and clouds… and I was looking forward to getting back to my desk.

 

Look up at the skies above sometimes

cloudscape

 

I often have a moan about social media, but taking photos can focus the eye, make you notice details, and is a modern way of cataloguing, collecting and recording our own thoughts. What the camera cannot do, however, is capture the smell of peaty water flavoured with minerals and moss, and nothing beats the sound of trickling water coursing its way down the mountain paths, slowly shifting gravel, grain by grain, to carve a landscape. We need narrative for that… books, literature, prose.

 

Boat houses on the loch

boathouses 

 

In Norfolk as a child I was surrounded by slow fenland waters, and the sea. Here in Scotland the rumble and cascade of water is everywhere, but it’s different. It’s restless, powerful, scouring lanes through the rocks. But it was this landscape I first wrote about, and the one which gave me consolation. When I was a teenager, my family used to say “One day, you’ll take off with your typewriter up to the moors in Derbyshire or Yorkshire and find your own Wuthering Heights.” Well, it was a laptop in the end, (as well as a posh pen and a posh notebook,) and my Wuthering Heights lay waiting for me in Scotland.

 

special place

Martha and Louie – special place

 

The sigh of the wind in the treetops and the glint of a pale winter sun through pencil-thin trees are the kind of things I try to capture in my writing. For me, it’s like painting a picture – with words. It’s what makes me tick. If I come across a fallen tree in the woods, I try to imagine what it sounded like when there was no one there to hear it falling – the rending of boughs in the silence. But I never feel that I quite capture what I’m after. I never feel satisfied… as if there is one more novel, one piece of prose that will reach the standard I’m after.

 

Snow

Snowlight

 

I suppose in an age when the world is after a quick sell, I’m a bit of a conundrum. But I don’t care. I’m a philosopher always in need of a place of quietness, and I find it… right here, under my nose.

 

Woodland winter walks

Touch of bronze

 

I value this quietness.