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Two Marys…

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.

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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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THE ART OF THE GHOST STORY

Last night, as Storm Ophelia was whipping up the sands of the Sahara with her skirts – causing a bit of a storm on FB and predictions of the end of the world – I gave a talk to a Women’s Guild of St.Blane’s on my novel FOR MY SINS. They were a lovely audience – so sweet, intelligent and literate – not addicted to any kind of technology, and as a result, thoughtful and observant. Never dismiss people based on gender and age. If you are young, you will be elderly one day, and if you are a man, you might even become a woman one day. Well, mostly probably not… but my point is that a female audience with an average age of 70 is a brilliant audience. We all share the same issues, no matter what age, and when I talked about there being no concept of rape in 1567 when Mary was “abducted” by Bothwell, and that historians maybe missed that point over the years, you could have heard a pin drop.

Here are some more pics of other recent events – where I have been taking my workshop The Art of the Ghost Story to the masses, to the people, to the readers and writers of the future… (not the masses actually but Chryston High School for their Literacy Festival, and Portobello Book Festival where I was very excited by the fact I could have tea on the beach in the morning!)

Long Live Literacy and Librarians. Especially when they invite me to their schools and offer me home-baking. That’s always a plus in my book.

 

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International Literacy Day

On Friday I drove to Motherwell to perform a session at Braidhurst High School to kick off their Literacy Week. This was arranged by Kirsten Scott, the school librarian who works hard to give students a safe haven & the encouragement to read, which seemed to be working as pupils dropped by all lunchtime to borrow books. Some schools just give you a good vibe, and this was one of them. The audience who came in to see me were absolutely delightful, and made me feel very at home. I felt very relaxed. Told them about my problems with the SatNav & asked whether they have the same problem processing road sign information when driving on the motorway! They’re in Third Year! But they kind of knew what I meant. The Head of Languages said I should try comedy… As I drove away past the bleak streets of Motherwell, I found myself hoping that these students will have the same chances, same opportunities as those in other areas. They definitely deserve to.

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Call to all colleges and schools of Higher Education

I’m offering two workshop sessions to schools and colleges inspired by my latest novel FOR MY SINS, a historical novel about Mary, Queen of Scots, sitting in her prison cell at the end of her life, a prisoner to Queen Elizabeth, stitching her tapestries while being haunted by the ghosts of her past. It’s receiving 5 star reviews and has been quoted as “a masterclass in historical fiction.”

The first workshop – TENSIONS IN SCOTTISH HISTORY – will be a talk on Mary, Queen of Scots, and this period of Scottish History (1542-1587), the conflicts and tensions, together with a Q&A session. This is suitable for History students at Higher, Advanced Higher, and University level to help with engagement of the subject and bringing the topic to life in a memorable way.

The second workshop HOW TO WRITE A HISTORICAL NOVEL is suitable for Higher, Advanced Higher, and undergraduates and graduates of English and Creative Writing, and will explore the pleasures and pitfalls of writing historical fiction, offering 5 inspirational ways to make it work for you.

As well as being a writer I am also an experienced English teacher. I teach and mentor English students at Higher and Advanced Higher.

Please be in touch if you would like to arrange either or both of these workshops for your students.

Launch 12

 

 

 

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Inspirational Moments: Writer in Residence 2017 #2

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Here are some photos of what we’ve been up to over the past few weeks.

And the pointers or lessons?

Writers care about the world & what is happening in it. It’s just not about escapism.

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You can imagine other people’s lives…

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Even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.

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Keep a journal or diary.

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You can write about what is familiar… or unfamiliar.

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Writing can be used as a Way of Healing too.

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You all have a story to tell… either the one you are living now, one from the past, or one that you have yet to live…

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