Unsporty Me

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School convinced me that I wasn’t a sporty person. I never understood the rules of netball nor the point of it. Many a time I experienced the sight of an object speeding towards me (tennis ball, volleyball, whatever ball), while people yelled incomprehensible instructions and all too comprehensible insults. Meanwhile, I dodged out of the way, thinking that it would be bloody sore if it hit me.

The defining moment of my school sports career took place one winter’s morning when I was in second year at high school. Catriona Meldrum (name changed) emerged from the fog, charging towards me across the frozen surface of the red blaes* pitch, hockey stick raised. She was a tall, strong, Amazonian of a girl and I was a big fearty. A single glance at her brought my well-developed sense of self-preservation to the fore. I dropped my stick and ran in the opposite direction. Running as fast as possible away from a potential source of pain was something I understood very well.

*If you’re not from Scotland, red blaes was made of spent shale (tiny, sharp splinters of stone), oxidised to a rusty red colour so that the blood of thousands of Scottish schoolchildren wouldn’t be visible to the casual observer.

Those labels from school have a habit of lingering and so although I did various things through the years to keep fit – aerobics, gym, swimming – these were solitary pursuits and I never thought of sport as being for me. Years later,  I discovered coastal rowing.

I tried it at a taster session and took to it straight away. I’ve always had a fascination for the sea and loved being on the water and so it was an enjoyable way to spend time, but what I didn’t expect was that I’d be good at it on a competitive level.

In the previous few years, I’d been in a bad place, emotionally, physically and literally. Rowing helped me to cast off the last of those shadows, and to shed a few pounds along the way. I felt fitter, stronger. My confidence, in and out of the water, grew.

Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, I’m not the most sociable of people. As an occupation, writing suits me. I like spending all those hours alone, but rowing is not a solitary pursuit, it’s a team sport. Team sport – two words that only a few short years ago would have had me running screaming to my hermit’s cave in the hills. Yet there I was, part of a team. I’ve made some brilliant friends through rowing; training, racing and winning medals with them. Yes, unsporty me winning medals, many of them gold.

Coastal rowing has been a gateway sport. Since taking it up, I’ve started running, often over hills, usually through mud, often in the rain. I’ve even been part of a triathlon team. In the winter, I run in the dark. John, my rowing pal, is also my regular running buddy. Occasionally, I run with my husband, Charlie. Mostly I run alone. I run out my stress, I do it to clear my mind. Often, I do it just for the sheer fun of it. Just because I can.

I’m not built like an athlete, I get hot and sweaty, my hair sticks out and my face glows like a Belisha beacon. The best part about all of that is that I don’t care. To begin with, learning not to care what I look like took as much effort as the running. Now I just get up and go.

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You need five people for rowing, four rowers and a cox, so it takes a little more organising, but it’s worth it. Racing is exciting and winning medals is delicious, but last year something clicked in my head. Just after crossing the finishing line, knowing that another medal was in the bag, I suddenly thought, okay, that’s that, but I wasn’t done with rowing. Instead of a 2k race, I wanted a longer rowing challenge, something that would test me physically and mentally. I also wanted to know what it felt like to row out in the swell, feeling the deep pulse of the ocean. The obvious answer lay in the body of water I look out at every day: I wanted to row the Minch from Stornoway on the Outer Hebrides to Ullapool on the north west coast of the Scottish mainland.

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At the same time as those thoughts were occurring, I was witnessing the slow physical decline of a friend suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. I felt frustrated and helpless and wanted to do something, anything, to show that I cared. If possible, I wanted to make a difference. Thus, Rowing the Minch for MS came into being.

I approached four of my rowing friends and, without hesitation, they each signed up to #MinchRow. On paper, we’re an odd assortment. Anthony is a former ballet dancer turned teacher. Kathryn ran her own HR consultancy. Gary was once a department store Santa Claus and now makes his living diving for scallops. John, who spent most of his life in the catering industry, now works part-time for Caledonian MacBrayne, the ferry provider between mainland Scotland and 22 of the islands on the west coast. And there’s me, the writer. Though we may look like as an unlikely bunch as you’ll get, one thing we haven’t had to work on is chemistry, that’s been there from the start. There’s a great energy in the boat arising from the trust that comes from knowing that every one of us will give it their all. Most importantly, though we’re serious about the cause and the challenge, we have a great laugh together.

It’s going to be a slog. 50 miles across open sea, taking 15 hours to complete. Shorter if we’re lucky, several hours longer if we’re not. Either way, there’s plenty of time to develop blisters in places you don’t want to think about.

We had our first crew meeting on 9 August 2018. A year of organising, fundraising and training later, we’re within days of setting off. Our target date is 10 August, but we’re at the mercy of the weather, so it could be then, or it could be the 11th, or 14th or any other day. The not knowing is part of the deal, but coastal rowers are used to dealing with ever-changing conditions. That’s part of the excitement. One particular thing that makes the Minch row so exciting, is knowing that we are raising funds for a revolution.

Although there is currently no cure for MS, revolutionary research undertaken at a world-class facility in Edinburgh means that it is highly likely that a way will be found to stop the disease within the next seven years. That’s a massive breakthrough and a huge ray of hope not only for people suffering from the disease, but for those who care for them. We are raising money to contribute to that research. Our target amount is £22,683, which equates to £1 for every stroke of the oars we reckon it will take us to make the crossing. If you would like to support our cause, you can make a donation via our Just Giving page. Donations will remain open until the end of the year.

Our target date for the row is 10 August 2019, but this is subject to change. For the latest news, follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Once the row is underway, you’ll be able to track our progress using this link http://yb.tl/RowingtheMinch

 Coastal rowing is reckoned to be Scotland’s fastest growing sport, with clubs appearing all around the coastline. Ullapool Coastal Rowing Club members range in age from teens to 80+ and we’re not unusual in that respect. As well as training sessions, most clubs have social rows. Some rowers enjoy coffee and cake in coves only accessible by sea, others fish for mackerel, or simply use rowing as a way of enjoying our glorious outdoors. Seals often accompany us, and some have been lucky enough to spot otters or row alongside dolphins and porpoise.

If like me, you’ve never considered yourself to be a sporty person, why not give coastal rowing a go. At the very least, you’ll enjoy a new experience, but it may just change your life.

Minch Row Crew

 The crew is made up of five members from Ullapool Coastal Rowing Club. They are keen competitive rowers and have won many medals between them but rowing the Minch will be their greatest challenge yet.

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Kathryn Bennett, 57. A true northern lass from Wigan, Kathryn cut her teeth in the dance music scene. Though she has traded northern soul for northern lights, this keen Wigan Warriors fan still rocks that sharp mod style. Team speciality: logistics; the devil is in the detail.

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John Grant, 63. Originally from Drumchapel in Glasgow, John pitched up in Ullapool just in time to misspend his youth during the crazy klondyking years. He then misspent his entire adult career in catering. Team speciality: diet; freakishly fond of beetroot juice.

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Gary Lewis, 57. Hailing from Wallasey, Gary fled a short-lived career as a department store Santa Claus for his true calling as a scallop diver in Ullapool. Team speciality: hard core training all the way from this Celt Man Extreme Triathlon Champ.

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Anthony O’Flaherty, 61. Our Irish-rooted crew-mate from Auckland lends an international flavour to the crew. If he can make it as a ballet boy in New Zealand, he can make it anywhere. Team speciality: keeping it cool and to the beat.

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Lorraine Thomson, 54. Lorraine grew up in modernist new town experiment, Cumbernauld, before spending four years at art school tearing up paper. She’s now an author who loves sharks and loathes mayonnaise. Team speciality: an ideas woman; it’s all about The Big Picture.

Total Crew Years: 292

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Lorraine Thomson is the author of seven published books including noir thriller, Boyle’s Law, post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn and the The New Dark trilogy, published by Bastei Entertainment. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

 

 

 

 

Literary Smorgasbord: Anthony Neil Smith

I hate almost everything in my Twitter feed. I mostly go there just to annoy myself when there’s not enough anger in my day already, but every so often a wee gem crops up in the form of a particularly amusing tweet, a great pic of a shark, or an interesting new connection. Anthony Neil Smith was one such connection. We share a publisher in Bastei Entertainment and, as I discovered in the course of this interview, we have the same scalpel-sharp editor, Allan Guthrie. I know most of my Smorgasbord guests in real life and I look forward to meeting Neil the next time he comes to the Highlands.

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Hi Neil, after I invited you to take part in the Smorgasbord, I discovered that you are the author of Sin-crazed Psycho Killer! Dive, Dive, Dive! I couldn’t resist a title like that and downloaded it to my Kindle straight away. Was it as fun to write as it was to read?

Yes, incredibly fun to write. I think I stole a lot from Event Horizon, but that was the fun of it. War is Hell, after all. The title was inspired by men’s magazines of the 50s and 60s, before Playboy. Most of them had tough guy war stories in them. The only real issue is that I wrote it so fast and loose that it has a major error in it (I won’t tell you what it is) and lots of smaller ones. True pulp.

I picked up on a couple but it was such a fast and entertaining read that it didn’t matter. Let’s get serious for a moment. Tell me about the evolution of the author, Anthony Neil Smith.

It started with the Hardy Boys in second grade. The librarian let me read it because I wanted to check it out so badly, even though I was a bit young. Then I discovered The Three Investigators series, even better than the Hardy Boys, and I knew I wanted to write. Between then and college, I swerved between wanting to be a lawyer, a computer geek, a comic book artist and writer, a rock star…but I eventually came back to my first love, sending out my first short stories when I was 19. Then I read James Ellroy’s White Jazz and was blown away. I didn’t realize you could do that in a crime novel. So I focused on creative writing classes, then grad school, where I received a PhD in creative writing, and now I’m a professor and a cult crime writer.

Having written noir crime, dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and now, unexpectedly, historical fiction, I’m all over the book shelf. I think I’m correct in saying that you have specialised in dark crime books, but have you ever been tempted to cross genres? Is there a romantic comedy lurking in the heart of ANS?

I don’t think there’s a romantic comedy in me, no. Mainly, I think plotting is my weak spot, so it helps to have the crime or investigation aspect to centre on. I am interested in making sure each book feels different from the last, even if they are all dark crime. I also don’t think I’ll ever write fantasy or sci-fi.

Your latest book, The Cyclist, features a Scottish character. What’s your connection to Scotland?

I love Scotland, have been there twice, and I want to go again. I’ve long admired Scottish writers, made friends with quite a few crime writers of there, and I love the land and history as well. The beer, the haddock, the Highlands, the accents, all of it has had a big impact on me. I had a Scotsman, Allan Guthrie, as my agent, who then became my publisher for five books, and is now my editor at BE. He’s been my anchor in this business for a long time.

How would you describe your writing style?

Broken. One professor once said it felt like my sentences had been splintered apart and then nailed back together in a weird way. I just want it to be as “voicey” as possible, so that it flows in someone’s mind better than it does on the page.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

For me, it’s the fact that it takes a long time. I get impatient. I always do the math and think, I should be able to write a book in three or four months. But it always takes eight to ten.

And the easiest?

Not “easy” easy, but I think first chapters are not as hard as some people make them out to be. I love writing first chapters. It’s a new world, new characters, new possibilities, and I’m ready to let them all live in my head for a long time. I like the challenge of coming up with a great first line and last line for that first impression. All The Young Warriors is my best first chapter, I think. Everything worked, and it was a great hook for the story.

What were you like at school?

Like, middle school and high school? Awkward. Never comfortable in my own skin. College was a little better. It wasn’t until grad school that I felt I’d found my place.

But earlier, I at least think I was funny. I was always drawing, which impressed a lot of other students, but I never had a lot of friends. Always shy, with a close circle of them. And now I teach in front of full classrooms and read in auditoriums just fine, but I still hate calling people on the phone.

What are you working on right now?

I took a long time off after The Cyclist (five or six months) but finally rediscovered a story, based on true events, of someone I knew back in my church days – a guy who seemed like he’d turned his life around for good, but who later killed a man and chopped him into little pieces to get rid of the evidence. I found a way to get into that story as a novel (because I just can’t do it as true crime. That’s not me), and it’s coming along well, I think.

That sounds interesting. What has been your best writing moment so far?

The entire process of writing All The Young Warriors was a blast. From the outlines to the final product, everything was right. I really had high hopes for that one as far as finding a larger publisher, but we had a couple of close calls only. One editor originally wanted it, then changed his mind three weeks later (which was the WORST moment of my writing career). So instead, Allan began a digital publisher called Blasted Heath, and I decided to take a chance with them.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Don’t do it. There are already too many of us.

Kidding, kidding. The best advice is to read a lot of stuff you love to read, then try some literary fiction from the last fifty years, then read Chekov’s short stories. Find people who will give you a good read, usually other writers. Grow a very thick skin so that criticism doesn’t get to you as much (because it will always get to you a little bit), and be prepared to wait.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to the young ANS?

That’s a tough question. Probably to not get so anxious about the future. Take things a little easier.

Who would play ANS in the film of your life?

He’s older than me, but I’d still go with Sam Rockwell. He is also who I would want to play my series character Billy Lafitte (with Johnny Knoxville a close second).

If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why?  How would you spend the day?

My dad. He died when I was ten, and he was larger than life. Always smiling, always laughing. He missed out on the path I took in life, and if he had lived, I think I would’ve gone a different direction. I would like to hear what he thinks of me now – a professor and writer. We’d spend the day cruising the coast in his old Chevy van, listening to seventies rock bands.

Nice. A few short questions to finish. Favourite book:

White Jazz by James Ellroy. Wouldn’t be here without it.

Author:

Very tough one. But this week, it’s Walter Mosley.

Food:

Mexican. Tacos and burritos. Very spicy.

Drink:

Mexican beer.

Film:

Pulp Fiction. I saw it the same year I read White Jazz, and together, those cemented my choice to be a crime writer.

TV show:

The Shield.

Music:

Sammy Hagar.

What are you reading right now?

The Cuckoo Wood by M. Sean Coleman, and The Room of White Fire by T. Jefferson Parker.

Thanks Neil, it’s been a blast.

Follow Anthony Neil Smith on Twitter.

The Cyclist by Anthony Neil Smith was published by Bastei Entertainment on 8 May 2018.

Books by LG Thomson are available from Amazon and from bookshops in Ullapool. Writing as Lorraine Thomson, the Dark Times dystopian trilogy, published by Bastei Entertainment, is available online.

Find out about the Isle Martin Writing Retreats 2018 here.

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Literary Smorgasbord: Jan Patience

In June 2015, I was invited to take part in the launch event of Scotland’s leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth. I hadn’t realised quite how much swearing was in Boyle’s Law until I prepared to read a chapter of it in public for the first time. There was so much cursing and it ran so fluently that I couldn’t edit it out, and so I decided to go for it big time and deliver. I rehearsed the hell out of that reading and my reward was a room full of people shaking the rafters with laughter.

The next day, I was nursing an almighty red wine hangover when a woman approached me in the street to tell me how much she’d enjoyed my reading the night before. I remembered her because she arrived too late for a seat and had to perch on a window sill. Also, she had red hair and wore a Breton top and I’m a sucker for both. That woman turned out to be the very lovely Jan Patience. One day I’ll draw a Venn Diagram of all the people I’ve met through XpoNorth. In the meantime, please do enjoy this fab interview with Jan.

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How did you get started in your career as a journalist?

I left Aberdeen University in 1986 and applied for post-grad journalism courses in Preston, Cardiff and London. I didn’t get into any of them even though I had worked on – and edited – the university newspaper. My problem was that I froze in the interviews and came across like a gibbering wreck.

Unable to think of anything else, I kept applying for jobs in journalism. In these days that meant scouring media situations vacant in The Guardian on a Monday and pouring over small ads in The Glasgow Herald. After a few months I was offered a job working for a husband and wife who ran a magazine for the lingerie trade from their home office in the west end of Glasgow (I know what you’re thinking. It sounds well dodgy… but it was legit. I think!) I quit my job as a waitress in The Cue Ball nightclub in Aberdeen and moved home to rural Ayrshire to live with my parents for the first time in four years.

The job lasted less than two weeks. Half was spent at a lingerie trade fair in Harrogate, talking to women wandering around a draughty exhibition hall in bra and pants while I teetered in black patent stilettos and black and white dog-tooth Margaret Thatcher-style power suit from M&S which my mum, bless ‘er, had bought me. It was the 1980s, what can I say? Mum was always horrified at my sloppy garb and insisted that was how people dressed for “proper” work. I went to work on the Monday after returning from Harrogate and my boss asked me to go and research the history of hosiery in Hillhead Library. The next day I was told they couldn’t afford to keep me on.

My first proper job in journalism, was with a magazine called Business Scotland published by a small Glasgow-based company called Peebles Publishing. I wasn’t the only young would-be journalist searching for a job. The first two weeks was spent working alongside another recent graduate. We were told by the boss, an ex-sports reporter who had worked on the Glasgow Evening Citizen, that he would choose between us after a two week trial. I got the job. To celebrate, he took me up to a pub in Byres Road for a drink. It wouldn’t happen today.

How did your expectations of the job match up to the reality?

Well, it wasn’t the stuff of Lou Grant, the US television set in busy newsroom, which I watched as a teenager. In my head I was  Mary Tyler Moore. At Business Scotland, I was a newsroom of one and I had to fill an entire magazine using native guile every month.

Business Scotland, which was mailed out free to subscribers, relied completely on advertising. It was a mix of advertorial (paid-for content before it was called ‘content’) and interviews with businessmen. I say businessmen because it was actually mostly men I interviewed.

The company also produced a bunch of other publications; The Johnny Walker News, The Rangers News and the Celtic View, Packaging Scotland and the Licensed Trade Guardian. All the reporters were around my age and we sat together in a damp, cramped basement room. To keep ourselves amused, we used to phone companies we knew had funny-sounding receptionists answering the phone and put them on speaker-phone. The packaging giant, Metal Box, had a particularly hilarious receptionist, I recall. We also produced a weekly spoof newspaper called The Peebles News which was hidden from the bosses’ prying eyes. We laughed till our bellies ached every time we added a story, each more anarchic than the last. I used to do impressions of all the bosses and once, the production editor, a lovely woman who was from London and a wee bit Sloaney, walked in when I was in the middle of impersonating her. I still feel bad about that. One of my proudest moments in the three years I worked there was making sure a woman won the Businessman of the Year Award which we set up. Her name was Christine Latta and she ran an engineering company in Glasgow. She taught me a lot about what women could achieve against the odds.

I knew nothing about business but it taught me a lot about the gentle art of asking open questions with a smile. In other words bluffing like mad. One day I’d be writing 2000 words about scrap metal, the next interviewing the chief executive of The Royal Bank of Scotland.

After a year (because there was no-one else to do the job), I became the youngest editor in Scotland, aged 23. At the time I thought I hated the job because it was so boring and so poorly paid but looking back, it was fun.

You are a well-known arts journalist, how did that come about?

Like most things in my life I fell into writing about art. After spells on the staff of The Daily Record and a daily business newspaper (which went to the wall after a couple of years), I went freelance after I had my son in 2001. My daughter followed in 2003 so I juggled writing with being a mum and carer to my ailing parents. It was the tail-end of the days when newspapers had money to commission freelances to work on reasonable-sized projects and around 2006 I was asked to co-write a magazine spread on 50 Scottish artists to invest in. I threw myself into it and it re-ignited my interest in art which had always been there, but had somehow been placed on a back-burner.

Following on from the 50 artists feature, which caused a stir in the art world (of which I knew very little), I was asked to contribute to a regular art column in The Herald, writing about artists and exhibitions which were happening around Scotland. It was like a crash course in learning about the Scottish art scene. I never described myself as an art critic but it’s a label people are familiar with so it seems to stick. I always say I write stories about art and artists. Occasionally, I get into an almost meditative state when I am describing art and it pours out with the greatest of ease. I have become quite the expert at picking my way through the thickets of art speak, which art schools seem to put high up on the agenda. If you can’t say a thing simply, I say, don’t bother.

What were you like at school?

A mixed bag; funny, self-conscious and a wee bit geeky. I used to wear a badge on my duffel coat which said, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” It was a tough school and our year was HUGE. You had to fight your corner. Either that, or make people laugh. I chose the latter path! My dad was a minister, which put me into the ‘snobby’ category among certain peers so I started talking like Mary Doll in Rab C Nesbitt for a while, which didn’t go down well with mum.

I loved art and English and I was also in every choir the music department ran. And they ran loads! I was even in a wee girls’ choir which did Burns’ Suppers all round Ayrshire. We had quite the reputation but it did mean listening to lots of sexist jokes in Toasts to the Lassies’ speeches. I was into drama and loved being part of a drama group run by my English teacher, Mr Stott. I usually played the “character” who was old and eccentric. My first taste of journalism happened when I was in sixth year and part of the school magazine and I loved being part of it.

I was once told that every journalist harbours a secret desire to be a novelist.  The person who told me this was a newsman-turned-novelist.  How much truth do you think is in that statement?  

Show me the journalist who doesn’t want to write a novel and I will show you a big fat fibber. We are natural storytellers and embellishers. I get secretly irritated when I see yet another ex-colleague produce a novel. My husband always says: “Where’s your novel then?” which he knows will annoy me even more.

Have you ever written any kind of fiction?

I have an unfinished novel three chapters in sitting in my laptop and I’ve also written short stories. When I moved back from London to Scotland in the late 1990s I attended a week-long course in novel writing at Moniak Mhor, near Beauly. The tutors were Janice Galloway and Geoff Dyer. I went straight to the course from an interview with the owner of a randy dog who was terrorising the town of Tain for Take A Break magazine. Most of the participants were women and fans of Janice Galloway. The protagonist of her novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, struggles with mental illness and some of the would-be novelists were obviously drawn to that side of Janice’s work. I’d say several were teetering on the edge. By the end of the week, everyone seemed to be menstruating at the same time. Even the men.

I am a bit of a poetry nerd and in 2012 I wrote a haiku a day for a whole year. I used to walk about counting out 5-7-5 syllables out on my fingers when I was out walking with the dog or driving the car. The kids used to know when I was composing a haiku because I’d drum out syllables on the steering wheel.

How did the George Wyllie book come about?

I met George’s daughter, Louise Wyllie, in 2011 through a mutual friend, a journalist called Fiona Black. At the time George was living in a care home in Greenock and suffering from dementia. Louise was trying to stimulate him and to make him feel like his life’s work as an artist hadn’t been in vain. I think he thought everyone had forgotten him. I vividly recalled seeing his big ambitious “social sculptures”, the Straw Locomotive and the Paper Boat in Glasgow in the late 1980s and I couldn’t believe that he thought he had been forgotten. There was something playful and serious about his work which I loved. It wasn’t rarified art. It was art which connected with ordinary people at a deep level.

I got friendly with Louise and she roped me into helping on a committee called The Friends of George Wyllie. We ended up organising a year-long festival called The Whysman Festival in 2012. Just as the announcement was made that it was going to be happening, George died, which added a poignancy to the proceedings.

Louise is an inspiring person, even though she would laugh at me saying that. Like her dad, she is a naturally creative organiser who thinks big and the Whysman Festival was a resounding success. We even won a Creative Scotland Award.

As part of the festival, we staged a huge retrospective exhibition in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library and produced a book of George’s poetry, which I edited. There was also an education initiative which saw his work reaching out to a whole new generation of young people.

Louise jokes that she simply tipped out her dad’s house into the Mitchell Library space but it was astonishing to me that an artist who started working as a serious artist late in life had produced so much. It was clear looking around that exhibition that from the moment George Ralston Wyllie made his entrance into the world on Hogmanay 1921, he was a creative force to be reckoned with.

I said to Louise we should write a book about him and to cut a very long story short, that is how Arrivals and Sailings: The Making of George Wyllie came about.

What have been your worst moments as a journalist?

Where to start? There’s been a lot of highs but probably my worst moments came when I worked on tabloids. I often found myself in situations in which I asked myself, “how did I get here?” On housing estates being chased by angry relatives after asking for a picture of a recently-deceased loved one (the dreaded death-knock) or standing crying in an en-suite bathroom belonging to an AIDS victim in a hospice in Edinburgh after having prised his sad story out of him.

And your best?

My best moments were also on tabloids. The crazy camaraderie of day-to-day life on a tabloid at the fag end of the glory days of newspapers can’t be downplayed. It was a case of one for all and all for one. When I worked as a reporter at The Sunday Mail in the early 1990s, I was known to my mostly male, older colleagues as “the wean”. I learned a lot from these world-weary hacks. They worked hard and played hard and were incredibly generous with their time and their expertise. Once, I was struggling with writing a news story and a favourite colleague, Alex Scotland, read through my efforts. He pushed his specs up his nose and said: “Jan, get angry! You’re not angry enough… !” I became the Sunday Mail’s “Culture correspondent” in 1990 during Glasgow’s reign as European City of Culture and I broke a few big news stories which made the coveted front page. I had a knack of coming up with good shorthand handles for tabloid stories. One, The Casanova Conman, even found his way into criminal history.

Have you ever felt intimidated by anyone you have interviewed? 

I interviewed a few criminals during my time at the Sunday Mail. Pre-internet, there wasn’t many outlets for jailbirds and along with other female reporters I regularly received heavily censored letters from prisoners. Presumably, they saw our bylines and had a lot of time on their hands.

I visited the famous Barlinnie Special Unit with my friend, the paper’s resident astrologer, Darling (Rita Madhok). That was an experience and a half. We went on a boiling hot day in summer and we all sat on the exercise yard watching the pet rabbits run amok. It was like a metaphor for confinement. One of the prisoners constantly canoodled with his posh young girlfriend during our visit and it turned out he was planning to marry her. Fast-forward six months and I am sitting waiting outside the gates of Barlinnie looking out for famous visitors such as ex-Special Unit inmate, Jimmy Boyle, sweep past in his Jag. I met Boyle a few months later outside Saughton Prison when he was campaigning for the release of one the inmates there and he was charm personified. “Don’t get dazzled,” my friend Alex advised… always remember what these guys did to get in the jail in the first place.”

On that note, probably the most intimidating one-to-one interview I did was with a man called James Nelson. He was a convicted murderer who killed his mother and on his release, became a minister of the Church of Scotland. My dad was a minister and he was a delegate at the General Assembly in 1984 when the Kirk debated whether or not Nelson should be allowed to be ordained. I recall the case clearly as it prompted much debate in our home. I interviewed him in the mid-1990s in Rogano in Glasgow for a woman’s magazine. He clearly enjoyed my discomfort in his presence and I was unusually tongue-tied. Intimidated, even.

What advice would you give to the young Jan Patience?

Don’t be such a feartie and trust your gut instinct. Also, you know a lot more than you think you know. Don’t give up. There’s always a way – you just need to find it.

Who inspires you?

People who keep on being creative despite all the barriers which spring up along the way. George Wyllie continues to be an inspiration. He became a full-time artist aged 58. That keeps me going! I have an artist friend called Annette Edgar and she is in her 70s and has faced a lot of ill-health and problems but she has an unquenchable thirst for creating art and a poetic spirit.

What are you working on just now?

I’d like to say I am writing my novel and cracking on with that factual book which everyone I talk to about it says is A Good Idea. But mostly, I footer about on Facebook, Twitter et al. That needs to change.

If you could spend a day hanging out with any one person, past or present, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?

You ask some hard questions, Lorraine!! I’d like to have just one day and night with my late mum and dad. My brother and I would take them to The Coffee Club in Kilmarnock and dad would have lemon meringue pie and we’d all tease him about it. We’d probably bicker but that’s fine.

Who would play Jan Patience in the film of your life?

I’d like to think Nicole Kidman but in reality it would be someone far less glamorous. Janette Krankie maybe?

A few short questions to finish. Favourite book

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. I’ve re-read it several times but with all the Muriel Spark at 100 celebrations in the news (she was born on 1 February 1918), I’ve been thinking that I’ll re-read all 22 of her novels. She is so tart and spare in her storytelling and with her language.

Author

Anne Tyler

 Drink

Champagne – but not too much as I get very silly with it.

Food

A really well-made risotto.

Film

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Music

I am known for my love of moaney women singer songwriters with the queen of all moany women singer songwriters being Joni Mitchell in my eyes. I also love Carole King, Nanci Griffiths, KD Laing and Björk. I’d like It’s Oh So Quiet by Björk to be played at my funeral. I like to think it sums me up. Seemingly quiet but then… Zing boom!

I’ve also recently joined the Glasgow School of Art Choir, which is the nearest I’ve ever got to going to art school. It’s led by the charismatic, energetic and oh-so-young Jamie Sansbury. We’re going to be singing a Sir James MacMillan composition inside the GSofA’s Mack Building, closed since the fire in 2014 when is reopens. I love singing in a choir again.

What are you reading right now?

Moonwalker: Adventures of a Midnight Mountaineer by Alan Rowan. Alan is a former colleague from The Daily Record. His first book is a well-written meander through his long-running obsession with running up mountains in the dead of night after he’d put in a long shift on Record sports desk.

Thanks, Jan. Great interview.

You can follow Jan on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram           

Books by LG Thomson are available from Amazon and from bookshops in Ullapool. Writing as Lorraine Thomson, the Dark Times dystopian trilogy, published by Bastei Lübbe, is available online.

Find out about the Isle Martin Writing Retreats 2018 here.

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Literary Smorgasbord: Debbie Mathews

I have interviewed an amazing range of writers on the Smorgasbord, but Debbie Mathews is a smorgasbord unto herself. Blogger, poet, author of short stories, childrens’ fiction, non fiction, and, appropriately for the Smorgasbord, cook books. if that’s not enough, Debbie is also a photographer, gardener and veg grower and is just completing her garden design course and RHS certificate.

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Hi Debbie, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on the Smorgasbord. That’s some list of activities listed in your introduction, but what are you most passionate about?

I’m passionate about a number of things: writing of course – I’ve written from the age of 5 –  and cooking goes without saying, although I suppose that’s really a passion for eating! My interest in gardening started around growing my own food.  I’m 110% passionate about the natural world which translates itself into being a green proponent, and is probably where the photography fits in too.  I’m also passionate about justice.  Inequality of any kind gets my ire up. I campaigned with Amnesty, Oxfam and CND in my early teens.  Aged 40, I gave up my well-paid full-time job and re-trained to be an advocate for young people with learning disability.  I worked as an advocate for 13 years and continue to champion the rights of anyone who is marginalised or disadvantaged.  I think you could call that a passion. As well as being creative, writing can be a brilliant and powerful tool for justice.  A blog is a great place to air ones views.

Where did you grow up, and how does it compare to your present home on the north-east coast of Scotland?

I grew up in South West London – about as far away from life on a farm on the north-east coast of Scotland as you can imagine. I was always an outdoor girl though.  We all were back then weren’t we?  We had tremendous freedom to roam about as kids, even though we lived on the edge of the big smoke.  We had a 100ft back garden which backed onto the rec (the local authority recreation ground) although we fronted a major road.  As you know, there are few mountains in greater London.  I used to cycle to Box Hill with a friend in the holidays (technically out of my allowable range) as well as Richmond Park (also not allowed).  We thought of Richmond and Richmond Park as the countryside!  Townies, eh?  In the summer my dad used to get us up early and we’d rattle down to the south coast.  I’ve always been happy by the sea.

What were you like at school?

Quiet.  I went to school relatively late due to having to wear calipers. I think my parents had to fight to get me into a ‘normal’ state school because of my various difficulties. I’d never really socialised with kids my own age. My mum was very poorly when I was young and spent a lot of time in hospital.  I think that had an impact on my stability as a little person out in the big-wide-world.

I didn’t mix much with girls.  I preferred to scuff about with the boys.  They seemed less complicated, and you didn’t have to talk too much with them, you could just do stuff.  An all-girls senior school was a bit of a shock, as you can imagine.  Most of my school reports from that time have reticent written on them.  Debbie has good ideas and is a capable student.  I wish she’d learn to speak up more.  She is very reticent in class.  I’m not sure my parents knew what it was, but it was clearly not good, so I always got told off for it.

When did you start writing?

As far back as I can remember.  My mum taught me to read and write before I went to school.  Initially books were my escape route, then writing.  I wrote poems and stories to start with, and letters.  Letters were a great discovery.  I had pen-pals from various places in the UK and abroad.  I also discovered you could write to MPs and councillors, and I harassed both my local council and the government about all sorts of things.  Aged 11, I got my first typewriter.  After that there was no holding me back.

Do you have any particular writing habits?

This is where I disclose the secrets about my special routines and impart great wisdom…… No, I don’t have any writing habits, I simply write.  I’m not being facetious.  Really. I write constantly.  It’s maddening.  Like all my fellow writers, I keep a pen and notepad with me at all times, and it gets used all the time. I always get ideas at inconvenient moments.  I’ve taken to making sure my phone is with me when I’m out walking or running, and I’ve learnt how to use the voice recorder so I can capture those ideas which would otherwise be lost by the time I got home.  I’m not much of a night owl, so I don’t tend to write in the evening, although I have often put the light back on, after settling down for the night, to write something in my notebook.  My writing habit is genuinely to write, write, write.  I’m very bad at keeping concentration on one thing, and worse at editing, so I’m a poor example for any writer!

What are your writing hopes and ambitions?

My ambition for this year is to complete my first novel.  I’m just over 35,000 words in, aiming for 50 – 60,000.  I keep diverting myself with other projects and really need to focus.  I also have a non-fiction project which has been on the go for five years.  I have actually finished the text now, although because of how disorganised I’ve been in compiling it, I’ll have to spend some serious time getting the referencing organised.  I’ve also challenged myself to be braver with my writing this year and am making myself read publicly – a personal loathing – and enter some competitions.  I’m not brave enough to tell you if I’ve already entered any…

 My hope is that I will find a way for people to read and engage with my writing; that I will somehow connect.

Who has inspired you?

Corny as it may be, my mum is a complete inspiration.  She is uneducated: she bought up her younger siblings and skipped school for the most part. She had a dreadful childhood. She has been ill since she was first pregnant and has had all manner of operations and health issues. She’s been a wheelchair user for the past 20 years. In spite of everything, she has always remained cheerful, giving and creative.

Her spelling and grammar are so atrocious that getting a letter from her requires painstaking deciphering; in spite of that – and sometimes because of it – her letters are funny and touching.  She is a life-time letter writer and has written hundreds of letters to friends, family and strangers across the UK and beyond.

At 60, she learned to swim, despite a phobia of water (she saw her brother drown when she was 11) and she started reading voraciously in her 70s.  A few months ago, aged 82, she learnt to crochet. She has a personal good grace, humility and tenacity it would be hard to emulate.

It is the ordinary- extraordinary people that inspire me the most, in life and in writing.  Malala Yousafzai, Naomi Kline, Charlotte Bronte (whom I share a birthday with); Safia Minney  – Founder and CEO of pioneering Fair Trade fashion label People Tree; Charlotte Danks – a 21 year old who has opened 25p Food Shops in Cornwall to help struggling families; Hope Gordon, my friends daughter, who had her leg amputated last year after a decade of pain and suffering, and who rows, swims, fund-raises, and last year completed the Dubai 92km Cycle Challenge having only ridden a bike once in the previous 14 years!

What has been your best writing moment so far?

This?! Nah. I don’t know.  That’s a really hard question. I won an award at school and got a £25 book token – that was really cool, but best writing moment?  No.   I’ve had a bits and bobs published over the years, but I think my best writing moment is to come!  Something that probably comes close is submitting a manuscript to Emergents last year and being told that my writing was good.  That nothing much needed changing.  That was a good writing moment.  It’s only been surpassed by the moment that I wrote on my blog that I’m a writer.  It’s the first time in nearly 40 plus years of writing that I’ve had the confidence to call myself that.

If you could strap yourself into a time machine and travel back through the years to meet your fifteen year old self, what advice would you give her?

Ha!  I’ve done this! Well, not really you understand – although it would be pretty damn cool wouldn’t it – it was a writing exercise for the Wee Writers Workshop that I’m part of.  The exercise was to write a letter to your younger self.  I put it in the fiction section of my blog as it was technically a creative writing exercise, although it’s pretty much all true.

Here’s some of what I wrote to myself: I just wish you’d gained a bit more confidence earlier on; I wish you’d stopped trying to please your dad sooner– you knew in your heart of hearts it was futile – and got over your fear of failure.  Let me tell you this – It isn‘t a secret- you are going to fail.  You are not going to get through life only having succeeded.

If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?

Hmm.  Another really hard question.  I mean, one person, out of all the millions of people… I’ll need to think about that one. I think all the famous game changers would be too scary, and possibly too boring.  I’d be tongue-tied.  So, much as I’d like to spend a day with Nelson Mandela or Shakespeare, I think it would be a waste of my time and theirs. Ooo!  I know!  I know!  Jean-Luc Picard.  Not Patrick Stewart, you understand, I’d be far too nervous, no, the fictional and fabby Jean-Luc Picard.  We would spend the day flitting at warp speed through the galaxy.  Well, our bit of the cosmos anyway.  I’ve always wanted to see the earth from space.  We would sip Earl Grey tea and talk about how the federation managed to get so many different species to collaborate.  We would beam down onto the moon and kick a ball about down there.  We’d could maybe take a trip in a shuttle around the planets.  I’d get him to introduce me to Chakotay…..no wait, getting carried away here; different captain!  Ah well.  It would be interesting anyway, and I hope we’d have some fun as well.

A few short questions to finish with. What is your favourite book?

Nope.  I can’t do that one.  I don’t have a favourite book.  I’m fickle.  I have books I love at the time and perhaps never read again.  I have books I re-read, like Thomas Hardy, or Tolkien, usually on the train; although companionable, they’re not my favourites. I have books I would never get rid of – Catch 22, To Kill a Mockingbird – and others.   Recently I’ve enjoyed The Fault In Our Stars by John Green, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven.  I like books that engage me – heart and brain – which could pretty much be anything.

Writer?

The sadly departed Iain Banks, and perhaps Nick Hornby, Anita Desai…No, can’t do that one either.

Meal?

Well a side-dish rather than a meal: potato dauphinoise.  Potatoes, garlic, cream.  What’s not to like?

Ha, that made me laugh. Cream is a no go area for me and I’m not a big fan of the spud, but that’s a whole other story. Back to the point – film?

Again, one is too hard!  The Graduate, Toy Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Shawshank Redemption, The Kite Runner, Dead Poet’s Society, You’ve Got Mail.  I’ll stop there shall I?

Music?

This is impossible! Everyone says eclectic don’t they?  It’s true for me too. I listen to everything and anything.  I’m not a big classical or country fan, although there are exceptions.  I like traditional jazz – New Orleans and Dixie – and am in love with the saxophone: think the intro to Baker Street Or Lily Was Here by Dave Stuart and Candy Duffer.  I was a bit of a rock chick in my youth and still love a thrashing guitar and heavy drumbeat.  I saw U2 when they first toured as spotty yoofs and still adore them.  I love Van the Man, Coldplay, Nina Simone, Elvis Costello, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd (pre ‘Wall’), Avicii and The Stranglers.  Currently I’m listening to Travis, Jack Savoretti and Calvin Harris.

What are you reading right now?

That’s easier!  A History of the Rain by Niall Williams, Spectacles by Sue Perkins and Great Garden Designs by George Plumptre (which I found in my dentist’s on Tuesday!).

Thanks Debbie. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you Lorraine.  It’s been great fun answering your questions.  Thanks for asking me to join your lovely tasty Smorgasbord.

You can find out more about Debbie on her blog and follow her on Twitter.

LG Thomson is the author of thrillers, Boyle’s Law, Boiling Point, and Erosion, and of post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

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Literary Smorgasbord: Pauline Mackay

This week’s Smorgasbord guest is children’s author, Pauline Mackay. Pauline is passionate about languages, a statement ably illustrated by the fact that her hugely successful Wee MacNessie books are available in 12 bilingual editions.

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Hi Pauline, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. You are best known for your Wee MacNessie books. How did they come about?

Hi Lorraine. Thank you for inviting me to take part in your Literary Smorgasbord. Knowing how much I love languages, you can probably guess I’m already smiling.

Wee MacNessie is like a member of my family now, with four books in the series so far. He’s a baby version of the Loch Ness Monster who came into existence while I was living with relatives on their croft overlooking Loch Ness. My whole life has been linked to this world-famous stretch of water and the croft, where my Mum was brought up, so much of what appears in the illustrations is true to life there. I can’t, of course, guarantee that Wee MacNessie is a faithful representation of the Loch Ness Monster!

Your books are available in several languages, including Gaelic, Scots and Arabic. Was that always part of the plan?

The first book in the series is available in English and 12 bilingual editions: English with Arabic, Dutch, French, Scottish Gaelic, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Polish, Russian, Scots and Spanish.

When I started writing my first Wee MacNessie book, I knew I wanted a story which would work for native English speakers but also be accessible to children learning another language. I studied French at the University of Glasgow, taught English as a second language in Poland and learnt Polish while I was there behind the Iron Curtain, so I was well aware of the importance and difficulty of language-learning. By the time Wee MacNessie was born, I was already running a bookselling business which specialised in bilingual and Gaelic books for children, so I knew there was a market for such books and that many of the existing titles were too complicated for beginners.

I studied illustration at art school, and although I have never worked on children’s books, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between author and illustrator.  How do you find the illustrators for your books?

I’ve used 3 illustrators on my books so far. Shelley Buckner/Mackay was recommended by a marketing consultant; Dylan Gibson caught my attention on an online children’s publishing group and I met Brian Robertson at the Dornoch book festival years ago.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that I deal with illustrators because I am also the publisher of my books. Authors would not normally deal directly with illustrators unless they were self-publishing.

How much discussion do you have with an illustrator before they begin work on one of your books?

Before they begin, the illustrators receive an initial brief which describes my vision of the layout of the book and general composition of each page. I always have a little film of the story playing in my head which I try to get down on paper. Having an illustrator who can capture that vision never fails to amaze and impress me. However, the brief is not set in stone and sometimes elements change as the book takes shape.  With bilingual books there is the added challenge of leaving enough clear space for two sets of text. 

Beyond the obvious, what does the illustrator bring to the project?

No matter how good the story, no matter how good the brief, the illustrator is the one who brings the book to life. Visually representing the author’s story is only part of their job. Every page is a treasure trove of potential stories. Also, and very importantly, a picture book has to appeal to two totally different audiences – the adult who is buying the book and the child. This is incredibly challenging for any illustrator, even an experienced one.

What were you like at school?

I worked very hard at school. This made absolutely no difference to my ability to do science!

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Inverness and returned here with my son when my marriage broke down.

What books did you enjoy reading in your childhood?

I was obsessed with Enid Blyton books when I was young.

When did you start writing?

My Mum tells me my wonderful Primary 1/2 teacher liked my stories so it sounds like there was something going on even then. I also remember sitting at my Gran’s table watching the passing trains and writing stories, fuelled by raspberry ripple ice-cream. When I was a teenager I started writing songs because I wanted to be a singer. It wasn’t encouraging that my wee brother insisted on flushing the toilet to try and drown me out when I practised!

What is the Pauline Mackay writing method?

I don’t seem to be one of those incredibly disciplined writers who sits down at a certain time every day and produces at least 1000 words. Most of my stories are short, but the amount of time devoted to moulding them into picture books is enormous. I also spent a great deal of last year creating additional teachers’ resources in English, French, German and Spanish to complement my Wee MacNessie books.

What are you working on right now?

Kitty’s Scottish Safari is my latest picture book. This is a completely new project which I hope the public will find fun and educational. My little cat character, Kitty Purry, travels round Scotland with her family visiting animal statues and knitting something different for all of them. I visited the statues as part of my research and was fascinated by them, especially the penguins, the giraffes and the elephant. Brian’s illustrations are truly brilliant and we have a cheeky stowaway mouse for children to spot. There are five language versions but they are not bilingual – English, Gaelic, Scots, French and German.

If I’m guessing correctly, the penguins are from Dundee, the giraffes from Edinburgh, but I’m stumped on the elephant.
Well done on the penguins and giraffes!  The elephant is a recent addition to Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. When I discovered it was made from old trains which were originally built in Glasgow and shipped to countries like India and Pakistan, I was hooked.
Please tell me Kitty Purry visited Greyfriars Bobby and the T-Rex at the Hunterian in Glasgow…
Greyfriars Bobby makes a brief appearance at the end but is not part of the main story. I was pretty sure I’d be in trouble if he didn’t feature somewhere in the book, so I like to think this is a neat solution and creates an interactive finale. As for the T-Rex, dinosaurs weren’t going to get a look-in this time after four Wee MacNessie books. However, I love the fact that this story gets people thinking about other animal statues and where they are located. Did you know there are rhinoceroses on the outskirts of Dumfries? 
 
I didn’t know about the Dumfries rhinos, but the stowaway mouse is a great idea. I loved little illustration in-jokes like that when I was a child, and then again as a parent.
Brian worked for Usborne so he loved the idea of this mouse too. It’s not hidden like those famous little yellow ducks but right from the beginning I laughed at the idea of a cheeky wee mouse hitching a free ride with the Purry family and turning up in all the pictures. It’s a toreador in one of the illustrations, so what’s the statue?

Hmmm – I’ll get back to you on that… What has been your best writing moment so far?

It’s almost impossible to pick one moment but the positive feedback from customers who have sent my books all over the world is particularly precious. One lady told me the Arabic version of Wee MacNessie had been a huge hit in a nursery in Beirut and that the children referred to him as The Scottish Monster.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

There is so much advice out there, I’m not sure I can add anything new. Being truly objective about your own work is impossible but I find that a little time away from your manuscript is a surprisingly powerful quality control tool.

Is there any one book you would like to have written?

The Very Hungry Caterpillar would look rather nice with my name on it!

If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why?  How would you spend the day?

I think a day spent in the company of multilingual Mary, Queen of Scots would be a revelation. Given her French husband’s mother was Catherine de Medici, she could probably reel off a few good mother-in-law from hell stories!

A few short questions to finish with. Favourite books?

Pride and Prejudice, The Tobacconist, Kidnapped.

Authors?

Jane Austen, Daphne Du Maurier, C.J. Sansom, Matthew Pearl, Tracy Chevalier.

Children’s author/illustrator?

David Melling is very talented.

Meal?

My Dad’s cauliflower cheese takes a lot of beating.

Films?

Walk the Line; Chocolat; Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang, and Matilda.

Music?

André Rieu, Johnny Cash.

What are you reading right now?

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (The Amazing Adventure of Translation) by David Bellos.

Thanks Pauline.

You can follow Pauline on Twitter and find out more about her books at Ablekids Press.

LG Thomson is the author of thrillers, Boyle’s Law, Boiling Point, and Erosion, and of post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

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Literary Smorgasbord: Helen Forbes

Did I ever mention how great XpoNorth is? And no, I’m not on commission, but that is where I met this week’s Smorgasbord guest, Helen Forbes. I was invited to read from Boyle’s Law at the XpoNorth launch event in 2015 and Helen was hosting the event on behalf of the Highland Literary Salon. We met again at a Lit Salon writing retreat at Moniack Mhor, and again when Barbara Henderson brought us together to get NessBookFest up and running and we’ve stayed in touch since.

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Hi Helen, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord.  Tell me about the evolution of the author, Helen Forbes.

I started writing over twenty years ago, when I had this idea for a Scottish story set in two timescales – 18th century and the present day.  I worked on it for years and ended up with a massive tome of fairly mediocre writing.  I was pretty much a closet writer at that time, but I came out and started going to writing groups, where I wrote some short stories and entered competitions.  With the odd success here and there, I was encouraged to keep writing, and to start some new projects.  I still tinkered with the tome from time to time, and it’s now two separate novels, which are much better written, but, as yet, unpublished.  Meanwhile, I wrote In the Shadow of the Hill, which was published in 2014, and I’ve since completed a sequel, Madness Lies, which is due to be published this year.  I’m almost finished a standalone, called And In That Place … 

When we first met, you had just brought out your crime thriller, In the Shadow of the Hill. How did the book come about?

I wrote a short story about two young boys living next door to each other on an unidentified island, for the writing group I was going to in Fife, and they seemed to like it.  I then shared it at the Edinburgh Writers Club and someone said it would make a good novel – they’d be interested in finding out what happened to the two boys as they grew up.  I didn’t really think any more about it at the time, but after the short story was placed in a competition and later published, I began to work on turning it into a novel, which became In the Shadow of the Hill.

How would you describe your writing style?

I’m not sure how to answer that, but I was delighted when a reviewer of In the Shadow of the Hill said her style is smooth and sweet.  That’ll do for me.

Nice. What were you like at school?

Quiet and mousy!  I was the perfect pupil in primary school, but it all went wrong in secondary.  I didn’t really enjoy anything except English, and ended up leaving with only an English Higher.  I made up for it many years later, when I studied law as a mature student, and found that I actually enjoyed learning after all.  I guess I was ready for it by that time.

Who have been the main influences in your life?

I was lucky to have loving and supportive parents.  It really came home to me after working in social welfare law just how fortunate I’ve been.  No matter what happened, they were (and my mum still is) always there for me – so many people don’t have that safety net.  My late father was incredibly hard working, talented and intelligent, despite leaving school at a young age with no qualifications.  He began work as a messenger boy with a retail company and ended up managing the company in Scotland and Northern Ireland.  I couldn’t fail to be influenced by him and his belief that anyone could do anything they set their mind to.

I was a single parent for most of my daughter’s life, and she was and is a constant source of inspiration.  Even as a small child, she had an ingrained sense of social justice and fairness that would put many adults to shame.  As an adult, despite chronic ill-health, she’s continued to inspire me by becoming a talented artist and a wonderful mother.

What influenced you when you were growing up?

Books – I’ve always loved reading.  And music.

What is the Helen Forbes writing method?

I’ve tried various methods.  When I work with no plan and just keep writing, I have to delete vast numbers of words later on.  This happened with Madness Lies, when I felt under pressure to produce a second book, and just kept writing.  I then had to delete over 30,000 words of nonsense.  With And in that place … I tried very hard to make a detailed plan before starting, but my mind would just go blank.  So, I got started, with an idea of where I wanted to go, but without any real idea of how I was going to get there.  This time I was more rigorous in planning and checking as I went along, making sure that I wasn’t going down blind alleys.  That method seemed to work best for me.  I find it hard to let go of a book and have a tendency to keep on editing and tinkering, until I really have to let go.

What has been your best writing moment so far?

The launch in Waterstones of In the Shadow of the Hill.  I was a nervous wreck when I met the publisher at lunch that day.  I told him he had to stick to the questions we’d agreed as I’d clam up if there was anything unexpected.  I got to Waterstones and there was no one there, and I was delighted, until I looked up at the balcony area, and everyone was waiting.  All my friends and family were there, including two friends I hadn’t seen for years and some of them had travelled far to get there.  As soon as it started, the nerves were gone, and I had a fantastic night.  Afterwards, the publisher asked me if I’d been drinking (I hadn’t), as he said I bore no resemblance to the person he’d met earlier in the day!  There was one awkward moment, when I signed a copy of the book for my boss’s wife, and dedicated it to my boss and his secretary, rather than his wife.  We laughed, but I’m not convinced I’ve been forgiven.

What are you working on right now?

I’m at the end stage of a stand-alone domestic noir thriller set in Edinburgh and Lewis.  The main character, Lily Andersen, has been in my head for a long time.  This is probably the book I’ve enjoyed writing the most, although I’ve enjoyed them all.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Get started.  Join a writers’ group and go on retreats/writing courses.  The feedback and friendship of other writers is invaluable.  Expect rejection and learn how to deal with it – even the bestselling authors have had numerous rejections – it’s all very subjective.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to the young Helen Forbes?

You can do anything.  Listen to yourself and stop thinking everyone else has the answers.

Is there any one book you would like to have written?

Neil Gunn’s The Grey Coast.

If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why?  How would you spend the day?

David I of Scotland.  I’d love to write a novel about his reign in 12th century Scotland.  I’d spend the day at Edinburgh Castle bending his ear to make sure I got my facts right.

A few short questions to finish. Favourite books?

The Grey Coast, The Poisonwood Bible, Wuthering Heights, The History of Love, Good Times Bad Times.

Authors?

Neil Gunn, Niall Williams, Morris West, Barbara Kingsolver, Andrew Greig, James Robertson.

Food?

Curry

Films?

The Crucible, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

Music? 

Roddy Frame/Aztec Camera, Runrig, Eagles, The Jam.

What are you reading right now?

SG MacLean’s The Seeker

Good luck with your domestic noir thriller, Helen and thanks for appearing on the Smorgasbord.

You can find out more about Helen Forbes on her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

LG Thomson is the author of thrillers, Boyle’s Law, Boiling Point, and Erosion, and of post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

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Literary Smorgasbord: Richmond Clements

Take a slice of ultracool modernism, add a dash of black poem blues, serve it up with a spicy side of neo noir, and you’ll have experienced a taste of the Literary Smorgasbord’s flavoursome writers. This week, there’s a new treat in store as I interview the Smorgasbord’s first graphic novelist, Richmond Clements.

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Hi Rich, apologies for the over-stretched metaphor in the introduction (I couldn’t help myself) and thanks for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord.  You’re the first graphic novelist to appear and I’m really looking forward to the interview.

 Thank you for asking!

We’ll get the ball rolling with one of my favourites: Rich, what were you like at school?

 Probably an annoying little smart-mouthed arsehole, if adult me is anything to go by… Quiet, nerdy and walking the fine line between academic and being very very lazy.

Heh, pretty harsh on yourself, Rich.

I’m interested in the process of creating a graphic novel; how do you present your idea to an illustrator or publisher?


I suppose the short, glib answer is: it depends.

For example, my first graphic novel (GN), Turning Tiger, started off years before I wrote it. I had this image in my head – riffing on an iconic Winnie the Pooh image by E.A. Shepherd – of Piglet and Pooh walking away, their back to the viewer – only my mind had a young girl and a giant robot. This hung about my head for years and years and then one day something clicked, and I figured out what the link between the girl and the robot was – and the book just unfurled, in almost the entire plot, from there.

Other times, I’ve had an idea for a book – Pirates of the Lost World for example – and thought that I’d really love to work with artist Conor Boyle. So I pitched it to Conor, and happily, he felt the same.

Other than the way you approached Conor, how else do you go about finding an artist to work with, and how much influence do you have on the style used?

 Sometimes you’ll strike up a friendship with an artist and you’ll find yourself in synch and will work together easily. But a great deal of the time, it depends on the publisher – some publishers will match you up with an artist – sometimes you’ll not even know the artist until it’s in print.

I’ve been pretty lucky though, in that in almost all my projects, the artist and I have pitched the project as a team. On the occasions where I haven’t picked the artist, it’s been from a publisher who knows me and has selected an artist they know I’ve already worked with and have a good relationship with.

As for influence on the style – that’s an excellent question. Sometimes I’ll go after an artist because I like their style, and vice-versa . For example, the story I co-created for Strip magazine, Black Dragon, with artist Nick Dyer: Nick excels in drawing kinetic action scenes, so every time he drew something amazing, I felt pushed to create an action scene even bigger for him to get his teeth into.

Besides your own, what are your favourite graphic novels?

 It changes from time to time, but if I had to pick one, it would be From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Forget the atrocious movie adaption. While the book is, on the surface, a Jack the Ripper story, it is more of a treatise on the 20th Century and the birth of tabloid journalism.

I’m not a big fan of superhero books, but Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman is simply exquisite. Superman is a more complex and interesting character than most people give him credit for, and in this book, Morrison unpicks and examines just what makes him ‘Super’… and it’s not the fact he has unlimited strength and can fly.

What has been your best writing moment so far?

 Probably when I got the comps of my first GN, Turning Tiger. If you think New Book Smell is good, it’s even better when it’s the smell of a book you wrote.

What are you working on right now?

 Now that is a big question. I’m the kind of writer who works on half a dozen or more things at once. The two main things at the moment are writing a script for a computer game – it’s the first one I’ve worked on, but it’s a very interesting process – and a GN project with artist Paul Bolger, which we’ve been developing for a while. Most of the script is nailed down, so we just need to find some time for Paul to start drawing.

I’m also writing for and helping to edit a GN inspired by the Pearl Jam album No Code.

Hopefully, we’ll see my choose-your-own-adventure book Napoleon Stone and the Army of Set later in the year. This is based in the Unseen Shadows universe, created by writer Barry Nugent. I also have a GN in the same universe – The Chimera Factor – which is being drawn at the moment by the brilliant artist Peter Woods.

And there’s the ongoing work of publishing our regular comics at FutureQuake Press.

That sounds like an amazing amount of work. I’m not sure where the being very, very lazy fits in.

What advice would you give to the young Richmond Clements?

 Persist.

Any advice for aspiring graphic novelists?

 Well, to start with, it’s the same advice you’d give to any writer: write.

But I’d also say that you should get out to conventions and meet other creators and publishers. My first graphic novel was pitched at 4am in a hotel bar at a convention, for example.

There’s also a huge small press community out there. You can find a book there and get your work published. You’ll not be paid, or you’ll be paid very little, but you’ll garner some experience. And sometimes you’ll get noticed. I’m co-editor and publisher of the range of comics at FutureQuake Press. There, we’re had loads of writers and artists who have went on to fortune and glory and a successful career. Folks like Michael Carroll, Al Ewing, Cullen Bunn and more were published by us before they went on to bigger and better things.

In fact, John Wagner (co-creator of Judge Dredd with artist Carlos Ezquerra) saw the work of artist Dan Cornwell in one of our books and picked him for his new comic Rok of the Reds.

Another thing you can do is an obvious route: make your own comics. No, really. All you need is paper, a photocopier and a stapler. What’s that? You can’t draw? Well, that’s where the afore mentioned conventions come in – go to one and meet artists. Make your comics and give them away, or get yourself a table and sell them – either way, though, you’ll get your name out there!

A few quick questions to finish with. 

Okay, but these will have more than one answer…

Favourite book?

Use of Weapons, The Wasp Factory, Weaveworld, The Dark Tower series.

Author?

Iain Banks, Stephen King, Harry Harrison, John Wagner, Alan Moore, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft

Food?

Pretty much anything apart from mushrooms and shellfish (I don’t want to eat anything that looks like phlegm).

Thanks for the image, Rich. Film?

Jaws, The Wicker Man, Star Wars, Room, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Goodfellas, The Big Lebowski…and so on…

Music?

I probably draw more inspiration from music and musicians than I do from other writers.

Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, Kate Bush. Brian Fallon, John Grant, Courtney Barnett, Drive-by Truckers, David Bowie, Chris Cornell, Pearl Jam…

Game?


Computer games: Red Dead Redemption, Overwatch, Lego Star Wars. Board Games: Mansions of Madness, X-Wing, Zombies!!!

Thanks for taking part in the Literary Smorgasbord, Rich, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

 Thank you for having me!

To find out more, follow Rich on Twitter.

Photograph of Richard Clements by Ewan Birse.

 LG Thomson is the author of thrillers, Boyle’s Law, Boiling Point, and Erosion, and of post-apocalyptic thrill-fest, Each New Morn. Find out more at Thrillers With Attitude.

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