Literary Smorgasbord: Andrew Crummy

When I was at art school in the 1980s, the world was a very different place. Thatcher was in power, the miners were striking, Reagan was in the White House, punk was dead and the soul had been ripped out of the city of Dundee, but the time I spent there was to echo through the rest of my life in ways that I could not imagine. Art school is the gift that keeps on giving, and one of the things it has given me is the many friendships that have endured and flourished throughout the intervening years. It’s been a thing of wondrous beauty to see the many paths taken by my contemporaries but it’s been a particular joy to witness the success of my friend, Andy Crummy.  (Andy also wins the award for world’s scariest selfie of a nice guy.)

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Hi Andy, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Smorgasbord. I’m going to plunge right in with The Great Tapestry of Scotland, a hugely ambitious project which has been described as a Masterpiece. The Great Tapestry is a major work by anyone’s standards: what impact has it had on your life?

It has had a huge impact, I am often now called “the Tapestry man”!  Looking back, I suppose it was the culmination of my involvement in community arts over many years and my own artistic skills. What was a surprise to me, was the interest in my drawing and design skills. What was amazing was not only the skill and creativity the thousands of stitchers, but all the other people who volunteered to help in its creation and its touring and exhibitions. The Great Tapestry of Scotland, The Scottish Diaspora Tapestry, Battle of Prestonpans Tapestry and the others have now been seen by over 700,000 visitors.

Although I am central to these projects, it is not about one person, it is about all these people coming together and being creative. When all these ladies start being creative with their stitching it is a very humbling experience. Of course, it is still evolving and growing. We are not at the end of the story.

What were you like at school?

I was really just a not very confident, quiet wee soul who looked rather depressed most of the time. I did not know what I wanted to do. My careers advisor at the time thought I should be a printer. The only thing I was good at was drawing and chess. I ended up going to Art College because it was the only thing I could do.

Tell me about the evolution of Andrew Crummy, the artist?

It was really when I got to Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art that I suddenly found myself with lots of other people who were like me. I really enjoyed my time at Dundee. Of course, that is were we met all those years ago. I think we were all very lucky because everyone was so friendly, even to this day, as a group we keep in contact.

As an artist I just love drawing and painting and I just wanted to keep to it. It is really that simple. It is just the joy of being creative. I do not view myself as anything special, but I have had a lot of practice.

Community arts and collaborative work are important to you; what would your ideal project look like?

I was brought up in a community arts atmosphere through my mother and The Craigmillar Festival Society. But as a typical teenager rejected most of what my parents said, it was not  until well into my thirties when I realised that my mother was right, if you involve people in our own creative process, it opens many new doors.

Community Arts can be a very powerful movement, when many people come together through the arts to deal with issues within our society. The best example I have ever seen was The Craigmillar Festival Society, where it used the arts to help deal with the issues of poverty and inequality. It was a very clever model of working and I am still learning much from it.

I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but many years ago you told me you were planning on writing a book inspired, I think, by a box of old photographs. Did anything ever come of that?

I think that is one of many projects that never got anywhere.

You have created murals, drawings, paintings and illustrations, experimenting in many different styles and media. How do you decide which route to take for a project?

I think the important thing is to keep learning and trying new things, there is still so much to learn and look into. I don’t mind failure because it is through this you learn more. Throughout my life I have been fortunate that at certain points opportunities have come along, but I was always happy to take the plunge and give it a go.

Have you ever surprised yourself by what you have revealed in your art?

Some of the images I just don’t know where they come from, or what they reveal about myself.  I really don’t understand where they come from. I usually just enjoy the challenge.

I think over the years, learning the craft of drawing and painting is such a constant tussle. I often hear writers and artist talking about this. Sometimes you produce some thing and you think that is fab, then you come back to it a few days later and change it again. Then you think, I wish I had never changed it.

Which artists inspire you?

Well there are so many, in so many art forms. I was at the National Gallery recently and some of the paintings are like old friends. Over the years they become part of your life, and your relationship with them changes. I am a bit of a art groupie, I just love so many artworks. For drawing and painting I am very traditional in admiring Rembrandt, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, etc. In a Scottish context John Byrne, Joan Eardley and of course John Bellany, but I am loathe to pick out only a few as I admire so many. John Quinton Pringle is another, James Cowie….. the list goes on and on. Music is a big inspiration for me, I remember you like Devo…….gosh that whole period of music and beyond. The other art forms….. I could be here all night!

Best art-related moment so far?

For my own work. Standing in the two hour queue with my daughter to see The Great Tapestry of Scotland in the Scottish Parliament. I just wanted to experience people queuing to see my work. It will never happen again.

Any unrealised artistic ambitions?

Far too many to mention.

What are you working on at the moment?

More tapestries, book illustrations, paintings and venturing into sculpture and ceramics.

What advice would you give the young Andrew Crummy?

Be more confident, more ambitious.

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?

With Rembrandt or Turner, in their studio. I would learn so much.

Who would play Andrew Crummy in the film of your life?

Spud from Trainspotting, as he went to the same school as me.

A few short questions to finish. Favourite book?

Or what am I reading at the moment. I tend to read factual books like: Scotland, A History from Earliest Times by Alistair Moffat, Come out of the Wilderness by Bruce Kendrick, Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor.

Author

George Orwell.

Drink

A flat white

Film

Cinema Paradiso

TV show

Come Dine With Me

Music

Family, Undertones, Karine Polwart, Stevie Wonder, Debussy, etc.

Artist

Rembrandt, Ben Nicholson

Painting

A Group Portrait, James Cowie

The Box Meeting,  John Bellany

Thanks Andy, it’s been a pleasure.

Find out more about Andy at his website.

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: 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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