I’m delighted to share my interview with crime blog There’s Been A Murder. Read on for some thoughts on The Visitors, writing characters from real life, my next projects and (gulp) my attempt at some writing advice…
The interview is here.
I’ve been climbing a mountain of college work, which is why I haven’t blogged for a while. There are a few things to report, though: my first ever panel event, for Waterstones Argyle Street in Glasgow; another open mic for Verbalise in Kendal; and some lovely reviews for The Visitors.
In the weeks beforehand, I made myself quietly terrified of the panel event, though I loved the theme. It was called ‘Islands Are The New Cities’, and brought me together with two other crime writers and a chair to discuss the attraction of islands as story locations. This is something I’ve already explored a little right here, and I was looking forward to discussing it. The terror came from the unknown: I can prepare for a reading, but had no sense of what the panel would involve.
I needn’t have worried. The Argyle Street Waterstones is a glorious bookstore, chair Douglas Skelton was funny and relaxed, and the other writers, Craig Robertson and Alex Gordon, were really engaging and easy to talk to. I was surprised at how far the discussion ranged. From a springboard of introducing our own books, we ending up debating alcohol, Faroese Hell’s Angels, caravan parks, the place of fantasy in crime novels, being a teenager in a small town, our daily working routines, tax deductible research and grandmothers. Douglas kept us on track whenever we wandered too far.
For the record, I think islands are perfect locations. They are miniature worlds, with all their own rules and laws contained within the boundaries of the coast. My friend Ben maintains there are two stories: either ‘boy/girl leaves to seek fortune’, or ‘trouble comes to town’. Islands make that sense of arrival or departure far more tangible, more immediate. The physical space of an island is an entire universe. Anything can happen on an island, and the rest of the world will never know.
There was a great moment before the event kicked off. I’d just met Alex, who is a veteran sports writer turned novelist. Breaking the ice, I pointed out that he, I, Craig and Douglas were all wearing shirts in shades of white or blue. I suggested that we should sit in a row from lightest to darkest, ha ha ha. He fixed me with a piercing eye.
‘What kind of a mind even thinks like that, man?’ he said.
On to Verbalise. It was packed out for headlining act George Wallace, pictured above. George is an award-winning beat poet on a busman’s holiday from his residency in the Walt Whitman Centre. I was delighted to find my friends Joy France, BigCharlie Poet and Harriet Fraser at the open mic – I don’t see them as often as I’d like, and it was grand to catch up.
Almost until the moment I walked onstage, I was umming and aahing over which story to do. I’d settled on either The Matador, which is an old piece about a Spitfire pilot, or new story Cuts Like A. I’d already decided that if I did the second piece, I was going to read without notes. My dilemma was that the story was brand new – only a few weeks old – and I didn’t feel I’d quite yet come to know it. During the first interval, I raced off to scribble it from memory in my notebook, writing from start to finish without breaks. I hit everything important, as well as adding a few things in, and that gave me confidence to gamble on the new piece rather than the safety of the old.
It went well. I loved performing the story, using my hands and face and eyes to invest in my characters. I’m coming to feel more and more that this is how to read a story live. (David Hartley is right.) Writers read best when they’re committed. Cuts Like A is about a drunken knife thrower, and I enjoyed being able to mime the knives, and mime the rotating disc to which his wife is cuffed – to make those actions part of the story. I simply couldn’t have done that with paper in my hand. It felt even better than the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam, and it’s good to think I’m still making some progress on my reading. I’ll never be a professional performance storyteller, but that’s the sort of place I’d like to move towards.
Cuts Like A is here, if you’d like to read it.
The other open mic acts were very good. I’ve always found Verbalise to be consistently strong. Harriet, Joy and BigCharlie were brilliant as ever, and I enjoyed the work of those writers I haven’t yet met. After the second interval, George Wallace took the stage by storm. The next half hour was like being inside a Tom Waits album. I especially loved his first poem, I Want To Go Where The Garbage Men Go, a beat epic about pre-dawn New York. You can (and should) read it here.
Finally, the reviews are still coming in for The Visitors. Everyone so far has been really kind. It’s humbling to think that people are enjoying the book. I’m keeping a round-up of press articles on The Visitors page, and there are more reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.
If you’ve read the book, please do leave a review. After spending so long inside my own head while writing the novel, it’s simultaneously petrifying, compelling and rewarding to discover what people think of Flora, Ailsa, Izzy and the island of Bancree.
I’m going to sign off with Joy France and her mesmerising poem Home Truths. This is important:
The Visitors was officially published on Thursday, and I was away all day on a college trip – for the second year in a row, four of my students had made it to the semi-finals of the World Skills competition. We’d driven down to Hinckley on Wednesday, stayed up till 1am practicing their pitch, then risen at 6am to practice and get to the venue. They had a 5-minute presentation to deliver, and we stayed all day, waiting for feedback. Throughout that time, I was quietly flooded with emails, texts and messages – so many that I felt helpless – I could barely respond. Friends sent me photos of the delivered book – out of my hands, now, and into theirs – and all the while I sat with my students, and talked with other tutors, and wandered round Hinckley College. It felt incredibly weird to be so far removed from the book on its publication day. The students succeeded with their presentation, and won a place at the finals in November. We left at 4pm. It was supposed to be a three-hour drive back to Kendal, but took more than five. The motorway was a purgatory of second gear. It flattened me. I sat in traffic jams and wished I could walk along the central reservation, alone in a sea of stationary cars, the hubcaps and ring pulls and single shoes scattered all around.
Back in Cumbria at last, I dropped off the college car and walked an hour through the gloom to get home to my amazing wife. By the time I turned the computer back on, I’d had scores of congratulations from friends and family. I felt humbled and very lucky. Then, in a mark of the rollercoaster this trip has become, I received an email saying I hadn’t been awarded a Northern Writers’ Award. That’s disappointing, though I’m still very glad I applied.
Thursday was a topsyturvy day, but then I woke on Friday to the news that my short story What I’ll Do To Be In Love With You had been accepted by the National Flash Fiction Day anthology – and then, a few hours later, the amazing Tania Hershman alerted me to the presence of my story Art Is Long, Life Is Short on the BBC Opening Lines longlist. I’d long-since written that off as a rejection. Talk about frazzled. On Friday night, Mon and I drank a bottle of posh fizz and sat and talked it over. That felt good.
I don’t entirely know what to say about The Visitors being published. I’m proud of what I’ve made, and I’m delighted to share it with other people, but my good friend Ali Shaw warned me that it might feel something of an anticlimax, and he was right. I don’t feel any different in myself. I’m still planning lessons, ploughing through my mountain of marking, and stressing about whether my four-month hay meadow time lapse is going to work out. Publication hasn’t changed any of that. But it is an affirmation of all I want to do – to coax the stories in my head out into the light. It has also reminded me how blessed I am in my friends – I feel almost ashamed to have had such support from such incredible people. These few days have made my heart beat bigger, and I’m thankful.
All this has whetted my hunger to push on with the next novel. In that respect, I guess The Visitors is the culmination of the first stage of a long road. More than anything else, I know, with every cord of my being, that this is the right path for me. Writing is a journey, but publication is not a destination. I don’t want it to ever end. I want to walk till my heart gives out.
On a good writing day, I write 2,000 words. When I’m working well, that’s fairly consistent. Whether it’s 1,800 or 2,500, I always seem to end up in the ballpark of 2,000. In terms of quantity alone, a month of 2,000 word days is a 60,000 word manuscript (which is the philosophy of NaNoWriMo, of course).
Obviously there’s an awful lot more to it than that – 2,000 a day doesn’t include all the back-peddling, redrafting, tea, editing, notes, research, cursing, blogging (!), procrastination and rewriting – and it doesn’t include the bad days, when it’s a struggle to carve out 400 words. I have plenty of bad days as well, especially at the start of a new project, when I’m still feeling out my way, finding the right path. For context, I don’t believe that the key to good writing is simply writing and writing and writing until something mystic clicks and the good stuff comes pouring out – check out J. Robert Lennon’s ‘ass-in-the-chair canard’.
When I started writing The Visitors, it was completely plotted out. There were about thirty chapters, and each chapter had a paragraph, or maybe just a line, detailing what would happen. That plan became redundant within weeks, if not days. By the time I was even a quarter of the way through, my chief antagonist had switched to someone completely new, and the plot expanded hugely – the final draft has around sixty chapters. But the biggest changes lay in how the characters escaped me. As I wrote them – as I spent more time with them, and came to know them better – I realised they were evolving. They were doing things I hadn’t expected, but those things became inevitable and essential as their personalities developed. Their autonomy dictated their story. Once that happened, and they were set upon a path of their own making, the manuscript generated a momentum that I could not control. In the final two or three months, I’d regularly write 4,000 or 5,000 words in a session. On the last day of writing, I wrote 11,000 words in 14 hours. That surge, that flow, was intoxicating. I drowned in my characters, drowned in the island I’d created. The story became a gyre, and I was tumbled in the centre.
I’m now about 16,000 words into The Hollows. On each of my last four writing sessions, I’ve cut around 1,000 words, and written around new 1,000 words. The overall count isn’t changing much, but I think I’m making progress. I’ve learned a number of things along the way, about writing, and about myself. Because I had to go through such an excruciating redraft with The Visitors, I originally tried to plot out The Hollows as tightly as I could. Each chapter had multiple paragraphs and notes, with detailed ideas about the how the story would unfold. It was comprehensive. I was decided: this time round, the novel was going to write itself.
I should have known better. I raced off to a strong start, writing the first 10,000 words in three days. Then I applied to the Northern Writers’ Awards for funding towards a research trip. As part of the application, I had to include a synopsis of The Hollows. Seeing the plot condensed into a single page, I realised at once that the story was too tight. It had no room to breathe – I’d strangled it with structure. It was far too dense. I ditched all my planning and rewrote the synopsis for the purest story I wanted to tell – about a man who loses his memories, and the woman who goes to find them – and sent it off. I haven’t heard back yet, but regardless of how my application turns out, the process of writing a new synopsis was revelatory, and for that alone I’m grateful.
I want to start The Hollows right. Unravelling some of my first draft has been heavy going, but it’s important to me to know I’m on a better path. I’m getting there. I’m starting to meet my characters. I’d forgotten that I didn’t always know Flora, and Izzy, and Ailsa, and John – it took time to find out who they were. I’d forgotten, in the dizzying exhilaration of finishing The Visitors, that it wasn’t always so easy to write. The flow comes only after all the hard graft has been done.
On Friday, I finished my novella The Year of the Whale. That’s been five years in the making, including sessions when I’d struggle to chip away at 200 rotten words. But on Thursday, the day before my deadline, I soared through 5,000 words with joy in my heart. That was the flow, and I’d forgotten how it felt. I’d forgotten that I could feel so engrossed in my stories – that I could drown. That’s where I want to get to with The Hollows. That’s how I want to finish, whether it’s in six months or one year or two years’ time. But I know, now, that all the graft comes first.
My friend Ali Shaw believes you can’t know if a novel will go all the way until you hit 20,000 words. Author Matt Haig feels the same, but his mark is 40,000. Word counts only matter for the person counting. Like climbing grades, they measure nothing but an individual’s own sense of progress. They are a poor measure, perhaps, but they are all I have to mark my way: yan, tan, tethera.
The Hollows has been stuck on 16,000 words for weeks, despite long, hard days of work. I haven’t enjoyed that. I crave that sense of flow, when everything makes perfect sense. When I had that moment in The Visitors, I described it as a ‘glittering open highway’. I suspect I’m still a long way off reaching that highway in The Hollows, but it has truly settled me, on completing The Year of the Whale, to remember that the flow comes from the writing – not from the writer. From the story, and not the storyteller. For all the times I beat myself up about not working hard enough, not writing fast enough, not doing more – finishing that novella has been a gift. It has helped me remember why I write. I write to drown. To drown, I need the gyre. To make the gyre, first I have to fill an ocean.
The Visitors is a little bit about selkies. Selkies are seals, and they are also people. They have a fur coat that allows them to take the form of a seal. When they step out of the coat, they become human. Selkies can be men or women, but they are always extraordinarily beautiful.
There are a multitude of selkie stories, but the most common starts with a selkie woman removing her coat and dancing on the shore. A young man – usually a fisherman or crofter – spies her dancing, and steals the coat. With her fur held hostage, the selkie has no choice but to marry the man. They live together for a while, but then the selkie finds her skin and escapes back into the sea. The man is left to nurse a broken heart. Often, the couple have children. In some stories, it is a child that finds the coat, and returns it to the mother. Sometimes the selkie takes her children back into the ocean, and sometimes they are left behind. In that version of the story, the mother and children meet in the surf to play.
In the other typical selkie story, an island woman cries seven tears into the sea to attract a selkie mate. Selkie men give children to barren women.
I love the idea of selkies, but I struggle with some aspects of these traditional stories. They crush female independence. In the first, the selkie is kidnapped and loses years of her life to captivity. The man takes what he wants, and is punished only by the accident of her escape. In the second story, the male selkie is a god, and the woman summons him on bended knee. Either human men dominate supernatural women, or supernatural men dominate human women. Both men and women mean more to me than that. When I started writing The Visitors, I wanted something different from selkie stories. I wanted equality. That’s been my guiding light for the novel, from start to finish. John and Izzy share traditional tales, but Ailsa and Flora question the validity of that tradition, and take a closer look at what it means to be a selkie.
Selkies are special. I watched the seals hunting in the bay at Grogport, and saw them bask and splash in Portnahaven harbour. There is life and knowledge in their eyes. When you look at them, they look back. On Kintyre, we walked the coast around Skipness on a grey, steely day, and we were followed by a seal. For half a mile or more, as we skirted the coast, the seal stayed twenty or thirty yards away from us. It seemed to move without locomotion, so that dark snub head simply kept pace with us, looking towards the shore. We sat on old stones to eat our lunch, and the seal bobbed and ducked at one end of the headland. It didn’t move away until we struck back inland, and then it vanished in a wink. I looked back to seek it out, but the seal had gone.
I asked my friends about seals and selkies, and they swamped me with stories. Chris gave his first pocket money to Save The Seals. Tom talked to the seals in a sealife centre, and the seals talked back. Dan’s friend confused swallows for seals in a dream, so he drew her a picture of a swallow with a seal’s head. Kirstin’s father whistled to the seals in Shetland, and they popped to the surface to see what all the fuss was about. Jon was kissed by a sealion. Sakina can’t shake the tale of the seal maiden. Ross works in Copenhagen, and daydreams that commuters with sealskin coats are modern-day selkies. Amy holidayed on Mull when she was seven, and spent the summer playing with a selkie called Della.
Why do we give seals such humanity? They are manifestly foreign to us, but the connection is overwhelming.
When I was 25 or 26, I spent a year working and backpacking in Australia. I remember snorkelling on Ningaloo Reef, diving as far down as I could go. I looked up exactly as the sun dropped behind a cloud. The water turned suddenly cold and pressed against me, and I felt very afraid, scared of the deep and the dark and the cold and the blue. When I think of selkies, they are underwater, floating with perfect neutral buoyancy, and shafts of sunlight sway woozy on the surface above. The darkness drops away behind them, and the selkie exists in two places: as a seal, utterly unafraid, and as a human, drawn against the current, compelled to the surface. Selkies live in thresholds. The selkie woman, when she escapes, returns to embrace her children in the surf. The shoreline, changing always with the tide, is where seals and people meet as selkies. It is a nowhere place, and yet it is all they have.
The crofter is left heartbroken on the shore, and his selkie wife returns by stealth to see her children.
This selkie is allowed only one night of the year to be human.
Two lovers share a single skin, so that they can never be together in the same form; always one as a seal, and one as a human.
Selkies are born from the souls of drowned sailors.
Selkies are cousins to the muc-sheilche, the kelpie, the nokken, the finfolk. Those creatures are killers and enemies to men. So what makes the seal a victim? A romance? A tragedy?
When we visited Islay, we drove out to Portnhaven. We clambered across the rocks to the weedy edge of the harbour, and we watched the seals. Half a stone’s throw across the water, they gathered to sunbathe by the dozen. They winked as though the Atlantic was a hot tub. They flickered in the water, phantoms bound in straps of kelp. They came so close that I found myself laughing aloud – laughing in wonder, joy and disbelief.
When I started writing The Visitors, I wanted to explore that connection with the seals, that projection of knowledge, and emotion, and empathy. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I’ve fallen more in love with seals and selkies.
My wife found this picture of a seal. It was taken in California, rather than Coll, but it’s the way I see a selkie. Curious and cautious, incredibly close, and impossibly distant.
The idea for The Visitors fell into my head almost fully formed while on holiday in Grogport, a tiny hamlet on the east coast of the Kintyre peninsula. It’s connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, and it feels like an island. The beaches are sandy and studded with pebbles. Hills rise steeply from the shore and narrow roads wind around the coast, ducking inland to skirt the inlets. To the east, Arran lurks like a beached whale, and Gigha is smudge in the haze on the horizon to the west. Abandoned crofts explode with rowans, and in places the ferns fall into the road, wet and green.
My daughter was three months old, and the long drive from Cumbria had unsettled her. She started waking early – around five in the morning – and wouldn’t go back to sleep. My wife and I made coffee and watched the sun rise over Arran, casting blue light on the millpond Kilbrannan Sound. From the kitchen window, we saw herons stalk the surf, lashing down on crabs or minnows. Seals hunted in the bay every evening, and an otter dismembered fish on the shoreline. The garden thronged with little birds, and at one point I saw a kestrel sitting on the washing line, no more than five yards from the house. When we walked around the island, there were butterflies in the gorse, spiders on the sand, bees in the grass, gulls wheeling on the updrafts. I was shaken, at times, by how much life was around me, living as it always had, as though the land itself was alive and conscious. In so many places, it looked as though people, civilisation, had simply given up and moved elsewhere. It felt as though the land was waking after centuries of slumber, and just beginning to stretch.
On the third or fourth morning, watching a seal swim like quicksilver in the bay, the spark of a story flared brightly inside me. It caught fast, and began to smoulder. That story became The Visitors. Selkies, living in Grogport. A murder mystery. A young girl, desperate to leave an island. And it would be an island, I decided; the Kintyre peninsula was beautiful, but didn’t do everything I wanted for the story. I started drafting a sense of what the island looked like. I called it Bancree. As I began to write the story, the island evolved too, morphing into something real enough to touch.
Bancree is a scrapbook of my Scotland. I grew up in Inverness, where I could see Ben Wyvis from my bedroom window. We walked our dogs on the shingle beach at Ardersier and through the sodden plantations of Culloden. I’ve been canoeing and camping on Loch Maree in torrential rain, and climbed the boulder fields of Torridon and Glen Nevis. I’ve been to the top of Schiehallion, and walked on the clifftops of Dumfries, and fallen out of bars on Tobermory, and seen friends crash cars by the shore of Loch Ness. I’ve taken the train from Edinburgh to Inverness so many times that the journey is engrained in my memory. From the top of Glen Affric, with June snowmelt still feeding the burns, I’ve seen both coasts glitter in the sun. Scotland has a hundred landscapes that sing to me, and I collected something from each of them to build Bancree.
The island is my love letter to Islay, Jura, Gigha, Mull, Iona, Ullapool, the Highlands, the Black Isle, Moray and the Great Glen – to the landscapes I grew up in, the landscapes I love. I’ve never tried to sketch Bancree or make a map. I know what it looks like, and where to find Grogport, and Tighna, and Izzy’s hut, and the windfarm on the Ben. But more importantly, I can drive the road around Bancree simply by closing my eyes. I can feel the scrunch of shingle underfoot, and the batter and bluster of the Atlantic coast. There is dew sagging on spiderwebs, spun between the thorns of gorse, and rafts of flotsam hefted on the beaches. Dead, empty crabs still scuttle on the breeze. The twiggy scratch of heather, the rivulets of water in the bracken. Titanic clouds, dark and warm and scudding low enough to touch. The fluttering machair, alive with bees. Fog that swallows the tops of trees and telegraph poles. The water in the bog pools, dark with peat, staining all the world around, pouring brown from every tap. Sands that hiss and sing as the wind rolls across the beach in waves.
Bancree is as real as a dream to me. It is vivid and bursting with life. I can feel the rub of sand between my fingers, but there is no map to go there.
I’m a bit behind on my blogging, so here’s a quick round-up while I have the time to do some rounding.
I’ve barely written a word for two months. A combination of college, gardening and film jobs has demanded every scrap of time, and my writing has taken a unfortunate but unavoidable back seat. That makes me ache. I’m not right when I’m not writing. I’ve only recently become aware of how writing relaxes me; and that not writing is one of the things that stresses me out. I’ve also noticed that ideas are more of a struggle when I’m not writing with any regularity. When I’m working often, I’m flooded with plots and characters and lines of dialogue. Not having that internal chatter makes me anxious, and I haven’t been feeling quite myself; this has been exacerbated by pushing myself to come up with new work for the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam, which is only a fortnight away. I think I have the three pieces now, but they’ve been hard work, and I’m not yet convinced they are the right stories.
I travelled to London last week to meet my agent Sue, editor Jane and publicist Margot. The amazing Quercus building feels like something from a James Bond film; everything is glass and aluminium, with automated barriers and security cards. It’s a far cry from my little house, where starlings and sparrows have started nesting in the slate walls. We popped down from the Quercus office to a quiet bar called Hardy’s, and we drank wine and talked about publicity for The Visitors. There’s an idea to offer short stories or flashes as bonus material with the book – and I might make a couple of short films about how it came to life, too. We also talked about some of my future ideas, including current work-in-progress The Hollows. It was a great meeting, and I left it feeling really enthused. With all the chaos of my day jobs, it’s easy to lose sight of the novel. It’s everything I’ve dreamed of for five years, and it’s actually happening. Sometimes I forget.
What else? I’ve written a post for Thievery, Kirsty Logan’s fascinating series of story inspirations. I decided to confess about a novel I started in 2009, but abandoned at 50,000 words (though I recovered the central strand for my novella Year Of The Whale – I really, really need to finish that). My Thievery post will be up in May – I’ll post links when it’s live.
Although I’ve not been writing as much as I’d like, I have been thinking a lot. The Hollows is never far from me, and though I haven’t even opened the document for three weeks, in my head, I’m streamlining it all the time. I’ve learned so much from writing and especially redrafting The Visitors, and I’m determined to make The Hollows a better first draft. In the background to my day jobs, characters have been changing everything from hair colour to their reasons to be alive. The plot is essentially unchanged, but how the characters arrive there is evolving all the time. I found this with The Visitors, too; even as I developed the threads of the manuscript, I returned constantly to the early chapters, forming and reforming them. This is like the twist of a rope; the threads need to be right at the start, or the rope tangles and disintegrates. I’m filming throughout this coming weekend, but next week I should be able to sit down and start making the changes.
Two nights ago, after a long and stressful day at work, I turned out the lights and tried to sleep. From nowhere, my head was thronged with ideas. I had to get up and write them down; first of all, three flash fiction ideas at once, about taxidermy, trains and cheating, and then, a few minutes later, the setting, start and main character of another novel – which looks like being number five in my current queue of books to write, after The Hollows, We Are Always Reaching Out For Heaven, Vanishings and Black Horse. I’m already really excited about it. Which is just as well, really; if I wasn’t excited about the story, I couldn’t expect anyone else to be. You need to be excited about a story to spend so long with it – both the hundreds of hours staring at a computer screen, writing and writing and thinking that I should get up and make a tea, just another minute, one more minute until I make a cup of tea, as soon as I finish the sentence, the paragraph, the chapter – and the time in the world of the book, observing and conversing with the characters, exploring the map of their world, listening to the crunch of dry grass beneath their feet – and back to the computer to sculpt it all together, working until you realise it’s cold and you forgot to find that other jumper two hours ago, and is there any wine left?
The other piece of big news is that in May, Iain Maloney and I will be co-headliners for legendary Manchester spoken word night Bad Language. I’ve known Iain since 1998. We’ve been bouncing work off each other for the last five or six years, and his excellent debut novel First Time Solo is out through Freight at the same time as The Visitors. Iain lives in Japan, but he’s in the UK for a whistle-stop book tour. I’m delighted to be sharing a stage with him for the first time.
Finally, another writer friend, the outrageously imaginative Ali Shaw, has sent me a draft of his next novel. I devoured the first chapter. It’s going to be really, really, really good. I’m currently taking a sabbatical from A Song Of Ice And Fire, and almost at the end of Third Reich by Roberto Bolano (which is also extremely good), and I can’t wait to read the rest of Ali’s book.
Here’s a picture of a scarecrow stick man: