It is a booky kind of time: Book Week Scotland is underway, and the Saltire Society’s Literary Awards ceremony will take place on St. Andrew’s Day, on 30th November. We speak to two debut novelists who are shortlisted for the prestigious First Book of the Year Award.
Sandra: I was absolutely thrilled! People have been talking about who will ‘win’, but for me the shortlisting is the thing. I’m just hoping they’ll put a little sticker on my book! I’m a bit nervous about attending the event, because I’ve never been to a prestigious awards ceremony before, but I’m not expecting to win, so that takes the pressure off!
Ross: Thank you! I was a bit speechless, I think Anne from Cranachan can attest to that. It’s hugely flattering to be shortlisted for such a prestigious award. You just need to look at previous winners and realise what good company you’re in. Saying that, you just need to look at the other nominees.
Could you summarise your book in a sentence? And who would it appeal to?
Sandra: Beneath the Skin is psychological thriller about trauma, and the lasting effects of trauma. All of us have ‘baggage’ in our lives, so the book would appeal to anyone who has entered a new situation, or a new relationship, and found themselves haunted by the past. It’s quite a creepy tale, but readers have enjoyed the humour and warmth in it, so I’d describe it as a fast-faced, gripping read for anyone who enjoys a page-turner.
Ross: I’d like to think anyone who enjoys Scottish fiction would enjoy Mary’s the Name, but in particular anyone with fond memories of spending time with grandparents as a child, and fans of Skye.
What inspired you to write that particular book, Ross? Our readers at the Wee Review are a curious lot!
Ross: First I had the character of Mary, then I thought a relationship with her grandpa would make for a unique story. A visit to Skye gave me the setting and the rest of the story fell into place from there!
And how about you, Sandra? How did your book come about?
Sandra: My book is essentially about the dynamic between three individuals who come together at a certain point in time. Alys, the taxidermist, was the first character to come to life. Before embarking on the novel, I watched a documentary about the art of taxidermy. I was fascinated, and also slightly repulsed by it, and examining those feelings gave me the essence of the story. Why do we feel compelled to preserve dead animals in this artificial way, and what effect could that have on, say, someone who’s come up close and personal with the dead and dying? That’s when the character of Walt, an ex-frontline soldier, was born. Walt is suffering from PTSD, so taking a job in a taxidermist’s studio is not a good move for him. The lifeless animals and the darkness of his workplace soon begin to trigger horrible flashbacks. As the plot unfolds, he and the characters around him have to try and face up to the past in order to move on.
Both of you are published by Scottish publishing houses. Has this been an advantage in any way? Or a hindrance?
Sandra: I was clear from the outset that I wanted to be traditionally published, and that doesn’t happen overnight! I’ve had my share of rejections, of course, but I feel that that’s part and parcel of this journey. The very act of submitting your work to agents, editors and competitions forces you to ‘up your game’ and that can only improve the quality of your writing. I’m published by Polygon, which is the international imprint of Birlinn. Birlinn identifies itself as a ‘Scottish’ publisher for Scottish authors, but with Polygon I feel that I have the best of both worlds, in that I have the potential to access other markets too. I like having an established ‘brand’ behind me, and a lot of work goes on behind the scenes in terms of marketing and promotion, which I couldn’t necessarily do on my own. I also have access to the best editors, proofreaders and creatives. The covers of Beneath the Skin, and Bone Deep, which is out in April, are amazing! The wheels of publishing turn slowly, which is a constant complaint among writers, but Birlinn has around 150 projects on the go at any one time, so patience is often called for. I see my association with my publisher as a long-term one, which will develop over time. I’m still on the very first rung of the ladder, but hopefully the Saltire Award shortlisting will allow me to take another step!
Ross: Personally, I think it’s been an advantage, as Cranachan are so passionate about Scottish fiction. They encouraged me at every corner to make the book as Scottish as possible, and I think it’s been to the book’s advantage.
These are your first books – chances are you have done your first few months of events/festivals etc. Was there any one experience which was particularly special?
Ross: I think being part of the Aye Write! Festival, seeing my name on a signing table after my event. Absolutely surreal!
Sandra: Just before my book was published I was fortunate enough to be accepted for a ‘Crime in the Spotlight’ slot at Bloody Scotland. This involved reading a three minute excerpt on stage before one of the events. My spot was with Lin Anderson, Louise Welsh, and Doug Johnstone. I was actually mingling in the green room with them! That was nerve-racking but a great thrill too, and there were around 200 people in the audience, I believe.
Introvert or extrovert? Do you love or loathe doing events? What type of events have you done so far?
Sandra: I love doing events, and as the time goes on I feel more at ease in front of an audience. I’m actually a shy, quiet person, so this has been quite a revelation! People have been so kind about the book, which has given my condfidence a huge boost. I really enjoy visiting new places and meeting new people. This year I’ve been to the Linlithgow Further From Festival, and Ness Book Fest – lovely places, delightful people. Blackwells Writers at the Fringe was another highlight, and I was also asked to visit a book group in Edinburgh. That was a bit surreal, being in a room surrounded by people with an in-depth knowledge of your book! It’s been a fantastic year full of new experiences.
Ross: I used to think of myself as an introvert, but to be honest, I don’t think those terms really do anyone justice. I can be as confident as you like reading my book in front of loads of people, but be nervous speaking with people after I’m done. I definitely enjoy the festivals, although I do get butterflies beforehand (which I think is a good thing). I’ve been doing events usually as a duo, with another writer whose work has something in common with mine, eg a debut, Scottish fiction.
Who or what has been your biggest writing encouragement?
Ross: I don’t know if I could point to just one person, as all my friends and family have been so encouraging, and are always asking about what I’m working on next. The readers of Mary’s the Name have been great too, their feedback helps me when I’m not feeling at my most confident!
Sandra: My mother, who is sadly no longer with us, encouraged me to apply for a job at my local newspaper. That started me on my writing road. I enjoyed it, but I longed to write fiction. When my mum died ten years ago, I turned to writing as a way of coping with grief. I returned to study as a mature student, because the University of Dundee offered creative writing as part of the English degree. After graduating, I won a Cameron-Carnegie Scholarship to embark on an Mlitt in Writing Practice and Study. My tutors and fellow students have been a constant source of encouragement, and indeed still are.
And finally, the million-dollar question: What is the next thing you are working on?
Sandra: My next novel Bone Deep is another psychological thriller set in a creepy old watermill. It’s actually a story within a story, a very modern take on an old Scottish folktale. It contains themes of sibling rivalry, love, lust, and betrayal – something for everyone! Bone Deep will be published by Polygon on April 5th, 2018.
Ross: I’m currently redrafting my second novel. It’s about two high school boys, whose favourite teacher leaves the school under suspicious circumstances. When they start their bumbling investigation to find out why, they discover a deep, dark secret about some of the faculty…
Both sound like really interesting projects. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Sandra and Ross! The Wee Review team wish you both all the best for Thursday, and congratulations on your shortlisting again!