Even the clouds lift as I approach Ullapool, shining in whitewashed brightness against the silver-crested choppy waves of Loch Broom. The morning’s triple bill certainly looks promising: a showcase of Moniack Mhor’s prizewinners, ranging from travel writing to children’s and literary fiction, followed by the eponymous Val MacDermid and Graeme Macrae Burnet.
Arrivals shuffle into the meeting room of the Ullapool Village Hall gradually, with subtle waves and recognising nods. This is one of the distinctive things about this very special book festival – it attracts regulars who come for the full weekend every year. Because of its compact setting, people talk, get friendly: it’s where literary and bestselling greats mingle with enthusiasts and connoisseurs over coffee. It’s that kind of place.
The Moniack winners are an engaging, self-deprecating bunch, with Jamie Grant, this year’s prize winning travel-writer, reading first from his work Ultiplano. His view that modern travel writing increasingly occupies the ground somewhere between memoir and travelogue is in evidence. He describes his childhood memory of his geologist father returning from the Andes, before fast-forwarding to his own arrival in La Paz which felt like a “homecoming”, on account of his father’s tales. Beautiful descriptions abound: he references the clarity of the constellations: “We felt like we were abandoning the earth altogether.”
Next up is the winner of the Writing for Children bursary, Lucy Prior, who not only reads the text of her work-in-progress Shadwick, but also passes original illustrations through the rows. The tale centres on a shaggy pony named Shadwick who needs to find his place in the world (not a race track, it turns out, and not a riding school or city farm, but a loving home on a croft), and gives an interesting insight into the way illustrations and story work together to create an engaging read for younger readers.
Far from the comforting and reassuring happy-end of the children’s book in the making, Emerging Writer Award winner Heather Perry describes the uncomfortable challenge of her main character Becket in Paper Faces, as he loses his grip on reality in an ultra-masculine world. His struggle to retain focus is vividly captured: “I swam through the apartment” and “the pregnant city, the life underneath” captures the tone of the novel – threat, tension and unease. A varied showcase that delivers much more than its half-hour timeslot suggests, a flavour of the future. Many of the audience are here to be able to say, swigging their glass smugly a year or two from now: “I saw them at Ullapool before they were famous, of course.” An excellent start to the day.
By the time the second, and penultimate, event of the day begins, a long, civilised queue snakes out of the Village Hall and onto the sun-dappled road in front; Val MccDermid is in the house to promote her latest novel, Out of Bounds. Chaired sensitively and energetically by Peggy Hughes, McDermid visibly cringes at the label “Queen of Crime”, quipping that she prefers being known as the “gobby chief shop steward of crime” instead. Out of Bounds is her 30th book, and “the great terror is that one day there won’t be a book ready to roll in my head” – but so far she has not struggled to find inspiration. In fact , McDermid derides the idea of waiting for the muse, citing her past in journalism as the reason for her job-like approach to writing. “In January I sit down and write a book,” she says, which physically takes around four months. It’s a good time to do it, she insists, “it’s bloody miserable outside anyway.”
After explaining a little about the forensic science the book is rooted in, she delves into the writing process in more depth. She is not a planner anymore and does not plot everything out in detail. Her obsessions are the characters and the world and circumstances they inhabit. She describes the process as “night-driving – you’ve looked up the basic route and know where you want to end up, but as you speed along, you can only see as far as your headlights stretch.” She tries not to write books back to back which feature the same characters. Entertainingly, she mimicks other writers’ claims that “the characters took on a life of their own,” adding her own, “did they bollocks!”, to uproarious laughter. “You write them, you control them. They can’t do anything you don’t let them do.”
Much of the remainder of the session focuses on research and authenticity. She researches the backdrop of her novels meticulously, but always for a purpose. “In research I focus on what helps me to lie to you.”
The ability to lie to us in such entertaining and compelling ways is what sets her apart, as well as what she describes as her perennial state of rage at injustice. May the gobby chief shop steward of crime fiction reign for many more years to come. An outstanding morning of thought-provoking entertainment.
Graeme Macrae Burnet is the current boy done good, and a distinctive one at that: his Tin-Tin haircut towers a head above others, he makes his way to the front, and speaks with a voice like velvet.
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and Saltire Award winning author of His Bloody Project, he is an engaging reader and utterly at ease with the performance element of Ullapool’s sold-out, crowded hall. Uncowed by chair Mark Wringe, Graeme Macrae Burnet ploughs his own furrow, not just walking, but dancing the line between banter-buddy, raconteur and interviewee. He does not let an incisive question get between him and a good anecdote – and the audience love him for it!
The book centres on a triple murder in a remote crofting community, comprising the fictional murderer’s account as well as (fictional) journalistic accounts of the trial and character references. The voice, Macrae Burnet admits, was hard to get right: a 17 year-old crofter, a bright native Gaelic speaker, who expresses himself with the eloquence of the Victorian age. Since the book features so many different voices, and filters them all through the lens of Victorian legal documents, it is an achievement in which Macrae Burnet takes some pride. The author acknowledges Kafkaesque influences as well as the heritage of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but has ultimately created his own brand of the unreliable narrator: “I take it as a compliment that so many people mistake it for true crime.”
Much of the event covers aspects of research and anecdotes which inspired the plot and the characters of the book. “I want the reader to feel ambivalent about my characters,” Macrae Burnet says. We are urged to make up our own minds, and free to root for someone as flawed as the young murderer, even though he may not present an utterly faithful account. “I’m interested in psychological complexity,” the author insists.
But the most memorable and entertaining moment of the event comes when Mark Wringe mentions the author’s most recent success: “You were lucky enough to be on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. What was that like?”
The author does not miss a beat. “I wasn’t lucky!” he counters without a hint of mock outrage. “It’s a GOOD book!” The audience whoop and applaud enthusiastically.
Driving away from Ullapool as the clouds settle over the road, snippets of the morning’s discourse linger as the light flickers on the loch.
Let the countdown to 2018’s Ullapool Book festival begin.