Today, I have a bit of a treat for you. An interview with someone I’ve known for a while–Scottish author Margaret Skea.
Now the thing is, Margaret and I should have crossed paths when we were both students at the University of St. Andrews. But we didn’t. Mainly, I suspect, because Margaret was the very sensible kind of person who attended lectures and wrote her essays and did her work and was in all ways exemplary and charming, while I was…er…not.
That is to say, I was more an idler and a shirker and a feckless scapegrace…
[Margaret has since confessed that she wasn’t swotting all the time–she was on the putting green. The things one finds out…]
And whilst she might have run into me inadvertently in Mrs. Whibley’s or in Pepita’s (fine establishments known for their excellent fudge gateau…) I am more than a little certain that had she known me or known of me at all, it would undoubtedly be as the owner of the rather spiffing little classic dark red 1967 Triumph (with a cherrywood dash and red leather seats–utter yum!) in which I zoomed about town…and out of town…and down to Edinburgh for luncheon and a wander in the National Gallery…
(What in heaven’s name ever possessed me to sell that car? What was I thinking? Honestly!)
But I digress. Back to my rather superb guest today. Because she is quite superb and she’s written a rather superb book in my humble estimation.
I read it sometime ago and I’ll be honest, after twenty years as a book critic, I don’t genuinely like
very much, but I liked
Margaret’s book, then known as Munro’s Choice. I enjoyed it. Her prose was stark and spare and raw which suited the subject matter, conveying the whole mood of the work. And very much I enjoyed the reality of the Scotland about which she wrote, which was the Scotland I knew and lived in, buffeted by the winds off the North Sea, fierce and beautiful and honest…with not a Disneyfied kilt-a-thon in sight.
Not only that, but I genuinely liked her protagonist, Munro. I can’t really say what it is about him, but he just got under my skin and stayed with me. And I truly appreciated the very real difficulties in which he was caught up and his efforts to do the right thing and remain true to himself and still protect his family…He’s just a really well-drawn character. And I loved that about this book. Just loved it.
Anyway, many permutations and rewrites later (ha ha–don’t we all know that story) Turn of the Tide,
as it was to be renamed, was Historical Fiction Winner in the Harper Collins /Alan Titchmarsh People’s Novelist Competition 2011. And now, it’s just out, courtesy of Capercaillie Publishers…
So without further ado, here’s Margaret answering a few of my impertinent questions.
First off, can you tell us a little about the novel?
“Turn of the Tide–described as a cinematic blend of fact and fiction set in 16th century Scotland–is essentially the story of a fictional family trapped in a real-life vendetta, which at the time the novel opens has been running for 140 years.
“It is about the difficulties and dilemmas of living with an ever-present danger, and the problems posed by divided loyalties and their impact on family, on relationships, and on personal integrity.
“Munro’s family have owed allegiance to the Cunninghames for more than 100 years and in 1586 he is commanded to lead the ambush and slaughter of a group of Montgomeries. Though he escapes the bloody aftermath, he cannot escape his wife’s disdain or his own internal conflict, struggling with his conscience, with divided loyalties and, most dangerous of all, a growing friendship with the opposing faction.
“The action moves between the domestic setting of a minor laird and the court of James VI, peopled by characters across the spectrum of society – from a snotty-nosed urchin to the King himself.
The period of Scottish history in the novel may not be one readers are familiar with. I mean, there are scads of books about Robert the Bruce, and heaps about the ’15 and ’45 Rebellions, but very little has been written about Scotland in the 16th century (with the exception of Dorothy Dunnett, of course), so can you tell us a bit about the political and social life of the times, give us a sense of what was going on in Scotland at the time?
“The late 16th
century is a fascinating period in Scotland’s history when every aspect of life–social, economic, political and religious, is on the cusp of change. In some ways life then wasn’t so very different from our own. Parliamentary records from the mid 16th
century deal with issues such as binge drinking on the streets of Edinburgh, a credit crunch and pressures on Scottish trade.
“But the years of James VI’s minority were characterized by lawlessness and the escalation of many of the centuries old feuds between clans and families. In the Lowlands ‘reiving’–raiding a neighbour’s property, driving off all their livestock and burning their homes–was a seasonal pastime.
“The distinction between England and Scotland is illustrated by the domestic architecture of the day. While wealthy Elizabethans are building elegant manor houses, with large, mullioned windows, surrounded by parkland, the socially equivalent Scots are still living in tower houses built in inaccessible places, and for protection rather than comfort, with gun loops, narrow windows, and secondary defensive iron grid doors.
“James set out to subdue the earls, to raise up a ‘professional’ aristocracy from among the lairds and to promote a more settled and stable society.”
And what about this period intrigues you and keeps drawing you in? Because let’s face it, writing a novel about a particular era requires that one is wholly engaged and almost mesmerised by it–it’s what keeps you going over the years of research and rewriting…
“This period of history intrigues me partly at least because it is my own story, as I am (or at least I think I am) a descendant of Scottish ‘planters’ who settled in Ulster in the early 17th century. And partly because growing up in Ulster during the worst of the ‘Troubles’ I understand a little of living with ever-present danger–not expecting violent death, but knowing it might happen at any time.”
I’ll be honest, when I first read Turn of the Tide, many drafts ago, one of my favourite things–and I still love this and it’s stayed with me–is how genuine and real your main character, Munro was. There is nothing false or cliché or stereotypical about him. He’s just this real guy–okay, yes, a little bit macho–caught up in this political mess. (I love that!) How did you come by him? Did he evolve for you? Was he always there, just nagging to be written about? What?
“In my first draft the historical character Hugh Montgomery was the main character and Munro was merely a two-bit messenger boy, making a ‘cameo’ appearance at the beginning of Chapter 3, charged by the Earl of Glencairn with setting up an ambush. 70,000 words into the draft, James Long (Ferney / The Plot against Pepys) suggested that he would make a fantastic main character. The following morning I ditched the 70,000 words and the two pages that remained became the opening of Turn of the Tide.
“It was hugely liberating to have a fictional rather than historic main character–one who could move between factions and provide a commentary on both.
“Of course it is a very different story from my original intention, but (I think) a better one.”
Outside of Scotland, there can be this generic view of Scottish history–my Scots son-in-law calls it MacScottish history–and they all talk with a MacScottish accent and there’s this image of castles and glens which is the Highlands or even the Western Isles…you know what I mean. But it’s hardly the whole picture. And you’re writing about the Lowlands too–so how was that different in the period of the novel? And did writing about a Scotland which people think they know, but don’t really know, did that present any unusual challenges?
“There are no kilts and claymores here, so not the stereotypical Scots. Their clothing and their weaponry, unlike the architecture, was closer to that of the north of England than to the Highlands, which made the process of research the more interesting. Most of the minor castles which feature in this story no longer exist, but it was important to visit similar tower houses and experience at first hand what it would have been like to live there, summer and winter including small details, as, for example, what it felt like to run up a narrow spiral staircase, and just how much ‘puff’ that required.
“Research is an insidious thing–endlessly fascinating–the difficulty is to stop researching and start writing. And sometimes you stumble across something that you know you just have to include in the story. In my case that was a 16th century sketch of a ‘walking-stool’–virtually identical to the baby-walker I had for my children–except that it was made of wood and linen, rather than metal and plastic.”
Without giving away any spoilers–what was your very favourite part of the novel? What did you write and say about–if only to yourself, “That’s fantastic! That’s good stuff.” Equally, what was the hardest part of the writing for you? The violence? The ‘trying to keep the clan loyalties straight’ for the reader?
“I can’t single out any one part of the novel either hardest or easiest to write, but I am proud of the sections dealing with horses and horse riding, for not being a rider myself, nor having had the courage to try, it was encouraging not to be shouted down for inaccuracies by those who do.
“And the most fulfilling moment? Perhaps the one where what I was writing made me cry.”
And finally, can you quote a passage for us, one that you just feel is your work at its best–maybe a bit of setting or character building–the whet our appetites?
“On the Alan Titchmarsh Show we were given the task of choosing a 30 second extract to provide a flavour of the novel. Here is mine – introducing in 77 words, both hero and villain.
William Cunninghame turned, dark eyes sparking. He made no offer of his hand to Munro, not any attempt at ordinary courtesy.
“What kept you? The job is done?”
There was only one suitable answer. “She will provide the signal.”
“As she should. And willingly, I hope.”
“She can be trusted?”
“Oh yes…” Munro thought of the last look with which Lady Margaret had dismissed him. “Your father is a dangerous man to cross. She understands that.”
The novel, Turn of the Tide, is now available from Amazon, from the Book Depository which offers free worldwide p&p, or check out the Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/TurnoftheTide.Novel
And many thanks to Margaret for joining me today. Slainte!