Author Interview with Shona MacLean
Shona MacLean was born in Inverness, the middle of five siblings, and grew up in the Scottish Highlands where her parents were hoteliers. She has an M.A. and Ph.D. in 17th century History from the University of Aberdeen. Shona lived on the Banffshire coast, but recently moved to the Highlands, where her husband is a secondary school head teacher. Her four children range in age from eight to twenty. She is the niece of the late novelist Alistair MacLean. Twelve agents and publishers rejected her first book, ‘The Redemption of Alexander Seaton’, before she finally found an agent who accepted it.
TSR: Shona, a very warm welcome to ‘The Secret Writer’, and can I thank-you sincerely, for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us today. Can I first start by asking, what sort of books did you like reading as a child?
Shona: I read a lot of Enid Blyton, especially the Secret Seven and the Famous Five series. I also loved adventure stories, like Moonfleet, Treasure Island, and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. As well as fiction, I loved history books – My Dad seemed to instinctively know what I would like and now and again would give me a children’s history book as a present, and I think that had a big influence on the path I took later in life.
TSR: Do you think the books that you read as a child influenced your writing in any way?
Shona: Yes, I do. I progressed from the Famous Five to Agatha Christie, and from there to more modern crime writers. I wouldn’t categorize myself strictly as a crime writer (although I am marketed that way), but I do think growing up with a love of mystery stories made me want to have mysteries at the heart of my own. Also, I think there’s something really appealing about old-fashioned adventure, and I think that probably influenced me a lot when writing 'A Game of Sorrows'.
TSR: Did you always want to become a writer?
Shona: Yes, from when I was quite young. I thought it must be the best kind of life to have. When I was a teenager, I believed I would become a writer, but I didn’t do anything about it – I didn’t start trying to write properly until my mid-twenties, and even then only very intermittently.
TSR: Some people may not have realised until today, that your late uncle was the popular author Alistair MacLean. Did your uncle encourage you to write in any particular ways?
Shona: Following on from the last answer, knowing him and knowing someone from my background had achieved what he did made me believe it was attainable I was very proud of him, and I had no feeling that a writing career ‘wasn’t for the likes of me’. More specifically, when he saw that I was doing well in English at school, he asked if I’d ever thought of writing and asked me to write a short story for him. I did, but to this day I’m grateful that I never showed it to him – it was awful. The one piece of advice I can remember getting from him was ‘If an editor tells you to change something, you change it. I never change anything, but I can do that because I’m me. You change it.’ I wish he was still here to see that I’d finally done it.
TSR: Why did you choose the period of 16th 17th Century history for you Ph.D?
Shona: The reasons are fairly prosaic. I loved the medieval period, and had really enjoyed studying medieval Scotland at undergraduate level. When it came to doing a PH.D., what I was really interested in was the education of the laity, as opposed to the clergy, in Scotland. I was told that the sources really weren’t there for the medieval period for what I wanted to do, but were abundant for the C16th and C17th. And so they were, and I’m so glad I was persuaded to move on, because it’s such an astonishing, vibrant period in Scottish history, where the voice of the man and sometimes the woman in the street really begins to be heard.
TSR: What made you decide to focus upon writing historical fiction?
Shona: Again, as with the ‘crime’ label, it wasn’t really a conscious decision. I had spent hundreds of hours in Aberdeen City Archive during my academic research, trawling through the amazing wealth of burgh records for the period. The characters – many of them those otherwise anonymous men and women in the street – became very real, very alive to me. I had to discipline myself to focus on the task in hand, not constantly wonder about the rest of the life story of those who would crop up momentarily or periodically in the records. When we moved to Banff, where remnants of the C17th burgh survive in street names, some street layouts, ruins and surviving buildings, the characters who had fascinated me for so long came back in to my mind and started to people the town in my head. I started writing a story about characters I felt I knew in a place I knew – the fact that they all belonged four hundred years in the past was incidental to me.
TSR: Have you any advice that you can give for new writers when they trying to achieve a work life balance while working, bringing up a family and writing?
Shona: Well, the first point is that writing is now my work. There was only a very small overlap at the beginning, when I was doing my last few pieces of academic work (under my married name of Vance) and starting to write my first novel. I was also expecting my fourth child and trying to organise the family’s 5th house move in 3 years (don’t ask). Once we were finally settled, I wrote when the older children were at school and the younger ones sleeping, or at night. Writing was what I loved, it was my release from all the domestic duties – there is no nanny, cleaner, gardener – writing was my treat to myself. My advice to anyone in a similar situation would be, don’t try to write when you’re supposed to be looking after the children – you’ll only feel guilty and frustrated that you’re not doing either thing properly. Wait till you can get some time to yourself – even if it’s only ten minutes sometimes, and write then. My first book took over four years to go from conception to being ready to be sent out to potential agents, but now with my older two at university and the younger ones both at school, I have much more time to write – and much shorter deadlines. Oh, and don’t worry too much about the housework – as long as everyone is fed, warm, and you can find clean clothes for school in the morning, the rest can be squeezed in here and there.
TSR: Do you have a set routine when you are working on a new novel?
Shona: I love that feeling. I buy myself a really nice notebook, take myself off in the car with a flask of coffee or hot chocolate, stop at the local bakers for a bun, and go down to look at the sea and day dream. Eventually, I sketch out a broad plot and cast of characters, and think about what sort of research I will need to do. There are usually several trips to the university library in Aberdeen for initial research and trawling through the periodicals for what else I think I’ll need. From there on plotting and research evolve together, and my initial chapter plan is usually increased by about eight chapters by the time I’ve got to the end of my first draft.
TSR: Where do you do your writing best?
Shona: In the study. It’s a lovely room at the front of the house which should really be the dining room, but we use it as a study and eat in the kitchen instead. I really like having a dedicated, closed-off, space to work in – all my books and notes are to hand, and I can open our vast maps or re-drafting plans on the floor without having to tidy them away for anyone. When I need to think or clear my head, I take myself and my notebook down to the seafront as above, or to a local café for coffee and a scone.
TSR: Do you have any hobbies or interests that you enjoy in order to give you a break from your academic studies and writing?
Shona: There isn’t really a lot of time for that. We have a Labrador who provides a good excuse for getting out and away from things. I love art galleries and exhibitions, and luckily there is a fairly vibrant art scene along the Moray coast. I visit lots of castles and museums for research purposes, but really, as I think my family has sussed out, it’s because that’s what I love to do, and those trips usually end with me indulging my coffee and scone ‘habit’!
TSR: How did you think of and develop the main character in your books - Alexander Seaton’?
Shona: Alexander originated in an entry in the Aberdeen Town Council records for the C17th. I was in the archive in the town house, researching a piece of academic work, and came across a reference to a poor scholar, a son of the minister of Cruden, who was seeking a bursary to support him at college. This struck a chord with me as we were living in Cruden Bay at the time. I didn’t have the time to follow up this young man – I don’t even remember what his real name was – but I never managed quite to shake him from my head. I wondered what had happened to him, how he had got on in life. I thought he might have had a wealthy aristocratic friend at university – and so Alexander Seaton and his great friend Archie Hay of Dalgettie began to come to life in my head. I tend to be drawn to brooding, slightly introverted and misunderstood, anti-social types as opposed to extroverts – see Mr Darcy, Gordon Brown etc. – and so I wrote Alexander’s character in that way.
TSR: Which characters in ‘The Redemption of Alexander Seaton’ do you like best?
Shona: I think my favourite is Dr Jaffray, with Baillie Buchan a close second. I wanted Alexander to have an older mentor, someone whose character would contrast with his own, and I thought a doctor would work well. Jaffray more or less arrived on the page fully formed – I still find when I introduce him to the story he just says whatever he feels like without me being aware of having thought of it first. I think he is probably an amalgam of my late father and his friends and customers from the public bar he ran in the hotel. Highland men of a certain age have a very dry, but warm way of talking to each other – a gentle, mocking sarcasm that hits the nail on the head without giving offence. I think all those years of sneaking in behind the counter for my coke and crisps every night and hearing the banter across the bar came to fruition in my writing.
TSR: ‘What was your inspiration for writing ‘A Game of Sorrows’?
Shona: My husband is from Northern Ireland, and ever since my first visit there, I was captivated by the landscape and its sense of history. From before I even had a publishing deal or an agent for the first book, I knew I wanted the second to be set there – that is why I decided in the first book that Alexander’s mother would come from Carrickfergus. It also suited me to have Alexander having roots in two different cultures – in some ways he’s a perpetual outsider. I began my research with Frank Delaney’s Legends of the Celts and moved on to look at the Native Irish poetry of the period. It soon became evident to me that any book set in early C17th Ulster would be very different from one set in the North east of Scotland in the same period, and so it is. It was a wonderful book to research, but I was surprised that in writing it, I felt as much in an alien land as Alexander was. It was like wandering off-piste, and I’m glad to have made it and be safely home.
TSR: What is your favourite book and why?
Shona: Oh dear, nothing startlingly original, I’m afraid: it has to be Pride and Prejudice. I first read it when I was fifteen – a very impressionable at which to discover Mr Darcy. It has such a wonderful cast of characters, so much wit, and what will always be for me the perfect love story at its heart. It utterly changed my reading habits and launched me on the rest of Jane Austen, the Bronte’s, Thomas Hardy – the C19th classics. My favourite series would have to be the Barsetshire Chronicles of Anthony Trollope – perfect comfort reading, and I bet no-one ever told him he had too many characters!
TSR: Are you currently reading a book at the moment, and if so what is it?
Shona: I’m on the last few pages of James Robertson’s latest, ‘And the Land Lay Still’. He is one of my favourite authors and I was really excited when I heard he had a new book coming out. I think he does Scottish dialect, in all its varied forms, better than anyone else I have ever come across. Reading this latest book has been quite a strange experience – it has a large cast of characters and follows them, and Scotland, from the early post-war years to Devolution, so it’s part-story, part- history lesson, and it’s odd to read a fictionalised history of a period much of which you can remember living through (the 70s, 80s and 90s in my case). I might treat myself to one of Craig Russell’s Hamburg-set ‘Fabel’ mysteries next – I love them.
TSR: Have you any other books in the making at the moment and when are they due to be published?
Shona: When first asked this question, sprawled out across my desk I had 5 2ft-long rolls of paper, one on top of the other, which were my re-drafting notes for the third book in the Alexander Seaton series. The book went to my publishers at the end of November past. I’d like to be able to tell you the title – my choice was ‘The History of Nicholas Black’, but my publishers weren’t keen and want something a bit more eye-catching. Once I am properly established, I will dig my heels in over these things, but for the moment it’s a case of ‘he who pays the piper’! It is due for publication in August (2011), and they are already working on the cover. The book safely delivered to the publisher, is now to be called ‘Crucible of Secrets’, and centres on the murder of a Marischal College librarian. A fourth book which I am now working on is due in to my publisher Quercus, in February, 2012.
Here is a short taster for you of my new book ‘Crucible of Secrets’:
It is Midsummer, 1631. While Alexander Seaton and his fellow masters enjoy the holiday with their students, Robert Sim, librarian of Marischal College, is murdered in a dark alleyway in town. While the university and town authorities investigate the murder, Seaton is asked by the college principal to look into Sim's private life. In the course of an investigation in which his personal feelings threaten to cloud his judgement and endanger his young marriage to Sarah, he discovers a side to the librarian he could never have guessed at. It is only when a second, apparently unrelated murder comes to light that Seaton begins to piece together the connections between a young weaver, a consignment of books, and events in a college in the Low Countries in order to unmask the perpetrator of the years'-old deception that led to the two deaths.
TSR: Your published books have become very popular by themselves and with very limited marketing from yourself as the author, which I highly respect you for. Why have you chosen to take this path in relation to your published work?
Shona: I do whatever marketing, within reason, that my publishers ask me to do – festivals, publicity dinners etc. I feel they’ve taken a gamble in publishing me, and I need to do my bit to repay their good faith. I don’t have a website or blog because I am quite a private person and I think my writing is what anyone interested in me will be interested in. I am gradually building up a network of bookshops that have asked me to do launches, talks etc, and I really enjoy being able to repay the support they give me – can I make a plug for the fantastic independents Atkinson Pryce in Biggar and Yeadons in Elgin and Banchory? They are run by people who know and love books and understand what makes the book-buying experience special. I also like talking to local book groups and societies, where I can really engage with the audience and meet people who like the same kinds of things I do. At the end of the day though, it’s the writing that matters, and that is what should make an author’s name.
TSR: Do you see yourself writing in another genre in future?
Shona: Yes, I have a couple of ideas, one of which is really, really, gnawing at me, for contemporary novels from the female perspective, no crime and just a little bit of history, involved.
TSR: Shona, I am not ashamed to say that as one of my favourite author’s, I have been absolutely delighted and very honoured that you agreed to be interviewed by myself for my literary site. I would also like to thank-you once again for taking the time to speak to us today.
Shona: Thank-you too, for inviting me here today!
International Book Giveaway!
I have two copies of Shona MacLean’s first novel ‘The Redemption of Alexander Seaton’ to give away in an International draw with this post!! All you have to do to enter this draw to gain a chance to win a copy of this terrific book is:
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Please also remember to leave details of your e-mail address with each of your comments (both new followers and old!), so I can then contact the winner following the draw. Entry for this draw will close at 11.00pm (GMT) on Saturday 12th February 2011. The winner will then be announced as soon as possible after this date. If the winner cannot be contacted 48 hours after the draw has taken place, a new winner will then be chosen.
Good luck everyone!