1. How did you get started writing? A teacher in primary school told us we could choose what we really wanted to do one afternoon and I decided to be a writer and write some poems. He was a genuine hippy with long hair and striped bell-bottom trousers. I hope that sort of encouragement is still around in education. Many years later, I published my first novel.
2. What drew you to write a mystery novel? Secrets of the Sea House is about how ancient legends or stories can contain oral history otherwise lost to us and so I wanted the book to be in the form of a traditional story containing some surprising truths. I studied story form as part of my MA in creative writing, the psychological templates within myths and fairy tales. Story can entertain and keep us turning pages, but it also does a lot of work in showing us who we are and what we can be. Crime novels are certainly page turners, but they allow people to ask questions about good, evil and the way in which a society functions for good or bad. Jar City for example, set in frozen Iceland, is a thriller but has almost Biblical themes and it poses a lot of questions about the human condition. In the novel I also looked at how story is often part of the healing process in trauma recovery, reading Boris Cyrulnik’s book, Talking of Love on the Edge of a Precipice.
3. Which writers past or present have influenced your style of writing? So many. I love Ian Rankin, Peter May and other crime writers. I also love books where the focus is on the poetic evocation of time and place. Some books can do that so strongly that you feel as though you have been transported bodily to somewhere else, as in Tan Twan Eng’s Garden of Evening Mists.
4. What was the inspiration behind the Secrets of the Sea House? I came across the work of Gaelic historian John MacAulay and his book about what really lay behind the sea people legends historically – namely a lost tribe of Norwegian hunter gatherers in seal skin kayaks. I was blown away when I found that a letter had been published in the Times about an actual mermaid sighting in Scotland in 1809.
5. When you first started writing did you find it hard to get publisher interested?
Following a group reading for the MA where we invited all the agents in London I think – and a handful came – I was lucky to have the interest of an agent, Jenny Hewson at RCW. She waited until the book was completed then matched me with a publisher who was able to see what sort of market would fit my kind of writing. But nothing went forward until I had a finished novel.
6. There are many interesting characters in your novel, do you have a particular favourite one? I became interested in clearance history and the voice of Moira appeared in the story – and she refused to pipe down. It was very exciting to have characters spring up with so much to say!
7. Would you ever consider writing a series of novels or are you happy to write stand alone novels? I am happy to do either depending on the way a story goes. It’s a good move to write a series, if you can, regarding sales.
8. Why did you decide to set your book on the Isle of Harris? It began as an attempt to try and capture and communicate the experience of the beautiful wilderness of the Hebrides. That soon became a fascination with Gaelic culture, not as a folk relic but as a living and breathing culture, including the legends that are still told today. At the Glasgow book event Julie Fowlis came and sang an old Gaelic song written by the real MacOdrum, the famous bard who was reputed to be descended from a seal.
9. What kind of research did you have to undertake for your book? I loved reading about the Hebrides so I was already raiding the bookshops in Tarbert and Harris even before the book idea began. I also visited the wonderful history and genealogy centre, Seallam, run by the Lawsons in Harris. Bill Lawson has published a great many books and pamphlets on Hebridean history.
10. Are the characters in your books based on any in real life? They are all fictional but composed of ‘real’ elements. I tried hard to base clothes, places, details of events on researched possibilities. So the story of the selkie is told from a crofter’s point of view and contains details of crofting lifestyle from the eighteenth or nineteenth century. The marvelous artist Willie Fulton of Drinishader told us many tales about his crofting village from sixty years ago and those histories informed some of the character’s settings. His paintings are on the book trailer.
11. Since you have started writing have any well known authors given you any advice? Rhidian Brook who wrote the Aftermath advised me to embrace cutting out unnecessary words, which really helped, and I meet with a group of authors to question what we write and to see it from the reader’s experience. It can be brutal but is a wonderful way to grow as a writer.
12. Do you see any of your characters personality in yourself and vice versa?
In a way I think all the characters you write are fundamentally yourself in dressing up clothes. It’s an exercise in empathy, trying to walk in someone else’s shoes and understand what motivates them for good or bad.
13. If you can, could you give us a sneaky peak into any future novels you have planned? The next book, Return to Fourwinds is out in September. It opens with a bride who goes missing from her wedding and looks at how some secrets can cause rifts in relationships and why that happens. It’s set around the two World Wars in England, Scotland and Spain. Researching the book, I was amazed to find that a distant relative was something of a spy in war-time Madrid in 1940. That also fed into the novel.
14. You have been compared in your writing to some of the big names in Scottish Fiction already, how does that make you feel? Surprised, and certainly happy.
15. As a blossoming writer do you have words of advice you can share? Get feedback from readers and learn all you can about the process from books and courses. And of course it’s important to remember that there are two phases to writing: writing unfettered as the inspiration comes, and then going back to read it as a reader or editor to see if you said what you wanted to convey – and keeping going till you get there. No writing is ever wrong or wasted, it is in development and leads on to the next thing.
Secrets of the Sea House
The House of Hope
Amazon Author Page
Go to http://www.elisabethgifford.com/ see the book trailer with Gaelic psalm singing and paintings of Harris