Today I'd like to introduce you to Scottish author Helen MacKinven .
Helen writes contemporary Scottish fiction and graduated with merit from Stirling University with an MLitt in Creative Writing in 2012. Her short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies and literary journals, such as Gutter magazine. Her debut novel, Talk of the Toun, was published by ThunderPoint in 2015. Helen blogs at helenmackinven.co.uk and you can find her on Twitter as @HelenMacKinven.
Welcome to the blog, Helen it’s a pleasure to have you stop by. Congratulations on the publication of your memorable debut novel, The Talk of the Toun. For those who haven’t read the book yet what’s it about?
Talk of the Toun is an uplifting black comedy of love, family life and friendship. It’s a bittersweet coming-of-age tale as two girls wrestle with the complications of growing up and exploring who they really are set against the religious and social landscape of 1980s Scotland.
How much of the story is drawn from real life experience and/or observations?
Writers are often advised to, “write what you know” and I come from a similar background and area as Angela, the main character. The book is set in 1985 when Angela is 17, as I was then, so it made it easy to use the setting and time period to tell the story as it was a world I knew well. However, Angela is an entirely fictional character (nothing that juicy happened in my teenage years!) and the difference between us is that I was always encouraged to “stick in” at school and I went on to train as a primary school teacher, whereas Angela has to fight the small town mentality that holds her back from chasing her dream of going to Art School.
How would you describe your lead character, Angela?
In several reviews, Angela has been described as being unlikeable which came as a surprise to me as this was not something I consciously set out to achieve. My goal when creating Angela was to portray a realistic sense of how some teenage girls can behave when they’re caught up in their own wee world where everything revolves around them and is melodramatic. This results in Angela making serious errors of judgement but I don’t believe she’s inherently bad; she’s simply a mass of mixed up emotions. Thankfully, her gran sees through her inappropriate behaviour and offers guidance and unconditional love.
All of your characters are memorable, including Bimbo the dog. How would you describe him? What part does Bimbo play in the book?
Bimbo the poodle, from the front cover image, is based on my own childhood white poodle called Bimbo (the mad name was too good not to use!) and my gran also had a white poodle called BoBo. Most readers have commented that their favourite character is Angela’s gran, Senga, the pet physic as she’s an extrovert and has some of the best lines in the book. Bimbo is her pet and he acts as her sidekick and they appear throughout as a comedy double act.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading Talk of the Toun?
Someone described the book as having every ‘ism’ in it! I wanted to dig down and unearth gritty themes that were topical at the time and reflected the norm within Angela’s world. In many ways things have improved dramatically, for example, I personally suffered sectarian abuse growing up but my sons have never experienced the same scenarios. That’s a positive development but I’m not convinced that the same could be said for the other ‘ism’s. There’s still a huge amount of work to be done to encourage and support children from deprived backgrounds to go on to further education and I wanted to use a character like Angela to prompt questions over what, if anything, has changed. The book was set 30+ years ago and yet the other issues such as racism are still prevalent today and have taken other forms such as Islamophobia. As regards female sexuality, in one sense women may feel empowered by the choices available to them nowadays but you only have to examine statistics on the conviction rate for rape to realise so much more needs to be done to address the stigma attached to certain crimes. I’d like to hope that Talk of the Toun might stimulate discussion on these themes and whether or not society is a better place in 2016 than it was in 1985.
I love how you used the Scots vernacular to tell the story, was it important for you to do this?
Vitally! I It's taken me over ten years of writing to find my own 'voice' and realise that rather than copy formats that sell, I wanted to write about subjects and settings that aren't necessarily commercial. When I started writing the first person narrative of my novel I immediately knew I had no choice but to write the dialogue in a local dialect to make it sound real and natural, anything else would be false. I took a risk by featuring Scots dialect in my writing , aware that it might be a barrier to some readers but not to the ones I want to reach. Of course my book will not appeal to every reader, and if one of the reasons is that there’s too much dialect, then I can live with that.
Why did you choose to set the book in the 1980s?
The themes I wanted to explore were centred around the issues of coming-of-age as a teenage girl in a working class Scottish environment and how your social and religious upbringing impacts on your sense of identity. To achieve that, the easy, or some might say lazy way, was to set the book in the same era when I was a teenager – it certainly meant less research!
How long did it take you to write Talk of the Toun ?
For the first time writing a novel (this was my third), I used the ‘freefall’ process. The technique of writing without editing as you go helped me get the words down and the story out without constantly self-censoring each and every paragraph. The downside is that the editing process took much longer than I expected as the initial draft was so rough. The ‘freefall’ draft took around nine months then the editing stage took a further seven months before I felt brave enough to submit it for publication.
Thank goodness you were brave or we wouldn't be chatting here today! I'm keen now to find out more about your fab book cover. How did that come into being?
I wanted a striking image that gave a sense of the black comedy and quirky characters in the book and I felt Bimbo the poodle wearing pink sunglasses did the trick. A key theme of the story is ‘identity’ and that as a teenager you explore who you are but often have to fight against social expectations to follow your dreams. It’s easy to hide behind sunglasses but you can also reinvent yourself and take a new direction in life, in the same way Angela does.
Will we read any more about Angela and Lorraine (Please say ‘yes’!)?
Talk of the Toun was written as a stand-alone story and I’d never planned a sequel. However, lots of readers have asked me to write about their next adventure (or a prequel focusing on everyone’s favourite, Senga) and although I had no intention of writing a follow-up novel, as they say, never say never…
Ah - that's encouraging! Moving on, how long have you wanted to be a writer, and how soon after that decision did it take you to get a book deal?
I’ve always been an avid reader and natural storyteller but it wasn’t until my late 30s until I decided to challenge myself to write a novel. Growing up, the people in my world didn’t have jobs in the arts so it took me a long time to realise that I had other options and that there was nothing stopping me from not only being a reader but a writer too. I first started writing over ten years ago and although Talk of the Toun is my debut novel, it was the third novel I’d written not to mention the countless short stories I’d penned along the way.
What’s your writing process?
Lots of writers say you should write every day but I feel that for me I need a balance with other parts of my life. I have a good social life with family and friends so I like to spend time with them but getting out and about feeds into my creativity. I first began writing when I worked full-time and my sons were much younger so the only time I could carve out of my day was to write after dinner at night. This has become a habit even although I now only have a part-time day job but as I’m not a ‘morning’ person, this routine still suits me. I take myself off to my bed and write in my pjs.
You’re a fellow Prime Writer. How has being involved in the group been of benefit to you as a writer?
It’s been an invaluable source of support and information. I work from home and being a writer can make you feel quite isolated. Being part of such a friendly group means I can share the ups and downs of publication with the knowledge that there’s always someone willing to offer guidance and also provide light relief with bookish banter.
Absolutely, it's a great group to be part of! Time now to pose a rather tricky question: what would you say to those people who believe that writing can't be taught?
I did an MLitt Creative in Writing at Stirling University and I wouldn't have spent the time and money if I didn't believe it would help me as a writer. Being part of a group of likeminded creative people had a positive impact on me and helped to stimulate my own creativity. Also being exposed to examples of high quality writing and the opportunity to experiment was influential in helping me find my own writing 'voice'. Throughout the course, I had my writing 'workshopped' and having the chance to receive critical feedback was an important part of my development.
The course sounds wonderful. But enough of the serious questions - let's shake this interview up a little; it's time for the quick fire round! So...
Fish or chips?
I’ve been going to Weight Watchers for over a year now so on the off-chance that my class leader reads this post, I’d have to say fish – low in ‘smart points’.
Diamonds or pearls?
Both! I like a bit of bling and follow the ‘more is more’ school of styling. I’m very lucky to have a blinding five diamond eternity ring which is probably my favourite piece of jewelry.
The Jump or the jungle?
Neither! The only sport I’m good at is shopping and you’ll never find me in a tent.
The 1980s or the present?
For the figure and the music the 80s but for sense of knowing who I am and feeling comfortable in my own skin (no matter that there’s a lot more of it now!) it would be the present.
I couldn’t survive Monday morning without…?
Or any morning without a glass of Irn Bru to set me on my way.
Radio 2 or Radio 4?
Neither! I only listen to the radio when I’m driving and channel hop from Radio 1 to Radio Clyde/Forth to Capitol Radio until I settle on a song I like.
Complete the following: writers block is…
Is something I don’t fight or beat myself up over. Writing is a part of my life but it’s ONLY one aspect of who I am so if the mood doesn’t take me, I do other stuff and come back to it if and when I fancy. No one is forcing me to write a word, so why should I force myself to? I don’t apply the ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra to writing, if I’m not enjoying writing it, then I can’t imagine anyone will enjoy reading it.
You have another book being published soon, so your approach clearly works. What can you tell us about the new novel?
It's called Buy Buy Baby and will be published by Cranachan, a dynamic new publishing house. Set in and around Glasgow, Buy Buy Baby is a moving and funny story of life, loss and longing. Packed full of bitchy banter, it follows the bittersweet quest of two very different women united by the same desire – they desperately want a baby. Carol talks to her dog, has an expensive eBay habit, and relies on wine to forget she’s no longer a mum following the death of her young son. Cheeky besom Julia is career-driven and appears to have it all. But after disastrous attempts at Internet dating, she feels there is a baby- shaped hole in her life. In steps Dan, a total charmer with a solution to their problems. But only if they are willing to pay the price, on every level...
Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions, Helen. I wish you continued success with The Talk of the Toun and lots of luck with Buy Buy Baby.