Suzy, you work at the National Library of Scotland. How do you get any work done, surrounded by books all day?
Well, the job I’ve been doing for the past year actually involved reading some of those books for research, so that helps! Sometimes I do get a little distracted into reading things while listing a collection, but it’s all in the name of “a greater understanding of what we hold” or so I keep saying…
The National Library of Scotland houses the Patrick Leigh Fermor archive. To what extent is your job an inspiration for your writing?
I’ve read a lot of 18th and 19th century travelogues by travellers that are not necessarily “writers” because they’ve never been published, and I think there’s something more special about those ones because only a few people have seen them. The handwriting is often dire, but that makes it more of an achievement when you finally figure out what’s going on. I read one about a woman snorkelling off Mauritius for the first time in the 1890s, describing it as if no one had ever even thought to do it before and in ways that we wouldn’t even think of these days because it’s almost commonplace. That inspired me. I’ve had a look at the PLF archive and got a little rush looking at his old passports full of stamps. We’ve got some great stuff on Isabella Bird as well.
You clearly have a love of books. Where did that come from? How did it all begin?
I blame my mother. She read me all sorts when I was little. I know that’s a fairly standard response, isn’t it? I guess the short answer is that I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t into books. It was Roald Dahl, E. Nesbit and C.S. Lewis when I was little, which turned into Jacqueline Wilson, JD Salinger and Iain Banks when I was a teenager and now EVERYTHING as an adult.
When did the love of reading transcribe to a love of writing?
Again, this is my mother’s fault. She’s always been going to creative writing courses, or joining writers’ groups as far back as I can remember. When we wrote stories in Primary School I would spend hours at home finishing them and ignoring all my other homework. I wrote plays when I was younger and performed them with my friends. I mean, really performed them. Lines learned, lighting cues, story arc and everything. That started when I was about 11. Then I did a creative writing module at university when I was studying English Literature, even though everyone said it was a dangerous choice to let something so subjectively marked count towards my final degree. It was the only thing I got an A for! That got me into doing a Creative Writing Masters and that’s it.
You studied literature at Edinburgh University. Is the process of dissecting literature a help or a hindrance to your own writing?
Classic answer: it’s both. On the plus side, I know when I’m writing drivel. But on the down side, I know when I’m writing drivel. It’s hard to get started when you’ve read and analysed too much good writing. But it’s also hard to get good at writing if you don’t read or analyse any good writing. You just have to remember that all writing probably starts off as drivel in the first draft and what you’ve been analysing is probably draft number 364 or something.
You have primarily focused on travel writing. Why is this?
By accident mostly. I was set on becoming a novelist (I probably still am to be honest). The travel thing is my Dad’s fault. He took me and my brother to ridiculous places where he was working throughout our childhood. So just like reading and writing I’ve also always travelled and never known how to…not. I never thought of putting the two together until an advert for student travel writers was sent round our Creative Writing class. Once I started it was like the dam had burst and all these stories I’d had rattling around my brain for years came out. It was really satisfying, being able to produce all this writing without thinking too hard about whether or not a certain character would do or say something, because it’s all based on real things.
You won the Pure Travel competition. Unsurprisingly – your writing is strong and tinged with humour. What tips would you give to anyone thinking of entering a travel writing competition?
Keep entering them. Even if you’ve entered 40, 50, 100 and still don’t win, just keep doing it. As with any kind of writing listen to feedback, don’t fight it. In the Masters when we were getting face to face feedback from fellow students we weren’t allowed to say anything to defend our work. In fact, we weren’t allowed to talk until the feedback was over. This was really good because when submitting pieces in the real world you can’t sit with the reader (or competition judge) and defend your work.
Also edit. Edit edit edit until every word is vital. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I edited that Pure Travel piece, probably about 25-30 times. Read it out loud – that seriously makes a difference. Join a writing group and get it workshopped by people who are actually interested in writing. Being part of the IWC is a great help when it comes to travel writing competitions.
You have mentioned some travel writers in your bio that inspire you: Jan Morris, Paul Theroux and Chris Stewart. Which fictional writers inspire you and why?
I love anything involving fringe characters. Any writer that can do really good characters is an inspiration. The best ones can make you empathise with a terrible human being. I love that. Writers like John Fowles (I’m thinking of The Collector specifically), DBC Pierre, Iain Banks and Liz Jensen. That’s a pretty dark list, isn’t it? The thing that they all have in common is dark but vulnerable characters.
What’s the difference between travel writing and fiction writing? Or are they the same thing fundamentally?
I don’t think they are the same thing. It might be stating the obvious, but fiction has no boundaries. I know people say “write what you know” but that’s bollocks. I’ve never been a woman living in the forest thinking I’m a fox, but I still wrote about it. The novel I’m working on is told from the perspective of an eighteen year old boy. I am not, and have never been, an eighteen year old boy. Travel Writing does have to be “write what you know” though because it’s all about your real life experiences. Sure you can embellish and rearrange things, but essentially it has to be at least based on something that actually happened, and that can be restricting. Of course there are similarities in how to be successful at both – strong imagery, sense of place, characters, using all the senses etc.
As in your travel writing, in Fox Holes (The Vixen’s Scream) the imagery is very strong and the experience is very immediate – such as ‘yellow eyes frozen like marbles’. How do you create that sense of immediacy?
It probably comes from my tendency to write in the first person (goes hand in hand with travel writing, doesn’t it?). I’m not sure why I prefer it, but I find it difficult to write in third person because it feels too much like…I don’t know…storytelling? Yes, I think that’s it. When I try to write in the third person it comes out like a story that I’m detached from. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading third person narratives – I don’t notice the different when I’m reading, only when I’m writing. Also, what I learned doing this flash piece was how many redundant words I use usually. I think removing anything that isn’t completely necessary helps to give a sense of immediacy.
Part way through the story, there is a surprise – the human protagonist rather than a fox. How did you come by the idea for your story – and why the hunt?
After I’d chosen the theme “Fox Holes” I started seeing foxes everywhere, in the names of pubs, at Japanese Shinto shrines, reading about military fox holes at work, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox came on TV, and I think my subconscious took little pieces of description from all of these things. I’ve been watching a lot of Bear Grylls and Ray Mears (don’t judge me!) recently and I think that could be what sparked the idea of a person isolating themselves from the urban world and living in the forest. I just drew that out past its logical conclusion and into the realms of slight madness. The protagonist was originally a man, but I somehow I couldn’t quite get the right backstory for a man to end up living in the forest, protecting the foxes. Well, not in less than 500 words anyway! The hunt was what I started with because it provided its own structure, if that makes sense? I grew up in the countryside where fox hunting happened so I thought of it as soon as I saw the words “fox holes”. The hunt also gives an automatic sense of tension and pace, which is handy.
In the penultimate sentence, you write: ‘How it came out of me and wouldn’t stop. It wasn’t just blood, it wasn’t just tissue and a heartbeat. It was everything. Everything leaked out until I was just skin skulking on the fringe of this world’. The language is very powerful here. Is this a passionate response to the fox hunt – or is it something more?
A passionate response from me about fox hunting? Or the character? It’s something more from the character, it’s a memory from her ‘previous life’. I suppose I wanted a little window into why she was skulking around the forest with the foxes. It’s hard to fit backstory into flash fiction when there’s only just enough room for front story, so it’s a bit vague…
Suzy, thank you very much for writing a flash for Double Espresso. It’s great to have you as a contributor.