A little less than two months ago, I discovered Linda Gillard's work. Through a fellow blogger's review, I decided I definitely wanted to give her most recent novel, Star Gazing, a go and I ordered it immediately. The writing took my breath away, as did the two wonderful main characters, who were so very different from the ones I've been used to reading. I wanted nothing more than to spend every waking minute with them. To say nothing of the beautiful Scottish setting. I was so delighted when Linda contacted me shortly after my review, offering to send a copy of her first book--Emotional Geology--for review as well. Little did I know this book would immediately jump to my best of the year list and would find a very special place in my heart. Even before I'd finished it, I hoped Ms. Gillard would agree to an interview. These books deserve a much wider readership than they have met with thus far and I am determined to do what I can to help spread the word! Please welcome, Linda Gillard!
I’m fascinated by your road to publication. You became a published author at age 53. Tell us what inspired you to start writing and what your experience has been like?
Writing is my fourth career. I’ve been an actress and a journalist and I stayed home for ten years raising two children. Then I re-trained as a teacher, but after a few years I suffered a breakdown brought on by stress and overwork. Eventually I was diagnosed with mild bipolar. I decided if I went back to teaching I’d probably become ill again.
I was 47 and as far as I was concerned, I was on the scrap heap. But once on the correct medication, I stabilized and with the help of a supportive psychiatrist, I began to rebuild my life. I had a lot of time on my hands, so I read and I sewed a lot of patchwork quilts. One of the books I read was Louise deSalvo’s WRITING AS A WAY OF HEALING. One paragraph of that changed my life. It said,
“I didn't know that you could write simply to take care of yourself, even if you have no desire to publish your work. I didn't know that if you want to become a writer, eventually you'll learn through writing - and only through writing - all you need to know about your craft. And that while learning, you're engaging in soul-satisfying, deeply nurturing labour. I didn't know that if you want to write and don't, because you don't feel worthy enough or able enough, not writing will eventually begin to erase who you are.”
I realised that was how I felt. Erased. I laid the book aside and, as if in a trance, walked over to my PC, sat down and started to type. I wrote about “a woman alone in a light, white room”. I could see the room and sense the atmosphere. I could see a woman and she was writing a letter, but I didn’t know who she was, or who she was writing to. With no thought of publication or even of writing well, I just started typing the first page of what was to become my first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY.
Your protagonists tend to be women over the age of 40. I found this unutterably refreshing in both Star Gazing and Emotional Geology. What drove this decision and have you run up against any opposition to focusing on slightly older characters?
When I was convalescing I read all sorts of fiction but I struggled to find any that reflected my life and experience. There was very little that featured women of my age. Romantic heroines over forty simply did not exist. Mature women appeared only as somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife and they never had sex, unless it was for comic effect. So as a matter of principle I made my heroine 47, my own age.
(This was around 2000, but I’m not sure things are much better now. Most books are bought and read by women over 40, but the publishing world is still convinced we like to read about women much younger than ourselves.)
When EG was eventually published by an imprint that specialized in novels aimed at older women, the books were dismissed by the media as “Romance for Wrinklies”, “Grey-Lit”, even “Hag-Lit”. (The ageism and misogyny of British culture beggars belief but hey, they used to burn us as witches, so things are definitely looking up.)
Your settings are fully fledged characters in and of themselves! Your love for them comes across the page in vivid texture and color. Does this aspect of your writing come easily and how do you go about setting the scene in your stories?
I’m glad you can “see” the settings! I think of descriptive writing as my weak spot. I avoid descriptive passages and opt instead for what I call “telling detail”- concrete detail that tells you something important about the setting.
I sort of ducked the issue in STAR GAZING. Trying to write about somewhere as beautiful as the Isle of Skye is daunting. What can you say that hasn’t already been said? I decided I’d write about the landscape, but from an unusual point of view, or ratherno point of view. My heroine, Marianne would be congenitally blind, with no visual frame of reference at all.
But even before I wrote STAR GAZING, I found our cultural obsession with visuals pretty limiting (eg attractive characters defined mostly by their appearance.) I’ve always tried to use all my senses when writing and I try to make readers use theirs. In STAR GAZING blind Marianne first experiences the hero, Keir, as a smell of hawthorn blossom. He’s a very big man and when she eventually gets to touch him, he reminds her of the trees she loves to hold.) I think that is so much more exciting than telling the reader he’s tall dark and handsome.
Emotional Geology was your first novel, a fact that still floors me. What about these characters, this story, made it a novel you had to write?
What I wrote - instinctively and therapeutically - was an alternative autobiography, what my life might have been like under very different circumstances. I was married; my heroine, Rose was single. I quilted as a hobby; she was a professional textile artist. I lived in a suburb; she lived on the bleak and remote Hebridean island of North Uist (which I knew from family holidays on the west coast of Scotland.)
The hero, Calum, was a gifted and dedicated teacher who’d cracked up after being assaulted by a pupil. He became the repository for all I wanted to say about teaching and teachers. Calum was my valediction to a profession that I’d regarded as my vocation.
Calum was also a poet and I used his dialogues with a Roseto explore the relationship between creativity and bipolar. (I was desperate to find an upside to my illness!)
But to be honest, I don’t really know where the book came from. I didn’t plan at all. I didn’t even know how it was going to end. I was too ill to do more than write a few pages at a time – just a paragraph on bad days – but I got hooked on writing and soon fell madly in love with my hero! After that it almost felt as if I was “channeling” the story. The book took on a life of its own.
Did you have an audience in mind for your books from the beginning or do you merely write to please yourself?
I just wanted to write the sort of book I wanted to read, but couldn’t find. Bookshops were awash with chick lit, which had nothing to say to me. I was an unemployed 47-year old mother of teenagers! So I set out to write a thinking-woman’s love story that tackled real issues. I wanted to put a creative woman in the spotlight and ignore her age, just look at her heart and mind and I was able to do this, with passion and paint-stripper honesty, because I knew my novel would never, ever be published! My mentally ill romantic heroine was 47 – and so was I! A less commercial proposition would be hard to imagine.
I had no idea my novel was any more than a personal and therapeutic fantasy until I joined a writers’ e-group and they said, “Youmust try to get this published.”
Both Rose (in Emotional Geology) and Marianne (in Star Gazing) live their lives with the odds stacked against them. Rose is struggling to live with bipolar disorder and recover from a recent breakdown and Marianne is blind and has been since birth. I love them both for their determination and irascibility and strength. What inspired you to gift your heroines with such weighty challenges and what kind of response have you gotten from readers?
I’m no good at devising plots, so I make character create the plot. They say there are only seven kinds of plot anyway, so it’s a question of finding an unusual angle from which to tell your story. STAR GAZING is just a boy-meets-girl story, apart from the fact that she’s 45, widowed and blind. But that changes everything!
I think I’ve always been interested in heroes (male & female) and heroism. I like to write about moral and physical courage, people fighting their demons, within and without. I studied drama at university and then I was an actress, so perhaps I instinctively write meaty parts for actresses! (EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY and STAR GAZING have both been optioned for films.)
Readers have mostly loved my spiky, obstinate and flawed heroines, but a few have questioned their fierce independence and some of the choices they make. Everyone loves that they are older – even young women. Some have said my books give them positive role models for what it’s like to be a woman in your 40s and 50s. (Readers love Louisa, Marianne’s 52-year old sister who writes vampire romance and has a Goth toy boy!)
But I’ve had a few battles with editors who wanted me to make my heroines “nicer”. The assumption in commercial women’s fiction is that, for a book to work, readers must identify with the heroine and apparently readers only identify with nice women. Flawed female protagonists are the province of literary fiction. Apparently.
(photo: Adam Burton)
There’s no EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY soundtrack because the novel is so much about silence and the gentle background noises that make up what we think of as “silence”: the wind, the sound of the sea, a pen scratching on paper, a man breathing as he sleeps beside you… There are a lot of sound effects in EG, but there’s no music.
STAR GAZING does have a soundtrack because the hero, Keir is constantly referring to pieces of music to describe things to blind Marianne. They share a love of music, so he translates visuals into sound pictures for her and that really opens up her world.
If SG had a theme tune it would be the Concerto for Birds and Orchestra by Rautavaara, which Keir posts to Marianne from Arctic Norway. (It’s a real piece of music. Some readers think I’ve made it up!) This is the music I used to play all the time, to get me in the right frame of mind for writing. It evokes a cold, northern landscape that I associate with Skye in winter, but it also represents the frozen emotional wasteland that Marianne inhabits at the beginning of the book.
What’s the one book and/or series you’ve been gushing about nonstop lately?
I keep recommending Sally Brampton’s SHOOT THE DAMN DOG, a memoir about her experience of serious depression. (The dog of the title is the “black dog” of depression.) I recommend it both as an example of excellent writing and as a self-help book. It’s immensely readable and positive.
And just for fun, what’s the first word that comes to mind when I say:
Books: friends (because I think of books as friends.)
Keir: Gerard (Butler)
The Brontes: passion
Thanks so much, Linda!
And now for the giveaway! We're giving away copies of both Star Gazing and Emotional Geology today to one lucky commenter. All you have to do is leave a comment stating your favorite spiky, obstinate female protagonist. This giveaway is open internationally! To anywhere The Book Depository ships. The giveaway will be open for one week and will close at midnight on Thursday, October 14th. I'll announce the winner the next day. Please be sure to leave me a way of contacting you.