When I read Crossing the Line, Gillian Philip's evocative teen novel, I was amazed at its unabashed Scottishness. Being from Somewhere Else (sunny Philippines), I struggle with the need to frame stories from within my cultural identity while hoping to appeal to readers in the West where I live. My very first novel (yet to be published - perhaps never), had English characters and a European setting. It had SNOW no less - at a time when I had yet to see the stuff though no longer. I was genuinely afraid anything I wrote would be labelled an 'issue' novel or too foreign to be commercial.
An agent gently told me in so many words that it would be tough to sell a debut novel by an author who had no cultural connection to the story. So I decided to have a go at a novel with a Filipino element. It was only when I began to build worlds with Filipino characters that I felt my words began to sing . . .
And now here's Gillian!
I was thrilled to be asked to guest on Candy’s amazing blog, and delighted that she made a suggestion for a subject (because I’m not very good at thinking of them), but as soon as I thought about it my mouth went all dry. I’m not very good at identity either, I realised. But ‘I was very struck by the Scottishness of Crossing the Line,’ Candy told me, ‘which is why I suggested identity.’
Which set me wondering why it did have a strong Scottish flavour. Yes, the book is set in Scotland, though like my other novel Bad Faith, it never says so. Generally speaking, though, readers seem to ‘get’ the setting (Keren David, the author who guested here a couple of weeks ago, got one location right to within about twenty metres). I don’t think I could have set those books anywhere else. I don’t think that’s a strength. It’s probably indicative of a typically Scottish insularity.
I was an expat wife in the West Indies for twelve years and because I was without a work permit for a lot of that time, and childless for all of it, you’d think I would have used my vast quantities of spare time to write. I’d always wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t like my career was going places other than a beach bar at the bottom of our hill.
A gruelling life in the West Indies
Well, I did try, some of the time, at least before sundown. I sold some short stories, and then some more, and I felt pleased with myself though I didn’t enjoy it, because I knew I could never write a whole novel. Nothing occurred to me (see above). I did wring a flimsy sodden half-novel out of my rum-fuelled brain, and while the plot hung together and the story wrapped up rather nicely, it was a load of old tosh, because I believed none of it. The only character I believed in was the rum-sodden beach bar owner (I wonder where that came from) who was, of course, Scottish and homesick.
I suppose no writing is ever wasted and it was all good practice, but I’m happy to say I burned that one. My next project was romantic novels (I was under the all-too-common misconception that these are quite straightforward). I believed these ones, more or less, but Mills & Boon didn’t, so that was that.
Then, in 2001, two babies arrived and I said ‘I’m going home,’ and home we went, and back in the right landscape my brain was hit by an avalanche of stories. It wasn’t just the hills and lochs, I might add, though those came into it; it was the mean streets, the flashy streets and the downright dull streets. It was the weather, it was the light. I was just in the right place, and writing the right stories (between nappy changes). But it wasn’t the people.
Moving to Scotland to take a rest from all that cruel sunshine.
I think it’s a real failing that I couldn’t write a convincing story in a tropical landscape (mind you, I’ve read a few books that think the landscape, some quaint locals and/or oodles of rich people are enough, so not writing was preferable to producing something like that). But in a way, I don’t think I didn’t write about it.
The island where I lived was a small country with a small country’s quirks and disadvantages as well as its charms; so is Scotland. That island’s politics and personalities seeped into my writing; they just became Scottish, and it wasn’t as awkward a transition as I perhaps thought. Virtue and venality, they both travel. I was just writing about people. The way you do.
I’ve talked myself into a corner as usual, and I’m not sure what I’d conclude from thinking about this. Perhaps just that I like grounding my stories in a landscape I love; I’m grateful for the way the landscape sparks those stories.
But characters, they travel. They go anywhere and come from anywhere. You can’t confine human beings to one playground. And who’d want to? I have a Scottish identity and it means a lot to me, but I have another identity: I’m a writer. And that means I can really and truly be anyone I want to be.
Gillian Philip blogs on The Awfully Big Blog Adventure. You can find her website here.