As the excitement builds in advance of this year’s Bloody Scotland crime writing festival, I am delighted to welcome Simon Sylvester, author of The Visitors, to answer some probing questions on his life as a writer…
To whet the reader’s appetite, tell us more about The Visitors…
The Visitors is set on a remote Scottish island called Bancree, and narrated by a girl called Flora Cannan. At 17, Flo feels trapped on the island, and is counting down the days before she can leave. Through her we learn about a string of mysterious disappearances, and also about the myth of the selkie, which Flo studies for a school project. The islanders become increasingly fearful as more people disappear, and then a curious couple move to Bancree, becoming Flora’s only friends. The book blends landscape, crime, and folklore. Ultimately, The Visitors is a murder mystery about love.
And your route to publication…
I wrote the first draft of the book during a year of teacher-training, part-time college work and part-time childcare, working mostly late at night. My amazing agent Sue sent it to Quercus Books, and we spent another six months working through some edits. I’ve been very lucky that the book has been quite well received, and went on to win a couple of prizes, for which I’m extremely grateful. It’s a strange thing to think of other people reading it. I know you’re not supposed to read reviews, but I can’t help myself. I spent so long bound up in the story and the characters that I’m still thrown by other people reading it.
How did you come to the decision to focus your book on two teenage female protagonists, and was it difficult to achieve the level of authenticity to their narrative voice that you have?
I don’t believe that women, or teenagers, are another sort of species, or speak a different language. Anger and love, frustration and joy, sadness and curiosity – these are true to all of us, and make a core of human experience. It’s my job to bring those things to my characters. Empathy is one of a writer’s most important weapons, I think, giving the ability to temporarily extend their own senses into a charcter, and their situation, and their world, and explore how that feels. I never considered myself a ventriloquist in writing like a teenage girl. If anything, it helped me go an adventure of my own.
What is it about small isolated communities that make them such fertile ground for crime fiction in particular?
Secrets! We all have them. Secrets are the key to all crime fiction. They work really well in cities, where victims and criminals are hidden in a crowd, and the mystery is to pick one culprit from many suspects, but it’s perhaps more unsettling when there are fewer players, and they’re forced together face to face. That can make the story immediate, urgent, personal. Familiarity makes us feel safe, after all, and undermining that sense of safety with fear and doubt is gold for any writer. It creates a grisly little melting pot of distrust, fear, hope and misdirection. Focusing on smaller communities also allows for the landscape itself to become involved, and I like writing about landscape. I spent a windswept week camping on Coll this summer, and found myself imagining a murder there. When the ferry comes once a day and fewer than 200 people live on the island, everyone is a suspect – the same friends and neighbours island communities depend upon. My four-year-old daughter also insisted she saw kelpies in the lochans. Maybe that’s one for another novel!
I loved the use of myth and the harking back to the age-old tradition of oral storytelling you employ in the book. Was there much research involved to capture the voice of the Shennachie?
The Visitors marked something of a crossroads for me. After years of writing experimental fiction, I pretty much stumbled into the understanding that actually, I wanted to write stories, real stories, stories that took me on journeys. I started going to more open mic nights and spoken word events, and enjoying what I heard. One of the best was called Dreamfired. Once a month, Dreamfired brought international storytellers to a hall in rural Cumbria, where they shared myths, or folk tales, or real life tales. I learned a lot from them about storyteling as both a tradition and a performance. When it came to writing The Visitors, I knew Izzy would tell self-contained stories, and he’d tell them in a quite theatrical way. I invented the stories he tells, though! The classic traditional selkie tale makes it into the book, but the others are mine; I did a lot of research, but couldn’t find selkie stories that did quite what I needed.
Is there an immediate connection to you having an idea about a book and getting it down on paper/screen, or do you have an extended period of cogitation. What is your normal writing routine? And what’s in the pipeline?
Some ideas are immediate, and some need to brew, but they all evolve when I start to write. The Visitors popped into my head almost fully-formed, but the more I wrote, the more it cartwheeled away from me. Flora and Ailsa set off on paths of their own choosing, and it began to feel as though I was along for the ride. My current work is a novel called The Hollows. I spent all of last year slogging away on it, grafting out shitty sentences and cutting them again, and then discovered on Christmas Eve, after a year of this grind, that I was writing the exact same plot and setting of another book. I took a deep breath, drank a strong beer, and deleted it all. I spent January with a notebook and a pen, remembering why I wanted to tell the story in the first place. Then I wrote it in in two days a week over the next four months – 105,000 words in about 35 working days, which feels insane. I’ll be finishing the last tweaks this week, and then my wife will read it, and then I’ll send it to my agent and keep my fingers firmly crossed. The Hollows is another mystery/thriller. It’s about memories and mud, and it’s the most fun I’ve had while writing a novel. Part of that is changing my work routine. I used to work late into the night and feel exhausted all the time, but now I go to bed early and write before I go to work in the morning. On a good morning, I can write 500 words. On a bad morning, I barely have time to read what I wrote the day before; but either way, I keep in touch with my manuscript, so I’m coming to it fresh when I get a full day to write. That’s made it easier to carry the flow of the story.
Sticking your head above the parapet, do you have any advice for the budding writer?
I’m a little wary of handing out advice, because ultimately all I have to offer is what works for me, and I suspect that everyone needs to find their own way of muddling through. So, with that said, my humble suggestions are to take public transport as much as possible, so you can eavesdrop in trains and bustops and cafes. Turn off the internet when you’re working and get rid of your smart phone – it’s a vampire for your senses. Go walking or swimming. Read outside your comfort zone. Go to workshops and spoken word nights, because writing needs community. Read your work aloud, all the time. Be kind. Be brave.
In the spirit of the British summer- if it ever arrives- you can invite a bunch of authors (alive or dead) round for a half-cooked barbecue sausage and a warm beer. Who would you choose?
Never meet your heroes, right? There are living authors I’d like to meet, like Sarah Waters and Sarah Hall and Neil Gaiman and Arjun Basu and J. Robert Lennon, and dead authors I’d like to have met, like Hunter S. Thompson and Roberto Bolano, but most of all, I would have very much liked a pint of beer with Terry Pratchett. His books carried me through some difficult times, and he had a warmth and a humour and an anger that I’m going to miss…
Simon will be appearing at Bloody Scotland on Sunday September 13th: follow the link here
“We ship out to sea with two highly original voices in crime fiction. Former journalist turned crime writer Mark Douglas-Home’s novels follow oceanographer or ‘sea detective’ Cal McGill who has returned for a third instalment in The Malice of Waves. Not The Booker Prize winner Simon Sylvester’s thoughtful novel The Visitors sees disappearances happen on a storm-tossed Scottish island, and draws on myths of selkies and sea creatures.”
And don’t forget to keep up with the blog tour to discover more about the authors taking part in Bloody Scotland…