The circus clangs on, over the hill and out of sight. I’m standing in the road, among the litter and horse shit and scuffed-up dust. White dust settles on chicory and hawthorn. The birds resume their singing. The sun is warm on my back. I can breathe again.
It’s OK to opt out
I’ve enjoyed writing ever since I learned how to do it. It pleases me that there are readers who have also enjoyed what I’ve written. But there is another side to writing for publication, an increasingly frenetic marketplace in which one seems to be required not only to sell one’s work, but to sell oneself. I was brought up to do precisely the opposite, which may not always have served me well in the world, but the people whom I admired the most, and still do, were those to whom being famous (or, indeed, rich) was simply not on the agenda. And yet many members of my family were writers. Writing, for us, came naturally. Self-promotion emphatically did not. Perhaps this is why I don’t manage very well in a milieu where the two activities have become conflated. All this whirling round the market place - it seems to be spinning out of control. Ring the bell: I want to get off here!
In the late 1980s I went to the Edinburgh International Book Festival for the first time. In the Spiegeltent Margaret Forster said something along the lines of “I don’t know why I’m here really. Why should a writer be on a stage? I imagine two of the most significant writers I know standing here beside me - Emily Bronte (right) and Emily Dickinson. What would they do here, with hundreds of people looking at them? Can you imagine such a thing?” Of course I can’t, and I don’t suppose you can either. Would it stop anybody from reading their work? Anyhow, if performance is an essential part of being a writer, then dead writers are at a distinct disadvantage.
My publishers have suggested I write a blog, and use social media to promote my work. They have offered to help me, and I would love to meet them more than half way. But when I thought it over, I realised I have nothing more to say to the world at large than what I have written in my books. Other writers also sometimes tell me what they have to do to keep up with social media, and to make sure they get good ratings in the Internet marketplace. Clearly this takes time and energy, which is fine if you enjoy it. I don’t; in fact I prefer not to think about it, which may seem perverse. To be honest I would much rather use those hours to take the dog for a walk. I am not sure that increasing my social media ratings would make anyone happier, and I know for sure that going to the woods or the river makes the dog happy, and me too.
Some of the happiest and most interesting chapters of my life have been those I spent writing historical fiction. I have loved being in pursuit of an idea, letting it develop into a story, and following the thread until I can see the whole pattern. I have never quite known what it will turn out to be.
Sometimes it has quite literally been a voyage of discovery. I have followed my characters by sea and land, usually in more comfort than they experienced in whatever past time they inhabited, but still in a fairly minimalist way for a C20 and C21 traveller. Whether I am writing about Viking explorers in Vinland, Quakers in the War of 1812 between Canada and the United States, early lighthouse keepers, or Mesolithic hunter gatherers, I have tried as far as possible to literally follow in their footsteps. My travels also involved forays into libraries and archives, both near and far from home. They involved talking to people about the places they lived in, their ancestors and their own inherited skills and knowledge.
Sometimes I tried to do what my characters had to do, just to see how it felt, whether it was making a boat, climbing a mountain, or looking at the world from one particular spot. I’ve been very lucky to be able to do the thing I most wanted to do. I wouldn’t have missed a moment of it.
Most of my writing has been done in solitude. I’ve written at home, and on my travels. I have sought out peace and quiet, in remote places such as lighthouses, and occasionally (a luxury) on writers’ retreats.
When a book has come out I have done my best to promote it. I’m not good at it; the very thought of networking makes me feel sick, and I’ve been known to run away from literary parties. I don’t like big book events; I find them angst-ridden and stressful.
The best festivals I’ve been to are the small Scottish ones: Shetland, Orkney, Ullapool, Islay, Colonsay, Lismore, Wigtown… places like that. Writers and punters meet in a small, friendly community and there isn’t a lot of hype. (On the left I am enjoying a small-scale tour of the Isle of Man after the publication of Light.)
I wrote my first novel Islanders in the winter of 1979 when I was living at Northbanks (left), on the Shetland island of Papa Stour. I describe the writing of Islanders in my account of my early novels.
My first published story came out in Chapman in 1985, and my first novel was published by The Women’s Press in 1987.
A few years later I went to meet Walter Cairns at the Scottish Arts Council, who told me that as a Scottish writer I might apply for a grant to give me time to write. I had no idea such a thing existed, but I can honestly say it changed the course of my life. If success is being independent, solvent and happy, then the grant I received to travel in Iceland (left) and Greenland, and discover more about the Norse world, was the start I needed to become an established writer of historical fiction.
The 1980s were a very different world as far as publishing went. Sometimes new writers ask me now how to get started, and I have to say I am out of date, I don’t know what you do now.
On occasion readers ask if it is easy to live by writing; I’d say it depends on how much you need. I always had a part-time job; I had two children to support. In the early years I worked mostly as a home help and gardener. In 1990, on the strength of my published writing, I accidentally slid into academia by a back door, which I think is no longer possible. I had never thought of teaching before, but I found I liked it, and this led directly into my later work with emerging writers and writers’ groups.
University employment gave me opportunities for secondments: I wrote two novels while working at Central Michigan University; a very productive time among friendly colleagues who appreciated my work. A further semester of writing took place, courtesy of the University of Liverpool, on the Isle of Man. In both Michigan and the Isle of Man I recaptured some of the adventure and freedom of Papa Stour. However, I have found that on the whole the lower the conventional status of a job, the more conducive it is to writing (and often the more worthwhile). Those who employed me as home help or gardener were generally a pleasure to work for. Alone, I could immerse myself in physical work, and my mind could roam freely.
It is kind of people to ask what I’m writing these days. If the question makes me impatient it’s not their fault. My most recent novel, The Gathering Night was published in 2009. If Canongate are holding their breath waiting for the next one, they’ve not said so recently. I have decided not to join the circus, and my life is outside the public domain.
I still do events when the request interests me. I like meeting readers in an informal setting (such as the Dark Mountain Festival, right, or at Durhamhill events in Galloway, below). I like taking workshops and residential courses occasionally because I’m interested in how and what other people write. It pleases me to think there is a community of writers, and certainly none of us could write what we do if there were not other writers who had gone before us, and who are around us now.
I didn’t expect to continue a line of work in mentoring and taking workshops. I had the strange experience of planning to write a novel, and then realising it wasn’t right, I wasn’t going to do it. Shortly afterwards a younger Scottish writer asked me to be her mentor. Her subject was the very topic that I had abandoned. It seemed as if I’d known I had an interest here, but hadn’t yet realised what it was. My new role feels just right. If I can assist anyone to find their voice, whether for published work or for their own satisfaction and empowerment, that seems to me worthwhile.
However, I am uncomfortable with self-promotion and reaching for success. When I started writing historical fiction, I thought nothing could make me happier than to have a book out, and have other people enjoy reading it. But a certain mild success can be a poisoned chalice; self-promotion starts to seem like an irresistible imperative. It can become addictive. Sometimes there seems to be a confusion between writing books and becoming a celebrity. If success is having one’s books available in triplicate on every airport bookstall on the planet, there must be an awful lot of disappointed people out there. I’ve reached the point at which I prefer not to join in.
We’re living in troubled times, and the future looks ever darker. When I started writing I was deeply involved in the issues of the day: the women’s movement, the peace movement, anti-nuclear demonstrations, Greenham Common, Friends of the Earth. When I look back I can see how contemporary angst informed my fictions, although that was never part of my conscious plan. Two of my early novels, The Incomer and A Sparrow's Flight, are set in a possible future, after some (deliberately undefined) cataclysm. I haven’t approached that topic directly again, but now it seems to be approaching me. I am among the lucky few who have lived most of my life in relatively uninteresting times - and place. It won’t be like that for my descendants. What more can I say? Or write? It feels more like a time to watch, to try to grasp what’s happening, and to think what to do. If that involves writing, why then, I shall write.
Meanwhile, I am lucky that all my novels are still available. On this website I attach a list, with bibliographical details and a short description. You can also download the maps from the novels, as they are never printed properly in the books, and you can get something much closer to the original off this site.
You can also access details about my other writings here. This includes academic articles, short stories, poems and other oddments.
That’s about it. The object of the website, as I see it, is for people who are interested to be able to find out what I have written, and how to get hold of it.
If you would like to know more, please read the books.
You can read reviews of Margaret Elphinstone's novels on the appropriate page for each book. Margaret Elphinstone's biographical details and events programme can be found here.
Image of Iceland courtesy of John Elphinstone.