I haven’t been writing fiction for a while. Sometimes people are quite reproachful about what they apparently perceive as deliberate abandonment of identity. Folk kindly enquire, “So what are you writing now?” I say, “I have no major project on the go.” Sometimes these kind people seem quite nonplussed, as if I’d signed up to write historical novels until the day of my death. “Oh, but you must,” they say, “but that’s such a shame!”. Or, more challengingly. “Why not?” I was asked this after a reading, and when I tried to think why not, I said perhaps it was because I’d acquired seven grandchildren in the past eight years. “That’s not a real reason,” snapped my questioner.
Pulling a rabbit out of a hat seems marginally easier than producing a real reason for anything. I liked writing historical novels. They were long, deeply absorbing projects, each one lasting three or four years. I could completely immerse myself in the world of the novel. It was always a good, if challenging, place to be. Now history itself seems to have caught up with me. If one has the option of living in uninteresting times (it’s always an option: interesting and dreadful things never cease to happen, but where I have been, there was always the choice of ignoring them) then that is indeed great good fortune. One is free to live in peace and unprecedented comfort, and think about whatever one likes. One can say and write whatever one likes, too.
I don’t think I’m living in that world any more. Political engagement isn’t new to me. I’m a child of the 1960s: I came of age campaigning for peace, civil rights, feminism, the environment. My earliest novels reflect that zeitgeist far more than I was aware of at the time. Then all that hands-on activism seemed to recede, and writing novels came to the fore. But what now?
The uncomfortable truth is that all my life long we have been hurtling ever faster towards making our planet uninhabitable, for us and for almost all other species. Whatever we’ve said, whatever we’ve written, we have not changed that fact one jot. And if nothing changes, the writing is not in our hands any more, but on the wall. In a world of human conflict and social injustice, it’s the weakest and poorest who suffer first and most. I don’t think the human race is capable of taking the necessary steps to soften the inevitable finale. But an ending will come, not dictated by our laws, but by the harsh laws of nature.
So what’s that got to do with ceasing to write historical novels? Not much, except inside my head. When I was young, and marched with brightly-coloured banners, I thought we could change the world. I now think I can change almost nothing, and what I can change is mostly achieved one to one and face to face. Nothing I write will change the course we’re collectively on, not by a millionth of a degree. That’s no justification for despair. It’s still the case that thinking, and exchanging ideas, and enjoying life, is a Good Thing.
I find that sometimes I have an idea or a project, and I just want to say something about it. When I realised I didn’t have a plan for another novel, and people used to ask, “So what are you writing now?” I used to look a bit shifty, and mumble, “Nothing much just at the moment.” Now, I reply with bright conviction, “Essays.”
I liked writing essays at school. I kept quiet about how much pleasure it gave me, because the done thing was to moan and groan at these assignments. I took a guilty pleasure in spending hours in the school library, but I tried to pretend I wasn’t really there very much. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to notice what I am now doing is writing essays. Not world-changing ones, just about this and that, as it comes my way.
I worked in a university for sixteen years, and it was obligatory to write academic articles, preferably for prestigious journals. Latterly one had to publish four items a year, whether one had anything worth saying or not. That would have been a problem in the early years for Lord Kelvin, or Albert Einstein - no tenure for them. Since I was not changing the paradigms of the universe in the very slightest, I managed to produce a bit of this and that.
The advantage of inadvertently dropping into academia at a late stage, is that I had to grapple with literary theory. This was hardly a blip on the radar when I was at Durham University in the late 1960s. Back then we did practical criticism, which was basically reading books, talking about books, reading more books that talked about books, and referring to books that talked about books, when we ourselves wrote essays about books. I loved it. Finding myself on the staff of an English literature department in 1990, I had to rapidly catch up on post modernism and literary theory.
I was also expected to write articles informed by literary theory. The first articles I wrote were very much in the vein of the practical criticism I’d learned at university, and my thinking and reading in the ensuing twenty years. When I first began to engage with the theory, I wrote one or two essays that groaned under the weight of it. They mount an argument self-consciously based on some aspect of theory, and proceed to give an exemplary reading using that theory. Heavy stuff. Once I’d properly assimilated these new ideas, I stopped thinking about it so laboriously. Instead, it entered and refined my thinking. It was a good discipline after all, but it’s about learning to think with more acumen, not about trying on theories in a shop and somehow making them fit. My later critical essays are much simpler and more to the point - or so I think. My readings are my response to the text. It’s all up for debate - your readings may be quite different. But the readings can be honed by careful analysis, which is an intellectual skill, and fun to do. It won’t stop the polar ice caps melting, but if people learn to think better, in any way at all, that can only be good.
I thought that being back in a university would mean being able to talk to people about ideas and books as much as one liked. Just occasionally, that was even true. Although I sometimes found departmental life quite toxic, an experience which has marked me to this day, I had some great students. I supervised some interesting PhDs, (even though I never got a PhD myself. I was too busy writing novels. It’s done differently now.) I can mark the success of some of these students in the wide world by the fact that ex-students sometimes take me out to lunch. Thus the tables (to continue the lunch metaphor) get turned.
In the 1990s I went to regular conferences on the Literature of Region and Nation, and the Literature of Small Islands, on Northern Studies and on Women’s Writing. These were small conferences, and usually took place in interesting places, often overseas. The participants were expert and enthusiastic. Unfortunately one gets fewer points for giving conference papers than being published in the “right” journals, and these small maverick conferences ceased to actually count for any points at all. Also there was no money. but it was great while it lasted. Through conferences, residencies and secondments, there were aspects of the academic world that shaped my writing in a very painless manner.
My contact with the academic world is now sporadic, and interesting when it happens. Oddly enough, some of my most recent academic assignments have been among archaeologists rather than literary critics. Although an enthusiastic volunteer on various digs, I have no archaeological credentials whatsoever, but I drew upon archaeological sources both for my Norse novels, Islanders and The Sea Road, and, most of all, for my mesolithic novel, The Gathering Night. The last particularly has given me a small-scale new lease of life in academia. It was scary defending my conclusions about the Scottish Mesolithic to a bunch of German archaeologists in Hannover, and even scarier waiting for reviews of my fiction in Scottish archaeological journals, but it’s interesting operating in a discipline not one’s own. In the course of writing fiction, I have often tagged along to historical and archaeological events. This has confirmed my awareness that I like being an outsider best. One can be quite maverick, and not compete, and sit near the door. Exit strategy has always been my thing.
A selection of Essays and Articles
Waylaid by Islands’ The Bottle Imp Issue 2 (2007)
‘Walking the Edges’ in Linda Cracknell (ed) A Wilder Vein (Ullapool: Two Ravens Press 2009) pp 195-217
‘The Unknown Island’ in Torstein Jorgensen and Gerhard Jaritz (eds.) Isolated Islands in Medieval Nature, Culture and Mind (Bergen: Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Bergen 2011) pp. 88-98
‘Archaeology and Fiction’ in Antiquity Volume 86, Issue 332, June 2012. pp. 532-537
Contribution to Scott Hames (ed.) Unstated: Writers on Scottish Independence (Edinburgh: Word Power Books 2012) pp 71-76
‘The antiquaries and authors’ in ‘Fellows’ Pages’ Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Newsletter Vol 24.2 September 2012
‘Book Mark: Frank Fraser Darling: Wilderness and Plenty’ in Earthlines Issue 2 August 2012 [pdf available below]
‘We Thought We Were Going to Change the World’ in 21 Revolutions Podcast Glasgow Women’s Library, Twentieth Anniversary: A year’s celebratory programme. Published March 21 2013
‘The Meniscus Moment’ in Dougald Hine et al (eds.) Dark MountainIssue 4 Summer 2013 (Dark Mountain Project 2013) pp 242 - 246
‘Dirk Hatteraick’s Cave: Location, Folklore and Fiction in (The European Ethnological Research Centre ed. Lizanne Henderson)
Scott’s Guy Mannering and Redgauntlet’ in Review of Scottish CultureNumber 26 2014 pp 49-64
'Margaret Oliphant' (Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, Edinburgh University) August 2016
'Henrietta Liston: one reader’s response' March 2017 [Available shortly]