First, let me thank you for allowing me to send some questions regarding your latest, The Party House. I enjoyed it, and I am sure my readers will, too.
You're a fearless writer. Were you not worried about using the pandemic with its effects on people and communities so fresh? I know that you never named the virus Covid, but it was similar enough in my mind, and it's what I related to while reading.
The Party House is set in a small village where outsiders bring in the pandemic from the city. Was this a fear in your small village community that triggered your story idea?
Not really although it gave me a time and setting.
The core idea arose from the fact that in the Rhona books you are always on the side of the investigators. I had always wanted to try and tell the story from a suspect’s viewpoint, where you, the reader don’t know whether they’re guilty or not. If your own partner was a suspect in a murder enquiry, would you support them or begin to fear them? Hence the two person POV with Joanne, who doesn’t really know Greg at all. Plus she’s come to Blackrig to hide with her own secrets.
When choosing where to set the story, the idea of a small community, where everyone knows everyone else seemed perfect. Also, I always travel to the places that feature in the Rhona books, and that wasn’t possible, so I created Blackrig loosely modelled on my home village, although I moved it westward where there are many villages with only one way in and out. Some of which put up bollards to stop entry during lockdown.
There were lots of stories of folk from the south attempting to outrun the virus, heading for the Scottish highlands and islands. It was a problem here. Not helped by Prince Charles and his wife helicoptering in to Balmoral with his entourage knowing they themselves already had the virus.
The story is set as life is getting back to ‘normal’. The resilience of the folk of Blackrig and their desire to keep their community safe reflected my own experience of lockdown in the highlands. It also explains the anger when the hated Party House is reopened.
Funny that the theme of the wealthy vs. the poor with the pandemic surfaced recently in England politics. Your story also has this theme. Any relationship to the more current events? And yes, I am hinting about England’s Prime Minister.
Yes. They do say fiction tells the truth about life. However, the Partygate scandal hadn’t erupted when I wrote The Party House, although ‘Party Houses’ were already hated in the highlands for some of the reasons that play out in the book.
The setting, the Scottish Highlands, becomes almost a character in this story. By the novel's end, I felt like I had visited Blackrig. Do you think a story's setting has equal importance compared to other elements? How do you catalog your setting, so it mirrors some of your themes?
The location, I believe, is always a character in my writing. Things happen often because of the location. Blackrig and its surroundings play as big a role in the story as the humans who inhabit that space.
By the way, I enjoyed the juxtaposition of having a Fairy Glen so close to a murder site. How do you think the magical, mystical Fairy Glen aided your protagonist Joanne's identity awakening? I also found it interesting that your male character, Greg, saw the glen areas as a more sexual experience. Are you staying something here with your setting and characters?
There are Fairy names for locations all over the highlands. The isle of Skye in particular. The glen in the book is modelled on my favorite spot in Carrbridge woods which also has carvings although not as many as in Blackrig. Joanne begins to get a true sense of the world of Blackrig here, and of what has happened to its people, especially since the graveyard is also situated in the wood, just as it is in my home village of Carrbridge.
For Greg and the young males of the village. This is where they all came to have sex, almost a right of passage.
I am a reader of your Scottish Forensic investigator, the Dr. Rhona MacLeod series. I was surprised with this novel, The Party House. It reads more as a stand-alone. I found it well-ended. Will you carry The Party House characters to another mystery?
Or do you hope to write more stand-alone?
A few folk have asked me to write more about the folk of Blackrig. I think their story is complete for the moment.
As for Rhona, I am currently writing the next one. 2023 will be the twentieth year of Rhona. The first book Driftnet came out in 2003 and is still a best seller as more folk find the series.
I probably will write another standalone, not sure when though. I enjoyed creating new characters and a different world, although I find myself very happy to be back with Rhona and her gang. Especially McNab, although he infuriates me as much as ever.
NOW TO THE QUESTIONS, OTHER WRITERS WILL BE INTERESTED IN:
What is your greatest challenge as an author?
Probably belief in yourself as a writer. Meeting readers who’ve enjoyed what you wrote is the best cure for that.
How do you find the heart of your story? Or, does the heart of the story come to you after writing the first draft, thus, the need to write a complete second draft?
Do you discipline yourself to work so many hours per morning, so many words down on the page?
When I was still teaching, I could only write at night. Now I tend to deal with correspondence first thing, go for an hour long walk in the nearby woods and hills, where I can think. Then start writing. This is of course in the earlier part of a book. As it nears the end with a deadline fast approaching, I write all day.
Any tips on the craft that you would like to pass on? When do you outline?
I don’t strictly outline. I think one chapter ahead usually, but if I know a certain chapter will have to happen, I jot that down. For example in The Party House, I knew that Greg would take Joanne to the top of the hill from where she might view both the sea to the west and the mountains to the east, which would show her where Blackrig was in the firmament that is Scotland.
I heard you were in lockdown while writing this book. So many of us had trouble keeping to any schedules. What kept you finding your way to the desk?
I actually wrote The Killing Tide during strict lockdown and found it difficult to do because I couldn’t go to where it was set. Fortunately I once lived on Orkney so knew the area well. The action of writing the book kept me sane, although it was the first and perhaps will be the only book that I roughly outlined, simply because I found writing the prose very difficult at first.
The Party House was written as we were coming out of lockdown while still protecting ourselves and getting vaccinated. That’s why it’s written in that time for Blackrig.
New Rhona coming out in August 2023. Title undecided as yet, but it plays out along the coastal route of the NC500 and in Glasgow of course.
Also the Rhona series is currently being developed for TV with Forge Entertainment, and I am really enjoying my involvement with that.