Burns on the Solway Now on Kindle

I've just uploaded my play Burns on the Solway to Kindle (with extreme difficulty, I might add, so if you buy it, please forgive any formatting glitches!  Plays are much harder than novels to format!) It was staged at the Oran Mor in Glasgow, and is a play about the last few weeks of Robert Burns' life, down on the Solway Coast of Dumfries and Galloway. I remember clearly when I first had the idea for this play although it was many years before I wrote it and even more years before the actual production.
We were camping on the shores of Loch Ken, as we used to do every summer when the village kids were young, going off in a huge group (sometimes as many as 50 adults, kids and dogs. We used to tell the police that we were all going to be away!) to camp and go canoeing and boating. The kids, all grown-up now, still remember it as a magical time. The adults all remember it as fairly magical too, although we also remember the extreme cold, on occasions, and the thunder-storms and the mud and the endless barbecues. But on the whole, it was wonderful.
It was on one of these trips that - since son, husband, and others were out on the lake - I took myself off in the car, alone,  to a place called Brow Well on the Solway, which was the 'poor man's spa' to which the seriously ill poet was sent by his doctors, and advised to go 'sea-bathing' in an effort to find a cure for what may have been a terminal heart condition, although there are still debates about the cause of his death. It doesn't look as if it has changed much in all the years since, a simple, picturesque place with a chalybeate spring, and a few cottages. From there, it's a short walk down to the coast, where the mud flats stretch to infinity and there is a wild rock garden fringing the whole place with big clumps of pink thrift, rustling in the breeze, and other small flowers clinging to the edges of the land. A deeply atmospheric and evocative place. And I was there at the same time of year - July, when the thrift was dying.
Not hard to imagine the poet here. And then you realise, with a shock, just what 'seabathing' must have entailed. The water is wide and shallow and for him to wade until he was waist high must have entailed a terrible struggle through cold water. He was still a young man, his wife Jean was about to go into labour with his last child, he was terminally ill and he was totally poverty stricken, with people pursuing him for unpaid debts. A few weeks later, after his death, he was already being lauded as The Bard and people had descended on poor Jean in ravening hordes, begging for manuscripts, anything written in the poet's hand. Ghoulish souvenir hunting is not a modern phenomenon.
This is what the play is about, as well as everything that lead up to it. There are only three characters: Burns, played by Donald Pirie, looking and sounding and  being as like the poet as it was possible to be - uncanny really - an equally superb Clare Waugh as Jean, and Celine Donoghue as the musician, weaving her sinuous way between the two of them, playing a variety of instruments perfectly.
It was a lovely, well reviewed production and a totally happy process, directed by Michael Emans.
I have more writing on this theme planned - a couple of novels which are gnawing away at my imagination as these things have a habit of doing - but I can't imagine myself making a start on the first of them until next year. We'll see. Perhaps another visit to Brow Well will be needed. I love the poems and - in particular - the songs of Robert Burns and find myself coming back to the work and the man, as well as the women in his life, time after time. So perhaps it is time for me to tackle something longer on the subject.

The Secret Commonwealth on Kindle

I'm in the process of uploading several of my plays - professionally produced, but as yet unpublished - to Kindle. Two of my previous plays, Wormwood and The Price of a Fish Supper are in conventional print, the former in a collection called Scotland Plays and the latter in Scottish Shorts, both published by the excellent Nick Hern Books. But even though Kindle isn't the obvious home for plays, I've decided that three or four of them might sit well as downloads and The Secret Commonwealth is the first. It's essentially a monologue, which means that it's very readable - and I'm told it's also poetic and fairly densely written, so I think people may get something - a different experience, but nevertheless an interesting one - out of reading the text. It's probably the same with the other two plays, Burns on the Solway and Quartz, but I'll blog about those in the next week or so.
The Secret Commonwealth was produced at The Oran Mor in Glasgow, during one of their A Play, A Pie and a Pint seasons of lunchtime theatre. It is the story of the Reverend Robert Kirk, a minister of the church, in Aberfoyle, in late seventeenth century Scotland. He communicated with the faeries on the mysterious and numinous Doon Hill, or Dun Sithean just outside the town, wrote a treatise about them called The Secret Commonwealth, and was said, eventually, to have been taken away by them to the faery realm, for giving away their secrets. Even his grown-up son believed that his father had 'gone to his own people.'

Liam Brennan and Deirdre Graham

It is possible, however, to read that treatise in another way. Kirk was no fool, and had been instrumental in helping to translate the metical psalms and then the bible into Gaelic. He was writing at a time when all the ancient customs and beliefs of the Gael - beliefs which early Celtic christianity had somehow managed to accommodate quite comfortably - were under threat from a new and much less compromising religion. There are some who see Kirk's treatise as subversive text, asserting the value of those old beliefs which had underpinned life in the Scottish highlands and islands for so many years.

It is this that is addressed in the play which was very well reviewed. Joyce MacMillan called Kirk 'a hero for our time' and that was, I think, exactly what I was trying to achieve with a 'lyrical yet driven 50 minute lament over Scotland's failure to integrate its dour Presbyterian faith and dogged Enlightenment rationalism, with the wilder, more beautiful and more sensual aspects of its Gaelic heritage.'

If you want to read more about the play, you can find a couple of splendid interviews here
One with Liam Brennan who played Kirk with great sensitivity and understanding, and one with brilliant young director Jen Hainey who talks about visiting Dun Sithean, or the hill of the fairies, outside Aberfoyle.

Dun Sithean

If you'd like to read the play itself, you can buy The Secret Commonwealth from Amazon's Kindle Store as a very reasonably priced download, here.
Finally, my son the video games designer has made me some lovely covers for my plays. I wanted them to be reasonably simple - I didn't want to add too much to the cost of the eBooks - but striking, and evocative of each play, and I think he has managed to achieve that.

The Invisible Woman

The issue of the 'invisibility' of middle aged and older women seems to be everywhere, the word itself cropping up with disturbing regularity. I know the feeling. For a writer it's sometimes an advantage to be able to lurk quietly, watching what goes on, making mental notes, unheeded and unnoticed. At others, it can be deeply frustrating. But here's the thing. We aren't invisible to other women and especially not to middle aged and older women. Often, you'll catch a faintly jaded eye across a crowded room and know that she is feeling exactly the same as you: a mixture of indignation and amusement. That prickly sense of identification will pass between you like electricity.

To some extent, this disregard of the ‘other’ happens all the time and to everyone. It's the cause of many crass political and business decisions: this inability to put yourself in another's shoes, the assumption that just because you feel a certain way everyone else feels that way too. There was a scene during the last series of The Apprentice which neatly illustrated the problem. One of the contestants, an intelligent, determined and talented young woman, was unable to fathom why anyone might want to buy a back pack which would convert into a child's car seat. I can remember a time before motherhood when I might have felt exactly the same. But as it turned out, she was wrong, because it was a mega order for these same back packs that won the opposing team their treat. We all do it, making the assumption that everyone feels and thinks the way we do. But I suspect we do it more relentlessly when we're young through sheer lack of experience. One wrong business decision, based on a mistaken generalisation, needn't be a disaster. But this state of mind can have wider implications and the one that concerns me right now is my own field: writing and publishing.

Earlier this year, a colleague called Linda Gillard published to Amazon’s Kindle Store a beautifully written novel called House of Silence which was proving – as she herself says – ‘impossible’ to sell in the conventional way. ‘We actually ran out of editors to send it to!’ she says. Now this is no beginner we’re talking about. Linda is a talented and experienced writer with a successful, award winning track record and a good agent. The book in question was widely praised, but met with what another fine writer, Maggie Craig, calls the ‘rave rejection’. The problem with these – and I’ve had plenty of them myself – is that there’s nowhere to go with them. More often than not, they will say things like ‘This is a wonderful novel’ or ‘I just love this!’ And believe me, editors don’t lightly admit to loving something. If they don't like your writing, they won't pull their punches out of consideration for your feelings. But the problem invariably lies with the perceptions of those doing the marketing who may not even have read the book. Linda’s novel didn’t slot neatly into any narrow genre. Worse, as far as they were concerned, a significant percentage of her readership (although by no means all) consists of middle aged and older women in search of a thoughtful, well written novel: books that used to be called ‘midlist’ and were deemed to be eminently publishable. Now these same books, their writers and their voracious readers seem to have become largely invisible to conventional book marketing. But these are so often readers with the incentives of time, intelligence and a certain amount of disposable income. Now, in ever increasing numbers, they also have e-readers. And more will be acquiring them for Christmas.

Recent experience would suggest that an older woman in possession of a Kindle or a Nook, wants a more varied choice of reading matter than that generally on offer in your average supermarket. And that’s in spite of the mountains of paper books published every year. Those of us who love reading can identify with the demoralising experience of visiting a big book chain and – in spite of the many exclamatory promotions – finding nothing we really want to read. Inevitably, the marketing departments of publishing houses have become concerned with selling to big stores rather than selling to readers. But the buyers for those chains of stationers and supermarkets with a sideline in books will be focussing on a narrow demographic. Happily for Linda, there is a much bigger market out there. Her novel has become a great success and continues to sell widely and to be received enthusiastically. She sold more than 12,000 downloads of House of Silence, (and counting)  in approximately 4 months and she is already building on that success with another eBook called Untying the Knot.

She is not alone. With the collapse of the mid-list, there are many experienced, professional writers who are struggling to find publication for widely praised and properly edited work, writers, moreover, who already have a significant following among the reading public. My agent is currently sending out a new historical novel for me, in the usual way, and I'd be happy to find a publisher with whom I could work in the long term. But we aren't exactly being knocked down in the rush. Besides that, I have numerous pieces of good work including novels, which don't quite fit the mould of what he is currently sending out. Most of it is, I believe, work of quality, writing that a significant number of people would enjoy reading. And there seems little point in hanging onto it in the hope of some hypothetical jam tomorrow. That's the other thing about reaching a certain age. You become braver and more confident in your own abilities. (Maybe the invisibility helps.)

So I’ve started my own Kindle business with a trio of short stories, one of which rejoices in the title A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture and a novel called The Curiosity Cabinet which was shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize, published in the conventional way, sold out within the year, was well reviewed, widely praised, but never reprinted, and which Scottish poet and novelist John Burnside called 'a powerful story about love and obligation... a persuasive novel very well written.’ I'm following it up with three professionally produced but unpublished plays. Some of my plays are in conventional print, and continue to sell well. I know that eBook readers are not the most effective way of dealing with plays, but the three I'm planning to publish in this way are - I think - a 'good read' as much as anything else. After that, there will be more short stories and a new novel called The Summer Visitor in time for Christmas.

There are no easy answers to any of this, but I sense that a great many writers are exhilarated by these new opportunities. As a Canadian friend remarked ‘You have a great inventory there. You should be doing something with it.’ Perhaps most of all, we need to become much more businesslike in our dealings with the industry that surrounds us, becoming proactive partners. Some of us feel that the answer to our perceived invisibility may well lie in what we can do for ourselves and for that seemingly disregarded group of 'people like us'. Because although it's wrong to assume that everyone feels the way we do, it's also true to say that there are lots and lots of people out there who do. And if the needs of that group are not even being acknowledged, still less met by the current business model, it's now open to us to seize the initiative and do something about it ourselves.

Why Do I Write?

'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.'
So said Samuel Johnson. Overused and inaccurate as it is, it’s a line that has been running through my head a great deal recently. It can’t be true, of course, since my income from writing has gone down, rather than up over the years and still I write. So why do I do it?

Maybe I write out of habit. I have been writing for as long as I can remember: poems, stories, plays, articles, but now novels, lots and lots of long novels about which I think I feel more passionate than I have about any other form of writing. For me, coming to grips with this form has felt like coming home after a long and difficult journey.

Is that why I write? For the profound absorption of being in the middle of a new project? For the sense of achievement when I've finished? But there are other things I could do that would give me the same feeling, surely: less exhausting, better paid things.

So do I write for pleasure? Is it always a pleasure? Of course not. But it’s more of pleasure than not writing, which is a pain. When I don’t write, I feel ill. I could no more take a decision to stop doing it than I could take a decision to stop breathing. It's how I cope with life, the universe and everything. I write about it.

Are you still writing? Well, am I?

Of all the questions anyone can ever ask a writer, that is surely the daftest. And the most aggravating, although I reckon only another writer would fully understand why.

But who asks the estate agent – are you still selling houses? Or the doctor – are you still diagnosing? Or the plumber - are you still making a fortune out of….. ?

So why do all my friends and acquaintances, whenever I chance to meet them after a gap of years, or in some cases mere months, inevitably ask me ‘Are you still writing?’ Like that other comment ‘I would write a book if I had the time’ it implies that writing is some casual pastime, a mere indulgence, which you can abandon at will. Not a real job at all. If D List celebrities can conjure 2 book deals out of thin air there can’t be anything too demanding about it, can there? So are you still writing, or have you found something better to do with your spare time? Like canoeing, or cookery.

So, why am I still writing?
Why do I write?
I wonder.

Because I can’t do much else.
Because I want to. Even when I'm not doing it, I desperately want to be doing it. This must be how a vampire feels about blood...
Because when it is going well, there is nothing like it.
Because I go around most of the time with my head in another world
Because characters insist on populating my mind, and somehow I have to find out about them.

I have to find out, I have to know, I need to explore. Not knowing is...

This is what it is!

And that, I suppose, is the real answer.
I write to find out.
Whatever I write, whether it be a play, a novel, or a piece of non fiction, I am writing to find out what happened, what really happened, what happened to make this character the way he/she is, what is happening now and what will happen next? It’s the insistent, persistent desire to know. Non writers always think that you know it all before you start. But in my case at least, it is a constant process of interrogation. Even by the time you type The End you don’t always know. And when you write a play you never know because the actors come along and start asking you questions and then you know you don’t know much at all. Which is half the fun of it. Every book, every story, every play is a quest to find out.

So there it is. I write to find out. And all the other things as well. And for money. Of course, whenever I can, I write for money!