- You have had 13 books published by major houses, which, for most of us reading, is the ultimate dream. How do you view writing? As a job or a compulsion.
Both. It is certainly a compulsion as it would be a bonkers career to embark on without that inner impulse. But it’s also a job. Writing a novel means sitting down and putting in the hours …
2. Do you enjoy the writing process? Do you have any rituals?
Sometimes I love it; sometimes I loathe it. There is nothing like the satisfaction when it is going right and nothing like the frustration when it isn’t. I prefer to be alone when I’m writing. I like quiet and space and privacy to pace about and speak it out loud, or laugh or groan. If there’s no one else in the house I feel as if my face drops off and I’m not quite a person, in the social sense, any more. If there’s anyone else there I feel constrained. If I’m writing a particularly difficult bit, or just needing to work but feeling delicate, I nurse myself, get into bed with a hot drink, hot water bottle and write from there. Bed is a good place to write from – sometimes the dreams are still hanging around.
- Which authors would you ascribe as influences?
Woolly answer I’m afraid, but it’s hard to say. There are writers I love: Elizabeth Taylor, Jean Rhys, Barbara Pym, Dickens, Ford Madox Ford, John Updike, I could go on and on! But I think really that everything I’ve ever read has probably had some influence, good or bad, and this is the same for any writer.
- What do you think of the Scottish Crime Noir? I noticed your were popping off to Arran with Val Mcdermid and Denise Mina. That must have been enormous fun?
It was Colonsay actually, and there was Val McDermid, but not Denise Mina. Christopher Brookmyre was there too. it was enormous fun to hang out with them. But I have to admit that I’m not much of a reader of crime. An interesting question though is why so much dark, crime fiction is emerging from Scotland. Perhaps something of the legacy of James Hogg, and Robert Louis Stevenson?
- An English writer in Scotland? How did you get here?
I am married to a Scot! But ever since I was a child I’ve had links with Scotland – I actually started school in Glasgow as we lived there for a few years when I was a child. And every summer we’d drive to Skye or some other beautiful part of Scotland for our holiday. I have been spending summers in Orkney for the past seventeen or so years and working in Scotland for 7 years now, so it feels quite natural to me to be here. I live in Edinburgh, a city I love. I have a son and two little granddaughters who live near Fort William and another son in Glasgow. It’s a great country. It does make me feel ‘English’ in a way I didn’t feel particularly when living In England – and that is interesting.
- You are a teacher of creative writing at St. Andrews University. That is quite an achievement in itself. What aspects of teaching your subject do you enjoy most?
I enjoy the students. It’s privilege to get to know such bright, creative people and I enjoy watching their work develop – when it does! Some of them are quite humblingly brilliant. I also like the contact and the feeling of dipping my toe into the outside world. I have had patches when I have done nothing but write and I think there’s a danger of staleness, and a sort of agoraphobia setting in. After weeks of talking to no one but family and living a largely imagined life, it can be quite hard, almost frightening to face the world; so a place to go with an office and a pigeon hole with my name on it, colleagues, students and all the rest of it help me to feel properly human. On the other hand, I do rather wish I taught something other than creative writing. But I don’t know anything else! Being so focused on explicable aspects of the craft of writing in the work of others makes it more difficult to lose myself in my own story worlds without self-consciousness. For this reason, I rarely write first drafts while teaching. I only teach for one semester a year, so I have plenty of writing time too. An ideal balance. For the above reason, I’d advise any would-be writer to learn another trade, or skill, or find another profession, so that they can bring something other than writing back to their writing. Plan on finding a way to pay yourself to write, in case no one else does!
- How do you keep focused during writing.
On the best days, focus is no problem. I put in earplugs if my husband’s in the house and playing banjo. Otherwise just plain old-fashioned will-power.
- Your husband is also a well-known poet and author – does he read your work and help with the re-write process?
I don’t show Andrew my work until it is as polished as I can make it on my own. Then he is my first reader. I can’t bear to let anyone read anything when I know there are problems with it – a bit hypocritical perhaps for a teacher of creative writing! Andrew shows me his work as he goes along. He needs encouragement to carry on; I need privacy. Both of these, of course, stem from insecurity. Show me a secure writer and I’ll eat my desk.
- What about rejection? Do you think the way we handle it as writers is about personality? The more sensitive we are the harder we find it?
It’s unbearable. Full stop.
- What gets you excited when you read a book?
I want to forget about the craft and just become submerged in the story. I can’t do this if the prose is weak or if it is too self-consciously showy. I want characters I care about, and stories that make me need to know what happens next. I want to believe in a story world, whether familiar or alien and I want emotional satisfaction at the end. If I’ve laughed and or cried in the process, then that is perfect.
- What do you feel about self pub authors flooding the market? I buy ebooks but always commit to the ones I love in print too.
I like the democracy of everyone having a chance. Until recently the big publishers and book-sellers had too much influence on what the reading public were directed towards, concentrating largely on best-sellers and no-brainers, piling them high, discounting them savagely, and largely ignoring writers who weren’t slap bang in fashion or likely to make shed-loads of money. I trust readers to distinguish the good from the bad, and really like the way social media, as a form of word-of-mouth, is becoming important in terms of book publicity. It feels much more genuine somehow than leaving it all to established book reviewers who perceive everything from within the canon of the literary world – and often have an agenda of their own.
- What about publishers relying on authors to self-market? I find this incredibly unfair.
Well, I’ve been marketed and it wasn’t all that successful – and publishers tend to take the credit if it works, blame the book if it doesn’t. I don’t know. I am not a publicity hound by any means and would gladly hire a body double to do it for me! On the other hand it’s nice to have some sort of contact with readers, and if this helps with marketing, then that can’t be a bad thing. It’s embarrassing though and having been brought up with the phrases like, ‘Who do you think you are?’ and, ‘Don’t blow your own trumpet,’ and the like, it’s hard to do it without cringing.
Quick Fire Silliness
Favourite place to write
Music when you write?
Absolutely not. Andrew comes in and plays the banjo when he makes his morning coffee, which drives me mad.
Guilty pleasure genre?
Do you think getting noticed as a writer is more difficult now?
It’s always been hard, there are more chances now that big publishers don’t have a monopoly. It’s heartening how often small independent publishers (who in the main care much more about the work itself than just how much profit it might make) are getting work on prize shortlists etc.
Dog or Cat?
I admire cats but have a dog. And walking the dog is part of my creative routine.
Pirate or Spacewoman
Chocolate or Pistachio
Pistachio. With chocolate sauce.
Jane Eyre or Mrs Rochester
I think the latter would be more realistic!
I can’t thank Lesley enough for taking time out of her busy routine to answer my questions. Lesley is an award-winning and critically acclaimed author so I was particularly thrilled that she reviewed my novel which, is crowd-funding on Unbound. Lesley’s wonderful review is posted below and please click the Unbound link above to pledge for my book, Blood On The Banana Leaf, and be part of my literary journey. Thank you!
‘Tabatha Stirling’s brilliantly achieved first novel, Blood on the Banana Leaf, explores the relationships between maids and their employers in Singapore, exposing deeply unsettling truths about what goes on behind the glossy surface of that society. Told in the superbly nuanced voices of four very different female characters, it’s a great read; tense, vivid and involving, both heart-breaking and heart-warming. Tabatha is a talented, brave and accomplished writer and I do hope her novel gains the recognition and success it deserves.’
Lesley Glaister is the critically acclaimed author of thirteen novels and the winner of the Jerwood Prize for Fiction 2014 for her novel, Little Egypt.