The Interview: Bookbag Talks To Linda Gillard

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The Interview: Bookbag talks to Linda Gillard

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Summary: Sue was downhearted when she found that she was going to be reading a novel which had been shortlisted for Romantic Novel of the Year 2009 and then found that it was a book which challenged her ideas - and was an excellent read into the bargain.
Date: 24 January 2009
Interviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee

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Sue was downhearted when she found that she was going to be reading a novel which had been shortlisted for Romantic Novel of the Year 2009 and then found that it was a book which challenged her ideas - and was an excellent read into the bargain. She couldn't resist asking Linda Gillard if she'd talk to Bookbag.

  • I'd like you to close your eyes and imagine your readers. Who do you see?

Linda Gillard: Mostly women, but a few men. The women are all ages but I think what they have in common is, they don’t like authors to spoon-feed them. They enjoy books that make them think and they could be the sort of readers who would return to a book for a second read.

  • BB: The thought of what people see in their imagination brings me on to my next question. Marianne Fraser, the heroine of Star Gazing is congenitally blind and trying to understand what she would 'see' in her imagination was one of those leaps which we all make when we start to fathom a congenital illness. What gave you the inspiration for this character and how did you do your research?

LG: I arrived at a blind heroine by a circuitous route. My son refers to my writing as playing with my imaginary friends. I had the idea of creating an imaginary hero or at least an Is he/Isn’t he real? hero. It occurred to me that if you’re blind, you’re dependent on your sense of touch or the corroboration of others to confirm someone’s existence. (A voice could be a delusion.) If you met a man when you were alone, you wouldn’t touch him and he would just be a voice to you. But if no one else appeared to see him…? Well, you get the drift.

I decided a blind heroine would allow me to pursue this storyline. It also gave me an angle for writing about the spectacular landscape of Skye. I didn’t think I had anything new to say but I thought I could present Skye from an original point of view, or rather, no point of view. I would write about Skye from the point of view of a blind woman – what she heard, touched, smelled, sensed while she was there.

I didn’t know anyone who was blind or even visually impaired. I read several books written by people who’d gone blind, but I couldn’t find much written by the congenitally blind. (I wanted my heroine Marianne to have no visual frame of reference at all.) I found a certain amount online which got me started, but mostly I made it up. I just imagined what it might be like. I removed all sighted-speak from Marianne’s narrative (that was hard) and just developed all the other senses. Once I got going, I found it surprisingly easy. It was great fun creating a hero by describing how he sounded, felt, and smelled!

Of course, I had no idea if my efforts would be convincing but I actually had an email from a man whose daughter had Marianne’s condition. He said he thought I’d captured her experience very well, so much so, he was going to get the book brailled for her.

Writing STAR GAZING changed the way I write. I realised how we limit ourselves – as people and especially as writers - by concentrating on visuals.

  • BB: I'll admit to something of a heavy heart when I knew that I would be reading a book which had been shortlisted for Romantic Novel of the Year. When I thought about it after I'd found the book unputdownable I realised that I had equated 'romantic novel' with 'chick lit' and this couldn't be further from the truth but publishers do seem to be moving away from serious women's fiction in favour of chick lit. Why do you think this is?

LG: Publishing is driven by the accountants and they are held to ransom by the chain bookstores and Tesco demanding their exorbitant discounts. So now it’s all about shifting product and chick lit sells. (Someone once said to me, what’s wrong with publishing is that most people in it are under 35. Since most books are bought and read by women over 45, I’m not quite sure how the accountants persuade themselves that catering to the under-35s is sound economics, but they do.)

I was prepared to read about younger women until I reached my early forties, then I realised the virtual absence of mature women in popular fiction was insulting and ridiculous. Women over 40 were never centre-stage. If they appeared at all it was as somebody’s mother or somebody’s wife and if they ever had sex, it was for comic effect.

I couldn’t find what I wanted to read in bookshops – they were awash with chick lit - so I wrote the sort of book I’d been looking for. That became my first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY – a thinking woman’s love story with a 47-year old heroine (the age I was at the time) and a gorgeous younger hero, set on the bleak but beautiful Hebridean island of North Uist. (Do you detect a note of wish-fulfilment fantasy here?) But this was no fluffy romance. I included some thorny issues - manic depression and a troubled mother-daughter relationship - just to keep things real. I never expected to find a publisher. (My heroine was 47 and when she had sex, it wasn’t for comic effect!) But I was very lucky. I found Transita, a new imprint aimed at mature women readers.

But the words romance and romantic do have certain connotations, don’t they? But PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is a romance, so is JANE EYRE. I don’t write romance, I write stories where falling in love is part of the plot. (I have this theory about the word romance. I think it’s gender-political. Have you noticed? Men write love stories, women write romance!) But I know why your heart sank, Sue. Readers tend to have a preconceived idea of what romance is, but if you look at this year’s shortlist, you’ll see there’s actually a wide range of books: there’s 1 chick lit, 4 with a historical or time-slip setting (one of them written by an academic) and there’s STAR GAZING which is contemporary and has a blind, widowed 45 year-old protagonist - not your average romantic heroine. She and her 51-year old sister both have romantic relationships.

  • BB: You break quite a few taboos in Star Gazing – older women are found to be desirable by younger men and even a substantial age difference is no problem but the character I really loved was Garth the Goth. What (or who) was the inspiration for that splendid young man?

LG: I wish I knew! I think he owes something to my love of Dickens. Garth is almost a caricature but – I hope - not quite.

Garth was one of those minor characters who tap you on the shoulder and say, Excuse me, I’m not a cameo. I’m a star. And so it came to pass… Garth was meant to be just the Goth research assistant of Louisa, a successful author of vampire romance, but he practically ran away with the book. I had no idea when I created him that he and Louisa would become an item. I don’t plan my books much before I start to write. I like the characters to surprise me. Garth certainly did! It was a tonic writing him. He really cheered me up on bad days. I’m so pleased you liked him. (And it’s true that Goths have more GCSEs than any other cult!)

  • BB: The island of Skye features strongly in your writing. What does the island mean to you?

LG: A timely question, as I left Skye 6 months ago after living there for 7 years. I moved to Glasgow for health reasons and to pursue my writing career, but the jury is still out on whether it was the right decision. I miss it dreadfully. I thought what I’d miss would be the mountains, the landscape generally, but what I actually miss most is birdsong, the stars and silence. I love Glasgow, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to cope without silence. I found the silence and landscape of Skye healing and creatively stimulating. The pace of life was very slow and conducive to contemplation, the sort of daydreaming that leads to stories.

We’ll see. It’s early days yet. But something tells me I’m not done with islands…

  • BB: What would winning Romantic Novel of the Year 2009 mean to you??

LG: A great deal. To win against such strong and well-known competition would be a big achievement for a relative unknown like me. It would also be a clear signal to publishers that readers are ready for older heroines and more thoughtful storylines. The £1000 prize money would also make a big difference to me. Authors earn pitifully little. The average author’s income is about £8000 p.a (and that’s if you include JKR and Iain Banks!) Very few authors earn a living. So don’t ever feel guilty about the size of your To be Read pile, Sue. Think of it as patronage of the arts.

  • BB: Here at Bookbag we know that you've embraced the internet and that you love the idea of viral marketing. Do you think that publishers are slow to pick up on its effectiveness and do you think that it's something all writers need to embrace?

LG: I don’t think publishers have really caught on to the potential of the internet. Some authors have been just as slow. When I teach student writers I tell them they just can't afford to ignore viral marketing. It’s free, it’s fair and it’s effective. Time is precious and I’d rather be writing, but I choose to focus my PR time and energies on the internet. If you have confidence in your product (and I do) then the internet is definitely the way forward.

Whenever I speak to a journalists they’ve done their homework and been to my website first where they will have read a load of impressive internet reviews, some of them from book blogs, others from the wonderful www.BookCrossing.com and websites like The Bookbag. Publishers seem to think these reviews are worth less than a column inch in a daily, but I don’t see why. I had a tiny review in the Glasgow HERALD in 2005 when EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY was published. Much good that would do me now in 2009, promoting a different book. But my online reviews are still online and the juicy quotes are now on my website.

Where internet reviews score is, they are always there, they don’t get wrapped around fish and chips! Research has shown that press reviews make no significant difference to sales anyway. Most people buy books on personal recommendation. What are sites like this other than personal recommendations?

The other brilliant thing about the internet is, it’s target marketing. You are preaching to the converted. Booklovers use book websites and they buy books. So why wouldn’t you use it? I just don’t get it, but I’m doing my bit to persuade authors and publishers that the internet is our friend.

  • BB: Which book has most influenced you and do you still have a copy?

LG: Can I have two? Dorothy Dunnett, author of historical fiction, is the author who has influenced me the most with regard to style, plotting and character. I’m not worthy to touch the hem of the late DD’s literary garment, but I’ve read and re-read her superb LYMOND CHRONICLES for over 20 years and know that those books have gone in at a deep level. I have 3 complete editions of the series, all different! And Francis Crawford gets my vote for the best romantic hero in fiction. (Yes, better than Darcy, better than Rhett.)

The other author who has influenced me is Mary Stewart, writer of romantic suspense, although I think she’s better known now for her Arthurian historical fiction. Stewart impressed upon me the importance of good dialogue, a believable (and sometimes vulnerable) hero and a good setting. I still have most of her books and I re-read them, but the first one I read was THE MOONSPINNERS, set in Crete. Lovely!

With the current fashion for nostalgic reads, Mary Stewart must be ripe for rediscovery.

  • BB: Who was your favourite teacher at school and why?

LG: My English teacher at grammar school, Miss Mary M. Davis who shared her passion for books and plays, particularly Shakespeare. She was always laughing, always encouraging. She was a very good advert for the joys of reading. I often think about her, 40 years on. She would have approved of STAR GAZING. (And she would have loved Garth!)

  • BB: What next for Linda Gillard?

LG: My second novel (A LIFETIME BURNING) has been optioned for TV and I’m waiting to hear if that will be made. I’ve finished my fourth novel, HOUSE OF SHADOWS, a mystery about an eccentric family, and that’s waiting in the wings, so far uncontracted. I’m well on with my fifth novel, which will be another love story with an unusual twist. I think STAR GAZING fans will like it.

If I win the Romantic Novel award I shall be taking a long overdue holiday with the prize money!

  • BB: Thanks a lot, Linda Gillard - and good luck with the next book!

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