Which novels do you remember reading when you were growing up? Did any have a particular impact on you?
As a teenager I read and loved the classics, but I also read Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. I think Mary Stewart’s books (which I still re-read now) had a lasting impact. They made me want to travel and they also introduced me to courageous, resourceful, contemporary heroines with a sense of humour. It’s a character template I went on to use in my own novels.
You’ve been an actor, a teacher, and a journalist. What were the best, and worst, aspects of each? Is there anything you miss from any of your previous careers?
The best thing about being an actor was other actors (and actors are the only thing I miss about that career.) The worst thing was the unemployment – months at a time, waiting for your agent to ring.
The best thing about being a teacher was the kids. They made me laugh and they made me cry, but there was never a dull moment. The worst thing was the exhaustion – an inevitable consequence of a large class and an impossible workload.
The best thing about being a journalist was learning a little about a lot of interesting things. The worst thing was having to condense my research and ideas into 1,200 words every month.
Can you tell us how you got your first break as a fiction writer?
I was an over-worked teacher in a very tough school when I cracked up. While I was recuperating from a breakdown, I started writing fiction for my own entertainment. I joined an online writing group and members suggested I should try to get an agent for my first novel.
I found an agent who loved my work, but I found my own publisher when I was lucky enough to meet an editor at a writing conference who was looking for manuscripts featuring older women. The heroine of my first novel, Emotional Geology was 47, so I told her about the book. She asked to read it and then she decided she wanted to publish it.
You described your move to the Highlands as a “long-held dream”. For how long had you dreamed of it and what was it about this type of life that appealed to you?
I’d wanted to live in Scotland since I was a drama student and had performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Then when I was older, I took my children on holiday to the Highlands and particularly the islands. We used to go to quite remote areas like Orkney and the Hebrides. We went so often, we joked we ought to move there. After both children had gone off to university, I felt able to “live the dream” and I went to live in Inverness and then on to the Isle of Skye, where I spent 6 years. I’ve also lived on the Isle of Arran and I’ve spent time on Harris.
What appeals to me about the Highlands & Islands is the landscape, the wildlife, the northern light and the colours of the natural world. I just feel at home here. The weather can be grim, but I actually like rain!
You’ve said that you prefer your novels’ protagonists to be “spiky, awkward, real women” rather than likeable heroines. Can Jenny Ryan, the heroine of your latest novel, Cauldstane, be described in this way?
Yes, I think so. She’s 42, lonely, but not desperate. She’s a successful career woman, but mentally a little fragile. Jenny’s an odd mixture of courage and fearfulness, a quiet, almost retiring character, but she’s also stubborn as hell.
What made you decide to make Jenny a ghost writer?
It’s perhaps rather self-indulgent of me, but I enjoy writing about writers. I wrote about an author of vampire romance in Star Gazing. She was a subsidiary, mainly comic character. This time I wanted to write about a more serious sort of writer.
The idea of ghostwriting has always intrigued me and as I researched the job, I became fascinated by its peculiar demands. It’s been said that ghostwriting is a job for an author with no ego and unlimited discretion. But mainly, I just couldn’t resist the idea of making the heroine of a ghost story a ghostwriter!
Where did the idea for Cauldstane come from? How and where did you do your research?
I first got the idea when I visited Cawdor Castle. It’s privately owned, but open to the public and it’s still inhabited. I started thinking about what it must be like to live in a castle and of course, I wondered if it was haunted.
Once I’d got the idea of writing about a family struggling to hold on to their ancestral home, I visited a lot of other castles. (I live in the Highlands, so I was well placed to do that.) I’d already done quite a lot of castle research for one of my previous novels, Untying the Knot, which concerns a man who restores a ruined 16thC tower house. In addition I read books about castles and biographies and I studied a lot of photos. I loved doing the research. I don’t think much of it made it into Cauldstane. I just used it to enrich the story and – I hope – make it seem more authentic.
You have been very open about your life experiences with mental illness and cancer. What sort of response do you get from your readers to your sharing of these experiences?
At times I’ve felt almost overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity of readers’ responses. When I went public on Facebook about being diagnosed with breast cancer, I was deluged with good wishes, cards, presents and a great deal of advice and encouragement from cancer survivors. My readers really helped me cope with what was a lengthy and nightmarish experience.
Have you ever been given any writing advice that you found particularly useful (or not useful!)?
Everyone’s told, “Write what you know”, but I think that’s nonsense. Story-telling is about making stuff up! Of course what you write needs to be believable, but you don’t have to have lived it.
Star Gazing was shortlisted for several awards and won one of them. It’s about a woman who’s congenitally blind and most of the book is told from her “point of view”. I’m not blind, nor is anyone in my family. I’ve never even had a blind friend. I researched what I could and I made up the rest. I’m told (by readers who have blind family members) that my portrait is completely convincing. If it is, it’s a feat of the imagination.
Which writers (living or dead) would be at your ideal dinner party?
I’d invite four of my favourites, but I’m so in awe of them, I’m sure I’d be tongue-tied throughout the meal. Sadly they’re all dead, so it would have to be a ghostly supper, but I’d invite Charles Dickens, Patrick O’Brian, Elizabeth Jane Howard and my favourite author, the Scottish historical novelist, Dorothy Dunnett.