Hello Jenny! It is nice to have you here with us. Now I know you are a retired journalist and a businesswoman. How did writing happen to you?
Hi Sucheta, thank you for hosting me today. Like many authors, I have been writing all my life. My mother must have noticed some kind of gift when I was a child, because she bought me a correspondence course, How To Be A Writer. But my love of creative writing was unexpectedly stifled when I chose to do a degree in English Literature – I could never be a Tolstoy or a George Eliot, so why even try? It took me a very long time to understand that not everyone wants to read such novels, and that I might find a ‘voice’ that today’s readers would enjoy.
You live in Scotland. Could you give us some insights on life in Scotland and the reading habits of the Scottish people?
Scotland is part of the United Kingdom, that also includes England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The population is around 5 million (compared to 60 million in England), and the land mass is almost as big as England, so the country is much less densely populated. There are reasons for this, mainly terrain and climate.
There are two large cities in Scotland, Edinburgh (the capital, where I live) and Glasgow (bigger, lively, but less historic), and six smaller ones. All are rich in history, with some fabulous buildings. The central belt is highly populated, but the rural areas can be quite desolate, especially as you travel further north (away from England!). Here, the sceneryis rugged and life can be difficult. Tourism and fishing are important, especially in the north west, while agriculture is easier in the east and further south. The scenery is amazing, particularly in the west Highlands and the islands (there are almost 800 islands off the coast). The climate is temperate, particularly in the south. In reality, this means that summers are mild (seldom hot) and winters also much milder than, say central Europe or Canada or America, where the land masses are huge – the sea that surrounds us has a mitigating effect. However, the wind can be very strong! In general, it’s a pleasant climate, with fresh and clean air.
I imagine that reading habits must be as varied as anywhere in the world. There is a proud tradition of Scottish writing – one that probably found its earliest popular voice in Sir Walter Scott’s tales of derring do. I’ve visited his house, a fabulous baronial mansion in the Scottish Borders called Abbotsford. It’s impossible not to admire his work ethic, and the amount of historical research he put in to his novels. You couldn’t just Google facts back then! He had to send off for books or borrow them, often from distant friends, then wait for days or months while they made their slow journey to his remote home. Nowadays a genre called Tartan Noir– crime fiction set in Scotland – is extremely popular. Ian Rankin is probably the best-selling novelist in this genre, though there are other notables such as Denise Mina and Val McDermid. Alexander McCall Smith’s gentle novels are hugely popular all over the world too. He has been kind enough to offer me a cover quote for my latest novel, People We Love!
You have written 15 books so far. Which one was your toughest job and which was a breeze? And why?
I started my working life as a non-fiction editor, for William Collins in Glasgow. When I turned freelance, they offered me the chance to research and write a book based on old postcards they had once published. This led to further offers, and before I knew it I had written three books on Scotland and Scottish life. Back then, I used to write longhand while a neighbour typed my work up for me! (I was working at Collins, however, when the very first computer-typeset book was published, amid huge excitement!).
The most challenging book was a history of childbirth called With Child: Birth Through the Ages. I co-wrote it with a friend, Therese Duriez, and we were so naïve we didn’t realize that we’d have to research the whole of the history of medicine before we could even start! Thankfully, it was very well received, and you can still find the odd copy on Amazon.
The easiest was a short children’s novel I wrote one evening, called The Sleeping Train. I found an agent and a publisher at once. Sadly, I didn’t make enough money back then to live on, which is why I began to turn more to journalism and the business world.
You write contemporary women’s fiction. What made you choose for this genre?
When I left business, I decided I wanted another go at writing fiction. It took me some time to ‘discover’ my voice – but I suppose, in reality, I write what I like to read. That is, well-written books (at least, I hope they are!), with vivid characters, strong plots that drive you forward, and compelling issues. Books that reflect the world about us and not some idealized version of it, and that show women as they battle the odds at home, at work and in their relationships.
If given a chance, which fictional world would you love to live in and why?
Difficult question! My favourite author is Dorothy Dunnett, a Scottish writer who, I believe, is the best historical novelist ever. Her books are set in the 15th and 16th centuries and span Scotland, England and much of Europe. Everything is there – politics, intrigue, scandal, life from court to cottage and, of course, romance. I’d love to be a fly on the wall in some of her scenes – but whether I’d want to live there is another matter. Too dangerous, too much disease, and far too smelly!
Could you elaborate about the Heartlands series? What is it all about and why should the readers add it to their shelves?
I decided to set my first novel, Face the Wind and Fly, in a fictional town, so that no-one would be able to say, ‘But that shop isn’t there,’ or tell me you have to turn third left, not fourth … The town is called Hailesbank, and it’s set just east of Edinburgh, but in a geographical context that’s recognizable. When my book finally found a publisher, they thought The Hailesbank Series didn’t sound right and asked me to come up with another. I liked the sound of The Heartlands, and post-rationalised it! Here’s a little of the explanation that appears in each book:
“The small market town of Hailesbank is born of my imagination, as are the surrounding villages of Forgie and Stoneyford and the Council housing estate known as Summerfield, which together form The Heartlands. I have placed the area, in my mind, to the east of Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh.
“The first mention of The Heartlands was made by AgrippusCentorius in AD77, not long after the Romans began their surge north in the hopes of conquering this savage land. ‘This is a place of great beauty,’ wrote Agrippus, ‘and its wildness has clutched my heart.’ He makes several mentions thereafter of The Heartlands. There are still signs of Roman occupation in Hailesbank, which has great transport links to the south (and England) and the north, especially to Edinburgh, and its proximity to the sea and the (real) coastal town of Musselburgh made it a great place to settle. The Georgians and Victorians began to develop the small village, its clean air and glorious views, rich farming hinterland and great transport proving highly attractive.”
I should say that the first four books in the series can be read as standalones. The next one (Mistakes We Make, due for publication next year) follows on from the current one, People We Love.
Why should readers add it to their shelves? If you like a great read, with strong storylines, characters you can engage with, set in Scotland, hopefully my books are for you!
As a seasoned writer, what are some tips that you would like to share with budding writers?
Believe in yourself. This is very hard if you are being knocked back by big publishers all the time, but have faith.
Keep writing. The more you write, the better you get.
Listen to criticism. But only from writers or readers whose views you trust. Don’t be seduced by praise from family or friends!
Push yourself. Dig deeper into your characters, cut unnecessary words or scenes ruthlessly, ensure every line pushes your plot forwards – and make sure your work is professionally edited before it goes public.
This was all about Jenny. You can take a look at an excerpt from her latest release – People We Love – an entire chapter by clicking on this link.