The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
My interview today is with Elisabeth Gifford, a debut author- but a far from inexperienced writer – who sent me her novel The Secrets of the Sea House. There are a lot of strong points about this book, which interweaves the story of a young couple moving into an old house in Harris with the lives of its occupants in the 1860’s, but what impressed me most was the wonderful sense of place. The story is set in Harris in the Outer Hebrides and Elisabeth sent me a beautiful picture of the island (actually part of an island) which I have included on this page. The cottage which the author rented is visible as a white dot towards the bottom of the picture,
Tell me something about yourself? Your novel Secrets of the Sea House is set in the Hebrides – is this your home country?
I’m English but my husband is a Scot and it was during a visit to his family in St Andrews that I saw an advert for a small white cottage in the Hebrides. A week later we had made the journey to Harris to stay in the cottage and that was the beginning of our regular visits there. It’s rare to find wilderness in the UK, but the HebrideanIslands have endless stunning and peaceful landscapes and the sense of history is very vivid, from ancient standing stones, to the evidence of nineteenth and twentieth century crofting life. The Hebrides is probably the last place in the UK where the old crofting lifestyle and Scots Gaelic community are still intact and I wanted to record and preserve some part of a very precious and unique heritage.
Although this is your first novel you are an experienced writer and a poet. Could you tell me more about writing life?
I write most days starting first thing in the morning and carry on until early afternoon. I don’t have a set spot and move around the house with my laptop, working wherever it is quiet and the light is good, depending on what else is going on in the house. My husband is an illustrator and he also works at home. I write uncritically in the first draft to let the characters speak and see where they want to go. Then I put on my editor’s hat and begin to prune and shape the story, seeing if there isn’t a better or a simpler way to convey a sentence or a scene. I enjoy both phases of writing although they always take much longer than you imagine they will.
You are a trained writer, in the sense that you have a Diploma in Creative Writing from Oxford and an MA from London. Do you feel this has made you a better writer or simply a more knowledgeable writer?
It was while I was teaching that I began to take writing courses because I loved studying the writing process, and was quite surprised when the work I did for those classes began to turn into two novels, and a two book deal. The Diploma was very broad, covering poetry, drama and novel writing. It was an ideal way to explore writing and new possibilities. One afternoon, a tutor, Jane Draycott the poet, brought in masks for the group to wear. At first I felt quite silly, but it was an incredibly vivid way to get a writer used to speaking in the voice of another character, and for me it was a tremendous breakthrough in what one could do with writing. Another day we went out into the local shops to observe people, note book in hand, which led to the concerned manager of the local Marks and Spencers asking if we were undercover food inspectors checking out her store. The Masters was much more focused on novel writing and building up a manuscript that might be publishable. The courses offered different stages of development, and I loved them both. For me they were very helpful in terms of accelerating the writing process. I still workshop with my old class from the Masters.
How did you research The Secrets of the Sea House? How did you first discover the legend of the sea people?
As we were visiting the Hebrides regularly I began to amass a small library of history and folklore. The legend of the sea people is well known along the Western seaboard of the UK, from Orkney to Ireland. I thought that the stories of seal women and selkies were nothing more than a lovely myth, but then I picked up Gaelic historian John MacAulay’s book, Seal Folk and Ocean Paddlers. I was intrigued to learn that the sea people myths were a form of oral history and began to look into who the sea people really were. I based some of the novel on the work of MacRitchie, a Victorian historian who first postulated the existence of a tribe of Sea Sami who came down from Norway in seal skin canoes. Dressed in seal skins, and with the waterlogged kayak lying just below the water looking for all the world like a tail, they most probably were the source of the sea people legends. One mermaid sighting was even recorded in the Times newspaper in a letter from a Victorian schoolmaster, about 200 years ago. That was one of the last sightings, and coincides with the date of the extinction of the Norwegian Sea Sami people and their kayak-based lifestyle when they were forced to assimilate into mainstream Norwegian culture. There are now no artefacts left to prove that the Sea Sami ever existed – other than the legends and mermaid sightings, and a mysterious canoe in Aberdeen. It was picked up on the Aberdeen coast 200 years ago with a ‘hairy’ man inside who died 3 days later. The kayak is not made of whale baleen strips as is the Eskimo custom, but of spruce lathes that may well come from the mountains of Norway.
This is the big question for debut authors, how did you find a publisher?
At the end of the Masters, my writing group organised a reading and invited several agents. It took a year or so before the book was completed and I was concerned that the agents would have forgotten me, but I was lucky enough to be taken up by Rogers Coleridge and White. The biggest issue is having a completed manuscript to give to an agent, and that seems to takes about twice as long and four more edits longer than you were expecting.
Are you working on your next novel?
Yes, Return to Fourwinds is a family saga set in England and Spain. Researching the book, I found out some fascinating facts about a distant relative who worked as part of the Madrid spying ring in World War 2, helping stranded soldiers and Jewish refugees escape through Spain to safety. The spy ring saved hundreds of lives but their work remained a secret due to the pressures of the Francoist regime after the war. The book explores how we may keep secrets to protect ourselves and our family, but find that that comes with a price. I’ve been working on both novels over the past seven years so that’s why they are coming out so close together.
Have you any advice for aspiring authors?
If writing is what you love to do, then give time to it. It’s just like learning to play a musical instrument, and it takes practice and time to develop your skills. There’s also lots of different ways to be a writer, so it’s worth looking into what you want to do, be it fiction, non-fiction or poetry. Books about writing, courses, writing groups and workshops are all great sources of instruction and feedback and can accelerate your learning process greatly, but at the end of the day it’s a question of being attentive to your surroundings and then as honest and real to life as you can be on the page while you tell that story you are burning to share.
My review of Secrets of the Sea House will appear in the February issue of Historical Novels Review (the journal of the Historical Novel Society) and also on the Historical Novel Society website.
There are many other interesting people you can met on this blog, just browse around the ‘MEET . . . ‘ pages.