Local author Gill Arbuthnott appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this summer with her latest book, Beneath, a supernatural thriller set in 16th century Scotland. She took time out from her hectic schedule to answer Geekzine UK editor Andrew Jamieson’s questions:
Andrew Jamieson: How did your latest book, Beneath, come about? Is it a project you had been planning for a while?
Gill Arbuthnott: I wanted to write something that used one of the classic stories from Scottish folklore and got particularly interested in waterhorse legends when I found that they were common to much of northern Europe, not just Scotland. At the same time, the character of Jess was already in my head, and looking for a way out into a story. She’s so sensible that I wanted to put her up against something that would really make her question her logical view of the world, so the two elements came together rather nicely.
AJ: Given its historical setting, did you immerse yourself in the time period? Did you feel you had to do considerable research to bring the era alive on page?
GA: I love historical novels, and I’ve read quite a few set in that sort of period, but I always thought of this book as a fantasy, so I wanted the historical aspect to be very much ‘light touch’. I did read quite a bit about wolves in Scotland, which was fascinating – maybe we’ll see them back one day! It’s great fun doing any sort of research, but you have to force yourself to leave out at least 90% of what you’ve learned, or it really bogs down the plot. I’m sure there are anachronisms in ‘Beneath’, but if I’ve done my job properly, my target readers will be too interested in the story to find them jarring.
AJ: The book has a fine balance between the period setting and the more fantastical elements. Was that a hard thing to achieve, and was it ever tempting to to go further with the fantasy side of the proceedings?
GA: I’m delighted you think I got the balance right! I always wanted the book to be grounded in a version of the real world (all my fantasy is) and not to require too much suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. I wasn’t tempted to go more fantastical in this book, but I do have the start of a couple of stories that are much more fantastical. We’ll have to see if they ever make it past Chapter 3 though.
AJ: How much of your own personality do you put into your characters?
GA: They are composites of all sorts of people, of course, but there must be a bit of me in there. I suppose that many of my characters have traits that I would like to have, but don’t in real life. They’re certainly much braver than I am! I’d like to think that the resourcefulness many of them show is something I share to an extent, but maybe that’s just wishful thinking….
AJ: What other projects are you working on at the moment? How far ahead do you usually plan for future projects?
GA: I’m desperately trying to finish off two non-fiction books at the moment, before I can return to the novel I’m trying to write. It’s been on hold more or less since the end of July, which has been quite frustrating. I’m not really a planner at all – there’s not a list of books I plan to write stuck on my wall or anything – and even when I’m in the middle of writing a novel, I don’t necessarily know how it will end. This certainly keeps things exciting for me, because I’m finding out what happens at more or less the same rate as my characters, but it does mean a lot of rewriting, because by the time I get to the end of the plot, the beginning probably won’t make sense any more…
AJ: How did you start out as a writer?
GA: I’ve been writing stories since primary school, and always daydreamed about being a published author, but for a long time I thought you needed an English degree before anyone would take you seriously (I’m a biologist by training). Eventually I started trying to get published, with total lack of success for 10 years, during which I was writing for adults. Then I began a new story and realised it was for children. It turned into ‘The Chaos Clock’ and was published by Floris Books, and I discovered I was actually a children’s author!
AJ: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
- Get on and do it! Don’t wait to be inspired, just get writing and try to write so often it becomes a habit and you feel guilty if you don’t do it.
- Don’t expect to be good without practising – you wouldn’t expect to play the piano or be any good at a foreign language without spending hours on it. Writing is no different.
- Read, read, read. And then read some more. Think about why you like your favourite books. Is it the characters, the plot, the setting? Try to bring some of this to your own work.
- Don’t give up. You need to be determined. And never, never say you’d like to write but you don’t have time.
AJ: Do you have any favourite books that you come back to?
GA: Authors rather than titles: Jane Austen, Louis de Bernieres, Terry Pratchett, Candia McWilliam, Kate Atkinson, Dorothy Dunnett, P G Wodehouse (I always read him if I get stuck with punctuation, as well as for pleasure) Ray Bradbury… I could go on for a long time here.
AJ: What was the last good book that you read?
GA: I’ve hardly had any time to read recently, due to deadlines! But three of my very favourite recent books are ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson, ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern and ‘Scarlet Ibis’ by Gill Lewis.
Thank you to Gill for her answers. Beneath is out now in paperback (and ebook), priced £6.99, published by Kelpies Teen, an imprint of Floris Books.
You can keep up with Gill and her work over on her blog: http://gillarbuthnott.wordpress.com/