Thursday, 19 July 2012
Author Spotlight: Moira McPartlin
From main character Ellie’s first appearance, I was completely drawn into the rather narrow-minded world of the 1960s when a small Scottish village meets its very first black resident. Ellie’s Scottish husband is also well drawn, showing his different persona in Africa and Scotland. Even Ellie’s baby, Nat, and the little English girl, Mary, feel like real characters. The pairty-line is a very clever device that allows us access to the community’s small-mindedness and illustrates their fear of anyone different from themselves.
A worthy debut novel.
Before Moira kindly answers my questions, here’s a blurb for The Incomers
Mission-raised Ellie Amadi expects to live a dream life when she and her son Nat leave home in West Africa to join her white, estate factor, husband James in the Fife mining village of Hollyburn. In 1966 Fife, mixed marriages are unusual, never mind interracial ones, and Ellie soon witnesses the villagers’ ignorance of outsiders. Ellie struggles to adapt to her new life and rebels against her husband’s pressure on her to conform.
When she is accused of neglecting her baby, and subjected to an allegation of witchcraft, Ellie questions her ability to go on living among white faces.
The story draws on deep parallels between the cultures of West Africa and Scotland. Each chapter ends with a vernacular ‘party line’ telephone conversation between two village women, tracking the initial animosity towards Ellie and gradually, a grudging acceptance of her.
This novel cleverly explores historical racial prejudice in Scotland and may raise some difficult cultural issues, perhaps still applicable 45 years later.
The Incomers is available from Fledgling Press; Waterstones; Kobobooks and all good bookshops. It's also available on Kindle from Amazon UK and Amazon US.
Thank you for taking time to answer these questions, Moira.
Have you been writing long, and in which genres do you normally write – do you have a preference?
I began writing seriously about twelve years ago when I was travelling but I recently found a pile of writing I composed at school so it seems I have always written in some form or other.
Genre is a difficult one for me. I write stories that I am passionate about. I tend to write Scottish or International contemporary fiction with a social message. As well as novels, I write short stories and poetry and have recently written my first stage play. I was amazed to read the school writing and to discover my style hasn’t changed - it seems I have always had a social conscience. I have no preference - I write the form that feels right for the idea.
The Incomers is set in the 1960s – what made you decide to use that decade?
I originally wrote the novel from the perspective of Mary, a ten year old girl but West African Ellie came into the story and took over. The inspiration for the novel came from the time I moved, as a small child with an English accent, into a Scottish mining village. This was in the 1960s. The villages in West Fife then were closed communities, the mining industry was booming and there were no black people there. It seemed like a good period to choose and was far enough rooted in the past to allow me freedom to use the characters and the language in a provocative way.
Is the main character, Ellie, based on a real person and was it difficult to get into her voice? And is the setting inspired by an actual Fife village? (If you can answer that!)
No, Ellie is completely fictional. I didn’t want her as a main character because I knew nothing about Africa, but once she was on the page she insisted on her story being told so I created a full back story for her. She was great fun to work with. I love her and sometimes wish she was real.
Her voice was difficult to get right. I could hear her in my head but transferring that to the page was tricky. I remembered hearing James Kelman talking about creating the child’s voice in Kieran Smith Boy. He said it didn’t have to be right it just needed to be different and consistent. I aimed for that. (And it works!)
I created the village of Hollyburn on a large sheet of paper but drew many of the features from my own childhood. I grew up in the West Fife village, Carnock, and went to school in the neighboring village of Oakley. But many of my Fife friends agree Hollyburn could be inspired by any of the villages in West Fife.
Did you have to do a lot of research for this novel? For instance, on that particular region of Africa depicted in the first few chapters?
Yes I did loads of research. As I said, I never intended Ellie to be the main character. I resisted for a long time but in the end succumbed, stopped writing and started to research. I read volumes of West African literature and non fiction. I spent hours in the Mitchell Library pouring over glossy picture books and travel books and I went to The Gambia for a week before I finished the edits. I deliberately did not pin Ellie’s nationality to one country or tribe. I found through my research that due to the tribal system in Africa many of the West African states are very similar.
I also did quite a bit of research into the 1960s because I was quite young then and couldn’t rely on my memory.
What inspired you to have a ‘Party-line (or ‘Pairty-line’!) at the end of each chapter? (a great device by the way)
The ‘Pairty Line’ was one of those inspired ‘Ah-ha’ moments. I was writing the story from Ellie’s point of view and found that the village was being demonized. I didn’t want that, their story needed to be told too and the reader deserved to understand the villagers’ motives. I can’t remember when I had the ‘Pairty Line’ idea but it was probably when I was out running or in the bath; that’s where I solve most of my writing problems. There are only twenty four pages of ‘The Pairty Line’ but it is enough.
Did it take you long to find a publisher?
It took over a year. I bought The Writers Handbook, highlighted all the possible publishers who took unsolicited manuscripts and systematically worked my way through them. I felt quite early on that The Incomers would be published by the good feedback I was receiving back with my rejections. Many publishers asked to see the full manuscript; a few loved the story but were scared of the language and racial aspects of the book. Some publishers took months to get back to me (one took over a year). It takes time, perseverance and a thick skin to stick with it.
Do you think eBooks are the future? Or do you prefer print?
I think there is a place for both. It is funny but the older generations seem to have embraced the eReader; you see them on planes and trains. EBooks are great for travellers and for people who devour the written word but don’t really care about the physical book.
I can’t imagine a world without books. Since I was a child I have been enchanted by the feel and the smell of real books. I love possessing them, my house is filled with books and I am addicted to buying them. I use my eReader to read classics and for downloading research material. I’m reading The Count of Monte Cristo on my Bookeen at the moment which is quite a read and even when I am out and about I can read the odd chapter on my phone reader.
Do you have a favourite writing place? Or one that inspires you?
I have many favorite writing places. I love writing in my conservatory. It is bright, and has comfy seats as well as a large table for spreading out work – and it has a fantastic view! But I can also be found in the Mitchell Library, 4th floor and in many Glasgow West End cafes. Cafes are very inspiring. (Completely agree!) I also write my journal in bed first thing in the morning!
Do you find time for hobbies?
I have lots of hobbies. In the last couple of years I have acquired a new hobby – two lovely grandchildren. They are fabulous fun and invigorating. I have a large garden and try to grow all my own vegetables. I attempt to play the guitar and the whistle but the poor quality of my playing is testament to the few hours I devote to practicing. And when I get the chance I hill walk. This is my passion and there is no better activity for the big sky thinking I require as a writer. We have just returned from a walking holiday in the South of France. It was hard work, but the weather, the scenery, the food and accommodation were first class – I would recommend it. I came back tanned, slimmer, fitter, and inspired.
What are your current writing plans? Will you revisit the 1960s?
I have no plans to revisit the 1960s. I’m currently working on a novel set in the future. The plot came to me in a dream. I wrote it as a short story but many writers told me it was a novel. It is great fun to write. The main protagonist is a young boy and at the moment his voice is causing me problems but it will come out in the end. I also have a couple of children’s stories I would like to get published and I need to do more work on my play.
Any tips for new writers, or those trying to get published?
Don’t get hung up on other peoples’ writing processes and ignore word count. Find what works for you. Not everyone can write for hours on end or treat writing as a nine to five. For me writing is like running. The hardest part is getting started, but once you are out there you can be as free as you like. You can go for a short burst or, if you feel good, keep going for a marathon. Sometimes you will hit hard uphill sections, at others times you free wheel. The important thing is to keep putting one foot in fort of the other. One word after another leads to a sentence, one sentence after the other leads to a paragraph and before you know it you have a chapter to edit.
For those seeking a publisher, I would say the same as every other writer – persevere and believe in yourself. If you have created a crafted, original piece of work someone will want it eventually.
When I was submitting my novel I sent out short stories and poems for publication. Small successes make a huge difference to your motivation and self esteem.
Oh and drink lots of peppermint tea – it is very stimulating.
Many thanks for those interesting answers and great advice, Moira!
Moira is one of the organizers for Weegie Wednesday, a monthly book industry networking event held in Glasgow, and she sits on the editorial board of New Voices Press, the publishing arm of the Federation of Writers’ Scotland.
The Incomers, Moira’s debut novel, was published by Fledgling Press - March 2012
You can find out more about Moira on her website.