Today I am delighted to have a interview with one of my absolutely favourite authors, Linda Gillard, and an international giveaway of her book UNTYING THE KNOT, recently reissued in paperback (see the end of the post for details).
Linda gave wonderful answers to my questions and then said "edit how you like". Well, I couldn't do it, it was all much too fascinating, I kept finding myself smiling and nodding as I read. So I hope you'll settle down for a lovely long read.
First, a little about UNTYING THE KNOT itself, which I've just finished re-reading. Fay is an artist who creates pictures in fabric. She has a grown-up daughter and an ex-husband, Magnus, who was a bomb disposal expert before an accident which invalided him out of the army and left him suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. After years of struggling to live with Magnus's illness, Fay is now living alone on Glasgow, having carefully put her life back together – when their daughter announces her engagement, however, Fay discovers that her ordered existence is horribly precarious. This is a story of damaged people, told with great warmth and humour, not least on the horrors of living in the ruinous Scottish tower which Magnus is lovingly restoring.
With all Linda's books what draws me is the sense of authenticity in the handling of the dark areas of people's minds, the insight which can allow us to like a someone even when their behaviour is destructive – these are real people, you feel, and not just characters in a book. So of course, that's one of the areas I wanted to explore. We started the interview, though, with another of the important themes in the story...
Jodie/GeraniumCat: One of the things I particularly enjoyed in UNTYING THE KNOT is the importance of textiles, perhaps because I grew up in a household where our childhood clothing had often been incorporated into pictures – it gives a wonderful sense of connection to the past, which really comes over in your book. I know you’ve mentioned somewhere that textiles are personally important to you. Would you like to talk about how?
Linda: If I’d been able to sell more of my textiles, I might never have taken up writing!
Thirty years ago I made cot quilts for my babies, but I’d not done much more in the way of patchwork until I was recovering from a mental breakdown which led me to give up teaching. I dug out my old quilt books and my fabric stash and I started to piece a huge quilt. It was double bed-sized and the design was known as Storm at Sea.
I got the quilting bug and for the next few years I was a fanatical quilter. I made lots of quilts for my family and friends and I also made small quilts & wallhangings with a view to selling them at craft markets. Customers admired my work, but few bought. People were reluctant to pay a reasonable rate for handmade items that entail many hours of work, so I went back to making quilts for pleasure.
In those creative years I was doing a lot of thinking while I sewed – about mental illness, creativity and the healing, restorative power of colour and textiles. Eventually I knew I wanted a change. I wanted to work with words, creating something that drew the various elements of my life together in some kind of synthesis. So I started writing fiction, just for my own entertainment. That produced my first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY, about a bipolar textile artist living alone on a remote Hebridean island.
Several of my books reflect my interest in textiles because I’ve always written what I wanted to read. (In HOUSE OF SILENCE and UNTYING THE KNOT textiles are actually part of the plot.) These days I don’t find time to quilt. I write fulltime and hobbies have gone by the board. My obsession used to be quilting, now it’s writing novels! But by including quilts in my fiction, I manage to maintain a connection with my earlier passion.
Jodie: Your books always combine humour and romance at the same time as difficult subjects such as PTSD, incest and mental illness – do you actually set out to tackle these areas, or do they arise from more conventionally romantic plot ideas?
Linda: This is a hard one to answer as the process of developing a story is a complex one. I always start with characters. Actually I start with questions about characters and I write novels to answer those questions. When I start, I don’t know the answers. If I did, I wouldn’t bother to write the novel. For me writing a novel is a process of investigation and discovery. I like to be surprised!
This was the genesis of UNTYING THE KNOT and it probably took about three minutes…
One day I passed a white van that said BOMB DISPOSAL on the back. It was parked on a suburban drive outside Glasgow. As soon as I saw it, I asked myself, “What sort of man goes into bomb disposal?” Then that question triggered another. “What sort of boy grows up to become the sort of man who goes into bomb disposal?” Then I asked, “What must it be like to be married to a bomb disposal technician?” By the time my mind had generated those three questions, I knew the answers would form the basis of a novel.
Mental illness is a personal interest of mine. I’ve suffered from serious depression and after my breakdown I was diagnosed as mildly bipolar, so it’s a subject I feel drawn to at various levels. The more I researched it, the more I realised how little the average person understands about the nature of mental illness. Recently I’ve been able to compare the huge amounts of emotional and practical support you get when stricken with cancer, with the silence, stigma and ignorance that generally surround mental illness. Some people still think mental illness isn’t a proper illness. So in some of my novels I’ve tried to show the terrible toll it can take on relationships and how people struggle with that. But as you’ve mentioned, I do always combine my difficult themes with humour, some of it rather dark. The primary purpose of my fiction is to entertain.
I like to write love stories, but I have no interest in writing conventional romance, so I try to give my stories a twist. I wondered what a romantic relationship would be like if you were middle-aged, widowed and blind. The answer to that question became my award-winning book, STAR GAZING.
I’m drawn to writing about challenging issues partly for personal reasons but also because I like to put my characters under pressure, to see what happens to them. I certainly put my poor heroes through the wringer!
Jodie: You’ve written some very attractive heroes. Are you a serial polygamist, or do you have a favourite amongst them?
Linda: I’m awful – I tend to love the one I’m with, though there’s always a difficult period when I start a new book and can’t get my “ex” out of my head. I’m not sure I’ve ever got over Rory Dunbar, the anti-hero of A LIFETIME BURNING. He’s not at all likeable, but I think he’s my most interesting hero. I do tend to like the bad boys (Alfie in HOUSE OF SILENCE is another anti-hero of whom I’m very fond) and the strange boys – Hector in THE GLASS GUARDIAN and Garth the Goth in STAR GAZING.
But for some time now, my favourite hero has been Magnus from UNTYING THE KNOT. This has surprised me because he was the hardest one to write. Magnus is a mess. A charming, handsome mess, but a mess nonetheless. He isn’t as emotionally “evolved” as my other heroes and it was a challenge to create someone so damaged and mentally fragile, who was still appealing, who was still very much a hero. It was a tall order and I gave up on the novel twice, convinced it was too ambitious a project for me to complete.
Jodie: I wondered while reading UNTYING THE KNOT what authors you feel have had the most influence on your writing (the start of Chapter 5 reminds me very much of another of my favourite authors…)?
Linda: Ooh, I wonder who you mean? Do tell!
[J: It was the start of I Capture the Castle, where the Mortmains first discover and explore Godsend Castle...]
I’m not aware of paying conscious homage to other writers in my books apart from A LIFETIME BURNING where I did set out to do a bit of a Barbara Pym. But since the plot verges on melodrama and is crammed with tragic incidents, I don’t think anyone noticed!
I hesitate to mention authors who’ve influenced me. I don’t want to suggest my books have anything in common with theirs, but as you’ve asked… I know at some level I’ve been influenced by my love of Dickens, the Brontës, Daphne du Maurier and the historical novelist, Dorothy Dunnett. I’ve also borrowed from Shakespeare.
I’ve always been an analytical reader, taking stories apart to see how they work. I studied German and Drama at university and was an actress for years, then a journalist, so for much of my life I’ve used words as tools for telling stories. I hope I’ve learned something from studying the master craftsmen and -women.
Jodie: I recently finished – and immensely enjoyed – A LIFETIME BURNING. In it there was a mention of the difficulty of peeing in a farthingale, which made me grin because it’s a problem I’ve experienced too. I know you have an acting background, and wondered if you thought that it affects the way you write?
Linda: Having been an actress affects my writing to a huge degree. I write parts for actors! (I usually have people in mind to play the parts too.) I tell my stories largely through dialogue and I take a lot of trouble to make sure all the characters have their own “voice”. I hate it when all the characters in a book sound the same, regardless of age, gender and class.
An acting background made it easier for me to make the imaginative leap into some almost unimaginable situations – Marianne’s congenital blindness in STAR GAZING or Magnus’ horrific and bloody experiences in the Falklands and Londonderry in UNTYING THE KNOT. I also learned not to judge characters. Unless you’re in panto, you can’t go on stage and just play “the villain”. You have to understand why your character does what he does. If your performance is not to be two-dimensional, you have to find appealing and attractive aspects of a bad person.
As an actor, you have to “love the sinner, not the sin” and that’s what I try to do when I write. UNTYING THE KNOT looks at domestic violence, A LIFETIME BURNING deals with adult brother-sister incest and several novels examine addiction of various kinds. I wanted to treat these serious subjects with honesty and compassion. I didn’t want to judge. In my view, that’s not the novelist’s job.
Jodie: Finally, it’s clear from all your books that the physical setting is hugely important. I grew up in Perthshire, so UNTYING THE KNOT is wonderfully nostalgic for me, and I can absolutely understand Magnus falling in love with Tullibardine Tower, and Fay finding it too cold to endure! It occurred to me, though, that in UTK and in THE GLASS GUARDIAN, a much-loved place is also the source of un-ease for your characters. I’m not sure I can formulate a question from that thought, but is it something you’d like to comment on?
Linda: Setting is very important. It comes to me soon after the initial idea for the novel, which is always a character. I hadn’t been thinking about a cracked up bomb-disposal expert for long before I saw him restoring a ruinous castle, then living in it. Obviously there’s something thematic going on there: Magnus’ mind and body have been shattered and his marriage is in ruins, so the castle became a symbol of restoration. Magnus was literally picking up the pieces of a life and attempting to rebuild it.
But I don’t work that out at a conscious level. I just “saw” Magnus in a castle on a hillside, the way you always see Mr Rochester at Thornfield Hall or the second Mrs de Winter at Manderley. Some characters inhabit their own territory, like animals in their habitat. But I think my settings are chosen – probably at a subconscious level – to reflect themes in my novels.
I was asking myself recently why so many of my books are set in autumn and winter – sometimes the depths of winter, in places known for their bleak weather. (The Norfolk coast, the north of Scotland, the Hebrides.) I think this must be because the season reflects the spiritual darkness and emotional hibernation my characters are grappling with. So many of them have baggage: tragic or difficult pasts that continue to affect the present. My novels take the protagonists on a journey from darkness towards light, from fragmentation to integration. I think I choose settings to reflect that.
In HOUSE OF SILENCE I created a severely dysfunctional extended family with a lot of secrets. They grew up in (and some of them still lived in) Creake Hall, a ramshackle, decaying Jacobean mansion – imposing on the outside, falling apart from neglect on the inside. That was a metaphor for the family too. What you saw was definitely not what you got.
But I don’t do much of this consciously. It’s only afterwards, when I stand back from the book that I see I chose an appropriate setting. At the moment of creation it just seems obvious that if you want to write a story about a woman on the run from her life, living on the edge, on the very cusp of madness, you’d set her down in a little house on the shore of a remote Hebridean island in February! I think there’s a “Houdini” element to my stories. I tie my characters up, immerse them in a tank of water and say, “Get out of that!” And at the time of writing, I usually have no idea how the characters will cope, or in some cases even survive. The dramatic climax of UNTYING THE KNOT where Magnus’ life is in danger was me improvising (to borrow another theatrical analogy). I had no idea how Magnus was going to get out of the terrible predicament I threw him into. I had to write my way out of it. (Perhaps it’s me who’s the Houdini!)
I also use settings to illustrate Milton’s words, “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a Heaven of hell, a hell of Heaven.” Much as my characters love the homes they’ve chosen, built or inherited, their inner turmoil colours their experience. Until they make peace with themselves and their loved ones, they continue to experience that sense of unease you describe. I think my characters live in “haunted” houses (this is literally true in THE GLASS GUARDIAN). The story brings about a kind of exorcism where the past is laid to rest and people move on, into the light.
I must thank Linda for taking the time to give such thoughtful answers to my questions. If you haven't read her books I hope it will persuade you to try (most are now available in paperback and all can be found in eBook format).
Linda will be looking in tomorrow to read your comments and on Saturday will draw a winner for a signed copy of UNTYING THE KNOT (UK only; if you don't live in the UK you are very welcome to enter, but the book will be sent via Amazon). You have until midnight Friday to enter - just leave a comment below, with your name. The winner will be announced here on Saturday.