If you could only read one more book before reading became illegal what would it be and why?
What a fabulous question! One last book before blackness descended … my first thought was, a new read or a re-read? Difficult. A new read is wonderful, of course, that breathless excitement of not knowing where the story is going or how it will end as the pages shrink in your right hand – but then imagine the horror of having started your last ever book and finding it was a turkey.
A classic I’ve not read? In my 60th year, instead of climbing 60 Munros or visiting 60 islands I decided to start on the ‘I really should have read this’ list, and I was so glad I did. The Illiad was amazing, and Beowulf, and Dante’s Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. I ran out of steam in The Canterbury Tales which leaves from 1400 onwards: Don Quixote, several Shakespeare plays and poems (we didn’t manage to fit them all in during my Eng. Lit. degree), Fielding, Smollett, Johnson and Boswell, Hazlitt, several by Dickens and Elliot … At this point in my breakfast-table musings my husband suggested there must be a book called How to forment revolution against repressive regimes which ban reading. I countered that there are regimes which do just that, especially ones which don’t let girls go to school, and headed off for my morning otter-watch walk, still thinking.
A re-read, then, to say goodbye to a favourite world? Goodbye to Marianne and Elinor, or Anne Elliot? Goodbye to Jane Eyre, or Cathy and Heathcliffe? Unsophisticated, indomitable Jeanie Deans? Idealistic Dorothes and Ladislas? Or my favourite Clarissa, with the added bonus that as English’s longest book (four volumes in Everyman) I could spin it out for several months – but it’s not a cheery way to go into blackness. Then there’s my light reading, for colds, tiredness or times of stress: my last memory of reading could be Georgette Heyer’s Grand Sophy or Venetia, Peter Lovesay’s bumbling Edward VII, or the love between Claire and Henry in The Time Traveller’s Wife.
Then there are beloved children’s books: Narnia, the saga of Anne of Green Gables, Cathie, Ian and Sovra running wild in the Highlands, Emma Tupper discovering monsters, Tamsin and Rissa on Romney Marsh. A recent re-read was The Children of Green Knowe, just as magical as when I was ten.
So, so hard – but I think I’d have to end with Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingham and all the other characters of Pride and Prejudice.
If you could be a character in any book, who would it be?
Oooh, anyone I like? I could have a lot of fun foiling villains as Val McDermid’s kick-boxing, wise-cracking Kate Brannigan, or captaining a tall ship as Hornblower (and trying out being a man too). Or how about any of Mary Stewart’s feisty heroines dealing with villainy in exotic locations? Right now in Shetland it’s still grey at 9.30 and the sun’s sinking by 2.30 so a dose of Mediterranean sun sounds wonderful. If I was Heyer’s Grand Sophy I could drive a perch phaeton and be on nodding terms with Regency society – a good costume too. Or no, for an even better costume with a hoop and feathers, I’d be Cleone Knox, the narrator of The Diary of a Lady of Fashion 1764-5. She’s a minx of the first order, twisting everyone else round her little finger, and she has much more fun than I had as a teenager, so I’m going back there.
What is the title of the book that you are going to tell us about?
Death on a Shetland Isle
How did you come up with the title?
I’m hopeless at titles – writing a 90,000 word book is easier than summing it up in four or five well-chosen words! – so I was totally relieved when my publishers, Allison & Busby, asked for the word Shetland in each title. The difficulty was that my first book for them wasn’t actually set in Shetland, but on a tall ship going between Norway and Ireland, south of Orkney, so Death in Shetland Waters was the best I could come up with. Having established that pattern, this second book for them was Death on a Shetland Isle, and the next one will be Death from a Shetland Cliff.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
I love folklore and all my Cass stories have included a Shetland myth element. This time I wanted to use the Finn people, sorcerers, shape-changers and shamans, and Shetland’s Island of the Finns was Fetlar, where most of the book is set. I sat down and thought about other things that were particular to Fetlar, and of course there was the World Hanfatafl competition. Hanfatafl was like the Viking chess, a board game with little warriors, and I thought what fun it would be to incorporate that into the book, as Lewis Carroll did with chess in Through the Looking Glass. It’s the sort of structure that pleases authors, even though readers don’t notice it. Each section of the book after the opening one, where we meet all the ‘pieces’, has two moves from each side – but of course the reader doesn’t know till the end who’s on which side.
As well as that, I heard a fantastic story from Orkney’s Island of the Finns, Eynhallow. It’s a true story, from 1990. A group of 88 people were taken to the island, which is now a bird sanctuary and only open one day of the year. The boat handlers counted them off … but when they counted them back aboard there were only 86. A massive land and sea search found nothing, and the local story was that the missing pair were two Finns returning to their old home. Now there was a challenge! – how could I annoy my Cass by making two people disappear from her ship while they visited Fetlar?
Since I was on Fetlar, another theme of the book was the difficulties we remote country people face in struggling to stay in our remote places against the centralising drag towards the city. Our local area had just fought to retain its wonderful 200 pupil secondary school, and an increasing number of services are centralised south – now what is the ambulance service in Dundee going to make of a breathless old Shetland lady saying, ‘It’s me Ertie, he’s taen a turn wi’ his puddens?’ And as for running our airstrip by video from Portsmouth, well, words fail me.
Which character in this book is your favourite and why?
I have several favourites. Cass, of course, my heroine: she’s a sailor, second mate of the Norwegian tall ship Sorlandet. She’s independent, quick-witted, indiosyncratic, and in this book she gets a real shock. For ten years she’s believed she killed her former lover, who was lost at sea in a shared voyage – and now suddenly he turns up as third mate, under another name. She’s sure it’s him, but he behaves as if he’s never seen her before. I had a lot of fun letting my normally rather repressed Cass let show her emotional side. I’m also very fond of her policeman lover, Gavin, an old-fashioned Highlander who thinks in Gaelic and wears a kilt all the time. Cass’s flamboyant French opera-singer mother is great fun when she sweeps into the book, and I have a soft spot for Cass’s friend Inga’s toddler, Peerie Charlie, a realistically naughtly little boy who twists Cass round his little finger.
Where can we buy the book?
It’s on sale on Amazon, but do please go and order it from your local Waterstones (they may have it already) or better still, your local indie. Support our bookshops! Or even better, ask your library to get it in, and then lots of people can enjoy it.
For people who like reading series in order (though each of my books can be read as a standalone), then the first of the series is Death on a Longship.
How can your readers keep in touch with you?
I have a website with good pictures of Shetland (badly needing updated, but the pace of the quiet country life keeps me busy) and both a personal and an author FB page. Please join me on either – warning, if you join me on the personal page, you’ll get grandchildren as well as cats!
Thank you so much for stopping by, come back again soon.
Thank you for asking me, Colette – I’ve had such fun answering these questions.