Hazel McHaffie

A Lifetime Burning

Guest interview: Linda Gillard

This week I’m bringing you my very first author interview on this blog.

Linda GillardLinda Gillard has just published her seventh novel – the fourth one she’s produced independently, and she’s achieving considerable success going solo. She first contacted me after I’d reviewed one of her books (A Lifetime Burning) and I’ve since benefited greatly from her generously shared experience of independent publishing. She’s one of those people who uses hard experiences positively, and I’m a great admirer of her personal courage as well as her writing, which is why I’ve chosen her as my debut guest author. Here she is talking to me about various aspects of her life and writing.

HMcH. Linda, you’ve had a number of varied careers before becoming a full time novelist actress, journalist, primary school teacher. You’ve also known personal difficulties – mental illness, cancer. All experiences are valuable to authors, but how have your previous lives influenced your writing, would you say? 

 LG. I think my previous lives taught me to communicate effectively, using the minimum number of words. As a columnist I knew my features would be cut from the bottom up by sub-editors, so I learned to thwart them by writing to a word count. As an actress I learned how much can be conveyed in good dialogue and how eloquent silence can be. As a teacher and journalist, I learned it was essential to grab people’s attention. I think my previous jobs also taught me not to judge. That’s useful for a writer.

My ill health has made me look – at times desperately – for the positives. Perhaps that’s why I’m able to tackle some tough subjects without losing my readers.

HMcH. I personally like the heft you give several of your books by tackling weighty issues like mental illness, loss, social isolation. But what steps do you take to stop them deterring your readers?

LG. I send my characters to some very dark places, but I give them a torch and I make sure there’s some light at the end of the tunnel.

HMcH. A remote bolthole to escape to? Sounds like a writer’s dream! But you’ve actually lived in desolate spots. Does isolation really help creativity? 

LG. It did for me. Or perhaps I should say, it helped with productivity. I lived on Skye for six years – alone for two of them – and produced four novels in that period. Silence is very important to me. I need to be able to hear my imaginary friends talking! I now live in a village near Inverness which is even quieter than my old home on Skye, but I don’t get so much uninterrupted time. I think that’s the key thing: being able to daydream without thoughts being interrupted. To think up a book, I need to get into a meditative state where I can enter an imaginary world and keep asking ‘What if…?’

HMcH. One of the best accolades readers can give is that one’s books are unputdownable. Yours are. What elements in your writing do you think create this quality?  

LG. Thank you, Hazel. I’d given a lot of thought to this, even before I started writing. I first asked the question when I read Margaret Forster’s novels in the ’80s and ’90s. I noticed that if I glanced at p1 of a Forster novel, I couldn’t stop reading. Somehow she made it impossible for me to stop. (If you want to see what I mean, start reading Shadow Baby.) Forster writes commercial literary fiction, so the hook wasn’t action or sensation. I realised it was all to do with style, not content. Forster never wrote a boring sentence, nor an inelegant one. She made her novels really easy to read – so easy, I didn’t think about putting the kettle on or emptying the washing machine, I just kept reading. That’s what makes a book ‘unputdownable’. It’s not just wanting to know what happens next. I edit and polish until my sentences flow. I cut every word that isn’t earning its keep.

But something else that might contribute to the ‘unputdownable’ quality of my books is the fact that I rarely know what’s going to happen when I’m writing and I never know how a book will end. Writing fiction for me is a process of investigation, excavation even. I really want to know what happens next and I’m writing to find out. Maybe some of that curiosity and urgency conveys itself to the reader.

HMcH. I wouldn’t describe your books as romances in the usual sense but, I think I’m right in saying, they all have a romantic element. Some reviewers get sniffy about this kind of tangential reliance on crowd-pleasers. How would you reply to them? 

LG. As I would like to reply to readers who leave me 1-star reviews: ‘I wasn’t writing for you.’

HMcH. Some of your books include ghosts; several of them revolve around haunted (in a looser ‘troubled’ sense) characters. Are these aspects allegorical or simply a plot choice?  

CauldstaneLG. Ghosts or the concept of imaginary people appear in all my books, but I think what’s happened over the years is my interest in the paranormal has moved to the forefront of the story. But the ghosts can also be allegorical. Cauldstane (my latest novel) is my fictional response to my experience of breast cancer – it’s about fear and conquering fear. The malevolent ghost who affects (and infects) an entire family is for me a personification of cancer. Using a ghost as a plot device allowed me to write about my own ghastly experience without scaring off the reader – and that’s important. My first duty is to entertain. Unless I entertain, I’ll have no opportunity to debate or educate.

HMcH. Publishing can be a rather fraught business. You’ve tried several avenues, including latterly, self-publishing. Now you’ve done it, would you stay independent? 

LG. Yes. I can’t imagine any circumstances now where I’d accept a traditional publishing deal. As an indie I’m now earning a decent living from my writing (something I never did when I was traditionally published), but that’s because I keep most of what I earn. To be sure, I’m weary of doing all my own editing, marketing, sales monitoring, etc., but my aim is to earn enough to pay an assistant to do the bits I don’t want to do.

Traditional publishing was coming between my books and their readers. Editors said my novels were ‘unmarketable’. Well, maybe they are, but I don’t market my novels, I market myself. ‘Linda Gillard’ is a brand now. My readers are buying a voice. They expect believable characters and a good yarn. They know I’ll be dealing with something I care about passionately, but the genre – and a lot else besides – might come as a surprise. They don’t mind. They trust me now not to let them down. This is a great privilege for a writer. It means I have the opportunity to experiment in a way that wouldn’t be possible if I were traditionally published.

HMcH. Thank you so much, Linda. And I wish you every success with your new book, Cauldstane, and improved health from here on.

For more information about Linda and her novels visit her website or her Amazon page.

(NB. The links are mine to enable you to find out more about what she says if you feel so inclined; Linda doesn’t talk in weblinks!)

 

 

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A Lifetime Burning

January was a cracker of a month as far as books were concerned for me this year. And in their different ways they’ve contributed greatly to my own writing (a novel about organ donation) which has taken off again now that other deadlines have been met. The one I want to tell you about this week has given me the courage to take risks. It breaks all sorts of ‘rules’ about writing but nonetheless – or is it as a result? – garners praise.

It’s thanks to bloggers Stuck-in-a-Book and Cornflower that I heard about  A Lifetime BurningA Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard in the first place. Then the blurb about it took me hotfoot to Amazon to buy it.

‘Flora Dunbar is dead. But it isn’t over.

The spectre at Flora’s funeral is Flora herself, unobserved by her grieving family and the four men who loved her. Looking back over a turbulent lifetime, Flora recalls an eccentric childhood lived in the shadow of her musical twin, Rory; early marriage to Hugh, a handsome clergyman twice her age; motherhood, which brought her Theo, the son she couldn’t love; middle age, when she finally found brief happiness in a scandalous affair with her nephew, Colin…’

The Kindle version was only 88p! Positively scandalous for a novel as good as this one.

The prologue is narrated by Flora, a tortured soul, reflecting on her life after her death. There’s no carefully paced introduction of each new character to avoid confusion; the entire cast are there in one fell swoop – at Flora’s funeral.  And the author even gives away key elements of the coming plot right at the outset. You are left in no doubt: this is going to be an uncomfortable read.

‘Theodora Dunbar, matriarch, known always as Dora, is ninety-three. Only my mother could manage to look commanding in a wheelchair … Dora’s wheelchair is manoeuvred by one of her grandsons, Colin. My ex-lover. My nephew. My brother Rory’s son – like Rory, but much darker …

Theo. My son. At thirty-four, a few months older than Colin, taller, fairer, finer-featured and always said to favour me. Everyone agreed Theo’s Apollonian good looks owed little to Hugh. Theo is a Dunbar through and through …

My niece Charlotte is not present. She is on the other side of the globe, the distance she thought necessary to put between herself and my son …

Grace hated me. I can’t say I blamed her. She had good reason. Several, in fact. But if you asked my gracious sister-in-law why she hated me, she’d say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, relieved him of the burden of his virginity, chewed him up and spat him out on the admittedly sizeable scrap-heap marked ‘Flora’s ex-lovers’. That’s what Grace would say. But she’d be lying. That isn’t why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory.’

But far from stealing the coming thunder prematurely, this tantalising glimpse into a complex family structure where nothing is as it seems, and where powerful emotions and talents lead to complicated and unlawful liaisons, serves as an irresistible promise of the haunting and disturbing story to come. And the book certainly lives up to that promise.

It’s well written as well as cleverly constructed. Flora’s posthumous revelations interwoven with third person narrative keep the story spinning along. The setting spans six decades – from the 1940s to 2000, and the story dots backwards and forwards in time. Initially I found this disconcerting. You’re just getting involved with the twins as children when the fifty-eight year old Flora interrupts. You’re sympathising with Dora’s struggles with her toddler twins when the scene flashes forwards a generation to her daughter’s confused feelings for her son. But once you get to know the characters, you start to appreciate how effectively and subtly the author is steering you towards an understanding of the ‘why’, as well as the ‘how’, of the Dunbar family shenanigans. This has to be a fiendishly difficult kind of writing to pull off successfully; in the case of A Lifetime Burning it’s a brilliant accomplishment.

The Dunbar characters are fully rounded, fallible, and utterly believable. They’re often objectionable and their behaviour leaves you torn between all sorts of emotions – incredulity, acceptance, revulsion, pity, sympathy, dismay, admiration, disgust. At once gripping and disturbing. And the title is perfect (shame it’s been used by several other authors though).

Gillard weaves apparently effortlessly between a wide range of subjects too – music, literature, Shakespeare, gardening, acting, horticulture, wildlife. A master of each.

To date the book’s got 28 comments on Amazon all with a 5 star rating! I too am lost in admiration of this writer’s skill. I’ve downloaded two more of her novels but am loathe to start reading them just yet in case they don’t reach this incredibly high standard. Could they?

And there’s a wee postscript … I reviewed this book on Goodreads this week and to my delight the author herself saw it and contacted me, so we’ve now established several links and I was able to tell her that this post was coming. An unexpected bonus. I should post more reviews obviously.

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