We had great advice for writers during an hour with Scottish author Karen Campbell.
I’d read Campbell’s ‘cop books’ three years ago, one after the other. These had a basis is in her five years as a police officer, a job that she felt she was always in danger of being found out as inadequate. She doesn’t read much crime fiction, and says these books are more about people, especially those who live parallel lives, usually invisible, to the majority of city dwellers. The police background is more a vehicle for exploring ‘what lies beneath’. Necverthelesss, Karen showed how one’s own life story can provide sources of fictional output. One of her earliest stories came from her time as a young PC, policing an Orange Lodge march while trying not to walk in step with the band!
She became involved with the Glasgow refugee situation; her husband works with refugees. Research and involvement with refugees led Karen to meet many of them and formed the basis of her novel This is Where I Am in which a widow, Deborah, develops a close relationship with a refugee, Abdi.
In Rise, her most recent novel, Campbell took an area of Scotland that fascinated her with its plethora of prehistoric standing stones and other icons, and against such a time scale and landscape interwove the histories of characters and their driven passions in the fictional village of Kilmacarra. I read the novel last week and am certain it’s in my category of very good ‘literary fiction’ – which shouldn’t mislead you into not understanding it’s a page-turning story with that essential element of being written by a storyteller.
Karen Campbell studied English at university but says the close analysis involved put her off books. Since both parents were in the police, and having no other career in mind, she joined by default. Afterwards, as a young Mum, she did the part time Creative Masters at Glasgow University, led then by the three professors Alisdair Gray, Tom Leonard and James Kelman. She reckons only four out of the forty students went on to become published. Her own efforts to find a publisher then and agent introduced her to coping with rejection. By a twist of circumstance, a new-to-the-scene agent landed her a deal with Hodder, the first publisher she had submitted to a year earlier and been rejected.
The Business of Writing
Campbell said she was unprepared for the business side of writing (like so many of us). The Masters course helped because literary agents and publishers were brought in to impart their eperience and knowledge. She also observed, rightly I think, that most authors are shy, certainly shy of submitting work to an agent. We need to get over that – and learn to cope with rejection.
As to her own method of writing, it seems that all her content has a strong basis in personal life. For instance, a statue of a black soldier in Italy led to much research into the role of an all-black batallion in divided Italy during the second world war, a novel she’s working on. She spoke of a writer’s ‘antennae’ being sensitive to a nascent idea which grows thicker and more compelling over time.
Karen doesn’t plot her work beforehand. It’s always a surprise how a book ends. She spoke of the storytelling process as involving myriad forks. The choice to take one direction or another is never right or wrong.
On top of Dennistoun Library, where the talk was given is a statue of an angel with an opened book. Karen has used this image in a forthcoming novel (part of which she read to us) – but until last night she had never been to the library or seen the statue. Strange is the relationship between fiction and ‘reality’!