Sunday, 22 July 2012

An Interview with author Linda Gillard

 Linda Gillard
I cannot tell you how excited I am to have you as a guest author on my blog today, Linda, thank you so much for agreeing to come. 
The first book I read of yours was UNTYING THE KNOT and I was immediately impressed with your authorial voice, your multi-faceted characters and the competent manner in which you addressed the issue of post traumatic stress. I have since read everything available by you and I’m still not sure which is my favourite as each one is so different. I find you and your books so interesting it was dead easy for me to think up questions for you.

Scotland and the Scottish isles form a backdrop for many of your novels. Do you have connections with the area?
I’ve lived in Scotland since 2000 and for most of those years I’ve lived in the Highlands. I spent six years on the Isle of Skye, the setting for two of my novels, STAR GAZING and THE GLASS GUARDIAN.

Several of your books feature textile artists and the insightful way you describe the art suggests to me that you have some knowledge of this art form. Is that correct?
Yes, I love textiles of all kinds and I’ve made a lot of quilts and wall-hangings (most of which I’ve given away as I’m never satisfied with what I make.) Making two of my heroines textile artists (in EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY and UNTYING THE KNOT) is a sort of wish-fulfilment fantasy. Rose and Fay are both much more skilled with fabric & thread than I’ll ever be!

‘Sometimes we think we’re over the worst, we think we’ve finally put the past behind us, then – wham! – we run up against something, some memory, some feeling we thought we’d buried long ago and we’re back where we started. The wounds are open and bleeding again. It’s a cyclical process - a sort of spiral in fact - and it takes a long time to get to the end of it.’  This is from The House of Silence and the theme of healing shows up a lot in your work, a shattered soul pieced back together like a patchwork. Do you think that by illustrating the painful process of healing, whether physical or mental, you are in some small way, helping real sufferers to overcome similar problems?
I know I am, because readers get in touch with me to tell me. A troubled teenager contacted me after reading EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY to say that she’d managed to stop self-harming and had started writing poetry instead. (The narrative of EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY includes poems written by me and the hero is a poet.) EG features a bipolar heroine and over the years people have contacted me to say they didn’t realise someone in their family was bipolar until they read the novel. At an author event a woman approached me with a copy of EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY and, with tears in her eyes said, “My husband was bipolar and took his life. Now when I want someone to know what it was like living with a manic depressive, I can show them your book.”
I’ve written about depression and post-traumatic stress disorder because I’ve had my fair share of mental health problems and they interest me, but I also think mental health is a very big issue about which most people are woefully ignorant. (I wrote EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY in response to a survey that indicated 26% of the people questioned thought mental illness wasn’t a genuine illness.) I’ve also tried to highlight the problems of carers and the strain that mental illness puts on marriage and families. UNTYING THE KNOT looks at what happens when the carer cracks.

In EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY the two main characters are drawn together through their art and they work together toward mutual healing. How important is your own creativity and how much of it is ‘therapy’ for you?

I think all writing is to some extent therapeutic. I put a lot of myself into my novels, but they aren’t autobiographical. They do express my personal concerns. Readers assume because I’ve lived on islands that I must have written EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY (set on a Hebridean island) while I was living on Skye, but I wrote it in a Norwich suburb while recovering from a mental breakdown. I was dreaming of living on a remote island, rebuilding a shattered life and I wrote about someone doing that. It was pure fantasy. But a couple of years later, I decided to live the dream and moved to Skye.
Creativity is very important to me and to my mental health. I get cranky when I’m not writing. I’ve had careers as an actress, journalist and teacher, so I’ve always worked with words and ideas.

The first Linda Gillard novel I read was UNTYING THE KNOT and I was immediately struck by the realistically drawn characters. Where do you find them, are they based on people you know or have known?
No, I make them up - even the congenitally blind heroine of STAR GAZING. I can’t think of any character I’ve created who’s based on a real person, though obviously as a writer you steal bits and pieces from people you know or have read about. Real people have inspired some of the characters I’ve created. (Flora in A LIFETIME BURNING arose from a radio interview in which John Peel talked to a female vagrant.)
I do base all my major characters physically on real people. I collect photos of people who look something like the character I’ve imagined. I used to make a scrapbook for a novel with photos of characters and settings, but now I use the internet and have desktop collages.
I prefer to work with photos of real people because I don’t think I’m very good at description. If I have a clear picture in my head of the character’s appearance, I’m less likely to be vague or fall in to descriptive clich├ęs. Once I’ve nailed what a character looks like, in detail, I feel free to get on with creating his/her personality (which of course has no bearing on the person whose appearance I’ve “borrowed”.)
As to where my characters come from – I’ve no idea! My son once referred to my writing as playing with my imaginary friends, which is a pretty good description of what I do. I’m only interested in writing about people I like or find interesting, so I think I just make up people I want to spend time with. (And it’s a lot of time. I might spend two years working on a book, so my characters need to be complex to absorb me for that length of time.)

Your heroines are grown ups, not nubile twenty-somethings. What made you decide to feature the problems of older women?
It’s a lot to do with the age I was when I started writing fiction. I was 47 and couldn’t find the sort of thing I wanted to read. (Bookshops which were awash with chick-lit at the time.) I was fed up with middle-aged women being portrayed as somebody’s mother/somebody’s wife and only allowed to pull the hero if they were thin and attractive. So I decided I’d write a thinking-woman’s romance that dealt with real issues, had believable characters, a gorgeous hero, but no easy answers. That book was my first novel, EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY. I wanted to put an intelligent, creative woman in the spotlight and ignore her age, just look at her heart and mind. As a matter of principle, I made her the same age as me – 47.
But I’ve continued to feature women in their forties because I think it’s an interesting age, a watershed decade. Women have completed their families and many are starting a new career or a new relationship. By the time a woman reaches her 40s, she’s gained a lot of life experience - some of it painful - and she knows there’s rather more to life than finding Mr. Right.

I’ve been dying to ask you where your male characters come from. They are fabulous. Anyone you know or are they just wishful thinking?
Edward Watson
Just wishful thinking! But as I mentioned earlier, I do always have a physical prototype in mind – someone who exists but has nothing to do with my character. When I created a ghost hero for THE GLASS GUARDIAN it took a while to find my idea of an attractive ghost! But I came across Edward Watson, a flame-haired classical dancer whose pale, ethereal looks were perfect. There’s something quite unearthly about him and this helped me visualise my ghost.
I think it was novelist Kate Saunders who said, the secret of creating an appealing romantic hero is to put a woman’s mind inside a man’s body. I think that’s often what I do. My heroes and heroines become friends before they become lovers. There’s a lot of talk and sharing of experiences. There’s usually humour too and often that’s a front masking a horrific past or guilty secret.
If there’s a recipe for a Gillard hero, it’s a kind, complex, sensitive and vulnerable man, with a wacky sense of humour.

I consider you to be a brave writer, a bit of a risk taker – and I love that about you. But tackling a taboo subject like incest in A LIFETIME BURNING was a particularly bold move. Can you tell us how that came about?

The incest was just a by-product of what I wanted to write about, which was twins who were so close, they almost didn’t have separate identities. I’m not a twin but I’ve always been interested in twins and I did a lot of research which was fascinating
I considered writing about same-sex twins, so incest wasn’t on my agenda originally, but in the end I decided to write about boy/girl twins, so their sexual feelings for each other became a possible issue. But sex (when they’re 22) doesn’t bring the twins together, it drives them apart for ever because the union they crave isn’t sexual, it’s something they had as children and it’s gone for ever - that sense of being two halves of one person. Aristotle defined friendship as “a single soul dwelling in two bodies” and that’s what A LIFETIME BURNING is about - trying to be a complete human being.
The twins’ love is just one thread in a very complex story that covers sixty years and the book examines many different kinds of love, including forbidden love. I don’t think it was particularly brave to put incest centre stage. It was possibly brave to do that without any hint of judgement. ALB upset a few readers and I think they’d have found it an easier read if I’d condemned the twins for their unnatural love. But I don’t. Nor do I condone incest. I just present the story and leave readers to come to their own conclusions.

In this multi-genre world how would you categorize your own work?

I think it’s impossible to categorise my books. They’re very different from each other and each book blends different genres. When asked, I say I write contemporary fiction, aimed mostly (but not exclusively) at women. I think some of my books verge on literary fiction, but of an accessible kind. If my books belong to any category, I think it’s a non-existent genre called Rattling Good Yarns!

Well, they are certainly that! Can you tell us something about your experiences in changing from traditional to self-publishing? What pros and cons you have found?

Genre issues have always been a problem for me professionally. Publishers didn’t know how to market my books and tried to pigeonhole me as a writer of romance. Two out of three of my paperbacks were handicapped by unappealing covers and I’d had a title foisted on me which I hated. For years I’d been told my books would be hard to sell and I’d been asked to simplify storylines and make female characters more likeable. So I wasn’t happy.
When I was dropped by my publisher (“disappointing sales”), my agent tried to find me a new one, but after two years of rejections, I decided to indy-publish. I put HOUSE OF SILENCE on Kindle where it rapidly became a bestseller. I put four more novels on Kindle and they sold too.
E-publishing on Kindle has found me thousands of new readers. I now enjoy complete artistic freedom, I have covers I love and I earn a modest living from my writing. So I won’t be going back to traditional publishing. Why would I? It was just getting in the way of my books finding their readers.

Thank you, so much for spending time with us, Linda. I am very grateful. I’m sure my readers will join me in wishing you lots of luck with your future projects. I am not the only one waiting for your next release. You can find more information about Linda Gillard and her books on her website: