Buy Buy Baby – Helen MacKinven + Guest Post

For every woman who is unhappy with her stretch marks, there is another woman who wishes she had them.

buy-buy-baby-cover

Buy Buy Baby is the story of two women desperate for a baby. Carol’s son, Ben, died in an accident. Now, several years on, divorced and making conversation with Ben’s dog, Jinky, while her ex-husband moves on, she wonders if it’s time to become ‘Mum’ again.

Julia’s a business journalist with a swanky waterfront flat and a designer wardrobe. She’s mired in debt and looking for a baby daddy since dumping her last boyfriend for not wanting to start a family. She’s jealous of her sister whose daughter, Holly, she enjoys spending time with.

Early in the novel, both women meet a stranger who says he has the answer to their problem. But it’s an answer that’s going to cost them both.

At first glance, Buy Buy Baby appears to be a humorous look at two women’s quest for a child: Carol talks to the dog and answers herself back; Julia signs up for an exclusive dating site, but it soon delves into much darker territory. Just what are Carol and Julia prepared to do to satiate their desire?

MacKinven weaves themes of domestic violence, new relationships, affairs and life after death into an interesting look at the pursuit of motherhood. While I wasn’t wholly satisfied with the novel’s outcome, I was impressed at the way in which MacKinven dealt with issues around domestic violence, she’s clearly done her research.

HMK & sons

I’m delighted to welcome Helen to the blog to talk about motherhood and women’s identity.

I was recently ‘tagged’ on Facebook with this message.

Motherhood dare! Post a picture that makes you happy/proud to be a mum… (only one picture) I’m going to tag some ladies whom I think are fabulous mothers (I know too many to tag you all – sorry), and can rise up to the challenge of posting a pic of their own. If I’ve tagged you as one of the awesome mums, copy the text and paste it to your wall with a picture, and tag more mums! “I LOVE BEING A MUM! Xx

I do love being a mum, but I didn’t feel the need or pressure to respond to the tag and I sat back and watched as the ‘tagging’ did the rounds of my Facebook friends. The posts that followed made me think about the central theme in my novel, Buy Buy Baby, which is the quest for the two main characters, Carol and Julia, to become a mum. I wondered how childless women felt when they saw these posts. It may be the case that if they’re childless through choice then they don’t care. But I also considered the feelings of women who would like to have children but can’t, or those whose child has died.

It also struck me that I’ve never seen any of my male Facebook friends post something along the lines of ‘I LOVE BEING A DAD!’ It seems to me as if some women only share photos of their children. It’s as if they have nothing to post about themselves and their defining role is that of being a mum, and that’s all they have to say. What happened to their sense of identity after they gave birth? In my view, some women can appear one-dimensional when all they post are status updates on the lives of their children.

If these posts were boasts about buying a flashy car, getting a pay rise or booking a luxury cruise it might sound tacky to brag. But when it’s a picture of their teenager in a ridiculously expensive dress and posing beside a limo on their way to the school prom, it’s perfectly acceptable.

I have no issue with any woman that wants to wear the ‘I LOVE BEING A MUM!’ badge with pride, that’s their choice. But for the sake of balance, I’d also enjoy seeing photos of them as individuals with their talents, skills and interests showcased and not just their child’s latest sporting or academic success. Do these women feel that being a mum is their greatest and only real achievement worth celebrating? In Buy Buy Baby, Julia’s friend Kirsty berates her desperation to have a baby and asks, ‘Is Project Baby the latest must-have accessory you need to complete an outfit?’

We’re bombarded with images of motherhood in the media so it’s easy to see why some women, like Julia, can become fixated by the need to be a mum. It was that obsession that I wanted to explore in Buy Buy Baby. How far would a woman go to achieve her goal? And why do some women feel the need to be a mum over every other aspiration?

In Buy Buy Baby, the two women couldn’t be any more different and yet they share the same burning desire to fill a baby-shaped hole in their lives. This results in both characters being confronted with moral dilemmas and having to make decisions as to whether they’re willing to pay the price not just financially, but emotionally and psychologically too.

On a personal level, I was very lucky to become pregnant easily when I decided to have a family and I had no major problems with the births of my two sons. But knowing how much they changed my life, for the better, I was left wondering how I would feel if I had experienced infertility or my child had died. Would I also be as driven as Julia and Carol to fulfil my need to be a mum? Or would just being Helen be enough?

In my last novel, Talk of the Toun, although the characters were fictional, the setting and time period related to my own upbringing in the 80s within a working-class environment in central Scotland. I had to a certain degree followed the advice to, “write what you know” but in Buy Buy Baby I’ve dabbled with a subject matter that I’ve only observed and researched. I hope the quest for motherhood is a theme that appeals to readers too as I find it very interesting to reflect on women and their role in society, and the way they choose to portray themselves on social media.

Huge thanks to Helen for the insight into the ideas surrounding her novel and to Cranachan for the review copy. If you want to discover more about the novel, then the following blogs will be hosting Helen and the book over the next ten days:

blog tour

In the Media, June 2016, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

cknt8o0veaeuer4

It’s impossible to begin with anything other than the Stanford rape case. The victim’s court statement was published on Buzzfeed and went viral. The piece, along with responses from Brock Turner’s father and friends, including a female friend who defended him, have prompted some impassioned and powerful pieces: Louise O’Neill wrote, ‘20 minutes is an awfully long time when you’re the one being raped‘ in the Irish Examiner; Estelle B. Freedman, ‘When Feminists Take On Judges Over Rape‘ in The New York Times; Sarah Lunnie, ‘Maybe the word “rapist” is a problem: The utility of nouns and verbs, or accepting who we are and what we do‘ on Salon; Adrienne LaFrance, ‘What Happens When People Stop Talking About the Stanford Rape Case?‘ on The Atlantic; Kim Saumell, ‘I was never raped but…‘ on Medium; Rebecca Makkai, ‘The Power and Limitations of Victim-Impact Statements‘ in The New Yorker; Roe McDermott, ‘He Said Nothing‘ on The Coven; Glosswitch, ‘Does the outrage over the Stanford rape case do anything to help victims?‘ in the New Statesman

000c5c99-630

The other big news this fortnight was Lisa McInerney’s debut novel, The Glorious Heresies, taking The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016. Justine Jordan wrote, ‘Sweary Lady’s riot of invention is a well-deserved winner of the Baileys prize‘ in The Guardian. While McInerney wrote about her working day for The Guardian and shared a secret in ‘Bad Behaviourism‘ on Scottish Book Trust

There’s a new series on Literary Hub about women writers in translation. Written by a group of translators, each fortnight they’re looking at a country and the women writers from there yet to be translated into English. So far they’ve covered Germany, China and Italy. I’ve added it to the regulars at the bottom of the page.

And finally, the excellent Jendella Benson has a new column on Media Diversified. This week’s is ‘How to Raise a Champion‘ and I’ve also added her to the list of regulars at the bottom of the page.

speaker-26

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

original

Personal essays/memoir:

jessica-valenti

Feminism:

hannah-jones_nikole_rz

Society and Politics:

Dan Phillips

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

9587188

The interviews/profiles:

headshot

The regular columnists:

Books of the Year, Part Two: 2015 Publications

Here we are then, the books from this year I’ve read and rated most highly. I’m basing my choices on the very unscientific, I thought it was brilliant at the time and I’m still thinking about it. I was concerned this would skew the list towards the end of the year but it hasn’t at all – two thirds of the books are from the first half of 2015. Publication dates are UK (where applicable) and if you click on the cover it will take you to my review.

Citizen – Claudia Rankine 

A superb book. An examination of race and the treatment of black people in present day America. Rankine uses flash fiction, essays and poetry to explore the way people of colour ‘…feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background’ and, by implication, how often, as a white person, you are complicit in creating and maintaining that background. Short, sharp and powerful, I’d like to see a copy of Citizen distributed to every household, taught in schools and university, and added to the canon. If you believe art can change the world, this is a book that should be able to do so.


A Little Life
– Hanya Yanagihara

It’s divided readers and critics but I make no apologies for including this book for several reasons: it’s utterly absorbing, I felt as though I’d been entombed in Yanagihara’s world; it focuses on male friendship which I think is unusual; the friendship group consists of four men of different ethnicities and different sexualities, one of whom is disabled and Yanagihara has written about their lives as though they are, well, people. They are not defined by their ethnicity or sexuality and this feels like a break through. It’s huge and harrowing and clearly not for everyone but I’m still thinking about it six months on.

 

The House in Smyrna – Tatiana Salem Levy (translated by Alison Entrekin)

A short, sharp tale told in fragments. At the centre of the book is the story of the key given to the unnamed narrator by her grandfather: the key to his old house in Turkey, in Smyrna. There are four threads to the book: the narrator’s journey to her grandfather’s house; the grandfather’s journey from the house to the woman who became the narrator’s grandmother; the narrator’s relationship with her dead mother, and the narrator’s passionate affair with an unnamed man. A shocking and beautiful novella about exile in many different forms.

The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika
Kapur 

Mrs Sharma’s thirty-seven-years-old and married with a fifteen-year-old son, Bobby. They live in a flat in Dehli with her parents-in-law. Her husband, Dheeraj, a physiotherapist, has been working in Dubai for over a year in a bid to raise enough money to cover his parents’ medical bills and send his son to college to do an MBA in business. She works as a receptionist in a gynaecological clinic and dreams of starting her own business. Mrs Sharma’s veneer begins to crack when she meets Vineet Seghal on a station platform. Tightly plotted with precise, often repetitive, language, this is a brilliant book about an unfulfilled woman.

Vigilante – Shelley Harris

Jenny Pepper, 42, manager of a charity bookshop, married to Elliot, graphic designer, with a 14-year-old daughter, Martha, is fed-up of her life. She’s particularly annoyed and frustrated by the way men objectify women and the consequences of this behaviour. Donning a superhero costume for a fancy dress party, she stops a mugging and gets a taste for the vigilante lifestyle. Before long, she’s on the tale of someone who’s attacking teenage girls. A gripping and believable look at the concerns of a middle-aged woman and her life.

 

The Last Act of Love – Cathy Rentzenbrink

When Cathy Rentzenbrink was seventeen, her sixteen-year-old brother, Matty, was hit by a car and left in a persistent vegetative state for eight years. The book is Rentzenbrink’s story of the effect of Matty’s accident on her and her family. Told in an unflinching first person account with a huge amount of love and dollops of humour, Rentzenbrink brings the Matty she loved back to life and pays tribute to her parents without descending into mawkishness. Heartbreaking and heartwarming. Buy tissues before reading, I’m welling up just thinking about it.

 

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson

A companion piece to Life After LifeA God in Ruins focuses on Ursula’s younger brother, Teddy and those who’ve shared his life – his wife, Nancy; daughter, Viola; grandchildren, Bertie and Sunny, and the men he served alongside in the RAF. The structure’s non-chronological, creating a jigsaw puzzle of Teddy’s life and the lives of his family members for the reader to reconstruct; every chapter capable of standing alone as a story in its own right. The chapters set in the war are some of Atkinson’s best writing but this is more than a character study, it’s a book that explores what fiction is. Superb.

 

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)

Mr Cheong chose his wife, Yeong-Ho, because she’s passive. But then, due to a set of reoccurring dreams, she turns vegetarian; a highly unorthodox act in South Korea. The reactions of Mr Cheong and Yeong-Ho’s family turn dark and sometimes violent quite quickly. But Yeong-Ho’s brother-in-law is fascinated with her and her mongolian mark which leads to him creating a physical work of art with her. A disconcerting story that explores society’s treatment of a woman who defies expectations and how her internalisation of those expectations affects her psyche.

 

The Ship – Antonia Honeywell 

In the not so distant future where banks have collapsed, the homeless population is out of control, food is scarce and the military rule, Lalage is protected by her father, Michael Paul, and his creation, the ship. The ship is a version of paradise, stocked with everything you might need and more. As it sets sail with Michael Paul’s chosen people on it, Lalage begins to question her father’s motives and what she really wants from life. The Ship raises questions of wealth and poverty; of governments who fail to protect all their citizens; of the value of art and artefacts. It’s futuristic setting is misleading, this is really a novel about what’s happening to society now.

The First Bad Man – Miranda July 

Cheryl Glickman, early forties, lives alone and works for a company who make self-defence, fitness DVDs. She has two fascinations: Phillip Bettelheim and babies who might be Kubelko Bondy, the son of her parents’ friends. Cheryl’s bosses ask if their daughter, Clee, can move in with her until she finds a job. First Clee trashes Cheryl’s system for keeping the house clean and tidy, then she’s physically fighting Cheryl for extended periods before Cheryl begins imagining herself as Phillip having sex with Clee. It sounds absurd but it’s a sharp exploration of loneliness which transforms into something emotionally fulfilling.

The Wolf Border – Sarah Hall

Rachel has spent almost a decade in Idaho, monitoring wolves on a reservation but an unplanned pregnancy, the death of her mother and the offer of a job supporting the reintroduction of the Grey Wolf to Great Britain sees her returning to the Lake District. The Wolf Border considers a variety of different intersections that humans come up against – birth, death, addiction, love, political change and, of course, nature. The precision of the language, particularly in the descriptions of the Lake District and the wolves, is superb as is the characterisation of Rachel. One of our best novelists, probably her best book.

Grow a Pair: 9 1/2 Fairytales About Sex 
 – Joanna Walsh

From the very opening sentences of the first story to the end of the afterword of Grow a Pair transformations occur: characters adopt and change their genitalia; a man becomes a woman; a queen becomes a witch; a woman fragments into multiple vaginas. Walsh mixes retellings of traditional fairytales like ‘The Princess and the Penis’ with new pieces. Filled with as many moments of humour as it is ones of magical realism, the collection allows its women to take control of their own sexuality and fulfilment. Entertaining, smart and thoughtful.

The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan

A dual narrative following two young women – North, who lives with Circus Excalibur, travelling the sea but performing most nights on land with her bear, and Callanish, the gracekeeper, living on a tiny island by the graveyard and performing Restings for the dead. North has a number of issues to deal with – she’s engaged to Ainsel and his father wants them to live on land, but she doesn’t want either of these things; Ainsel’s mother is jealous, and North is pregnant to someone else. She’s also tied to Callanish in ways that only begin to reveal themselves when the two meet. A beautifully rendered world.

 

An Untamed State – Roxane Gay 

Mirelle is kidnapped in front of her husband, Michael, and their baby, Christophe, directly outside the heavy steel gates at the bottom of the drive to her parents’ house in Haiti. She’s been taken because her father’s rich and the kidnappers believe he will pay a lot of money for her, his youngest and favourite daughter in U.S. dollars. He refuses, assuming they will return her unharmed. She’s repeatedly raped and tortured. The majority of the book deals with the aftermath, looking at whether it’s possible to rebuild a life, a marriage, a familial relationship after such horror. An interesting examination of power and privilege.

Talk of the Toun – Helen MacKinven

Angela’s short-term ambition is for her and her best friend, Lorraine, to lose their virginity over the summer holidays. Long-term, she wants to move away from the council scheme she’s grown up on and attend Glasgow School of Art. Her parents are determined she’s getting a job. Over one summer in the 1980s, Angela and Lorraine’s friendship will deteriorate thanks to Pamela aka Little Miss Brown Nose and Stevie Duffy, just out of borstal and ‘a total ride’. Class, religion, family and friendships are all explored but it’s the perceptive look at women’s sexuality and the use of Scots dialect that really make this a stand out read.

 

Honourable mentions also go to The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester; The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips; Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey; Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, The Chimes by Anna Smaill and Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller.

In the Media, November 2015, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

We’re still deep in book awards territory this fortnight with a number of winners and shortlists being announced. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won the Bailey’s Best of the Best for Half of a Yellow Sun. The award prompted pieces from Alice Stride in The Bookseller, an editorial in The Guardian and Anna James on The Pool about why we still need the Bailey’s Prize.

Sarah Waters won Stonewall’s Writer of the Decade; Lydia Davis will receive The Paris Review’s Hadada Award 2016; Kerry Hudson won the Prix Femina for Translated Fiction; Roxane Gay won the PEN Centre USA Freedom to Write Award; Jacqueline Wilson won the JM Barrie Award

The shortlists include the eclectic, female dominates Waterstones’ Book of the Year Award, chosen by Waterstones’ Booksellers; The Guardian First Book Award which Catherine Taylor, one of this years judges, discusses, and The Young Writer of the Year Award (which not only has gender parity, but also an equal split between writers of colour and white writers).

Meanwhile, Arundhati Roy returned her National Award for Best Screenplay, she explains why in The Guardian and Heather Horn investigates why the Prix Goncourt has been awarded to a man 102 times and a woman 11 times on The Atlantic

Irish women have been speaking out about the Abbey Theatre where nine out of ten plays in its 2016 centenary programme are written by men. Emer O’Toole writes about the reaction in The Guardian and Ellen Coyne in The Irish Times while Dr Susan Liddy, academic at the University of Limerick, writes ‘Women and the Irish film industry‘ to The Irish Times.

And if you only read one thing from this fortnight’s list, I highly recommend Jacqueline Rose’s essay, ‘Bantu in the Bathroom: on the trial of Oscar Pistorius‘ in The LRB.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art and Fashion:

The interviews:

The regular columnists:

In the Media: October 2015, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

Photograph by Nadya Lev

This fortnight has been dominated by trans issues and feminism. This is largely due (in the UK at least) to the no-platforming of Germaine Greer due to her unpalatable comments about trans women. Sarah Seltzer looks at ‘The Disturbing Trend of Second-Wave Feminist Transphobia‘ on Flavorwire. This coincided with YA author, James Dawson, coming out as a transgender woman in this great piece by Patrick Strudwick on Buzzfeed. I look forward to featuring James and his books on the blog under his yet to be revealed new name and pronoun. Elsewhere, Francesca Mari writes, ‘They Found Love, Then They Found Gender‘ on Matter, Corinne Manning writes about ‘In Defence of the New Censorship‘, discussing the use of singular they on Literary Hub while Laurie Penny explores, ‘How To Be A Genderqueer Feminist‘ on Buzzfeed.

Photograph by Chad Batka

The woman with the most publicity this fortnight is Carrie Brownstein. She’s interviewed in Rolling Stone, Slate, Noisey, The New York Times and The Guardian.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art and Fashion:

The interviews:

The regular columnists:

Talk of the Toun – Helen MacKinven + guest post/Q&A

I’m absolutely delighted to have Helen MacKinven on the blog today discussing her debut novel Talk of the Toun. In a slight variation to how I usually do these posts, Helen’s written a guest piece on her use of Scot’s dialect in the novel, which is up first. That’s followed by my review and then, because I love the book so much and there were so many things I wanted to ask about it, there’s a Q&A with Helen too. Enjoy!

When I read your excellent piece in Fiction Uncovered, on reading regional and cultural accents it expressed sentiments that are central to who I am as a writer and a key theme in my debut novel. I grew up in a council housing scheme and everyone I knew apart from the teachers at school, the doctor and the parish priest was working class. I was the first person in my immediate and very large extended family to get a degree. To be a writer wasn’t something that ever seemed like an option and I’d no role models to aspire to, writers weren’t real people, they belonged in the world of books. I enjoyed the escapism of following the adventures of the girls in Mallory Towers who had midnight feasts and toasted marshmallows as a parallel universe to playing chap door run and making my way home when the street lights came on. There were no characters that I could relate to in the books I read, they didn’t act like me or speak like me and it was a long time before I found the inspiration I was looking for to find my own writing ‘voice’.

Writers like Anne Donovan in her novel Buddha Da, gave a voice to characters I could understand and relate to and her use of dialect was a model for the style of writing I aspired to achieve, that of an authentic and credible voice.

It’s taken me ten years of writing to find my own ‘voice’ and realise that rather than copy formats that sell, I want to write about subjects and settings that aren’t necessarily commercial. I feel that this has made it harder for me to get published.

When I was looking for a publisher, this was the response; ironically the company is based in Edinburgh.

“The Scottish dialect in your novel flows effortlessly and was appreciated and understood by the Scottish members of the team. But readers unfamiliar with Scottish dialect found the novel too demanding and challenging.
We suggest that you submit your novel to a publisher more focused on publishing Scottish novels.”

I’ve taken the gamble of using Scots dialect in my writing which might be a barrier to some readers but not to the ones I want to reach. My novel is a coming-of-age story where the main character wants to go to art school but has to fight against the expectations of her circle of influence and find her own identity. I know how hard that can be, even although I lived in the same type of council house as my classmates because I was clever and wore glasses, laughably I was called posh!

When I started writing the first person narrative of my novel I immediately knew I had no choice but to write the dialogue in a local dialect to make it sound real and natural, anything else would be false. Of course my book will not appeal to every reader, and if one of the reasons is that there’s too much dialect, then my work here is done.

Angela and Lorraine have been friends since the first day of primary school. Lorraine’s been a teacher’s pet and a cry baby ever since. Now the girls are seventeen and Lorraine’s crying because the rector’s in school showing them an anti-abortion film.

There were only two weeks left to go before the school holidays and with the exams finished, it was obvious that the teachers were filling in time and were literally using murder to kill off any ideas that we had of a summer of sun, sea and sex. Most of us wouldn’t get as far as the beach at Burntisland wearing cagoules as it pissed down, but every one of us could get shagged if we put our mind to it. And I was determined that me and Lorraine wouldn’t be coming back for sixth year as virgins.

Beside this short-term ambition to lose her virginity, Angela’s got her sights set on Glasgow School of Art. Encouraged by one of her teachers, she’s hoping to get off the council scheme she’s grown up on and pursue a different path. Not if her parents have their way though, they – her dad in particular – are intent on her getting a job straight from school, just as they did.

It was getting harder and harder to speak to them. My mam and dad talked at me, not to me. I’d outgrown them when I was about twelve and we’d lived on different planets ever since.

But Angela has her gran, the pet psychic, Senga Shepherd, to turn to. She dog sits Bimbo, the white poodle, for Senga when she goes to the bingo and also nips to her gran’s for lunch on Saturdays. Senga’s got plenty of wise words and advice as well as knowing the local gossip.

Lorraine’s family’s quite different. Her thirteen-year-old sister Janine is disabled – in a wheelchair and reliant on others for her care. Her mum, Rita, is a devout Catholic – or at least she is now, Angela’s mum and gran have plenty to say about what Rita got up to before she had Lorraine – and they live on a Wimpey estate nicknamed Spam Valley by the locals from the scheme:

…where the weans got a row from their mammies if they used slang words that they learnt in the playground at school.

But the catalyst in the novel for the problems in Lorraine and Angela’s friendship comes from two people who Lorraine becomes close to: Pamela, a girl from school who Angela refers to as ‘Little Miss Brown Nose’ and Stevie Duffy, just out of borstal and ‘…a total ride. Ah’d sook him tae the root’, who both of them fancy.

The novel follows the girls’ friendship over the summer as they try to shed their virginity and Angela aims for art school.

MacKinven covers a number of big themes: sex – women’s sexuality particularly, class, religion, family relationships, friendship. They’re seamlessly integrated into a very tight plot.

What really impressed me about Talk of the Toun though was how it’s grounded in its time and place. The use of Scottish accent and dialect is perfectly pitched. I disagree with MacKinven’s earlier point here that the language she’s chosen to use might be a barrier. There’s the odd dialect word that readers might not know but they’re not difficult to discern in the contexts in which they’re used and if someone really needs to check them, the internet has the answers!

The other way in which the setting is well realised is through the use of 1980’s references. These take two forms: the first is the myriad mentions of cultural things from the time – Rubik’s cube, Rimmel’s Heather Shimmer lipstick, Cagney and Lacey, Kerplunk, Care Bears and so on. The second is more complex and a brave move on MacKinven’s part – references to attitudes of the time in relation to race and women’s sexuality. This leads to some passages in the novel that are very difficult to read in 2015. I cringed through them, not only because they’re so far from anything most people would dare to say these days but also because I know they were attitudes members of my own family held and vocabulary that they would use. Although it makes for uncomfortable reading, it allows MacKinven to do something really interesting with the end of the novel that’s completely in keeping with the time. It should lead to some interesting discussions and I’m glad she was brave enough to do it and not stray into a more modern response.

Talk of the Toun is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. I heartily recommend it and hope novels like this one keep chipping away at the idea that novels have to be written in Standard English to succeed.

Talk of the Toun is set in the 1980s and there’s some great references – Betamax videos, Take the High Road, Care Bears, Heather Shimmer Rimmel lipstick to name a few – that really help to ground it in this time. However, there are also some comments by characters that are very difficult to read in 2015 – Lorraine’s disabled sister is ‘handicapped’ ‘a Windae Licker’ and takes the ‘Nut Bus’ while there are a number of racist names used (along with protests from some characters that they’re not racist when Angela challenges them). Was it important to you to convey the social attitudes of the 1980s as well as the fashion and culture?

Absolutely! Initially I was uncomfortable even writing words and phrases that these days are socially unacceptable and I worried about reading passages aloud and the impact on the audience. My concerns as the writer were that the offensive terms could be interpreted as my own thoughts, rather than those of the characters and it was tempting to whitewash the manuscript. I had to reflect on whether or not I wanted the novel to be an accurate depiction of the ‘norm’ for the era or simply an easy read. I took the decision, along with using vernacular in the dialogue, that my aim was to create a credible sense of time and place and therefore I had to include the language and attitudes of the 80s. I hope that this will provoke discussion on how much things have changed, or not, in Scotland now.

There’s a lot in the novel about attitudes to women regarding sex and pregnancy that for me still felt very relevant to conversations happening now, were you thinking about parallels whilst you were writing the book?

Again, it was a case of trying to write a realistic situation and use my own memories of the attitudes to sex and pregnancy when I was a teenager in the 80s. Like the main characters, I was brought up as a Catholic and was indoctrinated at school and within the home that to become pregnant, unmarried, would bring shame on the family and scupper any thoughts of further education or a career. The first chapter in the novel has a scene where the senior pupils are shown a graphic anti-abortion film and this was based on my own experience at school. Being force-fed these messages meant that sex was equated with fear amongst me and my friends, your worst nightmare was to fall pregnant. I feel that attitudes like those highlighted in the novel are realistic in certain communities at that time and made an impact on how young women grew up to view their bodies and their sexuality. However, although times have changed, I wonder how many other young women are still on the receiving end of negative images and concepts?

Although most of the voices in the novel are working class ones you avoid stereotyping, particularly through Angela and her desire to go to Glasgow School of Art. Was it part of your aim to show a range of views and experiences?

My dad was one of fourteen children so I had many cousins (too many to count!) and yet I was the first in my extended family to go on to further education and achieve a degree in Primary Education. Growing up, the only middle-class folk I encountered were teachers at school, the doctor and the priest. My family’s mentality was that “sticking in” at school was the way to get on in life and I was encouraged to work hard and aim high. My personal experience doesn’t reflect Angela’s but it was easy to see how some of my contemporaries could feel held back by their social class. Angela is encouraged by her art teacher to use her talent to explore a world beyond her small town life and I wanted to show that a postcode doesn’t dictate your dreams.

The novel deals with a number of serious issues but it’s also very funny. Was the humour there from the first draft or was it something you added during the editing process?

Some years ago, I attended an Arvon residential course and as part of the one-to-one feedback from the tutor she remarked that it was interesting to critique a piece of black comedy. It took me a minute or two to realise that she was referring to my work as I’d never given my writing that label. But the more I wrote, the more I realised that my natural ‘voice’ enjoys using humour and so I consciously built in the light to offset the dark. The many drafts that ended up as Talk of the Toun always had humour running throughout the manuscript and I couldn’t imagine it in any other form.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

I have quite a list but in relation to inspiration for Talk of the Toun I would say that Buddha Da by Anne Donovan would come close to the top as it features working class characters and uses rich Scottish dialect. I love to read Scottish contemporary fiction and also admire the work of writers such as Janice Galloway, Jackie Kay, Kerry Hudson and Karen Campbell. As you might guess, I like to do my bit to champion women who showcase quality Scottish fiction!

A huge thank you to Helen MacKinven for a fantastic guest post and Q&A and also to Thunderpoint Publishing for the review copy.

Inter-Media

(Thanks to my dad for the title. Hi, Dad *waves*)

Another mini-In the Media post of things I think are worth reading from (or that I’ve come across in) the last couple of weeks.

On the key topic of diversity, Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Gohas a fantastic piece in The Guardian, ‘Stop pigeonholing African writers‘.

Scarlett Thomas wrote a great piece for The Guardian on writers, sex and how male and female authors writing about sex are seen differently, ‘Forget EL James, let’s have some real dirty fiction‘.

Claire Fuller Colour

Claire Fuller won the Desmond Elliott Prize this week with her brilliant debut, Our Endless Numbered Days. Judge Louise Doughty wrote, ‘The Desmond Elliott prize reminds us that authors need long-term support‘ in The Guardian and prior to the announcement of the winner, ‘The Desmond Elliott Prize 2015: Why an author’s background makes no difference to talent‘ in The Independent.

Sunny Singh, writing on Media Diversified, looks at the reaction to Rihanna’s new video, ‘So We’re All Still Talking About Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money?‘ Which I think is a really interesting piece to read alongside Eva Wiseman’s column in The Observer this week, ‘Why is there always a backlash against feminist stars?

Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen, wrote a very powerful piece for The New York Times last month, ‘The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning‘. While Irene Monroe on the Huffington Post looked at the Stonewall riots and asked why brown and black LGBTQ people have been written out of the narrative, ‘Dis-membering Stonewall‘.

Really interesting and grim piece from Michelle Thomas on ‘Tinder Dating‘ on her blog. Prepare to be angry. Which leads me to Laura Bates’ piece in The Guardian, ‘The Kim Kardashian sex-tape flag at Glastonbury was a particularly nasty attack‘.

At which point I have to mention Salena Godden’s brilliant new poem, ‘Flags: Kanye and Kanye‘ on her blog.

Sloane Crosley in The New York Times wrote, ‘Why Women Apologize and Should Stop‘.

On my favourite magazine site, The Pool, there are loads of cracking pieces: Viv Groskop, ‘The one word that undermines women at work‘; Sali Hughes, ‘There is no such thing as a superior mother‘, which goes nicely with Nina Stibbe’s beautiful piece about her mum, ‘People say my mother was awful. But there’s no one I’d rather spend time with‘; I also loved Sali Hughes piece about culling friends, ‘Why culling friends is OK‘, and Lauren Laverne wrote another cracking blog, ‘What’s happened to social mobility?‘. There’s also a fantastic interview with Cathy Rentzenbrink whose brilliant, heart-wrenching memoir The Last Act of Love has just been published. You can listen to the Director’s Cut or the 12 minute edit.

There’s also a fantastic interview with Candace Bushnell in The Cut about her new novel Killing Monica and Rebecca Mascull’s on The History Girls blog talking about her second novel Song of the Sea Maid.

In Nells In the Media, there are cracking interviews with Nell Zink (fast becoming my favourite writer purely on the basis of her candidness in interviews) in Vice and Nell Leyshon, whose last book The Colour of Milk was a Fiction Uncovered winner, in The Independent.

11666293_10153362018400609_5847842168250389772_n

And in Naomi In the Media, the two discussions I took part in for Fiction Uncovered on Resonance FM are now available to ‘listen again’. The panel on diversity chaired by Nikki Bedi and including Danuta Kean and Nikesh Shukla and the discussion with Simon Savidge, chaired by Matt Thorne on blogging and the changing face of reviewing. There’s a full list of links to all the panels and interviews from the day on Simon’s blog Savidge Reads.

Also, I’m interviewed as part of Hayley Webster’s brilliant literary efestival, ‘All the Words‘. As are Antonia Honeywell, Alice Furse, Claire King, Amanda Jennings, Claire Hynes, Suzie Maguire and Devika Ponnambalam.

I’ve cheekily included a photo of myself so I can mention Helen MacKinven’s cover reveal for her forthcoming book Talk of the Toun and claim my photo was totally inspired by it. Best cover ever.