I've just returned from more than a week in Shetland and I've realised again what a magic place it is, especially in good weather. I went with an old school friend and perhaps the visit was so special because I was seeing the place through her eyes, as if for the first time. This was my chance to promote WHITE NIGHTS - appropriate just as the days are growing longer - and to thank Shetlanders for all their help and support.
Perhaps it was a mistake to tell Karen, the enthusiastic librarian in Lerwick, to fix up as many gigs as she liked for me, because I ended up with a whirlwind of ferry crossings, reading groups and writers' workshops. But I enjoyed every minute. We arrived on the Northlink with the calmest crossing I can remember and that Sunday was my only free day. Three of us headed down to the south to show my friend Sue puffins, St Ninian's Isle and Sunday Teas. Sunday Teas are a Shetland tradition (which feature in WHITE NIGHTS), a way of fund-raising for the organisers and of sampling the very best home-bakes for the people who come along. We all left Quarff hall full of meringues and scones and sticky chocolate cake.
Monday took us to the North Isles, driven by Silvija the head of the library service. I ran a school workshop in Baltasound, in Unst, followed by an open event for the community library there. Then we had a discussion with the writers' group in Yell. Thanks to Wendy Gear for letting us into her home and providing a delicious supper. Tuesday was Bressay - a new island for me. The reading group hosted an informal evening with wine and more home baking. (Food, you'll have noticed is a common factor in the trip). Music was provided by two young people, one of whom is the grandson of Margaret, an old Fair Isle friend. Shetland's that sort of place!
Wednesday gave me the chance to hook up with my French translator Claire and her partner Laurent. I was astounded at how much of the islands they'd managed to see in a week. And to hear that there's no way of translating 'cattle grid'... I was pleased to introduce them to the fantastic couple from Cornwell Inernet who look after my website. Jean is a linguist too. She and Roger know Orkney very well and used my Lerwick launch as an excuse to explore further north.
The formal launch was held in the library on Wednesday night and the evening was shared with archivist Brian Smith who talked about a real Shetland crime. The place was packed. We heard a sombre story of a father who killed his family and then himself. Although the events happened 150 years ago, the tale had a very contemporary feel. It's tempting to think of this sort of domestic tragedy as the result of modern stress or family breakdown, but it seems there have always been sad, sick individuals. After the break, two local actors, Melvyn and Catherine, read a short piece from WHITE NIGHTS, then we caught up with friends over supper in the Grand. Claire and Laurent went on to the Lounge to try to hear some local music; they would be flying south the next day.
Thursday was a day of writers' workshops. In the afternoon I worked with a group of 15 year olds in Aith. Afterwards, Sue and I were invited to a grand Shetland high tea by local writer Marsali Taylor. We sat in her conservatory, looking out over the voe, talking about publishers and mutual friends. Then it was a session with adults in the Clickimin Centre in Lerwick, which produced some remarkably fine writing.
All this time we'd been staying in Ingirid's house in Whitenes, but Ingirid wasn't there. She'd been at a harbour master's conference in St Petersberg. (There is obviously a wonderfully interesting story here, but unfortunately it's not mine to tell). She arrived on Friday, just as we were on our way out to the Whalsay to speak to the readers' group. I was a little anxious about this gig. I created a character in RAVEN BLACK called Sandy Wilson, who just happened to come from Whalsay. Sandy's a bit stupid and I'd heard that Whalsay folk had taken offence. In fact, this turned out to be one of the most interesting discussions of the trip, and we ended up talking about all stereotypes, political correctness and language.
Back in Whiteness Ingirid was creating puddings for a party the next day.
On Saturday I signed copies of the book in the tourist office in the Market Cross, then there was the last gig of the week - a writers' workshop in the museum. In the evening we gate-crashed a party in Voxter House, near Brae. A slightly surreal evening, which one day I'll turn into a short story. It was James' 60th birthday party and there were family members from the south as well as locals. At one point there was singing accompanied by a skilfull pianist who had to cope with a number of silent keys. James is Shetland's forestry officer - which again seems a little surreal. As we went back to Brae at midnight, the sky was still light.
I had a tremendous time in Shetland but throughout the week there was an under-lying sadness that we encountered wherever we went. Some friends' teenage daughter was very ill and the whole family was by her bedside in the hospital in Aberdeen. Shetland is a small and close community and this was a personal tragedy. Since returning home, we've been told that she died. Our thoughts are with her sisters, her parents and her very many friends.
Paris in the Springtime
I've been writing for more than twenty years, most of the time without much success. There was a gap when the books weren't available in paperback in the UK for instance. RAVEN BLACK made a huge difference. The Duncan Lawrie Dagger helped of course, but I think serious reviews in the broadsheets were even more important and I'm still grateful to those reviewers. I might not be in the bestseller list now, but I can make a reasonable living from my writing and I'm widely translated overseas.
Because it's been a long time coming I can't take any of this for granted. I LOVE seeing the translated copies on the shelves in my kitchen. So when Francoise, my wonderful French editor from Belfond, invited me to Paris to help promote DES VERITEES CACHEES (Hidden Depths) by talking to journalists, of course I agreed. My French publisher paying for me to go to Paris! How exciting was that!
It didn't matter that I was only there for one night and it rained continually. I felt like a star. There was a driver to meet me at the airport. I tried to be cool and sophisticated, but couldn't keep it up when we drove across the Place de la Concorde, saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance, crossed the Seine. There was a lovely little hotel, with a log fire and a walled garden, close to the Luxembourg Gardens. And the chance to talk about books to people who'd read DES VERITEES CACHEES and had interesting things to say about it. More serious journalists.
That evening I went out for dinner with Marie-Jeanne my publicist and Claire Breton my translator. I was already well-disposed to Claire because she'd decided she wanted to visit Shetland before completing the translation of RAVEN BLACK. We had a great meal and I left the restaurant with two new friends.
Next weekend I'm off to Shetland for a week - maybe not quite as glamorous as Paris but it'll be great fun. And Claire will be there too.