Scottish Books

The Herald

"My debut novel, CloudWorld, is published by Faber and Faber on 2nd February. It’s an old-fashioned adventure story in which a sheltered young man – Marcus – sets out in search of his lost father. Menaced and imperilled in a variety of landscapes, he comes to a better understanding of himself and the world around him, rather like David Balfour in Kidnapped or Francis Osbaldistone in Rob Roy. The difference is that the world Marcus inhabits is an imagined one: a world divided by a permanent cloud layer. Mountain peaks rising out of the clouds have citadels built on them – walled city-states like those of Renaissance Italy, whose inhabitants travel in vessels similar to the notional flying machines sketched by Leonardo Da Vinci. Beneath the cloud layer lies a more ancient land: a permanently damp, overcast place inhabited by a Pictish race who compensate for their abbreviated height by being tirelessly brutal. The book is aimed primarily at a young adult readers – 10 years old and upwards – but, as you’ll probably have guessed, in my giddier moments I like to imagine that ‘upwards’ could denote any age from 18 to 80.

CloudWorld is my first published book, but the third one I’ve written. I grew up in Ayrshire, the son of a professional golfer. Dreamy and unprecocious, I harboured vague ambitions of being a writer, which might have remained unfocused had it not been for the turn my life took in my mid-teens. First my parents split up then my father died of cancer, my mother and I returning to nurse him. As heartless as it might sound, the emotional turmoil prompted by these events was soon eclipsed by serious financial problems. Self-employed, my father didn’t have a pension and my mother had left her job to look after him. The property market promptly crashed and we found ourselves living in a seafront flat – wind blown and sand scoured in the winter – which we couldn’t heat or maintain properly but couldn’t sell. Unable to afford to leave home, I worked split shifts as a waiter in a local hotel and commuted to University. For some time we survived on my mother’s unemployment benefit and my student grant. Feeling responsible for everything and struggling to get back into work, my mother was admitted to hospital at one point suffering from bronchial pneumonia and pernicious anaemia.

All this went on for years. Anyone who has been through a series of calamities in their life – each one seeming to engender and add momentum to the next – knows how it affects you. Stupefied, you shut down emotionally in stages, like a ship with a breached hull, sealing off compartments to avoid taking on any more water. Being stuck at home, however, I perhaps had fewer distractions than my contemporaries living at University and got down to some serious writing. From the very beginning I produced two types of fiction: realistic, autobiographical short stories and longer, more purely imaginative stuff. Gradually I began to realise that I was writing partly to make sense of my current circumstances and partly to escape from them.

At last things improved. Two of my stories were accepted by the London Magazine. By a complete fluke I got funding to do a postgraduate degree in Scottish literature. I left home at last and started to have some fun – clumsy and incautious fun to start with, but fun none the less. My mother completed a PGCE and found a job as a Special Needs teacher. A few more of my stories were published or broadcast. Two short fantasy novels – The Enchanted Ocean and Mightier Than The Sword – accumulated nothing but rejections in the mid- to late-90s, but they were at least encouraging rejections. I worked in a bookstore and did some freelance reviewing. Then, having failed for five years to find that chimerical ‘arts-related’ job in Scotland, I took an administrative post at Bath University. It was bone dry, but it gave me the chance to work four days a week and write more.

It was in Bath that I finally started CloudWorld, which had existed in various rough forms for more than a decade. When it was half finished, I got it read at Faber, thanks to a friend from bookselling now worked there. Buoyed by Faber’s interest, I returned to Glasgow, stayed in another friend’s spare room, eked out a Scottish Arts Council bursary, and finished it. I received a modest advance and lived on that while I completed rewrites.

None of the foregoing is an appeal for sympathy: so tortuous a road to publication isn’t as unusual as you might think. No one gets any more out of life than they put in, and many people get far less. But when I leafed through a proof copy of CloudWorld on the day it arrived and came upon the phrase ‘first time author’ – with all its associations of dewy freshness – I couldn’t help but smile, just a bit."

11th Feb 2006




The Book That Changed My Life

The Scotsman

“In summer 2001 I moved from Glasgow to Bath to start a new job. At first I stayed in temporary accommodation, in a room piled high with cardboard boxes containing all my possessions (mostly books). Already the sides of the lowest boxes were starting to buckle, causing the ones on top to tilt dangerously. I knew I had to find somewhere proper to live before the topmost boxes fell on me during some indeterminate hour of the night.

I’d only taken the job because it would allow me to work four days a week, thus giving me more time to write. Waking at dawn each day, I drank my coffee on a tiny garden patio. I’d arrived during a mini-heatwave. The light of the not yet risen sun brimmed in the eastern sky with almost audible vigour – the way it often does on the Continent and never does in Scotland. A toad emerged punctually from an overturned flowerpot. As he contemplated me balefully, I pondered what kind of book to write.

A few days later I read Northern Lights. The immaculately realised parallel universe; the conceit of dæmons; the workings of Dust; the unimpeachable precision of the writing; the way grand ideas were woven seamlessly into a thrilling narrative; Lyra, Lord Asriel, Iorek Byrnison, the alethiometer, gyptians, cliff-ghasts – it all overwhelmed me. Back in Scotland I’d written short stories, some of which had been published, and two fantasy novels, which had accumulated nothing but rejections in the mid to late-90s. I still yearned to write something imaginative: to try and conjure worlds that were vivid and beautiful. But I’d fretted that this sort of wasn’t writing legitimate or sufficiently ‘literary.’ The artistry of Northern Lights gave me the courage of my convictions. I resolved to do better, if I could. I started CloudWorld.”

18th Feb 2006


Designed by David Cunningham, Katerina Zagortcheva, Gavin Deas 2006
Illustrations by David Wyatt