I first came across the work of Helen McClory when I reviewed Flesh of the Peach for The F-Word back in 2017. Since then she’s published Mayhem and Death, her second collection of short stories and The Goldblum Variations. Being pretty much in awe of this evocative and powerful writer (Ali Smith is impressed by her!) I was humbled to receive a copy of her new novel Bitterhall and to have the opportunity to talk to her about writing.
The novel centres around three characters, scrolling through their perspectives and centring on a series of strange events that draw them together. It’s dark, beautiful, and rubs over some intriguing ideas such as the power of objects and the notes in the margins that are made throughout history. I loved each of the characters in their flawed, obsessive viewpoints, and got completely lost in her gorgeous prose, particularly when we were taken to wild places. Read on to find out the inspiration behind the book and the challenges that come from writing in multiple perspectives.
All of the three characters in this book are mesmerising in their own way. Which of them came first as the centre of the story, or did it evolve from all of them?
Daniel came first, and his perspective, limited and particular as it was, needed to be contradicted, enriched, turned askew by the addition of other character’s tellings. I wanted to write a story that had an overlap of viewpoints, to create a multifaceted telling of ‘truth’. The story can’t exist without all three voices together.
The cover is also great. This one definitely needs to go on your TBR pile.
There are lovely, gothic touches in this novel, especially when it comes to the parts that reference the past and are set in Scotland. I see you worked with Creative Scotland and had an art residency in Brazil. How did these places influence the darkness in the novel?
This book is deeply rooted in Scotland and in particular Edinburgh and the far North of the mainland. The gothic atmosphere of the capital has seeped into my consciousness over my years living here, while the parts of the book set in the Bitterhall of the title were drawn from walks through country estates close to Edinburgh – there are some mysterious old houses ripe for projecting intrigues onto. And a few years ago, I drove the North Coast 500 route and was very taken by the stark flat clifftops at the top of the route. They felt like the end of the world (though of course Orkney and Shetland are above it) and I knew it would make a compelling stage for the struggles of the characters towards the book’s end. SIn Brazil I was just editing the book, rather than adding anything new. A very Scottish story tidied up in the beautiful jungle of coastal Sao Paulo.
We see the same events happen through the eyes of the three protagonists. What were the particular challenges of writing in three distinct voices and dealing with an overlapping plot from different perspectives?
In practical terms, I tried to pay attention to the rhythms of speech. Daniel, Órla and Tom have different accents and inner voices, and at ground level, that should be reflected in the sentence length, word choices and punctuation. The bigger challenge was to write so that the pace of the story didn’t stall while covering what was old ground – but the distinctiveness of each of their perspectives hopefully shifts the reader’s understanding of what has gone before. Each character brings something different to bear on events, altering them retrospectively and progressing in their own way through the narrative.
Johanna Green studies the idea of books as objects.
Image credit: Johanna Green, Twitter
You reference codicology and the power that objects have to us as a species. Why were you drawn to these topics when writing this book?
I went to an exhibition in the Glasgow University library several years ago which was looking at the evolving technology of the book, from the earliest forms of handwritten illuminated manuscripts to electric ink and possible replication of older books so that larger numbers of people can interact with them. It got my brain firing! I later interviewed a codicologist at Glasgow, Johanna Green, and her enthusiasm really sparked some the central ideas of novel, such as the idea of the book as a vessel through time. It’s a fascinating subject area and led me to think about the endurance of other objects, how they change meaning and carry on beyond us.
What advice would you give to writers in the early stages of their career?
Read everything – old and new, read widely outside of the mainstream and the popular books of your day. And consider where your passions are, and where you might find underexplored topics that can fire you. You need to bring the reader along with you, and if you are writing from a place of keen, testing interest, I think they will follow you more than if you are not testing yourself, or them.
Helen McClory was raised between the Isle of Skye and Edinburgh, where she currently lives. Her first story collection On the Edges of Vision, won the Saltire First Book of the Year 2015. Her second, Mayhem & Death, was written for the lonely and published in 2018. The Goldblum Variations, a collection of microfictions about Jeff Goldblum and you, came out in October 2019, and a novel, Bitterhall, is out from April 2021. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.
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