Why do you write?
I can’t imagine life without writing, though most people seem to manage it. But you have to think as well as write. You have to have something for other people if you are going to publish. It’s probably because I read fiction that I write so many long poems and to themes. I used to write novels to make sense of the world and now I write poems for the same reason. I’m not very interested in polishing up poems, I’m interested in saying things. I like my poems to sound right, though.
What books do you read?
I am quite an old lady and I have read solidly for 50 years. I primarily read novels, always did. Joyce, Proust, Nabokov and the more poetic novels of the 60s and 70s, like Jean Rhys, Mittelholzer, Reynolds Price and Iris Murdoch. I don’t like the way contemporary fiction is going – too much crime writing, too much detailed history. Hilary Mantel is not for me. Martin Amis and Antonia Byatt are my best heavyweights.
What inspires you?
Things that frighten me, things that I don’t understand. The natural world, mountains and rivers. Scotland. Some people and the things they do – I’ve written on Thomas Bewick, William Burrell, Robert Thompson (“The Mouseman”) and others. I don’t have particularly feminine interests. Poetry inspires me – English and Gaelic, Greek and Latin, and the lives of particular poets. I am currently inspired by the North of England – the real north, Cumbria, Northumberland and Durham, where my family’s return to our old house at Kirkby Lonsdale has brought me a whole wealth of outsider insights – my past now visible from my Scottish home.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer and when?
I was a total bookaholic from the start, spending my pocket money on books in Dressers in Darlington. I was offered a Saturday bookselling job there but my mother wouldn’t let me do it. My father was learned but antifeminist. So it was a long time till I realised I actually could be a writer, as opposed to wanting to. I was writing anyway. I sent novels to the London publishers and got them back. I sent poems to the London magazines and got them back. I went to a writing class with Harry Sutherland, a Tyneside novelist, and got a story on the radio. It came slowly and gradually, but I was writing from the word go.
How do you deal with rejection?
Rejection of poems – I tend to stay away from the types of publication that will reject me. It’s been temporarily harder in the last couple of years. Too many mags are going for the “competition poems” or the “best poems” and forgetting about culture. I think that will pass, because few of these “best” poems are the least bit memorable.
Sometimes people reject you as a writer, they will never respect you. Cliques by education, the class factor, gender. Colophon snobbery. Prejudice from the past, going back a long way. I find Facebook is useful in that it lets you know who your enemies are. I just think, I’m nearly always as good a writer as them – really good writers don’t need to be defensive or unfriendly
Who are some writers you admire?
I admire Scottish, Scots and Gaelic writers who are true to their culture, as against the mega culture. James Kelman, Janet Paisley, A L Kennedy, Sheena Blackhall, Rody Gorman, Angus Peter Campbell and Robert Alan Jamieson. People in London will not have heard of all of these writers. American writing, though I can’t always get my head round it. Pascale Petit. Les Murray. Aidan Andrew Dun.
Is writing the only artistic medium you do?
I cook and I garden. These are both necessary art forms, like writing. I have the ability to draw, but never practised or learnt the skills. I am a good critic of photographs but I never take my own – I cadge them or occasionally pay professional friends to use theirs.
What would be some advice you would give to your younger self?
Learn to drive (I did, eventually) Get some dress sense (I did, eventually) Go ahead and tell everyone you write stories and poems (I kept it a secret for far too long) Get a job, you can write as well (I actually did this)
Stop trying to be ordinary (advice from an early boyfriend, who turned out to be gay)
Do you have any advice for other writers?
However good you are or you think you are, be friendly. Help another writer and they will always remember you. Give away lots of copies of your books. Who are you kidding if you think you are in this to make money? There will be times when it is appropriate to sell them but nothing makes you look so mean, or so inexperienced, as does trying to make your brother or your best friend buy one. Dish ’em out, or say you have a “friends’ price” which is conveniently lower than the printed price. Not in the top league? Didn’t get picked up by Cape, Faber, Bloodaxe or Carcanet? Welcome to the real world, where there are a whole lot of happy and worthwhile poets out and about doing their own thing.
What is your writing process?
Bursts and dearths. When I am on a project I will write till I drop, stay up all night etc. If I am away or busy I always want to write. I have notebooks of all descriptions everywhere. I have found a lot of them in auction lots of books, unused diaries, account books, anything. I just open the nearest one and scrawl in any page, they are a complete jumble. I can compose straight into the computer these days too. At other times I’ll be editing issues of Poetry Scotland with other people’s poems. Oh and I read the things I have written again and again. And again.