Exciting news – What You Call Free is now available to pre-order from Ringwood Publishing, ahead of the launch in March.
Cynthia Rogerson, award-winning novelist, said:
‘Flora Johnston has written a literary page turner about one of Scotland’s most turbulent and least talked about periods …. It’s a bleak story because it’s a bleak time, but the characters retain their warmth and humanity. All in all, a compulsive read. As addictive as chocolate, and as nourishing as a bowl of Scotch broth.’
Jenni Calder, novelist, poet and literary historian, said:
‘Flora Johnston tells a powerful story, steering a sure-footed path through perhaps the most complex and divided period in Scotland’s history in a way that resonates with many issues today.’
Scotland’s creative writing centre, Moniack Mhor, is a very special place. I’ve stayed there twice in the last few years, and those two weeks were hugely influential in the writing of What You Call Free.
I’ve been working on this book for a very long time! I began writing it in 2013, although the idea had been there for much longer. In 2016 I entered it into the Bridge Awards’ Emerging Writer Award and was delighted to be ‘highly commended’, and to receive a grant towards a Moniack Mhor retreat as a result.
The format for the tutored courses is a perfect combination of workshops, one-to-one tutorials, evening readings, and as much thinking time, writing time, good food, good wine and good conversation as you could possibly want. With some trepidation, I chose a historical fiction course led by Isla Dewar and Margaret Elphinstone, and travelled to Moniack. Although I am used to having my non-fiction words published in different forms, my fiction writing had always been a private and solitary enterprise. I had never done a creative writing course or joined a writing group, and had rarely shared or spoken about my work. I learned a great deal on that course, but I think its real significance lay in giving me permission and confidence to think of myself as a fiction writer. It was a completely new experience to speak the language of fiction with other people and to discuss my writing and my dreams. The book I was working on – at that time called Sackcloth on Skin – was a bit of a sprawling, multi-strand, multi-timeframe mess, but my first visit to Moniack Mhor encouraged me to believe not just in the book but in myself as a writer.
Eventually I was ready to send it out. There were some positives – a couple of longlistings for example – but then came the stream of rejections from agents and publishers. If you have ever put yourself through this you will know how completely demoralising and destructive it is. By the end of 2018 any confidence I’d discovered at Moniack was fast disappearing. And yet, I couldn’t quite bring myself to give up on this story. I still believed in it, but something needed to change. My choice seemed to be either to self-publish the book as it was or to change it drastically. I decided to try removing everything but the 17th-century storyline, and rewriting it as a historical novel.
It should have been devastating but it was actually quite cathartic! By the time I had cut out everything I no longer wanted, the book was about half the length. It was much easier to see its weaknesses, and where the historical story needed development. Around the same time the Moniack programme for 2019 dropped into my inbox. I hadn’t planned to go back, but a course on ‘Finding the heart of your novel’ led by James Robertson and Cynthia Rogerson caught my eye. Could Moniack work its magic a second time?
I signed up, and then left the book aside until June 2019, when I returned to Moniack with a mutilated half novel! I was worried the course might not live up to my first experience, but it was a wonderful week. As before, the setting, the people, the generous help from the tutors and the encouraging atmosphere all combined to help me to understand how to take the book forward.
I spent the rest of 2019 rewriting, and by the start of the year was ready to begin the daunting prospect of sending my novel – now What You Call Free – out again. But this time I had more experience, and the support and advice of writer friends made on that course. In summer 2020 the book found its home – with Ringwood Publishing, an independent Glasgow based publisher who publish an exciting range of Scottish fiction and non-fiction. It should come out early next year. There’s still a long way to go, but I will be forever grateful to Moniack Mhor for helping me firstly to believe in myself as a writer and then to understand the book I was writing.
This has obviously been a really hard year for Moniack Mhor, but they continue to offer online courses and opportunities. Check them out, and support them if you can!
During the course of the summer I received the wonderful news that my debut novel is to be published by Ringwood Publishing next year.
I’ve shared a bit over the years about the progress of this novel. I began working on it years ago, alongside my freelance writing and heritage career, and it has been through many drafts! There were some really encouraging early moments, including being highly commended in the Bridge Awards Emerging Writer Award and longlisted for the Mslexia Novel Award, but there have been so many disappointments too.
The decision I took 18 months ago to move to a different part-time job, giving myself time to focus properly on my fiction, has proved to be really important, as was my second visit to Moniack Mhor in June 2019.
After a drastic rewrite, which included removing an entire storyline (around half the manuscript!), What You Call Free (yes, new title too) has at last found its perfect home.
This was an interesting project I did a few years ago – researching the lives of the two founders of what is now Stewart’s Melville College. The results have just been put online on their Digital Archives site which has some fascinating material. I haven’t done any work like this for a while now, having moved from freelance research and exhibition work to a part-time job which allows me a day a week for working on fiction, but it’s nice to be reminded of my former life!
The first of April may be April Fools’ Day, but I really
hope this isn’t a joke, as this week I move into a new pattern of work.
I’m starting a new part-time job tomorrow as Church Office
Manager at Davidson’s Mains Parish Church in Edinburgh. This is my local church
where I’m already very involved, and committed to all that we’re about. The
church office is beside our fabulous café, The Sycamore Tree, and it’s a busy
place with all sorts of community contact. I’ll have lots to learn but I’m
really excited about getting started.
But I set up this website a few years ago to share news
about my writing, and this new pattern could be quite a significant one in
those terms too. I’ve been thinking a lot about purpose and calling over the
last few months as I’ve been making these decisions, and it seems that for me that’s
always a multi-faceted thing. Family … work … faith … writing … they’ve always
all been part of the mix. All that’s happening just now is a shift in balance.
I’ve worked from home
ever since the children were born on a range of projects, and for the past few
years almost exclusively on exhibition work for CMC Associates. That work
pattern was ideal for our circumstances, but things have changed. One of the
challenges of my unpredictable work pattern was making time for my own writing.
Whenever I had a project on it was pretty much impossible to make space for
writing, and whenever I had a gap between projects I felt guilty about writing and
not earning money. Now for the first time I will have a fixed day each week given
over to my own writing, and I can give myself that permission to write. I cannot
tell you how exciting that is!
So I have a list beginning to take shape … flash fiction
competitions (new to me), submissions strategy, and probably most importantly a
review and potential major redraft of my novel. I’m going back to Moniack Mhor
later in the year and I’m pinning my hopes on that as a chance to get some
clarity about where I go next with it. Between now and then there’s a good deal
of preparation to be done.
Today is my first ‘writing Monday’ and I think I just got started!
Having just celebrated this year’s International Women’s Day, I have been inspired to find out more about the women who are part of the history of Classics at Newcastle University. My research has led me to discover the remarkable Christina Keith, a pioneering female scholar in the field of Classics and beyond.
Christina Keith joined Armstrong College (the first incarnation of Newcastle University) as a lecturer in Classics in October 1914, making her one of the earliest female scholars in the department’s history. This was the first lectureship of Christina’s academic career, following on from several years of study in higher education. Although not the case nowadays, pursuing higher education was a rare and unusual choice for a woman in the early 20th century, and Classics in particular was a traditionally male subject. A brief survey of Christina’s time at university makes clear both her natural aptitude for academia and…
In November 1925 the SS Empress of Scotland set sail from Southampton across the Atlantic, at the start of a voyage round the world. Among her passengers was 36-year-old Christina Keith, a Classics lecturer from St Hilda’s College Oxford who was on a year’s sabbatical. Independent-minded and always unconventional, Christina was embarking on the voyage alone, writing, ‘I want to meet different people for one year.’
Christina was my great-aunt, and I published her wartime memoir as War Classics. She was born in Thurso in 1889 and studied the male-dominated subjects of Latin, Greek and Classical Archaeology at Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities. Her pioneering early career was interrupted by the First World War, and War Classics recounts her experiences lecturing to the troops in France and exploring the devastated battlefields soon after the guns had fallen silent.
Now, after six years of lecturing in Oxford, she was seeking wider horizons once more. I have the letters she wrote to her mother during her cruise, and they are full of vivid descriptions of life on board a 1920s ocean liner, and the changing world she met at each different port.
That’s why I was so keen to see the Ocean Liners: Speed and Style exhibition at the new V&A in Dundee, and it didn’t disappoint. The exhibition explores the cutting edge design and cultural impact of these legendary ships, and helped me place the story of Christina’s voyage and of her ship – built in Germany as the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria in 1905 – within that wider context.
It was a stunning, if bitterly cold, day for my first visit to the V&A Dundee, with the impressive building looming out of the freezing fog, and the RSS Discovery appropriately enough reflected in (very thin) ice.
I think Christina and I may well have some unfinished business …
One hundred years ago my great-aunt Christina was behind the lines in Dieppe as a tutor with the army’s education scheme. She describes the day when peace was declared after the four long years which had devastated her generation:
Late in the afternoon I went into the huts to see the men and how they took it. The Base Commandant had sent round word to close the canteens if we wished, as the men might be drunk. But we did not wish. On that night of all nights every man, drunk or sober, was to find a welcome there.
When I went in, they were still sober and the hut was packed to the door. Most of them were singing and some few laughing and talking. Would you like to know what they sang? No ‘Rule Britannia’ or ‘God Save The King’ – English soldiers rarely sing either unless they are bidden. No – it was a chorus we were to hear every day for the next six months, with varying emphasis – ‘When do we go home?’, each word punctuated by thumps of mugs on tables, and the last word raised the roof.
At night they were many of them drunk, and the sober ones, with thoughts of the punctilious WAACs with whom they were dancing, were for turning the drunks out. ‘No, no,’ said the Hut leader firmly, ‘let the drunks dance by themselves in this corner.’ So, sometimes three together, sometimes the orthodox two, sometimes one, the drunks danced merrily in their corner; whenever one, well meaning but nothing more, lurched out to grab a WAAC, he was hastily but tenderly shepherded back by a stronger comrade.
Outside bells blared; flags flew; bands played; at every window in the Grande Rue faces looked out, laughing, crying. In the distance the Marseillaise came rolling down and its echo ‘It’s – a – long – way – to – go.’
I stole into the Cathedral. Over the altar hung our flags, quiet and still. There was no need to wave them now. Utter quietness here and one spot of light only. In the chapel at my side lay the empty tomb and the marble watchers beside it. The figure of the risen Christ was outlined and ringed with light. Never have I seen so many candles ablaze together. Beneath Him in the darkness knelt clusters of black-robed women. Peace had come.
Norman Macleod was one of the main characters in my book Faith in a Crisis. Now the house he lived in, which was part of his story, is on the market. The lady who lived there was a friend of my parents and I remember visiting as a child, but the shiver down the spine comes when I think of Norman and Julia descending those stairs, walking through those rooms …. and leaving the house with their ‘young and helpless family’ when they were evicted by the factor in 1843.
Extract from Faith in a Crisis (Islands Book Trust, 2012):
Norman, by quitting his church at Trumisgarry, was no longer entitled to his house. He wrote to Lord Macdonald, offering to pay the same rent as any other and observing, ‘I trust your Lordship does not really intend to drive me with my young and helpless family out of my present dwelling house.’ The factor, Seumas Ruadh of Balranald, himself an Established Church elder, replied in these terms:
It is not [his Lordship’s] intention either to grant you a site or to give you any lands …. I am sorry for you and your family, you will be much put about, but you have brought it all on yourself. …. Kind compliments to Mrs McLeod.
Within a few years, of course, many of Norman’s congregation would also have been evicted from their homes and land, with fewer resources to survive and far more drastic consequences.
Seumas Ruadh was the father of Jessie of Balranald, whose story I told here. It was recently fictionalised in the novel The False Men by Mhairead Macleod.