About The Author
Kirsty Logan is a writer, performer, literary editor, writing mentor and book reviewer. Her second novel, The Gloaming, is a tale of magic, love and mermaids. Her first book, The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales, a collection of stories, won the Scott Prize and was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. She regularly performs her stories at events and festivals throughout the world. She lives in Glasgow with her wife and their rescue dog.
Her first novel, The Gracekeepers, is the magical story of a floating circus and two young women in search of a home. Below, in a very personal piece exclusively for Foyles, Kirsty writes about her childhood with her father, the inspiration behind her book, and you can read the first chapter of The Gracekeepers here.
Her second collection of stories is called A Portable Shelter, in which, in their tiny, sea-beaten cottage on the north coast of Scotland, Liska and Ruth await the birth of their first child. Each passes the time by telling the baby stories, trying to pass on the lessons they've learned: tales of circuses and stargazing, selkie fishermen and domestic werewolves, child-eating witches and broken-toothed dragons. But they must keep their storytelling a secret from one another, as they've agreed to only ever tell the plain truth. So to cloak their tales, Ruth tells her stories when Liska is at work, to a background of shrieking seabirds; Liska tells hers when Ruth is asleep, with the lighthouse sweeping its steady beam through the window.
In the Q&A below, exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Kirsty about her love of fairy tales, why writers should always read their work aloud at the editing stage and feeling affection for the younger versions of yourself.
We also have a piece from Kirsty written about the inspiration for her first novel, The Gracekeepers, called Boats, Buddhism and the Boom.
You can also read Kirsty's new blog for us, about the evocative Scottish words she uses in her writing.
The Author At Foyles
Boats, Buddhism and the Boom
When I think of my dad, I see him on a boat. I see the sun shining on his tanned skin, his strong shoulders pulling on ropes, his steady hands holding the tiller. I see him gazing out at the horizon. I see him smiling and happy, with a warm breeze in his face and the sun shining on his brown hair. But I know that my dad isn't really on a boat, because he died four years ago.
When I was a child, many weekends and holidays were spent on the water. We had a small sailboat called First Symphony that was docked at Lake Windermere in the Lake District. My dad, mum and younger brother would pack a picnic and pile onto the boat, spending the lazy summer days munching sandwiches and ducking under the swinging boom when the wind changed. Sometimes I would be allowed to sit beside my dad and work the tiller, which I was always thrilled to do as I thought I was single-handedly sailing the boat. Looking back, I'm pretty sure he secretly kept doing the steering every time I looked away – and obviously, I didn't have a clue what a single one of the sails or ropes or winches did. Still, in my mind I was sailing.
Although it had a tiny sleeper cabin, we didn't stay overnight on the boat. Instead we stayed with my uncle and aunt, who lived nearby in a Buddhist priory. The residents lived in tiny stone cottages around a central courtyard, full of mysterious nooks and secret rooms and old bricked-up staircases leading to nowhere. In the autumn the courtyard was carpeted in burnt-orange leaves and in the summer it was peppered with daisies. My uncle and aunt had a brilliantly mad dog who we'd take to the beach and throw sticks for until the sun set. Most exciting of all, the temple had an enormous golden Buddha statue, which terrified and obsessed me. Although I'm not religious, I'm still fascinated by all world religions, and I think the beautiful golden Buddha had a lot to do with that. I loved visiting the priory, but most of all I loved being on the boat – probably because it's what my dad loved most of all too. He was never more himself than when he was sailing.
It's been a long road to publication for The Gracekeepers, and now that it's out in bookshops and in the hands of readers, I often think how proud my dad would have been. But the thing is, if he was still alive, I don't think I could have written the book at all. The Gracekeepers began with the loss of my dad, and his influence haunts every page. Both my parents raised me to be a reader and a writer, and to love the sea. Right from the start, their relationship was rooted in both the sea and in literature: they met at Aberdeen University, where they'd go on long walks together on the rainy beach while my dad made up silly poems to recite to my mum. Even though we ended up living nowhere near the sea, it's no surprise that much of my childhood was spent on trips to bodies of water.
I enjoyed those days out on the boat, but at the time I didn't appreciate how much they would come to influence me. I suppose that could be said for much of what we experience as children. Often the events that seem huge at the time – birthdays, Christmases, arguments and upsets – fade into forgetting, while the little things remain. This never felt truer for me than when I was writing The Gracekeepers. Every morning, when I sat down at my laptop with my cup of ridiculously strong coffee and wondered what on earth to write that day, there was my dad, and there was the boat. So I climbed aboard, and off we went. That little boat took me all the way through the six months and 80,000 words of the first draft – and when it was time to leap into the edits, I climbed aboard again. I couldn't have written this book without my dad, even though he wasn't there to see any of it.
If I'm honest, I don't believe in an afterlife, even though I'd like to. But if there really is one I think my dad is there now, on his boat with the wind at his back and the sun on his face.
Questions & Answers
A Portable Shelter is your second collection of short stories, what is it that attracts you to this format rather than a novel? Do you use short stories as a warm up to longer writing projects?
A short story is shorter than a novel in terms of word count, but not in terms of scope or ambition. Neither is a warm-up for the other; they're completely different ways to tell a story. They each provide such different experiences for the reader and the writer.
A novel is like a dollhouse: you open the front and all the tiny rooms are displayed, each populated with different characters doing different things, all engrossed in their worlds. I’ve always loved miniature scenes in museums: of battles or farms or villages. Even better are the full-size re-creations: the People’s Palace museum in Glasgow has a re-created 'single end', a one-room tenement home from the 1930s, complete with kitchen implements, furniture, textiles and everything that a family would need. I’m obsessed with it. I could look at it for hours, imagining the lives of the people who lived there.
A short story is different: it’s a short, sharp shock of story. I think of a short story as a keyhole; a glimpse into a single room rather than a view of the whole dollhouse. A short story should hint at a larger picture and allow the reader to imagine a whole world in a few words.
A large part of this collection and your other works tie in with a tradition of re-telling of fairy-tales. Why do you think readers and writers are drawn to these tales, which are usually so dark and unforgiving?
I think we like them precisely because they're so dark and unforgiving. When we revisit fairytales, we're often shocked to find they're not the pretty stories we remember. Fairytales might not seem relevant to us on the surface: after all, we don't live in the woods or a castle, and we're not huntsmen or princesses. But like any mythical tale, even when the details don't connect, there's always an emotional truth. Love, death, parental guilt, the desire to make something of ourselves: these situations ring true with every generation.
This is also why I'm so drawn to fairytales as a writer. How do you tell a timeless tale? How do you take the deeply personal specifics of your life – your grief, your despair, your triumph – and make them connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime? You write a fairy tale. A gory, bawdy, unpredictable, bizarrely logical fairy tale.
In A Portable Shelter the stories being told are used to teach an unborn child. Do you think that stories, especially fairy tales, can still educate us about our life and the world around us?
Every time I read a fairytale I get something new, and there's a good reason for that: these tales will always be relevant to our lives because they were originally told that way. They weren't meant as fun little stories; they were folktales meant to guide us, meant to show us our world and the people in it. They show us how difficult the world is, and go some way to making sense of it.
There are two storytellers each taking turns to talk in this book. Do you consider yourself an author or a storyteller? Is there a difference between them?
I try not to consider myself anything. I just love stories and want to share them in any way I can. I've been called an author and a writer and a storyteller and a novelist and a short story writer, and I'm fine with all of those. A friend once said to me that if I were broken in half, I'd be a stick of rock with 'storyteller' written right through me. Stories are what I am; they're my blood and bones.
Did you re-read these stories before they were published in this new edition? What was it like looking back on them?
I did a few small edits for Vintage, so there's some difference between the hardback and paperback editions, mostly in the frame story of Ruth and Liska. One thing I've learned about being a writer is that you should always read your work aloud during the editing stage, because when you publish it you'll have to perform it a hundred times at readings and festivals. Any sentence that sounds clunky is going to scrape on your ears every single time, and you'll come to hate it.
By the time a book is out in paperback, it's been a year or two (or sometimes more) since you first wrote it. It's easy to feel distanced from the stories. Reading my books is like reading an old journal: that's not necessarily how I'd write the stories now, but it's how I wrote them then. You have to feel affection for the younger versions of yourself.
What is your favourite traditional fairy tale and why?
I couldn't pick just one! My favourite fairytales are the ones where women are bold, resourceful and curious: The Snow Queen, Little Red Riding Hood, Kate Crackernuts, Bluebeard and Lord Fox. I love their vivid imagery, their bloodiness, their use of the female quest and search for knowledge.
This collection mixes stories about every day and more fantastical tales, was there a reason that you combined the two approaches?
I don't think of it as combining two approaches. I just tell the story how I think it needs to be told. Sometimes the fantastical creeps in; sometimes it doesn't. The way I see the world, we're always walking a tightrope between the mundane and magical, between reality and daydreams. Sometimes we tip one way or the other.
Can you tell us a little about what projects you're working on now?
I'm about to start the edits on The Gloaming, my next novel, which will be published in 2018. I've also started writing my fifth book, The Night Tender, which is a collection of linked horror stories. I started writing it during a month's writing retreat in a remote part of Iceland, and that isolation and landscape has really seeped into the stories. I'm also branching out into some new projects, including two songwriting collaborations, visual art and filmmaking. Too many stories, not enough time!
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