author, dramatist, lecturer
I am an award-winning writer of novels, short stories, non-fiction and radio drama. I have lived in Scotland for most of my adult life. After a childhood spent in India and in the west country of England, I graduated from Cambridge University with an MA degree in Social Anthropology (1960). I was a teacher before being appointed director of Scotland’s first curriculum development centre, then becoming an Education Adviser in Strathclyde Region. I took early retirement in 1989 to focus on my writing. From 1991-97 I was a part-time tutor in Creative Writing at Glasgow University. I am a former president of The Scottish Association of Writers (1993-96) and of Scottish PEN (1997-2000). For 17 years I chaired Scottish PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee (now renamed Writers at Risk), which campaigns on behalf of persecuted writers and champions freedom of expression, and I remain active in this field. Apart from writing, my main interests are mountaineering, sea kayaking, photography and chess. More details about me can be found in my Wikipedia entry and in Who’s Who in Scotland.
Awards and Nominations
2013: The Sunlit Summit – Saltire Society Research Book of the Year Award
2007: Red Fox Running – nominated for Manchester Children’s Book Award;
shortlisted for Heart of Hawick Children’s Book Award
1992: Fallen Angels – awarded Honorary Fellowship of Institute of Latin American Studies, Glasgow University for this book.
1994: Ice in Wonderland – BBC Award for Best New Radio Drama
1985: The Dreamhouse – nominated for the Booker Prize
1983: Lord of the Dance – BBC Bookshelf First Novel Award; also nominated for the Booker Prize; and the previous year, in unpublished form, won the Scottish Association of Writers’ Constable Trophy
1980: Where the Forest and the Garden Meet - short-listed for the Children’s Librarians’ Award UK
1. When did you first decide to start writing?
For me there was a big gap between thinking I’d like to be a writer and actually getting down to it in a serious way. The seeds of the idea were planted when, aged 8, I was sent to boarding school. After lights-out in the dormitory we would lie in the dark and take it in turns to tell a story. To have fifteen other boys hanging on my every word, wanting to know what happened next, was a tremendous feeling. I started writing a novel soon after leaving university, but only wrote when I felt in the mood for it, with the result that it took over ten years to complete. It was pretty bad and never got published. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I realised that, unless I wrote regularly every day, nothing worthwhile would get done.
2. Have any specific books/authors inspired you?
It’s a long list! I write both fiction and non-fiction. In terms of the former, discovering Jane Austen rather late in life was a breakthrough for me (she wasn’t on the curriculum in my all-male school). J.G.Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur helped me find exactly the right tone for my award-winning debut novel, Lord of the Dance. For my outdoor/nature writing the wonder of it all was triggered by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. My mother would read it to me during our siesta hour in India, with the real jungle at the bottom of the garden, making it both real and magical at the same time. When I was thirty-something I read W.H. Murray’s classic of mountain literature, Mountaineering in Scotland and was thrilled by his brilliant, intoxicating prose.
3. How did the writing of The Sweet Especial Scene come about?
Well, we’re talking about a collection of my outdoor/nature writing which spans more than forty years. Most of the original articles or essays were based on notes I kept during the various trips or expeditions. I had been thinking of putting this collection together for at least five years before I did it. Bringing it out in the same month that I turned eighty somehow seemed the right moment.
4. How and when do you write?
I am now a full-time writer, but before I ‘gave up the day job’ I used to get up at five in the morning and write for two hours before going to work. Now I try to put in about seven hours each day in my study (at my pc or sitting in an armchair with a mss or research book). I don’t set myself a target of words per day. Some days I end up with a minus amount of words because I am a ruthless editor of my own work. It depends on the weather. If it’s a perfect day for being on the water or in the hills, I’m off! I carry a notebook with me everywhere. I write on trains, buses, airplanes or while I’m walking. A key scene in one of my novels was written in water-proof pen on the fibreglass deck of my kayak. About one quarter of my biography of Murray was written in hospital waiting-rooms.
5. What do you enjoy reading?
Good travel writing, good nature writing, historical novels and reality-bending fiction such as by Marquez or Pullman.
6. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t give up. Determination is every bit as important as talent. Write regularly. Sit there even if nothing is coming. Write anything, just get going. Don’t let writing become a lonely, isolated activity. Join a group. Discuss your work with others and get feedback. Be honest and brave about your feelings. Don’t listen to all those internal censors whispering in your ear. Edit and redraft again and again. Nobody ever gets it perfect at the first attempt.
7. Shakespeare or Dickens?
I don’t think they are directly comparable. Shakespeare was mainly a dramatist whose work was meant to be seen and heard, not read. I admire both of them and don’t feel the need to prefer one above the other.
8. What is your favourite place?
So many! The best I can do is narrow it down to three: the west coast of Greenland, South Uist and Murree in the foothills of the Himalayas. Oh, and of course, my house by the sea in Helensburgh, Scotland.
9. What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t believe anyone who tells you your schooldays are the happiest days of your life. Try to be less intense. Communicate more and give more time to the people you love than your older self has done.
10. When I was a child I wanted to be
England’s top batsman, an Olympic pole-vault champion, an Arctic explorer, a writer.
11. If you could be any fictional character who would it be? When I write fictional characters I am right inside their skins and minds. So, in my writing life I have become quite a number of fictional characters. But I wouldn’t want to be any of them for the whole of my life. I would like to be Mowgli for a week or two so that I could talk to the jungle animals, but not for longer than that. I’d like to be Ratty in The Wind in the Willows and live by the riverbank and spend my days ‘simply messing about in boats.’
(for Two Ravens Press, August 2014)