With thirteen books under her belt and as a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Andrews, there was no doubt that Lesley Glaister would pull in a crowd eager to hear all about her writing process at our Scottish Writers’ Centre Masterclass. Despite the chilly wind and the first snow of the season, the turnout was great as Lesley shared her experience with ‘the muddle that writing a novel can be’. Since her first publication in 1990, she has been working on mastering her craft and says that whilst there may be rules to writing, few people seem to know what they are and insists they are there to be broken anyway. As she tells how her latest novel Little Egypt came about, Lesley is open in sharing the peaks and troughs that authorship can bring, and her words come as a reassuring encouragement to persist and never give up hope on a good idea.
Following the publication of her first novel Honour Thy Father in 1990, Lesley won the Somerset Maugham Award which brought with it prize money intended for travelling. Having a romantic interest in Egypt, she headed over to explore further into the myths and artefacts with which she had long been fascinated. Returning from her tomb-exploring, eye opening visit with a hint of inspiration, she wrote it down in the hope that it would develop in to something bigger, but initially it appeared stuck as an enclosed piece of work. Stepping away from the idea, Lesley went on to write numerous novels over the years, returning back to Little Egypt as and when inspiration struck her. From a cottage in the countryside to a group of people on a bus, characters and plot came to her gradually, but not without difficulty. She described the writing process as ‘like pushing a wheelbarrow full of stones up a hill’, a upwards struggle, then a ‘whheeeee’ downwards as ideas and words come to the forefront. Writing this novel, unlike her others, brought a darkness and depression with it, as though she felt haunted when she wrote. But also unlike her others, despite the lengthy process, the novel never felt dead, but rather in a comatose state that slightly awoke now and again.
So Lesley’s novel began to form itself. Characters were born and lost (though she did reveal that her upcoming works feature some of them!), plot began to emerge but it took a ‘DUH’ moment before Lesley realised it was taking her characters to Egypt that would make the text feel more whole. As the novel progresses from home to Egypt and back again, the narrative alternates between first and third person and both past and present tense. Lesley recommended this as a top tip for helping with the movement and structure of a novel that falls naturally in sections. Though she doesn’t typically write or teach with a strict template for structure, it was key in maintaining the flow of a novel being written over a long period of time. Much like a the walls of a house, the structure of Little Egypt was key in allowing her to return to it in waves and feel as though she was ‘flying over the top of it to see what’s there’, never losing touch with the story.
Lesley was open and honest in her Masterclass. She shared just how difficult the writing process can be. Emotional exhaustion, writers block and dark material are all to be contended with, and as the audience probed in to these challenges more during the Q&A, the key message that came out from Lesley was to be kind to yourself. The journey from experience to idea to novel was a long one, and if we can learn anything from her process, it’s that writing doesn’t necessarily have to flow quickly and smoothly in order to get to an end result. As she said, writing rubbish is mandatory, and it’s okay to let go of ideas, but if something feels right, then chances are time, structure and inspiration will work in your favour. Little Egypt is proof of that!
For more information on Lesley and her novels, check her website here.
Words and images by Kath Warren