We are so excited to welcome Anne Scriven to the Scottish Writers’ Centre tomorrow, for what looks to be a fantastic event focusing on Anne’s process of writing narrative non-fiction and the inspiration that she owes to brilliant literary women. In the build-up to International Women’s Day, Anne’s event will be a wonderful celebration of women writers and we hope to see lots of you there!
Ahead of Anne’s event tomorrow, SWC Director Rachel Walker talks to Anne Scriven about her love of narrative non-fiction, writing tips for fledgling writers and some of her favourite Scottish writers. Read on to see her answers…
Your event focuses on your approach to writing narrative non-fiction. Why do you think narrative non-fiction speaks to you as a writer?
I have always been a good observer – possibly the legacy of being a shy child. Real life is full of stories if you just take time to notice them. Shirley Hughes, the children’s writer and illustrator, said that there was no need to invent fantasy for children as actual life is already a fascination to them. And, was it Turgenev who said that he distrusted invention as there was beauty and strangeness enough in the real? I certainly have found it so. My academic life was full of analysing and commenting on texts already in existence. I wasn’t the kind that made things up — although you could argue that analysis is a kind of fiction as, like any writing, it is a construction.
You’ve acknowledged that your writing journey has been largely inspired by women writers. Are there any women writers in particular that have greatly influenced your work or approach?
Rather curiously for someone who is very much a Scot and passionate about our own literature, it is the very English Virginia Woolf who continues to inform my thinking and my writing. I am also a fan of Canada’s Carol Shields and her unapologetic interest and descriptions of ordinary women’s lives. Then there is at the beautiful poet, Mary Oliver, whose poem ‘Messenger’ with the lines ‘Let me / keep my mind on what matters,/ which is my work,/ which is mostly standing still and learning to be/ astonished’, is on my desk as I type this.
Do you have a favourite work of narrative non-fiction?
I recently discovered the writing of Madeleine Bunting. I especially liked her Love of Country (2016). Her research into whatever she is focusing on is a mix of intelligent thoroughness and respect with dollops of real humanity. She is also a very nice person. Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse cuts new ground in women’s social history with its elegant mix of memoir and research. Guess I had better mention Robert MacFarlane too — he being ‘rather hot’ just now, as a friend of mine aptly said. His use of vocabulary (as my secondary school teacher of English would have said) is to be admired and emulated. Does Nigel Slater’s recently published Christmas Chronicles count? Yes, I know he over uses words such as ‘crisp’ and tends to stretch his rather well-worn theories to serve various articles but the chap can write nonetheless and I delighted in his book over the festive period. Had to keep getting out of bed though to get something to eat if I was reading it before sleep.
What advice would you give to women writers who are just starting out?
Well, I would probably say to both women and men: don’t fret if you find you can’t work with a particular genre. Be gracious and leave that field to those who are at home in it. Write from where your thoughts run. Read the writing of those who can teach you something about your chosen genre — and try not to be envious of their success (I fail at this constantly).
You also hold a PhD in Scottish literature. Tell us about your interest in Scottish literature!
My interest probably begun with the books beside the fireplace in my first home — a Scottish special council house in Kirkintilloch. My dad loved the poetry of Burns (as well as Omar Khayyám and Robert Service), and would recite it often, so I grew up knowing some of Burns’ lines. Dad would also cite Walter Scott and Byron (yes, he is Scottish-born) when we reached the first cairn in our regular clamber up the Campsie Fells. Then, in Primary 4, my teacher told my mum at Parents’ Night that my special poem for our class project on Scotland was really good and that kind of stuck in my mind. Years later as an undergrad at the University of Glasgow, I took a class in Scottish Lit. It was both excellent and terrifying — as we were taught mostly by the scary Alexander Scott, a legend in the field. It wasn’t until I returned to study as a mature student and followed the class ‘Scottish Women Writers’ pioneered by Margaret Elphinstone at the University of Strathclyde, that I realised there were Scottish women who could and did write. I adored this class and, through a series of events, ended up teaching Scottish Lit at undergrad level. I also focused my PhD on the Scottish Woman of Letters, Margaret Oliphant (1828 – 1897).
Who is your favourite Scottish writer?
Favourite Scottish writers (I cannot just choose one!) then has to include Mrs Oliphant — in particular her bildungsroman, Kirsteen (1890) which I was lucky enough to edit for the Association of Scottish Literary Studies in 2010. I also highly recommend her story of the uncanny ‘The Library Window’ which was actually the impetus for me choosing her as my doctoral focus. Other favourites are Catherine Carswell, Willa Muir, Elspeth Davie, Muriel Spark (despite her international reach her mindset is deeply rooted in Scotland), and, although I have never ‘taught’ the writing of Kirsty Gunn, I think her The Big Music (2012) is truly remarkable — both for its form and content. Then there is the always perceptive poetry of Kathleen Jamie who skilful and so subtly speaks of things that matter. I should give the lads a mention too… the poetry of Norman McCaig is on my fave list as is Grass Gibbon, Robin Jenkins, Alasdair McLeod and the polemic of Alasdair Reid and Andrew O’Hagan (who once wrote me a very nice email when I had provided programme notes for his play Be Near Me) and of course, our incomparable Rabbie Burns, even if he did steal ‘Ca the Yowes’ from a woman.
Interview by Rachel Walker