Whilst spending a few days in Edinburgh, I managed to catch a couple of the book festival events. The first of which, featured one of my favourite authors, Susan Fletcher.
Susan Fletcher isn’t one of those authors with a website, a Tumblr account and a Twitter stream (she joined Facebook in October 2011 but has since made not one post). She’s old school. Look for her on Google and you’ll find a couple of interviews, a few reviews, the odd author profile and one short video of her talking about Eve Green, her 2004 Whitbread Award winning debut novel. That’s because Susan Fletcher seems to prefer to let her writing do the talking for her and in this digital age, for someone so young, it makes a refreshing change.
True to form, at the event she shared with fellow author, Lian Hearn, at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival, Susan introduced herself by giving a reading from her latest book, The Silver Dark Sea, whilst Lian Hearn spoke very eloquently and interestingly about the influences and processes involved in writing her latest book – which I haven’t read – Blossoms and Shadows. I think it’s fair to say that the audience was spellbound by Fletcher’s taut, lyrical prose. Yet whilst such modesty from such a talent is endearing, I wanted to hear more about her writing influences, her processes and reading passions.
Thankfully, however, when both authors had spoken, the chair of the event, Rosemary Burnett, used her skills to dig a little deeper into the literary enigma wrapped in mystery that is Susan Fletcher.
Originally from the Midlands, Fletcher moved to the west coast of Scotland four or five years ago, after writing her third, and my favourite, book, Corrag (now re-titled Witch Light). With her red curly hair, Fletcher’s Scottish roots are not too hard to decipher and it is clear from her writing, her beautiful descriptions of the rugged Scottish landscape, why she chose to settle here.
Much of the story of The Silver Dark Sea is set on the fictional Island of Parla, the inspiration for which came from Fletcher’s research around the islands surrounding Scotland. However Fletcher said she was keen to stress that Parla was not been to be viewed as a Scottish island, rather she wanted ‘the reader decide where the location of Parla was’, hoping that her description of the landscape, of the tiny details that make up the geography of Parla’s island community are vivid enough for the reader to be able to ‘see’ Parla in their own minds. It’s an aim she’s achieved, for the mythical island landscape she creates certainly seems as real as any actual place. Indeed, summoning up the landscape in the mind’s eye of readers is one of Fletcher’s great strengths. Her sensual writing picks out the details of the novel’s seascape to paint a picture of a place shrouded in myths, stories and secrets.
Myth making and storytelling are key themes of The Silver Dark Sea, which centres around a small island community brought together by a man washed up on the shore, whose sudden presence and physical looks reminds them all of local myth about a man who is half fish. The story of the fishman runs through the novel like a backbone, holding together the individual stories of the Parla’s community and acting as the touchstone that draws the narrative threads together at the end. As each new character (there are thirty two in all), another story unfolds. To read each one is to understand the context of another. Yet she does make one voice distinct from the rest: Maggie Bundy, written in the first person instead of third person narration like all the others. Maggie Bundy: the outsider; the grieving widow; the one the fishman comes to love; the one who comes to love the fishman. As story progresses it becomes apparent that this is Maggie’s story we’re being told. ‘I thought of Maggie as the centre of the flower, and all the other characters formed the petals around her,’ said Fletcher, characteristically whimsical.
So it’s a complex Russian doll of a narrative structure, but somehow Fletcher uses it to pull the reader into the hearts and minds of the characters with skilful ease and by the end of the book, I felt sad to leave the community of Parla. Fletcher apparently felt the same on finishing writing the novel, admitting that writing a large multi-voice narrative had made the experience harder to leave behind as a result.
Not all of the themes in The Silver Dark Sea are new, however. Fletcher revisits familiar ground with the story’s focus on emotional survival and overcoming grief and it is these she writes about most poignantly, resonating long after the book has been finished. The Silver Dark Sea is her most accomplished literary offering to date whilst retaining her trademark poetic prose and a nod to the fantastical.
Still, the audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival, acknowledging the rarity of her public appearance, wanted to know about her other books too. Specifically, Corrag, which was confusingly retitled after initial publication to Witch Light. Why? We all wanted to know. And here’s the shocking truth: one of the major UK’s booksellers refused to stock it under its original title, Corrag! It’s hard to believe that booksellers can have such an impact on what an author calls their books, or even the audacity to think it knows that its customers would prefer (clue to said bookseller: it’s not Witch Light). Yet apparently, this one did and Fletcher, characteristically modest, agreed to it because ‘she didn’t want to be a diva about it.’
Anyway, swallowing our shock, talk eventually turned to process and the way in which both authors preferred to edit. Hearn apparently writes everything down longhand before transferring to the computer. Fletcher however, finally belying her young age, stated that she wrote straight on to the computer, admitting she’d be lost without cut and paste. A ruthless editor, she also revealed the use of a folder she liked to call ’Bits’ which was full of discarded paragraphs and phrases. Apparently she regularly calls on the contents of her ‘Bits’ folder and ‘strips them for parts’ during the editing process. It’s a good idea and a real insight into how she works as it implies a very practical, method based approach, not at all what her ethereal writing and her notable absence from online forums leads us to believe about her.
So now we know, Susan Fletcher might prefer to spend her days sitting on a heather laden Scottish hill, her red hair blowing in the wind, as she dreams up whimsical stories with which to enthral the world, rather than piddling about on Twitter and Facebook, but in the end, even she has to sit in front of the computer and deal with winword errors in order to craft her words into books. Shame really, I rather liked the idea of her scratching out her stories on bits of papyrus and sending them by owl to her agent.