Interview with MANDA SCOTT

This week I’m really proud to be talking to a writer I’ve admired for many years: Manda Scott, author of brilliant Roman stories, the re-inventor of Boudica, and now the writer of INTO THE FIRE, a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc (you can read my review here).

MJ – Manda, could you tell us a bit about your childhood? Where were you born?

MS – I was born and brought up in a tiny village south of Glasgow. It has an amazing history – the central village green is shaped as a letter A, with each side a quarter of a mile long, for the Alexanders of Eglington, and there’s a Covenanters’ hill just outside the village that we used to sledge down as kids.  Now, there’s a massive wind farm, which isn’t as sightly, but I’d rather that than a nuclear power station. 

I lived there all my childhood and my father’s still there, so we were about as rooted as it’s possible to get. I consider moving back home occasionally, but England has become home these past few decades and it would be hard now, to uproot from that. 

MJ – What job(s) did your parents have – were they creatives or workers in business?

MS – My father was a mechanical engineer who taught at the University of Strathclyde – he became a Professor eventually, and was one of the first to set up a course in computer-aided machine tools.  When I slip into my geek phase, it’s Dad I have to thank for that.  My mother always wanted to be a vet, but didn’t have the Latin, so set up a raptor rehab center instead. My childhood was spent with a house full of kestrels, owls, buzzards, and the occasional litter of fox cubs, or RTA deer. And yes, I did become a vet before I became a writer. I’m not sure if I was simply living out my mother’s unfulfilled dreams, but I’m glad I did it. 

MJ – What sort of education did you have?

MS – My parents were ardent believers in a private education, and much as it  offends my politics, I am deeply grateful.   I went to an all-girls private school that started when I was 4 years old and I left at 16 with 5 Highers (Scottish system they’re the equivalent to the first year of A levels) and went to Glasgow Vet School. I was a shy, introverted a-social child with no interest in the usual girlie fixations of boys, music, fashion. I still know nothing about any of those and I’d have been massacred in a state school.  My small, not-very-pushy private school let me sit in a corner and read books and when I said I was going to be a vet, they helped me – or at least, they got me into Glasgow. I wanted to go to Edinburgh, but I wasn’t allowed to do three sciences at Higher – I had to have ‘a rounded education’ which meant Glasgow was my only option. I wasn’t a happy bunny about that, and learning German has not so far proved to be of any more use than learning Biology would have been, but I did love Glasgow Vet School and it set me up well for a career as a vet, so there was no long term damage done. 

The veterinary training was 5 years and I loved every second of it.  Even now, the training in how to use a library, how to research any topic in an efficient way, how to take information and make sense of it has been immensely useful.  There’s a skill called, ‘Need for Cognition’ which it seems to me is absolutely required in any writer – and training to be a vet helped me hone it.http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/07/seek-and-you-will-find-curiosity-key-to-success)

MJ – After that you practised as a vet for some years, I know. Did you write in your spare time, or did you leap straight into writing after giving up on your career?

MS – I didn’t have any spare time to write, at least not for the first ten years. I was a surgical intern (aka dogsbody) at Cambridge and from there, after a brief stint in general practice, I took my anaesthesia exams and moved into specialist equine practice in Newmarket, where I focused on equine anaesthesia and neonatal intensive care, and from there to the vet school where I broadened out into all-species anaesthesia and intensive care.  I was ten years into that arc, teaching students at Cambridge, before I went back to writing.  ‘Back’ is all relative, though.  When my mother died, I found amongst her ‘saved from childhood’ file, my first book – it was 10 pages written in feltpen from the perspective of one of the owls in the kitchen. It was early self-publishing, it had a copyright and a publisher’s marque and it was all bound up with blue ribbon.  So yes, I always planned to write, but what I hadn’t planned was how much focus veterinary medicine was going to take to be any good.  Then I had a 3 month gap between jobs and that let me start my first real book – a fiction set in a Vet School.  I had, of course, read James Herriot and thought it would be possible to do the same in fiction.  Nobody wanted to publish it, but it got me my first agent, and she  was able to nudge me in the direction of more publishable work., so again, everything fitted together rather well.  Or at least, it appears so with the perfect vision of hindsight.  

MJ – When did you fall into writing professionally, then?

MS – I started my first published book on my 30th Birthday.  I had been on a writing course with Fay Weldon as tutor and she’d told me I should be writing TV Scripts. So I started, and had a few things looked at, but never made, and then I got to my birthday and thought that if I didn’t knuckle down and write something soon, I’d be 40 and there’d still be no book.  So I wrote Hen’s Teeth, and, amazingly, it was not only published, but was short listed for the Orange Prize, which was about the best boost into real grown-up writing that it’s possible to get.  

MJ – Were you always attracted to crime? Did that come from your own reading preferences? Later you moved to historical (Boudica) – was that because you were weary of crime, or because you revelled in more bloodshed? Well, I had to ask…

MS – Definitely the early crime writing came from my own reading – but also because I had no time at all to do any research and so I had to follow the first rule of writing and write from what I knew – or in this case, from the various PhD topics I’d considered, but never quite got around to.  Hen’s Teeth grew straight out of my first potential post-grad project, Night Mares was written while I was at Dublin Vet School, but was in fact a kind of hybrid of the worst of Glasgow and Cambridge combined, and Stronger than Death came from a newspaper article about a series of clinical trials that had gone horribly wrong.  No Good Deed took it all a step further. It was more of a hard core thriller, largely because I’d joined the CWA by then and had an idea of what a thriller was. 

The shift to historical writing came about solely because of my shamanic practice – I made a commitment in ceremony to write about our shamanic past and there came a moment when I needed to do that NOW, not whenever was convenient, which was always going to be at least a decade away.  I have to say, I wasn’t at all sure I could do it – and if I hadn’t got an advance that let me give up the day job, I don’t think I could have done – the research was orders of magnitude harder than any I had done before, in any context.   I had to get to grips with an entire historical period – and two sets of military standards – the Romans and the ancient Britons – it took many, many months and much reading and a whole slew of conferences attended, with learned people speaking.  That was one of the many grand things about being in Cambridge – they had amazing libraries and I was free to attend conferences. 

MJ – How do you work on characters? Do they come to you in a visual manner, or do you need to imagine their faces, their voices and verbal tics?

MS – That’s an interesting question.  

I see/hear/feel the people in the ways I see/hear/feel in dreams and then slowly other things begin to evolve around them.  All that I write is predicated on pushing people to the edges of their existence. I like exploring the edge places in myself and in others and it seems to me that if there is one real reason to write and to read, it’s to find out more about ourselves, personally and collectively – I wrote the Boudica books with the intention of showing ‘this is who we were, this is who we could be’ and so to find that, I had to be it, to live it, to explore the possibilities – I feel the people, get to know them from the inside out, before I start to write them.  I feel the voices rather than see or hear, them, though – I’m not a great auditory thinker. I don’t listen to music and even birdsong sometimes is too much, so voices come as a felt sense, rather than a sound. 

MJ – How important is location to you? I know many people who have a real affinity for a place and always felt you were one of those. Do you think that comes from your beliefs?

MS – I am certainly very involved in the gods of this land, and find it hard to imagine living anywhere else.  But in writing terms, getting to grips with the feel of a place, with the sights/sounds/smells of it, and the people who lived there, always seems to be the final keystone in the arch of a book. The narrative has to build itself in my mind around a framework of the people and their emotional arcs, but then the place comes in and anchors everything.  So it’s vital, but the rest comes first. 

MJ – Knowing you, and knowing how empathetic you are, would you like to talk about your research – both the mundane reading, walking variety and your own very special shamanistic approach?

MS – Thank you, yes, I would… 

So the easy bit is the mundane: I spend hours reading books first, and then get out and talk to people to fill in the gaps. With the Boudica series, because the pre-Roman era was in many ways so different, I had to do more ‘living archaeology’ – I spent a week sleeping in a roundhouse, I learned to make a sword, I drove a horse and explored how horse harness might have been made – and of course, I’d already done several years of battle re-enactment which, although it was a different era, was remarkably useful in understanding the dynamics of battle and the feelings on the front line. 

MJ – That does sound fascinating. I’ve always wanted to work with metals myself, and I get into the atmosphere often by camping out on the moors. What about the shamanic research?

MS – The shamanic research fell into two camps, the academic and the experiential.

The academic part was the most straightforward, and easiest to explain.  I worked from the premise that all shamanic cultures hold certain things in common – the concept that all things are imbued with spirit and that with training the shamanic practitioner can connect with/speak to/ask for help from, those spirits.  Added to that, we know enough about the druids to know that, for instance, they wrote Greek and Latin, but didn’t write down their own ceremonies, that the training center on Mona (Anglesey) was renowned throughout the ancient world, and that both men and women went there to train for between 12 and 20 years. That last figure still pertains in modern shamanic cultures – I worked with a South American shaman who had trained with his grandfather from the age of 12 to 24 and back in the 90s, I was offered a 12 year apprenticeship with a central American shaman.  (I didn’t take it – I wasn’t ready to move to Mexico…)

MJ – I can understand that!

MS – So I read as much as I could of the academic shamanic studies, mostly from anthropologists, and added the various more anecdotal ‘this is how I met the amazing grandmother/grandfather/teacher who changed my life’ kinds of books. 

And then the rest was experiential.  At this point we need to say that my spiritual path is shamanic and it has been so since I was about 10 (tho’ I was in my early twenties before I put a name to what was happening). 

Apart from some years spent studying Buddhism in which I learned the standard western meditations, and then added to them some taught at Samye Ling in the borders of Scotland, I’ve been trying to learn the depths of shamanic practice for decades. 

MJ – I remember sitting and discussing spirituality with you, especially the source of your shamanic beliefs after a festival a couple of years ago. Could you explain your main conviction?

MS – I believe that all true spiritual paths teach the same thing, namely how to live and to die with full awareness. All of the techniques boil down to this: human potential is to become pure awareness, but it takes discipline and training. 

What sets the shamanic practitioner apart from the other disciplines (and we need to note that it is my belief that nobody in the west can ever be a shaman, but we can be astonishingly accomplished shamanic practitioners) is that we engage with the spirits of all life around us in all the realities, in order to ask for help in this reality, in order to become more clearly our authentic selves, and in order to become more clearly aware.  Everything is about awareness. When time stands still, that’s when the boundaries of the realities melt away, not the other way around. 

So: I teach the particular brand of shamanic practice that is called shamanic dreaming.  Each culture has a different method of accessing the other realities. Most of them revolve around rhythms, either drums or rattles, some use endorphins, some use sound and dance. A few use drugs, although I am of the opinion that nobody in the west has the capacity really to understand the use of plants and they don’t help us either to become more authentic or to stop time and become balanced on the knife edge of the moment. Without these two, we’re just spacing out, which is not what life is for.  

All of which means that I spent a lot of the time when I was writing the Boudica series dreaming with the fire.  I got rid of the television, I had no sound system anyway, I lived alone in a cottage in Suffolk and I make my deepest and most profound connections with fire.  I sat with the fire in the evening and the next day I wrote the results of the dreaming – which sounds simple, and wasn’t. 

I was very, very lucky that my editor completely understood the process and was, I now realise, both careful and respectful of the way I worked, while at the same time being absolutely focused in her task as editor. I threw away 60,000 words from the first book because they didn’t drive the narrative forward at the right pace. I hated it at the time, but it was right. 

MJ – The edits that go like that are the hardest parts of writing!

MS – When it came to INTO THE FIRE, I wasn’t trying to represent a shamanic worldview, but I was definitely trying to get into the head/mind/soul of a woman who has been so badly misrepresented, that all the current cultural expressions of her were (in my opinion) entirely wrong. I spent a long time dreaming into who the Maid might have been, how –and particularly why – she might have done what she did – that is, what she actually did, not what the mythology says of her. 

MJ – That’s really fascinating. I guess it explains how you always seem to be able to immerse yourself in your story. Is it different with historical works compared with INTO THE FIRE, which has so much about modern politics?

MS – I think it comes naturally – which is to say, I don’t know any other way to write.  I think writing is a bit like acting, except that the author has to take all of the parts – we have to be each of our characters, to live in her/his skin and feel what she or he feels until we know innately how each scene plays out.  It’s a kind of alchemy, but I have no real idea of how or why it works. 

MJ – Are you happy writing genre fiction? Are you happiest with series novels or stand-alones?

MS – Truly? I don’t care about the labels. Actually, I’d like them not to be there because they seem mostly to obscure what we’re doing.  If you look at people like Andrew Taylor, who writes the most beautiful prose, and yet is lodged in the ‘genre’ category because his books have an actual narrative arc to them… it seems astonishingly unfair, not to say ridiculous. 

And then there are people like Robert Harris who seem to be able to step outside of genre and I’m never very clear why that is – but would love to find out, because that’s what I’d like to do – to be able to step outside of genre so that it doesn’t matter if I write historical fiction or crime thrillers or (maybe) a bit in the future of where we’re going and where we might head to – and the readers would read them because they could trust that the power of the narrative would carry them through, whatever the setting.  

As to series or stand alones – I like both. The joy of this work is the flexibility so the possibility of both is wonderful. That said, I do seem to be writing a lot of series just now – but I think that’s the nature of the current publishing scene. It might change. 

MJ – These are very hard times for all authors. There are so many problems, especially financial; what would you say were the most rewarding aspects of writing?

MS – The freedom. Without question, the intellectual and emotional –and logistical – freedom to think/feel/do what I want when I want.  I wake up when the sun rises  – which means it’s 04:45 in the summer and about 08:30 in winter and I go to bed when I feel like it and in between I work from home and can walk the dog half a dozen times a day if she and I want to go out – and in between, I have made many outstanding writing friends who make up the various tribes of writers – it’s the perfect job. 

MJ – Well, that brings me neatly to the life of a writer. Which are, for you, the most daunting or difficult aspects of writing?

MS – The gap between final draft and publication is full of arcane processes that I don’t really understand and which seem full of potential pitfalls that I can’t negotiate because I don’t know they’re there. I’m a control freak. This kind of thing presses all of my buttons. 

MJ – Most people who set out to write a book will inevitably fail because they do not realise the dedication that is required to write 120-140,000 words. Did you ever find that a problem? Do you find the process of writing to be painful, or is it always a pleasure to dive into a new story?

MS – It’s always hard…it’s immensely hard… but never painful.  It’s the difference, I think, between climbing an E1 and standing at the foot of an E6 knowing I’ll never get up it.  And the thing about books is that they’re only as hard as you choose to make them. So if it’s becoming impossible, it’s because I’m taking it in an impossible direction and I need to rethink, rewind, rewrite… 

MJ – Authors have appalling delays, they get rejection letters, they get brassed off with being ignored … Do you find the process painful?

MS – I was lucky in that the first full book  – Hen’s Teeth – was written for a competition, so I had a deadline.  And when the competition was cancelled, I still had an agent who said, ‘rewrite it and I can get it to the right editor.’ So I learned about editing (which is vital) and I didn’t have to write another book. I’d written part books before, and TV scripts, but that was the first one that I’d completed. I think if it hadn’t been published, I’d have stayed with the day job. 

MJ – Talking of first attempts: when a first novel is written, there is invariably a hideous shock when the manuscript returns with pencil marks all over it. Do you find that to be a pain, and are there any other elements of the process of writing that irritate or grate on you?

MS – I hated that first edit.  I still hate editing, although I’m learning slowly to let go and to accept that the editors know what they’re doing.  My partner is primed to say ‘[my editor] is always right’ when I go downstairs with steam pouring out of my ears.  I hate the copy editing and proof reading. I’m very bad at both and anyway, by the time they come along, I’m into the next book. So I have to take a deep breath, put it aside and remember that a book isn’t finished until it’s out and I need to focus on every part of the process. 

MJ – I’m really glad it’s not only me! Have you ever tried publishing your own ebook or paper version without a publisher?

MS – No. And I can’t imagine it.  I don’t have time just now, although I am doing some podcasts and can imagine doing some audio books, or at least, audio-shorts. That would be fun. 

MJ – What is your impression of electronic formats compared with paper books?

MS – I am finding e-books increasingly useful. I can carry half a dozen on the train, I can buy 6 and read one and don’t have the other 5 hanging around unread and getting on my conscience. But when it comes to research, I hate them.  There’s something about the three-dimensionality of my book shelves – I can remember where everything is and find a book if I need it. When it’s on the iPad, I can’t even remember what book a particular fact was in, and I certainly can’t find it.  I know you can electronically turn down a corner, but it’s not nearly the same thing – I need to know how far through the book I was, and where on the page the fact was and I can do that with a dead tree book, but haven’t yet succeeded with an e-book.  .

MJ – Yes. I’ve tried iPads and other ereaders with a view to researching, but I’ve always found it so much easier to work with paper books when writing. I invariably have six open on the desk before me and can grab the relevant one in a moment to check a fact. Anyway, this isn’t about me! When you sit down to write do you have a set routine – a set number of hours per day, a set number of words or something similar? What routines or good luck charms do you use?

MS – My only routine is that I need to walk the dog before I can sit down to write. And I need to have done the washing up.  And have cleared all the HWA admin, which some days can take half the day.  So actually, I have a lot of routines… but then I just write until I’m tired. I’ve tried the ‘number of words in a day’ or the ‘finish a scene’ or whatever and none of them really works. I write until I run out of ideas and then I take the dog out again. If it’s past 8 pm, I usually stop, but I often come back again just before I go to bed and tweak something of the day. 

Generally speaking, I will edit the scene I’m on for the first half of the writing and then write something new for the next half, but it doesn’t always work like that. 

MJ – My children (and hound) often feel orphaned when I’m in the middle of a book! What do your partner/pooches think about you writing?

MS – My dog is OK with the writing, but she grows very unhappy if I start playing Warcraft, largely because she knows that when I enter a battleground, there’s no chance of a walk until I come out again. I’ve given up recently, which keeps her a lot happier.  My partner… I’m never not writing, so I’m not sure how we’d get on if I ever stopped. We both work from home, so we’d be on top of each other, I think, if I weren’t in my office most of the day. 

MJ – How do you feel about giving talks and lectures? Is it a joy to be released from the office, or a duty that is imposed by publicists?

MS – Depends where I am in the book. I love them when I’m doing them, but there’s a part of me that’s always aching to get back to the keyboard. 

MJ – Some years ago you had the brilliant idea for the Historical Writers’ Association. How has the experience of creating a professional body been?

MS – Amazing!  It’s been nearly 5 years since we set it up and in October, I’ll hand over the Chair of the HWA to Imogen Robertson, who is an amazing writer of historical crime novels. At the same time I’ll hand over Chair of the Harrogate History Festival to Tom Harper and of the HWA Debut Crown to Andrew Taylor. My life will be transformed!

But seriously – I love the HWA and all that it has become.  We have a tribe now, a clan, friends who otherwise would never have met but who share in common the griefs and joys of writing. It’s been life-changing in the best of sense and I love it.  I feel immensely proud to have been involved and look forward to seeing it grow in the years ahead.  I have no idea what I’ll do with all that time – I’m thinking of studying CranioSacral training, or perhaps Core Process Psychotherapy, both of which are taught near you in Devon, but we’ve sold the TV rights to Boudica and it may be that I can get involved in the production of that, so it might take up all the free time. 

MJ – What would you say was the most useful piece of advice about writing that you have been given?

MS – Find your voice – that was Fay Weldon and when she said it, I didn’t even know what a voice was, but it’s been invaluable. 

MJ – So you’d say the same to an aspiring author?

MS – Yes! Find your voice (!) but also, write clearly, from the heart. Know yourself first in order that you can come to know your characters. And read. Read everything. Read every day. Reading is the apprenticeship for writing, make it a broad one. 

MJ – Is there anything else you’d say to someone about to try to write a novel for themselves?

MS – Go for it.  But don’t give up the day job until you have a good contract! 

MJ – Manda, thanks for the interview! I really appreciate your time and your detailed answers. All very best of luck with INTO THE FIRE, too. It deserves to be a huge hit for the summer! Good luck and thanks again.

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Comments
13 Responses to “Interview with MANDA SCOTT”
  1. masgautsen says:

    What an interesting interview.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lorsplace says:

    Michael, thanks so much for publishing this interview! What a treat to learn about the fascinating life of Manda Scott; truly inspiring for writers at any stage in their career. I had not heard of her before, but after reading her personal story – and your ‘glowing’ review of Into the Fire – I’m really looking forward to reading her work. She is very lucky to have you as a champion, and we are all the more fortunate for you making the introduction. Kudos and cheers!
    Lorie Lee Steiner

    Like

  3. I’ve read all her books and she is fabulously gifted in story telling, am pleased Boudicca is going to be made into a TV ? series/film. Hope they don’t mess it up though!

    Like

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  1. […] the release of Into the Fire with a series of interviews and blogs, the most recent of which is this in-depth and revealing interview at Writerly […]

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