“I was gutting mackerel when they came for me, my fingers dipping in and out of rainbow’d bellies, trailing pink as I cried for dad, and island life carried on.”
Are you a spontaneous writer or did you know in advance what was in store here?
Gill Hoffs: Thanks so much for being a literary fairy godmother, and granting me a wish from my wish list! Generally, I’m quite a spontaneous writer. I have a bundle of written-on receipts and post-it notes in my pockets at any one time, covered in crayoned titles, snippets of description, and first lines that *might* go somewhere when I’m not running about with my 4 year old. Here ‘Annie’ was in my mind in a series of images: a semi-ruined church hiding in a ring of outbuildings, an unhappy child of secrets, and a sunlit island off the Scottish coast. For The Lost Children Challenge, where this story first appeared, it was suggested we write descriptive stories with realistic dialogue from our home towns, and there was an extremely beautiful image supplied as a prompt. With “Annie” I sat and thought of my childhood, wandering with my book and a pocket of biscuits along the shore, I wondered about who would be lost and where, and used names from my husband’s family to tie it together. I didn’t know what would happen until my fingers typed it. I really REALLY enjoyed writing this story!
Susan: It’s an intensely lyrical and visual story that made me, as a reader, want to go there and see their croft, the shoreline, everything about the place where they live. It utterly mesmerized me. I also love the way you use language. You write:
“My mother, proper in mourning black, stuffed me under a pile of nets when she heard them riding along the shingle shore to our home. The sun trickled through in tiny diamonds.”
This, in the first paragraph, sets up immediate tension in the story. The girl has been stuffed under a pile of nets for protection.
Gill: I get intensely homesick for the beach. It’s where I feel most at home, even or perhaps especially during a storm, or its aftermath. When a story like this is in my head and I’m listening to the thoughts that describe it, I get to *be* there, even for a short while, and I actually feel a small sense of bereavement when I reach the end and have to leave. The book I’m currently working on is set almost entirely at sea, and just a few days ago I went home to *my* beach for research purposes – who am I kidding, I go there whenever I can, but this time it was for something other than just fun and relaxation – and I sniffed the old nets and thought of my girl, Annie MacLeod. Her protection is also her damnation. Without education and a separate identity – which she loses in the story through the actions of her mother – she is nothing but a wraith in the wind. This is unfortunately true of a lot of children both throughout history and now.
Susan: Sadly, yes. And thanks to the hard work and dedication of Thomas Pluck and Fiona Johnson, and 30 contributing writers, The Lost Children Challenge has grown into an e-book anthology, The Lost Children: A Charity Anthology , on Smashwords and from Amazon starting November 1. (All proceeds donated to 2 child protection agencies.)
Let’s talk a bit more about your use of descriptive language. You write:
“I heard the door of our croft scrape shut across the summer warmed flagstones… up through the blue hats of harebells and pink tufts of thrift dotting the coarse green of the island’s west face…”
I have cut sentences here, in order to showcase the beauty in your phrasings. But your strength as a writer lies in the fact that you know how to intersperse tension and dialogue, and straight prose, too, so that the reader isn’t buried under the more descriptive parts. That isn’t an easy thing to do.
Gill: Thank you! I read a lot, I have since I was three according to my granny, and since I’ve been writing, I’ve found myself noticing telling details in other writers’ work – the sprinkling of words that light up their story in my mind so I can see/hear/feel and almost smell it. Sometimes it’s a moment of colour or an unusual name, sometimes it’s the use of a specific product by a character. I was discussing this with Matt Potter the other day- how if a character or a writer mentions a particular plant or flower by name it lights the scene for me, but if they just say ‘a flower’ or ‘a yellow flower’ there’s not the same vivid quality for me as ‘a daffodil’ or ‘a black-eyed Susan’, say.
Susan: Agreed! As long as it’s not over-used, which, by the way, I’ve never seen done in any of your stories. I want to touch on your use of vernacular dialogue. It also can hugely brighten a story. The mother in your story says:
“… you heartless toe-rags… So you can just sod off back to the mainland…”
toe-rags / sod off: Dialogue that cements her character, and adds vivacity and even a touch of humour (spelled it your way)!
Gill: Ha ha! Yes – there are some quite deliciously repugnant terms used where I come from. ‘Toe-rag’ – well, how disgusting is that? I try to use Scots in my Scottish pieces so as to add flavour and a feel of veracity for the character(s), but sparingly so as not to turn off readers from ‘out of town’. I grew up hearing people speak very VERY broad Scots, so broad I couldn’t understand a lot of what was said to me (I’d just smile and look a bit ‘glaikit’ as we’d call someone who appears a bit foolish or dimwitted. But I’m not actually Scottish myself, I have an English mother and Irish father, so what I heard and said at home was very different from elsewhere. Apparently in the USA they call folk like myself ‘switchers’. I quite like that, it smacks of intrigue and derring-do!
Susan: Derring-do. Well that’s a new one on me!
Read “The Premature Ending of Annie MacLeod” by Gill Hoffs
Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review, fiction editor of Wilderness House Literary Review, co-author of new novel What May Have Been, and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.