Friday, December 25, 2015


25th December 2015

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, thy leaves are so unchanging! the Christmas song goes. So goes this ode to the Evergreen, the kind of ode we have been singing as a race since before recorded history. From the research for my book into the kind of worship that went on in Scotland from that time forward till the dawn of Christianity, I found that almost everything we associate with Christmas in the twenty-first century has these early origins. I can hear the screams of "pagan!" from those who bewail that the Christian is being pushed out of Christmas. But it's a bit like the guy protesting Obamacare who was photographed holding up a sign that read, "Keep Your Hands off My Medicaid." Keep your hands off my Christmas: my santa claus, my christmas tree, my holly and the ivy, my Yule log.  My Christmas wreath, which of course is not Christian at all, but a pagan symbol of the eternal.
Yule in old Norse refers to this time around the winter solstice. The Norse god Odin (of the white beard) was celebrated with his fair share of eternal evergreens. Sound familiar?

Other traditions which came down that line are: gift-giving, Christmas pudding, Christmas trees.  Like Easter most of what we celebrate at these "Christian" festivals has a much earlier, pagan, origin. Why? Because they celebrate life, and as a race, we have been celebrating life for much longer than the birth of a religious icon (born in "bleak mid-winter? Really? Do they have bleak mid-winter in Israel?) Although the Jewish toast Le Chaim! is closer to this winter celebration than our Christian preoccuption with sin and redemption.
But today is Christmas day. I never weary of it, commercial blastfest that it has become. I don't warm to the sentimentality of Little-Lord-Jesus-Asleep-in-the-Hay, but I do celebrate a time of letting our guards down and giving. We don't need any religious rites for that. When we look deep into ourselves, past the anger and prejudice, that's what we find in our deepest nature. Le Chaim!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Middle Earth

20th December 2015

It used to be the fashion to tell prospective writers to go into the book shop and see what's selling. That way, you would know what to write.
You'd have to say that this advice lacks a certain historical perspective. Who was writing about wizards and muggles before Rowling? Who had ever heard of muggles? Who was writing about secret codes in quite the one-day-marvel way Dan Brown does? Or go back further: Who was writing about the Pisanos in California before Steinbeck or Middle Earth before Tolkein?
That's where your imagination should be - in Middle Earth, not glancing behind you at the other runners.

It's called a novel because it is novel, not because it is a rehashed bunch of ideas that hit the best seller list last year.
Get some historical perspective. It should be the overall message of these times we live in. If only those right wing Republicans on Capitol Hill could see where history is going to put them in this neo-facist movement they see fit to subscribe to. If only Mr. Trump could be quiet long enough to see how he squares up to any other populist leader who spewed out outrageous ideology. You want history on your side, because the history of mankind is an upward ascent and it leaves plenty of dross in its tracks.

My secret nightmare is that my writing will end up on the shelves of history's dross.

I strive very hard not to be writing dross. I try to make Middle Earth my touchstone. Call me Frodo. History is peopled with writers who were so buried in Middle Earth, they only became known after their deaths. Herman Melville, for one: Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, Edgar Allen Poe, Franz Kafka. The list goes on. So, get some perspective. Read the great writers of the past and learn from them. But don't make yourself in their image. Be yourself, and maybe along the way you will find your niche. Only time will tell.

Friday, December 11, 2015

A Different Lense

11th December 2015

You can't question an international bestseller, because it is obviously touching on something important. So I don't question Harry Potter and I don't question anything these days that emenates from the pen of Dan Brown. And I'm not questioning Diana Gabaldon, either, except to reiterate what readers have already observed: my book is not like hers. Much. It's enough like hers to have the folks over at Simon and Schuster marketing my book on that comparison: Time travel romance. Scotland. How different can it be?
Except I never saw my book as that. Just for the record, I don't write Romance of any stamp, Veil Of Time included. The relationship between Maggie and Fergus doesn't follow the time travel romance formula, and I'm tired of pretending that it does.

(Trust me, I have known a few lairds in my time, and they never look like this!)
As the Veil Of Time series continues, this is going to become even more evident. I am asking the reader to entertain the possibility that people didn't always think according to the morals and mores that govern our modern sensibility. Most time travel takes a modern mentality and just transplants it. But if you  go back to the eighth century to people whose priests were druidesses and whose God was the Goddess, they are going to be looking at the world in a wholly different light.

For one, the earth is going to be regarded as female and sacred. So, out goes man's dominance over every living creature. For another, the idea of what passes for a  marriage will be different. You  don't have to go very far back in history to see how different that can be. But before my book had even hit the shelves, I came across a group of Goodreads trolls collectively grimacing at Fergus for not living up to their (relatively modern) projection of love. They said, Gabaldon's Jamie would never, as one commentator graphically put it, dry-hump the goddess incarnate. Yeah, but McDougall's Fergus did. It's what high-ranking royals did in those days. Sorry.
I'm not asking the reader to condone any of this, just asking that for a moment they angle their sights a little differently, something, in the interests of tolerance - and especially in these days -  it is always wise to do.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Speaking of Nessie...

4th December 2015

Outlander is a very well researched book with a compelling story line, and Scots should be very grateful to Gabaldon for taking Scotland on this wild literary ride. That's my disclaimer.
This is my defense: I think the reason I stick so close to home with my books is that I don't feel comfortable trying to convey the idiom of a culture I am not intimately familiar with. For instance, I would never embark on a story about the American South, because that rhythm of speaking just isn't available to me. I know what it sounds like, and I could sort of imitate it, but unless I lived there for a lengthy time, I wouldn't be able to access that particular cultural idiom. I would be depending on caricature.

I was born and grew up in Scotland, so I have an advantage when it comes to Scottish dialogue.  I know the metre and rhythm of Scottish speak, what the silences mean, what the glances between Scots amount to. I know, for instance, that beneath their thousand year old allegiance to the church lies a deeper more persistent drone, that what they really fear is themselves and their own history.

Scottish dialogue that borders on caricature blows pleasingly past the American readership, of course, but it clangs in the ear of the Scot. Not that Scots are averse to Gabaldon and her Scottish tale. Far from it. They are putting on bus tours to the locations of Claire and her young Highland buck. Roll up, roll up for the mystery tour! You see coaches in the narrow lanes of Scotland with Outlander on the front as though it were a destination in itself. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it's not the English woman in the story who is the outlander, but the Scots themselves.

Friday, November 27, 2015


27th November 2015

In Diana Gabaldon's lengthy Outlander series, she fairly quickly takes her protagonists Claire and Jamie out of Scotland where the story began. Gabaldon's characters journey over to America, and I suspect that's because this is where she is from and presumably feels most at ease. I'm from Scotland, and so my stories stay there (out of about nine novels, there is only one section of one novel that doesn't take place in my native land.) It belongs to my psychological make-up and so by extension to my characters'. I had moved Maggie and Fergus up to the north east of Scotland at the end of the second book, but they asked to come back to Dunadd for the finale. So, how could I stop them? That is where I feel most at ease.

Right now my protagonists are in a boat on their way down to Glasgow (or as it was and is in the Gaelic, Glaschu) to a monastery to beg dispensation for a couple of characters that have fallen into the hands of adverseries down south in London (or as it was known then, Londonwic.) So it was off to that great research institute, Google, to find out about  eighth century sailing craft, just how much technology was available at the time to build these two-masted frames of alder covered with stitched hides and sealed with grease?

(Don't underestimate how far these primitive boats could travel- in the 1970's a sailing enthusiast decided to recreate one and sailed from Ireland to Newfoundland.)
Then, I have been delving into medieval Christianity and the kinds of things that were happening in monasteries at the time, most notable of all (apart from missionary expeditions) the crafting and writing of scripts. It wasn't so easy, as the paper was vellum - sheep, calf or pig skin stretched very thin and scoured, then coated with lime. So I have been away from my manuscript, storing up on facts and figures. 
Readers like these kinds of details. People like to read and learn at the same time. They like to travel, just as long as they can stay at home while they are doing it. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Salieri Complex

20th November 2015

There ought to be an award for British playwright Peter Shaffer for just being so damn profound: The Scriptor Profundus Literary Award. Shaffer asks grown-up questions like: What is the true nature of passion? And then we've all seen the movie Amadeus with Tom Hulce as Mozart - flashy and visually gorgeous, but listen carefully to what Shaffer is asking: what's the relationship between the artist and art?
We are a culture that needs its heroes.  We make them sometimes out of thin air (cf any Kardashian and in a similar vein Trump)  In the case of art, we want the vessel to equal the wine. But that is rarely the case, and the opposite is often true.
To take a trivial example: Bing Crosby, crooner and Hollywood good guy, was a monster at home: two of his sons referred to him as authoritarian and committed suicide; he courted Grace Kelly while his first wife was dying of cancer; he threatened to kick his daughter out if she had pre-marital sex. But the impulse is to believe in the myth, to just keep singing White Christmas.
Salieri in Amadeus has a similar problem with Mozart: How could God plant such divine music in the heart of a buffoon?

Closer to home, I just found out that Laurie Lee, writer of Cider With Rosie, the kind of book that I want to curl into and re-read until I drop out of its pages by force of gravity, was abusive on the home front, too. His daughter recently recounted how she had to go into psychotherapy over his controlling parenting. Cider with Rosie used to be put into the hands of all teenagers in the British school system as an example of sheer beautiful descriptive writing. And it's all about his memories of home: his knuckle-headed mother, their topsy turvy house and the seasons of the lucious Cotswold countryside he grew up in.
There's my hero Steinbeck, too. Fascinated as I am by his life - Monterey and all that - I have to admit that the man should never have had children.
So, because Shaffer just won the profound man of the year contest, let's remind ourselves of his conclusion in Amadeus: you shouldn't confuse the wine with the vessel.

Appreciate the art for what it is - a gift from the gods. Truth is, the gods don't seem to care that much about the nature of the vessel they dispense their elixir into. Just be glad they see fit from time to time to pour a little into each of our all-too-human cups.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Me, Myself and the Lampost

13th November 2015

I was on the phone with my agent this week. Agents are busy people, something that we earthlings mired in our own worlds don't always appreciate. He had just got back from the Frankfurt Book Fair, and he talked to me in between a conference call with Australia and another with England. He has over twenty clients and manages the literary estate of Louisa May Alcott, so my fifteen minutes were precious and we got a lot done: I was anxious to talk to him about some Scottish publishers I had discovered, because he has been reading (on his way to Frankfurt) my latest book (nothing to do with the Veil Of Time series - no time travel, no ancient past, just Scotland as usual); he thinks it's ready to go out into the world, and so he will put together a list of prospective publishers. We both agree that Scotland is really where my writing belongs. I am excited because that is also where I belong, and perhaps this will get me back there.

                                                  Kathryn Robertson

Blades of frozen grass poke out of the five inches of snow that have fallen during the  frigid night. Colorado is about to enter its Narnia phase, an analogy I fall back on every year at this time, though it doesn't run very far. No Snow Queen - unless it's me. No lion - unless I am it. No innocence of children - unless that is my role, too. The sages say we create our own reality. We are the movie we choose to watch as well as the screen and the projector.

In Narnia terms, we are also the lamp post, the light and hope that already live within us. Outside my  study window a sparrow picks at an apple still clinging to the frozen tree. The thermometer says it is only eight degrees Fahrenheit. The little bird's cocktail-stick legs must be numb. She endures the cold and the frozen apple because that's what's on offer this morning. No questions asked. As far as I can tell, that's the only way forward -- step into the wardrobe and then step out on the other side. Somewhere out there in the snow shines a lamp post, so just keep moving towards the light.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Veil of the Pagan

Last Saturday on halloween,  TV evangelist Pat Robertson rolled out his annual warning that this festival, despite all appearances, is actually a ruse of satan. The holiday has to belong to satan, the thinking goes, because it's pagan. Good God, what was the point in burning all those hundreds of thousands of witches if these pagan rites were to continue? Put away your costumes, lock your doors; chain up your daughters!
Pat Robertson would also think Native American holy days are satanic. Or anything else not instigated by to the church fathers. In fact nothing but boys' choirs, kneeling sinners and flesh-eating supplicants are permitted.
But the root of this evangelical thinking is sheer intolerance.  Of course, say the evangelicals - we worship a jealous god. Somehow they have circumvented the teaching of the Christ they profess to venerate, that mountain, lake and field preacher who taught love and tolerance above all else. They have cherry picked the scriptures that foster paranoia and ignored the gospel that is "good news."

Looks like a Colorado Christmas to me!

Truth is that any monument to Christianity you can name, down to Westminster Abbey, and including the sacred Isle of Iona, was built on a pagan site. In Scotland the church is called The Kirk (from circle) because churches were inevitably built on scared pagan circles. The yew trees that often line Christian garveyards are the actual trees left over from the pagans who venerated the yew as a symbol of eternity. If you think the early Christians were putting up Christmas trees in Judea and bringing in mistletoe and greenery to decorate their houses, or rolling eggs down the hill at Easter, think again. These are some of the completely benign pagan customs that survived the Christian onslaught.
Candlemas was a feeble attempt to co-opt the pagan celebration of Imbolc which marks the beginning of spring. Christmas, Hannukah, all hark back to pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Such sin!

So, Halloween. All Hallows Eve. All saints. No, it's the end of the Celtic Year, Samhain. A time when the thin veil between what we know and what we only think we know grows thin (a fitting meditation for evangelicals of all stripes.) It celebrates the grey area between life and death. It is in Spanish pagan terms the day of the dead. Dias de los Muertos. Pagan. And it's fine. Get thee behind us, Pat Robertson.

Friday, October 30, 2015

A Harsh Mistress

October 30th 2015

The moon floats in that region where music and poetry lie, almost more a presence than a physical entity. No matter that our generation casts the umbrella of science over it and deems it just a piece of earth thrown into the abyss but caught in our planet's gravity. In fact, perhaps that's why we identify with it so much - it's the same force of attraction anchoring our feet to the surface of this spinning ball we call home.  Most definitely female this mystical orb in the night sky, unless you're german, for which Der Mond stays resolutely masculine and creates a whole different mentality with it. La Luna. What else could she be? In English, we took the German word and gave it a sex change. The moon is she, a harsh mistress, as the song goes.

And she floats through the world's literature in the same eerie way she moves through the heavens.
King David of the Psalms called the moon "the faithful witness in the sky." In ancient Hindu literature, Shiva and his consort Parvati wear the moon on their foreheads because they are beyond the sphere of time. In Europe, the moon was almost always equated with the goddess (even the Germans had Frigga of the Full Moon) until she got kicked out of the sky by the old man...

And so it goes into modern literature. Yeats was rather obssessed by it (Blood and the Moon, Cat and the moon.) And this from Sylvia Plath's poem "The Moon and the Yew Tree":  

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary. 
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.

Our bodies are sixty percent water - seventy-three percent in the case of the brain and the heart. The moon affects the tides, so how could it do otherwise than exert itself on our watery lives? Of course, women already know this. Men have to learn it. We are creatures of the moon. Lunatics, all.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Isle of the Druids

October 23rd 2015

In my research for book three of my Veil Of Time series, I have been looking into the island of Iona.  Iona is much closer to where I grew up in Argyll than the Isle of St. Kilda I was talking about last week. In fact, I have been to Iona several times. Not only is it a beautiful little island built on some of oldest rock on the planet, but it has a very long history and, with its impressive monastery, might even be considered to be a sort of centre of Christianity. For it was from here that St. Columba, who had come over from Ireland, built the first monastery and started sending out monks to convert the heathen land of Scotland and beyond.

Apparently, he even converted the heathen Loch Ness monster. (No wonder the poor animal has been in hiding ever since!)
But if you scratch a little beneath the surface, a different island of Iona emerges. This is one that goes back to the original meaning of the name Iona, Ioua, which means Yew tree. Now the yew tree was a significant symbol of pre-Christian religion, namely Celtic paganism. Yew groves were highly sacred, because the yew tree can last for thousands of years and must have seemed to possess a certain eternal quality. Many grave yards in Scotland today are still surrounded by the ancient yew trees that marked these spots in the long centuries before the church staked a claim on them.

Iona was in fact a sacred site to the pagans long before it came under the aegis of the Roman church. In fact, another name it went by is Innis nam Druidneach, Island of the Druids. It was here that kings and queens and notable people of Scotland were buried facing the setting sun which for the Pagans symbolised death and resurrection. Another such island was the Holy Isle off Anglesey in Wales, to which the Romans chased the druids and druidesses of early Briton and slaughtered them to a man/woman.
There are no yew trees on Iona now. There are no Pagans either. Christianity, at least Roman Christianity has had an irrational fear of the pagan from the start, and has done enormous damage to the human psyche in the process.
Some New-Age pagans believe that Iona is a geomantic power site - a vortex. I don't know about that. All I know is that Iona is a powerful place in my imagination and a vortex around which, one way or another, my story called Dark Matter is going to revolve.

Friday, October 16, 2015

At Sea - The Island of Hirta

16th October 2015

For an author, the process of being drawn into a story can be creeping and creepy. Ever since I heard of the island of Saint Kilda, or Hirta as it was known to the natives, I have had a growing pull towards the place.

To sail out to Hirta, first you have to get out to the island of Harris, which is already forty miles from the mainland of north western Scotland. And then you have to sort of hang about the port of Leverburgh, hoping that in your two-day window for sailing, the weather is going to behave enough that you can board the small ferry to cross another sixty miles of sea and disembark into a dinghy with the swell around these far-flung islands threatening to add you to its list of casualties.
From pre-history until 1930 Hirta was occupied by a hardy bunch of Gaelic speakers. The island was  cut off for nine months of the year, and the islanders spent the only fair months hunting seabirds on the treacherous cliffs. Hirta was owned by the MacLeod toffs, who would show up once a year and demand reels of tweed, feathers, fulmar oil for the privilege of living on MacLeod land.  No wonder that the population declined until the community couldn't support itself (besides, the Royal Navy had its eye on the place.)

In 1930 Hirta was evacuated.

These people in 1930 look like they hail from centuries earlier. They had never seen a tree and they kept pieces of drift wood as treasure. This story of Hirta is treasure itself for any author, and I want to go there in the worst way.  I did get the island into my first published novel Veil Of Time by positing my protagonist's childhood care-giver as the last bride to be married there.
But I want to set foot on the island with its shells of houses along the one semi-circle of a street by the shore. I want to stand still and listen, and then perhaps they will talk to me, those voices that somehow get caught in moments, the voices of a sea people who lived out their solitary lives in concert with the waves and the cry of sea birds.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Platform 9 3/4

9th October 2015

I often read and watch interviews with other writers, and one question that is always asked, and which readers (including myself) seem to want to know is: what does your day as a writer look like? The vast majority of writers seem to spend their days very much like I do. So, here's how it goes:
I think, like other creative people, my mind does not switch off so easily, so my nights tend to be a bit of a struggle just trying to get enough zzz's that my mind functions at all. On the other hand, a fuzzy brain doesn't have so far to go to reach a state of "dreamy" which is often a good place to be when composing. It's a bad place for editing, but not for actually going into "the zone."

                                                 Robert Graham

My creative window is open in the morning (by the time 2 o'clock comes around, I'm heading back into sleepy zone and need a nap.)  As Thoreau says, "All poets and heroes...are the children of Aurora and emit their music at sunrise." So, the sooner I can get in front of my computer the better. But first I need my cup of tea! I need this like a nictotine-addict needs an early morning smoke. Pathetic, I know, but we all have our little things. It comes from having grown up in freezing Scottish houses and needing to get your hands around a warm cup. These days I live in Colorado, and, even in the hot summers, I still love that feel of a cup of tea. It's a ritual, too, a little portal that I walk through from night into day.
And then I turn to work, but first there's one more thing:  I've heard actors talk about seemingly meaningless rituals they go through before they walk out on stage: little rhymes or a series of gestures. And I have the same. It's calling in the muse, I suppose: walking around your office, picking things off your desk, getting into a sort of sideways mode so that you can take a run --like Harry Potter on platform 9 3/4, waiting for the right moment to run through the wall.

And then you're lost in the zone and a few hours have disappeared down the black hole before you look up and it's time to walk the dogs. Time to step back off the platform as life crowds back in and the muse scurries off back to wherever she came from. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

Interview Link and Levitating

October 1st 2015

Here's the link to my recent interview with Books Go Social:

If you as a writer are embarking on a novel, where do you draw the line between believable and unbelievable?  Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez says it's possible to get away with ANYTHING as long as you make it believable.  He took his own advice and gave us babies born with the tail of a pig and levitating priests.

So, I marvel at how the literary establishment carves up this territory of "ANYTHING." It seems as though if you're Latin American or Native American, they call this magical realism. If not, then you're just really stretching the reader's imagination. In the case of my own book, I am asking the reader to think of time displacement in the context of an epileptic fit (a phenomenon already well documented.) There are people in my community who have been giving me a sort of withering look since my book hit the shelves. My daughter's teacher said, "So, I hear you write romance novels." He was pretty impressed at that, but then he is among the minority, and I was very happy to set him straight.
Romance novel? What about Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice? If any one of  these had been published for the first time this year you would no doubt find them on the shelves of Barnes and Noble next to 50 Shades of Grey and Mr. Sexy.
It all comes down to the establishment and how it applies the scalpel. If you look for Pat Conroy,  you'll find him in the paperback section on the popular fiction shelves. No matter that he writes far more beautiful prose than some of the "edgy" writers who are lauded and wreathed by the bigwigs.
You have to be really really careful of opinion sanctioned by the establishment in no matter what area of life. You have to think for yourself, as a consumer, as part of the body politic, as a member of the literary community.

Veil Of Time has a romance in it. It has time travel. But, as reviewers have pointed out, the book does not really conform to the Time Travel Romance genre. It is its own beast. As the series goes on, it starts asking important questions, perhaps pivital questions. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrmann raises a similar set of questions about the way the early Christians shaped our world. He is the go-to voice of reason in the face of fundamentalist hysteria. It's just that I am asking them in terms of story.
I tried my hand at academic writing. I did. I wrote my post-graduate thesis on Friedrich Nietzsche, for God's sake. But I'm not much good at dry-bone stuff.  I have a brain, but I am given to flights of fancy, so I turned to writing novels. For the record, I neither read nor write Romance fiction.
Perhaps I should change my name to Clara Hija De Dougall. Then the establishment would be able to sanction my forays into the realm of the unbelievable.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Writing For Joy

25th September 2015

"For what is story if not relief from the pain of the inconclusive, from dread of the meaningless?" Mona Van Duyn.

Well, that's a pretty bleak analysis. Sort of Jean Paul Sartre meets Sylvia Plath. I would like to speak up for joy here and say that sometimes you read (and write) for the same reason you eat creme brulee - just because it is delicious.  When I was a serious philosophy student in Edinburgh and then in Oxford, I read things like Sartre's Nausea, Hardy's Jude the Obscure, Mann's Death in Venice. I loved the gravitas and thought them very profound. I was all into existentialism and deep meaning. I wasn't so much looking for relief from pain as to wallow around in it.
But youth is like that: you have plenty of time to navigate out of the doldrums. These days I am inclined towards literature that is less self-absorbed. I'd rather be delighted than nauseated. The world is quite capable of gloom without me plummeting the depths of its dysfunction in fiction.

There is a tradition of dystopias in literature, starting with the 1923 Russian book "We." Authors don't seem to have much faith in the human being to evolve upwards instead of down. The alternate present I am writing about in my third and final book in the Veil Of Time series presents a better landscape than our current one: people live at peace in small self-sufficient townships run by women's councils instead of by male hierarchies. Well, we gave men their chance and look at the mess!

We can do better than this, and I am optimistic that we will get there.  So this future literary projection of mine is a utopia of sorts (where utopia means one hell of a lot better than it is now - not perfection.)   Our imaginations can run in any direction, so why not direct it towards the good and hopeful? By this I don't mean opting for stupidity or unfounded glee, but rather looking at things through a different lens, one that doesn't mark its time against the dirge.

PS: The interview I gave to booksgosocial last week will come out on October 1st, so I will give a link to it in next week's blog. Stay tuned!

Friday, September 18, 2015

A Close Call

18th September 2015

I gave a mini Skype interview this week about my book Veil Of Time on a site called I will post it on my website (, press page) when it becomes available. Not trusting anything to chance, I had prepared a spiel about how I came to write the book and what it was about, so when the interviewer asked for the "elevator pitch," I skipped over the "elevator" component and launched into my monologue. About fifteen minutes later, my interviewer jumped in: No, I just need the elevator pitch.
So I started over: "In  my book, Maggie escapes a bad divorce by moving to the ancient fort of Dunadd in Scotland and...." If you don't know what the phrase Tabula Rasa means, it's what happens half-way through your elevator pitch. Blank. The kind of blank I would like around two o'clock in the morning when my mind is doing back flips. I needed one of those Monty Python brain surgeons to step into the frame and hit me over the head. Good thing we weren't going live.
I tried again, but she said I wasn't looking at the camera. I was staring off, as I so often do, into empty space. It goes with the job.
So I trained my eyes on the little red dot and struggled on: "I embarked on Veil Of Time despite the fact that I don't normally write historical fiction..."
She stopped me again. She sounded shocked. "Was that an airplane?"

Are you conducting this interview in the middle of a runway? I had to admit then that I live in the flight path for Aspen Airport. This is where they put you when you belong to the wrong caste in a city of billionaires, when you don't have a private table at restaurants where they charge you $25 for a bottle of water flown in from Bora Bora. It was probably just such a shipment that was flying over my roof in the middle of the interview. This is one of the few places where a lowly waiter can you make you feel like scum.

All you have to do is ask for a glass of Rose when they show you the wine list. "Madam, we don't even count that as a wine." You have to supply the French accent, but, as God is my witness, I was told this once in an Aspen restaurant. I was told on another occasion that a beer I was contemplating was positively wine-esque. I didn't order it.
I got through the interview, awkward as a hippo in a tutu.
"No worries," said my interviewer in the face of my profuse apologies. "It usually happens this way."
That's because you're talking to writers. We don't hide away in our offices for protracted hours for nothing. In my next life, just so you know, I'm going to be an actress. Interview me on Skype then. I might even manage a pirouette.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Like the Corners of My Mind

11th September 2015

When I was in my early teens, I was taken by my mother to visit her ailing father in hospital. This was no cuddly Grandpa, but someone who had remained distant to both his children and his children's children. He was sitting in a wheelchair in a common area when we arrived, and as we stood there making conversation, he started to fumble with his dressing gown. He was trying to close it, but only managed to open it further across the gaping fly of his pajamas. The point is: the sight of my grandfather's white hairy testicles is emblazoned on my memory, and I will never forget it (though I have tried, believe me.)

(That's not him.)
Same goes for this day in history. 9/11 has only one connotation around the globe. The very mention of 9/11 conjurs images of those planes hitting the Twin Towers and it always will. This is the way memory works, and it's a good thing for us writers that it does.

When I was eight years-old, my father, in an unusual move, took me and my best friend into the center of Glasgow where he had some business, and there in a very fancy sweetie shop he bought us each a bag of any sweetie we chose from the many jars sitting on the many shelves. I chose a confection that seemed impossibly magical: different coloured lozenges with actual writing on them! They didn't taste that good, but that doesn't seem to spoil the memory.
When you think of all the things that happen to you as a child, relatively few stand out, but the ones that do have a certain force, a sort of floodlight behind them. These stand-out memories, if you're artistically inclined, are like little booster points that urge you to self-expression.

(Just for the record, the all-important Battle of Bannockburn happened on September 11th, in which the Scots sent the English King Edward back to London tae think again. That was their first and last ouster of English interests.
And September 11th is also the birthday of DH Lawrence, who showed us the working life of Nottinghamshire and gave us the wonderful Lady Chatterly's Lover, which the BBC has just re-filmed with Richard Madden as Mellors. Can't wait to see that!)

So, apart from all the towers and the battles and epiphanies, what I want to say is, cherish your memories. Unlike your darlings, don't kill them. Hold them in your hand and feel the weight of them. And then write about them. Even the bad ones.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Too Much Original Sin

4th September 2015

A young man, over whom I languished in my youth for longer than was respectable, eventually told my best friend that he could never go for a girl like me because I was too emotional. In my late teens and at the height of my emotionality, I could make little sense of this assessment. I wasn't given to thinking I could be too anything. That he ended up in market research could be seen as par for my  course, but I have since had pause to consider what he might have meant and why he viewed this as a killing epithet.

I have just put down Tobias Wolff's terrific memoir "This Boy's Life," and it seems that people distanced themselves from his youthful self for similar reasons: too suffering and self-destructive, too rebellious, too emotional to hide all that very well behind a veneer of bluster. But perhaps this is the stuff of writers. Too much. Too much. People who knew me in my childhood and youth still shake their heads and think she's just a bit much. Not that I have ever had any bluster. My own Christian upbringing in the shadow of Original Sin put paid to that.

I do have a habit of being sure that I am right. This is a fault, I admit, and yet, if I didn't feel that, would I bother to put my thoughts down on paper? Would I flinch so severely at outright injustice and want to speak its name?

People have a problem with the ungilded truth.  I have a problem with spinach. It's tastes awful. I am quite sure of that. Just as sure as I am of the fact that being too emotional is not a sin. And might even be helpful.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Crime Scene

30th August 2015

Since I have been going on at length about the machinations of the writing life, I thought I'd share a picture of the place where it all goes down. This is my study, a nice study, I have to admit, but just remember that before this space was added on to my house, I wrote several novels in the broom cupboard under the stairs. So I deserve it. I even fengshui-ed it.

So, let me describe it. In the foreground (top right), if you look carefully, hangs a wooden seagull. I'm always off in my mind to the country of my childhood, where this sea bird's cry is simply the background against which everything else takes place. 
Out of view behind the chair is a big-breasted statue of the Buddha's mother. What looks like a boom mic hanging from the ceiling over my desk is a bundle of lucky feathers and other amulets, because I am extremely superstitious. It's worked so far! All along the right-hand wall are pictures, of family and a signed poster of Braveheart. Next to Mel is a picture of John Steinbeck with his dog Charlie. Heroes all.

There's an alcove on the far left with a writing desk, though I rarely sit there and it's mostly a place to put things that don't belong anywhere else. 
Moving further up the left wall, there's a table on which sits a replica of the 12th C Lewis Chessmen, and a couple of browned photographs of my great grandmother Rebecca (aptly named Brown) and her husband in WW1 uniform.
So that's my creative space mapped out in 3D. I only have to step into it to feel different. It's my version of Mozart's billiard table  (at least as it was portrayed in Amadeus.) This is my Holy of Holies. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Slightly Dark LIfe of a Writer

21st August 2015

I am always waxing lyrical on this blog about heavy stuff, mostly because that's what keeps me up at night: Scotland, the state of the universe, the state of book publishing and where I fit into that. So I thought this week I'd lighten up (I'm a writer, so I have to be reminded to do this - especially when someone asks me how I am doing, and I take that for a real question.)
There's a lot of mythology surrounding the life of a writer. A lot of it has to do with whisky, which is just so much posturing, if you ask me. You can't write good literature if sozzled. You just can't. A lot of it has to do with living up to that reaction you get when you tell someone you have a published book.

But it's all bubbles.
Here's the reality of being a writer. The first thing is bums on chairs: every day, same time, and it isn't always going to look like you're actually doing anything. Ask my husband. Writing is sort of like the universe: only 5% of it is stuff and the rest is either dark energy or dark  matter.
The next thing is that you are incredibly difficult to live with. Ask my husband. If you're engaged in writing something long like a novel, you can't really discuss it, for fear it sends the muse scurrying off. But the pressure of holding all this in looks something like my pressure cooker when I get distracted, as I often do (because I am a writer), and forget to turn the heat down.

Not writing may be even worse: you're like a bicyclist in the  Tour De France that someone has accidentally locked in the toilet.

Well, that's about as light as I get. Just be glad you're not married to me.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Ghost in the machine.

14th August 2015

Almost as many Russians read this blog as do English-speaking readers. Russians love our bard Robert Burns and have some kind of a fascination for Scotland and its literary output. In fact. no matter how spurious their system of government, that country has never suffered from a lack of enthusiasm when it comes to the arts: it has often been pointed out that although you have to knock westerners over the head and abduct them to poetry readings, Russians will queue around the block.

Could you imagine that in this country? If you see a queue around the block in the West, it is either for the latest toy or the latest blockbuster movie. Sometimes, people will queue for books, but only if it is a bestseller. The publishing industry's wet-dream.
Western society, lacking almost anything else to gravitate towards lists towards the blockbuster and the bestseller.  It has entirely lost sight of the reality that literature should say something beneath the story. I read Goldfinch. Bestseller. Pretty good (if a little unbelievable - says she who writes about time travel!) but not much there beyond the action. It's like the first wash became the painting. America in particular is drawn to this kind of cult - look at Donald Trump polling at 25%. Is there anything there beyond money and hot air?
Not that I move in Hollywood circles, but I hear that everyone you meet in LA is sort of in a blockbuster trance. Ironically, someone like Amy Shummer who finally comes along and bucks the system, questions the role of women in the movie making machinery,  becomes a starlet of the cult herself. Her photo-shopped pictures start appearing on-line and in magazines.
The publishing industry, too, has been taken over by commercial enterprise and sits in wait for the next big thing. It has been asked many times, but it's worth doing so again: which of the late and great writers would be published today? Grapes Of Wrath? Not a chance. Any of DH Lawrence or James Joyce (Ulysees? Give me a break.) Ernest Hemmingway suffered from and played to cult status, but even he wouldn't be put into print in the current climate.
Since Amazon got into the publishing business, it has its own best seller list. The banner of bestseller has been flown until the whole notion has become frayed and faded, nothing more than a ghost.

Anyway, if I weren't sitting in literary limbo myself, I might not be beating this drum. I actually prefer the company of ghosts. But these are sinister ghosts, not good ones. They mess with your mind and rob the soul. Our collective soul. And soul is something here in the West we have so little of.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Finding Yourself at the Scottish Games

7th August 2015

I was dressed up in a tartan frock handing out my business cards and postcards for my book at the Colorado Scottish Games, feeling a little silly, gasping for a cup of tea. Although it is true that Americans of Scottish descent are willing to toss the caber and dance a Highland fling, they mostly shuffle away from haggis and don't ever gasp for a cuppa. At Highland Games in Scotland there is always a tea tent with empire biscuits (woops - just realised the significance of that little piece of confection!) and scones and  millionaire shortbread. And a team of older ladies sporting pinnies and perms who natter between themselves as they pour endless cups of tea, and none of your foofy flavours either, just plain tea like you get in Scotland and don't have to be asked what kind. Tea. Tetleys. PG Tips. Co-op. At these games there was not a cup of tea in sight.

But men in kilts there were aplenty, clan tents, even a McDougall tent. It's all authentic Scottish filtered down through America. It's highland dancers with big smiles, and bagpipers chewing gum. It's hot sweaty weather instead of drizzle. I won't say it's all a bit Disney. I happen to enjoy Disney, and I enjoy American Scottish games, too. I was just walking around in my tartan, not a thing I would do in Scotland, wondering what it was all about?

Well, you don't have to think too long. It's all about identity, silly. Everyone hankers after it, including myself. From one end of the earth to the other, everyone feels the need to belong. We're a clannish species and work better in small groups. If you share a little DNA, it helps. If you wear the same tartan, you're half-way there. And if you drink tea by the gallon and relish a plate of haggis, neeps and tatties, you can be sure where you really belong.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Scotland's Tidal Swell

History shows that reclaiming a nation's identity inevitably gives rise to a wave of cultural revival. This is because "incorporated" nations are held in that position partly by suppressing their artistic output, their songs and instruments and tradition, their books. And their history is not taught in their schools, as was the case in Scotland until recently when the new parliament was established.  This kind of thing happened in America with the native populations. It happens wherever colonies are set up. It happened in Ireland and Lithuania, and it happened in India.
Joyce's Ulysses was published the very year of Irish independence, and he was in good company in that groundswell of new theatre and literature that included WB Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Bernard Shaw, to name a few. Independence in India was also accompanied by a revival in the arts, giving the world writers such as VS Naipaul, Narayan, Arundhati Roy, Desai. Both Ireland and India have become known for their literary output.
The first thing Lithuania did on its road to independence was to establish its own press. Scotland has but one main press, which although founded on the principle of supporting Scottish literature, has more of a global bent these days. There are a handful of smaller presses doing what they can to pick up the slack, but they are Davids in the face of London Goliaths.

So, here's a call to the Scottish government to build an armature to support this gathering wave of the arts, by creating a Scottish press and fostering a fertile soil where the artists and artists-to-be of Scotland can flourish. It should make sure the wee boys and girls in Scottish schools are steeped in their own history, are encouraged to write poetry, sing songs, paint, let their story out.
It's not a manufactured sense of nationalism, as Nazism was and as the overlords and conservative media always try to make it seem. It's the beating heart that was stopped for all those centuries but is now thumping again. I'm not writing books to that end - it's just what's coming out, because I grew up on the silent heart of Scotland and now my writing naturally strains towards the beating drum. I know I am not the only one.

Totalitarianism can be imposed from within, as it was by feudalism and by communism, or from without as it is in colonialism. But you can stifle the voice of a nation for only so long, and then come the Solzhenitsyns,  the Lixiongs and Tserings, the Joyces, the Yeats and the Rushdies, all trying to give a voice to a throat that has been cut. It's the nature of art to do this, not because it is political, but because it is the beating heart of any people, and sooner or later it is going to be heard.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Mature Scotch

24th July 2015

"Lots of men looking to meet a mature woman." I keep getting this email from dating agencies that I have never subscribed to. They must have figured out my particulars from the kind of hits I make on Yahoo News or something. They must have noticed that I never click on new dresses sported by Kate Middleton or anything at all to do with the Kardashians. They have figured out that I am so past it, I won't mind being called "mature." Like an old whisky. Lots of men are looking for whisky, so why not an aged woman?
I'm not aged, of course, though I might be before this publishing business spews me out on the other side. The picture on the back of my bestseller could well be of a grey-haired, terminally wrinkled, version of myself.

Claire McDougall the geriatric who writes of life and love on Scottish shores from her wheelchair. Get your copy now! Well I promise to dispense with the spaghetti straps before I come to this. I promise to wear a wig.
The lady who owns the bookshop in the town closest to where I grew up says my books are too expensive for her to stock. She says she has to sell them at a loss. Scotland, it seems, is not reverberating with the joys of my debut book. It doesn't really even know it's there. "It's hard for Scottish authors and publishers to get their books in book shops," says a woman from Scottish
So I left Scotland with my shoulders slumped, my hands dragging palms-up like a cartoon character in an advanced stage of despair. I felt unloved by my beloved country.
But I am not one to go gently.  You can't keep a good woman in spaghetti straps down.

Back in my office every early morning, I am churning out the next new thing and singing, I Can Go the Distance! I can't read the future in my cup of tea, wish I could - but I do know this publishing business takes the heart of a Hercules.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Scottish Homeland

17th July 2015

Someone asked me recently at the close of my week in Scotland how I felt about leaving. Truth is, it is always a gut-wrench, but I'm not sure what exactly that has to do with. I don't use the term lightly, either. There is a distinct sensation of being torn inside as my rental car pulls me for the last time away from the sights I love and carries me off to the airport. Some part of me stops here and won't re-awaken until I am back in another rental car driving up from Glasgow, stopping for tea in the kind of tea shops I write about or dream about, just very ordinary tea shops. But they belong to this place as I do.

And during that future trip I will climb Dunadd again, I will wander around the Kilmartin Museum and drive someone else to the cottage on the shore that I fantasise about living in. I will wonder, as I always do, if it will ever happen and wonder if I could come back.

At customs in USA, I show my green card and they take my fingerprints because they know I am not one of them. I could apply for citizenship and it would be granted. But something has always held me back.  I live in this amazing place called Aspen, home to world renowned scenery, and world class theatre and music. It is such a privilege to live here, and yet - what about that part of me still slumbering in Argyll? Aspen is gorgeous, but it doesn't live in me. I am an outsider here, both culturally and because I don't bleed for this place. No gut-wrench.
I'm not the first to experience this double-edged life. I can barely think of a writer who lived in the place they grew up in and kept writing about it. It takes a certain severe longing to motivate that pen, and that's why I have to wonder about moving back to Scotland - would I ever write again? And would it matter?