Saturday, 18 August 2012

Places at the Edge of the World by Catherine Czerkawska

I'm currently busy on the final draft of a new novel called Line Dancing, set in a small Scottish village, of the kind I have lived in for many years. I've been working my way steadily through a print-out of Line Dancing, correcting and rewriting as I go. I always like to do these late corrections on paper and then type them up afterwards, even though I write the first draft straight onto the computer, and follow that up with a great number of on-screen rewrites.

While I've been doing this, I've been thinking about a previous novel, Bird of Passage. I suppose there are vague similarities, although Bird of Passage is much more of a family saga; a twentieth century historical novel  spanning some 50 years. On the other hand, if I had to place Line Dancing into any category, it would be 'contemporary women's fiction, romance with a literary twist'. It's a love story which tackles serious issues in a rural setting. And perhaps that's one reason why Bird of Passage has been in my mind too. Because that novel 'does' something very similar - although it isn't at all the same in terms of plot.

I recently participated in an advice session for the Society of Authors in Scotland. Although I was speaking at the event, I think I got as much out of it as anyone else, not least from one of my fellow speakers, the excellent Sara Sheridan, who had a lot to say about marketing and branding, in the most positive way possible. I'm not talking about any cynical exercise in labelling here - and neither was she. But she most generously shared ways for a writer to analyse each book in terms of its themes, its values and what it might communicate to a reader.

I don't think this is something we think about much when we're writing. We become so involved in the act of writing itself. But as indie or self publishers, we have to spend a little time putting ourselves into the heads of our potential readers. If we are going to communicate with them - and they need to know what kind of thing we have written before they can decide whether they want to engage with our book - we have to be able to describe more about each book than the bald plot. We have to be able to describe what the book is as much as what it is about. We have to be able to describe what characterises each book, what quality it possesses with which readers might identify.


When I came to analyse the themes of my novels, published and 'in progress', I realised that although there are differences, there are also certain things which my novels and stories - and to a large extent my plays as well -  have in common. I'm not just interested in rural settings - the sense of place is vitally important to me. My characters may go away to the city but they return to the countryside because that is often where they 'belong' in a sense which is deeper than questions of birth and upbringing. I remember a theatre director telling me that in his opinion, and with some notable exceptions, of course, Scottish theatre was too heavily weighted towards the young, male, urban experience and I think he was right. I myself was born in an industrial city and lived in a heavily industrialised part of that city for the first seven years of my life. We moved to Scotland when I was twelve. But I came late to country living, and I'm still equivocal about it. So this isn't just idealism speaking!

When I examine these rural settings, I find that they are 'places at the edge of the world' by which I don't just mean remote places, or islands - although I've written several island-set novels. I mean numinous places, where the boundaries between this world and another are... thin. I first heard that term used by Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean, in connection with one of the Hebridean islands. He told a story of an old islander who had remarked casually that his home was a 'thin' place. I've found a number of 'thin' places in my life. Enough to know that I believe in the concept. The most vivid, for me, was the ancient 'Well of the Winds' on the Isle of Gigha.

John Martin at the Well of the Winds 
I wrote about this in my non-fiction history of the island, God's Islanders (Birlinn 2006)

'Quite suddenly I found myself glancing upwards, noticing a patch of hillside where the random willows seemed to be growing less randomly - in a circle, in fact. Even then, I probably wouldn't have seen it because it was so well camouflaged by time and vegetation. 
'Look,' I said, all the same. 'There's a big stone. And it looks wet.' 
John, who had noticed the place at exactly the same moment, was already fighting his way into the middle of the willows and I followed him. It was quiet in there and peaceful, a sheltered space among the trees, the mossy stones and the flowers, with the late afternoon sunlight slanting down into it. It was a golden place with an air of calm watchfulness about it. And I would have sworn that like so many sites on Gigha, it felt numinous, a 'thin' place where the boundaries between this world and another seem somehow to be worn away.'

My fictional 'Hill Top Town', top right, in the distance.

Bird of Passage has a couple of places like this: a sacred spring, very much like the Well of the Winds, but also an ancient Iron Age hilltop settlement, called Hill Top Town, above the farmhouse called Dunshee, a name which itself means Hill of the Fairies. Hill Top Town is a deeply significant place for Finn and Kirsty in the novel, because it is a timeless place, where borders and boundaries - between life and death, as much as between one place and another - no longer matter for them.

As I work on Line Dancing, which has quite a different 'story' I again find myself writing about one of these places at the edge of the world, in this case a deserted mediaeval village, which is a special place for one of the characters, and becomes significant for the novel in other ways too.

Which is not to say that I write supernatural stories, because I don't - or not often anyway. I suppose I mean that there's more to life than the visible, the concrete - and that for me, personally, this strange feeling manifests itself more often in a rural setting. I'm sure this isn't the case for everyone, and it may not always be the case for me! But you never know.


If you'd like to read more, you can visit my website or sign up to my wordarts blog.
I'm taking part in the Edinburgh eBook Festival - why not come along 'virtually' for the last week or so?
Finally - if you haven't already read it - you can download Bird of Passage, free on Kindle, today (18th August) in the UK and here in the USA.






6 comments:

John A. A. Logan said...

I'm editing a story collection just now, Catherine, with a story in it called "At the Edge of the Known World"
From age 2 to 4 I lived in one of the "thin" places I think...then from 4 to 12 in another one...my parents both came from those places too.
Later on I was quite urbanised in various cities but I don't think that influence ever "took" as deeply...or anything near...
I had a letter from a Scottish author once who said that, after the success of the likes of Irvine Welsh, and even James Kelman, in giving a voice to the urban Scots...he'd hoped the rural scots would then get a look in next...but he never really felt that this happened.
And then the female rural Scots voice in fiction?
I understand your equivocal feeling about country living too...
A small town right at the edge of the rural may be a good compromise...I can understand why Tilda Swinton chose Nairn as a base...or why Charlie Chaplin holidayed there!
The really "thin" places can get very wild in the winter months for example...
Thinking of it consciously now, I think each book I've done has been partly urban in setting, and partly rural...and partly "thin"...where humans move back and forth along those physical and spiritual boundaries.
Animals too, become more vivid to humans in the "thin" places...but then everything does, from trees to the wind, or the moon.

Áine said...

Go hiontach! Beautiful blog by Ms. Czerkawska and beautiful comment by Mr. Logan. I downloaded Bird of Passage forthwith. Those luminous numinous places are the ones I have sought out all my life. A person can find them in the stories of the seanchaí of Ireland and Scotland (if one only listens) and thanks to these fine indie authors, they are finding a voice again.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

You're so right about those stories - and thank-you!

julia jones said...

Very attracted by the idea of 'thin' places - perhaps i need to become more aware of their possibility. Like the Line Dancing title too.

Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said...

All places can be thin, even urban ones.