Susan Haigh: Sue Peebles, you were born in Arbroath, lived in America for a time and returned to the east coast of Scotland. Your début novel, The Death of Lomond Friel won the Scottish First Book Award and The Saltire First Book award. Tell me something about how you came to write that first book?
Sue Peebles: Ah yes, late. It started with an internal monologue that grew too insistent to ignore, and when publication did come, the lateness was the thing. I remember the Times headline in their coverage of the Scottish Book awards – “First-time novelist, 55, makes the last four shortlist for Scotland’s top literary prize.” I could see the point had I made the last four in the 800 meters – but writing? I had wanted to write a novel for a long time but found it difficult to create the conditions – a lame excuse according to some, but it didn’t feel lame when I was wringing out nappies in the evening having got the baby to bed, then clearing a space in the bedroom to study before the next feed.’ Eventually the dis-quiet of not writing outweighed everything else.
SH: I’m loving reading Snake Road, your second novel, which was short-listed for the prestigious Encore Award for second novels this year. The characters of Aggie and her grandmother are subtly, yet richly, drawn and the recurring image of the moon in winter is a perfect backdrop to a story which can be interpreted on a number of different levels. Tell me how you saw the underlying theme of Snake Road as you developed the plot.
SP: You are right to describe theme(s) as underlying, they are fundamental to a story yet not always picked up. Sometimes the characters take over in the reader’s mind and the point is lost. I was reminded of this recently when I read an interview with Annie Proulx (another ‘late starter); she was expressing her regret at the way the characters Jack and Ennis took over in “Brokeback Mountain” after the film; for many folk the theme of homophobia and the depiction of a particular rural mindset was not understood.
When people talk to me about Snake Road they bring their own imagination to the story; they’ll say things like “Aggie should do this” or “Aggie should do that”, or they want a different ending. I’m astonished sometimes at the things readers say to me so directly – like I got it wrong and should go re-write the whole book in accordance with their view, not mine. I love hearing two people wrangling over a character, but it’s more satisfying to hear folk talking about some of the ethical issues the book raises, the way loss affects us, or the way the past always seems to come calling in later life.
SH: It isn’t difficult to identifying the small town on the Tay in which Snake Road is set. But the characters, depicted with such compassion that they seem to jump off the page, are they purely products of a vivid imagination and extraordinary observational skills or are they based on real people? How do you set about bringing your characters to life?
SP: I have no set method and I think that’s important. Characters occupy your mind for months or years, taking up room like they own it. They are very active at night when you are trying to sleep, and then when you do fall asleep they wake you up. I have a notebook of course, and have learned to write in the dark – just a few keys words that will bring things back. For instance, last night I wrote – “Brown makes his own snuff.” I didn’t know that before; it may not go into the book, but it does form a part of him, and it tells me quite a lot about his character. I don’t make lists – how arid would that be! But I do know their history, and who their parents were, and what their life has been. When it comes to the actual writing they are best revealed through action rather than description. I just watch.
SH: You portray Aggie as a rather intrusive and irritating character, who is desperately trying to work out the answer to a puzzle in her grandmother’s past; yet I had a strong and recurring impression that she might be based to some extent on yourself.
SP: I would agree, but not openly. “Based to some extent” is a very accurate way of putting it; like Aggie, I did study English at Dundee University for a while, and I did drop out of the course. I admit that, like her, I got bored with iambic pentameter and grew weary of the silver poets of the 16th century (Snake Road, page 27 I think). I certainly had some issues with the course, but that was then. And some of it was wonderful ( Wed 2pm Tower Building – tutorial with Kate Atkinson on Wuthering Heights)!
SH: Were your two published novels a long time in the making? Or did they come relatively easily once you had decided on plot and characters? Tell me something about your writing process.
SP: I find that quite difficult to describe other than messy. It is not linear and there are no stages. The research, writing and the thinking all go on at once; not simultaneously, but within similar time frames, and those time frames vary too. I might not write at all for a quite a while; I’ll read, or take notes, or stare out the window. I may write only a few hundred words a day, but there are periods when I write for hours at a stretch. I edit as I go so the first full draft can take a long time. Then there is the re-drafting, the cutting down, when every word has to earn its place; I’m not prepared to say how long I might spend on a sentence because if I broke that down, if I thought about it in that kind of detail, I’d probably surrender to the voice that tells me the same thing every morning. You can’t do it.
Solace can always be found in the experiences of other writers. As Hemingway so famously said – “The first draft of anything is shit.” I hang on to that.
SH: You had a long career in the public sector, both as a social worker and as a teacher. How did your experiences in your earlier professional lives inform your writing?
SP: A great deal I suspect. I was a social worker and then worked in social work education, where I taught with a small t’. In so far as we draw on our life experiences, my professional roles undoubtedly inform what I write about…. If I’ve learned anything it is not to make assumptions. That’s also what I love about good writing, the way it jolts us out of our lazy thinking. I’m not interested in conventional stories; fiction can be as much about social control as liberation.
SH: Which writers have influenced your writing style and subject-matter? And what kind of a reader are you? Do you have wide-ranging tastes or do you go for a particular kind of novel?
SP: I have always been a slow reader, but at last I can justify it. What little I know about writing I’ve learned from reading. Reading is the thing. Since I started writing novels I think I read much more closely; that said I’ve always underlined those phrases that leave me struggling for breath. I have no knowledge of literary theory and I’m no grammarian; I still struggle with tenses and once wrote to my editor explaining the shifts in a scene thus – “Of course, it was a long time ago now, but at the time it felt like the present.” I have these huge deficits, but I can read, and I think those are the most important things a writer can do to improve their work.
I’m not sure listing influences means much. As a child I was read to and that was magical. I read the “classics” early, dark Russian literature that I loved (I was a very earnest child) but can’t remember much about. My teenage [reading] years were almost exclusively American; I adored Salinger and Plath – their work just sang out. I’m still drawn to American and Canadian writing but there are no boundaries. I could mention the books I have just read perhaps – Train Dreams by Denis Johnson; Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing; Canada by Richard Ford; and for my “re-reads” (a new habit), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Top of my poetry pile is Elizabeth Bishop; for short stories, Mavis Gallant and John Burnside (always). I’m looking forward to reading Lila (the new Marilynne Robinson); a rare event.
SH: You became a full-time writer relatively recently. How has your life changed? How do you begin and end your day?
SP: Well… I get up at 6.30 every morning, I walk the dog, make breakfast, read yesterday’s paper; I’m at my desk by 8.00. I write until 11.oo, break for coffee and a cigarette, then back to the manuscript until 2.00 when I walk the dog again. I prepare a light lunch and read some non-fiction, something apposite like Morris Kline’s Mathematics and the Search For Knowledge. Then I read over the day’s writings and work on some revisions and ideas. Only then do I turn on my phone, check my emails or browse the internet. I always mark the end of the working day with a cigarette and small glass of champagne. In the evening, I read. (Note: novelists tell lies).
SH: At least one critic has said that yours is a talent which could fill the gap in the Scottish literary scene left by the death of Iain Banks. How do you feel about that?
SP: Uncomfortable. That was a very generous comment made by The Guardian. They don’t always get things right.
SH: Finally, Sue, what have you got in the literary pipe-line at the moment? Can we look forward to another novel or do you plan to branch out into other areas, perhaps short stories or perhaps the theatre?
SP: I’m working on a novel. There have been a few false starts, and now I need to find out how someone makes their own snuff, but that’s how it goes.
(This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on 7 October 2014.)