I sit in the hidden café of Bonar Hall (as a four-year undergrad student I had no idea it existed) waiting for Sandra Ireland. I hold her book in my hands and wonder what she’ll be like. The book is macabre and unsettling, dead gerbils as hand puppets and warm mugs of coffee in an empty house. I wonder if she will hobble in, cane in one hand and offer me a poisoned apple. A smile greets me, two in fact, and as my hand is crushed between us, as she wraps me in a warm hug, I know then that – like Jon Snow – I know nothing. “Sorry I’m late,” she laughs as her friend shakes my hand, “I was an hour late meeting my friend for coffee.” She has no need to explain; several emails, conflicting schedules, and a wheedling approach to talking with her – she could have been one of those authors, after all – has made me grateful she has shown up at all. A pleasant smile from her friend assures me that there is no ill-will between them both. Ireland’s lateness is already forgiven, which makes me ponder, is this woman’s greatest vice that she is late for coffee? “I thought that was your publicist,” I admit, nervously, as we make our way to the Tower Building. Ireland laughs and tells me that, although the lift is meant, primarily, for staff, she wasn’t above taking a cheeky ride up to the third floor, every now and then. We each take a couch in the sun-lit room, high above the Dundee skyline. “I’m just going to shut the blinds,” I say, fighting with the pulley-cordy-whatever-it-is thing that will keep out the harsh, yellow light from my eyes so I can conduct a proper interview, and not one from behind my hand. She reminds me that she’s done it all before, and assures me that I need not worry – everything will be fine.
I begin by asking her about where it all came from, the novel – Beneath the Skin – and her drive to become an author, and not just a writer. She started off her career at Dundee Uni as a part-time mature student, and was at the institution for five years before beginning the MLitt in Writing Practice and Study. This in itself says a great deal about her, her drive and passion for change – not allowing yourself or your ideas to lie fallow when there is always another option available. It is this that drove Ireland to put down the Young Adult novel she was working on when she began the course, and pick up the tools that would lead to Beneath the Skin. “I wanted to up my game,” she tells me as she looks me dead in the eye. “I wanted to write something quite literary and quite commercial.” She knows the course is taught by lecturers who focus their attention and talent beyond the realms of fantasy. “Magical, time travel, magical realism,” she puts it as with the same look on her face as a child first learning about the winter world of Narnia. As a creative writer, she is afforded the luxury of remaining within these walls and not being snapped out by adulthood – perhaps a reason for her lateness. Unperturbed, she recognized the challenge before her, the path she could tread or not, if she so wished. Luckily though, she saw the power in writing something more highbrow, something that bares its teeth at the world of fiction and dares to play by their rules, yet proves itself something entirely different.
Beneath the Skin follows Newcastle born soldier Walt as he tries to find his way north of the border. Alone, fragile, he finds a sign resting in an Edinburgh window asking for an “Assistant: Wanted. Must be STRONG and not SQUEAMISH.” At over six foot in height and a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, Walt can see no reason why he wouldn’t fit the role, which, as fortune would have it, also comes with room and board. But inside Alys’s studio he finds himself lost in a world of where a stuffed polar bear guards the doorway, and two sisters are trying to hold their lives together for the sake of their son/nephew, William. It is the portrayal of autism, which Ireland says Alys falls within the scale of, and descriptions of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that Ireland admits she found most difficult. It was a big “responsibility” she confides as she folds her hands on her lap. “Sales are still in their infancy, but I fully expect ex-servicemen to come forward and tell me if I did it rightly or wrongly.” Which is a daunting prospect for even the most seasoned author, let alone a debut novelist. “It was hard to write,” she concedes simply. And I can see why. Walt falls from dizzying expanses of blood-stained sand to a chilly bedroom with a cracked ceiling in Scotland’s capital so quickly, yet so viscerally, that the reader falls with him. Pulled would be, perhaps, more a correct word. He pulls us with him as he falls from his old world to his new, and we are all the time aware that the danger hasn’t been left behind.
In tackling such an individual and personal illness, Ireland turned to a few ex-soldiers and modern war poetry for inspiration. One particular soldier, she tells me, a survivor of three tours in Afghanistan, helped her focus on what causes PTSD, which she uses deftly as a springboard into its after effects on Walt. “Most of it didn’t make it to the book,” she says casually, as if it’s no big deal. But she looks at me and I know then how harrowing it must have been for her to hear his stories. In that look, I know how fearsome those “true descriptions of what happened to people” must have been; their horror skirts the fringes of every chapter, lacing menace between paragraphs like a reinterpretation of Mary Shelley’s, Frankenstein’s Monster – Ireland’s Monster. “I was really frightened of getting it wrong.” Ireland broadened her research to modern war poetry, which she hoped would give her a sense, not of what happened, but how it was felt. “Poetry was really valuable,” she says, “not about the war, or the politics, or the fighting – it’s about the after effects.” The trauma these service men who dedicate their lives to saving our own is splattered across every page like stepping on an IED itself. Ireland keeps it real, keeps it gruesome, keeps it terrifying so that we, as readers, know that this isn’t a horror story in the style of Stephen King. This is real life, which is all the more horrifying in itself. Shown expertly through flashbacks, she widens Walt’s world, our perspective, beyond being mired simply in after effects or writing about their causes, blending them instead together, a skill she says, she learned from her time on the MLitt at Dundee.
Speaking of the MLitt in Writing, Practice and Study she says, “It challenges your notion of what good literature is.” And boy does it. Ireland celebrated the chance to expand her literary horizons and use the universities vast resources, saying how there is “access to loads of novels I wouldn’t have picked up.” This was of particular relevance to Ireland’s use of flashbacks throughout her book. Walt’s experience of PTSD and the specific events that caused it, including one accident that severely disabled his own body, are woven throughout the narrative, forcing the reader to fully experience the juxtaposition between who a western soldier is back home and who they are in a warzone. Born from her dissertation, Ireland developed her ideas on taxidermy and the creepy Edinburgh townhouse in an effort to fully establish her new range of talents acquired from the course. Part of several writing groups, it was the public nature of her dissertation that helped develop Ireland’s skin into a thick hide that could withstand criticism. Being “aware that the dissertation is already out there,” also helped her onto the next stage of her career – getting a book deal after attending a pitching event for Jenny Brown Associates in the November after she graduated.
Ireland looks at me seriously, unapologetically as she tells me that you, “need to have ambition…and quite a lot of self-belief.” The pitching event at Jenny Brown Associates is staged in Prince’s Street Waterstones, and in preapproved slots where writers outline their novels for consideration of representation. Ireland had Jenny Brown herself. She makes no excuses about how daunting the process was but, and very firmly, she said, “the MLitt gives you confidence,” – and so she used it. It was a full six months before Ireland handed over the finished, first draft manuscript to Jenny. “A lot of things Jenny wasn’t happy with,” she laughs again, as if it were all ‘no big deal’. Several rewrites, especially on the first and last thirds of the novel came, before Jenny Brown was ready to send it out for consideration by publishers. “Jenny sent it to six to begin with.” Within three months – she laughs again, in disbelief at her own luck, as “many people have to wait much longer” – Polygon, a subsidiary of Birlinn, snapped up the manuscript. But that didn’t mean it was plain sailing, stormy waters rose up ahead. “They didn’t like the title,” she admits, as if I had pried upon her biggest secret that she had no option but to confess. Beginning its life under the name, “An Arrangement of Skin“ (as is the dictionary’s definition of taxidermy) Polygon initially wanted it to be “Under the Skin“, but as Ireland says herself, “that was already taken.” Eventually, after a few more changes to the novel’s conclusion, Ireland and her publisher were able to settle on, Beneath the Skin, which she grins as she admits that she “prefers” it now. “Youdon’t realise how often you have to say the title of your own book. It rolls off the tongue better.” She sits quietly after saying this, assured in her decisions and waiting my next question. I take the moment to appreciate the woman sitting before me who told me at the beginning of our interview that she was “quite prepared to do what it took to make it commercially viable”; I see now that she meant every single word. And although she doesn’t say it, nor do I ask, I can see that she has fought tooth and nail throughout the publication process to keep the soul of her story intact.
In a post-publication world – Beneath the Skin was launched in Edinburgh 14 September, 2016 – Ireland rejoices in telling me that she has become “social media savvy”. The pressure placed on authors to help market their own work has not been a heavy burden on Ireland’s shoulders as she has immersed herself in the world of online reviewing saying, “booktubers are the big thing now,” while stressing the importance of virtual marketing. That doesn’t mean she has foregone her LiveWire roots, however. Her participation in the Dundee Literary Festival was applauded as a success and her book sales, although “still in infancy”, have been encouraging. She says that readings are undertaken with the intention to sell, and though she’s aware that the book’s public release means that it’s “not your creative thing” any longer but a product that needs to be sold. It doesn’t deter her though, and she jokes that she hasn’t gone from “rags to riches”. She has received funding from Creative Scotland to pursue her second novel, a darker tale, set around a mill, with a gruesome murder and suspicion that develops between two sisters. Tightlipped, a glint of humour in her eye, she smiles and says simply that there are “dark doings around the mill pond.” Her Writer’s in Residence term at Barry Mill clearly had a heavy influence on her sophomore contribution to the world of Scottish literature. “I really enjoy writing about old buildings,” she says, which is evidenced in her townhouse in Beneath the Skin; one of the main attractions of taking up her residency was that she got to become intimate with the Mill. She jokes, “I always need to keep an eye on my C.V.!”, knowing the fickle way of fame could leave her with nothing.
It is with great sadness that I leave. Sandra is kind and warm but I have already taken up almost an hour of her time and she has to dash off to her literary event. “Nothing good ever happened over night,” she says as I pack up the recorder, careful not to delete our afternoon’s work. And I know then she’s talking to more than just me – she’s talking to all of us, all writers. But as she poses for a quick selfie, even though she hates being photographed, she tells me of her mother and how often she would say to Ireland, “oh look at her,” about women who dolled themselves up, “she’s full of herself.” She smiles for the eighty-fifth time this interview and says to me, her words about having passion for your own work and ambition for our own lives ringing in my ears, “Let’s all be full of ourselves. Why not?”
(Ed – interviewed at the Dundee Literary Festival 2016)