Alison, welcome to the blog for the second week of your blog tour.
Congratulations on your wonderful novel. I very much enjoyed reading it. I thought I’d ask you some questions about the writing aspect of it and also about some of the psychological themes.
1. How long did it take you to write Sewing the Shadows Together? Can you tell us about your path to publication?
It took about eighteen months to write, helped by attending two Arvon courses. When I first started I wasn’t thinking about getting published– I was writing for myself, just to see if I could do it. However, when I finished I thought I might as well give publishing a try. I had an early boost when I was long-listed in the Mslexia Novel-Writing competition, but when I approached a few agents there was no interest at all so I decided to self-publish. As I’m not very technically-minded I went for assisted self-publishing with Matador. You pay for their services, of course, but they give good support and I’m very pleased with the very professional final product.
2. I read on your website that the story is one which has been gestating for many years. Can you tell us what the inspiring event was and how it grew into your plot?
In the seventies and eighties I was an English teacher in Edinburgh secondary schools. At that time there were several high-profile cases, the World’s End Murders and Robert Black, the serial killer, was active very near where I lived (my grandmother’s garden shed was even searched).Even after the cases seemed to be resolved I couldn’t stop thinking about the families and friends of the victims – how did they ever get over something like that? The germ of the plot came into my head then but it took over thirty years before I finally wrote the book which had been gestating, as you say, for so many years.
3. Did you have to make many changes to your plot as you wrote, revised and edited it? How did these come about?
Because the plot had been germinating in my mind for such a long time I had a pretty clear idea of the plot and characters before I started writing and, in some ways, the story sprang out fully formed. However, as I was writing, the plot and characters took on a life their own and I was constantly going back to rewrite the beginning chapters as the characters and plot diverged from my original plan. What I found strange was that whenever I made a change I had to alter comparatively little, as if I’d just wandered off track for a while and found my way back to the real story.
4. What have you learnt from writing Sewing the Shadows Together and getting it published? Has this affected you as a writer and reader?
I’ve learnt that I can actually do it – I wasn’t at all sure when I started that I would ever finish it. I’ve also started going to crime-writing festivals and I’ve been amazed by the support and encouragement I’ve received from the rest of the crime-writing community. As a reader I’ve been introduced to a lot of new writers so my list of favourite authors is now even longer.
5. I see you were a teacher. Snap! Does anything about that experience help or hinder you as a writer and novelist?
At crime-writing festivals I was surprised how few English teachers there were among the panellists – lots of journalists, lawyers etc. You’d think there would be more as we studied English literature and are mostly great readers. I think it may be that teaching is so emotionally-draining and time-consuming – there is always something to prepare or mark – that there just isn’t time. I didn’t begin writing until I stopped teaching, but I think my experience has helped me. I’ve analysed so many great works of literature and given so much advice about structure and character development over the years that something must have rubbed off. Also, after all those years of correcting essays, I’m a good proof-reader!
6. In Sewing the Shadows Together, the police investigation takes a back seat to the interactions and relationship dynamics. I’m sure this was deliberate. Can you tell us why you specifically wanted to focus on these latter aspects?
It’s partly because I don’t know very much about police procedure, only what I’ve learnt from reading crime novels and watching TV. However, the focus of the book is definitely ordinary people and how a murder affects their relationships and emotions.
7. One of the book’s themes seems to be about how people are affected when the past re-emerges. What is it about this that interests you?
I love reading books where we gradually find out why people act because of what has happened in the past. And as you get older you realise that hardly anyone is exactly as they seem and that if you scratch the surface of any relationship you uncover hidden secrets.
8. Similarly, the book opens with Tom returning to Portobello after a childhood tragedy prompted his family to leave Scotland. Was this always the starting point for the novel?
The first scene was originally written as an exercise on a writing course; I cut it down a bit, but Tom returning to Portobello and confronting the demons of the past was always the starting point. Then I attended a school reunion at my old school in Ilkley in Yorkshire and I realised that this was the ideal way to bring everyone together.
9. Part of the plot involves a miscarriage of justice. What appeals to you about this phenomenon?
I became very interested in miscarriages of justice and have read extensively on it, books, articles on the internet and have followed campaigns. I was horrified by what I read – people’s lives ruined, often on the flimsiest of evidence. And now the government is wriggling out of compensating people who have been wrongly imprisoned – which is another scandalous development.
10. The reader never learns how Logan Baird feels about the miscarriage. Was this for a particular reason? Did you have a sense of how he felt?
He was originally going to play a more important role in the story, but I realised it didn’t fit in with the main theme, so all we really learn about his story is from the TV programme with the Rev Hamish Mackay. I have the feeling that Baird, who has mental health issues and has been wrongly imprisoned since the mid-seventies, will find it very difficult to adapt to life in the twenty-first century. He always maintained his innocence, which is one reason he was never even considered for parole – a scandalous Catch-22 situation – and seemed to find some comfort in religion.
11. A lot of people have secrets in the book. What is it about secrets which interests you?
I think all the most interesting characters in literature have secrets. Sometimes we can question people’s actions and only afterwards do we realise that there are secrets in their past life which have formed this behaviour.
12. Whose character did you most enjoy writing in the novel and why? What do you like about their character and what do you find frustrating?
I enjoyed writing Flora, Sarah’s mother .because she has such a distinctive voice she just seemed to write herself. Also she is so awful, so insensitive, snobbish and self-absorbed, that her character was very vivid to me – nasty characters are easier to write than nice ones, where there is always the danger that they can come across as a bit bland.
13. Finally, can you tell us what writing ‘means’ to you? Why do you write? Do you only write fiction?
I love writing – I love creating another world and I see the characters as real people. As I was writing the book I could hear them speaking to me and my book world almost seemed more real, and more interesting, to me than the outside world. I’ve also tried writing poetry – but as you can tell from the doggerel in Sewing the Shadows Together I have no talent so I’ll stick to crime writing!
Sewing the Shadows Together – my review
Set mainly in Edinburgh, but with sections in the Outer Hebrides and South Africa, Sewing the Shadows Together is a highly enjoyable murder mystery with a strong romance element. It begins with main character, Tom McIver, returning to Portobello in Edinburgh to take his mother’s ashes over to Eriskay. Edinburgh is full of memories for him: the sandy bay, his old school, the elegant buildings, his family home. And the culvert under the prom where his sister’s dead body was found thirty years earlier. Just thirteen, Shona, had been raped and murdered. Fortunately, the killer had been caught and sent to prison and Shona’s family and friends were able to grieve.
Tom attends a school reunion. Here, everyone’s memories are churned up. He sees some of the people he grew up with and went to school with. This includes Sarah who was Shona’s best friend. To make matters worse, Tom learns that modern DNA methods have now proved that Logan Baird was wrongly convicted for Shona’s murder, and news travels that the man is going to be released and the case re-opened. Understandably, this sends the community into free-fall. If it wasn’t Logan Baird, who who did kill Shona? The shocking revelation leads everyone to question what they thought they knew at the time, and who was where, doing what. It soon becomes apparent that no-one has been completely honest about what they were up to the evening Shona died, and everyone has something to hide. Including Tom. To further complicate things, Tom and Sarah realise that they are attracted to each other but there is one problem: Sarah is married to Rory.
In many ways the novel is about whether it’s possible to get over the death of a loved one, and the various ways in which people cope, outwardly and inwardly. Tom’s family left Edinburgh soon after the tragedy and moved to South Africa. Others remained living in the community where the tragedy took place. Having lived in a community linked to a terrible crime (I was living in Coulsdon when Meredith Kercher was killed), I remember how profoundly shocked the whole community was. Baillie vividly conveys the reactions and emotions of Shona’s friends and her brother. Each person has had to question whether they could have kept Shona alive if they had acted differently on that fateful evening.
Tom is desperate to find out what happened to his sister. I liked his character and, because he has suffered, wanted things to work out for him. He came across as a good man who wanted to do the right thing. As suspicions fall on a number of individuals in turn, I found it interesting to see how the characters reacted as it revealed their concerns, allegiances and vested interests. When people have secrets, self-interest and self-preservation can eclipse everything else and people start to panic.
In the novel, Baillie raises a fascinating question: do we ever really know the people closest to us? This is open to debate, and, to some extent, depends on whether you believe in the concept of a person being ‘born evil’. Can experiences and events in life turn us into ‘bad people’? Another possibility is that we all have the potential to ‘flip’ at any moment, and a final one is that we all exist on a continuum between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. In psychology, personality theory is a vast and controversial area. Most psychologists believe that personality is a set of core traits which are relatively stable over time and across contexts. That would suggest it is possible to ‘know’ a person. However, theorists disagree over which are the core traits and not everyone believes that these are stable across all contexts. Defence mechanisms and facades can make people seem very different, and people can behave differently with different people. Certainly, history – and decades of crime novels – suggest that we can often be surprised by those supposedly closest to us.
I particularly enjoyed the Edinburgh and Hebrides settings in Sewing the Shadows Together, ones which the author clearly knows well and has affection for. I don’t know either, and it was wonderful to see the areas through the author’s eyes and those of her characters. It made me want to get straight on a plane and fly up to Scotland. I am sure that readers who live in, or know, the settings will really enjoy the book. The story flows beautifully with plenty of unexpected twists and turns, and is well written. I found that I was swept along with the plot and wanted to know who had killed Shona. I love stories about secrets, particularly when people think they’ve got away with them and then discover they haven’t.
I only had one issue with the book narrative and this may simply be about my personal preferences: I felt that the Tom-Sarah love affair eclipsed the mystery aspect and could have been developed more subtly and gradually. They seemed to go from meeting up again to being in love almost immediately. However, every author is entitled to write their book the way they want to and I am sure that Baillie has her reasons for wanting their relationship to be the way she portrayed it.
In sum, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. If you like secrets and intrigue, beautiful settings and a compelling mystery, Sewing the Shadows Together will appeal.
Vicky Newham © 2015