Words are easy. Words are cheap. When people say where did you get the idea for your book, words are what they want, and words themselves have nothing to do with why I write. Because I’m not really a writer. What I am, is a reader. That’s me. Curled up somewhere so deep inside a story that it’s more real than the real world. If it’s night time in that story I’ll look up confused at the sunshine coming through the window. Daydreamer. Fool. And when I sit down to write a book it’s not some grand idea - it’s because I want to read that book and I know nobody is going to write it except me.
It is the maddest job. And along the way you have to pretend that you had an understanding of critical theory or at least that that was important to you. I think that lots of writers work that way - because they have something they want to say. Me, all I have is something I want to read – a feeling of what it would be like to read it, not a finished story. And maybe that’s why I don’t fit in. Nowadays I give it a title. I’m an outsider, I say. Get me. It’s not that I don’t like other writers – I do. But I don’t fit in. I’ve tried. I’ve joined every club going – the crime writers, the historical writers and just the plain, old writers. But for me it’s not something I have in common with anybody else because like I said, I’m not a writer and honestly, I’m not much of a brainbox – I just get interested in a story. For me, when I actually have something to say, it’s more visceral. And that’s how I ended up taking my top off.
I am not a nudist in the normal run of things. Honest to God. But I was provoked. In the book industry men get paid more than women. Averagely I mean. It’s like most other industries on the planet, right? So obviously, it was a male author who provoked me. Not that he was trying to. Not that he was even thinking about me. It was at the Edinburgh Book Festival four years ago and he was talking about his writing (which, incidentally, I really enjoy) Crime writing is a broad church – it accounts for around a third of all fiction in the UK – and I write traditional crime because I like to read traditional crime and it’s historical crime too cos I like history. So this author who doesn’t write anything like my stuff said during the course of what was a high profile event, that traditional crime was (and I quote) ‘a bit spineless’. What he meant was that it isn’t overtly violent. Then he went on to say traditional crime wasn’t really Scottish because there aren’t a lot of us writing it in Scotland. I knew the lad was just trying to pitch himself as a great Scottish novelist with all the grit that entails but I was raging. Of course I was. Those of us north of the border who write traditional crime, are just as Scottish as the lads who make up stories set in the seamy underworld of Glasgow’s sink estates. For me, that’s a principle. That’s a point of order. And if you’re a reader like me and you live the story, forensic crime is horrifying. My imagination takes me in a different direction – I don’t need the detail about the blood. So, anyway, it felt as if I was being dismissed or at least, the kind of books I enjoy reading were being dismissed and I wasn’t having that.
I could have gone back to words. I’ve written for blogs and newspapers loads of times, but that would have been an intellectual response and me being a Scottish writer and not being spineless (in my own opinion) was a visceral matter. So I decided instead of making an argument, I’d make an image and the festival photographer said he’d shoot it and put it up with the rest of his exhibition, around the festival square.
The image is of me, topless with a thistle drawn the length of my spine. Posing for it was one of the scariest things I have ever done. We started before the festival was open. A critic hovered outside the tent backstage smoking a cigarette and peering at me, trying to figure out what we were up to (or, maybe, just trying to get a look at my boobs – I don’t know.) I considered, momentarily, being just a bit spineless and putting my top back on but I couldn’t do that. One of the festival managers came out, very uncomfortable, and said we ought to be quick but there was no way we could rush what we were doing. The lighting had to be right so it was going to take a bit of time. We got it in the end, though. Just as the manager was working up to some kind of frenzy because the festival was opening its doors. The shot we chose was one of the last ones taken. Me, from behind, not scared any more, as it happened, and the very personification of having a Scottish spine.
I spent the next two days guiding my aunt and elderly mother around the book festival campus avoiding the shot. Then when they saw it, they loved it and brought their friends. There was a group of grannies hanging around it, accosting complete strangers and saying ‘I know her’. They don’t do that in the bookshop when something I’ve written comes out. I didn’t make a statement – not a written one - but I think (I hope) I made my point. Several writers were mystified – properly uncomfortable because we novelists are supposed to stick to words but hey, sometimes it takes a little extra something to make a point. Oh, and the photographer made postcards from the image and, as I understand it, they sell rather well.