Photo credit Kim Ayres
Back in the early months of the 2020 lockdown, like many others I was using enforced isolation to broaden and deepen my reading. I found myself reaching out to the works of authors I was aware of, but had not yet ventured towards. In this context, that spring I became immersed in a novel about wartime Tuscany. A story of divided communities, and cultural strain. A story of violent and mounting tension. And yes, also a story of love. The writing was luminous, sharply observed; the characters compelling and demanding; the historical details, mainly new to me, peppering the storyline, but never obscuring it. I read the book slowly and with respectful attention. Two years later the hardback copy still sits in a pile by my favourite chair, something to be returned to, its vivid passages re-experienced, its deeper implications re-explored.
The novelist in question is Karen Campbell. The Sound of the Hours, is her seventh book and the eighth is soon to appear. Through my links with the Atlas Pandemica project, in which artists and writers developed cultural interpretations of the unfolding consequences of COVID-19, I also discovered her remarkable set of short stories and reflections based on the experiences of Council workers during the lockdown periods of 2020.
With such a portfolio of work I was keen to ask Karen to take part in this series of interviews with inspiring people living in Dumfries and Galloway. But at the same time, I had never met or communicated with her. So I hesitated until now. When I finally plucked up the resolve to approach her with my request, Karen could not have been more positive in her response. Her detailed answers to my questions here make fascinating reading and tell their own story. Here is a contemporary writer, who with each new work edges us into unique contexts of time and place, and the complex ways in which her characters respond to them. I hope you enjoy Karen’s interview as much as I have, and I’m grateful to her for taking us into the writer’s world in such an engaging way.
Where did you grow up and go to school, and how important were books and reading in your early life?
I went to Simshill, then Netherlee Primaries and Williamwood High, all on the south side of Glasgow. Reading was so important to me. One of my earliest memories is reading the Twinkle comic, I think before I started to school – and also ‘writing’ and illustrating my own ‘books’ – there was definitely one I created about a crow with a green hat … And then my mum came home from her work one day, with a huge box of books that had belonged to one of her workmate’s daughters. It was full of things like Enid Blyton, What Katy Did and so on. I just dived into this all-encompassing treasure box, where you could enter one world then another with each new book. After I’d gorged my way through that, I was hooked! Books every birthday from then on in.
What were the influences on your choice of University and degree course, had you already settled on police work as a career path?
It’s been quite a wandering path to becoming a writer! As I say, I always loved reading and writing as a kid, so I studied English at university – then when I graduated, decided I was actually scunnered with studying too many books– it was like the magic had gone out of words a bit. So I decided I wanted to do something practical, and joined Strathclyde Police, really on the spur of the moment (both my parents were cops, so I was from a ‘police family’, and had a good notion of what the job entailed). I was a police officer for five and a half years, before leaving to have my first child. Once I was away, it gave me a bit of perspective, and I found I was writing again – this time a mix of domestic stuff and things I remembered from the police – funny stories, incidents, but also that sense of being a young woman in uniform, and being overwhelmed by the responsibility – and visibility – of being let loose as a cop on your own in Glasgow on a Saturday night! A lot of this went into my first novel The Twilight Time -I think I ended up writing the book I wanted to read, but couldn’t find. And I probably wouldn’t have written it at all if I hadn’t applied to do the Creative Writing Masters back at Glasgow University, when my girls were toddlers.
How important was that course to you? By this time I think you were married with young children and had also begun working for Glasgow City Council.
Yes, I’d left the police by then and was working as a media officer in the City Chambers – so working with words again, and crafting stories in a way (albeit press releases about cooncil stuff!). As I say, aged around 30, I was writing all these stories, which were tucked away in a drawer, and I read about this prestigious writing course at Glasgow University – one of the recent graduates Rachel Seiffert had just been shortlisted for the Booker… So, I had all these stories to send as my application portfolio, and I applied to do it as a two year part time Masters, which meant I could still work, go back to University, look after the girls – oh, and my husband was studying for a Masters in Human Rights Law at Strathclyde at the same time, as well as him working full time as a cop. We must have been mad! But somehow, we managed it – and it transformed my life.
One of the main benefits for me in doing the Masters was that sense of being part of a community of writers and fellow readers, where you could both share work and be inspired.
When you start writing, it tends to be a solitary, hidden thing – almost like a guilty secret you don’t want to mention! And there’s a sense, or a worry maybe, that you’re ‘getting above yourself’ or being arrogant or self-delusional in some way – when all you’re really trying to do is tell stories, and work out what you and your characters think about life, beliefs, emotions, whatever. Suddenly being with all these other folk who also think the same thoughts as you, who you can talk to and share your work with and not be embarrassed or shy was like someone had turned a light on for me. It wasn’t a prescriptive course – nobody said ‘this is how you write a novel’; it was more about listening to established writers talk about what works for them, being set a few challenges, having your ideas stirred up – and then being left to get on with it – with a bit of nudging and gentle guidance. But I never felt I was being asked to ‘become’ a certain type of writer; only given the space and encouragement to be the best possible writer I could be.
Your first four books have been described as ‘police procedurals’ – how did the idea of writing in this ‘genre’ first come about and what was your experience of entering into it?
To be honest, I think it’s more how they were marketed – ‘crime fighter to crime writer’ was a great hook for the publisher, but I don’t read crime fiction and I never wrote the police books as procedurals in any way. I wanted to try and show the breadth and diversity of the types of folk that are uniformed cops, and how you reconcile your job, which is ultimately about protecting others, about being a bulwark between society and all the ‘bad things’ out there, with the need to protect yourself. It was about me exploring what it really feels like to be a young woman in uniform – and all the conflicting issues of vulnerability, threat, power and exposure that can bring. To me, there’s very little difference with my police books and my others. They’re all about social issues, and mostly set in Glasgow. I’ve always said that, with my first four books, I was writing about people who just happened to be cops, but the thrust was always about lives behind closed doors, behind facades, behind the perceptions folk have when they see a uniform – and my subsequent books are just variations on that, that sense of trying to get as close inside another person’s head as you can, and see the world through another’s eyes. I’m especially drawn to untold stories and folk on the margins – those faces you pass in the street everyday – who are they? Where are they from? What do they go home to at night? I find all of that fascinating.
Would you say that your fifth novel, This is Where I Am, marked a shift into ‘literary fiction’? Is that a suitable term to describe your more recent work? Was there some significant epiphany that marked the shift from police and crime, to other subject matter and new writing goals?
Taking the reader inside someone else’s experience – that was impetus to start writing my first book – to try and describe what it’s really like to walk down the street in uniform – the same 20 year old girl you were the week before, but with a new ‘status’ imposed on you by the clothes you’re wearing, the expectations and restrictions that places on you, the presumptions folk make about you and so on. With each police book I wrote though, I was pushing myself further and further away from what I knew, and writing more about what I wanted to know, what I was curious about. For example in the second novel, After the Fire, I write about what happens when a police firearms incident goes wrong. I’ve never been a firearms cop, never even held a gun. So all of that required a lot of research, and every book thereafter was much less about my own experience and more about exploring other lives, about the disparity of what wee ‘bits’ folk see of you and the ‘whole’ you (if there is such a thing!). So This Is Where I Am just felt like a natural extension of this, definitely.
At the time, my husband had left the police, and was volunteering at Scottish Refugee Council. He was coming home and telling me about all these injustices people had to struggle through, how folk were living in limbo, like they were looking through glass at Glasgow, but unable to participate fully in the communities they were living in, and it made me angry and inspired in equal measure. And I wanted to write about that, about not belonging, and about folk looking at you and thinking they know you’re ‘story’ and just not having a clue. Talking with refugees and asylum seekers taught me so much about bravery and resilience, and forcing myself to see Glasgow as an outsider made me see stuff I might otherwise have taken for granted. For example, in This Is Where I Am, the two characters – Abdi who is a Somali refugee, and Deborah who is his local ‘mentor’, meet in a different part of the city each month.
The story was based on a real mentoring programme Scottish Refugee Council ran at the time, as a way of helping refugees integrate and make connections with local folk more easily. Just something as simple as thinking about where my characters might go, all the usual places you’d take visitors in Glasgow, made me realise somewhere like Kelvingrove Museum, which is beautiful and stunning, may actually look forbidding and expensive if you didn’t know it was free, and open to all. So you might never go there, never walk up those steps and see the treasures inside. It’s the exact same, welcoming building that I see, but for someone else, they might not see it that way.
With the novel Rise you shift location, from Glasgow to the Scottish Highlands and of course The Sound of the Hours is mainly set in world war two Tuscany. How important is ‘place’ in your books and how does it interplay with personal identity and individual values? Some writers think it’s important to be in the place about which they are writing, is that significant for you?
Place is really important to me. In every book, there’s a different ‘hierarchy’ between place, plot and people, but they’re all really important elements to me. Rise was very much about place. It Is a story about the lead-up to the first Indy Ref – a really modern part of Scottish history – and I deliberately wanted to set it against the most ancient landscape I knew – Kilmartin Glen, which is a magical valley full of standing stones, and the place where Kenneth McAlpin was crowned ‘King of Scots’ – so pretty much where the nation as we know it began. The place was integral to the plot, precisely so I could have that stark juxtaposition between old and new (which also, conversely, helped develop a really strong theme in the book – that place and people and history and past and future are timeless). And with The Sound of the Hours, set in wartime Italy, the whole story was inspired by place – a chance visit to a tiny hilltop memorial, which opened a whole new world to me. Before I started that book, I knew very little about the war in Italy, and the awful divisions and conflicts that took place in Tuscany in particular.
The Sound of the Hours contains a lot of historical, geographical and cultural detail. Did it involve more research than your other works, and how did the idea for it first arise?
Yes – that book took me four long years of research, repeated visits, and writing! But it was a labour of love. I was in Tuscany on holiday, in a town near Lucca, called Barga. As soon as we got there, I knew Barga was a special place – it proclaims itself ‘The most Scottish town in Italy!’ when you arrive. Waves of Italian immigrants had settled in Scotland from the eighteenth century onwards, driven first by poverty, then later by family ties. One day, we took a walk to Sommocolonia, a hilltop village nearby, which becomes very important in my novel. We only went there for the view, but, right at the top, tucked beneath a ruined fortress, was this war memorial to Lieutenant John Fox – a US Buffalo soldier. Immediately, I was intrigued. I knew very little about events there during the war – and even less about the Buffaloes. I learned that John Fox was African American – and he died far from home, fighting for a country which had not yet given him the vote. I also learned that this part of Italy had been riven in two by the Gothic Line, and I knew that Barga would have been full of Scots- Italian families – and some of their relatives might have been fighting for the Allies, while others would have been fighting for Mussolini – as well as relatives back in the UK being interned by Churchill. So I began thinking about how far your loyalties could be split in war, when all the lines are blurred. How do you pick a side? And that was how the idea for that novel began.
I’m interested in how you approach the craft of writing. Can you tell me about when and where you write? Do you have set routines? Are you exclusively a keyboard writer, or do paper, pens, notebooks also play their part?
I’m definitely not a midnight oil person. I first started writing full time when my kids were at school, and I’ve tended to stick to that pattern: get up, write till lunch, go for a run or a swim, then do a bit more in the afternoon. I rarely write in the evenings or at night, unless I’m nearing the end of a novel, when it all seems to come in a rush! But I find I’m at my best first thing in the morning, when I’m still a bit dopey – so my subconscious is more available and permeable – and my brain hasn’t started getting cluttered up with the day. I write straight onto the keyboard, though I do keep a notebook on me when I’m out, or by my bed at night, to jot down ideas, snatches of words, any wee bits of inspiration that might come to me
Being a successful author today involves much more than writing. How much do you like to engage with the media world, book festivals, readings and signings?
I really enjoy it. Writing can be lonely, so getting to talk to folk and find out what your books made them feel, or speaking about what inspired you to write them is great. And of course, with the pandemic, so many of these opportunities for writers and readers to come together have been curtailed. So I think I value that interaction more that ever now.
Do you have a particular kind of reader in mind when you are writing and if so what sort of person is that?
No, never. I always write for myself, and my characters, and go wherever the story takes me. I think reading is a very intimate, personal act – and it’s not my business what goes on inside a reader’s head! I’d much rather folk took what they wanted from my work, than me trying to write in a way that aimed to ‘second guess’ them!
You live in Galloway, in what ways do you engage with readers and writers in this part of Scotland and do you feel you benefit from the wider arts scene in Dumfries and Galloway?
We moved here from Glasgow ten years ago, and I did find it hard at first, to ‘plug in’ to the arts community in D & G. In a city, everything is much more accessible and easy to find. But once I’d been here a while, I discovered the wonderful Bakehouse literary salon in Gatehouse, and I got to know the lovely folk at the Wigtown Book Festival, then The Stove in Dumfries. And of course, it turns out that everybody really does know everybody here. So before I knew it, links and connections began to weave themselves. And, at the start of the pandemic I had the opportunity to become writer in residence with Dumfries and Galloway council, via the Stove’s Atlas Pandemica project. That was amazing – ten artists in all carried out ten different projects across the region, and I got to meet many other incredible creatives. My role was to fictionalise the experiences of council staff during the early days of dealing with COVID, and it was such a privilege, to work with the Council – who were really supportive – and to be able to give voice to so many unsung heroes in our region. You can read the stories here.
Can you say what you are writing at the moment?
I have a new novel out in June, with Canongate, which I’m really excited about. It’s called Paper Cup – and it’s set here, in Galloway. It’s the story of Kelly, a homeless woman, who embarks on a quest from Glasgow back to her former home. As she journeys along the old pilgrim paths, we learn why she left her home in the first place, what she fled from – and why she’s coming back.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone who has an urge to write their first novel?
Don’t be scared to just leap right in. If you have a notion, an idea, a voice, but you don’t know what to do with it – don’t worry! Just start writing and see where it takes you. I rarely plan – I start with a ‘nugget’ and then build up around that. Your subconscious brain will start to make its own connections. Think of when you played make-believe as a kid – nobody starts with a script. You just ‘play’ with what you have, and see where your imagination takes you. Thereafter, you can hold what you’ve written up to the light and begin to tidy and shape it. You may find you’ve started in the middle of a story, or you’ve really written the end and what you need to do is go back and write your way to that conclusion. But at least you have words on the page!
Also, treat writing like a business. By that I mean write often, break it into regular chunks, build up fragments like bricks in a wall, or stitches in a tapestry. You’ll have days when inspiration strikes and the writing just flies, and other days when it’s like a barely dripping tap. But if you turn up at the page most days, you’ll have more written at the end of the week than you did at the start – and your story will start to knit itself together. Treat getting published like a business too – make sure your work is as polished and tight as you can possibly make it before you send it off to agents or publishers or competitions. Target who to send to as well – I used the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, then sent sample chapters of my first novel out to three or four agents at a time. If you think your work is a bit like another writer you admire, find out who their agent is and track them down too! Plus, keep the momentum going – enter competitions, start another piece while you’re waiting for responses, go to writer events, open mic nights, etc. It all helps to keep you connected and focused on the writing world.
I had many rejections before I got published. But the feeling you get when you see words that came from your head actually set out on a printed page, when you can hold your story in your hand and say, ‘I made that’ – it’s the best feeling. I think, for most writers, getting published is also a massive confidence boost for your creativity. It gives you faith in your writing, when others believe in you too, and that tends to kick-start ideas for even more stories.