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Interview: Wheesht!

STORYTELLING | We talk to author Susi Briggs about her book Wheesht!, which follows the story of a dog who loves to sing, and discuss the significance of writing for children, as well as supporting creators working within the Scots language.

Can you tell readers a bit more about Wheesht!?

Wheesht! is a funny story in Scots language about a dog that loves to sing. His family can’t sleep for his constant howling and so they tell him to “Haud his wheesht!”

Shug has no idea what this means and so he goes in search of answers and asks the creatures in the garden. We are not sure if he ever got the answer though. That is up to the reader to decide.

What drew you to tell this story?

I was commissioned to write a new story for Matthew Fitt’s Scots Hoose website.  The remit was that the story had to be educational for children to learn the Scots language words about various animals. In the story we meet a hurcheon, houlet and a puddock. In English this is a hedgehog, an owl and a frog.

When I was working on this commission I was learning to sing Hound Dog by Big Mamma Thornton with my band Wave Blues Band. At the end of the song I always sing a big howl. I love doing that part. Early one morning the phrase “Shug the dug loves tae sing, loves tae sing mair than onything” came to me and that became the opening line for Wheesht.

“Stories heal people. They can make you laugh, think and cry sometimes all at the same time.”

How do you find the process of writing stories, but also seeing them and your characters brought to life, in this case through William Gorman’s illustrations?

I find the process of writing stories quite challenging but thrilling. As a storyteller I have learned what makes children smile and connect with the reader or the teller.

Seeing the first illustrations of any scene or character that I had created from my imagination is the best feeling. When Will Gorman illustrated the first scenes for Wheesht! I was over the moon! He had subconsciously illustrated my two daughters sitting on the stairs and on the last page the “auld wifie” is actually based on my mother. 

During lockdowns I offered Online Illustrate activities where local school children illustrated my stories like Huffy the Heron. I wept with joy when I saw their art in photographs. I was not able to access the school because of Covid regulations and here we were connecting through art and story regardless. It was a beautiful moment.

Ruthie Redden the illustrator of the Nip Nebs series was instrumental in creating the Nip Nebs Trail which is a three dimensional experience of the books coming to life for children.  The character Nip Nebs is played by Lee McQueen. Bringing storybooks to life helps to engage children with stories especially if reading is not something they usually enjoy doing.  It brings everyone together on a level.

I also write story content for Oor Wee Podcast.  I perform that content with the Oor Wee Podcast Live show with the co creator and author Alan McClure. Bringing stories to form through illustrations or performance is a big joyful part of my life and career.

It’s noted that the dog in the book is based on a real life one – Charity – and that donations from each sale will be made to Scruffy Dog Rescue – can you tell us a bit more about that?

When we were looking for the right dog to base the illustrations of the character “Shug the dug” on we had a wee bit of difficulty.  There were a few canine candidates but when we set eyes on my friend’s new dog Charity we knew she was the best model.  She has such a beautiful expressive face and a loveable energy. What we did not know was that my friend had adopted Charity from Scruffy Dog Rescue in Shropshire.  When we realised this during the process of illustration, we felt it absolutely right to donate to Scruffy Dog Rescue.  SDR will receive 10% of profit for the rest of the print run of Wheesht

“Scots literacy is something I am passionate about and I hope my books offer a modern and fun way of enjoying Scots.”

You’ve had your work shortlisted a number of times for the Scots Language Awards, and received the Scots Language Publication Grants; how significant is it that we carve out space to not only publish widely in Scots, but support and celebrate creators throughout the process?

It was a lonely and often thankless task creating in Scots language before the Scots Language Awards and the Scots Language Publication Grant came into being. They have afforded me opportunities that I would not have had and have helped me feel part of a wider community of creatives. 

It is very important that creators in Scots language are validated for their work. We are often excluded from spaces within the literary scene because of how Scots language can be perceived by others. The Scots Language Awards and the Scots Language Publication Grant have greatly altered my career for the better. I am sure I’m not alone in that experience. 

Our monthly theme is storytelling, and so we wondered what is it about telling stories for children in particular that you’re drawn to?

I have been a registered storyteller with the Scottish Storytelling Centre since 2011. I think I’m drawn to it for the potential positive impact you can have in someone’s day when you tell a good tale. Stories heal people. They can make you laugh, think and cry sometimes all at the same time. I love the way stories can transport us away from the dull humdrum for a while. It feels magical to be able to open that portal to new worlds.

What do you hope readers take from your books?

I hope they smile and laugh while they read my books. I hope Scots speaking weans can see that their words are not just spoken but can be written and performed too. I would like them to be inspired to create in the language they speak. 

Scots literacy is something I am passionate about and I hope my books offer a modern and fun way of enjoying Scots language.

For non Scots speakers I’d like them to feel they can access the language with pleasure and ease. My books are not intended to be exclusive to the Scots speaking community. They are fer awbdy! Young and auld nae maitter whaur yer fae! 

Wheesht! by Susi Briggs, illustrated by William Gorman, is published by Foggie Toddle Books.