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28 January 2021

Opening Keynote

Opening Keynote Speech - And Then Came Fiction : 09.40 to 10.15

Sally Magnusson, broadcaster, journalist and author

Broadcaster and journalist Sally Magnusson has written 10 books, most famously, her Sunday Times bestseller, Where Memories Go (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014) about her mother's dementia. Half-Icelandic, half-Scottish, Sally has inherited a rich storytelling tradition. The Sealwoman's Gift (hodder & Stoughton, 2018) is her first novel.

Sally Magnusson spoke about why, after a varied writing and broadcasting career, she has become a novelist - and why we need the imagination of the writer more now than ever. We are delighted to have her permission to publish her talk in full here.


And Then Came Fiction

Sally Magnusson

I'm exhilarated to be speaking to you in this new guise of mine as novelist. Honestly, I never thought I would be a writer of fiction. I was one of these people who believed firmly that if any journalist was misguided enough to think they have a novel in them, that's exactly where it should stay - because although we tell stories all the time (sometimes, let it be admitted, whoppers), we're deep down too thirled to fact and actuality to be naturals when it comes to fiction.

Yet here I am. And having embarked on this new direction with The Sealwoman's Gift - and very much with the help of publishers and booksellers and all the people involved in the trade along the way - I've made the joyous discovery that I love it. Whether I'm any good at it is for others to judge, but I'm so thrilled to have had the opportunity to make this shift relatively late in my career. And AS a novelist I believe I'm engaged in something, in this moment, in these times - as you all are - that is very, very important.

I'll get to WHY I think that a bit later. But let me take some time first to explain how I got here.

Books - whether reading voraciously the books of others or writing myself - have always mattered to me. I did my dream degree at Edinburgh University in English Literature. Nothing to do for four years but wallow in it! My abiding regret is that I didn't do Scottish literature as well, but I've tried to catch up since. At university I specialised in 19th and 20th century literature, which meant reading an awful lot of usually very large novels, and it's where I conceived my lifelong passion for Charles Dickens: the great storyteller of them all, in my view, whose work is such an unparalleled blend of humour, character, lyricism, social anger and journalistic passion.

After Edinburgh University I went into newspapers. I remember telling the man who interviewed me at The Scotsman that I wanted to be a reporter because I loved watching people and I loved finding the best words to tell a story. And I remember he sniffed sceptically. "You do realise you'll spend most of your time covering the finance sub-committee of Edinburgh District Council?" Oh yes, I said, can't think of anything better. At which he looked even more sceptical, as well he might. But I got the job.

While I was working on The Scotsman, a friend told me about a film that was due out in a very few months' time about the 1920s athlete, Eric Liddell, the Scot who refused to run on a Sunday. It was called Chariots of Fire. "Sally, somebody really should write a book about this guy," he said. "He went on to have the most amazing life in China that nobody knows about."

So I got myself an agent pronto, who got me a publisher, who said they'd be happy to take a biography of Eric Liddell - BUT it would have to be a bit of a rush job, because they would have to bring it out at the same time as the film. 60,000 words all right? Six weeks OK to hand it in?

It's a measure of my ignorance of publishing realities and indeed longer form writing that I thought, well, why not give it a bash: it's just a lengthy feature article. My sister and I raced around Scotland interviewing people who still remembered Liddell, including his lovely old sister in Morningside, and I spoke on the phone from Canada to his widow. We got some books on the Olympics and China out of the library, and I flung myself into the Boxer rebellion and much else. Only think what I could have done with Google and Wikipedia! Basically I did tackle it as a mammoth journalistic assignment. When I started actually writing and began to realise the impossibility of the task I had taken on, my family all pitched in to help. (That was after I had sobbed down the phone to my dad - "I can't do this! And he told me to come home straight away.) In the family home in Glasgow my father set up as chief sub-editor in the study; my mother was at the kitchen table researching Japanese war techniques; one sister took on a chapter on the history of the Olympic movement (which I never actually had time to get to afterwards, so her somewhat breezy gallop through the Olympics went into the book intact); another sister did I can't remember what and my teenage brother went round passing messages between us and delivering copious quantities of tea, while I wrote everything up. Somehow we met the deadline and there I was in 1981, an author!

The Flying Scotsman, as it was called, did very well off the back of Chariots of Fire and was my somewhat bizarre inauguration into the world of publishing. A year or two after that I got seduced into television and found myself in London, presenting daily news programmes like Sixty Minutes, London Plus and Breakfast, before moving back to Glasgow in the later 90s - because by that time I had also started having children at a great rate of noughts. We'd outgrown our tiny Thameside cottage and I was desperate for the babysitting facilities on offer up here from my mother. (She kept sending me cuttings from the Herald property pages through the post, which invariably started, "Large family house available" and were coincidentally always just down the road from hers.)

Neither the children nor the broadcasting proved particularly conducive to writing, but I did try to keep my hand in, because I always just needed to have the word business as part of my life. It's the way I've always processed experiences - the good and the bad, the funny and the painful - by finding words for them, imposing on the general chaos of life a sort of artistic shape, making for myself, in effect, a story I can live with. (That, interestingly, became all these years later one of the main themes of The Sealwoman's Gift - the way we all need stories, in whatever form, to survive. You and I, folks, are in the survival business!)

What that meant for me over the years was writing about whatever came to hand. For a while I penned a fortnightly column in the Herald about the laughs and trials of having five children under the age of ten, which subsequently became the book Family Life. A trip to Iceland with my Dad to trace our ancestry became Dreaming of Iceland. An exercise I set the children one wet afternoon in the Easter holidays to see if we could put our heads together to make a story about the animals in the countryside round our home gave me the germ of an idea for the Horace the Haggis books that would later give me my first taste of fiction. Writing was a bit of an escape in those years. Believe me, a haggis who gells his hair, a vegetarian fox, a feminist mouse and a villainous farmer lightly based on the (perfectly nice) HMRC tax inspector who'd just visited me for a random check were exactly the antidote I needed to my more sober shifts on Reporting Scotland.

Then there was the chance discovery, reading the wonderful book Crowdie and Cream by Finlay J Macdonald, that URINE was pretty much the chief ingredient in Harris Tweed - which got me interested in all its other social uses and the truly fascinating stories around them, and led to one of my finest publishing moments: a history of this most useful product which went by the name of Life of Pee (Yann Martel, each your heart out). Subtitle: How Urine Got Everywhere.

So, as I say, writing was a bit of an escape, a chance to engage with words in a bid to find different ways of engaging with readers, to write stories, to take whatever was to hand in my life at any time and have some fun with it. People were kind enough to publish these books, and I did have a lot of fun.

But something changed when my mother developed dementia. Here was something very much to hand again in my life, but writing about it felt suddenly more crucial than anything I had conceived before. Once again I was reaching for words to process my experience: the basis of the memoir was a diary I kept, in a bid to, as it were, hold on to my mother as the illness began to rob us (and her) of the person she had been - the way she combed her hair and put on her lipstick, the electric radiance of her smile. But it also became, almost without my noticing at first, a manifesto about the kind of society we are, or should be, what it means to be civilised, and the things we need to face head-on if we're to find ways of caring properly for the most vulnerable people in our midst.

That's the book that became Where Memories Go: Why Dementia Changes Everything, and for me it marked a sea-change in my writing career. For two reasons, I think:

Firstly, because this time it wasn't the pleasure of a hobby that was driving me, but an explicit, burning desire to change the world. I wanted families caring for a loved one to read this book and know they weren't alone; I wanted doctors and nurses and care home staff and politicians and policy makers to read it and get an understanding of dementia from the inside, and of how much of an individual remains, even as the illness lays waste to that brain, and how that person can be nurtured and kept connected if we only go about it the right way.

And that meant this was no longer an erratic leisure pursuit for me. I had to sell books, I had to write to engage a (hopefully) large audience, while also making something both beautiful and humorous enough to let me feel I had done justice to my mother. So I put long and (as decent writing usually requires) fairly agonising thought into literary creativity. And, crucially, I found myself almost unconsciously seeking out the techniques of FICTION to make this memoir engaging, readable and, as I hoped, compelling. Every word remained true, but in the telling of the story I tried to employ drama, scene setting, dialogue (although I was careful not to put into direct speech anything I didn't have a verbatim note of in my diary), selection of incident and, as far as I could, the ruthless self-editing of those cherished scenes and facts that were extraneous to the key narrative.

You see where I'm going with this. Looking back, it was the preparation I think I needed for the next move into fiction.

I'm also pleased that it became a Sunday Times bestseller in 2014 and, judging by the thousands of responses I've had since, it HAS played at least a part in helping to change both perceptions about dementia and care practice. That, I think, is something that should be shouted from the rooftops: the written word, the business we're all in, can make a difference.

The second reason for that book ushering in a kind of sea-change for me was that for the first time in my career (with the exception of my three Horace the Haggis books, so beautifully produced by Black and White), the same publisher stuck with me longer than one book. Two Roads is a small imprint of the John Murray Press, which is itself within the Hodder group - and here, after all those years of publishing a book here, a book there, I found a publishing "family" who wanted not just to print me but to nurture me as an author. A publisher, also, who believed in tough editing.

If I may be allowed to mount a hobby horse for a moment, judicious editing is such a mix of bliss and agony for a writer, but it's absolutely essential to a good book: I don't think there's any piece of writing, by anyone, which can't be improved by it. With all the many constraints publishers are under these days, I strongly believe it's something that shouldn't be stinted on, whatever other savings have to be made. And actually the reason I came to Two Roads in the first place was because Richard Holloway, who I know is going to be speaking to you this afternoon, paid a most fulsome tribute to his Canongate editor at the beginning of his masterful and moving memoir, Leaving Alexandria, saying what a pain in the neck it had been (I paraphrase) but how much this book in its final form owed to that editor's care and persistence. And I thought - that's the kind of editor I want. When I tracked him down - it was Nick Davies, at Canongate - begging him to read my Where Memories Go manuscript, I found he was just about to take up a new job at John Murray Press. He read it, and of course said it would require editing and some rewriting. Cue disbelieving author! But once he got to the new job, he put me in touch the publisher of the Two Roads imprint there (whom he also assured me believed in strong editing) and that's where I happily found a home.

In Lisa Highton at Two Roads I found not just an energetic editor, but a publisher who believed in forging meaningful personal relationships with booksellers and making sure I was part of them. That's something I've really appreciated. I had a lovely launch the other week at Waterstones in Sauchiehall Street for the novel, and I can't wait to get to Mainstreet Trading in St Boswells, and Blackwells in Edinburgh, and Toppings in St Andrews, and Waterstones in Newton Mearns), who're all lined up in the next few days.

Lisa was also the person who dragged me kicking and screaming on to Twitter and forced me, on pain of execution, to have my own website and do all the other self-promotional stuff I'm never very comfortable with but which I've accepted because, at last, I'm part of a team and I'd do anything (well, almost) for that team. Writing is such a lonely activity - it's great to be PART of something. Making an author feel like this is something that's in the gift of publishers, big and small - and I can tell you it makes all the difference in the world to how well we want to do for you.

Lisa believed we could make Where Memories Go work, even though a dementia book was still considered a bit of a risk at that time. And afterwards she proceeded to make me believe I could be a novelist. She kept insisting I write something else, kept asking me for ideas, and when I told her I was fascinated by the story of the so-called Turkish Raid in Iceland in 1627 (when 400 Icelanders were abducted from their homes by corsairs and taken back to the slave-markets of Algiers), her eyes lit up at once. When I said I didn't see how it could be done, because I had no intention of learning Arabic and spending the rest of my life in a library in Istanbul, she said, "Write it as a novel then."

And then, when I HAD written it and proudly presented my manuscript, what happened? Encouraging noises but a firm (and, as I knew deep down, absolutely correct) message: "We need more drama and emotion." Well, I'll pass lightly over the gloom this threw me into - which only began to lift when a couple of other writers laughed uproariously to hear I had got cast down after one draft. "One draft?" spluttered James Robertson. "Come back and complain when you've done five."

And so I started all over again, as I knew I had to. And in the course of that long process of drafting and redrafting and burning the midnight oil, I think, I hope, I learned the craft of a novelist: structure, pacing, voices, leavening tragedy with humour, dark with light, shifting viewpoints and so on. I learned - I hope - not to write for some distant professor who would congratulate me on the depth of my research (always a hazard for the historical novelist and certainly an early risk for me), but to write for a reader much like me, who wants neither self-regarding prose nor reams of description for its own sake, but a darn good story which takes you inside other minds and hearts in another time and place, and reveals they were just like yours all along.

Anyway, thus was born The Sealwoman's Gift. (And may I also say how very blessed I was during that time by getting a new agent in Jenny Brown, such a wonderful and insightful encourager.) It's a novel set in the historical framework of long ago, but addressing itself to the age-old verities of the human condition: love, and grief, and resilience, and redemption, and our eternal reliance on the stories we tell ourselves and each other to help us flourish as human beings. That last is why I feel so honoured to be dealing more and more in the coinage of story. When all else has gone, it IS stories that can save us.

So, I've found it immensely invigorating, difficult (at times very difficult) and ultimately rewarding to step out of my journalistic comfort zone and start making things up - and to learn a new craft in the process, one which I hope I can exercise and, indeed, improve on in my next novel. Yup, there's another one. Inch by inch I've been shifting the balance from "broadcaster and writer" to "writer and broadcaster", to take me back full circle to where I began.

And to get back to what I alluded to at the start, in doing so - and here's where I think what we're all doing is so important - I feel I'm sort of raising my standard on the battlefield of words and literature, and joining you all on a very important crusade. And this is how I'd define it:

One of the skills I had to learn how to deploy creatively, first in Where Memories Go and then in the novel, has been EMPATHY.

One of the most heartbreaking things about my mother's illness was seeing the way it affected her ability to empathise with the experience of others - previously one of her most pronounced and loveable characteristics: her world gradually shrank to herself. But she had the excuse of a brain disease. The rest of us, in our self-affirming social media groups, our self-righteous What's App communities, our ever-ready-to judge environments, even just our hurtlingly busy personal and professional lives, have less excuse. But the world shrinks around us all the same, if we're not careful, even as it appears to be becoming larger. I believe passionately that it's our artists, our novelists, our poets, our short story writers, our most thoughtful and incisive non-fiction writers, who can remind us what empathy is. It's the writer's stock-in-trade to imagine her or himself into other lives, by taking us there and commanding us, the reader, to stay and, at the very least, understand better. Maybe one day someone will even show us how it really feels to be Donald Trump. And that writer, if I may attempt a riff, might have to be a woman.

Now, hear me out! There was an article in the Guardian just before Christmas by John Boyne, suggesting that the problem with literary fiction has been that male writers are too often obsessed with creating a reputation rather than telling a story that will engage the reader. Like most generalisations, that can be shown to be patent rubbish (just thinking, off the top of my head, of Graeme Macrae Burnet and so many other wonderful writers). But there's also - especially as regards some of the so-called giants of literature of earlier decades - more than a grain of truth. One of John Boyne's points was that women have the breadth of imagination to evoke the experience of men better (as he believes) than men have with women. (Again, huge health warning, but it's an interesting argument.) Here's what he says:

"It's in their depictions of both genders that female writers have the edge. I've grown weary of reading novels by men that portray women in one of four categories: the angelic virgin who manages to tame some quixotic lothario who's spread so many wild oats that he has shares in Quaker; the pestering harpy who nags her boyfriend or husband, sucking all the fun out of his life; the slut who eventually gets murdered as payback for her wanton ways; the catalyst who is only there to prompt the man's actions and is therefore not a human being at all, just a plot device. I find female writers are much more incisive in their writing of men, recognising that several billion people cannot be simply reduced to a few repetitive strains."

Now, as someone who dared to imagine herself into the mind of a Moorish slavemaster, a Lutheran priest and a renegade Dutch sea-captain among others, I found that immensely reassuring! But my point here is not to make glib sexist swipes, but to say that whoever is writing it, ambiguity and complexity are at the heart of the human condition and now, more than ever, we need writers to remind us.

George Saunders, accepting the Booker prize for the astoundingly empathetic Lincoln in the Bardo last year, talked about having  faith in the idea that what seems other is  actually not other at all, but just "us on a different day."

He said: "In the US we're hearing a lot about the need to protect culture. Well, this tonight IS culture, it's international culture, it's compassionate culture, it's activist culture. It's a room full of believers in the word, in beauty and ambiguity and in trying to see the other person's point of view, even when that is hard."

I think we might also claim to be such a room today. Which in a way brings me back to Donald Trump, or to what he symbolises. For the liberal intelligentsia, among whom many of us would, I imagine, count ourselves, he is probably the quintessential "other". Commission that book, someone - not Fire and Fury but something different, something more akin to Shakespeare's Macbeth perhaps, that only the subtlest of writers and the most expansive of imaginations could conceive - and that would be the book I'd read. (Besides being gloriously controversial and probably landing you with a law suit!)

What I'm trying to stress is that we are the custodians of empathy. We are the gateway to otherness, to how it feels to be someone else, to believe something else, to act in ways that might actually horrify us. The best books take us to these places; they invite us to step inside for a while and allow our minds to be expanded by the experience. Not to assent intellectually or morally, but to be that person for a while. It's the mark, I believe, of civilisation - the ultimate guarantor of culture. And if books don't continue to do it, I'm not sure what else will.

Anyway, on that note I'll stop now. Long live stories, is what I want to say. Long live the written word, and the publishers who believe in it and nurture their authors to produce it, and the booksellers who press it into the hands of readers, and the agents who help their weary writers up again and again when they're down, and everyone else engaged in this great labour of love and faith.

And huge thanks to Publishing Scotland and the Booksellers Association for inviting me here.