Novelist and storyteller looks forward to his festival roles

Renowned storyteller Ian Stephen will be involved in the Community and Schools Engagement programme on the Skye Book Festival’s second day (Friday September 2).
From the Isle of Lewis, Ian Stephen made his name initially as a poetry-writing Coastguard in the 1990s and is now a full-time writer, storyteller and artist who draws great inspiration from being a sailor, often of traditional sailing boats. 
His prose, poetry and drama have been published around the world and garnered several awards.  He was both the first winner of a Robert Louis Stevenson Award and the first artist-in-residence at StAnza, Scotland’s annual poetry festival. 
As a storyteller Ian sweeps listeners of all ages away into the realms of his own imagination, creating an experience in which narrative, song, music and evocative visuals all combine to draw you into other parts of time and space. 
Ian does regular sessions in schools across the Islands and Highlands. But he rarely plans ahead in detail for the content of the sessions or the exact pattern of the stories.  “It’s an improvised form, if it’s the same wording every time you do it, it ain’t story-telling.”
Schools are a great forum for his work, he said.  “Some classroom environments are the most conducive story-telling environments you could hope for.  They are just buzzing with creativity, wonderful illustrations, you know you are walking into a very creative environment.  The commitment of primary school teachers is astonishing.” 
Ian trained as a teacher but said he realised he could not maintain his creativity doing teaching work day-in, day-out and admires those who can do this.
He said he gets fewer invitations to schools nowadays with council spending cutbacks, and they are more often associated with festivals, which is great, says Ian, as it also involves a chance to be involved in other sessions.  Also, in addition to schools, he is also invited to day centres to regale older people with stories and he will be doing one of these sessions when he is in Portree.
As Ian said, he has “two hats on” for the festival – one as a storyteller and the other as an author.  On the Thursday evening Ian is discussing his first novel ‘A Book of Death and Fish’ at Portree Community Library from 6.30pm.  It will involve a reading of some of the text and a chance to discuss the format and content of the book – 190,000 words in total which took Ian around 30 years to bring to fruition.
He pointed out that the novel is an authored text, in contrast to the tales that are transmitted by the storytellers, rather than originated by them.  Also, unlike the stories, the novel is not linear but darts back and forth in time.
Ian said: “They are linked but they are different.  Several reviews of the novel have commented that it is a celebration of the oral tradition but it is an authored text.  It includes traditional stories spliced in, but it is not a retelling of traditional stories.”
Ian’s next completed book is a non-fiction work and will include traditional stories with their sources and provenance carefully documented.  It will link stories and journeys to particular places, for example the Shiant Isles.  It will be published in March next year by Adlard Coles Nautical, part of the Bloomsbury publishing house.  And what’s next after that…a possible successor to ‘A Book of Death and Fish’ with a development of one of the characters from that novel. 

Morag is back at Festival with Tapestry of Scenes

Morag Henriksen will be appearing at the Aros Centre on Friday 2 September at 2:00pm to launch Tapestry Of Scenes at the Skye Book Festival     Photograph and interview by Roz Skinner

Like a TARDIS, author Morag Henriksen's home feels bigger on the inside.  Or maybe she just uses the space well.  Every shelf is filled with books, every wall is cramming with paintings.
It's a million miles away from the place where she spent her adolescence - a hostel where she stayed when she attended Dingwall Academy.  "There were 75 girls all shut in at half-past five at night," Morag reveals.  "It was very Spartan.  I slept on an army camp bed with grey blankets, and when we finally got a red blanket, that felt like luxury."
That experience seemed to set the tone for much of Morag's early life.  "The creative side of me has always been stifled and I've spent the rest of my life making up for it," she explains.  Morag was forbidden by her father to go to art college, as it was viewed as a "waste of her academic brain."
So, it's no surprise that Morag makes sure her current surroundings, where she unleashes her creativity through writing and painting, are a warm, welcoming reflection of her personality.
The atmosphere must be working for Morag.  In 2014, she launched her first book, Scenery of Dreams, at The Skye Book Festival.  Morag never lets a day go by without writing in her many journals and Scenery of Dreams is a collection of her stories, memoirs, poetry and artwork.
Two years on, Morag will be releasing a similar book, entitled Tapestry Of Scenes.  She explains that, while Scenery of Dreams was focussed on island life, this book is about exploring the world.  “Before writing the book, I had been diagnosed with M.E.  My career as a teacher was in ruins.  I was alone, ill and exhausted.  Then I heard on the radio that people with M.E. could get a wheelchair at airports and it was like a door had opened for me.  I could travel.  So, I went round the world three times by 'plane and wheelchair, always to friends in the stopovers who had received hospitality previously from me in Skye!  So, the book contains a lot of stories from my travels.”
Also included will be a selection of Morag's experiences on Skye, including when she visited the island on a tour given by the Edinburgh University Highland Society.  She explains: “I remember so little of it because we had danced the night before and I was completely wasted.  I just slept in the sun on the pier at Portree Harbour and saw nothing of the town!”
Could it be that the suppression of the young Morag's creativity has allowed her to blossom today?  As an artist, poet, singer and author, Morag is expressing herself in a way that delights her audience.
Morag will be appearing at the Aros Centre on Friday 2 September at 2:00pm to launch Tapestry Of Scenes.  The event will be chaired by Cailean Maclean and promises to be an exciting celebration of the adventures of a dynamic local lady.

My latest thriller, by Joanne Harris

Katie Macleod - now based in New York and award-winning writer of storiesmysuitcasecouldtell.com - interviews top-selling author Joanne Harris before her visit to the Skye Book Festival on September 3.

A disquieting tension rises, slowly but steadily, throughout the pages of Joanne Harris’ latest novel, Different Class.

From the first, it’s clear that something is going to go wrong – or indeed, has already gone wrong – at St Oswald’s Grammar School for Boys, set in the fictional English village of Malbry.

Joanne describes Different Class, which she will be discussing at the Skye Book Festival on September 3rd, as “a dark (and occasionally funny) psychological thriller set in a boys' grammar school… about the uneasy relationship between teachers and pupils, about how the past makes us what we are, and about how little we really know the people we count as friends.” Although it’s the sequel to her 2010 book, Gentlemen and Players, it can also be read as a standalone novel.

“I think that inevitably some of it is drawn from my 15 years in teaching,” admits Joanne, “though even my ex-colleagues might be hard put to guess which parts were drawn from experience.” The author taught French – her first language – at a grammar school in Leeds before leaving for a full-time writing career in 2000, after the success of her third novel, Chocolat.

Chocolat was shortlisted for a Whitbread Book Award in 1999, and was made into an Oscar-nominated film starting Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp the following year. “I don’t think anyone really expects that level of success,” she says of Chocolat’s global popularity. “It took me completely by surprise. On some days, it still does…”

Since then she has written 15 novels, two collections of short stories, and three cookbooks, not to mention contributed to countless collections of writing. Her creative inspiration appears to be as eclectic as the subjects of her books, which cover everything from magical realism to historical fiction. Joanne says she finds inspiration “everywhere: on my travels; in newspapers; in conversations overheard on public transport; in memories; in dreams.”

“I don't generally need to do much research, as I usually already have a reasonable amount of knowledge about the things I choose as material,” she explains. “As for my process, it differs depending on the book: sometimes I write in a linear way; sometimes in tandem with one or more other projects. Most of the time I write from my shed in the garden; but I can also write in hotel rooms, on trains and in transit...”

It’s too early to tell whether her journey to the Aros Centre in Portree, for the fifth Skye Book Festival, will provide fictional inspiration. Either way, it won’t be her first foray to Skye; Joanne visited the island in her twenties, and remembers it well. “I drove all the way there in my decrepit old car, and camped out in the mountains. I particularly remember the midges - we had to drink a lot of Talisker to fend them off!  But that was a long time ago, and I'm really looking forward to seeing it again.”

 

Isle of Harris inspires author over bestseller

Writer for The Skye Magazine and HEB Magazine, Katie Macleod - now based in New York and author of storiesmysuitcasecouldtell.com - interviews top-selling author Peter May before his visit to the Skye Book Festival on September 3.


“I’d always had this picture in my mind of somebody being washed up on the beach at Luskentyre,” says the international best-selling author Peter May of the genesis of his latest crime novel, Coffin Road.
“I’ve always loved that beach… and I just had a picture of some guy being washed up there and not knowing who he was or where he was.”  This striking image - one that had been on his mind for years – became the opening pages of Coffin Road, which Peter will be discussing at the Skye Book Festival on September 3rd, at the Aros Centre in Skye.
The plot is complex, offering twists and turns that confound the reader, leaving them guessing until the very end. Who committed the murder on the Flannan Isles, and what does the man with no memory, renting a cottage on the Isle of Harris, have to do with it?
Central to the story is the environmental plight of bees, which have been dwindling in numbers; the novel is even dedicated to them.  Peter had been researching the issue before he began the book, and was “on the lookout for a way to tell a story that would involve that.”
When he learned that insecticides were causing bees to lose their memory, without which they cannot function, “the whole memory thing fell into place.” The two ideas collided in Coffin Road, with the main character’s memory loss becoming “a metaphor for the bees’ memory loss.”
Already a Sunday Times best seller in the UK, Coffin Road is Peter’s third stand-alone novel since the huge success of the Lewis trilogy, his three crime novels set in the Outer Hebrides. The return to the Hebrides in Coffin Road is sure to delight fans of the series, who email Peter in their thousands asking for a ‘fourth’ book in the trilogy. 
“There was a huge clamour and demand for me to go back to the islands, so eventually I did, because I’ve had this idea for Harris, but of course it’s something totally different from the trilogy,” Peter explains.
“I don’t like to go back, in terms of characters and story. It’s always about doing something different, moving forward, moving on. But I’m always happy to go back to the islands, because the islands, I think, offer such rich source material and atmosphere and character.”
Peter is looking forward to returning to Skye, where he spent a lot of time in the early Nineties while developing the idea for Gaelic drama Machair, which he co-created.  Although the drama became “very much a Lewis show,” he notes that “Skye was very, very important in actually developing the idea for Machair; we got most of our inspiration from there.”
After the Skye Book Festival, Peter will be heading once again for the Outer Hebrides. He’ll be there for a holiday – despite appearances, 2016 is meant to be a sabbatical for the author - but some research is likely to find its way into his schedule.  “I have in my head a very vague, very amorphous idea which has a Hebridean setting again – and it will be a trilogy,” he reveals, adding with a laugh: “I’m not going to tell you what the subject matter is, but it’s there.”








Sandy brings ancient arrowhead back into fashion

Would you ever take fashion inspiration from a 4,000-year-old weapon?  When Sandy Leahy of Struan's Mòr Books and the Windrush Café Studio found an ancient flint arrowhead on her croft, she knew that she wanted to interpret its characteristics through the mediums of jewellery and textiles.
“I found the arrowhead in August 2012 when I was up on the croft trying to enlarge a gateway into a field,” explains Sandy.  “I was breaking away rock with a spade and my hands.  I went up to check on the sheep, then wandered back down and on a rock ledge I saw the Bronze Age flint arrowhead.  As I picked it up,  I felt like I'd had an electric shock – because this hadn't been handled in around 3,000 years!”
Armed with a vision of how she wanted the arrowhead to be used in any designs, Sandy kept a look out for someone who could help make her plans a reality.  She eventually met Victoria Radcliffe at the Great Northern Craft Fair in Manchester.  “Victoria studied jewellery and metalworking and I liked her pieces very much – especially a remarkable ring she had made out of river-washed slate and silver,” Sandy reveals.  “I approached her with the suggestion that we work together on a series of one-off pieces to go in the Windrush Café and then expanded it to include the arrowhead.”
The result will be a limited edition of 75 necklaces in bronze cast directly from the arrowhead – a perfect tribute to the original's rippled texture and serrated edges.  “They will be made in batches, but some are for sale in the Cafe now at £85 each,” Sandy explains.  The necklaces have an archaic quality and yet are in no way out of place with today's styles.
Sandy's passion for textile design meant that the arrowhead would sooner or later find its way into her fabric creations.  Her new collection of tubular neck scarves uses the graphic shape and evocative lines of the arrowhead in a striking pattern.  Taking inspiration from antiquarian images from the 16th century, Sandy created a scarf in a subtle monochrome.  She is still exploring ways of using the arrowhead in her designs, working with different materials.
The tubular scarves have great appeal due to their versatility.  “You can twist them, turn them round because there is a different print on each side or wear them has a hat or hairband...” Sandy enthuses.  “They are a concept - it's down to the wearer how they wear it and I like that.”
Sandy has incorporated other natural patterns into the scarf designs, saying: “I've been taking photographs for years, and always knew I wanted to use them as a textile design, but never knew how to.  One time I was waiting for a train.  It was lashing down with rain and I had nothing to read... but I did have a camera.  I started messing around with the effects of light on the water.”
Lights reflecting on the harbour, the tail light of a car in the rain or the head lights of a taxi have now all been incorporated into Sandy's scarves as abstract explosions of colour.  “I like the idea that these are just as much photographs of Skye as photographs of the Cuillins are,” she says.  “I think the landscape needs a more direct and visceral reaction to it.  I make what I want and I want to explore and work with others in an unmediated response to Skye.”
Sandy uses her unique vision to look past the obvious and interpret objects into wearable items of beauty.  Whether she is taking inspiration from her surroundings or from a 4,000-year-old arrowhead, Sandy creates something truly individual - one-off designs from a one-off lady.