Starting to write a book is similar to embarking on a series of long train journeys. Your travel plans keep changing. Characters sit next to you, across from you. Some catch your eye. You can't help but eavesdrop on their conversations. The train breaks down between stations with devastating delays. You arrive at what you think is a final destination only to find you don't like the place. You buy another ticket, board another train...
I've always loved discovering new places. As a child I did this through novels. I wrote adolescent poems and dreamed about being a writer. But it wasn't until I made the long journey from Scotland to Thailand in my early twenties that I found my subject – the very thing that fascinated me so much I couldn't help but write it down.
Some of you will live or have lived at some point in a tightly knit rural community. You'll know how wonderful it can be – and how claustrophobic: everyone knowing everyone else's business. But it's an ideal environment in which to observe. I settled for ten years in a village in north-western Thailand. I arrived there a foreigner, a western tourist. Then I fell in love. To this day I'm not sure if I fell in love with my now late husband or whether I just fell in love with the idea of living somewhere so different from where I was born. Settling in a completely new culture is not unlike being born again. There is a new language and a set of social rules to learn. But that learning process was my unconscious research for Moonshine in the Morning. I didn't know that to begin with, I was too busy trying to fit in.
My husband and I opened a restaurant on the main street. I learned to speak, read and write Thai. I got up before dawn each day to visit the morning market to buy supplies. I knew all the vendors' names. I knew which of their husbands drank too much moonshine and who was having an affair. I learned how to kneel in the temple, how to prepare food with a pestle and mortar, how to read the sky for signs of rain. Living there gradually became the norm, and on my occasional trips back to Scotland I would feel a sense of culture shock. I'd be disorientated by the differences in people's behaviour, dismayed by the blandness of the food, desperate for sunshine and fresh chillies.
Reading a book is a kind of journey too: a cut price holiday in credit-crunched times, a break from the grey familiarity of everyday life. I hope that when readers pick up my novel they will experience that sense of escape through the book’s unfamiliar setting. Most English language fiction set in Thailand comes at it with a sensational colour of ink: it’s all about girls and drugs and western men on adventures. Moonshine in the Morning is different. In some ways it is a universal drama. It revolves around the different issues and events that affect the lives of several families. Men drink too much, women gossip. People fall in and out of love. Skeletons burst out of closets and family relations break down. Incomers are looked upon with suspicion and sometimes outside forces threaten the whole community. The action takes place out on the street, in kitchens or living rooms, in the market place and the grocer’s shop, at the moonshine bar or noodle soup stall. The sun dazzles off the roof of the gold leaf temple, frogs sing loudly after the rains. Small birds prattle in the ancient tamarind trees, women tuck jasmine blossoms into their hair. Widow ghosts fly at night over the rice fields and the sacred banyan tree becomes afflicted by a strange disease......this is the flavour of the journey I would like to share with you.....
What first inspired you to write?
My love of reading inspired me to want to write. I wanted to shine a light into other lives, experiences, situations and places in the way that books have always done for me. What inspired me to actually write was the rich experience of living in Thailand for 12 years. It was Thai life that I particularly wanted to shine a light into.
What inspires you now?
Busy shopping centres, the sky over Glasgow and the people I sit next to on buses. Inequality and poverty. The great loneliness that afflicts people. The way everything connects. My own epiphanies. Old age and death.
What advice would you give to a new writer?
Don’t write to impress – write for your readers. That means writing simply and plainly, using no extraneous words. Don’t be afraid to hit the delete button. Use a computer with no internet connection or games installed. Read and read and read. Spend a lot of time by yourself. Listen to and watch other people.
What are you writing?
A novel of interlinked narratives set in Glasgow.
What are you reading now?
I’ve just finished ‘BloodRiver’ by Tim Butcher – a journalist’s account of a trip through the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. Next is Greene’s ‘A Burnt-Out Case’. These authors are shining a light for me on parts of Africa.
Who is your favourite literary character?
Isabelle Archer from Henry James’ ‘Portrait of a Lady’.
What future projects do you have planned?
A sequel to ‘Moonshine in the Morning’, set in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.
What interests do you have outside of writing?
Food: cooking and sharing it with loved ones.
Any last words of wisdom?
On the long walk of life, bitterness is the pair of shoes that will most cripple your toes.
My novel ‘Moonshine in the Morning’ is a series of interlinking narratives set in a village in northern Thailand on the cusp of change. It was shortlisted for the Saltire First Scottish Book of the Year award and won the SAC Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust First Book award earlier this year. It is published by Alma Books: www.almabooks.co.uk
I’ve also had a few short stories published in anthologies and magazines.
I thought I was finished with relationships until I met Esmerelda. I was thirty-five, married in name only to a man I hardly saw, whose heart belonged a thousand miles from me. Other love affairs had sprouted and died. There was nothing left but work: up at five to market, open by seven thirty, cooking breakfast, then lunch and straight into dinner until 10pm. Every day measured by the tooting of buses along the main street, bringing tourists to the restaurant, taking them away again.
An Australian couple introduced her to me. They found her in Bangkok, had travelled with her through the central plains, past the shining paddies, all the way up to the mountains of the north. I had seen her kind before, cruising past my kitchen window: cool, splendid, purple. Standing out from the crowd. A local policeman had one just like Esmerelda. My staff all knew how I envied that policeman, calling out for me to look when they heard him chugging by. I would throw down my dishtowel and come to the door, arms folded, eyes narrowed at the sun’s glare, full of something bigger than envy.
The couple came into the kitchen to tell me they had something to sell. Could they put up an advertisement? What’re you selling? I asked.
Yes, Classic Speedster.
I’ll buy her.
I didn’t even ask the price.
I guessed she had had enough of male drivers, their clumsy feet, impatient hands turning her around too fast, pushing, teasing, tinkering, fixing, controlling, showing off. I wasn’t like that. A little nervous at first, a bit skittish. We took it slow, keeping our first rides for the cool of evening, a few turns around the village streets to get to know one another better. When something feels right why rush it? The villagers gossiped at first, as villagers always do. That’s a man’s bike, the men said, throwing up their hands. I didn’t care.
Then, one day, we were ready for the long trip. Setting off early, we purred out the village, away from the restaurant, the market and its watchful eyes, out of the valley baked hard by the sun. Up, up, up into the cool, dark mountains, round and round the twisting roads, Esmerelda solid underneath me, the air, the trees, the road unravelling in front. Free. No baggage. And nature so huge it made me want to laugh.