Promoting Creative Writing in Scotland

Featured Author

Ajay Close

What first inspired you to write?

Eavesdropping on adult conversations as a small child, probably. Certain phrases would haunt me. I’ve always loved the music of words – the alchemical combination of meaning and cadence. I loved reading, but the story was only part of the pleasure for me. When I discovered Shakespeare, at 14, it felt like finally getting to meet someone I’d been overhearing all my life.    

What inspires you now?

Distinctive, authentic voices. Translations, however skillful, just don’t do it for me. And I’m not a great fan of transparent prose: why bother reading the novel when you can wait until it is adapted for TV? I like a bit of stylistic showiness, but it has to be faultless. Anything that seems to strain for effect turns me off. The litmus test is do I check online to see when a novelist’s next book is coming out? With Alan Hollinghurst, Peter Carey, Rachel Kushner, Anne Enright, Janet Fitch and a few others, I do.

What advice would you give to a new writer?

One: read a lot. If you can’t get into a book, start again at page 40. If it still doesn’t grab you, read something else. When you find the writer you love, read and re-read everything they’ve written. Then write. You will hear your words in their voice, but don’t worry, you’re on your way.

Two: never write a boring page. There must be a more exciting way of putting the information across – or maybe you don’t need it. Watching a film can be instructive: notice how much plodding information is bypassed by the cut from one scene to the next. 

Three: don’t underestimate your reader. Every word you put down is a clue, from your first sentence their brains are racing ahead, trying to work out where you’re going. There are things you just don’t need to spell out. On the other hand, it’s a good idea to test what you write on others, in case something you think is blindingly obvious is completely invisible to third parties. 

What are you writing?

I’ve just finished Cupid’s Itch, a novel about a Scottish prison doctor, the suffragettes he force-fed, and the woman he married two years later (who bore an uncanny resemblance to one of the suffragettes). It’s a sort of love/hate story, covering the years 1914-1969, based on real people and events – but with plenty of fictional licence. I waste a lot of time as a novelist creating fictional characters and worrying about whether I believe in them, so to write about real people with real lives I could research was a joy. I’m thinking of writing my next book about the central character’s sister, a bohemian lesbian artist whom MI5 suspected of having helped Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean escape to the Soviet Union. 

What are you reading now?

I’m five pages into Dierdre Madden’s Time Present and Time Past. I admired her previous novels, Authenticity and Molly Fox’s Birthday. For me, she’s one of those sliding doors writers. The way she writes about Dublin society gives me glimpses of the life I might have had if I’d lived there. The last book I read was Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard.

Who is your favorite literary character?

I would say Dorothea from George’s Eliot’s Middlemarch, but it must be twenty years since I last read it. I like Anne Enright’s first-person narrators from The Gathering and The Forgotten Waltz. There’s something unusually real about their sweary, sardonic, crack-open-the-chardonnay gutsiness. And though I probably shouldn’t say it, I’m very fond of Lilias, the 69-year-old actress in my as-yet-unpublished novel The Daughter of Lady Macbeth.

What interests do you have outside of writing?

I’m not sure anything I do is completely outside of writing. I see as much theatre as I can afford, but then I’m a playwright as well as a novelist. I love old architecture, and exploring places in the UK I’ve never been to before. But the sort of stray details I notice on these trips can trigger a new novel. I’m involved in the campaign for Scottish independence just now, but mostly my politics consists of getting angry about what I read in the papers. I can’t say swimming interests me that much after 28 years of doing it every day, but it helps keep me sane.

Any last words of wisdom?

Always seek another opinion on your writing – more than one, if possible (but not your domestic partner’s!). Failing that, put a manuscript aside for several weeks, then re-read it before sending it out. And if your masterpiece gets rejected, remember, there are fashions in publishing as in everything else. Your time may come! 

Bibliography

Trust

England, 1984. Margaret Thatcher is in Downing Street, the miners are on strike and the bankers are making money. Lexa, Gabriel and Rae are unlikely allies, but how else are they to survive in a male-dominated merchant bank? Told to broker the sale of a privately-owned coal mine, they find themselves caught between the sexual war of attrition in the office and pitched battles on the picket-line. And violence, they discover, can be contagious.

Your friends or your principles: which would you betray?

Scotland, 2006.The three women are no longer colleagues but still friends. The intensity of the 1980s is a distant memory. Then comes the banking crisis, and the return of a face from the past with shocking news. Lexa must deal with the fallout from the choices she made in her idealistic twenties. But do the people she wants to protect deserve her protection – and at what price?

Forspoken

Tracy Malleus casts a sceptical eye over other people’s superstitions. There’s just one phenomenon she can’t explain: her passion for Drew Monzie, a fat, fifty-something, Calvinist television presenter. Smart, sexy and popular, Tracy seems to have the perfect life. Then her sister Sam returns after seventeen years in America, still burning with childhood resentments, and things go badly wrong. Mishap piles upon misfortune, forcing Tracy to rethink her rationalism, until she starts to wonder whether she might be cursed. 

Official and Doubtful

Everyone has secrets. Even Nan Megratta, whose job it is to track down the target of an illegibly-addressed blackmail letter. Is it the Labour MP, the flashy restaurateur, or the feminist figurehead turned tabloid hack? And why? Emotionally entangled in each of these lives, Nan is dragged from her precious anonymity into a world of politics, sex and murder...