Today I’m honoured to have the fantastic Linda Gillard as my guest. Take it away, Linda …
WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU SCRAPS, MAKE QUILTS
Some writers quilt, some quilters write. I do both. Some years ago I wrote a novel about a textile artist (EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY). It was my first novel and as I wrote, it struck me how similar the process of constructing a book and constructing a quilt can be.
There’s a saying in the quilt world, “When life gives you scraps, make quilts.” Some years ago, I was a cracked-up teacher in my 40s, recovering from a breakdown, living in a Norwich suburb, contemplating the ruins of my career. Finding myself with a lot of convalescent time on my hands, I took up quilting. I found it therapeutic working with colour and design, but as I got better, I longed to do something with words. I decided I would try to write some fiction, just for fun, just for me.
I embarked on a self-indulgent, fantasy-fulfilling novel about all the things I was interested in – quilts, Scottish islands, mountains, geology, poetry, Gaelic and teaching. I started off with one hunky hero, then decided, what the hell, this was my treat. I’d have two. As I wasn’t writing for publication, I made the heroine forty-seven (my age at the time) and the heroes younger. (I said it was self-indulgent.) The book was about a woman who went to live alone on a remote Scottish island. Pure fantasy!
I was too exhausted to write or even plan anything as ambitious as a novel. I wasn’t ready to tackle a fictional double bed quilt, I just wanted to play around making “blocks”. That’s how EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY came to have its unusual “patchwork” structure.
I set myself the manageable task of writing a lot of short pieces about my textile artist and her turbulent life, episodes that were set in different times and places (mostly the Hebridean islands of North Uist and Skye). If my “blocks” were going to tell a story, it would have to be cumulatively. Only when they were all assembled could an overall “design” or story emerge. But I wasn’t too bothered. No one would ever read this book anyway. I was just having fun being creative and experimental, trying out different arrangements of story “blocks.”
There came a critical point when life got very complicated – multiple bereavements, house moves, getting two kids off to uni – and I had to abandon my novel half-way through. I shoved it in a cupboard where it languished for a couple of years. When the dust had settled, we decided to fulfil a long-held dream and downshift to the Isle of Skye.
When we announced our decision everyone thought we were mad. Some didn’t mind saying so. A few friends were misty-eyed with congratulations, others seemed unaccountably angry. Even the removal men said we’d be back. (Et tu, Brute?)
My husband got work as a teacher on the isle of Harris and so we found ourselves living on different islands, commuting by ferry to see each other at weekends. It was uncanny. I’d become a middle-aged woman living alone on a Hebridean island, making quilts. Be careful what you wish for…
Alone in a five-bedroom house on a hillside two miles from the nearest shop (did I mention I don’t drive?) life wasn’t exactly plain sailing, but when I wasn’t bursting into tears at the sight of photos of absent family members, I was pretty excited. There were weasels on the patio, buzzards on the fence-posts and I had the Cuillin mountain range at the bottom of my garden.
In my solitude I started to think about my abandoned novel. I dug it out and found to my amazement that all the things I’d imagined – moving to an island community, the enveloping silence, the blackout darkness at night, the weird shifts between past and present that take place in your mind when you live alone and rarely speak – these had all become part of my new island life. (The two hunky heroes, unfortunately, had not.)
I looked at my fictional “blocks” and concluded they weren’t too bad, so I decided I’d make more. Obsession kicked in, midnight oil was burned. I existed on a diet of cheese and oatcakes and forgot I had an oven – a regime familiar to anyone who quilts. Finally I spread all my printed sheets of paper on the floor, rearranging them many times. When I was satisfied with the running order, I “stitched” all the blocks together on the PC, hoping they’d make some sort of novel. An agent thought they did. So did a publisher. At the age of 53, I found myself with a new career as a novelist.
I like to think of EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY as a fictional quilt. It’s layered in time as the story moves back and forth over the years. Certain themes (landscape, memory, mountaineering, geology) run through the narrative like brightly coloured threads. I’ve embellished it with odd bits of Gaelic and poetry. (Mostly mine.) One poem actually represents a memorial quilt and the text is set out on the page as a rectangle, framed with a border. This fictional quilt even has a label with title and date (which is more than can be said for some of mine.)
EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY isn’t autobiography by any means but, as with my quilts, a lot of me went into it. My first novel didn’t turn out quite how I’d expected – what quilt ever does? – and it almost became what’s known in the quilt world as a “UFO”. (Unfinished object.) But eventually, my first novel was completed and I knew I was hooked on writing.
But that’s another story.
EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY on Amazon http://www.amazon.co.uk/EMOTIONAL-GEOLOGY-ebook/dp/B0055T357G/ref=pd_sim_kinc_4
Linda Gillard no longer lives on an island but has compromised by living on the Black Isle, an area in the Scottish Highlands which isn’t quite an island. She’s the author of six novels, including STAR GAZING, short-listed in 2009 for Romantic Novel of the Year and the Robin Jenkins Literary Award (for writing that promotes the Scottish landscape.) Linda’s fourth novel, HOUSE OF SILENCE became a Kindle bestseller and was selected by Amazon as one of their Top Ten “Best of 2011” in the Indie Author category. Her latest indie ebook is a supernatural love story, THE GLASS GUARDIAN.
Thank you so much, Linda. As a fellow quilting enthusiast, I love the links between writing and quilting, and for those of us who are forced to work in short chunks, this is really encouraging.