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My ‘date’ this time is with a Scottish writer who has lived for more than a quarter century in Australia. Cathy Donnelly lives in Frankston on the Mornington Peninsula in the State of Victoria. Here is her description:
“It is a coastal city about an hour from Melbourne and is a great place to live. I am fortunate to be able to walk on the beach almost every day. When I was in Scotland I bought all the waterproof gear so I can walk even when the waves are thrashing against the rocks and the sea wall. Everything I need is no more than 15 minutes’ drive away – the bay, the library, the shops, where I attend the local writing group and lovely botanical gardens.
I love working in my garden and feeding the many species of birds that come to visit. They used to come for dinner in the evening but now it is breakfast and a snack during the day as well. It always makes me smile to see them lined up on the decking rail, singing their hearts out, or just waiting patiently until I notice them. The kookaburras take the food from my hand and the magpies bring their babies and leave them while they go off and do what they do. They obviously trust us not to harm them as they are known to attack anyone who gets near their young.
We get the different seasons here, which I love. It can reach 40 degrees sometimes in the summer but not usually for weeks on end. You know relief from the humidity will eventually come. The area also has a reputation of having all four seasons on the same day.
Nevil Shute, the author of A Town Like Alice and On the Beach, used to live here. Some of the scenes in the movie version of On the Beach were filmed around here and there is an old photo of Gregory Peck standing on the same station I caught the train from every day for the 15 years I worked in Melbourne.”
Despite her long sojourn in Australia, it is Scotland and its history that inspires Cathy’s writing.
“I moved to Australia when I was forty and although I have lived here for 26 years now, Scotland is still home. I visit my family every two or three years and its beauty still takes my breath away. My sister, Linda, and her family live in the house I was brought up in.
It is so special to still be able to sleep in my parents’ old room and visit the village where I went to school and grew up in. I love the familiarity and the memories.
I was checking with my other sister, Wilma, on Skype the other night about the time it would take for one the characters in my new novel to travel by car from one of the tourist hotspots near her, to Edinburgh. The route is mostly two-way roads through villages. She said it depended on the ain’t thats. You could be driving along the road doing the speed limit when suddenly the car in front of you slows right down, causing all the cars behind it to put on their brakes. The locals call these drivers aint thats because they know at least one person in that car is pointing out of the window and saying “ain’t that beautiful”. It happens all the time. I am sure everyone knows that the Scots are well known for their calm demeanour.”
Like Kate Mosse, Cathy uses the idea of reincarnation and other time-shifting devices to take her protagonists to different historical periods.
“I have always been fascinated by the concepts of past lives and time travel. They open up such possibilities from a personal point of view, and more so when it comes to telling a story. With my first novel Distant Whispers, I was able to combine quite a few of my interests – reincarnation, the Knights Templar, Alexander the Great, religions – using these concepts. I thoroughly enjoy the scope it gives me in my writing.”
I asked Cathy about the lessons that could be – and perhaps have not been – learned from the many conflicts that feature in Scottish history.
“History was one of my favourite subjects at school so I knew even as a child that the English and the Scots had always fought amongst themselves, and against each other, throughout their ancient history.
The kings and queens, nobles and gentry, could do what they wanted in those days. It could be that they were just bored with their daily lives or easily offended, but no matter what the reason, one side would do the wrong thing and it would be “round up the peasants” and off they went to pillage and destroy.
I used to think all this history was just that – something in the past, but for some reason the Scots, as with the Irish, do not forget easily. They can carry a grudge for a very long time. I listened to some of the debates and discussions about Scotland independence. I am a very patriotic Scot but I had to ask myself – why do we need it?
We may share the same island and have the same royal family, but the Scots, the English, and also the Irish, all have their separate identities.
I have never considered myself anything but Scottish.
I have noticed that Scots do not seem to mind if their accent is mistaken for Irish when they are overseas, but God forbid if someone asks if they are English. I do not think there would be many Scots who do not have English relatives.
In the lead up to the vote for independence, I asked a friend, who is a fierce, obsessive, Scottish Nationalist, how would it work regarding pensions, health care, borders etc. Her answer was “just let’s get independence and we can worry about all that later.’
On the English side, I do not think they care one way or the other. They recognise we are Scottish and they are English and we both have pride in our heritage.
So, the answer to your question. There are still many people who have repeatedly failed to learn any lessons from the past, but I do understand that it is an emotional issue and you cannot knock being proud of who you are and where you come from.”
Cathy has only recently begun using a computer for writing:
“I have an office area set up at home with my computer and files, but I find I get more inspiration from writing by hand. I wrote my first novel, the majority of my second one, and most of my short stories by hand on the train journey to work, or in bed at night. It was quite an adjustment for me to try to put it straight onto the computer, but when the house is quiet and all I can hear are the words going around in my head, I am getting used to it. I still look forward to taking my notebook to bed and just letting my thoughts wander.”
I usually ask my subjects to tell me which writers they most admire but I already know from a previous interview she did with Millie Slavidou that she is a fan of David Mitchell and his book Cloud Atlas. What was it about that book and its author that so affected her?
“Cloud Atlas took the theme of reincarnation to a completely new level. It was a complex story in so many ways and I was blown away by the writing, the characters, the locations, the timelines. I read it a second time immediately after the first reading, and have watched the movie three times. I can say without hesitation that this will always be my favourite story. You ask what I would hope to learn from David Mitchell if I spent time with him? I am really not sure if it is possible to learn genius.”
To date Cathy has not used a professional editor:
“My background is proofreading of Cabinet and Ministerial briefings so I assumed I would be okay with the grammar and spelling components of writing. Obviously, that is not all that is needed in writing a novel. I was fortunate that a couple of people offered to read my first novel before publication and a friend who is a Scottish history expert read the second one. Thankfully they all picked up things I had missed and made very useful suggestions for which I was very grateful. It is all a learning curve and I hope to get some beta readers, and also a professional editor, for my new novel.
I think a first novel is very precious and there is always the fear that if you get someone else to read it they might come back and say it is awful. I am over that now and realise the benefit of having the opinion of others.”
Many independent authors find marketing the hardest part of the business of writing. Cathy has succeeded in getting her books stocked in the heritage sites that feature in them, something I’ve tried myself. I wondered what other marketing techniques she has found useful.
“For me, marketing is definitely the hardest part of the business. I am learning as I go. I am fortunate that Wilma, pushes me along. She took my Scottish novel There is a Place to the VisitScotland tourist shop in Aberfoyle, which is near the main location in the book, and asked them if they would consider stocking it because of the local interest.
As a result, they invited me to do a book signing when I was there last year. It was not as scary as I thought it would be. I am going home again next year and they said to let them know and they would arrange a signing for the new one.
I would also say that being part of the Indie Author Support & Discussion Facebook group has given me more confidence to put myself out there. The members share what they think works and what does not, and their support has helped me move outside my comfort zone. When I release my new novel, I will make sure I have a clear plan on how to market it.”
Cathy is currently working on her third novel and she revealed a little about it.
“Memories of the Night Sky is the story of Catriona, an author who begins to dream stories she feels compelled to write. It is set in Scotland in the present day, the 9th century and in 1307 and involves Druids, Knights Templar and forbidden love. I enjoyed being able to incorporate my interest in different spiritual traditions and pagan rituals.
I am working on the first edit at the moment and hope to have it ready to publish by the end of the year.”
I like to conclude my ‘dates’ by asking my subject to reveal something about themselves that might surprise their readers. Here’s Cathy:
“For decades I thought of joining a coven and training to become a witch – a white witch, of course. I have lived and worked in various places around Australia so I kept putting it off until I settled. When I did settle in Frankston I thought the time was right, but do you know how hard it is to find a coven? I thought they would be everywhere but alas, no. I am now in my sixties. I wonder if it is too late? Perhaps not.”