In Conversation with Poet and Novelist Claire Askew
by Paige Smith and Sonali Misra
The Selkie (TS): First and foremost, congratulations on the launch of your debut novel, All the Hidden Truths! Could you tell us a bit about it?
Claire Askew (CA): Thank you so much, folks! Okay … All the Hidden Truths opens with a mass shooting at a fictional Further Education college in Scotland. One ordinary-seeming May morning, an ordinary-seeming young man walks into his college cafeteria and kills thirteen of his female classmates, before turning the gun on himself. The book then follows the stories of three very different women as they try to come to terms with this unimaginable tragedy. One is Moira, the mother of Ryan, the gunman. She ends up besieged in her home, and increasingly worried about the influence she may have had over her son: what did she know? Did she let this happen? Then there’s Ishbel, whose daughter Abigail was the first student to be killed. In the midst of her grief, Ishbel uncovers unexpected truths and begins to question how well she ever knew her only child. And thrust into the midst of it all is DI Helen Birch, a newly-minted Detective Inspector who’s given the impossible task of trying to make sense of this terrible event.
TS: Your novel is about a school shooting and its devastating effects, which is very topical these days. Were you inspired by any one particular incident?
CA: ‘Inspired’ is maybe the wrong word, as these events are anything but inspiring! However, the answer is yes. In 1996, three days after my tenth birthday, the Dunblane massacre happened. It’s the first memory I have of watching TV news and seeing something that profoundly affected my community. My quiet little Scottish primary school went from being a building that anyone could walk into and move around in, to a place protected by coded locks on the doors and CCTV. That had a seismic effect on my school, community and on Scotland, I think. It felt like a real loss of innocence on a personal and national level, and I’ve never forgotten it. Then in 1999, when I was in my first year of high school, the Columbine shooting happened in the USA, and was all over the news. There were real ‘where were you when …?’ moments, and they came at formative times in my life. They definitely informed my decision to write this book.
“Part of the message of the book is that we’re not special as a society – we’re not any more superior or morally good than folks in America, where this happens regularly … We consume the same media that promotes fear and individualism.”
TS: You chose to base your novel in Scotland rather than the US where school shootings are an everyday threat. Many other crime novels are set in Scotland as well, even though the crime rate isn’t particularly high there. What is the reason behind your own decision, and could you comment on why the trend is so?
CA: I chose Scotland because I think Scotland has that very specific, national collective memory from Dunblane: we were changed by that event, as a nation. But Edinburgh is perhaps also the last city you’d think of if you were asked where college shootings take place. Part of the message of the book is that we’re not special as a society – we’re not any more superior or morally good than folks in America, where this happens regularly. We have tighter gun laws, for which I am deeply grateful. But guns aside, we have many of the same underlying problems that cause events like this. A culture of toxic masculinity, a widening gap between the ‘haves’ of this world and the ‘have nots.’ We consume the same media that promotes fear and individualism. In the novel, it just so happens that the right – or rather the wrong – set of circumstances comes together.
As for Scotland as a crime fiction hub: I love it. I think it’s down to a few things. First, some of the greatest crime and thriller writers of all time have lived and written here: Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson. These writers were inspired by the extreme dark and light of this country: in the landscape, in the weather, in the cities with their winding closes and endless hills. And because of that legacy, I think we embrace the crime genre here: Scotland holds festivals – not just one festival, several! – to promote crime fiction. It’s not dismissed as ‘just genre’. It’s celebrated.
“Scotland as a crime fiction hub: I love it … some of the greatest crime and thriller writers of all time have lived and written here: Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson. These writers were inspired by the extreme dark and light of this country: in the landscape, in the weather, in the cities with their winding closes and endless hills.”
TS: We understand you were quite particular about taking a more literary route in your ‘whydunit’ novel as opposed to a more commercialised crime one. Why is this so?
CA: I think I’m just more interested in the whys of this world than the hows. Why do bad things happen? Why do some people feel compelled to commit violent acts? Why do we react to them the way we do? And can we ever move on? I’m in awe of writers who can create in-depth crimes, motives, red herrings, twists and finales – I just don’t have a sophisticated enough brain. But I am able to write about how people behave, how they feel and think.
TS: You mentioned one of the themes your novel deals with is toxic masculinity. Why did it intrigue you so, and how does it play out in your novel? Do you think it’s a coincidence that almost all reported mass shootings are done by men?
CA: No, I don’t. I believe toxic masculinity is in the mix for just about every mass shooting, and it’s also a problem in our society that we’re not doing enough to tackle just yet. I think most people are now aware that women and girls face a bombardment of negative and outdated messages promoting a rather oppressive form of femininity, and I’ve been happy to see a slow but steady improvement in that over recent years. I think we’re also starting to realise that the perpetuation of an arbitrary gender binary is problematic, and the world is slowly, slowly coming to accept folks who present and indeed live outside that binary. However, I don’t think we talk enough, yet, about the toxic models of masculinity that are offered to men and boys. I didn’t really become aware of how widespread this issue was – or of its real-life impact – until I started working in further education, and then in community settings, with young men aged 15+. A lot of the young men I’ve worked with have come from what you might call ‘troubled backgrounds’, are disengaged with learning, and exhibit behaviours that show they’ve been exposed to toxic models of masculinity. On a one-to-one basis, the boys I’ve worked with were all amazing individuals: clever, sensitive, resilient. They loved their mums and their aunties and their babies, they had dreams for the future, and they’d happily tell me that. But then when they worked in a group of other young men, they shut all of that down. They didn’t want to be seen by their peers as enjoying their learning, making too much effort, or having feelings beyond competitiveness or anger. They’d readily resort to threats or attempt violence, if provoked. I found this fascinating and heartbreaking, and I actually don’t think I got anywhere near what I wanted to say about it with this novel. It’s something I hope to look at – and write about – more in the future.
“I don’t think we talk enough, yet, about the toxic models of masculinity that are offered to men and boys … On a one-to-one basis, the boys I’ve worked with were all amazing individuals … But then when they worked in a group of other young men, … They didn’t want to be seen by their peers as enjoying their learning, making too much effort, or having feelings beyond competitiveness or anger. They’d readily resort to threats or attempt violence, if provoked.”
TS: Could you tell us a bit about the second novel you’re working on?
CA: Operation Citrine (working title!), my second novel, is a follow-up to All the Hidden Truths. It’s another DI Helen Birch novel, but she’s working on an entirely new case. All the Hidden Truths was a really ‘heavy’ novel: to research, to write and now to talk about. I wanted to do something a little more fun with Operation Citrine, so there are villains and punch-ups and Birch gets to kick some ass.
But it’s also a book where Birch has to question her moral code: the very thing she’s built her career as a policewoman upon. In All the Hidden Truths, Birch has a little brother, Charlie, who’s been missing for thirteen years, and is presumed dead. In Operation Citrine, Charlie turns up in the middle of the night, and his reasons for being away are disturbing. What does Birch do? It’s a book about family and home and identity, and what it means to be a ‘bad’ person or a ‘good’ person.
TS: How does your process differ between writing the two forms of prose and poetry? How do you shift from one headspace to another, especially now since you’re working on your second poetry collection and your second novel simultaneously? Which form do you enjoy writing more?
CA: To suggest that I am working on them simultaneously is giving me a little bit too much credit! What’s truer is, I am working on the fiction mostly, and then writing the odd poem in the gaps between. That’s the main difference between the two of them: with a novel, you have to live in its world for long stretches of time. I can’t write all that well unless I’ve been sitting and plotting and percolating for a while beforehand, then I can go to the laptop and the words are largely there. (This does mean I end up ever-so-nearly believing that my novels are real: that DI Birch is a real person, and that if I pass the police station on Fettes Avenue at just the right time of day, I might spot her.) It’s a spooky thing.
Poetry is also uncanny, but it’s different-uncanny. I can be ‘struck’ by a poem all of a sudden, without needing to be thinking about it or even thinking ‘I might write a poem today.’ Sometimes it’s just there, demanding to be written down. Other times, I find if I sit quietly and read someone else’s poems for a while, I can coax a poem of my own. In the past, I’ve described writing a novel as coming across a small but very wilful wild pony (the idea) and then spending a lot of time living with it, getting to understand its moods, caring for it and slowly taming it until it can be released into the wild (i.e., to readers) again. A poem is an altogether more elusive creature, maybe more like a bird. It’ll come and eat out of your hand if you’re very careful, but take any liberties at all and it’ll fly off, then look down at you mockingly from a nearby branch, just out of your reach …
“I’ve described writing a novel as coming across a small but very wilful wild pony (the idea) and then spending a lot of time living with it, getting to understand its moods, caring for it and slowly taming it until it can be released into the wild (i.e., to readers) again. A poem is an altogether more elusive creature, maybe more like a bird. It’ll come and eat out of your hand if you’re very careful, but take any liberties at all and it’ll fly off, then look down at you mockingly from a nearby branch, just out of your reach …”
TS: Could you offer some advice to fiction writers who’d like to try their hand at poetry and to poets who’d like to venture into fiction?
CA: My advice to both is: read. Read, read, read and then read some more. Especially those who want to try poetry, because at some deep level, the essence of ‘the story’ gets embedded in our psyches very early on. Most of us understand, on a bone-deep level, things like the three-act structure and the character arc: the character sets out on the quest, there is peril, but the character makes it back having learnt many lessons. We’ve been listening to and reading that story since we were very tiny. But far fewer people know poetry that intimately. So, get out there and read the good stuff. Don’t try and write what you think a poem is – it’s more elusive than it seems.
I can recommend some resources though. For poets who want to try fiction: find yourselves a copy of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and teach yourself about plot. I came across this book about halfway through writing my first novel, and wish it had come into my life sooner. For fiction writers who want to try poetry, see if you can find Poemcrazy by Susan B Wooldridge. I’d also recommend you read the poems of Mark Doty: in my opinion, the best contemporary poet there is. And for both camps, Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (sometimes published as just A Writer on Writing) is a godsend.
“Read, read, read and then read some more … Don’t try and write what you think a poem is – it’s more elusive than it seems.”
TS: You’ve done your master’s and doctorate in creative writing. Do you think such programmes are necessary to get into writing professionally? How do you think students of creative writing may have an edge on others?
CA: I believe very strongly that such programmes aren’t a necessity, but it’s complicated. Like just about any postgraduate qualification, they’re a form of privilege, and they’re often only accessible to writers who already have privilege (I’m a perfect example). That’s something we need to be talking about. I think you’re just as likely to write a bloody amazing poem, story, collection or novel whether you’ve been part of a formal creative writing course or not. However, I do question whether it’s just as likely that your work will be noticed, published and elevated if you’ve never completed a qualification. Not because of the letters after your name as such, but because of the circle you’re generally able to cultivate as part of a creative writing course. On most creative writing degrees, students are given opportunities to meet published writers, agents, other industry folk. Do writers who’re unable to access these courses get those same opportunities? Often they don’t. So, we need to be talking about access. But it seems a lot of folk want to have the wrong conversations about creative writing degrees: asking if they produce boilerplate prose, or if creative writing can even be taught. Of course, creative writing can be taught – it’s a craft, like any other. But who’s getting the opportunity to learn, and how can we improve access? Those are the questions we ought to be asking.
“Of course, creative writing can be taught – it’s a craft, like any other. But who’s getting the opportunity to learn, and how can we improve access? Those are the questions we ought to be asking.”
TS: Many aspiring writers are under the impression that they would strike gold whenever their first book gets published. Could you talk a bit about the economics of being a published writer? Is there anything you wish you’d known earlier?
CA: Mainly, I wish I’d known (and reader, I know now that I was very naïve!) that your advance does not come as one big cheque. It comes in instalments, and they’re often spaced very far apart. In my case: on signature of contract (June 2017), on completion of manuscript (November 2017), on hardback publication (August 2018), and on paperback publication (April 2019). As you can see, that’s nearly two years. My two-book advance worked out at £35,000 per book, which is absolutely incredible, and I’m very, very grateful. However, take off my agent’s 15% and then space the remaining £29,750 across two years. My ‘salary’ from the book becomes £14,875, before tax. So, while I’m really very, very pleased, I can’t afford to have a swimming pool installed just yet. So, aspiring writers should know that they’ll probably need to keep their day job!
TS: Thank you so much for taking time out to answer our questions, and we wish you the very best for your novel!