At the end of April I had the joy of leading a day on Spiritual Journaling at The Bield of Blackruthven, a retreat centre in Perthshire. ‘Bield’ is an old Scots word meaning ‘shelter’, and this special place at the heart of Scotland is just that, welcoming all who seek time out or time together, silence or sharing, fasting or feasting for the soul. About a dozen participants joined in the Spiritual Journaling workshop, an ancient practice of recording our inner lives, whether that is in prayers, reflections, study of the Scriptures, art or more. Sunshine meant folks could take their notebooks off into the beautiful grounds, walk the labyrinth, sit in the walled garden or just stretch out on the grass. For me, the Bield is always extra-special because fifteen years ago, my youngest was nearly born there!
So it was great to be back there again in June for Solas, Scotland’s festival of arts, ideas and faith, where we were spoilt for choice, with great music and art, talks and workshops, storytelling and singing, and time to lounge on the hay bales in the sun and eat vegan haggis! Perfect place to connect with various friends, including a former teaching colleague from Nepal.
Ullapool Book Festival
At dinner the first night we shared paranormal encounters; at breakfast it was all conspiracy theories; at lunch we discussed what Shakespeare might offer family therapy; while over drinks late into the night we hashed out transgender issues and kids with smart phones. And that’s before we even got to the official programme. This heady mix of ideas, exchanges and personalities is what makes the Ullapool Book Festival so remarkable. It’s hard to work out how a little fishing village on the west coast of Scotland can pull such a diverse range of authors, poets and critics from around the world, but it’s not hard to see why everyone wants to go back. It’s a festival that is far-reaching in vision but intimate in style and broad in subject matter but increasingly intertwined as the programme becomes a conversation connecting the writers and their themes. This happens because there is only one event at a time and also because all the writers and chairs are accommodated together in guesthouses across the village and have lunch and dinner communally, quickly getting to know one another and picking up on threads that started in sessions. UBF always invites two debut novelists and I was privileged to be one of them, sharing the stage with Fiona Rintoul, whose fascinating book “The Leipzig Affair” won the 2013 Virginia Prize. Another Festival tradition is to have two Canadian authors, and this year there was also a strong Middle East theme, with several writers discussing the complex intersection of issues in the region. And, of course, there is always a rich seam of Scottish writing from Gaelic and Scots to English, in all its forms. Ranging across genres from crime, literary fiction, memoir and comedy to poetry and political analysis, the Festival was brilliant, the town welcoming and the conversations fascinating, profound, hilarious and warm. Next year, you must join in.
Folks often ask how sales of Askival are going. Here’s the figures: In the first 18 months there were a total of 2772 copies sold (including hardbacks, paperbacks & e-books, through all channels including on-line, bookshops and me.) This is not too bad, as the average sales for debut literary fiction are 1,500 and I’m hoping we’re not done yet. What is bad, though, is my royalty. (An oxymoron, if ever I heard one.) My total earnings from those books is £1637. ($2150 US, $2,820 Aus.) Yes, you read that correctly. That doesn’t even cover my writing costs during the years of work on it, far less my time. I never did this for the money, but those figures are ridiculous. They are also typical – my deal is no worse than any published author. (7-10% of what the publisher gets, which is usually less than 50% of the cover price. If you want to know why, read ‘Is Something Rotten at the Heart of Publishing?’ by one of the team at Freight Books.) It is only the big name authors who sell in the tens of thousands+ and/or can churn out a book a year who can make anything like a living from their writing. For more on that, check out this article in The Guardian.
So why bother? Why am I working on another novel that will probably have a similar trajectory? Clearly not for fame or fortune. I write because I couldn’t not write; I’ve always done it and it is part of who I am. But also I write because I want to connect – to tell a story, express an idea, share feelings – and to hear what comes back. And though the financial return is dismal, the responses from readers – including many of you – have been overwhelming. As well as the handful of published reviews in papers/journals and the 100+ on Amazon, I have received dozens of cards, emails, letters, messages and spoken words, sometimes from strangers, that have encouraged me beyond measure and reassured me that it is worthwhile. So, thank you. Thank you for reading my work, for responding, for joining the conversation, for being the reward.