With the blessing of my agent, Edwin Hawkes at Makepeace Towle, and with the encouragement and very practical help of a number of friends who have gone before (Linda Gillard, Chris Longmuir and Bill Kirton, especially) I’ve now uploaded the Curiosity Cabinet to Kindle. It’s for sale at the bargain price of £1.94 and – right after the steep learning curve that is Kindle - I’m embarking on another exciting venture: publicising it. People keep asking me questions about all this, just as I kept asking other people for advice, and I want to blog about the experience as much to pass on some of the generous help that I received, as anything else.
But first things first. The book. Let me tell you a bit about it. Because it’s no coincidence that TCC is my first Kindle novel. When you write a novel, you have to fall in love with it. Not just with the characters, but with the idea of the book in your head. It’s hard to describe this process to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. It isn’t anything like the white heat of inspiration that new writers seem to think has to strike before they can write. So much of writing is perspiration rather than inspiration. But I’ve blogged about this feeling before. It probably applies to all creative ventures. The idea of it must excite you as much at the end of the work as it does at the beginning. Most writers have far more ideas than time to write them and we all keep ideas folders or notebooks, or similar . But the ideas we pick up and run with are those which excite us most, ideas which carry on exciting us from start to finish, no matter how many edits we have to do. Twenty or more drafts is not out of the ordinary. It can be exhausting, it can be irritating, it can even be superficially boring. It is always hard work, but all the same, you never quite lose the feeling in the pit of your stomach that here is a world you love to be in, with people you need to know more about. And that means that you are able to live with an idea for a very long time, even while you are working on all kinds of other creative projects. Which is what I did with this novel.
So - I first had the idea for The Curiosity Cabinet more years ago than I care to remember. I had read a little piece – I forget where now, but suspect it was in an Edinburgh museum – about Lady Grange who was kidnapped to St Kilda on the instigation of her husband. Incidentally, there is an excellent new book about Lady Grange, The Prisoner of St Kilda by Margaret Macauley, whom I met recently on Gigha. I can recommend this wry, beautifully written and immensely readable slice of history. The Curiosity Cabinet is, of course, nothing like this story, or only insofar as it involves a woman, in early 18th Century Edinburgh, being kidnapped to a remote Scottish Island, for reasons which are not revealed till the end of the novel. At the same time, I had been working on a truly mammoth dramatisation of Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona, for BBC R4, in ten episodes. Gradually, these things fermented away in my imagination and eventually resulted in a radio trilogy produced and directed by Hamish Wilson.
But still the story gnawed away at me, as though there was more to be told. I hadn’t got it quite right. And that was when I embarked on the novel which is markedly different from the plays. It seemed to me that I was trying to tell a passionate love story, but one in which, in some strange, almost supernatural sense – (and without being in any way an overt ghost story) - the tragedies of the past stood a chance of being resolved in the present. I spent a great deal of time on the Isle of Gigha while I was writing the novel, and eventually wrote a factual history of that island and its people called God’s Islanders (Birlinn 2006). But the island inspired the story of The Curiosity Cabinet, as much as anything else – the sense of a small world, with many layers. The sense, as Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie Maclean calls it, of a ‘thin place’ where the boundaries between this world and whatever lies beyond can be very slight indeed.
The novel was eventually submitted for The Dundee Book Prize, was one of three shortlisted, and was published in 2005 by Polygon. That edition sold out. People liked it. My hero, John Burnside, liked it. Lorraine Kelly liked it. Although for some it was seen as a ‘guilty pleasure’. Why? Because it’s unashamedly a love story of course. Well, I make no apologies for that. It is indeed a love story spanning three centuries. Of which more, later, in future posts.
For this new edition, there’s a brand new cover, beautifully made by my friend, textile artist Alison Bell, who interpreted her response to the book as follows: ‘The narrative works on many layers of memory and time, some hazy, some forgotten, but the island’s presence is constant, as a refuge and a place to grow and start afresh. I wanted the colours to be soft, subtle, muted, with hints of turquoise, like the sea up there. It is a gentle book which drifts into the mind’s eye as each chapter unfolds.’
And of course, she’s right. As an ‘island person’ herself, she can see all too well that the island’s presence is central to the book. So if you like love stories, but also if you love Scotland, and Scottish history – and small Hebridean islands too – this may well be the book for you.