How much do you feel a connection in your stories to Britain and its Commonwealth ties?
It depends on the story. This one is certainly about empire and a certain kind of nineteenth century British mentality – and a certain kind of nineteenth century Chinese mentality too. The roots of that relationship lie behind the way that China relates to the West now, just as the history of Empire lies behind the (happier, I hope) ties with the Commonwealth today. I’ve always been drawn to finding out about other cultures and to travelling. When I visited China I expected the differences, but I was surprised by how much was familiar. I don’t think you can even try to understand China today without understanding the huge impact that the ‘Century of National Humiliation’ has had on their perception of the world. Their version of what happened during, and between, the Opium Wars is something that every schoolchild is taught, but here in Britain it’s been largely brushed aside even though the trade, via India, defined what we became for a long time afterwards. To move past the ugly parts of history, you have to acknowledge them, on all sides, and this is what I think historical fiction can do so well: show how we got from there to here, but told through characters who see themselves not as history but as completely modern.
Does having a global readership alter the way you approach writing stories?
I think every story has a particular shape, a sort of ideal expression of itself. And when I’m working on something, all I’m concerned with is trying to make it fit that shape so that it feels right, or as close as I can get. Of course I want everyone and anyone to read it, but I can’t try to guess what shape they might think it should have. You have to trust that a good story will find its own readers, somewhere.
Is place, the landscape and language of where you’re from something that has a bearing on your writing voice?
Inevitably and probably more than I realise. Perhaps not in an obvious way, because I don’t tend to write in broad Scots or – in my more contemporary stories – with strict social realism (I like fairytales and myth and magic too much). But certainly the country in which I grew up and have always lived in has formed my personality and political viewpoint, but also it has shaped the rhythm of my sentences and the way I experience culture. As I’ve been developing The Ghost Marriage, I’ve realised just how deeply Scotland was involved in the imperial project and in the trade with China. I think in recent years there’s been a tendency to slightly wriggle out of the responsibility for that, but in the next few years as we work out what our future is (with the independence referendum), it’s important to understand the past. But I don’t think of myself as a Scottish writer, or a British writer, just as me: someone who writes, in English.
Read Andrea’s 2012 prize winning story The Ghost Marriage.Go Back To Get Inspired