On my blog today I’m speaking to Edinburgh writer Victoria Hendry whose first novel A Capital Union was published in September by Saraband.
A Capital Union is set in Edinburgh in the Second World War. Ayrshire lass Agnes Thorne, just seventeen and newly wed, is increasingly drawn into the Scottish independence movement because of her husband’s refusal to sign up for the British Army. Agnes thinks Jeff should stop worrying about Westminster and get on with fighting Hitler, and so do their disapproving neighbours.
It has been described by author Alan Warner as being:
A remarkable debut, with explosive moments of real poetry and narrative power. This is an excellent novel, very dramatic and engaging, with a Buchan thrills quality.
Victoria, congratulations on the publication of A Capital Union. It’s a rare novel, I think, that combines a page-turning read and moments of black humour with some really beautiful writing and that’s you have here.
You’ve said that the inspiration for the novel came from hearing about your great-uncle being a conscientious objector in the last war, because of his allegiance to the Scottish National Party. From that piece of information how did you go about researching the background to the novel?
I was curious about my great-uncle David’s story. The family knew that he was a pacifist but they didn’t know that he had been in charge of publicity for the SNP during the Second World War. In looking for information about him, I came across the archive of Douglas Young in the National Library in Edinburgh. Young was prepared to challenge Westminster’s right to impose conscription in Scotland and was jailed for this. His case was built around the terms of the Treaty of Union in 1707, but was rejected by the judges in the High Court in Edinburgh. This became the basis of my story, although all the characters in it are fictional.
You got your inspiration and then the backdrop to the novel, but this is Agnes’ story. How did you come up with her? Is she like anyone you know? Is she like you?
I wanted to tell the story from a female perspective. Women’s voices are more difficult to find in history, so I imagined what it would be like to be married to a political activist at a time of national crisis. I also explored what experience is uniquely female in war. Agnes is not based on me. She reminds me of lots of great Scottish women I know, especially her humour.
I like that Agnes was so resourceful and that her upbringing on a farm was of use to her during rationing. Did people really lay rabbit snares on Blackford Hill?
Not that I know of, but an uncle who grew up in Perthshire laid snares for rabbits from the age of six. He would gut them and would take them home for the family to eat.
You’ve managed to give a flavour of Scots dialect without making the dialogue inaccessible. Was that difficult to do?
I used the words I remember my Grannie using; words I love and still use today. It is very rare for people to speak pure Scots now, and the pattern of sprinkling Scots words into English is typical of people’s speech. The novel also explores the journey to build a Scottish National Dictionary and get Scottish literature onto the university curriculum.
The novel is obviously very topical with the independence referendum coming up next year. What do you think A Capital Union adds to the debate?
I hope it might add a historical perspective as it is based on the experience of party members in 1942 when the party divided over the issue of conscription, amongst other things. John MacCormick left to form the Scottish Convention when Douglas Young was elected Chairman in 1942.
Anyone, whether they know Edinburgh or not, will love your descriptions of it. Did you walk around pretending it was 1942 and seeing the city through new eyes?
I have a wonderful book of photographs called The Forth at War William F. Hendrie (Birlinn Ltd). It is amazing how little Edinburgh has changed. Its incredible geography and monuments dictate so much of its structure. It was interesting to look back at copies of the Scotsman newspaper in the 1940s and see pictures with the Forth Rail Bridge blacked out for security.
How many drafts of the novel did you write?
I wrote about two drafts, but it was more a case of adding in scenes and information rather than taking bits out. I kept discovering new things I wanted to include for example about the use of hay boxes as slow cookers when fuel was in short supply.
What are you writing now, may I ask?
I am working on another novel set in Edinburgh in 2013 which looks at modern relationships.
I hope we don’t have to wait too long for that one. Thank you for answering my questions.
A Capital Union: Chapter 1
My mother said I was like jam in a bad year, sweet but with too many pips, and when I asked her what she meant, she said that some of the things I said got stuck in people’s teeth and worried them. I didn’t think that was a kind thing to say, so when Jeff asked me to marry him I said yes. Once I was a fine Edinburgh lady I wouldn’t need to think about the things Mother said, or chickens and sheep and muck. After the wedding when she saw the size of our braw flat in Morningside, she said there was no limit to the doors a bonny face would open. I didn’t expect to miss her when she left for the farm, but I did. I was seventeen and it was 1942.
NOW READ ON…
A Capital Union is published by Saraband in paperback and on Kindle; it is also available as an audio book.
Find Victoria at https://www.facebook.com/victoria.hendry.3
Victoria is giving two talks as part of the Book Week Scotland 2013 programme: in Longniddry on 25 November at 7.30, and at the MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling on 28 November at 6pm.