This week I’ve been reading Barbara Henderson‘s Fir For Luck, and I’ve been so blown away by the story that I just have to share it with you!
Here’s what the publishers Cranachan have to say about the story:
Would you be brave enough to fight back?
When 12-year-old Janet’s village is under threat– she decides to take action. It’s a split-second decision that could cost her everything: her home, her family – even her life.
Can Janet save her village from being wiped out? Or will her family and friends be forced from their homes to face an uncertain future?
Based on real life events, Fir for Luck is a tale of the brutal Highland Clearances, when land owners cared more about sheep than people.
‘Steeped in atmosphere, tension and the lyric cadences of the Highlands, Janet’s tale lights a fire of courage and hope in a shameful and tragic period of Scotland’s past. Henderson’s debut is brave and beautiful.’ Elizabeth Wein
From the first page I found Barbara’s writing utterly gripping: full of power and immediacy. Written in the first person present tense it feels fresh and compelling. Fir For Luck feels like The Hunger Games, but in 1840’s Scotland!
I’m absolutely thrilled that Barbara agreed to answer my questions.
What was the initial idea that sparked off Fir For Luck?
A combination of two things, to be fair. When I was at Edinburgh University in the nineties, I studied John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. It’s a remarkable piece of writing and as someone who had grown up on the continent, this aspect of history was news to me. It was my first encounter with the Highland Clearances, and I resolved to travel to Sutherland day to find out more. At that point I was interested, but no more.
Fast forward almost twenty years. It wasn’t until the windy summer of 2013 that I finally managed to make good that promise to myself – and by that stage I had acquired a husband, three children and a dog. I had struggled to find an accessible book about the Clearances for my girls ahead of the holiday. I was feeling buoyant that summer – after what felt like hundreds of rejections, one of my manuscripts was shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize. So, while in the ‘maybe-I-can-be-a-writer-after-all’ bubble, I stumbled upon the ruins of Ceannabeinne, outside Durness. Wow, what a story, and never written about in fiction. It was a rare gift – many details were in place, but there was all the room for speculation I needed, too. What if the catalyst for the rebellion was a kid? And the story just rolled in from there, like the waves on Ceannabeinne beach.
For those of us who know only a little about the Highland Clearances, what did you most want to get across to us ?
The heart of the story is much, much wider than just the Highland Clearances. It’s about the haves and the have-nots, about the responsibility that comes with power, so often abused. And it’s about the individuals who choose to try to make a difference, as best as they know how.
‘Be a force for good,’ one of the characters tells Janet at the height of the crisis, ‘It’s all I can tell you in these times.’ That, to me, is quite a relevant thing in our times, too. Displacement, as Janet experiences, is all around us on a global scale. There is nothing parochial about this tale, which is why it really appealed to me to write about.
How did you go about researching the historical side of the story?
I collected everything I could on that first holiday, which was pretty short. Returning home, I completed another manuscript before reading through it all. The best part was that somebody had recently researched the history of the village, local historian Graham Bruce. Not only did I read everything he wrote about the subject, but I also cheekily approached him and asked if he’d read the first draft to check for historical accuracy – and the kind man did! I have still never met him in person. We returned for another holiday in 2014. I took a day to spend in Ceannabeinne itself, now all ruined, but walking and moving there, and assigning houses to the various characters really helped. The Stathnaver Museum in Bettyhill filled in any remaining gaps in my knowledge – I finally felt able to write a final draft!
Tell us about Janet. What sort of a character is she?
I wanted her to be feisty, and a real independent spirit, so that modern girls can see themselves reflected in her. In Janet’s society, women really didn’t count for much, and it really appealed to me that the women were the ones who defended the village from the first eviction writ’s delivery, overwhelming the Sheriff officer. This really happened as all the men were away. Janet is caring and loyal, but not afraid of conflict either – just like modern youngsters, she is at odds with teachers and peers at times. I like the idea that a young person can sometimes see what adults can’t. Janet’s impulsive nature has landed her in lots of trouble, but at this crisis point, Janet is exactly what the village needs.
Can you tell us about your own journey as a writer?
I have been a dabbler for most of my life, but around five years ago it dawned on me that I would never be a published novelist (life-time dream…) unless I actually wrote a novel. A new year resolution was born, and by the September I had Rain on the Roof, a completed manuscript for MG readers (although I had no idea what that meant at the time) I sent it to two agents one of whom liked it and wanted to see what I did next. I wrote another (Ever Forward Never Back), sent it to lots of people, got a few full MS requests and no offers. It was shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize, but didn’t win. I got very bogged down in rewriting it and eventually abandoned it to write new things: Wilderness Wars, The Cotton Wool Puppeteer, Fir for Luck and most recently The Dog Walking Consortium, all MG novels. I got some good feedback on them all, but no takers, alas, no takers at all.
Another New Year resolution, years later: I am going to get the hang of this social media lark. One of my first tweets was a Twitter pitch to Emergents, a one day initiative to connect pitches with interested publishers. I had some interest which came to nothing six months later.
HOWEVER: A new, small publishing company called Cranachan followed me that day. I followed them in turn, checked out their website and realised they were only just opening to submissions. After reading through their preferences I decided Fir for Luck was my best hope, and fired it off, fully expecting months of waiting, followed by another rejection. Instead, I got an email less than a week later, requesting the whole manuscript. Days later, they asked if they could come to Inverness to meet me. And the rest, as they say, is history. In terms of help, I had feedback from friends and my SCBWI critique group has been invaluable to me. It also really helped me to enter some smaller writing competitions – when I won some of those it felt like I wasn’t wasting my time committing to my writing – but ninety-nine percent of the time I still really worry if it’s good enough. 🙂
Were you at all involved with the design of the cover?
Yes! I was very lucky to be consulted, although we ended up with a very different (better!) cover than what I had envisaged. I thought of sweeping skies and the land, so crucial to Janet’s identity. I had lots of ideas for detail, but as the book cover needed to work as a thumbnail, one striking image it was.
Cranachan’s in-house design-whiz Anne Glennie sent a few mock-ups of that type and we soon realised that, for children to care, it would need to feature the character (some sort of Janet) and the stakes (burning houses etc). Anne finally settled on fire reflected in Janet’s eye – a stroke of genius right there – and we agreed to zoom in so that it could in theory be a modern face. We worried that a kid in period clothing would immediately create a barrier with a modern audience. We just needed a visual clue about fir, so a sprig now features on the back of the book. A pretty modern look for a tale set nearly 200 years ago.
What are you most looking forward to now that you’re a published author?
I’m nervous and excited in equal measure about doing author events. The best bit for me is that, a tale which started in my head is now going to be in readers’ heads, too. I’m buzzing that when I say Janet, Hugh, Wee Donald, haughty Peggy from the Top House and so on, some people are going to know what I’m referring to. That connection with readers is what I have longed for all my life, and I feel incredibly lucky.
What’s next for you writing wise?
As I mentioned before, there are still some unpublished babies in my desk drawer, and I would love to find a home for them. But to be honest, I’m currently really excited about a Victorian novel I have begun – I’ve written a few chapters and am filling in research gaps as I go along. There is nothing like a (hopefully, eventually) brilliant creative project to get you out of bed in the morning!
Many thanks to Barbara for her fantastic answers. Please go find a copy of Fir For Luck after its release on the 21st September as it’s a real treat. In the meantime, this will give you a taster!
Find Barabara on twitter @scattyscribbler
13th September 2016