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Shirley McKay

Shirley McKay

Shirley McKay was born in Tynemouth but now lives with her family in Fife. At the age of fifteen she won the Young Observer playwriting competition, her play being performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. She went on to study English and Linguistics at the University of St Andrews before attending Durham University for postgraduate study in Romantic and seventeenth century prose. She was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger. Shirley works as a freelance proofreader.

1. Do you have a favourite character in the book? It has to be Hew, the hero of the series, though he can be exasperating at times. Meg and Giles too are perennial favourites. My books are quite heavily populated, and I enjoy the challenge of creating a panoply of new characters while developing old ones.
 
2. What was your inspiration to write this story? / Was there a particular moment of inspiration that pushed you to write this? Queen & Country is the fifth in the Hew Cullan series, and naturally evolves from the fourth book, Friend and Foe, which ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger. The inspiration for the series is the life and progress of the young King James VI, as he struggles to maturity, and this provides the context for the struggles in the books. Each book is framed, however obliquely, by a definitive historical event – in the case of Queen & Country, the death of Mary, queen of Scots.
 
3. What is your favourite scene or moment in the book? The final one. To say more would give the game away. 
 
4. What inspired you to become a writer? Reading as a child. The lady in the children’s department of James Thin’s in the early 70s, who knew precisely the right book. Who could have forgotten her?
 
5. What keeps you motivated as a writer? Self-indulgence, really. The allure of imaginary friends. 
 
6. What’s your favourite book, and why? I don’t have one. But I think Great Expectations has the most perfect plot.
 
7. Do you have a routine when you’re writing (i.e. silence, a particular genre of music, only working in the morning, only working in your underpants?) I like to write at night, when I’m not disturbed.
 
8. What advice would you give to anyone who wants to be a writer? Write. There is no other way round it. And read, read, read.
 
9. How easy was it for you to find a publisher? I think there is a huge amount of luck in this. And I was very lucky, as it turned out. Polygon rejected Hue & Cry (the first book in the series) twice before accepting it, once it was revised.  It would never have occurred to me that no need not mean no. But I have a persistent agent, to whom I am extremely grateful. 
 
10. What’s the best experience you’ve had while writing a book? Finding words that say exactly what I want to say, in exactly the way I want to say it, where sound and sense pitch perfectly. This is comparatively rare.
 
11. Who are you generally writing for? One of three. [‘It is an ancient mariner, And he stoppeth one of three’]. On a good day, two of the three may be willing to stop.
 
12. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?  A proofreader, as I am still. Not that you would believe it, if you saw my manuscripts.
 
13. What one thing would improve your life?  Worrying less
 
14. Where would you like to be right now, anywhere in the world? At home, with my family.
 
15. Are any of your characters based on yourself or people you know? Not consciously. Some of my characters are based on historical figures, such as James VI. But as soon as they enter the world of the books, they are fictions.
 
16. If you could swap lives with one of your characters, who would you choose and why? I would not choose to live in the sixteenth century.
 
17. Have you ever regretted how you ended a story and wish you could change it? I find there is a point in each book – fairly late on – where the ending is fixed, and no other version will do. And once a book is published I feel quite detached from it. But because this is a series, when I fail to look ahead I sometimes write into a corner (or a cul-de-sac) which requires some ingenuity to extricate myself – or, more properly, Hew. I know that some readers were dismayed by the end of Friend & Foe, but it was setting up the stage for events in Queen & Country, where I hope at last all will be satisfied.
 
18. If you weren't a writer, what would your 'dream' occupation be? Something of worth to the world. 
 
19. If your book was a film, who would you cast for the lead character?  David Tennant, for Hew. For his emotional, human energy, and because he is a Scot.
 
20. Why are books important in your opinion? Because they hold inside them all that is human.
 
21. What are you reading right now? Sweet Caress, by William Boyd
 
22. Which authors do you particularly admire? Those who write human stories, which are also lyrical: Susan Hill, Kent Haruf. Character over plot.
 
23. If you had a superpower what would it be? Time travel. Is that a superpower? Because ‘what is now proved was once only imagined’.
 

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