Monthly Archives: February 2016

Guest blog from Shirley McKay to announce publication of ‘Candlemas’

At the beginning of this month we published a blog to announce the new series by Shirley McKay 1588: A Calendar of Crime featuring Hew Cullan, to celebrate its launch we have a guest blog from the author herself to explain a little more about the series.

1588: A Calendar of Crime:

Shirley McKay1588 is inspired by the old almanacs, with their prognostications, frequently of doom. At a time when all was governed by the elements, this year in particular was a portentous one: a partial eclipse of the sun and two total lunar eclipses, staining the March sky blood red, while the gathering storm of the Spanish Armada, threatening to eclipse the English way of life, cast its long shadow over Scotland too.

Hew CullanFor Hew Cullan and his friends in St Andrews, the high days of the calendar acquire a deadly resonance. Murder will out, ensuring no one here will have a quiet life. There are five separate stories, one for each of the four Scottish term days –Candlemas in February, Whitsunday in May, Lammas in August and November’s Martinmas – with a fifth in December for Yule. At Candlemas, a candlemaker’s lifeblood ebbs away. At a Whitsunday visit, havoc is unleashed, and at the fair at Lammastide, love’s young dream is lost. A Hallowmas ghost reappears, in the course of the Martinmas term, while the keeping of Christmas is doomed, in the last tolling bells of the Yule. No comfort to be found in the rhythms of the year as portents are played out.
Candlemas for blogChronologically, 1588: A Calendar of Crime follows Queen & Country, and familiar characters appear. For Hew Cullan fans, the stories are designed to reward careful reading of the earlier books, but for those new to the series, each one should stand alone, and I hope present a satisfying mystery. I’m hugely excited about the ebook publication of the first story, Candlemas: the ebook format suits the episodic nature of the whole, following the pattern of the quarter days. But I’m excited too about the print edition of the compilation – with a cover promising to be truly beautiful – later on this year. This is a new departure for me, and crafting five complete and self-contained short mysteries, loosely interlinked, is proving both a challenge and a joy.

The eBook is available now form all good online retailers.

Extract: The Great and Good of the Brilliant & Forever

In this extract of The Brilliant & Forever our three intrepid readers are preparing to attend something almost as daunting as the festival itself: the launch party. It’s a place where making a good impression could mean the difference between winning or losing . . .

Brilliant and Forever

The Great and Good of the Brilliant & Forever

The annual Brilliant & Forever launch party had arrived. The evening sky was a deepening bruise; the very air over the island seemed to crackle. I could hear it. Normally the sky doesn’t talk. Yet a palpable static of anticipation and apprehension fizzed and sparked at my ears, hissing words like ‘failure’ and ‘disappointment’ as I cycled around, trying to keep my mind in the moment, rather than projecting into worrisome futures. Maybe the sky was echoing my own inner voice? Maybe that’s outrageous arrogance.

The streets bristled with adrenalised people dashing in and out of houses, cars, shops, shouting platitudes about clothes and haircuts and drinks. Alpacas bounded along in jittery, alert packs. They weren’t allowed to attend the party, but some of them showed support by bearing homemade flags with painted ‘Archie for the B&F’ or ‘Alpacas are Brilliant & Forever’ messages fluttering. Some flags had an image of Archie in his stetson, grasping his spittoon, grinning cheesily.

Back home, I had a long hot soak in the bath and read chapter eighteen of Life and Fate to remind myself to be grateful for the countless opportunities I had and the immeasurable terrors I didn’t.

Macy and Archie came round to my blackhouse at eight. Macy wore a strapless dress; its top half was green, then it fell in black silken pleats from her waist to just above the knees. She’d gathered her hair into an Ecclefechan plait, complete with diamond hair clips. She looked sensational.

‘You look sensational, Macy,’ I said.

‘And you look shit,’ she said, presenting me with a quick hug and a solid good-natured slap across the shoulder.

‘My face is like an early hagiography, or the world’s greatest novel.’


‘Not yet made up.’ She smiled, pleased with herself.

‘You never wear make-up.’

‘I know, just practising some lines for a story.’

‘Very good,’ I said. ‘Hey Archie, you smell like vanilla shower gel. I’m going to eat you.’ I made a play of grabbing him and attempting to bite into his neck. He thrust me away, beating at me with his rhinestone stetson.

Archie is one of those alpacas who showers regularly as a concession to humans, an act some hard-line alpacas shun and politicise, and today he had brushed his coat, too.

He put on and adjusted his stetson, which I knew, and he knew I knew, was his favourite one. ‘Gotta make an effort.’

Maybe I did look shit. I had dressed in a yellow tartan kilt and purple shirt.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Parties aren’t real. They make me uneasy.’

‘Your dress sense makes me uneasy,’ said Archie, trying to lift up my kilt.

‘Oi! Quit it. Let’s just stay in and watch a film instead,’ I said. ‘Who needs parties. The B&F itself is what it’s about, the party’s a superficial event for whitehousers and posers. I want to stay in and watch a film. Yeah, I’m gonna fight for my right not to party.’

‘Is there a John Wayne on?’ said Archie, suddenly alert.

‘No, but there’s a Jeff Bridges. It’s called True Grit. From 2010. Jeff Bridges and his actor pals make a good effort at repeating just about every single quotation from True Grit, in order.’

‘Like a film would have more drama than the B&F launch party! You just have social anxiety, and face it,’ said Macy, who was perfecting her hair in front of and inside a wall mirror ‘you’d be crazy if this society didn’t make you anxious. Ergo, you’re worried because you’re intelligent.’ Macy had a theory that intelligence caused people to be unhappy. I had a theory that any intelligence ascribed to me was exaggerated.

I opened my sporran to see if I’d remembered my eye drops, cash, pen, inhaler and blank page. ‘I just feel it’s weird. Eight o’ clock, Saturday, you are granted permission – no, you are obliged – to be happy. Let’s synchronise watches.’ (Archie didn’t use one, Macy in lieu of a watch had a tattoo of a watch on her wrist; the watch’s face read ‘Now’.) ‘Impossible,’ I said, ‘or is it easy, to synchronise your watch with itself.’ I suddenly panged, wanted to be a watch in sync with itself, just as quickly shook the thought away. ‘But parties – how can people even do that? Just start being happy because someone decrees this is the time to be ecstatic? People don’t get together every Wednesday morning at eleven fifteen to share a few hours of poignant behaviour. We don’t congregate every second Thursday at midday to express our communal outrage.’

‘Maybe we should,’ said Archie.

I paused. ‘Maybe we should,’ I conceded. ‘Maybe there’s a revolution on the horizon.’

‘You’re nervous and havering,’ said Macy. ‘Don’t make me slap you in the face.’

‘I,’ Archie announced, ‘am going to get rip-roaring drunk and persuade everyone to get nekkid and dance the fandango with me. They’ll see how much fun an alpaca can be. I’ll show them Bohemian living, fandangoing alpaca fashion. How’s the fandango go? Such a great word.’

‘I know nothing about it,’ I said. ‘Nothing. So you can’t call me intelligent.’

‘I don’t know the fandango either,’ said Macy, ‘and I’m supersmart. It’s no indicator. Straighten your sporran, mister.’

‘Parties aren’t real,’ I said again.

‘You’d pass up the chance to watch an alpaca do the fandango?’

I sighed. ‘Well, when you put it like that.’

‘Here’s a taster.’ Archie started shaking his hindquarters and scatting random syllables – ‘doo-wa-doo-woo-a-shoobee- doo-shoobee-doo-way-a-bom-ba-shoo-a-weeeee eee-wee-ba-ba-boo’
– and in this fashion he shook and shimmied and sang his way around the room, his rump occasionally crashing a book or a mug to the floor. Macy and I grinned. Archie was as excitable as a kangaroo. It was wonderful to see him in exuberant mood.

At last he stopped and struck an exaggerated, disgruntled pose. He pouted and made his face look as hurt as he could, which didn’t work too well with his perma-smile. ‘The hell you pair laughing at? You got no class. It’s just a jazz thing you don’t get.’

We laughed at our brilliant mad alpaca pal. No humour as endearing as unselfconscious self-deprecation. And no question, I supposed, but that we were going to this party. I tried to don the mental equivalent of a yellow kilt.

Macy sped us to the castle in her battered Datsun, cornering at screeching right angles. The landscape streaked by like we were on a train. Boyracers hurtled past in the other direction, millimetres away, sound systems blaring repetitive beats.

An Interview with Kevin MacNeil, author of The Brilliant & Forever

We are less than month away from the publication of Kevin MacNeil’s novel The Brilliant & Forever. We thought that we would take the opportunity to ask Kevin a few questions, to get to know him a little better:

Brilliant and Forever
1. Do you have a favourite character in the book?
 I grew fond of all the main characters, but my favourite has to be Archie. Because he’s an alpaca.

2. What was your inspiration to write this story? / Was there a particular moment of inspiration that pushed you to write this? Was there one specific moment? Hmm. I’ve wanted to write a novel about the X-factorisation of culture and about friendship (and ambition and competitiveness and envy) for some time. I wanted to create a novel that had a wide spectrum of voices so that I could give thought to what writing is and what it’s for. But the triggering moment was probably when I met a talking alpaca.

3. What is your favourite scene or moment in the book? I especially like the final chapter – but no spoilers.

4. What inspired you to become a writer? I always thought it was because I wanted to create something that would last longer than I would. But I’ve increasingly come to realise it is also to honour those who existed before I did.

5. What keeps you motivated as a writer? Reading great books, observing lovely absurd little moments in life, travelling, meeting people, attending book festivals, watching films, being alive in and to the moment.

6. What’s your favourite book, and why? Impossible! Too many to choose from. Way too many. Probably a Buddhist sutra, though  – The Heart Sutra.

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 usually work best in the quiet of morning. But I can also write in noisy cafes, and I’m glad of that as writers need flexibility, discipline and a deep understanding that things are how they are. Writers who can only work with a diamond-encrusted biro or while wearing a pair of Dan Brown’s castoff Y-fronts are heading down the road of OCD.

8. What advice would you give to anyone who wants to be a writer? Being a writer is about communicating imaginatively. You communicate every day and you exercise your imagination every night, so inherently you have the potential. The practical skills are learnable. The thing no one can give you is perseverance.

9. How easy was it for you to find a publisher? It was relatively easy since I’d already published with Polygon. My first book was with Canongate – and they had approached me asking for a manuscript. So I’m not a good example! I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

10. What’s the best experience you’ve had while writing a book? Writing The Brilliant & Forever was overall the best experience I’ve had writing a book. It was actually fun to write. I enjoyed it in a way that felt fresh and new and energising and I think these qualities fed into the book.

11. Who are you generally writing for? I’ve never really known. Perhaps anyone with a lively mind and a sense of humour.

12. If you weren’t a writer, what would you be? I once worked in a restaurant as a commis chef and indeed was asked to leave university and work as a chef full-time. Maybe I could have done that.

13. What one thing would improve your life? I don’t think it’s helpful to think about what’s missing in life – better by far to be grateful for what we have.

14. Where would you like to be right now, anywhere in the world? Same answer as 13!

15. Are any or your characters based on yourself or people you know? *Consults lawyer* ‘No comment.’ *consults bank account* ‘That’s how much advice to “make no comment” costs?’

16. If you could swap lives with one of your characters, who would you choose and why? Hibiki in The Brilliant & Forever. He understands.

17. Have you ever regretted how you ended a story and wish you could change it? Yes. I once gave quite a dark book a depressing conclusion, thinking it was the only possible ending that novel could have. But the film version would have been different, and will be, if it’s ever funded.

18. If you weren’t a writer, what would your ‘dream’ occupation be? Professional cyclist.

19. If your book was a film, who would you cast for the lead character? Ryan Gosling? Though he seems to smoke too much in his movies. A young James Stewart, if such a thing were possible? I wonder if I’d play one of the characters myself – I played Sorley Maclean in a drama doc a few years ago.

20. Why are books important in your opinion? Wisdom, empathy, experiences we wouldn’t otherwise have, enjoyment, emotional engagement, humour, awe.

21. What are you reading right now? West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan, The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker, Time Present and Time Past by Deirdre Madden, The Travels of Sorrow by Dermot Healy, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys by Michael Collins.

22. Which authors do you particularly admire? Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Anton Chekhov, Anne Michaels, Vasily Grossman, Lydia Davis, George Saunders, Denis Johnson, Dino Buzzati, Carson McCullers, Ron Rash, Mary Robison, Robert Louis Stevenson.

23. If you had a superpower what would it be? I’d like to be SortTheTrainsOutMan – my superpower would be the ability to sort the trains out in this country. Instead of being overcrowded, unreliable and overpriced, they’d be comfortable, affordable and a joy to travel on. I wouldn’t have an attention-grabbing costume. I’d be dressed normally and go about my business anonymously. As people relaxed on their train journey, eating pastries while, say, Glenfinnan slid past, I’d feel happy because I’d Sorted The Trains Out. And yet I’d always have a tinge of regret I hadn’t gone for Eradicating Poverty and whenever EradicatingPovertyMan went zooming past overhead I’d get a physical sensation of self-reprimand.

MacNeilKevin MacNeil is an award-winning writer from the Outer Hebrides now living in London. He is a novelist, poet, editor and screenwriter. The Brilliant & Forever is his third novel will be published on the 3rd of March 2016. You can buy a copy here, online, or in any good bookshop.