Writing Siren Song: How to Have Fun in the Dark

I’m launching my new novel, Siren Song, into the world on 10 September. The run up to launcSiren Song promoh day is always a nervous time for a writer. This is especially true when you’ve stepped out of your established literary pigeon hole and changed genre. Some people in the publishing industry will say a writer shouldn’t do this. They also tell you never to mix up two genres in one book. I’ve never been very good at following other people’s rules so I’ve done both. I’m calling my new genre Psychic Noir. It’s crime fiction, but not as we know it.

Having released two realistic novels set in Scotland, (Blast Radius in 2015) and The Angel in the Stone in 2017), I launched myself into a big politically-charged story set in Colorado, where I was born. It was about race, climate change, community, and Donald Trump. I worried about my ability to do it justice: I had too much to say, too much anger, too much feeling to distil. Frustrated, I mothballed the book and spent a couple of months bingeing on dark, grown-up superhero programmes on Netflix. I decided I was going to have some fun with my next writing project, no matter how many rules it broke.

Creating Harrison Jones, my psychic detective, was a moment of self-indulgent alchemy. I took a pinch of Daredevil, a shake of Doctor Who and a streak of Sherlock Holmes, endowed him with superhuman empathy and packaged him up as an anthropologist who moonlights as a tracker of missing people. I first pictured him walking through the cobbled Old Town streets of Edinburgh: the city of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Quickly I realised that Harrison needed a female partner in crime-fighting, and so on Edinburgh’s North Bridge, late on a November night, Harrison met a fellow psychic. Amy Bell may be Harrison’s protégé, but she’s destined to be a lot more than his sidekick.

I had so much fun writing Siren Song that the first draft tumbled out of me in a couple of months. I enjoy reading some crime fiction, but I had never imagined writing it. I have little interest in police procedure, and quite frankly, serial killers just freak me out. I did, however, spend several teenage years writing angsty urban fantasy stories, so in some ways this felt like going back in time. Crossing a Noir-inspired detective story with a liberal dose of the paranormal was like wearing a magic cloak while I ventured into the darkest corners of human reality. I can’t wait to wrap my readers up in the same cloak and take them on this new adventure with Harrison and Amy.

Siren Song will be released on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com, in print and e-book, on 10 September, 2020.

Pandemic Thoughts

 

This is what life is right now.

Like many people, I suspect I won’t fully be able to process my experience of the Covid 19 img_0572pandemic for a while. For the firs couple of weeks, I had a sense of life being on hold, but it isn’t. This isn’t a pause in life; this IS life, and this is the world we now live in. It is very hard to accept, for so many reasons, and I am acutely aware that so far I have been lucky in the scheme of things. This is why I have decided not to wait until this over to launch my counselling practice. Check out my new website if you’d like to find out more.

Social Distancing in the Glen

Roslin Glen, which I can walk to from my house, has been my sanctuary. For centuries, the glen has been a place of spirituality and refuge, and it has many mythical and mystical associations. In late April and early May, when the baby leaves and bluebells burst into life, it is as heartachingly beautiful a place as I have ever been. And for all it is only a few miles from Edinburgh, it is perfect for self-isolation. Right now, I go there almost every day: to walk, and absorb the wonder of this place. It’s a place to celebrate the precious business of being. 

How to survive the end of the world

We’re not at the end of the world yet, but you can see it from here. Or at least, that’s how it feels to me. My two countries of citizenship, the UK and the USA, are being driven toward the same cliff-edge by political demagogues, determined to drag us into what looks like a very Orwellian future. Forests burn, glaciers vanish, the planet overheats, people are displaced, starving, trapped at border walls like animals in nets. In our own communities, government policy forces people to foodbanks, toward abject poverty. The joke about the post-apocalyptic fiction section of the bookstore being rebranded as current events is both funny and blood-chillingly accurate.

In my work as a counsellor, I talk with a lot of people about depression and anxiety. So many people, more than I ever might have believed, take antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication, sometimes for their entire lives. I am very much of the ‘do what works for you’ school and would never condemn anyone for taking medication that makes a positive difference to their quality of life.

And yet, there are days when I want to climb up on the roof and scream, ‘If you’re not depressed, you’re not paying attention!’ The environment we are living in is becoming so unhealthy and traumatic, how can we possibly treat the epidemic of depression and anxiety as an individual disorder?

What to do, then, to get through these days? There are no answers, and there are a million answers. We all have the power to make it better, in our own ways. Here are a few.

Think global, act local: look around at your own street, your own community, see something that needs to be done and do it. Help someone down on their luck, pick up some litter, volunteer, plant a tree.

Talk. Talk to your children, your parents, your friends, a counsellor, your workmates. Talk about all this shit. Don’t carry it alone. It helps. (Trust me).

Walk. Get the bus. Get on your bike. Take a car off the road for the day. Even if it’s only a day, it’s a start.

Cut down on meat. If you want to combat climate change, cutting our consumption of meat is just as important as cutting our use of fossil fuels. I’m not a vegetarian, and don’t know if I’ll ever be successful in becoming one, but we’ve taken a lot of meat out of our diet. It feels pretty good.

Go to the woods, the hills, the sea. Swim in the cold water. Remind yourself that you are glad to be alive.

Create something beautiful: a poem, a song, a painting, a garden.

Be KIND. Make kindness your default position, face to face and on social media.

Protest. On the street, with signs and drums and hundreds of voices. Be part of the solution.

Find your heroes. Let them help keep you afloat. When I need a lift, the musician I turn to more than any other is Bruce Springsteen. I find myself in his lyrics, I hear my own experiences, my own worries, my own anger and my own hopes. I sing at the top of my lungs, and remind myself that things will get better. They have to.

IMG_2300.jpeg

My hero, Hampden Park, Glasgow, 2016.

 

Fast Food Rubbish, Geronimo and a Little Self Respect… 

When I was in my early twenties, I spent some time volunteering for a non-profit centre that tutored and supported Native American children In a town without a significant Native American population (Native Californians in our part of the state were almost entirely erased from existence by the early 20thCentury) these were kids whose families mostly came from other parts of the country. Their relationships to their families in the Sioux, Navajo, Apache, Cherokee and other nations were long-distance and sporadic, but at the same time they often found themselves on the peripheries of the community where they were growing up. Like so many indigenous people, they were in danger of falling down the cracks between two very different worlds.

The project worked to reconnect them to the knowledge and wisdom of their forebears, to give them some pride in their heritage and in themselves. At summer camp, they learned the discipline of group drumming. They learned songs and stories. They learned the words for plants and animals, and they learned crafts that were once essential for survival. They learned how everything on Earth is connected, and that a good life means respect for the Earth and its creations. They learned, or began to learn, that before you can respect the Earth, you have to respect yourself.

I was thinking about this today, walking up what used to be quiet country road near my house. The population of Midlothian is growing faster than anywhere else in Scotland, and even early on a Sunday morning, a steady stream of traffic blew past me. The hedgerows and verges were strewn with several weeks’ accumulation of rubbish (an explosion of people and city-edge retail parks coinciding with crumbling public services creates a hell of a mess). Most of the rubbish came from McDonalds and other purveyors of salt, sugar and chemical concoctions masquerading as food.

As ever, my first response was anger. Who DOES that? What the F*** is wrong with these people? Didn’t their parents teach them better? Crap in, crap out. My moral indignation bounces around between the consumers, the retailers, the council and the capitalist machine, against which it is completely impotent. Anyway, who am I to judge? Yesterday I ate a burger and fries from one of the aforementioned purveyors. It tasted great and I felt completely happy for maybe ten minutes, before indigestion and middle-class guilt set in. Of course I put the wrappers in the appropriate bins, but does that really matter?

I left the road and walked along the quieter railway path, trying to grapple with what is really going on. It comes back, I think, to respect. If we respect ourselves, we understand that our actions in this world make an impact. But that isn’t a given, and in fact, it sometimes feels notable only in its absence. Living in this age of rampant consumerism, where identity comes branded by multinational corporations, where our smartphone cameras airbrush the lines of humanity out of our faces whether we want them to our not, where our elected leaders seem to occupy a universe parallel to but completely disconnected from our own—it’s easy to see why. With the right clothes, the right makeup and the right social media profile, we can create the persona that we want other people to see.

But scratch the surface and it can all seem pretty hollow and powerless. So to fill that hole, we consume: we get out the credit cards, we eat junk, we swallow all kinds of poison. We buy ourselves a few minutes of pleasure. And when it all wears off, we are so often left with a feeling that we have lost something important.

It’s hard to even name the thing that’s missing, but maybe it’s this: it is the knowledge that I mean something, and my actions make a difference. Simple words, but so difficult to believe. At least a quarter of us will, at some time in our lives, suffer poor mental health. A doctor may prescribe Prozac or other drugs that change the chemistry of our brains but fail to get to the root of the problem. We medicalise what is, in my opinion, mostly a socio-economic disorder.

None of this is helped by the prospect of climate breakdown, and the message now coming from many climate scientists: whatever we do now is too little too late. Is the person who throws their McDonalds trash out the window any more accountable for our present predicament than I am? Probably not, if I’m honest. Self-righteousness is a trait I dislike intensely, especially in myself.

How do we stay hopeful and positive when our species seems hell-bent on self-destruction? It feels hard to hold these two things at once, but that is our job. One boy at the summer camp where I worked was a real tearaway of a teenager, but he was so proud of his Chiricahua Apache heritage. He wanted us all to know how hard he was. The Chiricahuas, led by Cochise and later Geronimo, were the most famous freedom fighters of the Apache, until they were finally overpowered in 1886. Geronimo’s defeat heralded the end of what are now in the United States called the Indian Wars. What happened to his people, and to all of the Native Americans, was genocide. And yet, in this troubled 13 year-old Californian kid, a spark of resistance still lived. I remember one of the camp leaders talking about this boy. ‘He will learn to take that fighting spirit and do something good with it.’ Maybe the help of a kind, wise man who saw the potential in him was enough to change his life. I hope it did.

The small things we do for each other may not make all the difference, but they do matter. What is good for us, in our own minds and our own lives, is also good for the Earth. It starts with a little respect.

 

Be gentle to yourself

The Angel in the Stone, my second novel, comes out in August, and I’m exploring some of the personal themes that have found their way into the story. All authors inscribe a bit of themselves into their characters. Mary, Calum and Catriona, the main characters, all have little pieces of me written into them, like literary DNA. These three members of the Macdonald family– grandmother, son and granddaughter– converge on the family home in the West Highlands of Scotland. Having been battered about by life, they are all, in their own ways, seeking easier, gentler paths than the ones they have been on.

Aren’t we all? Growing up on the edge of Silicon Valley, fuelled by the ambitions of parents and over-achieving classmates, I wanted the world. I wanted letters after my name, I wanted to travel to far-distant corners and I wanted a career that other people would notice. I wanted only enough money so that I would never have to worry about money, which I guess was actually quite a lot. But somewhere along the line, something happened. I don’t know if it happened to me or if it happened to the world, or a bit of both. I can’t quite say what it was, or when. Maybe it was having kids: two traumatic births and a dalliance with postnatal depression (which of course I denied at the time because having babies is supposed to make women so HAPPY). Maybe it was watching part of my family’s history fall with the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 and knowing that many things

20170625_125711-1-1-1 (1)

A quiet place on the River Tweed

were never going to be the same after that. Maybe it was nearly losing my son to meningitis when he was four. Maybe it was the 2008 crash, when a sinkhole opened up and effectively swallowed the career path that I had mapped out. Maybe it was, and still is, the fear of what climate change will mean for the future of our planet. This list feels heavy, and I don’t mean it to. They’re just the things you encounter along the road which force you to choose which way to go next. There have been many joyful crossroads too: having the good fortune to publish two novels is right up there!

At each of these turnings, I have chosen a path that seemed easier and gentler than the one I was on before. My list of demands looks very different now: time to write, time to walk, time to laugh, good food, a place removed from the constant noise of traffic and the relentless demands of digital communications. The world out there– the world of Tory austerity, Brexit, Donald Trump, terror attacks, fear and suspicion– seems more aggressive and cutthroat than ever. But the world in here doesn’t have to be. A teacher of mine often says ‘Be gentle to yourself.’ It is wise advice.

The Angel in the Stone is published on 17 August 2017 by Sandstone Press.

 

 

Muses and Angels

So here I am in my kitchen, in my Lady Writer glasses (I figure, if I must wear them, they might as well make me look the part). Like the rest of my house, the kitchen is small, colourful, and not particularly tidy. It is full of creativity: paintings by my mother and my aunt, my dad’s photographs, my daughter’s drawings, my son’s various camera/video/recording equipment. There are musical instruments lying around. Sometimes there is a cat asking for handouts. When I get the kitchen to myself, it’s my favourite place to write. I’m inspired by the art, the cats, the view out the back over the Esk Valley toward the Pentland Hills, even by my purple and turquoise table. These mundane things become my creative fuel.

20170605_101606-1I was 43 by the time I ticked ‘publish a novel’ off my bucket list. I always wanted to but I haven’t been in any particular hurry. I write for the fun of it and struggle to think of it as a job. I’m completely handless when it comes to anything crafty, so writing is my creative outlet.

Writing has also been a kind of therapy: a way to grapple with the angsty stuff that sometimes troubles my mind. I think it works.Writing is also the best way I know to explore the big metaphysical questions. Who am I? Why am I here? Am I important in the grand scheme of things, or am I just another one of the billions of human beings who are so quickly overwhelming this fragile world of ours?

My second novel, The Angel in the Stone, comes out in August. It is set in the West Highlands of Scotland in the summer of 2014, when Scotland itself was caught up in the biggest act of national navel-gazing I have ever witnessed. To vote for independence or to remain part of the UK. Yes or No. Collectively we asked ourselves who we were, what kind of people we wanted to be, and what kind of state would best reflect our values. It was a remarkable time to live through, regardless of the outcome.

The Referendum inspired The Angel in the Stone in many ways, but the book is about politics at a much smaller, more intimate and maybe more important level. It is about three generations of one family– mother, son and granddaughter– all asking themselves the same questions for different reasons: who have I been, who do I want to become, what do I do now, where does my allegiance lie? Do I throw my lot in with the people whose genes and history I share, or do I cut myself loose in pursuit of some elusive freedom? It is a book about the darkness that falls across every life, and the redemption that comes from the most ordinary places.

Karine Polwart, singer/songwriter and creator of the hugely-acclaimed solo play Wind Resistance, took a sneak peak at The Angel. This is what she said.

‘If every family story is a mirror to a wider culture, then McKinney’s contemporary Scotland, through the experience of the Macdonalds, is wrought in quashed grief, blame and the isolating burden of secrecy. Yet beneath it all, there’s a daily fumbling towards understanding, compassion, and the possibility of a essy sort of coming to peace. It’s raw, wry, humane stuff.”

The Angel in the Stone will be published on 17 August, 2017 by Sandstone Press. ISBN: 9781910985793

Home

The Scottish Book Trust has challenged writers to tell stories about what ‘home’ means to them. As an ex-pat, I always find this a difficult question. So last night, in front of the fire after a particularly trying day in the office, this is what came out of my head.

Home
…is many places and no place at all.
It is a sound, a smell, a state of mind, a journey, an arrangement of words.
Home is where your being is made and remade;
it is what you know and where you have been,
and who you may become.

The smell of the Colorado sage and the earth before the rain,
the grind of dry crumbly dust under my feet.
Coffee with cinnamon Nina’s kitchen, while the snow falls on the pine trees.
Laughing and crying in our pyjamas on a Saturday morning
before the rest of the family has got up.

Stepping through my front door on a wet November night,
dropping my work bag and taking off my shoes,
drawing curtains on the day that has passed,
gathering my family to the table,
books whose pages I know by heart on the shelves beside the wood stove.

The downstairs bar at the Royal Oak on Infirmary Street.
The laughter of friends, the smell of beer.
The strum of a finger-picked guitar and the bubble of the mandolin
like a mountain stream tripping over stones.
A song rising into the world, shared among strangers, voices blending in aspiration.

East Lothian sand that adds extra grit to my sandwich,
the gentle blueness of the Forth under a summer sky.
Listening to children laughing with my eyes closed,
the roll of waves,
and the quiet voices of an old couple sharing tea from a flask.

Driving north on the A82, topping the hill beyond Tyndrum,
the familiar shapes and shadows of the moor and mountains.
Well-worn boots and a map that is frayed round the edges.
Paths I have walked and those I have only read,
the feel of stone under my hands.

Home is belonging but not ownership.
It is walking through open doors and not closing them.
To share and not be jealous;
to rather say: these things are ours, than these things are mine,
and find kinship with those who also call them home.

Blast Radius

I am over the moon to be working with the fabulous Sandstone Press on the publication of my novel, Blast Radius, forthcoming in early 2015. Blast Radius tells the story of former Royal Marine, Sean McNicol, who brings the ghosts of Afghanistan home to Scotland with him, only to find that his hometown has a few ghosts of its own.

For the curious… a blast radius is the area of space affected by an explosion.

Here is a very little teaser…

Sad bastards. This town is full of them. You know the ones I mean: the men who wear a rut in the pavement between the bookies, the dole queue and the pub, shuffling along with no clear purpose in life except to survive until the next day. When I was at school I used to watch them and think, you sad, sad bastards. Now I’m one of them; fate’s a funny thing…  How the fuck did I get here?  I followed the directions that I was given, and somehow I ended up here.

 Ok, Mitch told me one time, so there’s only two fixed points on this map. You can’t go back to the first and you sure as hell can’t avoid the last, but everything in between is up for grabs.  If you look at it that way, I suppose every decision of your life is a crossroads, from which there can be infinite possible roads toward that second and final fixed point. The only thing I can’t work out is how you know which is the right one, because it seems to me that up to now this life has been a series of wrong turns, leading to other wrong turns, and then to those places you can’t get back from, carrying me faster and faster toward that inevitable final stop.

For more on the book and a wee sneaky peak at the cover, see here.