The Queen of morning TV (for 33 years and counting), the tables are turned on Lorraine Kelly CBE as she answers Emma Clegg’s questions on the subject of her new book The Island Swimmer.
Your novel is set in the Isle of Orkney. Why did you set it here, and what past associations do you have with the island? (We’ve just been looking at images and it looks amazing.) Isn’t it glorious! I first went to Orkney in the eighties when I was Scottish correspondent for TVam and we filmed a travel piece for David Frost’s Sunday morning show, Breakfast with Frost. I just loved everything about it. There’s such fascinating history, going back before the pyramids were built, right up to WW1 and WW2 and to the present day, then there’s rich cultural heritage and the wonderful food and drink, and above all the warm and friendly people. It is just the perfect place to set a book, and there are so many stories to be told. The weather can be hit and miss, but I don’t mind the rain, because it is usually followed by sunshine. As Freya says in the book there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes and in Orkney you can get all four seasons in an afternoon.
Did you spend any time living in Orkney before you wrote the book to absorb the atmosphere and rhythms? Well I go every year so I feel as though I know Orkney well, but believe me I would have loved to have decamped there for a year to write the book, but I had several trips last year and of course the memories of all the times we have visited over the years.
I think it is important to ‘hear’ the writer and, yes, [the tone] is very much my way of speaking and the dialogue of people I know”
What gave you the idea for the plot around two estranged sisters and a group of cold water swimmers? I think the idea of sisters who don’t connect, and one of them actively loathes the other is extremely interesting. I really resented my brother Graham. I was six years old and a pampered princess and then along came this cherub from central casting and I was most put out. We fought like cat and dog until our teens and now he is one of my best friends, but I drew on those feelings for Liv’s resentment of Evie. There are a lot of misunderstandings in the book, and people trying to do the right thing, or getting trapped in toxic relationships and thinking it’s all they deserve.
How is the cold water swimming significant to the storyline? The swimming is more about Evie taking back control of her life and overcoming her fears. We gradually learn of the traumatic event that forced her to leave Orkney and throughout the book more and more of her story is revealed as we peel away the layers. How did you write the book – do you take a block of time out and do it in a concentrated way, or was it a gradual process? I had to be extremely disciplined and carve out chunks of time. When I wasn’t doing my homework for the show, I was writing. My husband and daughter were very understanding when I disappeared into the kitchen to sit working on my iPad for hours on end. I found it challenging, but I loved the whole process of writing. My characters were clamoring to be heard and I could hardly keep up with them!
Did you plan your plot in detail before you start writing, or does it evolve as you go? I had a rough idea of a beginning, middle and end, but I did go down a few rabbit holes and there were some unexpected twists and turns along the way as I discovered more and more about my characters. I made the rookie mistake of overwriting and then I had to be ruthless in the edit process, but it was a most enjoyable learning curve.
What was it like moving the story back and forth in time? Does this require extra planning and thought? I had yellow ‘post-it’ notes all over the kitchen wall to keep track of events, and my daughter Rosie was really helpful reading chapters and picking up on any mistakes in the time lines. I like to bounce back in time because you gradually find out more about what makes the characters tick, and hopefully the reader will want to finish “just one more chapter”.
What sort of books do you like to read yourself and are there authors who have inspired you as a fiction writer? I have to read a lot of books for work, but for me that’s a perk as I have always loved reading. My mum and dad taught me to read when I was four, before I went to primary school. There were always books and newspapers in the house and I thought every home was like that.
I love reading anything about Antartica (I am obsessed) and I enjoy a rattling good story. The late Maeve Binchy was a wonderful storyteller and I go back and reread her wonderful works often. Kate Atkinson is brilliant and I love Ian Rankin’s Rebus books. I also enjoy Ruth Rendell, as well as re reading the classics. I did Russian at school and I found it a joy to read Tolstoy and Turgenev and Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky is one of my favourite books of all time. I did my sixth year study dissertation on George Orwell and when I first read 1984 at the age of 12 I cried for hours when I had finished. These books stick with you.
When reading your book I could hear you narrating it. This links to words like ‘wee dram’ and ‘lassie’, but it also sounds like the way you talk – it’s conversational, has a lilting rhythm and the pace is easy. Did you choose this as your voice? That is such a lovely thing to say. I think it is important to ‘hear’ the writer and, yes, it is very much my way of speaking and the dialogue of people I know. I have put little touches of the Orkney dialect (using ‘peedie’ for small for example), and I may do more of that in the next book.
What are your plans for a new novel, and might Orkney or Scotland provide the location again? Oh I have definitely unfinished business with this lot! There are many stories still to be told and I will most definitely be revisiting them and disappearing into Orkney once again. I am already working on it and looking forward to spending time with them all, especially my lovely wise woman Freya.
Finally, what associations do you have with Bath? My daughter adores Bath and has lots of friends here. She will be coming with me for the evening and catching up with them. It’s going to be lovely and I can’t wait. I am looking forward to a lovely conversation, and many questions about Orkney and The Island Swimmer.
Image Shows: The Island Swimmer: Lorraine Kelly’s big-hearted first novel about families, friendship and finding yourself, is published on 15 February by Orion, £11.99
An Evening with Lorraine Kelly, 17 February, 7.30pm, St Swithin’s Church, 37 The Paragon, Bath; toppingbooks.co.uk