Tuesday 31 October 2023

Making Time Count

 'Who wants to live to be a hundred?' the old joke goes. The answer? 'A ninety-nine year old.'

We all know we're not going to live forever, but somehow we manage to kick that knowledge of certain death into the long grass. We don't think about it. Nah. Not happening. Death's not for us.

We've been grappling with recognition of our mortality quite a lot, here in the McKay household, this last year or so. Keith has been gradually losing motor power in his legs, starting at the feet. Tripping has led to him badly breaking his shoulder then his wrist, and he's had several 'lucky' falls where all he suffered was cuts and bruising. And shock. 

He's now been diagnosed with motor neuron disease and is virtually housebound. This calls for a process of adjustment, as you can imagine.  

Carol and Keith circa 1978

Now his diagnosis is official, the help he's had - we've had - has been incredible. He's been assigned a specialist nurse who has visited us at home twice, now, and must surely have a magic wand up her sleeve, since she's instigated and coordinated all sorts of support services, putting us in touch with patient and carer support groups, occupational health and orthotics services to help with physical aids in the home and to support Keith's mobility. She's even told us about things like MND Scotland's advocacy services, and their voice recording facility in case the future sees him losing his voice. Keith's signed up to take part in lots of ongoing research projects, too. And last week, only nine days after the specialist nurse's second visit, two lovely men from Mobility Scotland delivered and set up a riser-recliner chair which is making Keith feel like a king on his throne! All this free of charge. The commitment of our National Health Service workers and the generosity of people make me want to cry with gratitude.

MND Scotland is a super charity. So when our daughter Liane chose to fundraise for them by running the 10K in the Great Scottish Run in Glasgow on 1 October 2023, we were delighted. We were then astounded by how kind and giving people were, supporting her efforts with their donations and encouraging words. Thank you to all those people! And thank you Liane - and Stew, who ran alongside her. She raised over £1,300! Phenomenal. And her hair is still dyed in those MND Scotland colours.

Liane after running 10k to raise funds for MND Scotland on 1 October 2023

All the members of our family have rallied round. It's wonderful to be bolstered by their love and practical support.

As for Keith and I - we've been strangely inspired creatively by this physical and emotional challenge. Keith, for example, has had one of his artworks selected for an exhibition called 'Graphos: International Exhibition of Asemic Writing' in Buenos Aires - yes, Buenos Aires! - from 1 - 18 November 2023, which is a phenomenal achievement.

Graphos exhibition featuring art by Keith McKay

And I've been writing poems - I can't help it - as I wrestle with the surging emotional response to seeing the man I love so physically challenged. I'm trying to compile a themed poetry pamphlet on the subject. One of these poems appeared this week in Poetry Scotland #106.

My poem 'Ventimiglia Blanket' in Poetry Scotland #106

And my poem 'Walking on Sand', which is also about coming to terms with Keith's condition, was awarded first prize in the Scottish Association of Writers' James Muir Poetry Competition in October 2023, judged by Alison Chisholm. 

Life can be brutally hard, but it goes on, and there are always blessings. As MND Scotland say, 'Make Time Count'.

Thursday 31 August 2023

The Robert Louis Stevenston Club

Earlier this year, I was invited to present a talk to the prestigious - and very welcoming - Robert Louis Stevenson Club in Edinburgh as a result of a conversation I had with member and fellow author Gillean Somerville Arjat. My thanks go to Gillean, to Chair Jon Cossar, and to the committee for giving me this opportunity. 

It was a joy to spend the afternoon at the Club, sharing memories with everyone about the man himself and the picturesque writers' and artists' retreat at Grez-sur-Loing where RLS lived for some months in the 1870s, and which members of the Club have visited. I think my slide show and reflections on my month spent there during my Fellowship in 2010 brought back many happy memories for us all! 

It was a further delight to receive the Club's summer newsletter through the post, and to see a write-up of my visit. 

You can find out more about Edinburgh's Robert Louis Stevenson Club and their programme of events by contacting the Chair joncossar@gmail.com  

To read my posts from Grez-sur-Loing while I was on the residency in 2010, and see some photos, follow these links:






Friday 30 June 2023

Before the Swallows Come Back

I've just finished reading an absolutely heart-filling and lyrical novel by Fiona Curnow, called Before the Swallows Come Back

Reading Before the Swallows Come Back by Fiona Curnow feels like forest bathing on a stiflingly hot day, or being borne up in the gloss and buoyancy of a river running clean and clear. This is total immersion in the natural world. All this as background to a storyline that’s epic in scale and characters rendered so intensely that hours go by before you realise you really should pull yourself out of their world and back into your own. What a mesmerising treat!

The two central figures are Tommy and Charlotte. At the start of the story, they are on the cusp of puberty, two innocents from very different worlds whose chance encounter on a riverbank far from town becomes life-changing. For now, their lives are stable. Not perfect, but physically and emotionally secure. Tommy, the son of a travelling family and someone for whom outsiders are frightening, introduces Charlotte to the freedoms of living a more nature-led life, teaching her about river-pearls and how to negotiate the dangers of a body of water, what plants she can forage, how to weave twigs into art and basketry and larger branches into practical structures to support canvas for sleeping outdoors. For her part, Charlotte – who lives alone in a cottage with her seriously ill father – shows Tommy that not all those who live conventional lives distrust, fear and decry travellers. They pass the days of an idyllic summer together before everything changes.

Fiona Curnow has crafted an immense story, and an incredibly rich one. The plot is straightforward: these two young people are separately afflicted by crises – catastrophes – that rock the foundations of their lives. Over the course of a few years, they must learn to negotiate change. Serious change. They must learn self-reliance. Separated by hundreds of miles, each holds on to the memories of that summer spent together at the river before the swallows came back as a salve while they dream of being reunited. Along the way, they encounter more than their share of cruelty, but this is a story where good far outweighs bad. Good men like Dougie, the estate manager, a practical man who abhors the wilful destruction of habitat on the estate across the river, and who has big ambitions about rewilding. Waifs and strays like young Em, who on the face of it is chipper and feisty, brash enough to steal a woman’s purse while she’s distracted, but who clings to Charlotte in the sleeping bag at night. Tommy, Charlotte, Em and others may live a different life – an unconventional one – but this novel shows they are not ‘other’: they have the same needs and yearnings and good heart as those who live in the system. This book is peopled with three-dimensional characters, with their flaws and faults, but also their earnestness and deep longings for happiness, their intense sorrows and fears.

I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it wholeheartedly for the way it deals with social issues and also for that delicious immersion in the natural world. I’d say it’s a book for adults and for young people from the age of about fourteen. If you enjoyed Mick Kitson’s Sal, you’ll love Fiona Curnow’s Before the Swallows Come Back. Click on the links or image of the book cover to go to the sales page. Thank you so much, Fiona, for writing this story.


Before the Swallows Come Back - Excerpt from Chapter 32

As the storm raged outside and night fell, Sandy told story after story of his life on the road. The people he had met. ‘You’ll ken them, aye?’ The places he had been to. ‘Och, you must have been there an aw.’ Thankfully, it seemed that no answer was necessary. He played some tunes, sang some songs. There was barely a tune left in his gravely old voice but that didn’t matter. The meaning was there, and Tommy could imagine well enough what the voice would have been like when it held. When it was younger.

Tommy just sat and listened, hummed along to a tune, laughed at some silly adventure. Gasped at near misses. It was like being home. Like belonging. Stories were like that. They held you. Wrapped you up in them. Took you with them. Kept you alive.

When he awoke in the morning all was quiet. The storm had passed on by. The forest around sighing. Dappled sunlight playing with the window, flickering against the wall, dancing on the floor. But he was alone. No old man. No candles. Nothing but him and his animals.

Author Fiona Curnow

Author Fiona Curnow

Fiona is a Scottish writer who spent fifteen years teaching in international schools, before becoming ill and having to return home. Not one to remain idle, she turned to the Open University where she studied creative writing, completing both courses with distinction, and discovering a new passion. She has since written five books and finds it difficult to be content without a work in progress. That escape into a world of her own making is something very special! Before the Swallows Come Back was sparked by a meeting she had with a Tinker family many years ago, in rural Perthshire. They invited her to sit by their fire, outside their bender, and listen to stories. It was fascinating, inspirational and never left her.

You can keep up with the reception for Fiona's novel via her blog tour, or by following her on Twitter and Instagram.

Fiona has also published under the name FJ Curlew. You can read my previous blog post about her writing here

Tuesday 13 June 2023

Five Glasgow Stories

Five Glasgow Stories
published by Red Squirrel Press / Postbox Press

I was born and brought up in Glasgow, so when I read that the prestigious independent publisher Red Squirrel Press planned to publish a collection of short stories set in or inspired by the city, of course I aspired to be in it. What to write, though? Red Squirrel, and their literary fiction imprint Postbox Press, have meticulously high standards. I did have a story draft which I hoped might fit, but doubts crept in. This opportunity was important to me. How could I make the story the best fit possible?

One of my first successes with short fiction was way back in November 2002, when my story Unrestricted reached the final six of the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday Short Story Competition. While it didn't go on to win this highly-regarded award with its generous £6,000 prize, it did win me some kudos, and a cheque for £500 presented during attendance at a glamorous awards night in The Tun in Edinburgh. In his introduction to the volume Shorts 5, published that same year by Polygon, editor and very fine writer Suhayl Saadi described Unrestricted as 'A story told at its very best'. It was a story written in an urban Scots dialect - a Glasgow dialect. Should I do the same now?

Mist rising from the River Clyde

Hours from the deadline, I set off walking round my local area, considering this and any other edits I could do to make my short story a real contender. I reached the decision. Yes, I would switch it from standard English entirely into Glasgow dialect. By 'entirely' I mean there would be no confining the dialect to characters' speech in inverted commas, as if held up by some narrator who speaks 'proper' English. Thank you, James Kelman, for opening my eyes to this class division - and to the woman I had a heated discussion with on a translation forum many years ago, who insisted dialect is slang and has no place in literature. I disagreed profoundly. Dialect is someone's mother tongue, and no mother tongue is any better than any other when it comes to expressing what it is to be human. My favourite quote of all time is 'a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot'. Attributed to Max Weinreich, this translates roughly as 'A language is (just) a dialect that has an army and a navy'.

And so, in a bit of a rush before the 5pm deadline, I translated my story Look Up into my own dialect and pressed 'send'. I was delighted to receive the news that it was accepted for publication along with four superb short stories by authors Christine Appleyard, Colette Coen, Charlie Gracie and Donal McLaughlin. Each brings their own unique perspective on the city, and each story is filled with heart like the city itself. 

Five Glasgow Stories was launched in Spring 2023 at a venue in the heart of the old city, along with issue 8 of Postbox Magazine, and both are available to buy direct from the publisher. Events and life in general have overtaken me in the last few months but I'm pleased to finally be able to celebrate publication through this blog post, and to express my thanks to Red Squirrel Press publisher Sheila Wakefield and to Colin Will, editor of Postbox Press.

Tuesday 16 May 2023

Scriever for the Federation of Writers (Scotland)

In early spring 2023, I was flabbergasted to be invited by the Federation of Writers (Scotland) to accept their role of Scriever for the year. Of course, I accepted this huge honour! It's a role designed to promote prose writing and complements the Makar, who is there to promote the writing of poetry. Previous Scrievers include Moira McPartlin, Leela Soma and Charlie Gracie.  FWS Chair Marcas Mac an Tuairneir presented me with a fine shield at the Love Words event in Perth. The very fine poet Morag Anderson was awarded the role of this year's Makar.

Chair of FWS, Marcas mac an Tuairneir, presents Carol McKay with the Scriever's shield, 25 February 2023

So far this year, I've run a creative writing workshop in Hamilton Town House Library and played a small part in Eadar-Theanga / Between Tongues  a zoom event celebrating Gaelic writing which was livestreamed on the FWS Facebook page. You can watch the recording via that link. I'm also running a mini-mentoring project in which I give feedback on a sample of individuals' writing. 

Most recently, I took part in a livestreamed discussion featuring a conversation between Morag Anderson, who is this year's Makar, Marcas mac an Tuairneir and myself. You can watch the livestream via this link Makar and Scriever In Conversation 14 May 2023 

The broadcast lasts just over an hour. To complement it, I thought I'd share the full answers I'd prepared in advance of the event. It's definitely worthwhile watching the livestream to see and hear the full discussion between all three of us. I learned so much from listening to Morag and Marcas's responses.

Anyway, here we go. It's quite a long post!

Carol's answers 

What attracted you to writing poetry / short stories etc?

A.     When I was wee, we didn’t have many books in the house, but we did have weekly comics and we got annuals for Christmas. Sometimes we visited the library, too. I used to craft my own books, folding up paper and sewing them in the seam. I’d draw, and create my own storylines, too, stimulated by whatever I was reading. As for poetry… although I’m not religious, I did love singing in school. Our regular songs were the old hymns from Victorian days, and the quality of language and love in those hooked me. That’s when I became aware of the power of thoughtfully placed vowel sounds and meter, e.g. ‘By cool Siloam’s shady rill/how sweet the lily grows. How sweet the breath beneath the hill / of Sharon’s dewy rose.’ (Reginald Heber, died 1826.) And what about ‘Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by…’  I mean, I’m probably an atheist now, but how could anyone fail to be wowed by those lyrics?

Also song lyrics from family party sing-songs. See my blogpost https://carolmckay.blogspot.com/2013/06/it-was-third-of-june-memory-nostalgia.html

I got into writing poetry because of those influences, at primary school. Lyrical prose writing came later, at secondary.

What are your favourite writers and poems / short stories / novels?

A.     I think he’s out of fashion now, but DH Lawrence was the prime influence for me. His Sons and Lovers was the first time I’d read and recognised myself in a novel. The main character was a boy and I was a girl, but that didn’t matter. He had a bond with his mother like an invisible umbilical cord, and so had I. He had a dad who was dangerous through drink, and so did I. And just so many other things about Lawrence. I loved his language, though I find it overly flowery now.

Favourite novels now include Jon McGregor. Anne Tyler. Claire Keegan. Graeme Macrae Burnet. 

Favourite poets are Don Paterson. Jim Carruth. Magi Gibson. Chris Powici. Finola Scott. So many! We live in privileged times.

Short story writers? Anne Donovan. Dilys Rose. Kevin Barry. Raymond Carver. James Kelman, of course, for making me realise that one dialect of English is a valid as any other and that to have – for example – urban Scots contained within speech marks while the narrator speaks ‘proper English’ is wrong, wrong, wrong. One person’s mother tongue is as valid as any other person’s mother tongue.

Which of your own poems (or short stories) are you most happy to have written, and why?

A.     I was overjoyed to have a short story make it into New Writing Scotland recently. It was a story that had been rejected 16 times but I believed in it and kept going, trimming it and reworking bits of it. It’s ‘Her Body Was An Aviary’, and it was in Break in Case of Silence: NWS 39.

I was also very pleased to have a story of mine feature as the opening story in the first issue of Gutter magazine. ‘Frozen Waste’ it’s called. I love and admire Gutter. I was pleased they opened their special 20th issue with one of my stories, too.

As for poetry – hmm – my usual themes in all my writing are about social misfits and alienation and addiction and so on, so probably ‘Holding all the ACEs’ is the one whose publication moves me most. It was in Gutter, too.   

I should mention that one of the things that quietly satisfies me most as a writer is actually something I self-published. Correction, my husband published it through his PotHole Press imprint. It was an ebook of personal accounts of what it feels like to live with the rare health condition Addison’s Disease. It was too niche for the general publishing world because only about three people in 10,000 have Addison’s Disease, but we saw the possibilities offered by ebook publishing, gathered 16 accounts from people around the English-speaking world through an appeal on social media, and brought them together in Second Chances: true stories of living with Addison’s Disease. It’s a life-threatening condition. I felt very alone when I was diagnosed in 2010 and I wanted to produce a book that people could turn to so they would be reassured they could live a good life even with the condition. My husband Keith made a great job of producing it.

Favourite ways to write? (e.g. special routines, places, comfort zones)

A.     Walking is good preparation! That and washing dishes. Mindless tasks with rhythm that enable the mind to wander free. I love being out in the natural world and often talk into my voice recorder on my phone to help me remember things as otherwise they’ve gone by the time I get home. I tend to be a daytime person, too, and I’m definitely more comfortable when there’s no one behind me and when there’s music playing quietly in the background.

Walking in nature boosts creativity

How many times do you edit a poem?

A.     As many times as I feel it needs! Some come more fully formed than others. I definitely recommend leaving a draft aside for a while before coming back to edit it. Editing is best when we can see a piece with fresh eyes. Reading out loud also helps us judge how it’s working.

How do you know when a piece of your writing is 'finished'?

A.     Is it ever finished? I had a short story in Glasgow dialect published this year in Five Glasgow Stories by Postbox Press, the literary fiction imprint of Red Squirrel Press. I edited that story so many times. Finally felt happy with it. Checked two stages of proofs before I finally okayed it. Got the book in my hand and realised I’d still managed to miss some things. Using ‘I’ instead of ‘Ah’. Wee things like that are always easy to miss and you just have to forgive yourself!

What advice would you give yourself starting out now?

A.     Network more. Don’t be shy. Get out there. But also read. Read what’s current. Go to events in your area. Don’t be the writer in the garret.

What magazines and websites do you recommend to writers?

A.     Well… Gutter! But also Extra Teeth, Southlight, Causeway, Poetry Scotland, Northwords Now, Soor Ploom Press. From Glasgow to Saturn. But also look beyond Scotland’s borders to Magma and Rialto, Honest Ulsterman and Stinging Fly and so on. Sign up to Creative Scotland and Scottish Book Trust’s mailing list to keep up to date with opportunities. The Federation of Writers itself has an amazing resource available to us through its monthly mail-out. St Mungo’s Mirrorball, too.

What makes a 'good' poem?

A.     One with vitality and freshness in language. But contemporary language. Not grandiose Victoriana.  Imagery – putting pictures in your head. And contemporary subject matter. It’s about experiencing the world we live in now. The human condition.

Is there a hierarchy in literature?

A.     Yes, there’s a hierarchy in everything, isn’t there. It’s just the way it is. Lots of wee burns flow into a river, and that flows into the sea. Each is a thriving community and each is important.

Are the gatekeepers of the publishing industry open minded, or does subjectivity - personal taste - play a part?

A.     I think we’re all creatures of our times and subjectivity is definitely a part of the selection process, be it for novels or for stories or poems. Fashions are just part of how it is. Publishers might want originality, but then reject it because it’s unfamiliar and they think it won’t sell. And they are running a commercial business, after all. But then someone else accepts that novel and it’s a hit and suddenly everyone wants more like that – it’s set a new fashion. I’m thinking here of someone like Graeme Armstrong, whose novel The Young Team took a long time to find someone to believe in it. (300 rejections?) And he’s now one of Granta’s young writers to look out for.

Should you 'write what you know'?

A.     Yes, but no, but yes, but…

What excites you about the future for poetry and other writing?

A.     In Scotland, at this time, we are seeing a lot of ‘New Scots’ in our schools. Far greater diversity than when I was growing up. I think that’ll work wonders for our creative sector. I’m really looking forward to that. They better get a move on, though, or I’ll not be around to see it!

What does the Federation mean to you, and – by extension – in what ways can the Federation help writers?

A. I think the Fed does wonders. A voluntary organisation with such committed board members and volunteers. It’s a great support network for writers at all experience levels, i.e. just starting out or old hands. FWS gives publishing, spoken word and networking opportunities aplenty. I love it!

Friday 3 March 2023

Addison's Disease Self-Help Group / White Spirit

I'm sending huge thanks to the staff and volunteers at the Addison's Disease Self-Help Group charity. 

Not only have they given me a platform to promote White Spirit, but they've also done wonders in sharing the news about my novel through many outlets including their own website and newsletters, and social media. Thank you!

Thank you, too, to my early readers. I hope you enjoyed my novel - literary crime, set in the Scottish Highlands and featuring a police detective who is diagnosed with Addison's Disease mid-way through the story. Thank you to those of you who've left reviews and ratings!

Addison's is an auto-immune condition in which the body's own defences attack the outer layers of the adrenal glands. It's a slow and insidious condition, yet it can become horribly dangerous. Our adrenals tick along at only about 10% production until we need to fight off a bug, or break an arm, or face intense emotional stress. Then production surges. The trouble is, if your adrenals' outer layers have been largely destroyed by your own body, you just can't produce the increase in cortisol needed to cope with those stressors. 

And that's when you have an Addisonian Crisis. It's scary. And it can kill you. 

Read about it on the ADSHG website.

People diagnosed with Addison's take medication every day for life (literally), and carrying an emergency injection kit is definitely recommended. I last used mine two years ago when I ordered a gluten-free chocolate brownie in a cafe and thoroughly enjoyed it, only to realise three hours later when I was dying on the floor that it couldn't have been gluten-free after all. The emergency injection kit I'd got from the ADSHG, coupled with the medication from the health service, saved me.

Please do consider buying the ebook or paperback of White Spirit. If you do, you'll be helping support the ADSHG as I'm giving them my royalties.

To read my previous blog posts about my diagnosis and recovery, follow these links. (You'll be able to tell that I was (ahem) slightly overdosed on steroids in my earliest post about it!) You can also read about the ebook compilation Second Chances: true stories of living with Addison's Disease, which my partner Keith published for me through his imprint The PotHole Press in 2012.

First post - Growth Cycle


Second post - The Real Story


Third post - Second Chances: true stories of living with Addison’s Disease


Fourth post - Second Chances on the BBC


Fifth post - Ten Years. Two Little Pills


Friday 2 December 2022

Now out - my crime novel White Spirit


Thirteen-year-old Jamie is found dead in the Scottish Highlands and DI Allan MacIntyre is asking questions. Who gave him his top of the range phone? Who lit the fire to dispose of his clothes? Two teenage boys are acting suspiciously. They have phones and games consoles hidden in their room, a connection to the mosque and a blood connection to a paedophile.

Then a second fire ‘ignites’ in a bin at their school. MacIntyre is beset with his own troubles, and it’s not just juggling two women. His health is letting him down, and, at 37, it shouldn’t be. With November fireworks exploding, one of the boys lets slip there’s going to be ‘a big one’.

Can Allan get a grip in time to prevent it?

White Spirit 

Set in the north of Scotland, close to Inverness, my new novel White Spirit combines a fast-paced plot with empathetic characters. Early reviews are in, and they're encouraging! 

'Totally absorbing' 

'Earthy gripping plot'

One of my aims for this book is to raise awareness about the life-threatening condition which is Addison's Disease - an auto-immune condition which often goes undiagnosed until it reaches the dramatic end-stage. I'm giving my author royalties from sales of White Spirit to the Addison's Disease Self-Help Group charity which has helped me so much since my own diagnosis.

You can read more about White Spirit and the rest of my writing on my website www.carolmckay.co.uk

You can read an extract on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/White-Spirit-Carol-McKay-ebook/dp/B0BJG61B5V

The e-book retails at £2.99 and the paperback is £10.