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Interview: Shona MacLean, author of The Bookseller of Inverness, the Scottish Book of the Year 2023

The Highland author has enjoyed plenty of success, but is moving into a new genre and reclaiming her name.

Author Shona MacLean is pictured at Elgin Cathedral. Pic: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson
Author Shona MacLean is pictured at Elgin Cathedral. Pic: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

The name on several of the books was definitely ambiguous. S G MacLean.

Was that a man or a woman? And what relevance did it have to a series of works which were striking for their historical accuracy and love of story-telling?

They were, of course, from the fertile mind of Shona MacLean, the Inverness-born, Aberdeen University graduate who lives with her family in Conon Bridge.

Shona is reclaiming her name

But, at the outset of her literary career, a chap in the business said: “Her name is too soft and feminine sounding; I wouldn’t buy a book by someone with a name like that.”

As she recalls: “I was still so astonished and grateful to be published at all that I didn’t argue, but I’m glad to be able to reclaim my own name now.”

So it will be Shona for the rest of the interview.

Shona and her dog, George, embarking on another adventure. Pic: AJL.

These days, she is an established figure on the best-seller lists for such books as her Alexander Seaton novels, her Damian Seeker series and the critically-acclaimed The Bookseller of Inverness, while her most recent offering, The Winter List, is among those in contention to win the prestigious McIlvanney Prize.

She has also taught historical fiction at Moniack Mhor, organised writing workshops for festival patrons, senior citizens and school groups and is a regular fixture at numerous literary festivals across her homeland and beyond.

Life all happened very quickly

It’s a far cry from her early days when she observed the arrival of oil and gas in the north-east during the 1970s, but had other priorities at the time than writing.

As Shona said: “I was born in Inverness in 1966 and spent my early childhood in Lochaber, where my parents had the Roy Bridge Hotel.

Mermaid of the North statue in Balintore.
Mermaid of the North statue in Balintore. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson.

“We then moved to Balintore in Easter Ross while it was still a salmon fishing village, just before the oil industry came to Nigg and life in the area was transformed.

“Looking back, I realise that, from my bedroom in the Commercial Hotel, overlooking the harbour, I pretty much had a front seat view on a major historical epoch.

Author Shona MacLean in a bookshop
Shona MacLean loves reading and visiting bookshops. Pic: AJL.

Shona’s writing career started in Banff

“I watched the salmon fishers put out in their cobles and the first oil platform being towed from Nigg. We then moved to Muir of Ord where I spent my teenage years at Dingwall Academy before heading off to Aberdeen University to study history, eventually gaining a PhD [in 17th-century] Scottish History.

“By the time I got my PhD, I’d also had three of my four children, and family logistics meant that instead of the academic career I’d set out on, we moved with my husband’s career to Banff, where he was head of history at Banff Academy.

“It was here that my writing career began. I’d always been interested in the past and had once or twice, between babies, started out writing things that I never finished.

Shona MacLean has created some strikingly original books. Pic: Quercus.

“But in Banff, with its coastal landscape, its evocative street names and surviving 16th and 17th-century buildings, I found that all the types of characters I had spent years researching in Aberdeen City Archive for my PhD suddenly came to life again in my head and I started to imagine their story.

“The book – The Redemption of Alexander Seaton – took four and a half years to write and was rejected at least a dozen times before being published in 2008 by Quercus.”

But her perseverance paid off. And so did her faith in the landscape around her.

Author Shona MacLean in a graveyard with her book 'The Winter List'
Shona MacLean’s “The Winter List” is among the contenders for the McIlvanney Prize. Pic: Jason Hedges.

Returning to her roots

Indeed, Shona insists it would be impossible to overstate how much her writing has been influenced by where she grew up and has subsequently lived.

From her perspective, the Seaton books are basically a love letter to the north-east where she spent 26 years of her adult life, whether highlighting its built heritage or evoking the nostalgia of her own student days in Old Aberdeen.

And, while she enjoyed working on the Seeker novels, based in London, they steered her further and further away from home, which prompted a change of direction.

Shona explained: “By the end of The House of Lamentations, which was set in Bruges, I really wanted to return to my own roots, history and culture.

Shona with a pile of books
Shona MacLean is always happy when she has books to read. Pic: Sandy McCook.

“That led eventually to The Bookseller of Inverness [published in 2022], which in many ways felt like the book my whole life was preparing me to write.

“When Waterstones chose it as their Scottish Book of the Year, I felt that I had finally answered the person who, many years before, had said to me: ‘You’re going to have to detach your imagination from Scotland.”

Author Shona MacLean's book, 'The Bookseller of Inverness'
Shona MacLean’s “The Bookseller of Inverness” won literary and public acclaim. Pic: Quercus Books.

Shona’s invigorating blend of history and crime and her ability to shed light on the connections between the past and the present, are a product of her vivid imagination.

But then, you might expect that from the niece of Alistair MacLean, the man who created a range of novels including Where Eagles Dare, Ice Station Zebra and The Guns of Navarone, which were turned into hit movies in the 1960s and 1970s.

Every dog must have its day

Shona has spoken about her gratitude for the advice and encouragement of her uncle, but has made her reputation on her own inspiration, determination and hard work.

And despite the constant demands for attention of her beloved canine friend, George.

Shona and her dog
Shona MacLean on a shopping trip with her beloved dog, George.

When I asked her what constituted a normal day in her life, she replied: “It’s up for breakfast, then housework, the morning dog-walk, working till lunchtime, playing football with the dog, working, afternoon walk with the dog and working till teatime.

“The dog does not care that I have books to write. I often have to travel to events and, while I enjoy these, I spend far too much time beforehand in a flap about dog-care.”

A new book is on the way

However, these dog days of summer, spring and the rest have not prevented Shona from completing another book, in a different genre, one she is clearly excited about.

And there’s no more S.G. So it’s both a departure and an arrival of a new genre.

Author Shona MacLean in a graveyard with her book
Author Shona MacLean is fascinated by north-east Scotland. Pic: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

She said: “My new work, which has taken far longer than I thought it would but which is now with my agent, is set in the 1830s in Cromarty.

“It’s at a time of huge historical change and is about the fictional characters I’ve created as members of a real literary society formed in the town at the time, and how they negotiate the challenges of life and each other.

People want to go on an adventure

“I think human beings love stories and being transported out of our own world for a while. With historical fiction, you can be transported, but you can also feel the touch-points to your own experience.

“My favourite part of writing is creating the characters, and if you can do that well enough, people will want to go on the adventure with them.”

“It’s not a crime novel though, so it seems a good time to reclaim my real name – Shona – to distinguish from the historical crime by ‘S.G.”

Initials or not, one suspects there will be no shortage of readers signing up to buy it.

Author Shona MacLean at Ness Book Fest
Author Shona MacLean enjoyed appearing at Ness Book Fest. Pic: AJL.

Five questions for Shona MacLean

  1. What book are you reading? The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk
  2. Who’s your hero/heroine? Katharine Forbes, Lady Rothiemay. The founder of a girls’ school in Aberdeen and not a woman to tangle with.
  3. Do you speak any foreign languages? All rusty now, but French, German, Italian, Latin.
  4. What’s your favourite music or band? Tidelines; Lauren MacColl; Iona Fyfe.
  5. What’s your most treasured possession? A snap of me with my four children on the coastal path below the Cullen Bay Hotel, taken on my 40th birthday.