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Book Review, Books, Guest Authors

Guest Author – Helen MacKinven on Setting her Novel in a Small Town

www 37 - CopyOnce again I am very happy to be hosting a writer who has been following and supporting the Literary Sofa from the beginning and who has now achieved her goal of becoming a published novelist.  Helen MacKinven and I have still never met in person but we’ve enjoyed exchanging manuscripts and supporting each other on this arduous journey.  (I hope she still wants to know me now she’s made it.)  Today is particularly special because last year I had the privilege of being the first person outside Helen’s core circle to read her debut novel Talk of the Toun and I’m delighted it’s now out there for everyone to enjoy.

Although this post was planned months ago, it forms the perfect follow-up to last week’s ‘late extra’ by Stephanie Butland.  The response to Stephanie speaking up in praise of the ‘quiet novel’ was heartfelt and overwhelming, with many readers and writers adding their voices to hers (and mine).  Helen’s piece does something similar for the small town novel and use of regional dialect, two further elements which I believe readers willingly embrace, given the chance, in addition to being essential to a rich literary landscape that extends beyond big cities.  (My mini-review follows):

Isn’t it great to read a book set somewhere you’ve never been? To be transported to an exotic country or explore the underbelly of a city while wearing your jammies and without leaving your bed is one of the reasons why I read books. Escapism is important for me as a reader but as a writer I’m drawn to the landscape I know best, small working class towns in central Scotland.

I grew up and spent many of my adult years living in Bonnybridge, an industrial town on the outskirts of Falkirk roughly halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow and although I’ve visited many exciting places like Rome, Paris and NYC, I wanted to write about my hometown. I’m not aware of any other novels set in Bonnybridge, and there may be a reason for that! After sending it to my former London based literary agent, she replied that, “the voice is very impressive here, and one you know how to wield which gives it an attractive confidence. In itself, I think the novel is strong, but I am sorry: at this stage I am having to be very selective about what I take on and the hard truth is I don’t think this is commercial enough for me”.

Was it the small town setting that made her cut me loose? Would no one want to buy a book set in Bonnybridge? But the novel couldn’t have been set anywhere else as the themes in the book are shaped by a sense of the place and of the people. The small town Scottish setting comes complete with its own value system whereas anonymous cities are full of incomers.

One of the key themes in Talk of the Toun is identity. The main character, Angela, is a gifted artist and has her sights set on art school, but girls like Angela, from a small town council scheme, are expected to settle for a nice wee secretarial job at the local factory. Her only ally is her gallus gran, Senga, the pet psychic, who firmly believes that her granddaughter can be whatever she wants.

Senga’s positivity is a rare trait in the attitude prevalent in Angela’s environment and her circle of influence. The idea of ‘getting above yourself’ and ‘knowing your place’ is an attitude which her parents suffer from and her dad can’t accept that Angela might be able to make a career as an artist.

 ‘Listen hen, ah enjoy making ma nail pictures but it’s a hobby. Ah ken you like tae draw and paint but that’s no something that’ll pay the bills.’

‘It’s mair than a hobby.’

‘It’s awright for the likes of Mr McDougall tae fill yer heid with ideas but he’s no living in the real world. What kinda of job could you get after art school?’

‘Ah could be a graphic designer or a portrait painter or an art teacher or…’

‘Wheesht, when was the last time you saw any of those jobs advertised in The Falkirk Herald?’

‘But there are loads of careers with a degree in art, you can…’

‘Look, yer dad kens what’s best for you, no Mr McDougall. Ah cannae see you in amongst arty farty folk. And ah wouldnae want you tae be disappointed when you couldnae fit in.’

It’s the personal battle against the religious and social intricacies of 1980s Scotland which mean Angela struggles with the complications of growing up and exploring who she really is. I’m sure teenagers living in cities might also have encountered a similar lack of confidence at that stage in their life but the small town setting clashes with Angela’s big ambition and heightens the drama. Angela’s options are limited by wealth and her postcode and I wanted to use the setting to make the reader more sympathetic to her dilemma. Does she break free of the expectations of her parents and risk failure at being accepted for art school and leave her family and friends behind? It’s an issue that I could identify with coming from the same type of background and even after writing for ten years and now being published I still wrestle with the notion of being ‘found out’  when I call myself a writer. Many Scots like to remind folk, “Ah ken’t yer faither“, which is a Calvinistic expression used to crush any notions of aspiration – particularly when it relates to the arts. In a small town there’s no fear of forgetting who you are and where you come from.

71bylzbDCULThank you to Helen for this taster of her novel and for sharing her experiences on the way to publication by Edinburgh independent ThunderPoint.

I’d love to hear which small-town or regional novels you’ve enjoyed…

IN BRIEF: My  View of Talk of the Toun

It only took me only a few pages to realise that with Helen MacKinven I was in the company of a wonderful comic talent with a real flair for voice.  As a southerner, I had no trouble whatsoever tuning into the distinctive dialect and colloquialisms of this book – in fact it was this precise aspect that brought the place and the cast of characters to life so well.  This coming of age story captures the 80s in such gritty, unromanticised glory, led by endearing and spirited protagonist Angela.  (Incidentally, from my only teenage experience of Scotland, visiting some Irish relatives near Glasgow, I found it all very believable!)  There’s range in the writing with the many crude and hilarious moments balanced by real heart and poignancy.  An absolute must for anyone who enjoyed Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son, this would make a brilliant TV drama.


No post next week – I’ll be in Brooklyn, which has appeared in one or two novels, I believe!

About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


22 thoughts on “Guest Author – Helen MacKinven on Setting her Novel in a Small Town

  1. Thanks so much Isabel for the opportunity to get comfy on the infamous sofa! I really appreciate all your support and encouragement over the years and I’m sure It’ll not be long until I’m bragging about your début as it’s only a matter of time until it’s published. Hopefully we’ll meet in real life soon…

    Posted by helenmackinven | October 20, 2015, 19:51
  2. Delighted for Helen and will be at her launch next week – it’s good to see her getting support, I’m one step behind her in the publishing journey and she’s been very generous with her help. Good things to good people!

    Posted by Catherine Hokin (@cathokin) | October 20, 2015, 20:09
  3. Sounds good, Helen. I could hear the voices in my head as well, straight away. Even from this short snippet, I can ‘see’ it televisually – and felt stirrings of Billy Eliot, Kinky Boots, The Full Monty and the like – breaking out of the mould. Huge congratulations on publication. I shall add it to my TBR.
    Go you!

    Posted by Whisks | October 20, 2015, 20:23
    • Thanks! I never thought of the similarities between Billy Elliot etc.. but I can see the comparison of struggle against social expectations. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see the words transformed for screen? I can dream! 🙂

      Posted by helenmackinven | October 21, 2015, 10:49
  4. Many congratulations Helen, it’s on my TBR list. I don’t like the term “working class” particularly, but we are definitely not appearing in novels anywhere near enough! And far too many books are set in London. There, I said it. I’ve nothing against London, in fact I bloody love it, but it’s not the centre of the universe (apart from the publishing universe it seems!). Looking forward to reading Talk of the Toun x

    Posted by louisewalters12 | October 21, 2015, 08:13
    • Thanks Louise. I know what you mean about labels but it’s hard to find another way to describe working class. And of course I absolutely agree that there’s a world outside London that is just as interesting and entertaining. Hear hear for wee places full of big characters! x

      Posted by helenmackinven | October 21, 2015, 10:53
  5. Congratulations, Helen. What is it with Londoners that they don’t acknowledge anywhere else exists? I found lots to identify with in your engaging novel and I’m sure other people will too

    Posted by Annecdotist | October 21, 2015, 10:37
  6. Fantastic post, Helen, I can’t wait to read it – sounds right up my street (or toon as we say round here!). Congratulations and good luck.

    Posted by ginandbooks | October 21, 2015, 11:40
  7. Thanks Anouska.I hope you enjoy it! BTW, I preferred ‘toon’ as that’s how I’d spell it but the publisher felt that ‘toon’ had too many associations with Newcastle football club. 🙂

    Posted by helenmackinven | October 21, 2015, 15:49
  8. Another great post on the ‘go to’ sofa for reliable book views and for Talk of the Toun… love it too and highly recommend. Looking forward to seeing more as Helen’s Blog Tour rolls out.

    Enjoy your trip to Brooklyn Isabel 🙂 x

    Posted by poppypeacockpens | October 22, 2015, 14:14
  9. Lovely post, Helen. And having grown up in a small town myself, albeit one very close to London in miles but very far away in attitudes, I completely recognise the mind set of people that think you should know your place. Very much looking forward to reading this 🙂

    Posted by Amanda Saint (@saintlywriter) | October 23, 2015, 16:56


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