Gill Merton is the non de plume of five writers based around Edinburgh and the Lothians: Simon Bramwell, Coreen Connell, Sheila Corrigan, Anne Hamilton and Elizabeth Nallon. I was given the amazing opportunity to take part in an author Q&A with the group after the release of their first collaborative novel Entitled as part of the blog tour via ZooLoo’s Book Tours.
1. First things first; how did you come up with the name of Gill Merton? There are five of you so how did you settle on this name? Strangely, this was probably the easiest decision of all! Our writing group meets at the GilmertonCommunity Centre, in Edinburgh, so by democratic vote Gil became Gill and we had our name. It was that or an acronym of our initials, and that doesn’t have the same ring to it.
2. The book is adapted from a short story by Sheila Corrigan, whose idea was it to elaborate on the characters and themes already in situ and how did you work out who was writing what? It was one of those off-the-cuff remarks from a previous member of the group that started the whole project. Sheila’s story came from a (now long-forgotten) writing prompt, and the reaction was, ‘That could be a novel’. At the time, we weren’t thinking that big, but we did decide to expand the story – a novel-in-flash, perhaps. There was only loose planning: each week we had a chat (a lot of chat!) about plot, shared out characters and scenes – and then we wrote. We expected duplication and contradiction and confusion, as the story was evolving all the time, but the aim was to get some words down. Then we could chat some more, and edit, edit, edit. It was much later on we realised we had a potential novel.
3. The book flows so well, even the narrative from other characters, that it’s really hard to sense a shift or change in writing style- was that tricky to navigate with five authors? You couldn’t get five more different writers (or people!) so yes, it was a bit like mixing Chinese, Mexican, Indian, Scottish and sushi into one recipe and producing a not only edible but tempting plate of food. For us, the bonus was having been together as a group for a number of years and having already produced an anthology and a collaborative audio play. We’ve learned the hard, hard lesson of not getting too attached to ‘our’ characters or scenes, and being willing to ‘kill our darlings’ for the good of the bigger picture. Mutual respect, a lot of laughs and only seeing each other once a week – less through lockdown – helped. One of our members, Anne, is also our tutor, so she took on some of the initial development editing to maintain one voice, and having chapters narrated by different characters gave us the best of both worlds.
4. Not having read the original short by Corrigan, how vastly does Entitled differ from its early roots? Sheila’s original was a few hundred words long – flash fiction at its best. Sally and Malcolm were there from the start, along with the traumatic events that bind them, and subsequently lead Sally to do what she does. The rest? All that came later, ideas flying in from everywhere. The Scottish island setting and the little twist at the end of the story evolved as we wrote.
5. Will you be collaborating on novels again in the future as a group or pairs or will you be writing solo for the most part? Entitled has been three years, at least, in the making. It’s publication is funded by a National Lottery community grant. Could we do it again? We’ve done it once – something we never dreamed of at the start – so why not? The same goes for writing a sequel, because the novel’s ending is (as in all good stories!) is also a beginning. But would we? The lifeblood of the group is that we’re always trying new things, challenging ourselves, but mostly as individual writers supported by each other. So it’s back to our own projects for now – but let it be noted, we’re quite happy to try our hand at a screen adaptation, especially if it’s on location and we can all have cameo roles!
6. I imagine each of you will have a secret favourite character and a character you love to hate-who are they and why? Elizabeth says, ‘I love Sandy, he’s a practical, down to earth man, not one to stand on ceremony or who attempts to impress. He surrounds himself with those who matter most to him and their lives are all the better for knowing Sandy. His turn of phrase reminds me of older people and their conversations, when I was growing up.’ Coreen adds, ‘Aunt Maud reminds me of my Granny – I aways thought she had her own secret or two and she always kept mine. Like Maud, Granny survived the war, and her husband was her one true love. I would love to live Miss Maud’s life on the island!’ The most flawed characters have to be Malcolm and Martha, and their breathtakingly self-centred lives, which made them a guilty pleasure to write. Thecomic relief, then, comes in the form of Sergeant McLeish and Alisdair, a pair with whom Simon (his sci-fi and fantasy skills stoically put aside to write Entitled!) would have a wee cheeky dram and put the world to rights. Elizabeth sums it up: ‘The story involving the doctors is a cold one – the life on the island is a warm and colourful one.’ We all secretly want to live on Inniscuillin.
7. This will be one that I’m sure crops up frequently, but are any of the characters based on traits you have all come across in people in the past? The characters are as real as people we know by now – as is Inniscuillin, which is a totally fictional island. Sally is an enigma for all of us: we know why she does what she does; we might empathise – but is she justified? (Now there’s a reading group discussion!) None of them are based on real people – even if they once were, having five authors writing them would certainly change them beyond recognition. But Sheila’s first creations were pure fiction then, and we’ve just taken their traits and their flaws – and run with them.
8. How did you find working on the geographical locations? You’re all Scotland based so it’s not hard to imagine the terrain, but it’s a vast part of the country with differing locales and backdrops-did this help build up a location profile or was it awkward to navigate and get everyone’s vision down on paper to create the scenes?The story starts in England: Sally is from Yorkshire, has her life turned upside down in London, and ends up in Cambridge. From there, it’s a slow and revealing journey to Inniscuillin. The island is so integral to Entitled now, it’s strange to think it was something of a later addition. For a while, France, then Portugal featured, but international travel – for all kinds of plot-related reasons – was too complex. What we needed was somewhere remote, and since we are Scotland-based, where better than the Highlands and Islands? In the 1970s, links to the mainland were far fewer than they are now, and that suited the story perfectly. Naming Inniscuillin (and then spelling it consistently!) and pinpointing it geographically was a highly entertaining puzzle. Life on the island itself, we based on our own collective experiences, and literally made up as we went along. The trickiest thing of all was getting the book cover right: a rugged coastline, figures on the beach and a hint of the Big House – brought to life by our designer, Marta Lis – and then made into the dream of a real book of our own, by Claire Morley of myepublishbook.com