Many years ago, I hatched a crafty plan for what I thought would be a ‘simple’ novel to write: a dozen or so linked short stories, all on a Scottish theme. I did complete several tales and some were published in anthologies, but in the end, the project never came together. I put the remaining unfinished stories in a box, in the attic. Years later, searching for inspiration, I hauled out this box and read through its contents: my notes and fragments of abandoned narratives. One such fragment, much expanded and revised, eventually grew into my first novel, The Observations.
When the time came to embark upon a second book, I went back to these same old stories. In one file, I found a scrap of paper upon which I’d scribbled a few words: artist, Glasgow, nineteenth century. These words didn’t amount to an idea, they were just a time, a place and a profession, but I sensed that I had found the right starting point. At the outset, I imagined that this novel might feature a female artist, and her struggles to succeed in a masculine world: a Bessie MacNicol or Margaret MacDonald MacKintosh. However, the concept soon changed direction. I decided to set the book in Glasgow’s West End, which I know well, having lived there several times since I was a child. Something about that area of the city has always fascinated me: it is, in parts, beautiful, in other parts, seedy. One particular district, sometimes known as “The Square Mile of Murder” has, over the years, been the site of many grisly crimes. As part of my research, I returned to my hometown and, in walking its streets, began to feel haunted by darker, more sinister voices from the past. As the project evolved, I found myself writing about an Englishwoman who is befriended by a Glaswegian painter and his family, and her account of a deplorable crime that culminates in a notorious Victorian court case. Artist, Glasgow, Nineteenth Century: from these seeds grew what was to become Gillespie and I.
As I write, the time has come to start dreaming up another idea. The one that currently excites me most doesn’t originate in the attic stories, but I like to think that they are still up there, waiting, and that, somewhere amongst those fragments, I might find the beginnings of a few more books.
This extract first appeared as introduction to a Waterstone’s special edition of The Observations which included, at the back, the first few chapters of Gillespie and I.