Isla Dewar’s first book, Keeping Up with Magda, was published in 1995. Dewar found success with her second novel, Women Talking Dirty, the film of which starred Helena Bonham Carter. She contributed to the collection Scottish Girls about Town and has also written for children.
Born in Edinburgh, Isla lives in the East Neuk of Fife with her husband, political cartoonist Bob Dewar.
If you were not a writer, what would you be doing?
I’d be wishing I were a writer. Thing is, by the time you actually become a writer, earning as a writer, you’re a goner There’s nothing else you can do. Life has hurtled forward, you are facing proper maturity and it’s too late to join the circus. I dreamed of being a vet but abandoned the notion when I discovered it wasn’t all puppies and kittens. I thought of being a scientist because I fancied myself in a white lab coat and important glasses. But it was always going to be a writer for me. I loved being told stories and love telling them.
Which book has been your favourite to write?
I really enjoyed writing Giving up on Ordinary. It was summer, the windows open and the sea yards away. I was happy. But having said that I loved writing A Day Like Any Other. I came to love the characters as if I hadn’t invented them and sometimes their naughty past made me smile. I almost didn’t know what was going to happen next. Though it was all in my notebooks. But really when you are writing a book and getting along well with your people, who cares about notebooks?
What’s your writing routine like?
I wake up (obviously). I have a bit of a think about life and work and weather beyond my window. I get up. Shower. Go downstairs have coffee (it has to be good espresso) and a banana and go to my messy desk. I am the untidiest woman in the world. I write on an Apple Mac. I have a file for the book, a file for future scenes I can write if I get stuck on the immediate forward movement of the book and a notebook covering who is in the book, what they look like, the car they may drive and any relevant information about them. This is so I don’t give them a different colour of hair or different home if they first appear on page five and disappear till page two hundred and I have forgotten their details. I also have a notebook of plot and incidents that may, I hope, be funny. And off I go – a new book, new imaginary friends, new plots, a new adventure.
I am at my most creative in late afternoon. I wish I could make it earlier, but I can’t.
Which are your favourite Scottish classics?
Fergus Lamont by Robin Jenkins. Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – this book helped me through a really long hospital stay. Anything by Muriel Spark. Kidnapped and A Child’s Garden of Verse by Robert Lewis Stevenson. Ah the words he gave me – minarets, counterpane. How I longed for a counterpane. Once, many, many, many years ago when I loved the Lone Ranger and Enid Blyton this list would have included the Oor Wullie Annual. But look at the wondrous things years and years and pages and pages have brought me.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
Stationery. I love notebooks and pens. I have the pen of pens, a Porsche of pens. A gift from the man I love. I love stories. I love telling stories. I love people who love stories. I live in my head. It’s cosy and friendly there.
What’s the worse thing about being a writer?
Sending a book off to your editor. I fuss over books. Pick over little details and fiddle with sentences. But eventually the book has to go. Deadlines. Then, your editor gets it and even after a whole ten minutes hasn’t said they like it or perhaps love it. What are they doing? It is awful waiting for a verdict, a thought, an opinion. I also think a writer’s life is a little bit unhealthy. I spend my days alone in a room with a blank screen and my imagination. I create a world and the people in it and when they are gone from me I miss them. The only thing to do is start another book.
How are you getting on in isolation? Is it affecting your writing?
I am fine. I am chatting online to friends and FaceTiming family. I am daydreaming, drinking coffee and having a long long conversation with my husband about life, love, childhood, favourite puddings and crisp flavours. I am remembering things from long distant times – shoes I loved, clubs in Edinburgh’s Victoria Street, songs (Wilson Pickett singing Hey Jude (Oh my), my first car – a Karmann Ghia that cost £50 and rattled and groaned along at 30 mph. It fell to bits, it was a dangerous thing to travel in. I am lucky to be alive. But now, I am happy – well, sometimes. I write. I can cook. Did I say I daydream? Oh yes, a lot of that.
Which books are getting you through these strange times?
Anything by Elizabeth Strout. I love Elizabeth Strout. I am reading Amy and Isabelle at the moment. I will move on to Anything Is Possible. I also am enamoured with Anthony Doerr. Also Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession. Sebastian Barry has a new one out.
Actually, there are too many books to mention. Books make me happy.
Everybody deserves a book.
Isla’s new book A Day Like Any Other is out in May 2020.