For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed writer Claire R. McDougall. She is a native of Scotland, graduated from Oxford University and lives now in Aspen, Colorado where she raised her family. After an early start as a newspaper columnist, her career in creative writing moved through the genres of poetry and short stories to settle on Scottish novels with an historical bent.
Q: What are you currently working on? Tell us about it.
I have just finished book three in a trilogy, the first of which, Veil Of Time, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014.
Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?
When I wrote the first in this series, I had no idea I would take the story any further. My impetus for that book was just to set a story in this magical place in Scotland where I grew up and where the kings of Scotland were once crowned in the very early Middle Ages. I didn’t want to write strict historical fiction, so I decided to write a time travel story. In the first book, without really planning it, I was already beginning to raise a question about what the pagan world lost when Christianity took over. But I hadn’t said enough: in the second and third books, I go deep into the question, and, in fact, imagine an alternate present with no Christian history.
Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?
On the wall of my office hang three portraits: Emily Bronte, DH Lawrence and Friedrich Nietzsche. All of them have had a profound effect on me. I am also an ardent fan of John Steinbeck. The Scottish author Lewis Grassic Gibbon sowed the seed in me that it was possible to present the real lives of Scotland’s people to the world in a literary way.
Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?
I have been writing stories for eons now and only in the last decade have I had a literary agent to my name. Writing, as all the arts, is a tough business with mazes and gatekeepers along the way. Progress often happens at a snail’s pace. So, no clever lines or dreams of fame and fortune will really sustain you through the long haul. I suppose I have had since childhood a sense that I would make it in the end. That’s not something I wake up in the morning and tell myself, but it probably explains why I have kept on going despite the odds. And then, of course, too, like Martin Luther, the bottom line is: Here I stand. I can do no other.
Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?
Since I have been writing for so long, I have a big backlog of books that haven’t seen the light of day yet. My agent wasn’t able to sell my first novel, the one he picked me up for. It’s the dearest one to my heart and tracks a young girl’s journey from her rural Scottish home to Oxford University, so a bit more biographical than most of my books. Among others, I have a “family” novel about a wild mustang. So, the stories are all over the map theme-wise, but most are centered in Scotland. Trying to get a foot up on the entertainment industry, I have also written all the screenplays for the stories.
Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?
I suppose I feel like I’m on the right track when I see all around me support for the idea that we need to take a serious look at where we came from. Even my biographical novel is questioning societal norms, the veneration of the life of the head over the heart, in that case. And then as I witness the decline of Christianity even in my lifetime, I feel people are looking for something to fulfill their spiritual yearnings. It was always in my nature to poke sticks into things and see if they could withstand the probe.
Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?
All my books would be on book shop shelves. All the movies of my stories would have been made.
Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?
With my background in academia, it took years to find my literary voice and time, too, to understand what makes for readable prose. The industry is geared to fashionable trends and edgy writers, who often don’t have a lasting voice or anything real to say. I had to try for years to get an agent, so the whole process has been an exercise in patience, not a quality that I have in huge amounts.
Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?
I keep a quote by DH Lawrence in my office that says: In the end, the soul is alone, brooding on the face of the uncreated flux, as a bird on a dark sea. It’s a rather grandiose thought, but the truth is that as creative people, in the end we are alone with ourselves You can go to as many writers’ conferences and writers’ groups as you can fit in, and you can bask for a while in the celebrity of having a book published, but the reality for any creative person is the creative moment, which is a solitary place.
Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?
I think it would be the tendency to think that everything is going to be solved once all my books are out there and all my films have been made. It would certainly solve some financial problems but not any issues I have with myself.
Q: What is your favorite piece of art?
I have two watercolours by Jennifer MacLean on my living room wall. They are of crofts and tumble-down walls within a Scottish landscape, and they make me whistful and full of longing for Scotland. So, they’re doing their job as art.
Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?
I’m not sure “admire” is the word, but there are definitely people, dead people as it turns out, that I have pulled in alongside. I suppose they are people like Nietzsche and Lawrence who had something important to say about our lives but had to overcome huge resistance to get that vision out. In the end they were true to their sense of things and that was their strength.
Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?
I would like to be known as a good writer who had something important to say about western civilisation.
Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?
Passionate. (I’m a Scorpio – it’s kind of written in!)
Q: What is your guilty pleasure?
I would say chocolate, but it’s not that guilty. I have given myself permission to read silly glossy magazines when I go to the hairdresser. I feel guilty, but every few weeks, it’s okay to do it.
Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?
Be patient! This is going to take a while.
Q: Where would you most like to live?
In a house by the sea in Argyll, Scotland.
Q: What is your idea of success?
Well, I am enough of a child of my age to think that having sufficient financial resources would count. But the real measure, I think, would be that I have said what I have to say and started up some kind of cultural discourse that leads to real change.
Q: What is your idea of happiness?
Happiness is fleeting, of course, but I’ll tell you one fantasy of happiness I entertain, which is to have enough money to pay for my children and significant others to come and spend a week or so in a house right on the ocean. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Q: Final Thoughts?
The creative life is tough because you are in this constant tug-of-war between your creative vision and the needs of the market. It’s not for the faint of heart and not to be undertaken lightly. But then the creative life is truly not one you choose, but something that is born out of who you are.