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Interview with Marsali Taylor

I am pleased to have an opportunity to chat with author Marsali Taylor about her new book, Death at a Shetland Festival, the most recent book in her series The Shetland Mysteries. Thank you for your time today, Marsali. I really appreciate it. Now, over to you.

What inspired you to write your most recent book, Death at a Shetland Festival?


I fancied writing a story that had links back into the recent past, and I also thought that it would be a challenge to use two narrators who each bring something different to the investigation – Cass tells the story of the present-day murder, while the writer of the diary she finds (but doesn’t read) ends each Cass section with Angie’s story. It’s always fun to let the reader have information that Cass hasn’t yet got, so that they’re piecing together clues from two different angles. I’m not sure whether it’s a whodunnit or a whydunnit.


I also wanted to write about the oil era because it had such a huge impact on Shetland, both at the time (I arrived here in August 1981, just as the camps were being broken up, and as local folk were still reeling from the impact of a decade of being an oil boom area) and in on-going ways. In writing I found that I didn’t touch much on the impact of oil on the present, though that runs through all the books – for example, the leisure centres throughout the isles wouldn’t have been possible without oil money. Many of my friends in Shetland were here at the time; Julie Moncrieff, who worked at the camps, and Beth Fullerton of the Westside Writers, who was a teenager then, were particularly helpful. I enjoyed creating a voice that was so different from my matter-of-fact Cass, and of course I drew on my own teenage years for the diary entries.  Historical note for younger people: before social media to tell us what to do, we relied on the teen magazine Jackie.


I’ve been wanting to use the wonderful Shetland Folk Festival as a background for a while – it has musicians and audience coming in from all round the world, a number of settings where Cass can meet different people, and a wonderful variety of music. My own music tradition, as a Scot, is ballads, stories of love, death, murder, revenge, as sung by Joan Baez in the 60s and 70s. I saw Angie’s story like that. I had a lot of fun finding appropriately-named fiddle tunes for the chapter headings, and dug into the Shetland song tradition for section headings.

Who is your favourite character in this book and why?


I always have fun “being” Cass as I write in her voice; she’s the quick-witted, resourceful Everywoman heroine we’d all like to be. I’ve got very fond of Gavin and all the other characters, but I also identified with the two sisters of the diary: teenage years, first job, first love and all the uncertainty of going out into the adult world.


What was the first piece you had published?


Mmm ... I think the absolute first was the story of an Egyptian cat in the school magazine when I was ten, but the first as an adult was actually in French – I won a competition run by the French Institute in Edinburgh, on the theme of Voyage. My first in English would have been one of a series of articles for the magazine Shetland Life ... my first book was Two Shetland Plays, published by Fair Play Press, my first prose was Women’s Suffrage in Shetland, a two-year labour of love which was meant to to be a pamphlet, and ended up 320 pages, and finally, my first published novel was the first in the Cass series, Death on a Longship.

Do you have another story planned or in progress?


Always! In this case, I’m 70,000 words done of the next Cass: Death of a Shetland Influencer, which begins with gorgeous Tiede going missing from Shetland’s own tall ship, Swan, when she’s at St Kilda.


When can we expect to see that?


My deadline is the end of May (aaargh!) and I suppose the publication date will be this time next year – over to the publishers for that one!


Who is your favourite author?


I have so many. I am, and always have been, a voracious reader and I read almost every kind of book. At the moment I’m being Granny Helper to my grandson about to sit his A-levels, so I’m immersed in Hamlet, A Streetcar named Desire, the pairing of Never let me Go and Frankenstein, and the Romantic Poets. I discovered Jodie Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s while I was incapacitated during the summer (I was hit by a yacht) and loved them. Other faves are old-fashioned: Rumer Godden, Mary Stewart, John Dickson Carr, Dorothy L Sayers, and my teenage love, Georgette Heyer, who’s my absolute go-to when I feel ill. I studied English at University, which in those days meant starting at Beowulf and working your way forwards, but of course there wasn’t time to read everything, so I’m also reading my way through the many classics I missed.


What do you like to do when you’re not planning or writing your next book?


I’m always doing one or the other, but the theory is that getting the next book in to the publishers at the end of May leaves me free to concentrate on sailing for the summer. Cass kindly allows me to borrow her small yacht – or maybe that’s the other way round! – so I mess about in our beautiful local waters, and help teach sailing at our local club. My Personal Best time from our doorstep to out in the middle of the voe with the sails up and the engine off is 16 minutes. I dander up the voe, watching the wildlife – birds, seals, otters, dolphins and even the occasional whale. I also have a rather “natural” garden, and have fun in autumn slashing it back to be ready for all the bulbs to appear in spring. Winter is drama time, and I’m a keen member of our local group. We do a Christmas or New Year pantomime – my favourite role ever was the witch in Sleeping Beauty, which we did in C18 costume, and I got to fly across the stage on my broomstick, waving my wand and cackling. After that we go straight into rehearsals for the Shetland Drama Festival, in March. This year I played an undercover-cop posing as a gangster – I got to wear black leather and pull out a gun. I’ve also played all sorts of wonderful classic roles for that: Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Olivia in Twelfth Night, Abigail in The Crucible, Cynthia in The Real Inspector Hound and, most recently, Andromache  in Women of Troy.


When did you know you wanted to write novels?


I’ve always written – the earliest example of my “work” is diary-style stories in a little notebook. Going by the spelling, I was aged 5 or 6. My first full-lengther dates from my teenage years, and I have five (yes, FIVE!) unpublished novels on my writing room shelf – two C18 romantic novels, and a trilogy of Shetland crime.


Do you write in other genres?


I have two factual historical books, Women’s Suffrage in Shetland and Forgotten Heroines, my editing of the diaries of an old lady I knew when I was a child – she drove an ambulance on the Russian front in WWI, as part of the all-women Scottish Women’s Hospital. I’ve also written one historical crime novella, Footsteps in the Dew, and a series of short stories about Rupert, Prince Palatine, who was a key Royalist General in the English Civil War.


I wrote a whole series of articles for Shetland Life, on all kinds of topics, and I’m a columnist for the magazine Practical Boat Owner.


What do you like most about being an author?


Loads of things! First and foremost, the lovely letters I get from people who enjoy the books. It seems so amazing that I’ve created these characters and they’re as real to other people as they’ve become to me. A fan letter always makes my day, and many now feel like friends! Two in particular make me feel that spending my day writing is worth doing (it’s such fun it feels self-indulgent!): one was from a fellow-sailor who was given one of my books as she began cancer treatment – she told me being out on the water with Cass helped her survive hospital. The other is a man I’ve never met, on Death Row in America. He has a pen-pal who’s a friend of mine here, and she’s not allowed to send him gifts except through Amazon, so she sends him my stories of our Shetland world. She says he loves them, and passes them round his fellow inmates. I can’t think of anything worse than sitting waiting to be killed, so if my books take them out of that cell for a bit, that makes me feel the work I put into them is worthwhile.


Also, going to crime festivals is wonderful fun. You see interesting places – I’ve been to Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime in Canada, Iceland Noir , the German Moderische Schwesteren (Murderous Sisters) conference and all over England for the CWA conferences. Crime writers are such a lovely bunch, so friendly, and it’s grand meeting up again.

Do you have a specific routine for writing?


Definitely! I try to check on emails and FB before breakfast, then after it I head to my desk and write until mid-morning coffee with my husband, who’s a composer, and working away in his room too. My writing is supervised by one or both cats – Miss Matty, the original of Kitten, is on my lap right now, with front paws and chin on my left elbow, and I get a squeak of protest if I type too hard. After coffee I go out till lunchtime, down to the boat, into the garden or for a walk, to loosen out my muscles and refresh my brain. After lunch I do an hour’s practice on the flute, then admin till 4, when I lie down (with cat) and read. After dinner, more writing until bedtime, unless it’s Wednesday or Saturday, which are Film Nights at our house. I take the weekend off – I need that break – and do housework on Saturdays, church on Sundays – then back to admin and re-reading last week’s work on Sunday evening, ready to launch in on Monday.


Is there a special place or particular tool you use?


My writing room has a large desk, with my computer and the paper copy of my work in progress – Daughter Cat, Génie, is usually on top of that, which causes problems with the notion that I print out each chapter as I finish it, then if I have a good idea I flip back and  scribble it where it has to go, for the re-write. I don’t use any writing programme – the computer’s just a techie typewriter. There’s a window right beside my desk, with a tree for watching interesting birds, and if I crane my neck I can see how the boat’s doing. I have two little mascots on the desk: a Canadian dancing bear, and, watching him with admiration, a little ceramic hare from the Lake District.


What advice do you have for other writers?


Write! Find a time when you can write, even if it’s just fifteen minutes a day, at a time you’re bright and alert (mine was before the alarm clock for everyone else, but if you’re a natural night owl, stay up later) and write. Every day. Even if you can manage only 100 words at first, writing daily keeps the story percolating in your head, and you’ll be amazed how it grows – and how you’ll soon find you make yourself more time because you want to write what happens next.


If your book were to be made into an Audiobook, who would you choose to read it?


Most of my books already are Audiobooks, read beautifully by Scottish actor Angela Ness – the voice of Cass for many fans.


If your book were to be made into a movie, who would you like to play the main character?


I’d love my books to be made into a film – Shetland’s long, low hills would look gorgeous on widescreen. In fact, if there are any rich backers out there, my dream film’s already in the air -  a former pupil who went on to drama college has a script for one of them, A Handful of Ash. The plan is to use local actors as much as possible, and of course my yacht Karima and I will sailing-double for Cass. We’d need to find a Gavin, but an incredibly talented member of our group would be perfect for Cass. If someone would help me with the Callas-style make-up, I’d audition for Maman! I do hope it’ll happen...

The Blurb

Crowds are gathered for a concert at Shetland's renowned folk music festival when there's a shocking discovery - international folk legend Fintan Foley has been stabbed backstage.

Sailing sleuth Cass Lynch and her partner DI Gavin Macrae are in the audience and must untangle a complicated case where nothing is quite what it seems. Cass soon discovers that Foley's smiling stage persona concealed links with Shetland. He'd worked here in the 80s, the days when oil brought wealth to the islands.

Has a long-buried secret risen to the surface - and will it make Cass a target for a cold-blooded killer?

The Author

Marsali Taylor’s writing career began with plays for her school pupils to perform in the local Festival. Her first Shetland-set crime novel starring quick-witted, practical sailor Cass Lynch and Inverness DI Gavin Macrae was published in 2013, and there are now ten in the series. Reviewers have praised their clever plotting, lively characters and vividly-evoked setting.

Marsali’s interest in history is shown in her self-published Women’s Suffrage in Shetland, and Norse-set crime novella, Footsteps in the Dew. She’s a regular reviewer for the e-zine Mystery People and a columnist for Practical Boat Owner. Hobbies include sailing her 8m yacht, drama and learning to play the flute.

She lives on Shetland’s scenic westside with her composer husband, three extremely spoiled cats and a self-willed Shetland pony.


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