About Janet Paisley
An Interview with Janet Paisley
More About Janet Paisley
Janet Paisley's oeuvre includes five poetry collections, two of short fiction, a novella and numerous plays, radio, TV and film scripts. Her many prizes include a prestigious Creative Scotland Award (Not For Glory, stories), a Peggy Ramsay award (Refuge, a play) and a BAFTA nomination (Long Haul, short film). Her poetry and stories have been translated into seven languages and are widely anthologised. White Rose Rebel is her first novel.
Janet Paisley, author of White Rose Rebel talks to penguin.co.uk about writing White Rose Rebel, favourite books, favourite places and why her favourite Scottish word is 'fankle'.
Janet Paisley on her historical novel, White Rose Rebel
1) How did Colonel Anne first come to your notice?
About 1987, the author and journalist, Rennie McOwan, gave me one of his
historical booklets, 'Stories of the Clans'. One section includes a
brief version of Colonel Anne's story. Since I'd always wondered who our
lost heroines might be, this one leapt out at me and wouldn't let go.
2) Is there much evidence of her telling her own story?
No, there is only one surviving letter of hers from the period - she writes
to help someone else raise more troops and suggests 'a little force' could be
used against the Earl who's preventing some new recruits from joining them.
She also crops up in many documents from the period, both in gossipy letters
and in government reports. Despite the third-hand bias, for and against,
they provide a strong picture of her and allow some piecing together of her story.
3) Did her husband tell his side of things?
A few of his letters survive, but to Jacobite commanders, and he's mainly swithering
about abandoning his government commission in order to join them though he never
does. But he does warn Cluny Macpherson, his rival for chieftainship of Clan
Chatton, not to try assuming leadership of the Jacobite contingent raised by
his wife. Unlike Anne, and apart from his capture and custody, there's very
little about him in third-party gossip or official reports.
4) Why was the white rose the symbol of the Jacobites?
The best unproven story is that Bonnie Dundee picked it from the garden of a
suddenly unavailable friend when he led the first rising in 1689, prior to
the battle at Killiecrankie in July. The rose - the small, double, white alba
maxima - only flowers in June. It's ancient, very hardy with a lovely scent,
and grew widely so was probably deliberately chosen as the Jacobite bonnet
sprig. Highlanders threw off their plaids to fight, so the sprigs in their
bonnets were the only way to tell who was friend or foe in battle.
It was certainly chosen before 1715, when it was represented by a white
ribbon cockade, as neither that nor the 1745 rising coincided with the
5) How did you source all the rich historical detail in the novel?
A huge amount of reading, intermittently over 20 years, about the period and
preceding periods; small, localised histories as well as the many Jacobite
tomes; social histories of habits and customs and everything I could find
written by the people involved at the time rather than later. I also visited
the sites and locations, and studied pictures and sketches from the rising -
what artists choose to show can be very informative. It was important to
know the past these people came from, what their present culture was, what
events brought them to this point, as well as what they did during it.
6) You've written in many genres, why a novel now?
Ah, now, I intended to 'become a novelist' when I was around 5 years old. When
I finally began writing, it was novels I meant to write. I just got
sidetracked for 30 years. But I didn't want to reach the end of my life
without having done what I meant to do with it. So here we are.
1. Who or what always puts a smile on your face?
Find Books by Janet Paisley
Any of my sons, or grandsons, coming into the room, however long or short a time since I’ve seen them - even if they’re troubled, joy first, always. In winter, Camellia Inspiration, outside my back door, flouncing exuberantly for months, however grey the weather. And unexpected gifts like meeting a friend; hearing youngsters in fits of the giggles; finding something in the wardrobe that fits; geese overhead; larks singing; trees beside water. Driving north, the first sight of the mountains at
Blair Athol; the lighter sky over Aberdeen that says the sea is round the next corner; Auchmithie; driving west into any sunset; the stars at Moniack; the moon rising; driving home. Too much to list, we live in a beautiful world.
2. What are you reading at the moment?
100 Favourite Scottish Poems, edited by Stewart Conn. I’ve only just got it. It’s like a roomful of old friends.
3. Which author do you most admire?
Violet Jacob, a fine novelist, though it’s the rhythms in her poetry, which sweep like a wind, wash like the tide – superb, a
surprising woman too - and Margaret Oliphant, another fine 19th century writer. Widowed, in debt, with three children to
raise, she also supported an alcoholic brother and another brother’s family, by writing over a hundred novels, some three
volumes long, plus short stories and non-fiction. In contemporary writing, I was recently stunned by Anthony Neilson’s play,
The Wonderful World of Dissocia – so sharp, accurate, so brilliantly observed and interpreted, and acutely, heartbreakingly
entertaining. Now that’s writing.
4. What’s your earliest memory?
Sitting in a huge theatre in awe at Mother Goose laying golden eggs while the seat kept folding up with me in it because my
feet didn’t touch the ground. My wee legs kept being thrust up in the air next my ears. It was decades later, when commenting
to my mother in the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, that buildings get smaller as you grow, that I discovered the theatre with the
bottom-biting seat had been in London when I was age two. Chairs and me, we have history.
5. What is your greatest fear?
Ever having to face the death of another son. Drowning, drowning.
6. How would you like to be remembered?
As someone who helped when it was needed. But it won’t matter. Remembering is too late. Some of my work might survive.
That’ll do. Women’s writing isn’t commemorated, though, if mine ever looks like heading for annual celebratory orgies by
moonlight in woodland groves, tobacco and tea should be provided.
7. Have you ever done something you’ve really regretted?
Yes. And talking about it would be something else.
8. How do you spoil yourself?
By writing, plant-buying, gardening, walking with friends, and chocolate.
9. What’s your favourite word?
10. And your favourite word in Scots?
Toss up between fankle and scunnered. Mind you, clype’s a great word, and clarty, or there’s gowk. No, I’m sure it’s fankle,
the amusing sound - though you don’t want to get in one. fankle = a muddle; scunnered = fed up; clype = a tell-tale; clarty =
dirty; gowk = an idiot..
11. Favourite book?
Now this is a weird one. It’s the Bible, the King James version, and me without a religious belief in my body. The language
and expression is superb, the content riveting. It’s packed with stories, magic, sex, violence, passion, devotion, sacrifice,
betrayal, revenge. Sometimes moving, often surreal, it’s full of twists and turns, a maze of contradictions – what a book. I
knew much of it by heart – a formative influence. But, for a perfect summation of life and how to deal with it, the book that
still inspires most is Hemingway’s The Old Man & the Sea.
12. Who (or what) do you turn to in a crisis?
My two sisters if it’s really frightening. My friends for everything else.
13. What makes you angry?
As a writer, nothing, apart from poor writing, especially if it’s mine. As a person, intolerance - because it lacks respect
for others; absolutism - the belief in being right about anything, especially to justify hurting people; extreme poverty or
riches - neither lends dignity to humanity; the abuse of power over people; bureaucratic nincompoopery; when things don’t
work; businesses that don’t do what they claim, repeatedly; being kept waiting - as if other people’s time wasn’t also a
precious resource; casual rudeness. Oh dear, a right grump.
14. Which country would you most like to visit?
Norway – my paternal grandmother was Norwegian, a Gulbransen, I inherited her cheekbones but know nothing of her origins. I
also like evidence of ancient civilisations, am still hoping to visit Egypt. Greece was the first country I visited, then
Malta, travelling back in time, the past with the present in its arms. But I’ve loved every country I’ve been to, enjoyed the
people, food, customs, culture, history and scenery, so any I haven’t yet been to.
15. Which place in Scotland do you most like to visit?
Auchmithie. I try to go every year, a kind of pilgrimage. The beach is large pebbles. On certain tides, the backwash turns
them over, and a chuckle runs along the shore, as if the earth was laughing. That’s underscored by a puffin colony on the
cliffs, such comical birds. It’s a conceit, but a fine one, the world moved to laugh out loud. You just have to be careful
not to turn your ankle. Cairnpapple is my other pilgrimage place. Near Torphichen, and close to where I grew up, it may be
the oldest henge in Britain. And there’s Orkney, for Stenness, Maeshowe, Skara Brae – older than the pyramids, equally
tantalising – or the Trossachs for incredible beauty, like so much of Scotland, amazing.
16. What’s your worst vice?
Smoking – but an asset now it’s legislated against, writers ought to be ‘outside looking in’, disapproved of, targets for the
intolerant, going against the flow, so that suits me – though I resent not being able to travel or holiday easily in my own
country anymore. I also get into battles with officialdom, usually over petty pen-pushing behaviour, sometimes over pitiless
legislation, or the misuse of position. I try not to, you could take a wet fish to some noddles and still fail to slap some
commonsense into them, but I’m always in there before I know it.
17. Where do you write?
On my computer, at my desk which faces my large living-room window and looks south onto part of the garden, the village
street and, beyond that, the trees opposite and the hill behind; tea and cigarettes at hand.
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