A Handful of Writing Crumbs

a few writing crumbs from the women’s table … from Evie Wyld [EW], Amy Sackville [AS], Jane Gardam [JG], and Maggie O’Farrell [MO] at this year’s EIBF.

All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld
All the Birds Singing, by Evie Wyld

“You need to write the books you have to write”, EW said [I’m paraphrasing], but she could have been speaking for everyone I’ve heard at this year’s EIBF who has attempted to explain why they write and how they write and what they write about.

Orkeny, by Amy Sackville
Orkney, by Amy Sackville

Both EW’s and AS’s latest books are set on islands, so it probably seemed natural to pair them in an event. Probably: in style and tone both books are worlds apart – as far apart as Australia, the Isle of Wight and Orkney, where their books are [partly] set. Yet this was one of the most interesting events. EW’s book follows a double patterning, sliding between the past and the present, as it builds the character of Jake – a female sheep-shearer living on an unnamed British island who battles an unknown destructive force. AS’s book follows an unnamed woman who moves to Orkney with her professor-cum-new husband.

EW didn’t write the sections alternately, in order, but followed each part to its conclusion and then sewed them together once she knew the pattern the book ought to take.

AS was intrigued by answering “who would gets to tell the story”?

Both chose islands for different reasons:

EW- islands as prisons, for example, Bass Rock; outsiders are more visible

AS – an island provided the perfect setting for using “classic Aristotelian restrictions”  and to play with perception and reality.

On research, both agreed they could spend too much time, yet not enough. AS researched a way to think about folklore and culture and researched for as long as it took her to write the book. EW researched sheep and shearing (but didn’t shear a sheep).

Both agreed that the way they wrote made the reader work hard – in such a way that each reader takes something different from their books – and both were interested in the form and shape of their books.

Last Friends by Jane Gardam
Last Friends by Jane Gardam

The spark for JG’s trilogy about the end of Empire was a vision of a man stepping out of a London hotel. We weren’t sure whether she had seen him or imagined him, but whatever it was, he stayed in her imagination until she imagined him into print. In her latest book, Last Friends, she returns to minor characters because, “we all know someone in their background who is always there” – all are important, all have interesting features and stories to tell. She begins by wondering about voice – whose voice should tell the story? JG is interested in the way she can use fiction and her characters’ ability to “surprise themselves … in real time”, for her, “there’s no such thing as coincidence”.

Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O'Farrell
Instructions for a Heatwave, by Maggie O’Farrell


  • writes about twenty drafts of her novels
  • never writes the beginning first because she’d be forever working on it, revising and rewriting it to make it perfect and would never get to the end of the story
  • writes scene by scene and then puts it all together when it’s finished
  • never reads reviews [whether good or bad]
  • is never happy with the finished book – it could always be better