Please welcome Claire R. McDougall to The Qwillery as part of the 2014 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Veil of Time, Claire's debut novel, will be published on March 11, 2014 by Gallery Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Claire: Thank you for this invitation to present my book as I see it.
I think I must always have had the urge to write. When I was around ten years old, I wrote a novella (very short, but seemed like a marathon at the time!) When I went to work in Germany after high school, I quickly found out the word for writer (Schriftsteller) and told people that’s what I wanted to become. And then I spent eight years working on two degrees in philosophy! So, I lost the thread for a while there. But I wasn’t good at academic writing – the metaphors and images kept pushing their way in, much to my tutors’ consternation. I started writing poetry when I took up creative writing again, and it felt like a huge relief to let all this subterranean life out into words. I knew I had come home.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Claire: Without a doubt, a pantser (I had to look that one up!) My mental image for what I do when I start a story is of me standing before a great forest in the dark with a flashlight. I only ever see as much as the small light in front of me illumines. At the start of a story, I gather my players, and then I listen to how they interact. The plot comes out of the characters, though I probably have a sense of the overarching arc of the story somewhere in the back of my mind, much as, if I were really walking through a forest in the dark, I would have a sense of the direction I was moving in. DH Lawrence is the best example of a pantser, so much so that he couldn’t really re-work any story, but had to go back out to the edge of the forest and walk through it again. That’s why we have two versions of Lady Chatterly’s Lover.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing? Where do you write?
Claire: I find, like a lot of writers, that a routine of time and place is essential. Mornings are the best time for me, going into my office, going through a little ritual of performing meaningless tasks until I sit down at my desk and look at the screen. At that point, I pass (hopefully pass) into the creative space from which art emanates. As far as what is challenging – the hardest thing is having any sense at all for the quality of what is coming out of me. Everything I write is like a child to me, and like a parent, I look at it fondly and declare it beautiful. Sometimes I have to face the fact that it isn’t beautiful, that the baby is in fact ugly. I wish I had a literary meter with a red needle, like a tuner, that swung into the “Excellent” range or the “Stinky” one. Then it would be easy.
TQ: Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?
Claire: For influences I would have to say DH Lawrence, not so much for style but for his interest in the psychology of relationships. For style, I think the poets influenced me as much as anyone – all the lovely lines of Dylan Thomas, the beautiful images of WB Yeats. The Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon drew me in and opened for me the possibility of a Celtic canvas for my literary endeavours. John Steinbeck is a fantastic writer, and if I had nothing but his novels to feast off for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t go hungry. There is so much there. In literature I look for meaty prose – Paul Harding, James Galvin and Joe Henry .
TQ: Describe Veil of Time in 140 characters or less.
Claire: Veil of Time is a book about time. “What is time?” is one of the most fundamental questions we as a race have asked ourselves. I want to say that time is a fabrication that we impose on experience.
TQ: Tell us something about Veil of Time that is not in the book description.
Claire: I grew up about three miles away from the location for the book, Dunadd Fort. My childhood friend eventually bought the farm at the base of the hill, and when I go back to Scotland, this is where I like to stay, right in the cottage where my protagonist has the seizures that transport her back to Dunadd Fort in its heyday. The modern part of the story is very visceral for me – I can smell the soil on the banks of the river that winds through the farm and feel the inch-think moss at my fingertips as it grows in the crevices of the walls. When Maggie climbs the path to the top of the fort, I am right there with her, stepping along the slabs of stone and breathing in the smell of head high bracken.
TQ: What inspired you to write Veil of Time?
Claire: I had for some time wanted to write about this place Dunadd which sits in a valley surrounded by stone artifacts from an age that we really know little about. We know a little about the fort itself because of archeological digs, and what they have turned up has been quite astounding – we normally think of a distant age like that of eighth century rural Scotland as lost in this swirl of what we have termed “The Dark Ages.” We think of the people as little more than cavemen. But the archeologists have found shards from glasses up there, evidence of French wine and intricately fashioned jewellery. They assume that there was much trade going on with the rest of Britain from Dunadd, as well as with continental Europe and beyond. So the place is magical, and I wished there was a way for me to write about it. I have already written several novels set in other parts of the area. But I couldn’t see writing about Dunadd except in its heyday. When Audrey Niffenegger’s book, “The Time Travel’s Wife,” came out to great applause from the literary community, I realized that here I might have my vehicle.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Veil of Time?
Claire: I did research for the book on an as-needed basis. Not much is known about the era, and so quite a bit of it had to be filled in from other sources (for instance, from other more primitive yet not less sophisticated peoples. I used at least one ceremony from a Native American source.) I did have to keep fact-checking things like, when potatoes made it to Scotland, or even carrots – what resources did they have for living on a daily basis? I had to know which animals, now extinct in Scotland, once roamed the countryside. I spent some time in the Scottish Museum in Edinburgh, because they have a whole basement full of ancient Scottish relics, and a reconstructed house from the era. It was interesting to learn that Whisky, Scotland’s national drink, didn’t actually make it on to the scene until it was brought in with the establishment of Christian monasteries. It was very important for me to get things like this right.
TQ: Why did you choose to write a Time Travel Romance? Do you want to write in any other genres or sub-genres?
Claire: I never did set out to write a time travel romance. It just so happens that the book uses time travel as a means of exploring an important part of Scottish history (that is, the interface between the old goddess religion and the incursion of Christianity.) Being a student of DH Lawrence, I couldn’t have written a story without a primary love relationship. So, Veil of Time, does have the components of a time travel romance, but I don’t personally think of it as belonging to that genre.
As for other genres, I have written a young adult book called “Mustang” about the plight of the wild mustangs in the west. One of my other novels is really a heist about the robbery of ancient Scottish artifacts from the British Museum in London by a wild Scottish nationalist – I suppose that is a different genre. Most of my books are just literary fiction with a Scottish setting.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why? Who is your favorite good guy, bad guy or ethically ambiguous character?
Claire: I suppose the easiest character to write was my protagonist Maggie because she was the closest to myself. I was constantly trying to make her different from me, though: I don’t have epilepsy for one thing, and I am not divorced for another, neither have I lost a child. But the way it goes – her opinions pretty much align with mine. I’m not sure if that is a fault, but the writer is always present in the writing, unless you are writing formulaic stories in particular genres. Jim Galvin, Maggie’s neighbor, was a fun character to write. I enjoyed writing the banter between the two of them, because I enjoy banter in life. Fergus was probably one of the more difficult characters to write – he kept eluding me, really. I do like him, though, as he came out in the end. He is trying to come to terms with a lot of things in himself, but he has a good moral compass. Murdoch was easier, because his motives and modus operandi are just more straightforward – there is less soul to explore in his case. And yet Murdoch isn’t all villain – you do empathise with him as well as condemn him.
TQ: Give us one of your favorite lines from Veil of Time.
Claire: “I come from Scotland in the twenty-first century, where there are no more witches except at Halloween, and even then they are not proper witches, but just cartoons.”
TQ: What's next?
Claire: After the enormous labour of birthing this book, I want to take a few deep breaths, and then jump right back in to the whole process again and get the sequel (which I have already written) published. That’s in the short term. In the long term, I have a backlog of novels, including my Y/A horse story, that need a bit of brushing up, but which I hope to see in print. And then of course, there will probably be a sequel to the sequel of “Veil of Time.”
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Claire: Thank you for this opportunity to share the word about my book and help propel it into the world. I appreciate it very much.
Veil of Time
Veil of Time
Gallery Books, March 11, 2014
Trade Paperback and eBook, 416 pages
A compelling tale of two Scotlands—one modern, one ancient—and the woman who parts the veil between them.
The medication that treats Maggie’s seizures leaves her in a haze, but it can’t dull her grief at losing her daughter to the same condition. With her marriage dissolved and her son away at school, Maggie retreats to a cottage below the ruins of Dunadd, once the royal seat of Scotland. But is it fantasy or reality when she awakens in a bustling village within the massive walls of eighth-century Dunadd? In a time and place so strange yet somehow familiar, Maggie is drawn to the striking, somber Fergus, brother of the king and father of Illa, who bears a keen resemblance to Maggie’s late daughter. With each dreamlike journey to the past, Maggie grows closer to Fergus and embraces the possibility of staying in this Dunadd. But with present-day demands calling her back, can Maggie leave behind the Scottish prince who dubs her mo chridhe, my heart?
Claire R McDougall was born and raised in Scotland. The daughter of a minister, she moved from parish to parish until her family settled in rural Argyll when she was twelve. After high school she moved to Germany to work as an au pair for a year, then studied at Edinburgh University pursuing a masters degree in philosophy (with a detour to Dartmouth College.) From Edinburgh she went on scholarship for four years to Christ Church, Oxford, where she attempted to shake the foundations by writing a thesis on Nietzsche and Christianity. No luck there, and, anyway, the writing life was calling. For a couple of years Claire wrote a column for a New Hampshire newspaper. A move to Aspen, Colorado, coincided with her first forays into the genre of poetry, and from there she explored the short story form, finally settling on writing novels. Claire's first novel to be published comes out March 2014.