Literary Lives & Landscapes
By Frank R. Shaw,
FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, U.S.A.
Judging by the number of books you have published, you’ve been
writing for a long time. How did you start your career as a
writer, and when did you decide to become a “full time author” as
you are described on the book jacket?
I am in my
mid-fifties and have been writing on and off since I was a
teenager. We moved north from London to Dumfries and Galloway in
1988, and I decided that was the time to see whether or not I
could make some kind of living by writing full-time. I was very
lucky in those early days because right at the beginning I was
commissioned to write for a magazine for a year. This led to my
first book, which came out in 1992, and I’ve been writing magazine
articles and books ever since.
This is an excellent book regarding the literary figures from
Scotland who either lived in or were drawn to Edinburgh. What
compelled you to write a book about these men?
The idea for
writing this book came out of the fact that 2004 marked the 21st
anniversary of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Writing
a book about literary Edinburgh seemed an appropriate way to mark
the occasion and the book duly appeared as the Festival got under
way. However, I should stress that the book wasn’t officially
linked to the Festival in any way.
I am always interested in how long it takes an author to write a
book. From its conception in your mind until this book was
completed, how much time transpired? Did you have a publisher
before you began the book?
Nearly three years elapsed between having the original idea and
the date of publication. From the outset, I developed the project
with my editor at Sutton Publishing, the firm which has brought
out the majority of my books over the years.
For the benefit of young writers, is your work done by computer,
typewriter or in longhand? Do you have any comments to inspire
these young men and women?
I always write my first drafts in longhand, whether they are
magazine articles or chapters for books. Only after that do I
start working with the material on my computer: refining it,
expanding it, and generally – hopefully – improving it to final
draft status. On the whole, writing is a precarious business, and
if you want to see your work in print you just have to be patient
and persistent and expect to receive a lot of rejection slips
along the way. But the first acceptance is a magic moment and
makes all the hard work and frustration worthwhile.
Seeing that you live near Dumfries, have you ever considered
writing a book on some aspect of Robert Burns?
I did write a book about Robert Burns. It was called Burns
Country and came out from Sutton Publishing in February
2000. It’s out of print now, but remainder copies are still
available, I believe, if you can find them.
It is difficult to talk with someone who lives in Dumfries-shire
without talking about Scotland’s National Bard. What are the
local events observed or celebrated in honor of Burns in the 21st
Local events relating to Burns are pretty much what you would
expect, and include Burns Suppers on his birthday and
wreath-laying at the Burns Statue in Dumfries to mark the
anniversary of his death. Recently, a very tasteful statue of the
bard’s wife, Jean Armour, has been erected on a green opposite St.
Michael’s churchyard, where he is buried.
The book jacket is very attractively presented. Any particular
reason that Burns was not chosen to be on the jacket?
My editor at Sutton Publishing wanted only writers native to
Edinburgh featured on the jacket, and for that reason Burns was
Scott is pictured on your book jacket. More and more, I
see Scott being read and quoted. Do you think there is an upsurge
in Scott’s popularity today?
I have always read Scott – and returned to his work over the years
– in the same way that I read and re-read – say – Austen, Dickens
and Troppope. As with all these great writers, he goes out of
fashion but always comes back. I think there is an upsurge of
interest in his work at the moment, resulting not least from a
heightened sense of nationalism that has followed the setting up
of the Scottish Parliament.
How do you justify not including the Edinburgh poet, Robert
Fergusson, in your book on literary figures of Edinburgh when one
considers the great influence he exerted on Burns? Actually, he
was Burns’ favorite poet.
I wasn’t able to include a separate chapter about Robert Fergusson
because I was restricted to 45,000 words in the finished text, and
there were so many people to be included. However, I wove him into
the chapter on Burns (and included a full page photograph of his
gravestone) and, in that way was able to paint a vignette of him.
I agree that in a larger work on the subject he should be given a
much more prominent place.
What two or three books did you use in your research that you
would recommend to our readers who want to go a bit farther in
their studies of these literary figures without having to go
through a textbook? Can you be even more specific regarding the
Obviously there are many biographies relating to the figures I
have written about in the book, and the bibliography that I have
included may prove useful. On a more specific note, I would
particularly recommend Trevor Royle’s Precipitous City: The
Story of Literary Edinburgh (Mainstream Publishing 1980),
and Henry Cockburn’s Memorials of His Time (A & C
always said that he never finished one book without having another
book to write. Where do you go from here? What’s the next book
we can look forward to?
just begun work on a new book, again for Sutton Publishing, to be
called Dumfries and Galloway’s Own. It will comprise
a series of pocket biographies of people who have some connection
with the region, by birth or choice, and who have risen to some
eminence in their chosen field.
Thank you for the courtesies extended to me by you and your wife.
Is there a last word you would like to leave with the readership
I hope you find something to enjoy in my book about literary
Edinburgh, and that it may inspire you to visit what the author
and politician Roy Hattersley has described as “still the most
elegant city in the United Kingdom”.