The List’s ex-books editor chats about her debut novel, The Gracekeepers
Last year, ex-List books editor Kirsty Logan’s first short story collection, The Rental Heart and other Fairytales, came out to critical acclaim. May sees the release of her first novel, The Gracekeepers. It follows North, a performer in a circus that travels a world that’s been flooded, and Callanish, a ‘gracekeeper’ who officiates funeral rituals in this drowned world. She chatted to us about the authors and real-life events that inspired the book.
The Rental Heart was so well-received, were you surprised by the reaction?
I still find it hard to think that anyone at all has read the book, to be honest. For so long, the stories only existed in my brain – it feels revealing and a little uncomfortable to think that thousands of people have now wandered through these imaginary worlds I created. It's like a whole room of strangers reading your diary – except that you, foolishly, have given it to them.
Tell us a little bit about The Gracekeepers. How did you get the idea for this story?
I wrote the book a few years after my dad died very suddenly at the age of 58. After he died, I felt so lost, and I just wanted someone to tell me what to do. I envied religions and societies with a formalised grieving procedure, such as Catholicism or Victorian mourning rituals. I wanted a list of steps to follow; a time when my grieving would be over. I know now that grief doesn't work that way – that it can't fit into a series of steps, that it's different for everyone, and that it's not just a stage you go through and then it's over.
One afternoon I was out on a boat with my uncle, and on the water I saw floating lights in cages. They looked like birdcages, and I started to wonder why there would be birdcages at sea. An idea popped into my head about graces – birds used as grave markers whose death marks the end of mourning – and the whole novel began from there.
Your stories have such a magical quality. What draws you to this genre?
A fairy tale is a story that resonates through time and place. The stories deal with tropes, so the mother of a fairy tale is every mother; a broken heart is every broken heart; a lost child is every lost child. A fairy tale about a young girl going on a quest to find her dead father is relevant to me, a grown woman living in modern Glasgow, because the father in that story is my own father. The girl in the story is me, and you, and everyone. The truths of a fairy tale are relevant to us all, no matter our specific circumstances.
Which authors would you say have influenced your style the most?
Emma Donoghue and Angela Carter were both big influences, stylistically and thematically, particularly in their story collections Kissing the Witch and The Bloody Chamber. I read both of them during my undergraduate degree – I wrote my thesis on retold fairytales. Donoghue and Carter use such rich description, and consider political and feminist issues with intelligence and delicacy. I find that no matter what I try to write about, I always come back to their themes of circuses, fairy tales, queer love, the mysterious and violent, the dramatic.
I'm also strongly influenced by the stories of my childhood. My father spent part of his childhood in Nigeria (also Yorkshire, Bute and Glasgow – like me, he had a bit of a hybrid accent!). He used to tell me stories about it when I was a child, which I called the 'when you were a little boy in Africa' stories. These included climbing a tree to escape from a snake, getting his head cracked open with a coconut, and swimming across a flooded river.
He also used to read me Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, and they all got mixed up in my head until I thought that Kipling's stories had really happened to my dad. I believed that he was there when the elephant's child (oh best beloved) had his trunk stretched by the crocodile on the banks of the great grey green greasy Limpopo river, all set about with fever trees. To this day, I don't know how many of my dad's stories were really true, and how many he just made up to quieten his story-hungry child!
My uncle is a Buddhist, and he gave me books about Siddhartha and Indian fables, which I adored – they had such beautiful illustrations, and I loved the descriptions of exotic food. I also heard a lot of Scottish rhymes and fables from my grandparents: selkies, sea creatures, fisherfolk, Kings and Queens, ‘You shall have a fishy on a little dishie, you shall have a fishy when the boat comes in.’ My childhood was very rich in stories.
In the book, the world has been flooded. Did you have a political, climate-change related message in mind with regards to the setting or is this incidental?
The novel isn't a polemic. In writing it, I did end up exploring political issues: climate change, global finance, gender, sexuality, race, and equal rights. They all arose naturally during the writing process, rather than being hot button issues I just plopped into the narrative. For me, political concerns came second to the story. I prefer to present readers with situations and let them draw their own conclusions.
Do you think this setting of a flooded world will crop up again more and more in years to come? Most recently, I'm thinking of IDP 2043 ...
Definitely. I seem to have caught a bit of a zeitgeist, as this year there's another book set in a post-apocalyptic sea-world (Antonia Honeywell's The Ship), another that mixes the circus with the sea (Erika Swyler's The Book of Speculation), and another that mixes the circus with post-apocalyptic landscapes (Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven). So it's clearly been on a lot of writers' minds in the past few years.
The circus dynamics you describe are fascinating too.
I'm fascinated by circuses because they're such a contrast of the magical and the creepy. The cliché of running away with the circus endures, even though I'm sure it's many decades since anyone actually did it, if they ever did in the first place.
The circus represents so many things: magic, glamour, lies, impermanence, and escape – in both the positive and negative sense of wanting to escape to somewhere wonderful, but also of having something terrible you need to escape from. To me, the circus is sinister too. It's always on the move, and it's all smoke and mirrors, so you can never really know what's going on behind the curtain. The circus can steal you away, and in the morning it will be gone, and so will you.
What I really want in life – and what I want to think about in my fiction – is a mixture of the circus and the sea. I want the melodramatic, the surreal, the grotesque; glitter and roaring tigers and acrobatic tricks. But I also want distance and space, the edges of an island, stormy seas.
What's next for you after this? Apart from Aye Write (Sat 25 Apr), do you have any other festival appearances lined up?
I won't be seeing much of my partner or our puppy in the next few months, I can say that! I'll be doing plenty of Edinburgh events, like Neu! Reekie! and Illicit Ink in May, and then there are events and festivals in Bristol, Dunbar, Manchester, Lancaster, the Borders, and Cork. And there are plenty more to come, too – wherever you live, I bet I'll be in your town at some point this year…
The Gracekeepers is out on Thu 7 May, published by Harvill Secker